Along the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise is a peak that has captivated me every time I drive past. Castle Mountain dominates the skyline, but for me, the gargantuan plateau and bowl behind Castle has always caught my attention. It’s a long, boring climb back in there so it’s always been put on the back burner in favour of more exciting objectives. But with Suz gone to Mt Assiniboine with some friends for the weekend, it was time to slog in back there and perhaps climb Helena Peak, the taller peak lurking behind. Here is an aerial picture of Castle Mt and secretive Helena Peak from an airplane courtesy Paul Zizka.
The approach involves 8km of pretty steep hiking through viewless trees. I decided to rip through this as fast as I could till I got to Rockbound Lake, a small tarn that sits in hiding behind the Castle Mountain massif.
Above: A small tarn on the way, Tower Lake has the backside of Castle Mountain for a backstop. The curvature of the panorama does little to convey how massive this wall is but this face is about 1500m wide and 600m tall.
Above: Rockbound Lake is hemmed in on three sides by some imposing sheer cliffs of limestone. You can see Helena Peak rising up conically on the right hand side. The first obstacle is the wall then a hike across the plateau to the base of Helena and then a scramble up the final face. You can see the best way through the cliffs on the right side by the trees and then through a weakness in the cliffs above. Rockbound Lake itself is amazing as the ground is a continuous sheet of smooth rock flowing from under the lake and tilted gently up forming the “beach.”
Above: Gaining some altitude above the lake. Every mountain lake seems to have its own distinct colour quite different from any other. If it wasn’t such a bothersome slog to get to, I would come here more often seeking calm weather to photograph reflections.
Above: After carefully climbing the cliff wall, I emerge on the previously invisible upper plateau. Notice the rock tower on the left side in both pictures. In just a few minutes of climbing between these two pictures, the world has changed incredibly. The picturesque lake is gone, the comfort of green growing things is forgotten and all that remains is barren rock and distorted featureless nothing. Visual scale has departed replaced only with the measure of your stride. Even the sensation of mountains has disappeared! A wonderful surprise up here but the distances are too great to do much exploring. The lighter brown high point rising in the right hand side is many kilometers away! Upwards I go spying a steep gully that will serve as a good ladder through the cliffs guarding Helena Peak.
Above: Slowly gaining enough altitude to see over Castle Mountain’s imposing wall. Mt Ball dominates its neighbours in the background. One of my favorite things about climbing is seeing range upon range of mountains slowly emerge as you gain height. It’s like putting your periscope up and seeing whats going on. The faint peak in the farthest distance is Mt Assiniboine over 60 kilometers away! It was pretty cool to be able to see it as Suz was camped at its base. From the high col I had grovelled up to, it was another hundred vertical meters up to the summit. From this high vantage point it was very peculiar to find this seashell fossil, a reminder that this rock was once part of the ocean floor.
Above: The final part of the climb is a just a half hour hike up loose rock. I loved how the eroding mountain looks as if its melting with its colours running into each other. A curious surprise occurred just as I took this picture, the temperature must have reached a critical threshold as all of a sudden, water started to cascade down this face from the pocket of ice and snow. It was quite loud as the water echoed off the massive bowl. It seemed as though the “on” switch had been suddenly activated. Far in the distance you can just see the road where my car sits. A long way back!
Another fantastic trip. Funny that I had put this one off for so long when there were so many unexpected pleasures here. At least in my memory of this place, I don’t have to repeat the 20km trudge through the forest or the 5000 foot climb to get there and back!