Saturday, July 27, 2013

Queen of the Castle

Mary - Queen of the Castle
Queen for a day: Mary on top of Castle Mountain, views east down the Bow Valley
Castle Mountain from just off the TCH
Castle Mountain is, perhaps, one of the most iconic symbols in the Banff National Park pantheon of peaks. Driving down the Trans Canada Highway visitors see the south west slopes of the mountain rising, like a fortified medieval castle, almost straight up from the valley.

I know I've looked up at it many times and dreamed of standing on top, but always thinking its cliffs and crags were too much for me. Imagine my surprise to find that Castle Mountain has a much gentler aspect: the north / north-east side above Rockbound Lake affords scramblers an easier route to the summit. Well, perhaps "gentle" is not quite the right description - at 28 km round trip and an elevation gain of 1400 metres it is still a bit of an excursion, but Mike and I found it well worth the effort.

Tower Lake
Eisenhower Tower above Tower Lake
The first few km of the trip is a tad dull as the trail ascends through pine and spruce forest. Red squirrels and lovely wildflowers do hold one's attention, but when the first views of the Eisenhower Tower heave into view, sailing above the treetops, the vistas quickly open out. Soon enough we reached Tower Lake, ready to begin the final on-trail push to Rockbound Lake.

Castle was named in 1858 by Scottish geologist and surgeon James Hector. Using common Scottish good sense he named the mountain for what it looked like: a castle. But, with the stroke of a government pen, in 1946 the mountain was renamed Mount Eisenhower in honour of the US general (an soon-to-be President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. Happily, public pressure caused its original name to be restored in 1979, but the tower on the southeastern side keeps the Eisenhower moniker. 

The view from Rockbound Lake gave us a good idea as to what the 2nd half of the route had in store -- limestone galore! We went up and to the right around Rockbound and started a counter-clockwise scramble along the limestone terraces, gullies, and rocks high above the lake. What a day! We walked on ancient limestone laid down under the ocean 530 million years ago. In places the rock was so bright I had to shade my eyes to look at it -- kind of like sunning on a Pre-cambrian beach.
Looking South-east from above Rockbound Lake
Views from the early Cambrian limestone terraces
There was a bit of optimal route-finding to be done in getting to the summit - to say nothing of some scree-slope slogging. But, once there we had some stunning views. While lounging around the top two climbers showed up. They came up the cliffs on the highway side. We chatted for a few minutes and found we had someone in common -- the lead climber knew my sister Janice back in Revelstoke. What a small world.
Pre-Cambrian limestone above Rockbound Lake
Summit views: Rockbound Lake
White-tailed Ptarmigan
Coming down we retraced our steps, enjoying yet more views and the golden evening light. We even came across some White-tailed Ptarmigan. Normally Mike and I would not bother birds like this, whose existence in the alpine is already quite difficult. But, these two walked right out in front of us - less than a metre away. I didn't feel too guilty about snapping a few shots before moving along.

We got back to our car around 8:00 pm that evening, after spending about 11 hours on the mountain. I can say without a doubt that Castle Mountain left me feeling like a queen for at least one day. I give our time on Castle my royal seal of approval.

Map of our route:

View Castle Mountain via Rockbound Lake, Banff National Park in a larger map
More images on Flickr