Castleguard Mountain situates at the south boundary of the massive Columbia Icefield, although a bit shorter than the nearby 11,000ers, it offers one of the most unique summit views in the Canadian Rockies. The approach is via the bloody long Saskatchewan Glacier, which is straightforward and less crevassed. This was supposed to be done last weekend with Jeff, but a storm moved in on Saturday and the trip was cancelled. This weekend, Jeff is heading to Rainier. Considering the perfect weather and the last days of spring condition, I decided to lead my mom up the relatively safe Saskatchewan Glacier, rather than waiting for next year. PS: We only saw 3 yoyo skiers on Saskatchewan Glacier the entire day. I saw no tracks on Andromeda, Snow Dome, nor Columbia. So? Where were people going? You have the best weather and overnight freeze.
Chic Scott's book says the RT distance is 30km, well, that's optimistic. According to a careful measurement on map, the distance should be around 36km, which makes more sense.. Before this one, I have done one trip with over 40km distance (Opal Cone + The Gargoyles in BC) in one day in 13.5 hours, but that was a hiking. We had several detours and mishaps on Castleguard which slowed us down quite a bit. 8 hours up isn't too bad, but 7 hours down is quite slow. Considering the 16-18 hours suggested time by Nugara, it seems like we did okay. However, a round trip time of 15 hours is the longest trip I've done so far (as by May 12, 2012).
As usual, we parked at Big Bend and slept in car on Friday night, hoping the weather could hold. The forecasted -15 degree never reached, as the windows didn't even freeze up. In the morning, after a quick breakfast we soon started the long grind. The river wasn't frozen... Bad, that means 2 more kilometers, and we had no clue where the bridge and old logging road is. We brought 4 plastic bags just for shallow stream crossing. After walking down the road for about 1km or so, I decided to give up finding the bridge and looking for a shallow section to cross. At a section with calf deep water, we crossed the river with our plastic bags with no mishap. Unlike on the Wapta, this area seems quite less-visited. We had no track leading us up into the trees. After countering around the edge of the forest, tracks appeared directly west of the parking area, and we soon got the trail. Like the Bow Hut approach, you have to get up a hill but then lose all the elevation to the valley floor again... The avalanche slope had already slid so it was not that dangerous.
From the valley bottom to the toe of Saskatchewan Glacier, it's a mix of moraine and snow... This is probably the worst type of terrain especially on the way down when the snow has softened. Oh by the way, one significant difference between Columbia and Wapta is the wind. This area always gets strong wind so be prepared. You gonna facing against the wind on the way up. On the way in, we managed to stay on the snow as long as possible because we were wearing the snowshoes. About half way in, we took off snowshoes and boulder hop on the moraine. We stayed on the left side of the main stream and ended up being on the left side of the thawing lake. An overhanging glacier blocked our way in... We had to back track about 500m to find a solid place to cross to the other side. There're lots of up-and-downs on the moraine, which is not quite pleasant. Near the toe, there are several mini stream crossings and mom carelessly slip into one of them and got her boots wet (this might directly caused her lack of energy later on)... Despite the detours, we still managed to reach the toe after 2.5 hours leaving the car.
The snow on the glacier was bone hard so we decided not to rope up, plus a not-so-clear ski track was leading us in. However, just after the first steep section I found bare ice that's clearly due to wind blown. Probing through, I found the snow was actually quite shallow and we roped up soon. I agree with Nugara that walking on Saskatchewan Glacier is like driving to Saskatchewan... There's little to explain, just to follow the glacier, staying on right of center. You will find a medial moraine seperating the main glacier from the branch coming from the slope of Andromeda. Staying left of this moraine and follow it up. Near Castleguard Meadows, the glacier swings right slightly and gets steeper for a short section. For the next several kilometers towards the final headwall, you can see the impressive ice falls along the slope of Mount Andromeda, which makes the approach a little bit more interesting. We spent 3 hours 20 minutes from the toe to topping out on the Columbia Icefield.
The ramp up the north slope of Castleguard appears right to the left, but actually quite far away. Here is the tip Nugara gives us. "After topping out on the Neve, you gonna soon see Snow Dome begins to rise behind the Icefield, followed by Mount Columbia". Then you still have 15-20min before turning left. At this point, mom couldn't continue due to physical limit just like one the Wapta Icefield last month. In April, I had a clear ski track leading me all the way to the summit of Gordon, so I started to solo the rest of the route without mush hesitation. But this time, there was no ski track visible after the headwall... I slowed down significantly but things didn't improve. It's just too much a distance for her age I guess. Under such a bludbird sky, with the hard packed snow on a reletively safe glacier, I made the decision to solo the rest of the mountain. I was nervous not just because of the crevasses but more of the avalanche hazard. The huge north facing slope ahead of me appears to be very foreshortened. You gonna gain a significant elevation before topping out and seeing Castleguard. As you getting up, North & South Twin slowly appears behind you and Columbia Icefield slowly shows up its entire entity. I probed the snowpack again, and this time I found the snowpack quite deep, which means less chance to fall into a crevasse. Based on Vern's trip report, at the base of Castleguard, do not directly go up the north ridge, instead traverse around the east slope and go up an obvious ridge. Mounts Saskatchewan and Amery start to show up at this stage. Castleguard looks completely different from its base at this angle so I didn't really know which ridge to take. I ascent a steep wind scoop, but only to find out that I still topping out on the north ridge... Gosh... Well then, follow Nugara's direction. Under the cliff band below the summit block, traverse SE over a steep knife-edge-shaped wind scoop, drop down a very steep slope to a major gully and then take off snowshoes. Step-kick the final 50m steep slope to the summit. Bryce, Lyells, Forbes, Saskatchewan, Amery, Cirrus, Athabasca, Andromeda, Snowdone, North Twin, South Twin, Columbia, too many peaks to describe. After taking the numerous panoramas, I didn't linger any longer but heading down soon. I used the correct east ridge on the way down, and it's way much easier than the "wind scoop - north ridge - cliff base traverse" route. If I took this way up, I could probably save half an hour. Descending took no time and I soon re-joined my mom at the base of the north slope. After lunch break, we soon roped up again and I finally can relax a bit...
Descending Saskatchewan Glacier provides the best example of "marching asleep". Needless to say, it's quite boring. I kinda hope to do this mountain as a ski trip because the terrain is so gentle and my skiing skill can probably handle it. Repeating the same motion again and again and again... After the glacier swings left, snow got slushy. I forgot how long it took us down to the toe. We took a long break at the toe, getting all the glacier gears into backpack, and taking off snowshoes. The final 8km back to car proved to be the hardest. The moraine got muddy unsupportive and snow got isothermal. Post-holing the last 3-4km was a nightmare for us, sometimes calf deep, mostly knee deep, and sometimes thigh deep. We also lost our tracks on the way in and were forced to bushwhack a kilometer or so, thankfully no bears. The final grind up the hill was a slog but thankfully the avalanche debris provided some harder snow to step on. Since our boots were all wet, we didn't bother to use plastic bags for the final river crossing, but using the river to wash our boots instead.
I should say I underestimated the challenge. Although completely exhausted, I didn't get blisters, so I might have the energy to make another smaller summit on Sunday like Big Bend Peak. However, mom felt like having a cold so I decided to drive to Jasper to get some hot stuffs in the following morning. On Sunday morning, I felt a slight injury on my right thigh's mussel... Although Cinquefoil Mountain is in shape now (well, the only one in shape in Jasper area), I had to save it for another day... After taking some morning photos on Patricia and Pyramid Lakes, we drove back home. Anyway, with a big mountain done, I'm quite satisfied with the weekend.