The Southwest face of Castle Mountain looms large behind the Northern reaches of the Crystal backcountry. The steep face looks out of place among the soft ridgelines and bowls characteristic of the zone. I was aware of at least 4 lines on this face and was keen on getting out there at least once this season.
Originally, my wife and I planned on heading up to Van Trump on Rainier. However, she was at Paradise on Saturday, and based on what she observed combined with the forecasted winds we were worried that the snow would not soften up high. Looking back at reports from Sunday, it sounds like things did soften up below ~8k, so I guess we were halfway correct!
Anyway, after we decided not to go to Rainier I suggested WAY too many options and after endless scrolling through TRs and weather forecasts, my wife said that I better decide in 10 minutes because we had better things to do than endlessly zoom in and out of Caltopo. I heeded her wise suggestion and we settled on Castle Mountain with hopes that travel below treeline wouldn't be too heinous and that South aspects would corn up nicely. Spoiler: it worked out great!
We left the house at 530am to beat traffic, as we always do now, putting us at the Norse Peak TH around 730am (gotta stop for coffee, duh). We were skinning by 8am and could already tell it was going to be a beautiful day - clear skies and low angle mid-winter sunlight. We ascended the summer trail essentially all the way to the summit of the unnamed highpoint (6677') due north of Norse Peak. From there, we traversed NE across the ridge before dropping down to Reese Lake. These turns totally sucked and were honestly a little scary. There was a breakable crust and then little pockets of wind deposited snow that would break off and constantly try to push us off balance. Side slipping is skiing so who cares.
The idea was to contour along the SW slopes of Castle, utilizing the slope to effortlessly deposit us at the base of the SW Chute (#3 in Schonwald's book) before booting up. However, that drainage was a lot more irritating than we thought it would be, plus the snow was still real icy. All the gullies coming off of Castle cut deeply into the hillside, making sidehilling un-fun. So after maybe 20 minutes of this we pivoted, aiming for a different coulior I had spotted earlier this season, just to the East of the SW Chute. We figured that it probably went and if not, we would soon find out. We skinned and then booted straight up about 1k to the ridgeline without any major issues. It was definitely getting hot, but there weren't many cornices or hangfire above us while we booted. In different conditions, this would be a sketchy place to spend much time - we saw plenty of past rockfall, glide avys, and fallen cornices. Perhaps one could ascend to the ridge elsewhere and then traverse to the top of the coulior, avoiding exposure to those hazards on the ascent.
We timed the descent really well with great corn to the valley floor. The coulior itself was super fun and the snow conditions made us really confident on the descent. One small moat was navigated with a little hop and there were some sections of chunky avy debris near the base.
We drank water from the creek and then motored up past Goat Lake and over the low saddle between Kahuna Peak and the unnamed highpoint. From there, we decided to ascend another 400' to the SE and descent steep corn back to the car. This route choice included 10 minutes of moderate bushwacking but was more appealing than trying to follow the summer trail back down.
The Snorting Elk provided hot pizza and cold beer, as always.
Stats: 5400' vert, 9 miles, 8.5 hours
Overall, this was a great tour in a high-quality zone. Castle Mountain is not as far away as you think and it contains some really engaging terrain!
Looking up from the base
Skinning out of Goat Lake
Castle Mountain's SW face in the background
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