#3 Castle Peak: 1st 14er Ski Decent

The spring felt like it flew by. It had been a great first “big” spring ski season, and I couldn’t get enough. However, on every outing it seemed like something went wrong- whether it was my heavy ass frame bindings, falling into rivers, or forgetting keys in the car 6 miles away. Castle Peak was a turning point for me and Max, one that was extremely fun and pushed our limits.


Max and I about to begin our trek

I was nervous from the start. We had bailed on Castle four weeks earlier. Was I pushing myself outside my limits? Would my legs survive the punishment of each step uphill? I had no idea. I kept on thinking positive. I left Denver Thursday around 2pm and Max was 15 minutes behind me, chasing me up the sharp I-70 curves. I had prepared so much; I had trained for this peak through skiing Hagar with Emily earlier in the week, I had also stopped earlier and ate 2 slices at Cosmos Pizza and drank as much water as possible. I instantly regretted this decision. I had to pee 20 minutes into the drive. I knew Max was chasing me, trying to catch up, so I came up with a plan to pee in a plastic cup while driving on cruise control (I do not recommend). Everything went well and I continued on my way. Soon after, Max gave me a call. I was excited to share news of my prolific stunt on the road. But I quickly stiffened up, as the nervousness through Max’s voice said hello. We chatted for a while and he told me that he couldn’t come to terms with telling his dad that if he were to fall, he’d most likely die. I thought about this the rest of the drive. I knew I had to focus up and be on top of my game tomorrow.

We used this photo as our main reference point: Thanks @TedMahon

Castle, East Face

Max and I met up on the streets of aspen to grab a rope, which would be our last resort, and eat more pizza with Johnny Youngs, an alpinist who had recently completed an expedition in Alaska. The pizza was a classic NY pie and I scarfed down as much as I could - stopping intermediately to add witty comments and banter in Max’s stories. We left town a little later than expected and sped for the road up to Castle. We drove separately, dreaming of the surrounding lines in the perfect golden light. We left my car at the 2wd winter closure and started up the 4x4 road and the stream crossing. We drove through the gnarly avalanche debris from what we assumed was the recent avalanche cycle to the snow line. 

The avalanche debris near the road
The avalanche debris

We exited the car at roughly 10,800’ and prepared our bags as the sun was falling. We started walking up the road. After an hour of post holing, snow dodging and heavier than normal backpacks, we had made it to roughly 11,200', where we began setting up camp. We dug out a little snow bed/wind protector and geared up for the cold night ahead. I stuffed my sleeping bag with my liners, socks and water bottle, and attempted to sleep. 

Video: Max and I's campsite

I went to bed quickly. I woke up, in constant hour intervals, to the spotlight like full moon. I even woke to the crashing rocks above us. I could not wait to begin moving. I kept checking my phone, hoping for it to read 3:00. I fell back asleep…

My phone pierced my ears; it was finally 3. Time to start moving. I gathered my belongings. We put everything we didn’t need on a Christmas tree to come back to. I touched my rigid, frozen Nike socks. I was glad to have another pair to put on, contrary to what had happened on Mt. Democrat, and clicked into my bindings.

We, initially, got lost in the dark and decided to ascend a small talus field, which led into a dense section of bushes and trees that we had to maneuver through in the dark. We were off to a bad start and my motivation was low. Max, in an angrily stride, dug deep and slowly navigated the trees. The trees were so dense that we decided to switch to boot packing which did not help. Our skis were now getting closed lined between two trees every other step. After about 10 minutes of carefully walking through the trees, we had reached the other side of the vegetation. We decided to descend into the gully to put skis on to avoid side hilling. We then followed the gully all the way up to the bottom of the East face. 

The long slog up the gully

We found the couloir we were going to climb as the sun was first hitting the face. Max was fearful that we were too far behind schedule and that we would lose the battle to warming. I kept on climbing.

We finally switched to Crampons, ate a little snack, and began booting up. I teased Max, “so is this where you put your helmet on?!” and next thing you know two baseball sized rocks came flying down the couloir. 

Switching to boot-packing

I was thankful that he made me take one on this trip and tried to act like it was not a big deal. I was feeling the energy from the snack, and Max and I flew up side by side up the couloir. 

This was the first time I felt like I had become efficient enough to keep up with Max. This was one of the first times, I felt like I was carrying my own weight of the partnership.

Max going up the couloir that connects to the ridge

We were both on our A game at this point and reached the ridge in no time. At the ridge, I got a little puckered. Max began leading and I slowly followed, navigating a mix of loose rock, snow, and ice. I was feeling uneasy, especially around half way up as I watched Max swing repeatedly with his axe. I began making another route in my head, but knew I had to follow him. 

Max ahead on an exposed section

Max moved out of sight and I was panicking. 

Why did I bring a rope all the way up here to not use it?! 

Max was long gone. I slowly traversed the rocky section in my ski boots and followed Max’s footsteps until I caught up to him while he was down climbing. 

The last pitch. Max  downclimbing

We were less than 300’ to the summit. We both knew we had made it. We ascended the last pitch together to the summit.

 I was on cloud 9. We had a trouble-free climb, for the most park.

The consistency of the snow was perfect spring corn.

Pyramid Peak, Maroon, and Conundrum off in the distance

All smiles on the summit

We will be back, Conundrum Couloir

Skis on the summit

We begun our descent. Max was concerned of the snow. He thought we missed the skiable window. I was frothing, amazed at how far I had come. All the suffering leading up to this point had be worth it.

The initial pitch off the summit block. Our first real no fall zone.

Max skied down the next pitch first. He stopped to checkout a small couloir. I, followed, trying to ski as much continuous vertical feet as I could. The turns were free flowing and easy.

The main face

 I was in a full flow state. We regrouped and skied Max's couloir, and the descent of the East Face had been completed. 

A photo of Max's couloir from earlier in the day

We aired out some big arcs down the gully and headed home.

Castle transformed me. It confirmed that I was capable of more now. It gave me the stoke to hit the summer hard. I wanted to see what lines I could find for next winter. The summer 14er season was on. Looking back on it, everything after Castle felt easy. I had ironed out my fitness, packing, layering and finally managed to tick one off my ever-growing list. I was excited to drop some pack-weight and finish the school year strong.


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