Castles in the Sky
Last week I climbed Sonnie Trotter’s “Castles in the Sky,” a 5-pitch route on the middle tier of Castle Mountain. The crux pith is an epic 50 meter 5.14a, culminating on a beautiful sharp arête. I can’t emphasize enough how absurd the position is—you won’t be able to tell from the photos. And despite the still crumbling rock, the climbing is mostly solid, varied, and quite enjoyable. It’s easily one of my favorite pitches.
Mike Kerzhner and I spent our first two climbing days in Canmore on Castles. Our 4-week trip was inspired mainly to come try this route. Sure, there seemed to be some great sport climbing at now well-known crags like Acephale and Planet X and other great looking multipitch routes like “The Shining” and “Blue Jeans,” but Castles in the Sky was the one route I was most psyched to try. It’s been on a mental ticklist for a few years now.
I knew it’d be possible to send quickly, but I was prepared to spend most of the trip working on it. On our first day I made a pretty good first attempt, making it to the first real crux, but was flash pumped. The approach pitches were only 5.10 and I was pretty poorly warmed up. I wasn’t able to recover from my first attempt and fell lower on my second, still feeling pumped and fatigued from the altitude and the hike. It was a little demoralizing how hard everything felt. I worked out the moves well-enough though and just hoped that with some rest and a proper warm-up I’d feel much better.
We had a narrow good weather window of two days between rain so Mike and I decide to return the next day despite our need for rest. We figured we could keep dialing in the moves and gain more endurance by putting more attempts on this almost 200 foot pitch.
The next morning we woke up tired but still psyched to get back on the route. The 40 minute drive from our rented place in Canmore to the trailhead is quite pleasant with beautiful huge mountains rising right off the road. The Canadian Rockies is quite the magical place. The 2-hour hike is also quite nice, mostly on a wide tail rising at a gentle angle. We could walk side-by-side and carry on a good conversation. To gain the base of the route, you have to traverse a sloping scree ledge for 15 minutes—slightly terrifying but also an entertaining last step on the approach. After two 5.10 pitches, which we linked, you get to a perfect small ledge where you can comfortably hang out on all day, enjoying the sun and the view. The process of working on this route was amazing and we were absolutely loving it. We barely cared about sending—hanging out on the ledge and trading attempts on a thoroughly enjoyable pitch in such an outstanding place was enough!
On the second day, after warming up on the 5.12+ first half of the crux pitch, I gave the full pitch another shot, mainly hoping to make it further than I did on my first attempt. After smoothly climbing through the lower parts of the route to the last good rest 15 meters from the top, I tried to mentally reset for the hard climbing. After resting till my feet hurt, I started off on the exposed arête and climbed through difficult section after difficult section and to my amazement made it to an OK undercling rest after the hardest climbing. It was still a little tricky to the top and I worried about a foot slipping or a hold breaking. Trying to rest on the edge of this overhanging arête 1000 feet in the air with the wind loudly whipping at my jacket was one of the wildest moments of my life. The rope weight made the last few moves to the anchor absurdly pumpy, but I clawed my way up.
Sending this dream route 3rd try over two days was a huge surprise, but evidence of how much I’ve grown as a climber the last few years. I’ve made it a priority to continually challenge my knowledge of climbing movement through my routesetting, training, and climbing outside, and I think this has led to having the intuition and mental strength to climb such a hard route quickly even in a fatigued state. I owe some thanks to having mentors like Travis Kemp and Tonde Katiyo in my life.
After sending, Mike lowered me and he gave it another go on lead. He made it through the first hard crux but didn’t have it in him to pull over a small roof, the second crux. He waited for me at the top of the pitch and I jumared up a fixed line—the most exposed and free-hanging jumar I’ve ever done (terrifying!!)—and we climbed the last two pitches to the top of the wall. The route ends at the top of a wall in the middle tier of Castle Mountain. Some people walk across a football field-sized ledge and continue up low fifth class to a summit, but we opted to call it a day and rap the route. The crux pitch is the main event for this one, and quite a good one at that. Thank you Sonnie Trotter for such a brilliant route!
A 60m fixed line is necessary for working the crux pitch comfortably. Usually people climb the pitch with a grigri or ATC (lighter) and rap the fixed line to get down. There are midway anchors but the climb is so overhung and left trending that it would be very hard/annoying to get back to them to re-thread. We had a 90m 8.5mm Beal Opera—the lightest single rope available—and we could lower a few bolts from the top using the fixed line to pull ourselves back to the belay. That way we didn’t have to carry a device to rap with. You definitely don’t need a 90m rope but it was nice and if you’re planning on trying The Shining Uncut on Mt. Louis, you will need it.
The first tow 5.10 pitches can be linked with 19 draws. The crux pitch takes around 35 draws and is closely bolted, especially at the top where it’s hard. The last couple pitches don’t take more than 15 draws. Bring a handful of long draws for the start of the crux pitch.
To gain the ledge to start the route, look up beta for the approach to Eisenhower Tower. There is a good stream where you can fill up water 1 and a quarter hours into the approach. Shortly after the stream, a climber’s trail leaves the main trail to the left. After 25-30min of steep trail, you’ll hit a 15 foot rocky step. After the step, head left to gain the scree ledge. If you hit another rocky step, you’ve gone too far. Traverse the ledge gingerly until you arrive at the base of the route. The prominent arête of the curx pitch is extremely obvious.
The route finishes on the right side of the mountain and you can easily walk off the top if you want. We just rappelled.
A comment on grade: this one might be granted a bit extra because of elements like rope drag and position. If the route was at the crag and rope weight wasn’t an issue, it would probably be just 5.13d. Have fun!
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