Sunday, October 23 2016 didn't go quite as planned. Originally Phil Richards and I were planning on scrambling Centre Peak from the west. Both Caudron and Centre Peak are easily ascended from the west, but to get close to them requires driving 9km along a back country road that heads north from just east of the Crowsnest Pass Golf Course off of the Crowsnest Highway. Immediately on turning up this road, we started getting bad vibes. The road was easily navigable, but there were signs posted everywhere detailing that all the property was now privately owned by a corporation named "Riversdale Resources" and that all risks of driving the road were solely ours. We felt like we were trespassing, but the signs weren't clear if the road itself was private property or not. Our fears were confirmed when we came to a cattle gate with very clearly posted signs (four of them!) warning us that if we continued to drive, we'd be open to prosecution and trespassing a blast area. Our attempt of either Centre or Caudron was over before it started.
Since coming home, I've done a bit of research and discovered to my surprise that Riversdale Resources is a massive coal mining company out of Australia and is bidding for a giant open pit mine over Grassy Mountain and the surrounding area. Apparently so-called Metallurgical Coal is still in huge demand around the world. I'm not sure what I think about another open pit mine in the Crowsnest Pass area (Tek coal is already a massive mining operation just to the west), but I certainly don't like the cut off access for Centre and Caudron!
There was nothing more to do but turn around and find some other objective. We mulled over several options including some really small, uninteresting, grassy bumps in the Crowsnest area before deciding we'd head into the Castle Land Management Area to check out some options there. We'd been talking about West Castle Mountain and Lys Ridge thanks to an attractive trip report from Dave McMurray on peaksandstreams.com but I'd changed our objective to the Crowsnest Area, fearing significant snowfall in the deep Castle areas from the previous week's snow storm. Thanks to my pre-planning, I had a GPS route already mapped out and generally knew where to go. As we drove past Beaver Mines, we were privileged to see a 4 member wolf pack near the highway which was pretty cool. We were encouraged by the lack of snow around Table Mountain, although we could see liberal amounts of winter's coat on the upper ridge of West Castle and certainly more snow the further west we looked from there. After briefly considering something really dry and easy (i.e. Carbondale Hill), we decided to go for West Castle Mountain with the caveat that we could always scrap the long traverse to the summit of Lys Ridge if conditions were not amendable.
We drove towards the Beaver Mines Campground before turning south onto the South Castle Road (SCR), paralleling the Castle River on its east side. Phil's SUV managed the road just fine, but not without a few nervous moments! The SCR is very pitted and rough in sections and seemed to sport an inordinate amount of standing water puddles (Sonny Bou also experienced this in 2010). I'm not sure why, but all the puddles looked really deep and I got out of the vehicle many times on approach to make sure they were shallow enough to drive through before we committed to them. Surprisingly, the puddles weren't nearly as bottomless as they appeared and with slow driving and careful route-finding we eventually managed to drive around 6km down the road before we decided to park and continue on foot. Rather than walk the road at the end of the day, we chose to walk the road at the start of our trip. I noticed another option on my maps, just before leaving down the road. Whistler Mountain appeared to have a track leaving right from our parking spot! The only problem? The track didn't appear to go right to the summit - so we had no idea if there was cliff bands or some other reason for it. If only we'd done a bit of research beforehand we'd have realized that we could have avoided snow all day... Oh well! Such are the perils of last-minute adventures.
[We were tempted to head up Whistler Mountain instead, but didn't like the idea that the track didn't appear to summit. Little did we know that it actually does, and we could have had an easy 4 hour day instead of 11...]
Leaving the vehicle at 10:00 felt very wrong, considering we were up at 05:00! I wasn't very motivated to start the day, but it was a nice morning and soon we arrived at the washout along the SCR and the spot were we could easily cross a swiftly flowing Castle River. The river was chilly but only around knee deep where we crossed it. We could clearly see the cliff band hand rail that is the first landmark on this route and we set off through light forest to the base of the boulder field that runs up next to it. The boulder field was as entertaining as most are - fun for five minutes and than monotonous. We chose to follow bits of sheep trail and hardpan dirt on the north, climber's right side of the boulders and quickly gained height to snow line. The views to the north and east were already getting pretty good as we bid dry, snow free ground a fond farewell and proceeded up the north end of Lys Ridge to the first obstacle ahead. We knew already at this point that we'd be experiencing one of those rarest of days in the southern Rockies - no strong wind!
[Walking along the South Castle Road on a beautiful, warm day.]
[There were huge puddles everywhere on the South Castle Road but thankfully they were pretty shallow with a gravel base.]
[Phil walks down to the Castle River from the end of the drivable road. The handrail cliff band is clearly visible right of center with the boulder field to its right.]
[We didn't think too much of it at first, but the river was already past knee deep in the morning. By afternoon it would be significantly higher and faster, thanks to all the snow melt.]
[Bushwhacking our way to the boulder field along the Castle River.]
[The bottom of the boulder field - this section is much more elevation gain than it looks from afar.]
[Phil grunts his way up a dirt / shale slope beside the boulder field. The Whistler Lookout in the distance - bone dry.]
[Looking over the colorful handrail cliff band towards Castle Peak.]
[We hit snow line.]
[Kicking steps to the north end of Lys Ridge.]
[Near the ridge crest, looking back at the Whistler Lookout and Whistler Mountain across the Castle River. They look very nice and dry... Why aren't we there?!]
[Looking south (L) and west (R) towards Barnaby Ridge.]
[Looking back along Lys Ridge to the north. Centre Peak at right with snow - that was where we were supposed to be!]
[The first obstacle on the ridge already looks fierce. It's not that bad if you go climber's right before finding a break to the left.]
The first set of cliffs along the north ridge was easily circumvented on the west side. There are multiple routes up through the cliffs, but the southernmost one is the most obvious and the easiest. We kicked steps up a narrow snow gully next to an interesting rock feature before scrambling up a snowy / icy step and finally topping out on the ridge crest. Due to a lack of research, we both expected West Castle Mountain to be almost right at the north end of Lys Ridge. It wasn't. I re-read the trip report (handy to save these in iBooks beforehand) and quickly realized we had a ways to go yet. The ridge looked snowy and slow to me, but there wasn't much to do other than start walking - so that's precisely what happened. The views were awesome and the wind was very light, but the terrain was also snowy, and where the ridge wasn't clear of vegetation there were annoying deep snow drifts. I think my feet were already soaking wet at this point.
[Going around the cliffs on the west, looking for a route through.]
[Interesting colors and rock features as we grind our way up an obvious break in the cliffs.]
[Looking down the narrow gully to Grizzly Creek - our exit many hours later.]
[This looks more intense than it was. Note the colors? That's why this is a highly recommended fall hike.]
[Heading for a break in the band just above Phil here.]
Getting to the summit of West Castle wasn't difficult once we were on the ridge proper. We followed the terrain and waded through some deep snow drifts along the way, but for the most part it was very easy. I have to admit that I was a bit jealous of Dave, Andrew and Jollin's trip while we were on ours. While you can't hike everything in the two week larch season, this trip does seem like an ideal late September candidate for several reasons. First of all, there's larches everywhere - including right on the ridge itself. Secondly, there's more than one lake to view along the way - and they look better without the snow. Thirdly, the rock is colorful and looks much nicer when not covered in snow. Fourthly, the rivers are much lower when there isn't snow melt.
The views from the summit were good and we enjoyed a break before holding a conference to decide if we were continuing to the summit of Lys Ridge or turning back and calling it a day.
[Looking south down the ridge, the summit of West Castle isn't visible yet. At this point I was seriously questioning the amount of snow we would be wading through on the ridge.]
[For the most part the snow wasn't too deep. Trees tended to be bad areas thanks to catching drifting snow.]
[A gorgeous day as I look back to the north.]
[Detouring to the east side of the ridge always resulted in deep snow thanks to the strong west winds in the area. Thankfully we didn't have any wind on this particular day.]
[Another view north as we gain height to the summit of West Castle - but we're not there yet! Southfork at left.]
[Great color on the ridge despite the snow.]
[Starting to note the snow levels in the back bowl around Grizzly Lake. Our exit route comes out of the forested valley below.]
[The summit of West Castle finally comes into view - it's a ways off yet!]
[Following a sheep trail towards West Castle.]
[Classic Castle Wilderness scene with Castle Peak perfectly framed.]
[Looking back at our approach route. Note our long shadows and it's around noon! The sun is low at this time of year.]
[Looking past a cornice towards Castle Peak and Windsor Mountain.]
[Phil heads up the last barrier to the summit.]
[Mild exposure on the ridge.]
[Centre Peak is where we planned to be this day...]
[A panorama looking north from the summit includes (L to R), "The Amoeba", Darrah, Coulthard, Crowsnest and many of the hills and bumps in between including Cherry and Carbondale. ++]
[Looking west over Three Lakes Ridge towards Jake Smith Peak (L), Rainy Ridge, “Krowicki Peak”, “Mount Miles”, “Middle Kootenay Mountain”, and Tombstone Mountain (R). ++]
[A great view of Victoria Peak, Castle Peak and Windsor Mountain (L to R) to the east. ++]
[Looking over towards a colorful "Tabletop" and Table Mountain to the northeast.]
[Mount Gladstone (L) and North Castle (R) lie to the northeast.]
[Looking south over Mount Matkin towards Waterton from the summit.]
[Looking southeast towards Loaf Mountain with Spionkop to the right and Victoria Ridge and Drywood Mountain on the left.]
We knew that continuing meant a very late return to YYC. It was already well past noon and the next few kilometers of ridge looked more involved than what we'd already done - and definitely held more snow. We also knew that the next section of ridge was more difficult and there was a cliff band to be downclimbed a few kilometers along the way too. Hmmm. I very nearly called it a day at this point. I was remembering our Rowe to Festubert gong show, and even though we had much better conditions on this particular day, I knew how slow travel could be on the ridge with snow and ice. Phil was fairly keen to keep going and since he was so graciously breaking trail I figured "what the heck" - and agreed to a very long day.