Dragontail Peak-Backbone Ridge Date of Climb:
9/2/2006 Trip Report:
Three quotes by local guidebook authors resonate in my head as I pack gear for my Dragontail trip: Kearney
: "Backbone Ridge is unique as Cascade climbs go because it has a very sustained crack pitch instead of an odd hard move here and there." Beckey
: "The route's 21 pitches will possibly force a bivouac...some parties have found easier ways to climb the Fin. Other parties have largely avoided it." Nelson
: "The Backbone Ridge on Dragontail is easier to get to than to climb...competent route finding and the ability to travel light and fast are necessary to avoid a bivy on this route."
Wondering what my future holds in store for me, I stuff crampons and a #5 camalot into my pack and head to Leavenworth Thursday night...Fri AM
: First in line for permit. Get the only remaining Colchuck Permit. Hooah
Meet partner, Robes, who has driven all the way from Klamath Falls to be a ropegun...
Robes indicating the size of our largest Camalot hauled up the hill...
A leisurely 2.5 hour hike brought us up to Colchuck Lake
We made camp at the far end of the lake in a lovely spot nestled between boulders, and caught this look at the peak as the sun set: Sat
: Wakeup at 4 AM for coffee and off by 5:20 or so. Crampons helped us crunch across the moderate snow to gain the scrambling on loose ledges, eventually finding our way to the 5.6 corner, which would prove to barely warm us up for the off-width lurking just above:
The 5.6 first pitch corner
A short jaunt around the corner revealed the O-W (ow!) but it turned out to be much more straightforward than we feared. It was useful to have the 4.5 and the 5, though the climbing was largely secure and even enjoyable. Here's Robes topping out on the OW and preparing to haul the packs:
"I might be crazy but I like the in-secur-ity!"
Much has been written about the OW. All I have to add is that it was easier than I expected and more secure than I had heard it is.
Soon, we were following the ridgecrest and occasionally veering off to either side on much easier, mostly solid rock:
Upon reaching easier terrain, simul-climbing took us quickly to the base of the Fin, where we saw this snow feature we called "the Fertile Crescent":
Turning back towards Colchuck, we noticed this strange phallic spire sticking out of the margin of the glacier:
It was 12:25 and we had our hands on the still-shadowed lower reaches of the Fin...we knew this was where other parties have encountered route-finding challenges and we took way too long reading through route-descriptions and trying to match the features we could see with the written descriptions. Nothing really seemed to make sense or jump out at us, so we decided to simply climb and re-assess at each new belay...anyway, here's the approximate route we ended up finally following:
I lead the first pitch up into the loose rock of the lower fin, almost to the first big ledge, and then Robes took us up to the first main ledge where the first red dot is located on the route overlay - and where the rock changes from crumbly white rock to steep, shining clean granite. From this point, face climbing to obvious clean cracks lead upward into the sun to the next big ledge:
Robes blasted off leading the next two pitches, taking us up a steep variation (felt like 5.9+) around a flake off the left ridge crest and back onto the face of the Fin again to a belay. From here, it was up and diagonally all the way across and off the Fin via a 70 meter pitch (full 60-M rope plus a little simul-climbing at the end). This was the "handrail" pitch, and yielded striking climbing:
From this point, we simul-climbed on the back side of the Fin above the lingering ice of the Third Couloir before popping back out into the sun of the NW side, soon arriving on talus leading to the summit ridge...
We made it to the top around 5 PM I think. After enjoying the summit for all-too-brief of a time, we made our way down to the Snow Creek Glacier where, again, crampons were useful crunching down the icy slopes:
The slog down Ass-neck Pass went fairly quickly, and soon we were back at the Lake campsite:
We had dinner and watched several headlamped parties making their way down Aasgard and the Colchuck Glacier...Sun Morning
Coffee and sunrise
Heading down to town, we meet my wife Tee-Wa and enjoyed a huge margarita at the mexican place in Leavenworth:
Reflecting on my concerns about the climb and the quotes that precede this TR, I would say that this climb is a legitimate Grade IV, never too technically hard but demanding the need to keep moving smoothly over 2000 feet of climbing. The nature of the route, for us, required many more belayed pitches than the neighboring Serpenting Arete warrants.
Having said that, climbing standards seem to have changed a bit since Beckey's quote and two other parties started behind us on the route and all made it off without a bivy. In fact, a party of three left the car at 9 and passed us on the route! They gathered speed as they moved up the ridge, leading me to wonder if they had roller-blades on at once point. Perhaps the advent of large cams allows parties to move more quickly on the otherwise time-consuming wide-crack sections???
I highly recommend the route and would definitely want to have the #5 on any future attempts on this route as well.
Thanks to Robes for leading many of the vibracious pitches and for a GREAT trip in the mountains. Thanks to the Off-Width Gods for not swallowing us whole! Gear Notes:
1 60-Meter Rope
A few Stoppers
Cams from small aliens to #5 Camalot, including one 4.5 (with doubles from .5 to 2)
No ice ax needed