Castle Rock

BlueMtn

View of Blue Mountain from Castle Rock

With a still-minimal snowpack, conditions are optimal for exploration, so this weekend, Ra and I headed for a small summit near Blue Mountain Lake. We were to find that, while still far from normal depth this winter, the snow around that part of the country is quite a lot deeper than our neck of the woods.

Ra on the footbridge near the start of the hiking trail

Ra on the footbridge near the start of the hiking trail

The Castle Rock trailhead lies a couple miles off Route 30, down Maple Lodge Road, just south of the museum. Parking was adequate despite the more wintry conditions in the deep central section of the Park; this is probably a busy trailhead in the summer months. The trail begins by following private roads for a little over a tenth of a mile before becoming a footpath, and for awhile at least, the path, indicated with red markers, appears to follow an old roadbed, so it remains wide and gentle. In short order, we reached a junction: straight ahead would take us the long way around, or farther into the wilderness toward Sargent Pond; we crossed a well-built bridge and began following yellow markers; rising, still gently, to the west. The path narrowed at this point to a width typical for a popular Adirondack trail, and we had no trouble following the track of past hikers, clearly visible under the three inches of fresh, light powder that fell the day before.
We came to another junction, where a straight run would descend to Blue Mountain Lake via blue-marked trail; our yellow discs led us to the right, across a small stream, modestly upward along a rockier trail. While not steeply, we rose steadily to reach and parallel a ridge crowned with hemlocks and other conifers.

Rime on the trees high on Castle Rock's upper ridge

Rime on the trees high on Castle Rock’s upper ridge

I took a moment to wander over and found the ridge drops off precipitously on the other side; there is perhaps a 70’ cliff below that I could not see well enough to discern its potential for climbing. It was too slippery to negotiate safely along the narrow ledge my side-trip reached, so I turned back, fearing Ra would follow my footprints into the abyss, then headed directly back through a thicket to regain the trail a bit higher than I’d left it. Ra did indeed follow my tracks, so it was probably wise I’d done so. She garnered a tiring slog through knee-deep powder and a lot of snow down her back before she reached the safe harbor of the trail again.

Rime on Balsam Branches

Rime on Balsam Branches

As we reached a point level with the height of the ridge, the trail swung right and upward, cresting a small rise through a moderately steep bit, where we came to another trail junction. No color changes here: everything was marked in yellow. Looking at our map, we conjectured that the loop hike, which runs around Castle Rock’s north slopes before reaching the Sargent Pond trail, must be to our left; the summit must be to our right, so we headed that latter direction.

The map (compliments of NG's Topo!) doesn't show some of the twists and turns of the final 1/4 mile

The map (compliments of NG’s Topo!) doesn’t show some of the twists and turns of the final 1/4 mile

By now the destination was clearly straight ahead of us, a skewed conical summit with a very steep appearing left side and steep, open rock slabs running downward to the right of us. As I wanted to inspect the cliffs closely, I chose to head straight onward, so broke from the trail, which was now swinging rightward to parallel the hillside. Fifty feet of wallowing later brought me back onto the trail! This was mildly confusing, as the trail was clearly heading gently downward to the east where I’d left it; this trail was heading down in the same direction, paralleling the other trail just a short distance away, with no difficult terrain between. It did not make sense to swing the path so far down and around again – the terrain was far too gentle to require a switchback here – so for awhile we thought perhaps we’d mistaken the junction. We would find out the cause for that otherwise unnecessary wide swing upon our descent.
In any case, after poring over the map awhile, Ra decided to head uphill toward the west, while I kept wallowing toward the cliff straight ahead. We agreed to meet at the top; if Ra’s trail continued upward she would continue with it, otherwise she would return to our position and try the other direction.
Shortly after stepping off the trail, I fell into a maze of boulders in a gully roughly fifty feet in front of the cliff. Crossing it would be dangerous, so I turned downward along it, still occasionally breaking through up to my thigh in hidden crevices between blocks once or twice as I worked my way carefully through the obstacle. Once across, I saw that my original plan would not work: the brushy gully I’d hoped to reach was underlain by twenty five feet of sheer cliff. I walked farther right, rounding a gigantic block and finding the right side of it formed an overhanging corner, with a couple handy boulder-step ledges leading to a sloping tree ledge higher up.
I chose to attempt this, which required switching my trekking pole for an ice tool. Heaving the pole upward, I committed to a few dicey moves to get through the overhanging squeeze corner – not easy with a full pack on my back, ice liberally encasing much of my surroundings, snow-covered holds, and bare rock everywhere else – to the relative safety of that sloping ledge.
Carefully, I worked up the snow and ice-encrusted slope, belaying with the ice tool as I did so. I’d not changed footwear from my Katoolas to crampons, but was getting close to terrain where that would be necessary. A slip here would already be injurious, as it would end in a fifteen foot fall to a block-littered landing. The going wasn’t bad, however, and in a moment I reached the top of the slope.

The only potential mixed line I spied on my "alpine" ascent wasn't anything to write home about

The only potential mixed line I spied on my “alpine” ascent wasn’t anything to write home about

Which presented its own challenge: directly ahead would definitely require crampons, and looking up, I saw it would also involve a brief encounter with vertical ice spilling from a notch in an overhanging rock face. The slab below this was very steep, with a coating of snow that made it impossible to judge the quantity and quality of ice, if any, on it. To my right, a bulging block split an otherwise easy gully into two tight chutes. Tossing my pole – the doggone thing wouldn’t loosen enough to shorten so I could stow it – I looked over these possibilities. A fall would send me into a line of scraggly saplings, probably enough to stop me before reaching that final fifteen foot freefall to disaster, so it wasn’t crazy to make an attempt here. I pondered the swap into crampons, but decided to give it a try in the micro-spikes first.
Suffice to say, it worked, though I ended up taking the right chute, and had to work around left to reclaim my pole, an antic which precipitated its escape back down to the slope, forcing me to resort to the rope for its second reclamation. After this difficulty, the rest was relatively straightforward. I slogged along to the right on safe terrain, reached a squat little cone of ice that further allowed a tool-hook on a sapling, a little grunt work, and then more steep, but thoroughly wooded, snow slope to reach the ridge top.

RaOnCastleRock

Robin awaiting my arrival at the summit

Robin and I rejoined at the summit, where she had been waiting for some time – my delay due to the “pole incident” no doubt. A stiff breeze occasionally chilled the open stance, but it was warm enough to stay awhile and enjoy the view. And what a view: the entire southern vista ran nearly 180° in front of us, with Blue Mountain Lake the main subject. To our left, Blue Mountain itself was just visible above and right of the treetops sharing our summit. To the west, the mountains in the Sargent Pond Forest bordered the sky.

Looking over Blue Mountain Lake from Castle Rock

Looking over Blue Mountain Lake from Castle Rock

We could not see to the north from the opening on the summit, so I made a quick foray up a large boulder on the other side of the trail to have a look at Little Blue and Peaked Mountains. Note that this boulder is very large: a slip off it in almost any direction would break bones. I used a stack of smaller boulders on its eastern end to reach the top, and had to perform an icy á chéval to manage the trick. Once on top of it, I looked over those two mountains carefully, spying nothing obviously worthy of its own expedition. There are openings on both mountains that may hold icy slabs, and Little Blue may have a near-vertical outcrop near the extreme western end of its summit ridge, but these are more likely red herrings or wild goose chases than the Next Great Things.

Yours truly obstructing the view to the west of Castle Rock

Yours truly obstructing the view to the west of Castle Rock

We were both satisfied with the trek, and chose to descend the way Ra had come up. The trail is steep and at this time of year, icy as well. In a few spots, it runs through narrow natural alleys; in others it switches direction to negotiate particularly steep sections. But we made it back down to our confusion point without incident. Here, we kept to the trail, rather than backtrack across my first off-trail excursion, and soon found out why the builders made the trail perform such a wide arc.

The huge overhang the trail sweeps around to visit

The huge overhang the trail sweeps around to visit

In all likelihood, the trail originally ran along the base of Castle Rock, which affords a bonus feature: a region of crevices, huge boulders, and giant rock formations. Whether trail-shifting or not, the swing is well worth the extra walking to see these things, especially for climbers. At the most interesting point, a roof, over fifteen feet from corner to lip, lies over the trail. A crevice runs behind the giant block forming its left flank, with a passage that may allow access to the ledges higher up.

Another view of the huge overhang

Another view of the huge overhang

After perusing this area awhile, we continued our descent. At the throat of the wide bend we’d missed by cutting it off on our way up, we split up again. Ra stayed on the trail, backtracking the way we’d come up; I bushwhacked along the flank of the cliff line.

Possible mixed/sport rock climbing area low on the side of Castle Rock

Possible mixed/sport rock climbing area low on the side of Castle Rock

I saw much interesting, but little compelling features to draw me back here until, nearing the bottom of the long slope running eastward, I passed an area dripping colored icicles over a forty foot tall, severely overhanging alcove.

SportArena1

The left side of the potential mixed/sport rock arena

I don’t know if this is worth the trip as a mixed route destination or not; it is obviously beyond my ability. But it may appeal to the modern set, both as a winter mixed climbing locale and as perhaps, a modern sport rock climbing crag. It won’t harbor much, perhaps only three routes, but these will be very hard, akin to some of the wildly overhanging routes at Rumney.

Right side of the potential mixed/sport climbing arena

Right side of the potential mixed/sport climbing arena

I tarried only long enough to take pictures then continued descending; soon coming to a steep slope cutting perpendicular to the slope I was on. I slanted rightward to reach the swampy bowl at the bottom, then cut along it to a dry crossing, clambered up a short slope, and hit the trail. Soon, Robin came in view, having taken a little longer due to the switchbacks along the official trail. We continued outward together, taking some extra time to uncover a cache before returning to our car.

Robin nabs a geocache during the trip. There is a multicache (two caches) on the Castle Rock trail loop.

Robin nabs a geocache during the trip. There is a multicache (two caches) on the Castle Rock trail loop.

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