Words by Sonnie
Photos by Ben Moon
“Building Castles in the Sky” is an old Irish proverb for daydreamers who never taken any action. Obviously, it’s a derogatory comment geared towards big planners, the ones who walk around spraying about their colossal ideas, hyping up their visions, but who, at the end of the day, never actually take any concrete steps towards achieving them. But I think dreams are important to have, and being a half Irish man myself, I’ll admit I’ve had my share of big ones. Unfortunately, not all of them have come true, but I’m not finished yet either, there’s still a lot of work to be done. However, one dream that I’ve luckily managed to put behind me (for the time being), was my perpetual desire to create a new line on my favorite Rockies peak, the majestic and unmistakable Castle Mountain.
For over 10 years, I ogled at an outrageous and most prominent buttress of rock perched way up high on the middle tier of the mountain. Located directly south of the classic Eisenhower Tower, the buttress hangs high and shapely over the Bow Valley like a voluptuous woman. Her beautiful profile is visible directly from Highway 1 while heading East, and I’ve always hoped of swinging around up there on hard terrain. I was never absolutely sure if I would do it or not, or even if it was possible until May of 2013 when my friend Eugene and I basically jogged up to the base of the wall one afternoon to have a guides inspection. The wall was surprisingly featured, and even more awesome than I had imagined.
Unfortunately, ascending this beast on natural gear was an impossibility, so I took to the cliff from the top down, and like many routes of this nature the climbing is often the easy part. First, I had to convince a small crew of selfless soldiers to help me hump loads to the top, many ropes, bits, batteries, nearly 100 bolts and hangers, anchors, hammers, wrenches, pry-bars, a drill, etc…etc…even today my knees swell up just thinking about it. They waited patiently on top for me to rappel down and inspect the route just to see if and where it goes. It was the first of many backbreaking missions that summer and I had a number of absolutely amazing partners who joined me on this journey. I truly couldn’t have done it without them.
I recall the first time Sam, Eugene and I got the top of the route by following the Rockbound Lake Trail and breaking left through the tree’s and up onto the ridge. Our quads hummed with fatigue as we sat in the mid-morning sun eating our lunch and peering down over the surrounding peaks of Castle Junction. Storms rolled through the valley, but luckily never hit us directly. It seems like they always split into two halves before reaching the mountain and each half went separate directions, one traveled East and the other West. This of course was a spectacular sight, but always kept us on our toes for we never knew when it was about to get ugly for us. Over the course of the summer, this happened nearly every single time we went up there. I began to wonder if the Junction itself is a bit of a vortex, a blue hole that is partially sheltered from the famous afternoon thunderstorms known to the Rockies, or if we just got lucky.
On the second day, after some precarious route navigation, I eventually (and excitedly) swung under the giant roof to find the amazing prow below my feet, the exposure was nauseating at first, but what really made things difficult was the constant howling winds coming from the West. I realized quickly that if I just stayed a couple of feet on the right side of the prow, then I could get some respite from the constant battering of these cold and forceful gusts. I was moving well enough to stay warm, so I continued down, cleaning, bolting, hoping that the route would continue to reveal itself and not shut me down with a chossy bit, or worse, a completely blank face that would prevent any passage at all from below. I continued sliding down my ropes as the tail ends of them drifted and whipped in the open air below me.
After about 5 days of extremely hard work, we made it down to the bottom, on relatively solid ground. Besides ruining 2 perfectly good ropes (pack rats), I also inhaled far too much rock dust from the holes I drilled and the wind made it worse by rubbing it all into my eyes. Our “solid ground”, was actually a large scree sloped ledge which divides the lower tier into two halves, and one where we could easily walk off of to gain the main trail back down. What was above us we didn’t yet know, although now fully equipped with shiny new bristlers, I had only visualized doing the moves, I had yet to perform a single sequence with proper rock shoes and a chalk bag. I assumed from touching the holds it would be nothing harder than 5.13a/b, but over the next 3 or 4 visits, my prediction would prove to be wrong again.
Needless to say, the 600foot wall is impressive in its own right, but the jutting prow on the 4th pitch stands out like a peacock puffing up its chest. When you’re actually on the arete, you finally realize just how much exposure there really is because of how much atmosphere there seems to be sucking you down, and the afternoon crosswinds only affirm your vulnerability, they hit you hard on the left side of your body, making you feel like a flapping flag on top of a skyscraper. At this point you’re approximately 2000 feet above the Bow River.
I made 3 arduous visits to the crux pitch before piecing the entire route together, each time with a different belayer. First it was the young Hirsch, aka, Sam Easton from Ontario, but we bailed from the searing sun and dehydration, then it was Brandon Pullan, also an Ontario native who fled West many moons ago, and on the day of the send it was the unfazable French Canadian, Sam Lambert. One thing they each have in common is their irrefutable sense of humor and passion of being in high places.
On the day of the send, Lambert and I actually rappelled the entire route to the main ledge from the top, where we had spent the night. I still had some work to do on the route the day before, so we brought enough gear for an open bivy on the summit, so I felt relatively strong and fresh the next day. Despite the constant harassment of pack rats throughout the night, we awoke to a renewing sunrise. We drank hot coffee and ate stale bagels while packing our bags for the day. Climbing is about a lot of things, one of them is the friends you go out with, another is the exhilarating experience of urinating off a giant cliff at 7:00am with the warm summer sun on your face, another is spending the night out in the open and falling asleep to the sound of wind meandering through the surrounding trees.
The climbing went well, I felt stronger than ever and the friction was impeccable. The first two pitches are nothing more than a wonderful warm up, straightforward low angle 5.10 climbing. Then, it kicks back in a hurry. Sam climbed what he could behind me and aided through the sections he couldn’t. I chose to link together the 3rd and 4th pitches because I wanted to eliminate an optional, precarious and rather arbitrary hanging belay on top of pitch 3. This was my personal choice. It doesn’t have to be climbed this way, but I wanted to climb it in the best style I could manage, and this mega-pitch created what I believe to be an enduring 5.14a. When you add together the weight of the rope and its inevitable drag, combined with the power endurance climbing of the lower 5.12+ pitch AND the ubber-technical climbing of the upper 5.13+ 4th pitch, you get 50 non-stop meters of brilliant monster pump rock climbing. It’s a worthy endeavor.
The 5th pitch is a steep and rather tricky 5.12a, the bolts are closely spaced as it trends up and left over a small roof. This bit is very short and ends on another solid and comfortable belay stance. If you wish, you can link this into an easy obvious corner system above (5.10) or pitch it out, either way you’ll gain another obvious and secure belay stance, probably 20 meters or so. The last pitch is thankfully wild and exposed again, climb an easy slab traversing right until you gain a nifty section of 5.11 arete shenanigans. This pitch will lead you to the top of the wall, another bolted anchor and a much deserved lookout point. After taking in the view, scramble easily to the top of the ledge and walk down the right side of the mountain (Eisenhower Tower descent) to gain the main trial back to the car park.
I have always known that the Canadian Rocky Mountains are at least comparable (if not better in some respects) to many of the most well known mountain ranges in the World. Right here in our own backyards, we have an unlimited amount of adventure opportunities, coupled with more than the “occasional” line of high quality rock and steep terrain, the possibilities are truly endless if one were so inclined to get out and explore them. Having said that, nothing will exist without having a wistful dream first, and (in my experience anyway) a highly motivated team of industrious and waggish individuals, the kind of people rarely employed that will call in sick at the drop of a hat to get outside just one more time.
With this route, I wanted to create something spectacular and inspiring, something you’d see in pictures and think it was from the Dolomite Mountains of Italy, or the Swiss Alps. My goal was to encourage as many people as possible to experience the thrill of playing in this wild place, on this bit of wonderfully steep rock in the heart of the Rockies but without fear or consequence. I wanted to create a challenging, but joyful climbing experience. The climbing is very safe, and rather easy to aid through any section, even if you’re not a 5.13+ climber. I do suggest however, that you are (at least) a very competent 5.12+ climber before attempting this route. To retreat in case of a storm, fatigue or dehydration, lower back down the wall using steep sport cleaning tactics. A 60 meter rope will get you back to the scree ledge where it all began.
Many thanks to Eugene Kozhushko and Sam Eastman for their very hard work and companionship, and to Brandon Pullan for the working belays, and finally to Sam Lambert who belayed me on the successful attempt. Thanks Ben Moon and Page Stephenson for the great pictures and moving imagery. Thanks so much to all of you for helping me make this route a reality, it is not longer my Castle in the Sky. Two things I have learned about this endeavor is that most dreams will only come true with a brutal amount of hard work and determination, so it’s important to love the process as much as the intended outcome, and having good friends with a sense of humor, will make all the difference in the World.