Storming the Castle
A continuing series of Noah Howell’s quest to ski the “Fifty Classics” of North America.
This wasn’t my first rodeo so to speak. I’d ridden and wrestled snowmachines deep into the White Cloud Range of Idaho in a previous attempt to climb and ski the massive south facing couloir on Castle Peak in 2018. Jason Dorais and I camped out, hiked up to the access ridge and were stopped in our tracks by a heavily wind loaded slope that we couldn’t safely manage without a ski cut. There weren’t any safe zones to ski to and we didn’t have a rope so we called it quits, skied back down to camp and headed home. That’s just what you do sometimes when trying to ski big remote lines without much available beta.
That first attempt was great recon and the plan of attack was pretty much the same this past season when Ben Peters and I returned for round two. We trailered snowmachines up from SLC, parked just off the highway in the beautiful Sawtooth Valley that splits the rugged Sawtooth Range and the remote White Cloud Mountains.
Snowmobiles feel like cheating, but with a ten mile approach to the wilderness I’m ok with that. We towed a trailer with camping gear behind one of the machines through the burnt forests and into the upper canyon where the trail narrows and follows some tight paths through pine forest and eventually opens up onto Fourth of July Lake. We considered camping here, but moved up onto the next knoll so we could enjoy the last bit of sun as it set. The ride in went without a hitch, which is not my standard snowmobile modus operandi, so that was a relief. We got a quick sunset lap in to stretch the legs and get a feel for the snowpack.
There are several lines in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North Americathat have very little beta online and seem to have seen very few descents. Castle Peak is one of those, making it much more adventurous. What I found online was from Montana hardman, Brian Story who approached from the south much later in the spring. I hadn’t heard of anyone doing this approach and at this time of year. The White Cloud Mountains don’t receive a ton of snow and they do get a lot of wind, so I was worried we’d find it melted out much later in the season if we waited. Approaching from the west, which is the standard summer route, seemed to make sense on Google Earth and so far we were correct.
The beauty of snowmobile camping is that it’s basically like car camping, not really roughing it at all. We brought all the warm layers, roomy tent, but for some reason we skimped on food and only brought freeze dried food for dinner. Old habits die hard I guess. This may have been the only error we made on the trip and that is the menu I planned for us. We started out by sharing an appetizer of freeze dried chili followed up by beef lasagna, the problem being that these items differ in name, but are almost identical in substance once water has been added. We forced it down anyway and went to bed.
What time to wake up can often require a complex combination of guesstimations.
Here is the rough formula. You first have to guess what weather and snow conditions will be like. Then you estimate what time you’d like to be dropping in on the line. Next you figure in how long you think it will take you to ascend the route, then you subtract those hours from your summit time, subtract time for gearing up, breakfast and add a little buffer in because it’s better to be early and freeze your ass off on the summit than blow it and be skiing in suboptimal, or even dangerous conditions. We woke up at 6 I believe, passed on breakfast and got on the move.
Our first action was to ski down a few hundred feet to Washington Lake. Next we put skins on and broke a mild trail up through crust and powder to the ridge. Topping out we stood underneath the west face of Castle Peak right at sunrise. This aspect of the mountain is striated with several great looking couloirs, but these were not the lines we had come for. This is where Jason and I had been turned around the previous attempt. Ben and I had a short piece of 5 mil rope in case we need to ski cut, but to our pleasant surprise the slope had recently avalanched and in a big way. No ski cut necessary, but we did have to air 5 feet over the crown. Ben went first and enjoyed some nice powder turns mixed with some core shots. This descent put us into the upper Chamberlain basin. From here we skied down to unimaginatively named lakes 8 or 9. From there we climbed up a short bit and contoured then descended to the south and west. The snow was a mixed bag, none of which was amazing, but the remoteness and scenery made up for it.
Finally at the base of the face we could look up and see what was in store. The south aspect is massive! To the viewers right is a nice long tight couloir with a halfpipe to finish on. To the left is a big face with a few chutes and open slopes that reached the ridge. The wind was blowing and loading and we opted for the couloir option since it seemed safer and more aesthetic as well. We started skinning on a horrific breakable crust. I was ready to turn around because as much as I wanted to ski this line, I did not want to ski it in conditions this poor. Knowing that things usually change (even if for the worse sometimes) if you keep moving, we kept moving. The snow consolidated and with Ben breaking trail we quickly punched our way up the couloir.
We ran out of snow to climb- top of the line. Winds were howling and cold while we transitioned for the down. The very top was narrow and steep, but the snow held an edge well and the slope quickly mellowed out after fifty feet or so. And once in the gut of the line we were protected from the wind as we enjoyed firm sometimes choppy skiing. There had been fresh snowfall just a few days prior, but it was evident the wind wanted to scoop it all up and play with it instead of leaving it for us. You never know until you go and now we knew, but there’s nothing to do about it besides try and make the best turns you can. Ben’s racing background shined forth as he laid aggressive edges and made quick work of the 3,000 foot line. Meanwhile, I smeared and slide trying not to fall and tear my one good ACL. Our skis magically floated on the breakable crust down low enough that it wasn’t miserable and we glided out into the flats from where we had started.
Now all we had to do was retrace our steps back up to the ridge, so we skinned back up across the lake and booted to the ridge. From here I was feeling lazy and just happy to ski back down to Washington Lake and skin to camp. Ben had other desires, which we had discussed and now he wanted to implement. We had considered a ridge traverse to the north from this point that would put us on top of a cool looking chute that funnels right down to Fourth of July Lake. From here we could easily ski right back to camp. We went for it. After a half mile of rocky ridge walking we hit the summit and could see down the couloir. There was a steep rocky downclimb to enter, but it was short and not as bad as it looked. The turns in the chute were variable, but this wasn’t a surprise at this point. It turned out to be a super cool way to finish the day. We contoured around the apron and slid right into our basecamp at midday. We packed up the snow machines and blazed out the 10 miles back to the car.
Castle Peak is one of the harder puzzles to solve as far as timing and lack of knowledge on current snow and avalanche conditions. It’s not the biggest or the steepest, but the remoteness of Castle Peak makes it a special line among the list of 50 Classics and well worth the adventure. Whether that adventure is topping out and getting to ski it, or having to turn around and keep dreaming and scheming about it until next season.Storming the Castle