Carbon County Highpoint Trip Report

Castle Mountain (12,612 ft)

Dates: August 14-17, 2005
Author: Tim Worth

Castle Mountain is the 3rd highest summit in MT (4th by the 300-foot drop rule) and is far from any roads. I decided to try a 3-day ascent with a southern approach, as described in Tom Turiano's Castle Mountain write-up in Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone. Great book, by the way.

August 14. Drove from Colorado to northwest Wyoming. From Cody, I took WY 130 to WY 296(Chief Joseph Highway) to US 212(Beartooth Highway). East on US212 to Clay Butte lookout tower access road and trailhead. Arrived about 4PM. Hiked up nearby Beartooth Butte, visible from US212. Easy way to get a good look around. 3.5 miles, 1040 feet of gain. Camped nearby.

August 15. Donned a full pack, with an extra day's worth of food in case of bad weather. Began the hike by paralleling TR 614 on the east side using grassy meadows, in order to save a bit of elevation gain/loss of the trail. After two miles, I was unable to locate the intersection of TR 614 and TR 619 (didn't see it on the hike out either) and ended up at the distinctively shaped T Lake.

From T Lake, I headed north across more grassy meadows to a large creek in section 27. The sections aren't shown on the topo map but are printed on the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness map. Any route to rejoin the trail to the west was now blocked by various ridges and drainages, so it seemed best to continue cross country to reach to my desired high camp at Flat Rock Lake. I followed the creek northwest to Golden Lake, with some bouldering to get up to the outlet.

Next, went north-northwest to the easternmost Cloverleaf Lake. A few fisherman here. This is now all above tree line on the Beartooth Plateau. Rocky terrain, low ridges, a confusing series of drainages and numerous lakes made this area a bit of a maze to travel through. There's lots of up and down but it wasn't very steep. I next struck north to the east edge of Donalson Lake, then over to Maryott Lake. I then headed north-northwest towards Point 10985, cut west and dropped into a shallow valley north of Pleiades Lakes, then over a low pass at 10,380 feet and down to Flat Rock Lake. Camped on the north shoreline, 3 miles from Castle Mountain. This off-trail route wasn't what I'd planned but sure worked out well. 13 miles, 8.5 hours, 1660 feet of gain.

August 16. Late 8 AM start. Followed creek on the west side up 500 feet to Varve Lake. Was surprised to see a few hikers on opposite shore, we tried to chat but couldn't hear much of each other over roar of creek. I curled around west side of Varve Lake with good view of prospective routes on Castle. The mountain has a south ridge and a southeast ridge. Both ridges had some cliffs and towers to contend with if one were to stay right on the spine, so I used the slopes between the two ridges. Granite slabs for the first 1000 feet and then talus and scree the next 1100 feet to the tabletop summit. Class 2. Snow in the cirque was easily avoidable on the east side, no ice axe needed. Summit is on north edge. Found silver BM "Plateau 1953" and cairn but no register. Impressive panorama of the range, with Granite Peak, Tempest Mountain, Hague Peak, Mount Wood, and other Beartooth notables to the northwest. Unique view of nearby Whitetail Peak, one of the ranges few sharp summits. Went to point 12604, an outcrop which juts out north from the plateau. Castle Rock Spire looms to west, looking like a giant needle from certain angles. This formation is slightly lower than its parent peak, UN 12540. If it was higher, it'd be a legit 12K Montana peak, making that list even tougher to pursue than it already is.

11AM. Descended a loose, steep gully off the west side of the south ridge into the cirque between Castle and UN 12540. Worked my way around the south edge of 12540, looking for a possible ascent route. This peak is a giant table, much like Castle, but appeared to be bounded by cliffs on all sides in its upper reaches. I curled around its west side (class 3, loose rock, poor holds) to its saddle with Castle Rock Mountain. Gendarmes blocked access on the west ridge so I gave up on 12540 and went over to Castle Rock Mountain summit (east ridge, class 3). Mcleod/Lilley register from 1987, about a dozen names in it. Amazingly, someone had signed in earlier that very day, when no one had been there the previous three years! Looking at 12540, I could see a few breaks in the cliffs which may have been a go but I couldn't have known about these from below. I went west and hiked up UN 12250 (390-foot drop, cairn). Then down to Castle Rock Glacier, which no longer holds snow and is covered in sediment. Easy travel to an unnamed lake, then Navajo Tarn. Made wet creek crossing at outlet and passed along west side of Varve Lake and back to camp. 9 miles, 11 hours, 4260 feet of gain. If I'd just done Castle it would have been 6 miles, 5.5 hours (projected) and 2600 feet of gain.

August 17. Hiked out. I didn't like the idea of returning the way I came in so I decided to use the trail. Followed Sierra Creek the first few miles without a trail, crossed over to the east side to avoid some cliffs, then bushwhacked 400 feet vertical before dropping down to Green Lake, where I picked up the good trail. The rest was very taxing with the full pack, the trail climbing steeply above Green Lake with plenty of up and down the remaining 9 miles out, much more than the topo or guidebook would have you believe. 14 miles, 9.5 hours, 2130 feet of gain.

Before leaving the next day I camped in the area. Slept in car, heard some noise overnight. I'd left my thick plastic 6-gallon water tank out, and woke to find it dented and clawed up pretty good. Aggressive bears!

Climb totals: 36 miles, 29 hours, 8056 feet of gain. Just Castle would have been 33 miles, 23.5 hours, 6396 feet of gain. Easy climb but approach was a killer.

Thanks to Jerry Brekhus for beta prior to my hike. Hope this report helps if you make a go of it next summer.

Analysis: Turiano lists the total gain of 4000+ feet for Castle from the south. Taking away the 2600 feet from Flat Rock Lake to the summit leaves 1400 feet of gain for the approach and return hike, or 700 feet each way. Carefully tracing my return route on the topo map, the hike out required a gain of about 2130 feet. This seems consistent with my experience of the trail. Flat Rock Lake is at 9934 feet and the TH at 9600 feet, which would make the gain the way in on the same trail at least 2470 feet. Thus the entire hike from the south trail would be 7200 feet of gain by trail approach. I'd be interested to hear what others who use this southern route would say.