| 5th Class Adventure: Castle Peak (5.x)
No, sorry, this report isn't about the very popular 14'er, the other Castle Peak. This report is about a lowly little peak in the high desert of Colorado’s west slope. Ordinarily this would have been one of my routine postings on 14erworld; I try to get out climbing about every week and if I got up something relatively interesting I would have posted this on 14erworld’s “What Have You Done Lately?” section. But with the demise of that site, no longer an option. But on this site it's easier to add photos to my TR's, and this is a great site, so all is good. Here goes...
When I began writing this TR I thought I’d go into a bunch of detail about why I was climbing this peak, how I got here in my climbing career, blah, blah. Nah...just not that interesting. So I’ll just compress all that into a sequential stream of consciousness: I love to climb, big part of who I am/I get out about every week, have for the last few decades/Jack of all trades climber, nothing noteworthy or high end/My true passion is technical climbing/Love the mental aspect of tech climbing/Did rockclimbing for many years, eventually tired of chasing higher ratings, it lacked true adventure for me/Missed summitting something too/Dabbled with my climbing in recent years, unfocused but always fun/Stumbled upon John Prater’s summitpost list “Colorado 5th Class Summits”/Intrigued! Finally, a climbing list based not on altitude, but difficulty/And so my project was hatched/Two years in, maybe two more to go?/Success uncertain, but having a ball!
So my current climbing passion is going after 5th class peaks, peaks whose easiest route requires 5th class climbing. A perfect blend of technical climbing, high adventure, with the satisfaction of summitting something. I climb these peaks following some self-imposed rules: I must reach the actual summit (no “close enough”); I must climb the crux pitch, no following; no aid climbing or cheating (ladders, etc.)...I've done pretty well with that, not perfect on one peak; finally, I’d honor posted no trespassing signs or other established closures, e.g. Indian reservation restrictions.
5th class peaks are a real smorgasbord of objectives. Some are well known alpine spires (e.g. Lizard Head), some are relatively easy lowland scrambles (Tuckaway Mountain), while others are just plain hard (e.g. Chair Rock, at 5.10a). Some are remote, others have relatively easy access, but all of the ones I’ve climbed have been pure fun. If I was successful, Castle Peak would be my 57th 5th class peak.
Castle Peak is a ranked 5th classer in Mesa County, rising a demure 8,302’ above sea level. But it provides a workout: Although only 1.8 crow-flies miles from a graded dirt road, the summit is 2300’ above and the route is pretty much straight up. Like many 5th class adventure peaks there isn't even the hint of a trail, it’s not in any guidebook I know of, and there’s no known climbing beta on a summit route. Nor was there any information about what gear to bring, and the only photos on www.listsofjohn.com (LoJ) were taken from miles away. Finally, Castle Peak’s mystery was enhanced by its designation as one of the coveted (for me, anyway…) “5.x” peaks. No, not the usual X appended to a rock climbing rating (indicating a fall would be severe, such as 5.7X), the “5.x” designation on LoJ meant that you didn’t even know for sure if it was 5th class, and if so, 5 what? 5.0? 5.10?? Only one way to find out.
It was with this backdrop that I left Denver about a week ago in the predawn darkness, intent on going after Castle’s elusive summit. Others almost certainly have climbed it in the past, but only Mike Garratt (of Garratt & Martin fame) had listed a successful summit on LoJ, and the only known TR was on LoJ from Tim Worth’s unsuccessful bid in 2008 (too snowy, but he almost succeeded the following year). I’d tried for Castle twice before but was turned back once by weather and horrific mud; on another more recent attempt I realized the task was going to be harder than I thought. I needed heavier artillery, i.e. more gear and ropes in order to ascend it via a roped solo attempt.
The trip began uneventfully; once parked off the road in a dry arroyo I moved steadily cross-country through untracked gullies and pinon forests. Soon enough the workout began as I worked my way up the steep flanks of Castle’s summit ridge. But the scenery was great:
And here is Castle peeking out over the ridge:
Upward I went, eventually breaching two 4th/5.0 sandstone cliff bands (typical of the desert country 5th classers) and eventually gaining a broad ridge that led toward Castle. Here’s the view up:
Another view, higher on the now narrower ridge looking back down to the access road in the valley far below:
Castle’s façade comes into view:
And finally, Castle’s formidable summit tower:
One thing that sets Castle apart from other 5th class peaks I’d done was the interesting (!) rock. Just a real mish-mash of what looked like crushed eggshells and dried mud. It made the climb more challenging than would otherwise be the case. Here’s a look:
I turned the summit tower to climber’s left and went to the back of the peak where I found what i later learned was probably Tim Worth’s log ladder from 2009 (sorry for the horizontal photo, I have a brand new camera and I botched trying to make a vertical panorama). When I moved the ladder aside it self-destructed in my hands:
The route up was a chute, just a narrow flared slot with steep opening moves that relented to lower angle terrain near the top. The problem with the route wasn’t the difficulty of the climbing moves, it was making those easily seen moves on pretty marginal, crumbling rock while at the same time being perched over a relatively sheer cliff. If I popped off while making the near vertical opening moves there was a really good chance I’d be pitched off a 50’ cliff. Again, easy climbing, but with possibly harsh consequences if the holds crumbled beneath a hand or foot. Here is a view of that cliff, looking up the route (but note that I started on the opposite side of this cliff on the upper ledge where you can see the sky). The exposure of this section certainly held my attention:
Let me pause at this point and address what some may be thinking: What the hell is this guy doing? Miles from the nearest dirt road over untracked, isolated terrain, climbing what probably was a very rarely visited tower, alone, on rock so bad the Maroon Bells are like granite in comparison, with possibly catastrophic consequences in the event of a fall. Was he nuts, overconfident, or…suicidal?
Rest assured there’s a method to this madness. I’d backed off my previous attempt because I was spooked by the consequences of a fall, knowing that my single rope wouldn’t be enough. And while I love adventure, I don’t consider being reckless any fun or a sign of skill. So here’s how I addressed the risk: My wife knew precisely where I was, with the peak sheet from LoJ on the fridge, coordinates and county circled. She also had a list of all county sheriffs in Colorado, so combined with a few SPOT log-ins (always with a log-in before I began the actual climb) she knew exactly where I was if I failed to report in and knew exactly where to call.
And on this attempt I’d brought two ropes, having figured out on my previous visit a relatively safe way to ascend: One rope was tethered to a distant pine, providing a solid, multi-directional anchor. To this rope I tied in my lead line, a 34m Beal Joker (9.2mm?). I then tied that rope to my harness, but affixed a triple-wrapped prussik knot to the lead line shortly beyond the point where the two ropes were tied together. That prussik was then clipped to a harness ‘biner. So as I ascended the rock, I’d occasionally slide the prussik along the now-taut lead line, keeping the tension fairly constant; it was equivalent to a snug belay by a partner. Sure, not ideal, but I favor this simple approach on easy climbs over my Rock Exotica Soloist (the prussik is always on tension, regardless of spatial orientation). Would I trust it for longer falls? Absolutely not, but if I fell in the ascent chute I’d resemble a pinball, bouncing off the sides and thereby dissipating energy, i.e. a fairly low impact fall. Was I certain I’d emerge unscathed? Well, no…but IMO if you want certainty you shouldn’t be adventure climbing. But good enough for me.
So, to begin. Cautiously smearing eggshells, repositioning feet and hands when holds crumbled, I quickly learned that some off the larger pebbles embedded in the chute’s walls were relatively stable. By tensioning against the flared walls of the chute, I was able to stem and smear my way up. Quickly past the steep opening moves, mantling into a small alcove, I caught my breath…and inhaled the chalk dust that was the essence of Castle. I could see sunlight just above, sensed the top was near. Sweet! Not so hard after all. But I also realized that without any intermediate points of protection, each foot higher was a foot farther to fall, and by now a full-blown fall would end very, very poorly. Best be careful here. Another mantle, a swung leg over teetering heaps of shattered dinner plate-like rock, and…my heart sank.
I was straddling absolute junk, perched high above the pines that flanked Castle's summit tower. Instead of seeing the expected summit I saw more mounds of shattered rock just ahead. Because the rope was tied to a tree far below, my forward motion would be limited to the length of the rope. Hmm, not too much left. So I spied a notch just forward of my rock seat, untied, and tossed the rope end to the ground below. That meant my now-slotted ascent line, tied to the tree, would act as my single line rappel escape route. But I was also now unroped with unknown terrain ahead. I cautiously worked my way between the mounds of shattered rock, to a point I later would learn had stopped Tim Worth on his 2009 summit attempt. I was facing a 7’ mound of dried mud and eggshells that was just across a steeply sloping saddle of shattered rock, heady exposure to each side. I saw a route up it, made the easy but committing few moves up the undercut base and swung around to the right. Hmm…5.4-ish? Once done, the summit was just a few yards away. I quickly found the Garratt summit register in a glass spice jar, I was the second to sign in:
Retracing my steps, I came back to the problematic summit mound. Suffice to say it was dispatched with minimal drama, but it certainly presented an interesting downclimbing opportunity. Once back to the top of the ascent chute, I geared up for a single-line rappel to terra very firma. Finally, safety! I sent my wife a second “double tap” SPOT message to let her know I was down, packed up and hurriedly descended the ridge to beat an approaching storm. A few sprinkles and high winds made the descent more interesting than a simple slog, and after just a couple hours I was back to the car; then on to the comfort of home, wife and children. Just another day trip, but this one was a bit more satisfying than others, a real puzzle to solve.
I fully realize reports like these may be of limited interest to those of a more alpine persuasion, but I just love adventures off the beaten path, and rest assured I too wander above the trees, frequently. For me the allure of adventure climbing is a nice addition to the more frequently visited peaks. It keeps me on my toes, often humbles me, and constantly tests my limits. And hey, it keeps me guessing what’s around the next corner…
Climb on, climb safe!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):