12 years in the making - The Castle

In the summer of 1998, fresh out of high school, I started work at Camp Firewalker as a climbing instructor (in reality, I was a belay dog for teenage campers all season). Our camp was in a beautiful part of Buffalo Creek, right next to Wellington Lake and a towering rock named The Castle.

Even though I was ruined by bouldering and clipping bolts, I felt the undeniable pull to ascend the long, clean cracks to the summit. But despite my youthful arrogance, I knew I didn’t have the skillset to do it myself. I needed Ryan’s bold style and trad confidence if I had any hope of success.
I told him about it a few times, but we never made the trip – and when he left in 2003, The Castle became just one of many lines that we had to leave unfinished…

Our family has been visiting Camp Firewalker each summer for the past few years, and I’ll look up at The Castle and think about how awesome it would be to finally climb it. I started to petition friends that had the trad skills and after a few seasons of prodding, Glenn Schuler, accepted!
Glenn is the man. Our start happened in 2006 when I emailed him about hearing of bouldering on Mt. Herman. He met me up there and showed me all of the development he’d done. I was impressed, but it only deepened when I found out how much development he’s done in areas like Shelf, Penitente and lately at Thunder. Jackpot!

After researching the routes we heard two things:
1. The approach is horrible
2. The rock is worth it

We originally chose The Throne Room, a 3 pitch 5.10 going up the detached Parapet, after which you rap down to the saddle and climb 5.8 to the summit. But, we heard that there were falcon nesting concerns (we heard & saw them quite a bit) and opted for the Castle Corner, another 3 pitch 5.10 route going up The Castle proper.

We left the Springs early Saturday and made the 2 hour drive out to Wellington Lake where signs like this would normally cause huge heartache:

Fortunately, I called ahead and Nanc’, the legendary Camp Firewalker Director, had the hook-up and left the gate unlocked for us. Glenn didn’t like the idea that we didn’t have the key for the lock and could possibly get locked in – neither did I, but how could that happen? (not foreshadowing here…)

We parked and Glenn went through the racks and picked out what he’d think we’d need. The gear descriptions were pretty inconsistent so we brought up a good chunk of pro. Glenn didn’t bring a helmet, so Ryan’s stayed in the trunk. How could I live with myself if Glenn’s head got bashed in while I was in a helmet? I’d borrowed some larger climbing shoes from Brian Shelton to use instead of my normally tight shoes. I hoped that it would help me last 3 long pitches and a walk-off – I’m still a little scarred from the Steeple Peak descent…

We started off on the well-established trail around the lake and turned toward The Castle after the waterfall slides. Even though we found some cairns and tried to stay south, we got sucked into the Baron’s Estate, a beautiful formation below The Castle, and hit a dead end.

We could either balance up the slab to the left (which had a nasty roof section) or bust up through the chimney. We opted for the chimney and mounted the first block easily, but the 2nd needed a little more attention. We took off our packs and I headed up with the rope for my only lead of the day. Glenn tied off the packs and I pulled them up, somehow wedging the buckle of his pack in a crack and sliding it right off its strap. Luckily it wasn’t broken (only one of Glenn’s beers was damaged in this mini-epic) and we got the heck out of that canyon as fast as we could.

We made it to the base of The Castle before 10, which was OK, considering. Awesome views, beautiful falcons flying overhead and sweeping stone made the thrash-fest worthwhile.

Glenn patiently taught me how to make my first pair of crack gloves – psyched! (I even shaved the back of my hands that morning in preparation… Glenn didn’t laugh too hard…)

Glen also knew how to channel the good mojo before we climbed by busting out the hoagie. We were set!

Pitch 1:

Glenn took off in the bright sun just as a chipmunk was scrambling up and down the route – humbling and cool… The pitch consisted of a fun detached flake (questionable stability in spots) most of the way – with an excellent crux: a big reach from an undercling to a huge jug past the flake. It felt pretty long for me and I was impressed by how Glenn styled it even though he’s a few inches shorter than myself. Glenn’s staring at the move here:

The big surprise on P1 is that there was poison ivy all over the belay ledge - 3 feet above, below and on the ledge itself.

Glenn and I carefully tried to avoid it and letting the rope touch any of it (I think we both made it without any reactions). I was feeling pretty good, stoked that Glenn had lead so well, and confident that my shoes would work for me.

Pitch 2:

This pitch was amazing. Super-long and creative, it followed the dihedral with supplemental cracks to the right. Excellent stemming, jamming and even compression moves. I absolutely felt like I was actually using crack climbing technique as I plugged away, thankful for Glenn’s chalk-marked beta. The gloves gave me confidence and it felt solid. The crux, again, was at the end where I got to do some laybacking through some smaller holds. Awesome.

Pitch 3:
Glenn chose the crack to the right for the last pitch (left looked a bit thinner).

It was kind of awkward position-wise, but P2 had prepared me well to trust my jams. After the first section, the angle eased up for 40 feet and then kicked up to an overhanging offwidth! I carefully used a rotten chockstone in the base of the flaring crack to nicely jam my whole body into the feature. After a long time slapping around for jams and face holds, I finally found a cool fist jam and combined that with a scissoring-chimney-thing with my legs to get over the bulge and into a neighboring crack. How the freak did Glenn do that on lead!?

With Glenn laughing down at me from the summit I finished the final moves and joined him. Did I say Glenn is the man? I am so glad he was there to chauffeur me up this thing! A handshake and some pictures (Throne Room’s plates looked gorgeous from there) and we started to scramble our way down.
We went west into the main summit and worked our way south until we found what looked like the gully that would take us down within 30 feet of our packs. Gloriously, we made it down without incident around 2pm and my feet were not screaming!

We had thrown around the idea of doing another route since we were up there, but felt pretty beat after rehydrating. Avoiding Baron’s Estate we walked down to the south and made it back to the waterfalls in no time (even after picking up a huge heart-shaped piece of quartz).

For 12 years I’ve looked at that rock and now it’s done! I’m stoked about going up to Aaron’s Camp this year and not feeling like I need to be climbing it. I’ve done it, I don’t need to do it again, I’m good. But now that we’ve got a better idea on the approach, Glenn and I both want to get back up and knock out the Throne Room. Gotta love the South Platte!


Mike and Tia Fam said...

I am jealous. I have always wanted to climb the Castle, although crack climbing is foreign to me. Have fun at Aarons Camp, and tell Nance and Jake I say hey.

Rosalia said...

Jake is in his first year on the Firewalker staff, also working the climbing wall. If he reads this great account, I'm sure he'll want to climb the castle someday.
Congrats on the climb and enjoy Aaron's Camp.

Brooke said...

Well done reporting sir! Thanks for making it available. I have wondered about this rock while viewing it from below.