Thursday, June 24, 2010

Castle Reef on a true summer day

H. Wayne Phillips and Jim Heckel enjoy the Castle Reef summit

Castle Reef buttress from Wagner Basin
It was a real summer day today and we made the most of it by climbing Castle Reef in the Rocky Mountain Front west of Augusta (elevation: 8,330 feet).
Rain seemed to threaten on the horizon but never materialize, but the heat did. It was about 80 degrees, pretty darn hot for us old-timers who were still backcountry snow skiing less than a month ago.
Neither of my climbing buddies, Jim Heckel and Wayne Phillips, (both 68 years old) had climbed this Front icon before, so it gave me a chance to show off a route I had developed after numerous climbs from various angles on the peak.
We approached the mountain by way of the Wagner Basin, ascending a notch in the limestone ridge, and followed the ridge to the top. On the way down we plunged off the ridge near the “Castle” promontory and descended more than 2,000 feet of irregular and sometimes tough scree back down to Wagner Basin.
Heckel tracked the elevation gain of some 4,500 feet; not a bad day’s early-season climb.
Some highlights:
• We saw a several bighorn sheep, one of which was a lamb that had appeared to have just died and had been abandoned;
• Bears had obviously been working Wagner Basin, turning over rocks looking for ants;
• There’s still a lot of snow in the high country of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall wilderness areas;
• Castle Reef is a long ridge, making for a long climb. There was some discussion in our group whether to just climb the prominent south peak, some 230 feet lower than the summit, and call it good, saving about a three-quarter mile walk to the less impressive peak itself. Thankfully, we opted to go the distance and had marvelous views;
• The top of Castle Reef is a lot like what you might find on top of the Snowies ridge or Big Baldy in the Little Belts --- a carpet of alpine plants and grasses;
• Sawtooth, the other icon from the Sun River country, dominated the vistas to the south. The parallel ridges of the Front lined up like a deck of cards that was being shuffled;
• Phillips pointed out an Indian pictograph.

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