August 22, 2020.
9.9 mi | 3600′ ele. gain | 9:45 hr.
This was the day we tackled Castle Peak. By the numbers, it was hardly that impressive as far as mountains go: 2700′ of elevation gain, albeit in under 2 miles one way.
We packed up camp and trekked back to the main Chamberlain Lakes basin, where we’d keep a look out for a way up the formidable south face of the peak. Along the way, I heard some rockfall and turned to look up at the cliffs above the creek. I knew what I was looking for, but wasn’t sure if I’d catch them in time. Ahh, there: mountain goats! A small group of very muscular goats walked in a line along the clifftop. We stopped to watch them until the last one disappeared into the trees. What a treat!
Castle Peak looked impossible from our hike in the previous day, but there had to be a breach in the wall. We stashed our packs in a cluster of trees between the lakes and the base of the mountain. A rock gully filled with colorful flowers traveled from our hiding spot towards the hillside, so we decided to follow this towards our goal.
The delightful little gully led us right to some steeper climbing; we’d found the start of the route. Boulders gave way to slabby climbing, ledges and more boulders. Eventually the gully became a little too slick and vertical for our liking, so we stepped right on to some gravel-covered slabs. It was probably safer but it didn’t feel much better, so we moved through this section as quickly as we could. Above that, we had thousands of feet of boulder-hopping to get to the ridge.
I fought to breathe in the high-altitude air that was also filled with smoke. At one point, I started counting my steps to give myself periodic breaks. It helped me zone out and move a little more efficiently, as well as provide me some opportunities to stop and enjoy the flowers that seemed to burst out from behind each rockpile.
Progress was slow, but we were moving in the right direction. Until we weren’t.
Prior to the trip, I dropped some pins on my mapping app based on a GPS track I’d found online, hoping to give me some guidance along the route. When the gully started breaking up and going in several different directions, my gut told me to go one way while my mapping app told me to go another. I tried to resolve the differences in my head, then chose to try and follow where the pin point was telling me to go. I just assumed there was a reason to cut way left, otherwise why would the track go that way? Me not seeing the route make sense just means I was missing something. I trusted my research.
I asked LeeAnn to sit tight as I investigated the possibilities. After some scrambling around, I decided it was a no-go and retreated to my lower position. That lost us some time and some energy; I should have trusted my instinct.
From that point, we went where my eyes led me. Up and slightly left, around a blocky feature, then off to the right out of the gully. I found a handful of cairns, none of which you could see from the others (useless) but at least that told me someone had been there before!
“We’re less than a Pilot Butte from the top!” I yelled down to LeeAnn. It was a very sloggy mountain, so I tried to keep team morale up a bit.
Once we reached the ridge, it was easy rock-hopping across to the west summit. On our way there, we came across a team of three women who were also seeking the top of Castle Peak. They stumbled across the summit register right after seeing us, which I thought was quite curious. The actual summit was just a couple bumps over, to the east, but the register was here. When I scouted the traverse to the true summit, I understood why. It would take some real care and routefinding to make it there in one piece. I didn’t have the time or energy for that, so I returned to the mini celebration and dug into my snack bag.
Peanut butter cup brownie on a Pringle, oh heck yeah.
The descent was agonizingly slow and methodical as we clambered over all that loose rock again. We wanted to avoid the ball-bearing slab we ascended near the bottom, so I kept my eyes open for alternatives. Before reaching that awful section, I cut right onto the partly treed open slopes. Much to my surprise, I came across a climber’s trail and we took that basically all the way back to our backpacks.
We almost immediately retreated to the lake shore and jumped in the lake. It was the most refreshing dip of my lifetime. It was three in the afternoon.
With 6 more miles to cover, I knew we had to rally. Along the remaining hike, we’d have to climb up and over the shoulder of Castle Peak, another 800′ of vertical or so. I was not looking forward to it, but I felt energized by the chilly lake water. We put our heavy packs back on and started walking.
Again, we crossed paths with a few other groups but everyone was heading in the other direction. Are we just walking at the right speed to miss every traveler heading our way? Or does no one do the loop this way? These are some of the thoughts that bounced in my head as we marched up the hill.
The trail was well-switchbacked until we neared the top of the climb, then it pointed straight uphill. It was a slap in the face.
I counted my steps, gasping for air every so often, until I crested the top. LeeAnn was there waiting for me.
On the other side, indescribable beauty awaited us. Pink rocks tumbled down from the adjacent high point. Another side of Castle Peak showed herself, jagged ridges and streaks of color so different from the south side. I dropped over the ridge with mouth agape, just trying to take it all in. The hazy smoke made it difficult to capture the imagery with my phone, so I put it away and just kept walking. We enjoyed these views through several long switchbacks before being deposited into the trees for the remainder of the hike into camp.
I’d planned on making it to Baker Lake to spend the night, since that was the first lake we’d pass. It felt like it was just so far away. The hike was a grind; I had some sore spots on my back that kept rubbing against my pack with each step. My feet were achy enough that I stopped to switch into Crocs. I let LeeAnn go ahead and I walked at my own slow pace. My body hates carrying this much weight.
At the junction with Baker Lake Trail, I lamented that I’d stop at the very first campsite we found so I didn’t have to take another step. On the way in, we passed some cabin remains with a flat spot and a fire ring just behind it. “We could camp here?” LeeAnn said with an obvious question mark inflection. I knew she wasn’t that interested. “Let’s just go to the lake and see what’s there.”
When we got to the lake, we could tell that while people did camp there, it was not heavily trafficked. We climbed over several downed trees, crawled underneath one (not easy with a big pack and tired legs) and stopped many times in despair. She offered to drop her pack and run ahead to try and find something. I stood by and sulked, just wanting to be done with it for the day.
Somehow, magically, LeeAnn had found the most incredible campsite. It had a flat area for a tent, a custom wooden bench, running water to filter, a huckleberry patch and a short trail to the lake. And just like the night before, no one else was around. Huzzah! We made it!
By the time we made it to camp, it was far too late and cool to want to go for a swim, which worked out perfectly. The lake was marshy and encircled by grasses and reeds. But it provided a spectacular view of Castle Peak and the surrounding crags, a picture-perfect place to spend the night.
For dinner, I poured boiling water over the chili I made and dehydrated at home. We topped it with fresh tomatoes, cheese and crushed Pringles. At our mansion of a site, we dined on chili, sipped on backcountry cocktails and reveled in the big day we just had. I hoped to sleep well that night.