Castle Towers scramble
Castle Towers Mountain is a triple summit mountain on the east side of Garibaldi Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia. With an elevation of 2,676 meters, Castle Towers is only 2 meters below Mount Garibaldi (2,678 m) and 216 meters below Wedge Mountain, the highest peak in Garibaldi Pacific Ranges.
Castle Towers scramble has been on our bucket list for about a year. The biggest challenge of this hike is route-finding, as this mountain lies well far off maintained trails. With the total elevation gain of 2,308 m (cumulative elevation gain of ~2,600 m) and a return distance of ~36 km, this hike is usually done as an overnight trip, but we budgeted three days, as we took our kids aged 10 and 11 years old along. As it turned out budgeting an extra day for this hike was a good idea, as it allowed us to relax and bag Helm peak on our way back.
We arrived at around noon on September 2, 2017 to Cheakamus Lake parking lot which was full, but we were able to park on the side of the forest service road. We had made a reservation in the Helm Creek campside, which is 8.5 km away from the parking lot with a 750 m elevation gain. We arrived at the Helm Creek campsite in about 3 hours stopped for a lunch and decided to continue our hike in order to reduce the approach time the following day.
We walked on the maintained trail leading to Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk until we saw a tree growing from a rock where we turned left into the meadows towards Helm peak and the ridge, as recommended by previous trip reports:
For some reason we did not gain the ridge immediately, as it looked fairly steep from the meadows and continued on a visible path along the ridge towards the Helm Glacier, which is an alternative approach route. As the Helm Glacier was all ice and dirt lined up with crevasses, and we did not bring any glacier walking gear on the hike, we had to scramble up the ridge from the valley on a steep ugly scree to avoid walking on the glacier.
Once we gained the ridge we set up a camp for the night, as it was getting dark. Our first route-finding error prevented us from reaching Gentian pass, which was the recommended camp site. We cooked our dinner and enjoyed amazing views of Helm Glacier, Black Tusk, Gentian peak, and tarns. There was a small creek nearby for water supply. We opened a tent cover and enjoyed star gazing at night.
Helm Glacier, Gentian Peak, Mount Garibaldi and Moon
Panorama Ridge, tarns, Helm Glacier and Mount Garibaldi
Scenic sunset over Black Tusk
On Day 2 we woke to a perfect mix of sun and clouds, had a breakfast and started hiking at 8:30 a.m. optimistically expecting to return to the camp by late afternoon. Apparently, we had grossly underestimated the duration and complexity of Castle Towers ascent.
Helm Glacier, a tarn, Panorama Ridge and Gentian peak in morning light
Black Tusk at dawn
Kids are ready to go!
We hiked about 5 km on top of the ridge crossing several flat soft snow fields and creeks towards Gentian col.
A turquoise tarn
We trod carefully along a partially collapsed cornice on the snow field.
A glacier creek with pristine clean water to refill our Life Straw bottle.
Another snowfield to cross…
Lots of snow remaining in the mountains in early September.
A lone alpine flower
Breathtaking vistas from the ridge.
On the ridge descending to Gentian pass we could finally appreciate our destination in its full height and magnitude. Castle Towers looked awesome and a bit intimidating.
We did not meet any other hikers on Day 2, except a couple of girls who camped on the ridge. They said they had not been to Castle Towers and were heading back to the parking lot.
Castle Towers mountain is a perfect destination for hikers enjoying solitude and avoiding tourist crowds. On the flip side, there is no one around to aid with route-finding.
We descended about 400 meters on the very steep green terrain into the Gentian pass. It took us 2 hours to get to this point, where we were supposed to camp last night.
From the Gentian pass there is about 1,000 m elevation gain via the Polemonium ridge to the Castle Towers summit. Hiking the Polemonium ridge turned out to be less strenuous and more enjoyable than expected due to a moderate incline and beautiful views of Garibaldi mountain and Garibaldi lake all along the way.
The ridge became steeper, as it approached Castle Tower mountain and ended in a sudden drop off, where we had to descend and regain the ridge leading to the Castle Tower summit.
The wide gap between Polemonium ridge and Castle Towers Mountain opening to a large glacier.
Looking at Castle Towers west ridge.
Traversing from the Polemonium Ridge to the Castle Towers is the most challenging part of the hike, as there are no cairns in the gap between the two ridges and this section involves some serious route-finding. Previous trip reports made us aware of the small cliff at the end of the Polemonium ridge, which some hikers ended up downclimbing. Apparently, this option was not acceptable to us, as we did not carry ropes and belay equipment. We, therefore, started descending the Polemonium ridge a bit earlier on the right-hand side (left-hand side on the photos) and scrambled down safely with only 1-2 tricky steps involved in the middle of the drop off section.
Below is a scrambling route from the Polemonium ridge that we followed:
We made a short break near the small creek to recharge and refill our water bottle.
We missed the easy ascending path on the face of the Castle Towers ridge, as we had assumed that it would end in another drop-off. Also, we did not see any cairns leading to the correct route at the bottom of the ridge. We decided to keep walking along the Castle Tower ridge looking for a mysterious gully mentioned in previous trip reports and ended up scrambling a challenging steep section with loose rock and running water next to the glacier.
We saw a fragment of a climbing rope in this section, which proved that other hikers had struggled here too, but they at least had ropes… We were determined to find the marked descending route on our way back, as we felt it would be too risky to descend the same sketchy section unroped. Luckily, on our way down from Castle Towers we found cairns on the top of Castle Towers ridge and diligently followed them to the marked descent path, which was safe and easy.
While walking along the Castle Towers ridge we saw this steep staircase /chimney, which did not look inviting due to a large amount of crumbling and loose rocks on the ridge.
Once we gained the Castle Towers west ridge, we found ourselves slogging our way up to the summit on a giant boulder field for about 2 hours. We had to circumvent two large patches of snow on the right, as the snow was steep and not safe to walk on without crampons and an ice axe, which we did not bring with us on this hike.
Garibaldi Lake view from the Castle Towers west ridge
On the Polemonium ridge we saw berries, which looked like blueberries, but their leaves were completely different. We were puzzled by their look and did not dare to try them out. It turned out that these were crowberries, which are frequent in western Alaska and can only be found in the alpine environment in south west BC. Crowberries (Empetrum nigrum) are a native plant in the Falkland Islands, which got widely distributed in the Northen hemisphere due to bird migration. Crowberry is included in the traditional diet of Inuit and Sami people. It was the first time we saw crowberries in BC.
Closer to the summit boulders got steeper and bigger with deep gaps in between them, which further slowed down our pace. Yet, there was no exposure in any part of the boulder field except on the narrow rocky summit. At about 4:30 p.m. we reached the summit, which was significantly later than we had planned (the turnaround time for us was 3 p.m., but we missed it by 1.5 hours).
We wanted to write our names in the summit register, but it was firmly sealed, punctured on one side and empty. This was fairly frustrating and disappointing, as this was one of the most challenging summits we had scrambled in BC to date and for our kids it was clearly the most difficult hike to date.
For a few minutes we stayed at the summit to enjoy breathtaking views in all directions, and it was time to start descending if we wanted to be back at our camp before dark.
Fuscian Peak, Corrie Peak and Corrie NE view from the Castle Towers west summit
Castle Towers east (true) summit
Castle Towers glacier
Phylli’s Engine (spires) in the center
Polemonium ridge view from Castle Towers west summit
We were able to descend and return to the camp in four hours by 8:30 p.m. before it was completely dark, because we followed cairns and found an easier and safer way to descend from the Castle Towers west ridge. Scrambling up to gain the Polemonium ridge involved one tricky step for me, when a rock that I used as a hand hold broke and fell out from under my hand, but I was able to complete the ledge traverse safely. Kids safely scrambled up that section with my husband’s support. I chose the ledge traverse in order to save time. The hike took us much longer than anticipated – 12 hours instead of 7-8. When we returned to our tent, we cooked a hot dinner and went to sleep feeling stoked about the mission accomplished.
The following day we decided to take it easy, slept in late, had a breakfast, packed our backpacks and started our hike back at about 11 a.m.
We gained the Helm ridge and easily bagged Helm Peak on our way.
Black Tusk view from the Helm ridge
Helm Horn view from Helm Peak
Fuscian peak and Mount Garibaldi view from Helm Peak
Fuscian peak, Corrie peak and Garibaldi mountain view from Helm Peak
The nearby Helm Horn looked really sketchy and we decided not to attempt it.
We descended from the Helm Creek along the forested ridge, which was the optimal route.
We stopped for a lunch break at the Helm Creek camp site, where I decided to take a refreshing bath in the creek, and by 5 p.m. we were back at the Cheakamus lake parking lot.
We saw lots of blueberries in the meadows and bear’s droppings nearby – happy times for bears! We did not encounter much wild life except marmots and one mountain goat during our three days of hikes. Strange enough despite the long Labour Day weekend, we did not meet any hikers in the backcountry on our way to Castle Towers and back, although we could have easily missed someone on the giant boulders field.
All in all, it was a challenging scramble with some serious route-finding, quite an adventure, especially for our kids who should feel proud and accomplished. This hike was a good introduction into alpine hiking and mountaineering for our kids.
Below is the GPS track map of our hike from Cheakamus lake parking lot to Castle Towers, where our way there is marked with a blue marker and our way back is marked with a red marker.