Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Castle Crag, North Couloir

Spring is upon us, so I made a push to get back and ski Castle Crag before all the snow melted out of the approach. Even though most of the Bitterroot Canyon trails seem to be about done for the year, Sheafman creek sits about 1,000 feet higher, so it is a good bet for holding some late season snow. I climbed Nipple knob (Point 7830) at the start of the day and took a long traversing run down into Sheafman creek. Even though I didn't get many turns, it was nice to bypass the lower canyon and get some early alpine views.
Climbing Nipple knob.
From the creek, I slogged three miles or so up canyon past Knaack lake to the Sheafman/Fred Burr divide. It is easy to wrap around the north side of the peak, and I was soon booting up the short but steep North couloir. The entrance is heavily guarded by cornices, but I found a sneak through on climber's left. I was buffeted by strong winds on the ridge and decided to forgo the summit. The skiing was steep, but the snow was good and I was soon at the base of the couloir. I extended the run another thousand vertical feet or so toward Fred Burr Creek, which made for an interesting run of about 2,000 vertical feet. The snow below the couloir was sticky and variable and it was raining, but so it goes sometimes.
Looking down the North couloir of Castle Crag from the top.
Looking up the North couloir of Castle Crag from the bottom.
The forecast storm had moved in by this time, and my lunch stop was abbreviated by biting wind and rain. I stuck to my original plan despite the deplorable weather conditions and skinned up to West Sheafman Peak 8,652. From there I skied a good 2,000 foot south facing peak to creek line back into Sheafman which had surprisingly excellent corn snow from top to bottom.  The exit from Sheafman is average by Bitterroot standards, and I skied then walked out to the trailhead at kind of an aggressive put-put pace before donning running shoes and jogging the few road miles back to the car. The whole exit took about 2.5 hours. Something like 8,000 feet done in about 9 hours at a moderate pace.
On Sheafman point, shaking my head in disbelief after an hour of skinning in 50 mph winds and spitting rain.
Looking up at the run off Sheafman point.
Back in running shoes, nearing the car at the end of the day.
While there is no escaping the fact that a minimum 4 hour approach is asking a lot for a 500 vertical foot couloir, by adding in some runs like I did, this tour is worth doing. Even though it is short, the north couloir demands some respect. It is steep and overhung by big cornices, and quite a bit of snow is required to fill in the mid-couloir slabs.

The north side of Sheafman creek has at least three distinct, high quality peak to creek runs which can be incorporated into the day or simply skied as independent objectives. In addition, there are two striking couloirs which drop north toward Fred Burr from Sheafman point. I poked around the entrances a bit and found them well guarded by cornices, but it was raining and I didn't do a thorough investigation so perhaps a more determined individual could find a safe way to drop them from the top.
Approximation of the route

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