Summit Elevation (m): 2316
Trip Date: October 23, 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 24
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
The crux is the three river crossings each way to Ruby Lake or the long traverse via West Castle Mountain. Note: We combined West Castle Mountain with Lys Ridge and an exit via Ruby Lake for a long day trip.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
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.
From just south of WCII, we picked our way along the ridge, often right on the crest itself, but short-cutting 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.
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.
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.
The large (2km long!) 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 man-made 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.
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 cut-line / 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 cut-line was obviously our exit, so Phil started breaking trail in ankle to knee deep snow as the sun relentless continued setting in the west.
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 cut-line 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 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.)
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?