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BC Coast :: Squamish to Whistler :: Garibaldi - Castle Towers

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Castle Towers from Top of Polemonium Ridge above Gentian Pass

Trip Summary

Sep 30 - Oct 2, 2010

 

Castle Towers are the most rewarding trip in Garibaldi lake area.  Towering on east side above the lake this trio of jagged peaks is eye catching stunner from many vantage points around the park.   Only real problem is overall length;  very fit parties have done it as very long day trip but most people will require overnight.  Usual bivi spot is Gentian Pass reached on first day followed by scramble to the summit the next day and hike out.  Matt Gunn in his fine Scrambles in Southwest BC Guidebook suggests Cheakamus Lake approach, but one can also hike in from Rubble Creek, then continue over Panorama Ridge /  Gentian Peak to the Pass.  Some people ascend Gentian Glacier and although this is shortest and most direct, it falls into area of mountaineering for which proper equipment and knowledge is required.   Both approaches merge at Gentian Ridge and remainder of the ascent is identical. On my trip I decided to spread 'Assault on Castle Towers' over 3 days and camped 2 nights in Helm Campground.  This allowed me to hike most of the way with light day pack and maximize enjoyment of the area.  Considering frequent Rubble Creek car break-ins, Cheakamus start is probably safer alternative, although driving time from Vancouver is longer.

 

Helm campground can be reached in ~3 hours from Cheakamus Lake parking lot, following main park artery.  Views of Black Tusk are very impressive from this angle! Leave trail after the campground and hike east (left) across the meadows aiming to intercept Gentian Ridge.  This is also normal approach for Helm peak scramble (very lose pile of rubble at start of the ridge).  Ridge is simply breathtaking; only easy scrambling with views to die for.  Particularly impressive are  Panorama ridge / Gentian Peak, not usually seen from this side! (see Gallery).  From low point of the ridge drop down on steepish grassy slopes to Gentian Pass below. You lose ~350m vertical here & this part sucks on return with tired legs.  Gentian Pass is fantastic alpine saddle, and one can easily appreciate why this is suggested bivi spot if one is prepared to haul overnight gear this far.  Easy low angle ascent follows on the other side to high-point of Polemonium Ridge (~1 hr from Gentian Pass);  Castle Towers are looming above.  Just as you start thinking "this is easy" deep notch comes in;  Towers are not going to surrender so easily after all!   Notch is best scrambled by descending ridge directly below, but easiest path is difficult to spot and you might end cliffed out.  Safer bet is talus drop on skier right then angling left towards the low point when it becomes feasible.   Upon reaching the notch look back and you will spot place where to scramble directly up on return (there might be cairn as well).

 

Final part above the notch is ~1.5 hr plod up shifting boulders to 2675m high West Tower.  Views are simply phenomenal and on a clear day just about as good as it gets.   Particularly impressive is Sphinx Glacier to the south side with imposing Mt. Garibaldi beyond!  Towering on the other side is higher, Central tower and although connecting ridge is moderate scramble only (when dry), deep notch directly below West Tower isn't -- it is dangerous and requires rope.  Views are not better so stopping on West Tower is perfectly acceptable;   why not spend this bit of extra time enjoying the views that don't come very often and you worked very hard for.  Return is the same way, and it will depend on overall approach logistics.  On my trip I slowed down considerably and had to hike out over Gentian Ridge back to Helm in dark;  despite appearance it was easily navigated with headlamp.

 

Pictures in the gallery are from 2nd day,   Helm campground -- Castle Towers return.

 

Gallery

Black Tusk from start of Gentian Ridge
 
Traversing Gentian Ridge is beautiful mid-morning conditions.  Panorama Ridge upper right, showing alternate - but longer - approach via long ridge extending over Gentian Peak (upper left)
 
Looking back at Gentian Ridge just before dropping on the other side to Gentian Pass.  Black Tusk upper left,  Empetrum Ridge center with sea of Whistler area peaks on the horizon
 
Gentian Pass environs with view back to Gentian Ridge and ~350m vertical drop that must be regained on return
 
Gentian Pass, usual overnight bivi spot for 2 days trips, with views north to Whistler area peaks. 
 
Fantastic Garibaldi lake panorama ascending Polemonium ridge.  Mt. Price directly across with distant Tantalus range on the horizon
 
Castle Towers summit block from top of Polemonium Ridge.  Deep unexpected notch, negotiated on the right side ahead
 
Looking back at Polemonium Ridge after scrambling over the notch.  Easiest path is on left side talus slopes, but most direct with just one class 2 rock step is directly up the ridge (center).  Not easy to spot correct route from the top, becomes obvious on the way down
 
North Castle Glacier while crossing notch below Polemonium Ridge
 
Final ascent over boulder slopes to west Castle Tower;  about an hour from the notch
 
Summit Register on 2675m West Castle Tower
 
View over to Center and Highest peak.  Deep notch that must be crossed directly below is technical and requires rope
 
View south over Sphinx Glacier to Mt. Garibaldi (upper right) and Mamquam (distant upper left)
 
Fantastic panorama on descent from West Tower.  Garibaldi lake left,  Gentian Ridge center, Black Tusk behind
 
Final view of Castle Towers while ascending back up Gentian Ridge in dwindling daylight

 

Abstract

Overall Difficulty D6 Hiking approach followed by  Easy scrambling on Gentian ridge. Some moderate steps crossing notch below Polemonium Ridge.  Long ascent with whopping overall distance and cumulative elevation gain
Snow Factor S4 Challenging, but feasible ski trip.  Biggest obstacle are short daylight hours
Scenery Spectacular views of Garibaldi basin throughout.  Rugged Pacific Northwest Alpine scenery including glaciers, lakes and snowcapped peaks of BC Coast Mountains
Trail/Marking Very Good / None Well established hiking trail network of Garibaldi park, off trail scramble with occasional cairns after
Suggested Time  2-3 days Trip has been done in a very long day (16+ hrs) but it is much better to spread over couple of days with overnight at Gentian Pass or even one of official Garibaldi park campsites
Elevation Start: 850m    Max: 2675m (West Tower)   Total: ~2300m Round Trip: 40+ km
Gear Full hiking boots preferred but some people that attempt day trip use light hikers to speed up approach.  Hiking poles and gaiters.  If approaching via Gentian glacier (not recommended) rope & ice axe
Water Reliable water sources on approach. Seasonal creek on Gentian pass, dry after. Carry min 2 L
Dog Friendly No Dogs are not allowed in Garibaldi park