After scrambling to the summit of West Castle Mountain, Phil Richards and I had a decision to make. Should we continue the long (long!) traverse to the south end of Lys Ridge, or turn back and call it a day? Obviously we decided to continue. ;)
Dave McMurray, of peaksandstreams.com, mentions a moderate scrambling section between West Castle and West Castle II in his trip report, so we were interested in how that would work out for us in the snowy conditions we were dealing with. As we descended West Castle, we noticed a possible by-pass on the west side of WCII and decided to try it. We ended up ascending a steep shallow gully almost to the summit of WCII, but we did avoid any moderate scrambling so that helped speed things along a bit. We were fighting daylight already at this point since we knew we had to be off any technical terrain by dark, which comes early in late October.
[Looking south along Lys Ridge from just under the summit of West Castle. The intermediate summits visible here are not official. We managed to bypass WCII - the summit in the foreground, by avoiding the cliffs on climber's right before being forced up a shallow gully to the ridge again. Looking ahead to the next 2km of ridge, I was concerned that with snow and ice our progress might be as slow as 1.5km/h.]
[Bypassing the summit of WCII to save time and energy on the snow / ice covered terrain.]
From just south of WCII, we picked our way along the ridge, often right on the crest itself, but shortcutting wherever the sheep trails and terrain allowed us to. Just as Dave's group experienced, any part of the ridge between WCII and the cliff band that looked tricky from afar, proved to be fairly benign, even with the snow and ice. I enjoyed the next few kilometers a lot more than I thought I would. I'm still a bit jealous of folks doing this in the fall, without snow, but we did luck out with very light winds and plenty of warm sunshine. For late October scrambling, it was positively sublime.
[The weather is perfect but the colorful traverse is mostly covered in drab-white thanks to the snow. The terrain looks a lot trickier than it proves to be when you get your nose into it.]
[Great views east and south off the ridge, looking over the Castle River Valley. ++]
[Looking back at West Castle (C) and West Castle II (R).]
[It appears to be complicated terrain, but it's not that bad when you get closer.]
[Looking towards Tombstone (C) and Haig (R). ++]
[The steepest section of ridge before the cliff band isn't nearly as fierce as it looks from afar.]
[Shortcutting any section of the ridge that's possible. You can see the cliff band that wraps around the ridge just right of center and causes some issues there.]
[Working our way up a narrower section of ridge to the high point before the cliff band. We wondered if any of the gullies on the west side of Lys Ridge could be used to shortcut to the Ruby Lake trail below (on the right here), but on exit there looked to be a lot of cliff bands guarding the lower parts so beware of this if you're counting on any of these gullies as a possible bailout.]
After negotiating a fun section of narrower ridge we knew we had to be close to the cliff band that Dave mentions downclimbing in his report. This was going to be interesting. Could we navigate this feature in snow and ice, or would we have to backtrack our whole ascent route from there? Complicating things quite a bit, was the amount of snow on the slopes around the cliff band. We could see evidence of slides in the bowl ahead and the slopes down and around the cliffs were obviously steep enough to slide and wind loaded in sections. I took an educated guess where we might be able to break through the band (we couldn't see it at all from our vantage). We traversed some steep - and deep - snow before Phil exclaimed that I was a "genius" - or something to that effect. We had navigated right to the easiest break in the bands and made short work of the moderate downclimb. I'm pretty sure we were fairly close to where Dave's group descended. While it might be possible to go at least 100m lower to the southeast to break the band more easily, I'm not 100% sure of this. With the snow conditions we had, this was not a safe option for us, as the SE slope was steep and loaded with wind slabs.
[Looking over a perfect little bivy spot towards Gladstone, Castle, Windsor, Pincher Ridge and Loaf Mountain (L to R).]
[There was about a 6 foot down climb through the cliff band - moderate scrambling and a bit awkward with a pack.]
[Looking back along the cliff band - we approached from the left, on top of it. I'm not sure how low you'd have to go to completely avoid it but pretty low. The large plateau to the summit of Lys Ridge starts at far right here. ++]
From the base of the colorful cliff band we contoured towards the final plateau, wading through some knee deep snow drifts along the way. Wherever there were stunted trees the snow was crotch deep - or worse. We knew we were going all the way to the summit of Lys Ridge at this point - there was certainly no turning back at this point! As we grunted our way up the last major elevation gain to the 2km long summit plateau, we were a bit dismayed by the amount of snow in the Grizzly / Ruby Lake bowls to the west. Our return route was through this bowl and we would clearly be hiking out in substantial amounts of snow on the trail back - something we had really hoped to avoid. Oh well. Not everything in life can come easily right? Not for serial peakbaggers.
[Phil finishes up the moderate scramble over the colorful cliff band. The 2km long summit plateau at left.]
[The cliff band is colorful and holds some very interesting rock formations.]
[Looking back along our snowy track towards the cliff band. You can see here that you have to go pretty low to completely avoid it. We broke through around the center of it here.]
[Phil charges on towards the summit plateau (summit not visible here yet). The large bowl under us was showing major signs of instability so we avoided as much of it as possible.]
[Finally out of the deep snow and back on wind blown scree!]
[Looking at the south end of Barnaby Ridge (L) and the two high points that we traversed on the facing slopes. The cliff band is running off the high point on the right.]
The large (2km!) summit plateau of Lys Ridge was the best part of the day. The sun was warm, there was very little wind, and we finally knew we were going to make it. The main difficulties were behind us now and we enjoyed the 30 minute walk to the summit. The summit itself was a bit disappointing. A manmade structure sat at the apex, complete with it's solar panels, steel sheeting and support wires. As if mourning the jarring and unnatural structure, the wind also picked up at the top, and we cooled off very rapidly as a result. After snapping photos of some very interesting peaks that are rarely summitted thanks to their remote nature, we started down towards Ruby Lake.
[The large summit plateau is 2km long - we still can't see the summit from here.]
[Looking north towards Centre Peak in the far distance.]
[Finally the summit of Lys Ridge comes into view - complete with the repeater station. ++]
[Phil wishes there was a Starbucks in there!]
[Looking east (L) and south (R) from the summit includes Victoria, Castle, Windsor, Drywood, Loaf, Spionkop, Avion, Newman, Sage, Matkin, Jutland and La Coulette (L to R) among others. ++]
[Looking south (L), west (C) and north (R) from the summit. Peaks include (L to R), Scarpe, Jake Smith, Three Lakes Ridge, Rainy Ridge, Haig, Gravenstafel, Barnaby Ridge and others. ++]
[Langemarck with Jutland at left.]
[Scarpe Mountain on the center-left and Jake Smith Peak just right of it.]
[Rainy Ridge and Middle Kootenay to the west.]
[Looking over Three Lakes Ridge, and Mount Miles to the west.]
[Looking north over Mount Syncline towards the Flathead Range including Darrah just right of center.]
[Looking north towards Mount Coulthard and other peaks in the Flathead Range in the far distance.]
[Mount Gladstone to the east is pretty dry.]
[Castle Peak looks much different from this angle! Windsor right of center and Victoria Peak at far right. ++]
[Looking over Mount Matkin (L) and Jutland (R) towards peaks in the Waterton Lake National Park including (L to R), Anderson, Blackiston, Bauerman, Lineham, Hawkins and Lost Mountain.]
[Phil leaves the summit.]
We were a bit nervous about snow loading on the descent slope, but thankfully the southwest aspect was either blown or melted off to treeline. I had mapped out the easiest descent route using Google Maps beforehand, and this ended up being the route we followed. There was some moderately steep down climbing through a loose, upper set of cliffs, followed by a lot of slipping and sliding in fresh snow to the cutline / trail heading out from Ruby Lake. We didn't bother with hitting the shores of Ruby Lake, as there was deep snow in the way. The cutline was obviously our exit, so Phil started breaking trail in ankle to knee deep snow as the sun relentless continued setting in the west.
[Looking down to Ruby Lake.]
[The Ruby Lake bowl and our descent route down towards it.]
[Some moderate scrambling through cliff bands.]
[Phil negotiates an easy cliff band.]
[A nice view of the Ruby Lake bowl, lots of snow!]
[Looking back up our descent slope. We avoided the obvious drainage gully due to the snow.]
[On the exit trail - this is going to be a bit tougher than expected!]
The next 3 or 4 kilometers were not as easy as we'd hoped they'd be. The route was thankfully very obvious - but the snow was annoying after a while. We followed a moose track for part of the way and almost got ourselves confused at the Grizzly Lake turnoff before deciding that this cutline had to be the only trail in the area heading out. It was a great relief when we finally broke out of the Grizzly Lake back bowl, just south of the north end of Barnaby Ridge and saw the snow completely disappear off the trail ahead. The Ruby Lake trail is very nicely graded for the most part and spends as much time above treeline as possible, granting great views of Barnaby Ridge and over the exit valley to the north. Just as we broke free of the snow, the sun completely disappeared and darkness settled in around us.
[The snow is slowly getting less deep as the kilometers tick by.]
[Crossing a drainage on exit - there is another trailing peeling off to the left here, going to Grizzly Lake.]
[It's much darker than the photo makes it appear as we desperately wish the snow cover would go down.]
[The sun sets just as we approach the drier trail. The south end of Barnaby Ridge at left.]
[Phil enjoys the hike more that we're on dry ground now! It seemed to take forever to get to the north end of Barnaby Ridge - and there was still another 4-5km after that.]
The last 5 or 6 kms were navigated via head lamp. We knew the trail was fairly well defined, thanks to Dave's report, but there were a few surprises we weren't ready for, mainly the stream and river crossings. I had noticed a lot of running streams while we were hiking out of the trail just west of Lys Ridge - there was certainly no need to carry any water along this section! If you look at the map you'll notice an inordinate amount of streams coming off Lys Ridge, draining west into Grizzly Creek. All the running water made me wonder about the final river crossing and how high it might be. The Castle River was knee deep already that morning. Dave had photographed a nice bridge over Grizzly Creek along the Ruby Lake trail, so we started our day with the assumption that all the creeks and rivers might be bridged on the Ruby Lake exit trail. We were wrong. After crossing the excellent bridge, we descended into thicker forest and almost got lost on a washed out gravel bed along Grizzly Creek before noticing a well placed hiking trail sign and the trail. We were surprised with a shallow, ankle deep, crossing of Grizzly Creek somewhere around this area. After passing a couple of horse trail signs we were surprised to cross another ankle deep creek. (Dave's group barely noticed these crossings since the water was much lower for them.)
[Night settles in around us - thank goodness for the well-defined trail!]
[Oddly this bridge over Grizzly Creek is followed by two non-bridged crossings of the creek and than another larger non-bridged crossing of the Castle River... (So don't get too excited by photos of this bridge!)]
[We almost got lost in this gravel outflow but thankfully I spotted this hiking sign along the way.]
[One of the shallow crossings of Grizzly Creek was still over our ankles.]
As we approached a roaring Castle River I wondered if there would be a bridge but was starting to seriously doubt it. Sure enough! There was no sign of a bridge and the river looked a bit fiercer than at our morning crossing. It didn't help that we were tired and navigating by head lamp. During the day, with plenty of time, we could have looked harder for a better crossing, but we could clearly see the trail continuing on the far side of the river, and we assumed this would be the best place within a few hundred meters to cross. So we did. About half way across the Castle River, I sensed the current get very strong! I could see that the river was channeled into a deep, fast section about 6 feet across and instantly felt my feet start to peel off the slick rocks at the bottom of the river! Dang! This was not a great situation to be in - especially in the pitch darkness. Phil was yelling that he was almost coming off as I desperately lunged and powered my way across the strong flow and panted up the far side, looking back and encouraging Phil not to drown. Thankfully Phil took my sage advice and somehow managed to also lunge out of the strong current before cursing a few times and breathing a huge sigh of relief. That was definitely the crux of our trip.
On hindsight, there must be an easier place to cross the Castle River, or we just got very unlucky with our snow melt timing. I was thinking about taking my family to Ruby Lake for a camping trip some day but there's no way I'd take my wife or kids across that current! I guess I'll have to time it better. Dave's group certainly had much lower water conditions a month previous, in late September. Lys Ridge is a great destination if you're either camped at Ruby Lake anyway, or fancy a long ridge walk in the colorful and scenic Castle Wilderness Area. I would suggest doing it in mid to late August to late September without too much snow and do the loop as we did to take advantage of a nice exit trail.
Combining Lys with West Castle is a no-brainer for any serious peakbagger. Why settle for just one summit, when you can get two?