On July 15, we climbed the "Super Brewers" combination ("Ultra Brewer", 9 pitches, 5.9 linked with "Brewer Buttress", 13 pitches, 5.6) on Castle Mountain. We had been told by locals that Castle is particularly known for bad rock (although the locals in question had never set foot on the mountain). We actually found that at least the upper portion of this route ("Brewer Buttress") has much better climbing than routes we did on either the Yam or Mt Louis. A very worthwhile route.
Part of our motivation to climb Castle was that the normal "Brewer Buttress" route, which climbs the upper half of the buttress from Goat Ledge) is included in Gary Clark's collection of classic climbs in North America. After finding less-than-appealing rock on both the Yam and Mt Louis - both highly reputed as local alpine climbing "gems" - we were a bit apprehensive about any more alpine limestone routes in the area.
Gary had so many good words about the route though, that we had to try it. The part we did not look forward to was the approach to the climb: a long 4th class gully scramble up the lower cliff band, to a tiny CAC (Canadian Alpine Club) hut on Goat Ledge, the huge ledge system that splits the mountain in half horizontally. The guidebook documents a direct start to the Brewer Buttress, that climbs the lower cliff band directly under it, on what they claimed was the best rock yet found on the mountain. That lower route ("Ultra Brewer") would add another 9 pitches (including two sustained 5.9 pitches) to the already long "Brewer Buttress" (13 pitches, 5.6), to produce what is known as "Super-Brewers", a 22-pitch direct line to the summit. We'll take good rock climbing instead of loose scrambles anytime… easy decision! Besides, we wanted to do the route car-to-car in a day anyway (the 5.6 route can otherwise be done from the hut). Overnight trips are just too much hassle… We have enough experience as a team on long alpine routes that we felt confident we could pull it off in a day, with time to spare. After all, most of the climbing would be about 5.6 or easier, a grade we normally feel comfortable simul-climbing.
The day before the climb, we drove to Castle Junction to scope out the route with binoculars, and more importantly, the approach and descent onto and off of this huge mountain. We concluded that the approach should be doable by hiking up the normal trail to the old fire lookout (now just a concrete foundation), then traversing about 1.5 km along the base of the cliffs to the start of "Ultra Brewers". This involves a fair amount of traversing, but direct approaches from below looked inobvious at best (dense forests and no trail that we could see). We took careful note of the number of scree gullies to traverse (4), and landmarks near the base of the route so we would hopefully find the climb easily early the next morning.
We would have two options for the descent: the normal one, which involves several rappels down a loose gully a couple of kms west of the top of the route, back to goat ledge, or a long but likely non-technical walk around the backside and down the Rockbound Lake trail back to Castle junction. The first option is clearly more direct but we had already had a taste of loose gully descents on Mt Louis… Since we would not have any gear to recover at the hut, it seemed unduely technical. The second promised to be a very long, though scenic hike, which would get us back to the road 5 kms east of the trailhead and the car… we'd just decide when we got to the top: if the weather was at all threatening, we'd chose the long hike; the prospect of rapping down a loose gully in a flash flood is not too appealing (check Gary's website for a report of such adventure). Hopefully we'd make it back to the road early enough to still have a chance at hitch-hiking back to the car.
Once we were satisfied that we would easily locate the route, we returned to our base camp in Canmore (on the parking lot between Safeway and IGA) for the short night ahead.
The alarm clock jurks us out of bed at 2 AM the next morning (!). It would be a long day. As usual, we do our best to wolf down as much food as humanly possible without making ourselves sick and drive to the trailhead. We start hiking at 3:40 AM. The lookout site is 2.5 miles and 1700 feet up a well-maintained trail. We reach it after 75 minutes of hiking, just as the sun is getting up. From here, we follow a faint trail to the base of the cliffs, then start traversing horizontally cross-country for about 1500 meters, staying a couple hundred meters below the wall. The going is a bit rougher than we had hoped: extremely steep, treed meadows and unstable scree take a toll on our ankles (we are wearing super-light trail running shoes). We reach the base of the route around 5:30 AM. It is quite cold. Puffball pullovers and balaclavas barely keep us from shivering. We have some food and water and try to get ready to go as quickly as possible.
Looking up at the first pitch - an obvious right-leaning crack system - doesn't do much to encourage us: really ugly looking rock, leading to a loose-looking roof and indistinct climbing above… We try to comfort ourselves with the words from the guidebook: "…by far the best climbing on the mountain." Wow! Sure glad we're not on another route!… Anyway, by 6 AM, we are finally climbing. What looked like a bad pitch turns out even worse. The moves themselves are actually not all that bad, but the abundance of loose rock, combined to the thick layer of bat shit oosing out of the crack makes it one of the very worst pitches we have ever climbed. The pitch ends at a fixed rappel anchor (2 nuts, a piton, and a cordelette) just below a roof. I bring Lucie up and once again we repeat the mantra -"best rock on the mountain" - to keep ourselves from threading the ropes into that cordelette and zip back down. On we go.
The next three pitches are consistently bad and scary but deposit us on a slopy ledge a bit more than a third of the way up the lower cliffs.
Exiting the fourth pitch onto the ledge entails an interesting mantle move onto loose scree, right above your belayer… don't forget your helmets! Fun. Fortunately, things get better from here.
A bit more loose rock on the fifth pitch finally deposits you at the base of some good-looking face cracks in grey rock.
This is where the route suddenly turns from downright disgusting to really fun and even stellar on pitches 8 and 9. In retrospect, I must say that the rest of the route (all 18 pitches) are well worth the suffering and anguish on these first four pitches. Just be careful and hang in there. Pitches 8 and 9 are really what the lower buttress route (Ultra-Brewers) is all about: two long pitches of sustained 5.9 climbing on solid (!) orange limestone with good edges and cracks. Simply outstanding, definitely by Rockies standards but even on a broader scale. The first of those two pitches (#8) goes up the right side of a detached pillar (bring a #4 Camalot to protect this), then up the steep face above to a shallow dihedral. Be advised that the crux section (stiff 5.9) is above a half-driven baby-angle piton, with no other protection option (none that Eric could find anyway). Falls are not advised here, as the top of the detached pillar is just below. The rest of the pitch protects well, primarily with small wired nuts. Belay on a tiny stance just left of the crack at the end of the rope.
The next pitch (#9) is even better, with steep, sustained, and well protected climbing up the crack, to an exciting move left around the arete a few feet below a roof. A few more meters bring you to a good tree belay on Goat Ledge and the end of "Ultra-Brewers". Outstanding two pitches. It makes you forget the nightmare below. It took us 5 hours to this point (9 pitches). Better than we feared, considering that we were climbing very tentatively on the first few pitches due to the loose rock.
This portion of Goat Ledge, just above the lower buttress is a pleasant break for the vertical world below and above: an inviting flat area, covered in small pine trees, and offering shady gravel patches to lie on for a lunch break. We don't decline the invitation. Over a half hour is spent eating sandwiches, drinking water and relaxing in the shade. It is 11:30 AM. The weather has been gorgeous all morning and shows little sign of change, save for a few puffy clouds here and there. We are not in a hurry: 9 pitches down, and 13 to go, but the rest of the climb would be considerably easier, at about 5.6 and easier.
The forecast had warned of afternoon thunderstorms though, so there is no time to linger for too long. By 12:30 PM, we're starting up the first pitch of "Brewer Buttress". Appropriately described by Gary Clark as an "undistinguished" pitch, it follows a wide gully up the right hand side of an 80-meter triangular buttress at the base of the route. The rock here is very broken but reasonably solid, likely due to the relatively high traffic on this classic route. It is littered with tiny flakes of shale though, which makes it a bit slippery, but the going is easy, and gets better the higer you go, with a few fun moves on the second pitch. We simul-climb these two to a good ledge right on the crest. At this point the weather starts to change quickly. Dark clouds are forming all around us, making the threat of thurnderstorms looking all too real. Our pace picks up considerably. We simul-cimb the next two pitches again, going as fast as we can on the good, solid rock. It is fun to move fast and feel efficient, but you don't get much time to enjoy the climbing, or remember much of it.
One more pitch (#5 on Brewer, #14 today) leads to a shiny bolted anchor 10 meters right of the crest, from where a short pitch traverses horizontally to the left on a ledge to a piton anchor on the other (left) side of the buttress. From here, we simul-climb pitches 7-8 and 9-10, passing bolted anchors along the way. Pitch 10 involves a slightly tricky move up a bulge in a dihedral. Feels solid at 5.6; could be 5.7 by modern standards. Pitch 11 is a short section of low angle, super-featured gray rock to a slopy scree ledge just below a series of overhangs. Pitch 12 goes straight through the overhangs following wide cracks (fun climbing) to a bolted anchor left of the crest. From here, Lucie leads the very enjoyable last pitch, which climbs steep rock straight to the top.
Stop clock: it is 2 PM. We made the 13-pitch route in 2 ½ hour; no record I am sure, but not too bad either. After a bit of a clearing, the clouds start looking menacing again while Lucie leads the last pitch. We do not feel like we have any time to waste up there, so we take a quick picture or two, pack the gear and start fast-hiking off the summit area. At that point, it really feels like a storm is imminent (we even get a few drops of rain), so the choice of a descent route is easy: we'll hike the back side. We do not know much about that descent, except that there is a trail from Tower Lake (the small pond below Rockbound Lake) back to the road at Castle Junction. From here though, we are getting a pretty good view of the long traverse around the huge basin that encircles Rockbound Lake. It looks like staying high, above the huge cliffs all the way around the basin should lead us to a workable scree gully on the north-east side of the lake. From there, it should be easy way down to catch the trail at Tower Lake. The other thing we can clearly see is that it is going to be a long way! It is about 5 km to reach the lake, then another 8 ½ km to the road, where we are hoping to catch a ride back to the Fire Lookout trailhead, avoiding another 5 km of hiking along the road.
The long traverse around the basin is uneventfull. We traverse several slushy snow fields at first, then continue on huge "corrugated" limestone slabs, where melt water has grooved the surface of the rock into a fascinating texture. Reaching the scree gully we had scoped from the summit, we are happy to find a climber's trail, which bring us easily down to Rockbound Lake. This is an amazing place: the west and north sides of the lake are framed by 200-meter high, dead vertical cliffs with countless waterfalls (must be iced all over in the winter…).
The weather has turned for the better again, but this is such a wonderful landscape, we are glad we took the long way down. We lose the trail near the shores of the lake and end up circling around another huge cliff band between Rockbound and Tower Lakes. This cliff is really not visible on the map, but it is there, and it's big. We end up following the rim east for a few hundred meters before finding an easy scramble down into a gully. We are forced to wade Silverton Creek before finding the trail again below Tower Lake. (After looking at it from below, I think the correct way from Rockbound to Tower Lake is to walk SW along the banks of Rockbound Lake to its southern tip, then descend a steep forrested slope to the lower lake; there may even be a trail?).
From here, it's 8.5 km to the road, following a very gentle trail through the forest. Our feet are unhappy by the end and we are out of food and low on energy, but we feel great to have had a chance to discover the gorgeous basin on the back side of Castle Mountain. If I had to make the choice again, I'd probably go down the back side again. It is long but incredibly beautiful, and avoids a stressfull descent down the SW side.
It is almost 8 PM when we reach the road. Traffic along highway 1A is very light this time of day as it is primarily a scenic alternative to the Trans-Canada just a few hundred meters to the South. Light traffic or not, we are not about to walk another 5 km! So we just stand there, waiving our thumb at the occasional car. A few go past until a good man from Arizona (!) take us back to our car. Happy and tired.
Overall a great day in the mountains and some really fun climbing; by far the best we're encountered in the Canadian Rockies (so far). If you can stomach the first four pitches, you'll be rewarded with what is probably one of the very best long rock routes in the Canadian rockies. ...
Castle Mountain, Super Brewers
|Views of Castle Mountain from the highway|
|Tourists gawking at Castle Mountain|
|Close-up view of this very complex mountain.|
|Castle Mountain from the road below. Brewer Buttress is the sharp buttress in the middle of the picture.|
|Close-up of Super Brewer; the route stays close to the sun-shade boundary, on the obvius buttress.|
|Views of Mt Temple at sunrise from the base of the route.|
|Taking a break at the end of the approach.|
|Eric starting the first pitch.|
|Higher on the first pitch.|
|Starting the horrible second pitch... still smiling...|
|Answer to: "what did you think of those two pitches?"..|
|Starting the 3rd pitch.|
|Higher on the same pitch.|
|Eric starting the 4th pitch.|
|Higher on pitch 4.|
|Starting pitch 5.|
|Views of Mt Temple, from the belay atop pitch 4.|
|The climbing is much better from pitch 6 and on. Eric starting pitch 7.|
|Higher on pitch 7.|
|Looking North toward the hut (at the deg of the huge ledge).|
|Belay atop pitch 6.|
|Eric starting the crux pitch - pitch 8..|
|On the crux move.|
|Eric starting pitch 9 - a great pitch.|
|Higher on pitch 9.|
|Views of Mt Temple.|
|Taking a break on Goat Ledge|
|Looking toward the incredible CAC hut|
|Brewer Buttress as seen from Goat Ledge (the route wanders left and right from the prow)|
|Eric on the first pitch of the Brewer.|
|Simul-climbing on clean rock on pitch 3.|
|Looking back at the hut from pitch 3.|
|Looking down at the belay ledge from pitch 3.|
|Stopping to place a piece, somewhere on pitch 4.|
|Higher on pitch 4.|
|The clouds are starting to build-up (somewhere on pitch 6?).|
|At one of the crux moves of the upper (Brewer) Buttress.|
|Somewhere high on the Upper Brewer Buttress...|
|...and higher still|
|Lucie leading the last pitch, one of the most enjoyable pitches of the Upper Buttress.|
|Closer look at this fun pitch.|
|Quick summit shots on...|
|...the summit plateau.|
|Walking around Castle's broad summit plateau.|
|Pointing to our descent route.|
|Views of the Bow Valley.|
|The impressive Rockbound lake.|
|Walking around the upper basin to descent gullies|
|Views from the upper basin (back side of Castle is at right).|
|Bird and chick (not sure what they're called).|
|Rockbound Lake and the back side of Castle Mountain|
|Fording Silverton Creek below Tower Lake. 8 km to go (now on an established trail) to the highway.|