Castle Towers Mountain is a pretty cool peak at the far end of Garibaldi Lake. The most impressive view is from Whistler, where you can get a good view of the steep north face. A few years ago, Greg and I were up at Sphinx Bay doing some spring skiing. We had no exact plans for that trip except to ski, and we ended up skiing off the northwest face, on the skiers left side of the face between the west and central summit. From the col to the summit was a snowy exposed scramble, so I left the summit for another trip. It’s always seemed like a long way to go to reach the summit, but when I looked at the numbers and the actual time spent on well maintained BC Parks trail, I realized a trip to Castle Towers can actually be a pretty nice Sunday stroll.
You can approach from either the Cheakamus Lake side, or Rubble Creek. I think going from the north, and across Helm Meadows is the fastest way. It was cloudy and almost drizzling at the parking lot, but I was pretty sure that all my time spent looking at the weather forecast the next before were not in vain. A quick glance at the Whistler webcam earlier in the morning showed blue skies above the valley fog.
We crossed over the Cheakamus River, and worked our way up the switchbacks through the old growth forest. There are some impressive tress in here. BC Parks has also been working on upgrading the trail on this end of the park, reflected in the ever faster times on the Rubble Creek Classic. Nick Elson smashed the course record this year, way to go! We were still in the fog as we walked pass all the campers at the Helm Creek campground. I tried to describe the view of the Black Tusk from here, but only managed to walk pass the spot to turn southeast towards the Helm Glacier. A quick check of the GPS on my phone and I was back on track, contouring across volcanic ash on the east side of the Cinder Cone. The clouds began to burn off as the morning rays heated the landscape, leaving us in awe of beauty of the place, with a fine mist rising from the dark volcanic ash.
We switched to crampons under our running shoes as we walked up the bare ice on the relatively benign and flat Helm Glacier. We could have gotten away without them for the lower portions, but I was happy to have the extra security as the glacier steepened at the head of the glacier. There was no snow left, and crevasses opening up. This is no surprise to anybody who’s travelled in the mountains this summer, but all the local glaciers have taken a beating from the dry weather and heat this summer, and the low-snow year. At the top, we left the crampons on a rock, no longer needing them for the rest of the route to the summit.
The descent down to Gentian Pass is on steep grassy slopes, slightly slippery from yesterday’s rain. We continued up the crest of Polemonium Ridge, and then dropped down a scree gully on the right side just before the top, as described in the Scrambles route description. It was rather unpleasant, as most scree gullies are. On the way back, I took an alternate route, scrambling along nice heather benches and goat paths, which took me onto the top of the ridge again, right by some rocks forming an arrow pointing to where I came from. There are some really nice spots on Polemonium Ridge, open grassy meadows with grand views of Garibaldi Lake and the Sphinx Glacier.
Sarah was pushing the pace on the climb up through the talus field to the west summit, while I was barely keeping up. We passed friends on their way down, and soon we were on top of the west summit. The last three hundred metres are all the same football sized talus field with occasional cairns and lichen free boulders giving away the route that others had taken.
The central summit is slightly higher than the west summit, and involves a Class 3 scramble down a gully from the west summit into the col. The crux comes approximately half-way down the gully, where some cautious downclimbing is required for a few moves. Most people seem to follow a ledge around the north face from the col up to the central summit, but we went around the right side, taking an exposed ledge on solid rock above the south face. On top of the summit, I enjoyed the massive alpine sandwich that I had been carrying around, along with my homemade apple turnover. Sarah was on the fast and light team today, so only gels for her.
We took our time going back down the talus slope, and then found the better way back up to Polemonium Ridge, avoiding the scree gully as described above. Some wonderful alpine running followed this, as we ran like gazelles down the smooth alpine terrain on the ridge crest. Ok, that might be an exaggeration of our pace, which was more like glorified fast walking down the ridge. But with a light wind blowing and the sunshine reflecting off Garibaldi Lake, I couldn’t imagine running in a more beautiful spot at that moment.
There was one last climb back up above Gentian Pass. I wanted to continued along the ridge crest, rather than walk down the icy Helm Glacier. This was a more scenic route, taking the high line and with the option of going over Fuscian Peak. The ridge is loose and rubbly, but offers good views. I was thinking back about the time I went over towards Corrie Peak a few years ago. As we approached Fuscian Peak, Sarah and I nearly got into a fist fight over whether to continue up and over the ridge, another 50 metres up. Or just to contour along the bowl to the far ridge. I knew I would lose, so I continued down the slope, traversing the scree to catch up to her.
The ridge is open with panoramic views, a nice alternative to walking down the Helm Glacier. At the end of the ridge, before Helm Peak, we headed northwest down a heathery ridge, down into the meadows below. We stopped in the meadows, just long enough to give our feet a break from the endless pounding on dirt and rocks.
We ran most of the way down from Helm campground, jogging through the forest. At 10.5 hours, 36km, 36km and 2900m elevation gain, this trip might be longer than what most people would consider a Sunday stroll. I was hoping to make it back down in time before Pure Bread closed to replenish all the spent calories with butter and sugar and flour, but we were a little too slow. But don’t worry, I did not starve. There was a backup pastry in the car.
The stoke factor was high today