Sun, Mar 25, 2001
Day three of our long weekend outing in Tahoe. Castle Peak, just 2 1/2 miles off I80 at Donner Summit was on tap for today. Michael had climbed Castle Peak twice previously, but was willing to go for a threepeat and join me on my first climb there. Friday had been gloriously sunny, Saturday was gloriously sunny and rather windy, today was overcast, windy, and even a few scattered snow showers. It was a wintry day to be sure, the wonderful spring that had seemed to burst upon us in the last week or so had evaporated, as it grew colder and gloomier. Michael decided to give his skis a rest and go with snowshoes for this climb, utilizing the extra pair I had brought with us.
There were a few snow showers on our drive from Kings Beach to Donner Summit, but the roads were clear without chain control. How bad could the weather be if the roads are clear? As we neared the summit, we found the trees on slopes above us wearing a few inches of new snow that had fallen during the night (only rain below about 7,000 ft). We parked off the side of the road right at the trailhead, about 4 other cars nearby. Others were parked across the Interstate in the Snow Park, but we were happy to take an available space here. While we got ready and packed our things, a few brave souls who had spent the night in the backcountry came walking out with loaded packs. A ranger that pulled up provided Michael with an excuse to ask about avalanche danger, but the ranger didn't seem to have any particularly insightful news about it one way or the other. I was hoping the ranger would say, "Avalanches?! Ha! You couldn't get that stuff to slide with a truckload of dynamite!" But of course that wasn't the likely reply and instead Michael got a soft mumble about "Potential hazards, always be careful, blah, blah, blah." Drats. No getting out of wearing the avalanche beeper today! :)
We headed up the road, decked out in all our gear (we left our axes and crampons in the car this time, but had our shovels with us). Having been this route twice before, Michael led the way, the first time we'd ever been out on a hike together where he'd done a route I had not (that's not really so impressive considering 95% of the time we go out, neither of us had been on the route before). After the first turn in the road, about 150 yards from the trailhead, we headed right off the beaten track through untracked snow. Michael explained that the left direction was for the snowmobiles, the right was for skiers. The untracked snow caught my attention right away, but I said nothing. After all, I had proved my ability to be completely lost even when I was convinced I knew exactly where I was. And besides, this time I brought a compass! Correct for 16 degrees or so of declination, set a heading for "S", and we were sure to hit the Interstate if we got lost. I happily followed Michael for about 30 or 40 yards as he looked for vestiges of a trail he knew had to be somewhere. We ducked in and out of a few trees before Michael stopped and confidently declared we had taken a wrong turn, apologizing. I smiled, not really caring if we were off the trail - I was having fun just tromping around in the untracked snow.
After stopping to remove some outer layers of clothing, we corrected course and shortly intercepted the trail proper, well tracked by numerous others. This is a very popular winter trail. Clouds hung low over the hills obscurring our view of the summit not far away. The trail makes a big C-shaped loop around to the summit, and normally the top is in view from most parts of the route. We passed several overnight parties on their way out, most travelling on skis. A Sierra Club hut only 2 miles from the trailhead provides a reason for a good part of the trail's popularity. Additionally, this trail is part of the PCT, following very close to the Pacific Crest in this section. We stopped a second time to remove some additional clothing as we neared the steeper section, just before the pass. Another group was descending, coaching a couple of their novice members down the hill. This provided a bit of amusement, as the snow is thick and heavy making it tough to turn in, harder still with a loaded pack. While it had been cold enough to snow during the night, it had not been cold enough to freeze the snowpack, and as temperatures began to rise with the day, it was tough to ski anywhere outside the beaten track.
We reached the pass around 11:30a and took a short snack break. Our route leaves the trail at this point, following the ridge to the right up towards Castle Peak. The trail heads off towards the hut on the other side of the ridge, and continues north from there. Michael had predicted (and hoped) it would be windier on the ridge even though there was barely a breeze lower down. He was hoping a breeze would help cool him down, and as predicted, he got his wish. A couple of snowboarders were on their way down, after climbing halfway to the summit. They reported poor visibility and conditions, but were trying to make the most of the descent. At least one of them was, anyway. His girlfriend decided to walk down carrying her snowboard, likely due to the crusty conditions on the ridge. This didn't seem to help his cause in getting down swiftly, but he seemed in good spirits and waited patiently for her to catch up after he had skied down a short ways.
We could still see nothing of the peak. Clouds, wind, cold, fog. We drifted in and out of the cloud layer. Michael hoped we might climb above the clouds to be treated to a glorious view. Ha. As we climbed higher the tracks grew fainter, not so much because the traffic was less, but the snow got harder, making less noticeable impressions. We put on warmer clothes again as the wind chilled our bodies faster than the exertion could warm them. We came to the first steep pitch and climbed it handily in our snowshoes thanks to the claws on the bottom and the kindess of the snow to provide good traction without being too mushy or too hard. We passed the highpoint the snowboarders had reached, evidenced by the seating area they had carved in the slope prior to their descent. It seems they picked a good place to turn back as the slope steeped beyond this point and our traction in the snow grew less secure. This was the beginning of the second steep pitch, much longer than the first. The slope was probably close to 30 degrees, steepening to about 45 degrees at the toughest point. The runnout here was quite long and our faith in the snowshoes to hold was becoming questionable. We both agreed that if we had brought our crampons with us, we would have used them here. Unfortunately they were securely stored in the vehicle at the trailhead where they were staying fresh and dry, victims of our desire to shed unnecessary weight.
We went slowly through this section, finally topping out in the last grove of trees before the summit. We could see a couple of skiers ahead of us, just moving out of sight. We slowly caught up to them, all four of us reaching the summit almost at the same time. Or at least I would have thought it was the summit if not for Michael's invaluable knowledge from his prior ascent. All ski tracks ended at this point, the western most of three summit pinnacles. The other two summits were hidden in the clouds, invisible to us at this time. It was now necessary for us to traverse the ridge to the third pinnacle, the true summit. The traverse is on the south side of the ridge, the north side dropping sharply away in steep rock and snowy couloirs. The views down these drops are fantastic, if not a little frightening, particularly with the loose footholds caused by the abundance of snow on the ground. While surveying the route ahead, we noted that nearly all the summit rocks were covered in a thin layer of verglas/rime that broke off in chunks quite easily. This would make the final class 3 climb to the true summit rather challenging we surmised.
We left our snowshoes and poles at the first summit and cautiously made our way around to first the middle summit, then further to the east summit block. The south side drops away quite steeply as well (although not in cliffs like the north side), making the traverse here quite exciting. It's probably an easy walk in the summertime, but we had quite an adventure of it. Michael reached the east summit first, and headed around to its east side which he knew offered the easiest ascent. He removed his pack and surveyed the route, not sure that we could climb it. The verglas was absent on this side, as the wind had pelted only the west and south sides of the rocks with the wet snow and freezing rain, but the rock was wet, causing the hesitation.
Having come this far, Michael didn't want to be turned back so close to the summit, so before I had even caught up to him he started up, his only words, "Don't tell Rosheen about this!" Michael was halfway up the 20-foot pitch when I reached his pack. Its a nearly vertical climb (ok, maybe 60 degrees), and would be rated much harder if not for the abundance of really good holds on the whole route. I dropped my pack likewise and started up the wet rocks. The boots seemed to grip decently to the rock, but I was taking no chances and clutched the rocks with both hands as if I expected to get juice out of them. Images of me sliding off the rocks and having my face pummelled on the bounce down kept me focused on the task at hand. Was this crazy to climb up here? Possibly, but it certainly kept the adrenalin flowing and the blood warm!
Michael greeted me as I came up the last three feet to the summit. "Oh, you decided to take the tough way up!" he exclaimed. Nope, hadn't intended that. Looking back, there was an easy exit point a few feet below me which Michael used to walk around to the easier ascent up the last block. The wind was blowing pretty decently up here making it difficult to stay warm, but we ignored it (for a short while anyway) while we congratulated each other on a difficult winter ascent in line with the North Face of the Eiger. Ok, it wasn't that tough. We summited at 12:30p, and in terms of time, it was the quickest ascent for a SPS listed peak I've made in about 50 or so. Being only two and half miles from the Interstate certainly helps.
The views continued to be non-existent. We could hear snowmobiles churning about in the valley below the north face, but could see nothing down there. We found a couple of anchor bolts (for rappelling the more difficult southwest face) and an ammo box with a couple of registers inside. It wasn't hard for Michael to find his previous entry from Dec 31, 2000, as there had only been a couple entries since. Seems most parties are happy to stop at the first summit and forgo the trickier parts after that (or maybe they just didn't know they weren't on the high point).
We moved around to the north side of the summit rock to get out of the wind and have a snack while we perused the register and made our entries. Just as we were getting settled, two boulders, one about four feet across and a second one half that size that were perched six feet from us on the very brink of the North Face, simply plunged over the edge. There was almost no noise, and if we hadn't been looking in that direction we would never have known they'd fallen. Instantly, we both jumped back a few feet. We had done nothing ourselves to disturb the rocks, so my first inclination was to think it was an earthquake. This would be a frightful place to be if this were the case! But no, the ground hadn't moved. I checked that I was ten feet from the edge in case some more of the edge decided to go too, then I looked at Michael. I started to smile and chuckle (an alternative reaction to unloading in my pants), but Michael's face was a bit white, and there was no joking in his voice. "Ok, time to go!" he commented, quite visibly shaken. I was more concerned with the possibility that a snowmobiler was pummelled below us than I was worried about joining the rocks in the free-fall. I had seen a much larger chunk of rock fall from near the summit of Mt. Florence, but this was much closer, within spitting distance. After we calmed down, we went back and sat down for our snack as originally planned. We guessed that the freezing-warming cycles had been just one two many for those particular rocks, and their time was up. We were sincerely grateful that ours was not.
Eventually the wind and cold drove us off the mountain, as our bodies at rest could no longer generate the necessary heat. We climbed back down, Michael leading the way again, back to our packs. From there we retraced our steps, reunited with our snowshoes, and headed down from the peak.
We avoided the steepest section by staying more to the northeast and climbing more through the trees on that side of the ridge. In hindsight we should have used this route for the ascent as well. We took a short break near some rocky buttresses on the ridge for some photos, and contemplated a descent down a wide chute on the south side of the ridge. This would require a bit more navigation to return as it would be trackless snow for the next mile and a half or so should we go that way. We got out our compasses (yes, we had two!) and went about proving to each other that we knew how to read them properly. We argued for a minutes about which way was north till we realized we were both agreeing on the same direction. Don't ask -- suffice to say we were probably a bit tired and cold. In the end, we decided to nix the different return route, as I didn't feel like slogging through so much heavy, untracked snow at the bottom, once the fun part of the chute descent ended.
A short way from the pass and rejoining the trail, we came across a lone climber with a loaded pack on his way up. He was climbing in plastic ski boots, without skis, but otherwise a rather full load. Each step sunk his boots six to twelve inches in the snow, an exacting way to climb the mountain. "Just on a training hike," was the explanation. Needless to say, Michael and I were both impressed. We wished him luck and continued heading down. It was rather uneventful from this point on, as we just trudged back, wanting to get to the car. We passed a number of other parties going both in and out along the trail. Our hoped-for clearing of the skies so we could get some photos of the peak never materialized. The temperatures had warmed despite the overcast, and the new snow was quickly melting off the trees (giving us something to watch out for as we hiked under the forest canopy). It was 2:30p when we finally reached the car, followed by the long drive back to San Jose. A great ending to a great weekend!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Castle Peak
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