Castle and Cathedral Peak
Oct 9 and 10, 1999
By Steve Bremner and Sam the Wolfdog
I Left Colorado Springs at 0630 on Saturday for points beyond Independence Pass. Once over the pass it was immediately evident that the western side of the Continental Divide had received much more snow as of recent. Just past Aspen a confusing detour for road construction got me going on "Cemetary Lane". Apparently they meant to divert me on this road all the way down valley to Basalt. I wanted to get on Castle Creek Road 200 yards past the detour point so I turned around and squeezed between the cones and was successful in navigating to my road.
The last time I was here was in late June to run the Aspen Sky Marathon--24.5 miles all on trails or jeep roads with elevation gain of 8000 feet and twice reaching 13,000 feet. The race started two miles beyond Ashcroft (ghost town) and first climbed five miles to the end of the Montezuma Mine Road--also the route I would be taking on this day up Castle Peak. I was able to reach about a mile further up the dirt road (120), parking my '59 Chevy just before where the road crosses Castle Creek. It was 1130 when began running up the road in my new Nike Gore-tex trail running shoes.
After a mile or so the road forked with a sign marking the left choice "Pearl Pass" and the right choice unmarked. I strongly suspected that this was the Montezuma Mine Road, but continued on up to the left to confirm. Once I'd seen the ski hut on the left I knew from a glance at the topo map that indeed right was the direction I wanted to go. Patches of snow and ice on the road even up to this point had forced some 4-wheel drives to park along the road. I noticed several groups carrying snowboards.
The snow was ultimately too much for even the hardiest of 4-wheelers about 1 mile and half below Montezuma Mine. At the end of the road and the first bowl below Castle curved snow board lines graced the steep snow field that was my next objective. A boot packed trail up the snow marked the way.
Once up this rise I was in the bowl directly below Castle and Conundrum Peaks. Another set of snowboard tracks marked the run from the saddle between the two peaks. A couple snowboard dudes were lounging in the bowl--one shirtless. It was quite warm. I pressed on up the bootpacked path to the saddle. Relentlessly I pushed to the summit, reaching it just over two hours after leaving my car. The view extended south to the San Juans--I IDed Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, and Sneffels; to the west I saw Cathedral and Capitol, I was unsure of the others--I didn't have my topo for that area with me. As I descended a slight wind started up--enough to make me put on my jacket. I met the snowboard dudes who were taking their time on the ascent. Sam the Wolfdog dashed down the snowboard run in a happy celebration as fast as any snowboarder could have done.
Cathedral Peak Ascent
I reached my car around 330 PM, then drove to the Cathedral Lake Trailhead only a few miles away. After putting together my pack for an overnighter at Cathedral Lake and talking with a hunter about his lack of success in this area this year, I was hiking up the trail by 5 P.M. I pressed, wanting to make it to the lake 3 miles up trail by 630 PM in time to set up camp and cook dinner before night fell. An hour and 10 minutes later I reached the lake, but with no suitable campsites near the lake I retraced my steps back to near the creek emitting from the lake. Not before I surveyed Cathedral Peak (13,943' and one of Colorado's centennial peaks) and my route for the next morning. The route recommended in Ormes "Guide to the Colorado Mountains" was to go up the couloir just before the final summit pyramid. From the lake it looked incredibly steep. I was wearing boots and not trail running shoes this time, but had stupidly left my ice ax and crampons in my trunk. Why is it that I bring them along when I don't need them and leave them behind when I do? It always seems to work out that way!
After my dinner and a bit of starwatching I retired to the tent. The temperature dropped precipitously. By morning when I awoke at 530 it was 23F inside the tent. It was hard to motivate myself to get an early start with it so cold. Finally at 0730 I started up the basin in the direction of the couloir. Sam the wolfdog followed reluctantly and when it became apparent that he would had to cross a scree slope to catch up to me he refused to continue. I called him and tried to point out an easy way to no avail. So I pressed on frequently looking over my shoulder to see him growing ever smaller as he sat there watching me grow smaller. Finally just before I went up and into the final bowl below the couloir I looked back to see him turning and moving back to the campsite.
The course I had initially taken was not the easiest--up and over the scree field directly west of the lake. The easier and cairn marked route (as I would later determine) is to skirt the initial scree field to the right. Once up on the top of the scree field I saw an abandoned mine and the trail--apparent from there--I was able to follow by cairns all the way to the couloir. Once in the couloir it was not so intimidating. 40 to 50 degrees all the way to the top and snowfilled--so I pushed up. I was in a hurry because as the day heated up rocks were pinging down the slopes all around me. Speed means safety in the peaks. From the bottom of the couloir to the summit took me only 30 minutes. Going down took 20 minutes, so you can see I wasn't wasting time.
The ridge required a bit of scrambling, but I avoided most of it by moving right around the more difficult blocks through snow. Just below the final 100 feet or so I came on what looked at first like it could be a cleft, but turned out to be just a gap filled with wind-driven snow. This is where I saw my first cairn since the bottom of the couloir. The next cairn was going directly up the ridge on sort of steep rock. Though it looked easier to go left and in a snow field I followed the cairn route and was standing on the summit before I knew it. The snow field would have required just as much scrambling as well as taken more time. Going down I followed the ridge itself more closely as it was easier to climb down the rocks than do the slippery-slidy thing going down snow. I couldn't find the summit register, though I dug around for it.
When the lake first came into view Sam the Wolfdog's plaintive howling filled the basin. It was so beautiful I just wanted to listen to it and marvel, but after a few minutes I broke the spell when I called out his name. When I finally reached camp he was dancing around the snow and leaping like a deer--joyful that I had returned.
Of the two peak ascents, Cathedral was the more satisfying. The doubt whether I could make the couloir without "tools", and the solitude the reasons.