Castle Peak

March 14, 2009

random trip report
The wife, kid and I go on a 3-family Snow Trip, staying, near Truckee, at one of those places that was once a Dream Home but turned into a Vacation Rental Nightmare. It's in a massive development called Tahoe Donner, a horror of ownership and corporate greed where you pay $7 for your kid to slide down the hill on a plastic disk.

Anyway. I negotiate an afternoon of non-family time to do some snowshoeing. I hope to go with my old climbing partner Mike O'Brien, but he's late and I'm antsy so I go by myself, leaving at 1 PM.

I decide to stick with a proven winner: Castle Peak. I drive 10 miles west to the rest area at Donner Pass, just before the turnoff for Boreal. One can also park in the Boreal lot, go under the highway, and start out along the Pacific Crest Trail, but the rest area is more convenient. I don snowshoes and cross the stream behind the rest area, which covered with many feet of snow. It's 1:20; I decide on a 4:00 turnaround time.

It's a cool day (about 40) with blustery winds occasionally gusting pretty hard. The snow remains firm and excellent even in the late afternoon. I'm not feeling great physically - a lingering cold and general malaise - but I rest-step and keep a very gentle pace, and it feels OK. I forgot to bring water, but eat snow occasionally.

Castle Peak really does look like a castle. The castle wall is a long, crenellated cliff, maybe 150' high, made of a dark reddish rock (unusual in this area of granite). Above the wall is a large plateau, and in the middle of that is the Tower - an ominous pillar that rises another 150' or so. The whole thing sits at the top of a large-ish hill, about 2 miles away from the freeway and maybe 1,500' above it.

My route is very simple: make a bee-line for the right end of the cliffs, staying to the right of the forest. At the top of a rise there's a saddle with a pair of big trees. Continue directly up the slope towards a jagged house-size rock. Go around the right end of the cliffs, and walk up to the top.

I venture to the edge of the cliff in my snowshoes, but the wind becomes very strong and I retreat. I spot the Tower. It's quite a ways away, but it's pretty early (3 or so) so I decide to head in that direction and see how far I get.

The plateau is a fantasy land of swirling, sparkling snow and gnarled fir trees and junipers. It's exhilerating to be there all alone.

I reach the far (north) edge of the plateau. The Tower is only a few hundred yards away, but it's along a heavily corniced snow ridge that looks a little dicey, and anyway it's not clear that there's any way to climb the Tower short of 4th class. So I lie down in the snow and shut my eyes, warmed enough by the sun to be comfortable.

My ears pick up the faint, horrifying sound of snowmobiles. The valley below me (to the north) is filled with tracks, and I spot 4 of them racing up a far-away slope. I fantasize about high-powered rifles and telescopic sights.

At 3:30 I head back. At the top of the cliffs, wanting some variety, I head down the first culoir. This, and the slope beneath it, are fairly steep, and there are big rocks at the bottom, so I'm cautious and pick out a safe zig-zag route. This is the most fun part of the hike. I go into the forest at the bottom, and gradually bear left to rejoin my tracks.

On the last mile, the solitude and grandeur cause my thoughts to drift to large issues: Where to find meaning? Where to find happiness? What decisions brought me to where I am now? What could I have done differently? What should I do now?

I can imagine walking on this beautiful mountain once or twice per week, not per year. Would I really want this, even if it meant living far away from civilization? Do I really like living in Berkeley? And so on.

This is all quite therapeutic on mental, spiritual, and physical dimensions. After the hike I feel invigorated and not at all sore. A cold beer tastes good, and life seems bearable.

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