Castle Rock

The combination of cold weather and slow recovery from surgery has got me reminiscing about active moments in warmer weather. One of my favorite such memories involves climbing the legendary Castle Rock this past summer of 2010. Castle Rock is a beautiful landmark near the ranch, an outcropping that earns the name “Castle” even from a distance. Here, Richard and Tracy, beloved (and missed!) head wrangler and instructor for 20 years, are riding along the Old Yellowstone Trail with Castle Rock in the background:

Richard has climbed Castle Rock a couple of times in his life, and hiking up it together is something we have always talked about doing. One Sunday this past August we decided to stop talking about it and finally climb it!

The last time Richard climbed Castle Rock was about twelve years ago  with his best friend from boarding school, Walt. One of my mistakes in preparing for our hike was asking Richard how rigorous it was. “Not bad at all. Quick and easy, ” was his response. I should have known to take this with an enormous grain of salt for a few reasons. #1: Richard and Walt have been known to engage in and enjoy some daredevilry over the course of their friendship, so given the fact that their hike was a fun memory for them, I should have been suspicious that it was not a casual stroll. #2: Richard was 18 when he last climbed Castle Rock. An 18 year old boy’s definition of rigorous is very different from a 30 year old married couple’s definition. #3. Most importantly, I look at Castle Rock everyday between May and October. Granted, I see it from a distance, but you would think I would have grasped the fact that to get to the TOP of it, one must scale what appears to be a sheer, vertical rock face. At the time, I just said, “Great! It should be a fun afternoon,” and put on my newly purchased cowboy boots, thinking our casual stroll would be a good time to break them in. (What was I thinking??!!)

It was a clear, sunny Sunday, and after lunch we hopped in Clementine, our Chevrolet Equinox, so named because she is a lemon of a car. Since we love her too much to call her Lemon, we dubbed her Clementine, as it is a delicious fruit that happens to have the word “lemon” within it (at least phonetically). Anyway, we cruised the mile up the dirt road to the entrance of the Shoshone National Forest with Whistle and Gupta’s heads hanging out the back windows and then another seven miles into the forest. We parked and began the 3.5 mile hike to the top of Castle Rock with Whistle leading the way. Needless to say, Gupta and her ancient Labrador bones happily agreed to stay with Clementine and protect her from any passing ne’er-do-wells.

The first 2.5 miles were exactly what I envisioned: a beautiful scenic stroll over grassy hills, something out of the Sound of Music. The next half a mile was quite steep and increasingly rocky, but nothing to make a person intimidated, just a giant hill that will get your blood pumping. Here I am recovering my breath:

This is where things got extremely interesting, some might even say dicey. The next part of the hike (notice I did NOT say “trail” because there was nothing even resembling a trail, human or game, during any part of this adventure) was through pure shale that slipped away the moment your foot touched it. As if shale were not exciting (terrifying) enough, it was also a long a narrow precipice. During one section (about 200 feet), you had to wriggle through it on your belly because an overhang covered the extremely narrow precipice. Let’s get into some photographs, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about (keep in mind Richard is the one merrily photographing….I was too busy looking pained and trying not to die to use a camera). Here is the start of the shale section, this being the tame part of it. It gave me just a taste of how hard it is to walk over slippery shale before we got to the narrow precipice. You are looking directly at the “castle” in this photograph. We climbed up to the base of the castle and then took a right and wrapped around the side of the castle (delightful precipice part) before scaling the castle from the back:

Here is the shale-covered precipice section, as seen from the far side, once Richard had completed it (I came at a slow, tortoise-like pace after him….I suppose that is why he had so much time to photograph):

Do you see how there is a vertical rock face on top, a thin white line the middle, and then a nearly vertical rock face on the bottom? Yes, the thin white line is what we traversed. If you look to the right of the photograph, you will see the overhang of rock, which is where the belly-wriggling occurred.  Here I am at the end of the shale section, amazed to be alive:

And to think that was the easy part! After the shale section, we were at the back of the castle, and the next challenge was to climb a crack in a rock wall (called a chimney in rock climbing lingo) in order to get on top of the castle’s turret. Keep in mind we had no ropes or harnesses…I’m also still wearing new cowboy boots, which are not known for the best traction. Here I am ascending the chimney:

I went first up the chimney, and about half way up, blessed common sense kicked in. I arrived at a ledge that jutted out above me. I would have had to put my arms on it, let my legs dangle in the air and pull myself on top of it. I realized the likelihood of accomplishing that task was low, while the likelihood of falling 30 feet to the nearest boulder while attempting it was quite high. I turned around and headed down. It was Richard’s turn. He got about 3/4 of the way to the top, having nimbly hauled himself upon the ledge that had halted me, before he reached what he felt was a dangerous impasse, something far larger than my measly ledge, a veritable table top of rock. He stayed up there a long while debating whether to go for it. The goal was so close! Here is a photograph of him looking up to the top from his tricky spot:

Here is the view of the surrounding mountains from the tricky spot:

In the end, visions of a large-scale wilderness evacuation (he with a broken back, dozens of rescue workers hiking miles to stabilize him) compelled him to come back down to Whistle and me, rather than continue to reach for the top. You can imagine my questions once he had descended: You really made it to the top last time? Without ropes? What were you thinking? Do you remember it being this hard? The answers were: yes; yes; 18 year olds don’t think; now that I’m here, kind of. Last question: Why didn’t you go for it this time? Answer: I care about life with you too much to risk it (amazing husband, right?).

So, we made our way down. We went back across the shale section, which seemed less scary after having just scaled a rock face. I even kind of got into the belly-wriggle on the way home! Here I am mid-descent:

We got home just in time for dinner with some sore muscles and killer blisters on my feet, having had an exhilarating, terrifying, absolutely beautiful day. One thing I forgot to mention, Richard left a note on the difficult spot that made him turn around. In the note, he promises an incredible prize to whomever retrieves it…..

Wanna go get it??!