Photos By Mike Aasheim
Have you ever seen one of those peaks or lines that just speaks to you? Calling you by name and beckoning to you to come put a brushstroke down its canvas? A line that weighs so heavily on you that its image is etched into your mind? So much so that you become obsessed with it?
For many, that’s Utah’s Mt. Superior, or Wyoming’s Grand Teton, or Colorado’s Holy Cross Couloir, or Washington’s Mt. Rainier, or Alaska’s Messner Couloir, or maybe Idaho’s Sickle Couloir. But for Michael Aasheim (Mike), Justin Morgan (Jamo), and myself, that line was the North Couloir on Red Castle Peak in Utah’s High Uintas. I recall vividly the first time Mike showed me a picture of the Red Castle. It was an almost transformative experience. It’s hard to explain in words, but for those of you who have felt this before, you know the exact feeling.
And just like that there we were, standing on top of the 55+ degree line, in 20” of blower powder, transitioning to shred mode. Standing there, on top, it all flashed back, because it wasn’t that easy; the story starts years before.
This line isn’t just on the side of the road. To get there one must travel between 8-16 miles one-way (depending on where the road is closed) on snowmobile, and then another 11 miles skinning and booting to reach the line. So logistically speaking it’s a challenge.
Naturally there are two general approaches: a multi-day expedition style approach with a winter camp somewhere along the way, or a single day push in order to be light and quick.
For our first attempt in February 2017, Mike, Kirsten Scheel, and I chose the former. On a Friday morning the three of us met early, loaded the snowmobiles on a trailer and made our way out through Evanston to the North Slope of the Uintas. The weather forecast looked clear and cold as we were having a bit of high pressure. Despite the cold, the avalanche conditions on the other side of the range had mellowed so we felt that it was worth the frigid temps in order to get the line in potentially safe conditions. And I say potentially safe, because this area sees very little, if any, traffic during the winter and current data is fleeting if it even exists at all.
Red Castle’s nearest neighbor, King’s Peak sees a decent amount of ski and snowboard descents, but most of those are at the end of spring when the trailhead is clear and the conditions are corn. Aside from Andy & Jason Dorais’ descent of a neighboring couloir on the Red Castle a few years prior, we haven’t heard of anyone putting tracks in this line. So getting current conditions is nearly impossible.
Several hours after leaving Salt Lake City, Mike, Kirsten and I arrived at the snowmobile trailhead, loaded up our gear and headed out on the sleds to the wilderness boundary at the China Meadows trailhead. Here is where the sufferfest began.
The route from the China Meadows trailhead isn’t necessarily difficult, as you only gain 1300’ in the first 10 miles, but the snow conditions this day were HEINOUS; an almost-supportable 1/4-inch of melt/freeze crust with 24” of completely rotten snow below. Two steps on top, then you’d break through and sink. Over and over we’d break through. That coupled with us carrying 45lbs of gear on our backs, and the day was both mentally and physically tough. So we set up camp well short of our desired location and hit the sack. We felt slightly defeated, and were cold in the -5F temps, but optimistic for the next day.
We woke up early and set out. The going was slightly easier, but the unsupportable melt/freeze issues continued all the way until we started ascending the peak proper. Once we began ascending the north facing couloir, the sun was too low in the February sky to reach that zone, so the melt-freeze turned to pow!
After reaching the top of the apron and switching from skins to Verts, we began booting into one of the most gorgeous couloirs we had ever laid eyes on. The deep red arkosic arenite walls filled with white snow gave an almost Southern Utahesque feel to a high alpine couloir. It was striking and the couloir itself was so much more than we could have hoped for.
Just when everything was finally going our way, Mother Nature threw us a curve ball. I was leading the bootpack when snow conditions began to change. The right-side up pack began to feel hollow. Minimally at first, but what began as a minor wind-slab increasingly got thicker. I asked Michael to trade spots with me as I wanted him to feel what I was feeling. He took two steps, turned around and said it was time to leave… NOW.
My initial gut feeling told me he was right. BUT I wanted so badly for him to be wrong. We were right there… The top was in sight… We had suffered so much to be there… I mean, the wind-slab was probably stubborn at this point, right…? I never voiced those thoughts, but they definitely ran through my mind. Both Kirsten and I knew though that Mike was spot on, so we took ten steps backwards, transitioned, and got the hell out of there as quickly as we could.
10 minutes later we were standing on top of a frozen Lower Red Castle Lake, staring back up at our tracks that were 3/4 of the way up the peak, and a little over half way up the couloir proper. We were happy to be alive, and grateful to have been in such an incredible couloir, but we felt the void.
As we made our way back to camp, the breakable crust proved to be continually breakable. 15 hours after leaving camp that morning, we limped back in, kicked off our boots, and crawled into our sleeping bags. It was cold, and I couldn’t sleep much.
We rose the next morning after a brutally cold night and began to pack for the slog back to the snowmobiles when Kirsten informed us that her feet were severely chilled and not warming up. She did all she could to warm them up, but decided the best option was to get moving. Upon reaching the van we loaded our gear and took off. While driving back to Evanston for a meal, Kirsten removed her boots revealing swollen and slightly purple toes. Those toes proved to be frostbitten and though she eventually fully recovered, the frostbite ended her season.Fast forward 3 years and Mike, Jamo and I are in Evanston, pounding the intestinal-gas inducing burritos that Costa Vida is so well known for, on our way to another attempt at the Red Castle. Each of the prior two years after our initial attempt of the couloir, we had discussed going back, but never made the trip happen for one reason or another. But this time we were 100% in, and all three of us mentally ready.
As we prepared, the big question was whether we should use approach A or B this time. A’s expedition style would provide more rest and potentially more days for summit attempts if the weather changed, but would be a lot more work and had the risk of very cold nights again. B’s in-and-out in a day strategy would provide a lightweight and more enjoyable approach, but there would be no room for error and we’d likely only have time for one attempt. After much discussion we chose option B and the 24-hour strike mission.
We arrived to find the road closed 8 miles before the typical road closure. So instead of 8 miles one way on sleds, we were now looking at 16. Doesn’t sound too bad as snowmobiles are fast, but as we got the sleds out to scout ahead on the road, we found a BMX course type road with areas melted out completely, other areas with snow piled up high like mini hill climbs, and other aspects with off camber side-hilling. So it wasn’t going to be a 50-mph cruiser, it was going to be a 5-mph-gripping affair. So instead of traveling 38-40 miles, we now had to plan on 54-56. Seeing that, we made the adjustment to wake up a bit earlier, finished packing our bags, turned on the heater in the van, and turned out the lights at around 11 PM.
3:30am came way too quickly as the anxiety-inducing iPhone alarm began howling in my ear. I normally hit snooze several times, but today wasn’t the day so I immediately rose and turned on the van’s lights. Mike and Jamo were bright-eyed and ready to roll. We took an hour to eat, load the sleds with emergency gear and food, hydrate and then headed out at 4:30am.
Sunrise on this day was 7:33am with twilight beginning 40 minutes before, so we had 2-3 hours ahead of us to sled and hike by snowmobile lights and headlamp.
As we set out on the sleds, the challenges arose almost immediately. The ground was frozen solid so our sleds were on the brink of overheating soon after getting on the road even with the scratchers down. That mixed with the unmaintained road challenges and it was slow going. We would pull over every 1/2-mile or so, break off a frozen slab of snow with our boots or axes to put on the sled tunnel to cool it down, and then head off again. One of the three machines was struggling more than the others so we ditched it on the side of the road and two of us went tandem. Finally, after 1.5 hours of struggle, we made it the 8-miles to the typical snowmobile trailhead and found great conditions! What a relief! It was easy going from there and we were at the China Meadows trailhead 30 minutes later.
After parking the sleds, we ate, hydrated again, and did a last minute gear check; as anyone reading Ascent knows, there’s a delicate balance between too heavy and too light. If you don’t have enough food for the 24-mile hike, you’ll crash. But if you have too much, you’ll be weighed down. And what if you have to bivy? How much extra food do you need? And what about water? Emergency gear? Meds? First Aid? Layering? The list goes on… And while we had the typical avalanche gear and a lot of other essential items in our packs, here are the few things we felt we couldn’t live without.
- 5 days worth of high calorie / low weight food
- A water filter so we could carry less and retrieve more water as needed.
- Verts Snowshoes (we hoped it would be DEEP!)
- Garmin InReach Explorer with activated SOS Feature
- Enough emergency gear to survive if we had to stay the night.
- An expanded medical kit as rescue was far away
At roughly 6:30AM we began our approach hike in the dark. After our previous experience from the previous trip’s almost-supportable crust, I had a hint of PTSD and I’m sure Mike did as well. It was like the movie Groundhog Day but breaking trail for miles as every third step sent you sinking into a pit of facets. Then, as you’d try to step out, the tip of your splitboard or skis would get stuck under the crust. It was a hellish cycle! But fortunately for us, that wasn’t the case this time. For the most part, we had several inches of pow on top of a supportable base. What a relief!
As we did years earlier, we had been following conditions on the other side of the range and everything seemed positive. No deep/persistent slab instabilities to worry about, several recent storms bringing in cold right-side-up snow, but a moderate chance of wind slabs.
At 1:00pm we were at the base of the couloir, switching from skins to Verts.
As we stepped into the couloir, the snow was DEEP, knee to thigh deep even with Verts Snowshoes on. In the back of my mind I just kept hoping the snow would stay right-side-up and that we wouldn’t encounter any wind slabs.
The going was slow but steady and we all took turns putting in the booter. The couloir itself starts at about 42 degrees but progressively gets steeper, and the last 400’ the pitch ramps up significantly. In the weeks prior to this trip I had ridden Utah’s Lightning Bolt as well as Mt. Timpanogos’ Grunge Couloir, and Red Castle’s North Couloir was equally as steep as both of those. It was heavy, but we found her in conditions that I thought I could only find in a dream. It was perfect. Literally perfect.
At 3pm we reached the top of the line and began to transition. As we begin taking our packs off, Jamo leans over to us and says, “I have a little doo-doo in my pants right now,” and starts laughing. Mike’s reply, “You’re going to get the crunchies…” We all burst out in laughter. We were finally there, standing on top of the 55+ degree line, in 20” of blower pow, transitioning to shred mode.
Who’s first? Without even a conversation about it, both Mike and Jamo look to me and said they wanted me to have the honor. I hadn’t asked, but they knew how much it meant to me. To say I was grateful is an understatement. So a huge shoutout to each of you guys – I’ll never forget that gift!
As I strapped in the gratitude in my mind turned to fear of blowing it… What if I blew the first turn, or hit the walls of the narrow upper section and tomahawked down the perfect line? A methodical first backside turn to check snow, followed by a quick second heel side turn in the narrowest section. Then I just let it go and chased my sluff down the line. It was a dream!
I pulled off into a small alcove 1/3 of the way down to film Jamo and Mike, as well as to be close in case assistance was needed.
Jamo dropped next and absolutely slayed the line! Faceshots and pow slashes are Jamo’s signatures and he definitely signed his name on this line! Mike dropped last and as the lone-skier in the group, we watched him link turns in choker powder as he chased his sluff down the line. Mike rips and unlike any skier I know, he goes faster and bigger when the terrain gets steeper and gnarlier.
The face shots and pow slashes continued all the way until we found ourselves down below on the frozen Lower Red Castle Lake. We couldn’t stop giggling and reliving each turn that happened a mere minutes before. Each of you reading this has felt that primal joy before I’m sure. It doesn’t get better. And to share that with two of my closest friends just made it that much more memorable.
It was now 4pm as we sat in the valley below, hydrating, eating, sharing tales, and exchanging way too many high-fives.
We transitioned to skins and began the 11 miles back to our sleds. The sunset was at 7:40, and despite a couple of breaks to eat as well as filter water, we were back at our sleds at 9:30.
So happy to be off of our feet, we started the sleds and set off on a similar journey to the one we began 17 hours prior, just in the opposite direction. Similar challenges persisted in the last 8 miles, but after one wrong turn and a flipped sled, we finally made it back to the van at midnight.
Fast forward the clock to today and we’ve spoken fondly about that day many times in the 7 months since we were there; the thrill of riding that line in such insane conditions, the mega 56-mile round-trip haul…But even with all the words we have used to describe the exhilaration and adrenaline we felt, one theme has emerged in each of those conversations, and that theme is gratitude. Grateful that Mother Nature granted us passage to ride such a beauty of a line in such perfect conditions. Grateful that we have public lands that are off limits except to those willing to put one foot in front of another. Grateful for friends who share similar passions, and grateful for the memories that each of us will cherish forever.
Until next time Red Castle!