A reasonable person only needs one reason not to do something again, “I didn’t like it”. I know I can be unreasonable, so I have eight: chossy rock, leader fall, lightning storm, lost hikers, hail, steep loose scree, attacking rodent and a dead headlamp.
Castle Mountain is a large, impressive limestone rock feature rising 4,500 ft above the river valley of Banff, Canada. There are many mountains around Banff but this standalone feature stretches a massive half mile long. It is comprised of two tiers each offering dozens of routes along their 1000 ft cliff faces.
So, Brewer’s Buttress seemed like a classic, recommended objective. The route climbs the far South buttress on a long (13 pitch, 1000 ft), moderate (5.6) line to the mountain’s summit just across from Eisenhower Tower. As with most alpine objectives, however, you have to earn the right to climb the route from a hearty many hours approach. I optimistically thought that whole thing car-car would take 12 hours. When all was said and done, it would actually take 20 hours.
We started from the trailhead of Castle Mountain Lookout Trail at 8am and cruised through the four-mile, 2000 ft elevation gain trail in an hour and a half. From here we took climbing trails marked with climbing tape to the diagonal cut in the lower tier gulley to gain Goat Plateau. Another half mile and 1000 ft elevation gain on easy 3rd-4th class terrain brought us to the top of the Lower Tier on Goat Plateau.
From here, the trail to Brewer’s Buttress hugs close to the steep vertical cliffs of the upper tier like a person afraid of heights. Which is kind of how we felt as we walked for nearly a mile atop a slope of loose, rolling scree covering hard, compact, ungiving dirt. Frequently we would dislodge a rock which would enthusiastically topple down the slope, join a gulley and take flight over the 1000 ft lower tier cliff. The clacking sounds echoed off the walls, surrounded us as we tried not to imagine ourselves performing the same tumble over the edge. This was definitely a limited fall zone with only 100 ft of loose, steep terrain between us and the edge. In all likelihood, any fall could probably have been arrested by a frantic deluge of fingers, hands and feet into the slope within 20 ft, but the rocks seemed to have no problems making a quick descent.
Finding any route on the upper tier proved taxing. Most guide book pictures were taken from far away and most rock features looked similar with many buttress looking edges. However, just around the corner from a more-tree-laden-than-normal outcrop of the plateau, we found the Brewer’s Plaque and the belay bolts. The approach and route finding had taken us 4.5 hours.
We soaked in the spectacular 5-star views with a relaxed lunch before we started climbing the route at 1:30pm. We hoped to move quickly through the climb by linking every two pitches with our 70m rope except for pitch 5 that required moving the belay. The route was mostly 5.5 and instead of the fun, easy crack systems I was expecting, it resembled an unimaginative walk up small cracked steps of limestone cobbled together with mud. The rock quality was much worse than I expected for a ‘classic’ with most holds moving at least a little. I constantly was worrying one would blow and cause a leader fall on a climb that largely lacked the ability to place protection outside of the bolts and pitons provided.
Maybe a self-fulling thought, one such hold blew while I was exploring up and left of P8 to a non-existent crack system shown on the topo (it was actually to the right). I was falling. It takes a few moments for your brain to react and process everything… I was five feet into my fall when I looked down and saw my last piece of clipped gear 12 feet below me. That piton would likely hold, but that means I would topple a total of 30 ft bringing me over the cliff edge I was traversing. Next, I would likely swing, dragging my rope across that cliff edge. The sharp angles this limestone loves to break off into could possibly cut the rope. Finally, my belayer was around the corner in 20 mph winds and was unlikely to hear me bellow “falling!” and therefore wouldn’t be able to take in enough rope to prevent the cliff fall.
All these thoughts came to me in a fraction of a second as I began frantically pawing at the low angled, sharp rock in front like someone frantically trying to climb out of an impossibly slick hole. A couple seconds more into the fall it slowed and I managed to grab some holds and save myself from “the big whipper”.
I cursed the rock and began assessing my pain level. I’ve never been particularly scared of falling until I broke my heel on Washington Column this Spring. Since then, I’ve dreaded a similar injury that would halt my year of vagabond climbing. My hands and fingers were throbbing but I was just scraped up, the blood on my knee was also from abrasion and my previously fractured foot hurt but not badly. So I collected my state of mind and finished the pitch.
My partner had a particularly hard time in the wide cracks in P11 due to huge rope drag from linking P10 and some missed opportunity for extension. Feeling exposed, she too felt the frustrating of wanting to place gear but being unable to in the poor rock quality while pulling up a rope that felt like a 50 lb weight. Our last pitch we took the more direct and slightly harder (5.6 over 5.5) line only to have the same frustrations with gear and unexpectantly steep moves.
On this last pitch, a helicopter started buzzing the mountain. When I first saw it I was surprised to find the helicopter was nearly level with the summit. Were they coming to rescue us? Did something happen to the simul-climbers that passed us hours earlier? Was the storm coming towards us from the East going to get really bad? Severe winds? Lightning? I began to worry a lot as it circled the mountain and tried to touch down on a spur for the next half hour until it flew off for the night. I had no answers.
Given our approach, I pictured the top to be a twenty-foot wide scree pile that dropped off thousand foot cliffs in all directions. Pulling over the top at 9pm, I was relieved to find it as a wide scree pile on a low angle away from the cliff toward a mountain bowl. The wind, the storm and the elevation were making it cold as we swapped climbing shoes for approach shoes and set out in search of the correct descent gully. With one wrong turn on a hiking trail, we eventually found it in a group of cairns an hour and a half later at last light.
At the top of our upper descent gully, I had no idea I was about to embark on the most bullshit, uncontrolled and scary descent to date for the next hour and a half. There was no trail down the descent of very steep scree with no ability to make downward progress without nearly causing a rock slide on every step. Our guide book showed 600 ft of descending this loose stuff until we met a cliffed out ‘scree terrace’.
We only got 70 ft down the gulley when we were met with head lamps and voices from below telling us to not come down any further. Who. the. hell. was also in a horrible steep scree gulley in the dark? Our parties met in an alcove and we discovered these were a pair of hikers who had asked for the helicopter rescue earlier. It had been too windy to land the helicopter and I guess the hikers had seen the gulley cairn and were trying to get down.
Thank god they didn’t try too hard and fly over the rappel cliffs below! We couldn’t take them with us since they didn’t have harnesses so Sadie practiced her wilderness first responder training by wrapping the guy’s sprained ankle, giving some extra strength pain killer and assessing the women’s scraped knee. They would have to hike out the same way they came in, we couldn’t do much more. They had decided to hike the last 11 hours to get here and they still had service and battery to communicate with rescue if they couldn’t hike out on their own.
With this interaction, we lost the last of our light. What is better than descending a steep, loose scree gulley that ends in a cliff by headlamp? Add a lightning storm. The storm had reached us and would shower us off and on over the next several hours with rain, graupel and hail. The showers were not enough to complete drench the rock but enough to make it slippery and convert the top layer of the hard dirt into a thin, slippery mud layer. The lightning would flash overhead regularly and light up the surrounding environment both giving us a better view of everything and destroying or night vision. There was no moon or it was covered by clouds as we again started down the gulley, leaving the hikers behind.
At first, I got a little too close to the constriction of scree that looked that it could be the terrace to realize I was approaching the cliff and the terrace I was shooting for was a little above me. Most things looked the same over the last 600 ft and the terrace was a sharper than 90 degree angle to the right to reach the first of several rappels.
We cruised through the next four rappels given the solid topo provided in our book until we landed again on loose, wet, slide-prone scree. There was no further descent information in the book, but we knew we needed to reach Goat Plateau and then reverse the approach. My worry was the next ‘trail’ would be the same thin, high fall risk traversing trail like the one we had taken earlier from Goat Plateau to Brewer’s Buttress, but the terrain looked anything but familiar. There were a series of large ledges but on our prior approach to Brewer’s Buttress ledges and trees had meant you were close to the 1000 ft vertical lower tier cliffs.
We talked a lot about what to do. My headlamp was dimming and could only help me place my feet while Sadie’s could see several dozen feet in front. We considered the option of huddling in cover and using the emergency bivy to wait the five hours until it got light again (it was now midnight). However, there was no cover, it had just hailed on us for five minutes and we were on open sloped scree in a lightning storm.
Neither option great, we decided to continue moving slowly and deliberately. This was risky, we didn’t know where we were going but knew where we wanted to be. Falling or sliding could have unknown consequences. However, the bet to descend a few more reasonably angled ledges down from the gulley paid off we reached Goat Plateau. Whew. Now we just have to downclimb and cross the lower gulley.
Starting our way down the lower gulley the terrain immediately and gratefully became more secure. There were a series of down climbs, traverses and descent trails to take that were straightforward and comfortable in the light but at night took a lot more communication and investigation to stay on-route with my dim and Sadie’s bright headlamp.
We were starting a down climb when a foot long, whitish-grey rodent with a face of a possum and a tail ending in a chinchilla-like puff appeared and began working its way toward Sadie. Sure, maybe it thinks it can get some food we thought as we ignored it and focused on route finding. Then Sadie felt something at her foot and the thing was biting her approach shoe! She kicked it away and it retreated a short bit. But this was not over. For the next ten minutes as we navigated a short 4th class descent I would throw rocks at this thing as it repeatedly advanced on us, following us down as we went. I recognize this is its home but I also didn’t want to get rabies from a bite on my hand while down climbing. Throwing small rocks near it didn’t provide deterrence and the only thing that made back off were larger rocks thrown with intent to hit it. One time I had thought I had scared it off for good only to find myself with a strange scratching sensation on my shoe. The creature had silently creeped up on me for another attack and was biting my shoe! Finally, 30 ft down from the first attack we were rid of animal, one more obstacle we didn’t need.
An hour through the gulley we had just about made it to the final 200 ft to the dirt climbing trails when Sadie’s LED headlamp died. “So I guess we bivy here?” she said in a joking, exhausted, serious tone. Problem-solving hat on, I handed her my dim headlamp. Next, I turned on my phone’s flashlight and strapped it to my helmet like an improvisational action camera, the same way I had done to film myself glissading down my Shasta three years ago. We would finally make it across the gulley and down the series of dirt climbers trails to the top of the Castle Mountain Lookout Trail at 1:30am.
At the top of the trail. We sat in a clearing on an old foundation, gazing over the Banff river valley below us. Near and distant storms flashed with lightning, a train blew its horn and the bright lights of a Trans-Canada highway intersection glowed below. It would almost be a romantic storm watching date if not for the last six-hour ordeal.
We drank the remainder of our water, ate the remainder of our food and layered down and started the four-mile hike down. With foggy minds, we reached the car at 3:30 am asking ourselves how it was possible that we had started the climb 20 hours earlier at 8am. For Sadie, the climb was a true classic with great flow. So it was worth it for me. However, my perspective was I had just experienced one of the most dangerous and frightening descents to date for a chossy, technique-less, one-star climb with five-star views. This route was far from a classic given the climbing but had lots of great scenery. And that is why I will never climb Brewers Buttress again.