Summit Elevation (m): 3090
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.25
Total Trip Distance (km): 35
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something – unless you’re caught in an avalanche. Then you could die.
Difficulty Notes: Glacier route includes crevasse issues and steep snow slopes. Don’t minimize these risks and learn how to manage them before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN6; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps
Ever since reading the Nugara’s trip report on snow shoeing Castleguard Mountain I’ve wanted to attempt it as a day trip on skis. Kevin Barton was also very interested and since Ferenc and I were turned around due to thick cloud cover in February 2012 while on a Columbia Icefield camping trip, Ferenc was also keen on a day trip attempt. Originally we thought that we’d have to camp at the trail head or even stay in the Saskatchewan Crossing hotel just to give ourselves enough day time to complete the peak, considering that the Nugara’s took 18 hours to do their trip. Upon reflection we decided that on skis and with good weather there was no reason we couldn’t do the trip in around 14 hours. After changing the date due to avy and weather concerns it was only Ferenc and I leaving Calgary very early in the morning – 2:30 AM from his house in the NW!
After trying a new pair of skis with my Garmont Andrenalin’s on Mount Habel, I decided that it was time to get lighter gear, and this was going to be the inaugural trip for it. A bit risky to test new gear on such a big day but a good test. My knees aren’t what they used to be after several skiing mishaps and hundreds of peaks of scree bashing around the Rockies. Plus I was sick of skiing with friends and picking up their gear and realizing how much more weight I was carting up and down the mountain then they were! A pound on the feet is like 5 on the back and that meant I was lugging an equivalent of almost 40 pounds extra up and down the mountains, compared to a few friends.
I sold my brand new G3 Tonic’s with the heavy Garmont boots and Fritchi bindings and picked up a pair of Scarpa Maestrale boots, Dynafit TLT Radical bindings and Ski Trab Volare skis. I tried the gear out for two days of resort skiing before taking them to the back country and knew right away that I was in love. 🙂 I paid dearly for the weight savings in cash, but all I can say is WOW. My knees are going to be eternally grateful! The Dynafit TLT binding is very solid and easy to use and the Volaire’s still have 100mm under foot but are light, light, light! The boots don’t seem quite as warm as the Endorphin’s but are literally half the weight and no blisters whatsoever so I’m not complaining.
The parking lot at the Big Bend had at least 8 vehicles parking in it, which was awesome. This meant we would be following a packed trail at least for part of the day. The 8 pounds of weight on my feet that I was saving over my previous ski setup was immediately apparent as we left the parking area around 0530 via head lamps. It was also a nice bonus that the river was still bridged by snow, saving an extra 2km of skiing right at the start of the trip. A ‘trick’ I was trying, in order to speed up the skiing on approach / egress was using kick wax instead of skins on terrain that wasn’t too steep. Ferenc was doubtful about me making it up the hill around the North Saskatchewan River near the parking lot but I managed to prove him wrong. I admit that skins would have been easier in this case because of the icy track but with fresh snow I would not hesitate using kick wax on fairly steep terrain – it sure makes the downhill parts much quicker and you’re not pushing against skins for kilometers on end.
Once we got over and around the hill I applied kick wax to Ferenc’s skis too and we took off for the glacier. Skiing with the new gear and kick wax was an absolute pleasure. I honestly felt that I was skiing with slippers on! 🙂 Ferenc also loved the kick wax idea. We took our time considering the length of our day (not to mention the 3 hours of sleep…) and just over 2 hours from the car we were at the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier. We were also near a monster base camp – obviously the cars in the parking lot were part of a pretty big group of winter campers – including a couple of dogs that were barking at us and dashing around camp. People were just waking up when we approached and I spoke briefly to one of them. He seemed pretty surprised that we had left Calgary that morning and were at the glacier already before 8 am! He mentioned that they had attempted Castleguard the previous day but turned back due to group size / speed and snow flurries high up near the Columbia neve. He estimated that we would only need around 5 more hours to reach the summit. I thought that was optimistic.
After putting the skins on (not worth the effort of wax on the headwall or the summit block) we started the long trudge up the Saskatchewan. The wind was cold but the sun was rising and the sky was clear, it was shaping up to be another perfect spring day in the mountains and we felt awesome. The ski up the glacier went by pretty quickly. We noticed ski tracks ascending to Castleguard Meadows on our left. There is an approach to Castleguard Mountain from that angle but we didn’t know for sure that those tracks would continue up to the mountain and I knew that approaching directly from the meadows can be quite exposed to avalanche hazards so we continued with our original plan to ski up from the Columbia and the northeast face. Since I was carrying the rope, Ferenc broke trail most of the way up from the end of the Saskatchewan Glacier to the summit ridge on Castleguard. Ski penetration was around 2-4 inches so it wasn’t too hard and we weren’t in a huge rush.
The sun was gaining intensity and we felt a bit nervous for about 100 vertical meters on the steep north face beneath the summit block. Good thing it’s not a south face! After traversing around the block on the east side we noticed fresh ski tracks descending from near the summit on the classic east ridge line, right over the mostly filled in ‘schrund. We followed a day old skin track up the steep east bowl under the east cliffs and felt and wee bit nervous here too. (The skin track was obviously from the meadows.)
We were glad that we left Calgary early and could be off the steep slopes around the summit block reasonably early. I led the final 100 meter vertical push to the summit where we were treated to spectacular views – probably some of the best I’ve ever had! Castleguard is uniquely situated in the middle of some giant terrain, and being a wee bit shorter than most of its neighbors makes them look even more spectacular than if we were higher. Of course being over 10,000 feet we could see for miles and miles in each direction – a sea of giant peaks and icefields and snow. Mount Bryce stole the show to the west but obviously Columbia, Forbes, Lyells, Twins and a myriad of other peaks added to the charm. We spent almost an hour admiring the views and taking photos before reluctantly deciding it was time to ski off the sun baked slopes below before things got dicey. It was nice to realize we were way ahead of ‘schedule’ – just over 7 hours to the summit from the parking lot with a promisingly fast run back down.
The ski down was awesome and quick. Ferenc made some great turns and my new skis performed very nicely in the fresh powder up high and the chop down low. I never took my bindings out of downhill mode from the summit all the way to the toe of the glacier! It took us just over 1.5 hours to get all the way off the glacier from the summit – we had PERFECT conditions with hard tracks to cruise down on descent. We noted that the large camp was gone as we waxed up the skis for the egress. We cruised the trail back to the parking lot, skinning up for the final hill rather than struggle with the wax on it.
Our round trip time including all breaks was 11 hours, 10 minutes in perfect conditions. The only way it could have been better would have been a broken trail right to the summit, and we pretty much had that anyway! Comparing our trip time to the Nugara’s isn’t really a fair comparison. We had the advantage of perfect snow coverage on the approach and fast ski conditions on both the ascent and descent.
To estimate your time (on skis) I would say 12-14 hours is probably a good bet. One of my all-time favorite ski day trips and highly recommended for strong parties in spring when there’s good snow coverage on the approach, lots of daylight and safe avy conditions. Also make sure you don’t waste one of the most incredible views in the Rockies with clouds – pick a mostly clear day for this one.