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TR: Serpentine Ridge


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Read your TR on Balanced Rock. Nice work. I think we were the only poor bastards up on Dragontail--we did not hear or see evidence of anyone else going up Dragontail or Colchuck.


The route is pretty convoluted, so you loose sight of your partner quite often and have to yell to be heard. The afternoon/evening breeze did not help either.



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Ahhhhhhhhh. I love the smell of epics in the morning. Two mornings in a row? You guys really know how to have fun. That upper part seems a bit long eh? I remember counting pitches for awhile. Then we just simu-climbed forever. Its not the most solid rock but it sure gives you a good taste of the alpine experience.

I much prefer the North Face route from the very bottom toe of the face. It is cleaner, longer, and has more exposure. Then follow the ledge across the face of the Fin and it is a great 5.7 route. If you are feeling inspired, do the fin for a 5.9 you will never forget. Exposed, a little run out, and just plain spectacular. You guys might want to plan a couple bivies though. [Wink]

Seriously, stories like yours are what makes climbing fun. If it weren't a bit of a struggle sometimes what would the point be?

Slot-Tower 1982. Mikey called me about 7AM on a Saturday. "let's go climbing" he says. "Well OK" was my naive reply. Since we had been talking about climbing the choss on the Blackfoot from a canoe, I packed light. I had my hawiian shirt with the big huge orchids. I had my serrape' 100% sheep's wool except for the real Mexican lice. I had my blue jeans and my pile jacket. There. Now I'll pack me some of them hot dogs from the back of the fridge and a "couple" cans of beer and that bottle of JD my brother gave me. Throw in peanut butter and a box of grahms and I'm ready(Mikey has the stash). "Hey Mikey! Why is it already smokey in here?" "Do we have to make a stop at the Dr's?"

Mikey's litte Honda revved up and we took off. After about ten minutes I realized we weren't heading upstream. "Uh.... What are we climbin maan?"

His eyes gleamed through little slits and his shoulders hunched just a little as he half whispered "SlottttttTTTTTTower..ower owerowerower".

"Sheeeit man.My Hawiian shirt ain't gonna cut it up there and I only have a sarrape' and a miserable little bivy bag...n.n.n.whiiiinnnnne".

"Relax man. There's a high pressure ridge moving in." The next time someone tells me there's a high pressure ridge moving in I'm gonna put hand warmers in my undies.

Well there's only a trail up SweatHouse creek for about four miles. Then, for the next four miles you are on your own. Literally. Because Mikey puts his headphones on and barrels through the brush like a bear after a bear in heat. "HANG LEFT". He yells. Right. I go right to the obvious snow pack through lodgepole and rocks. We get to the top of the canyon about the same time. He must have levitated throught that brush man. He points and half whispers "SlottttTTTTower...ower...ower..ower". It is magnificent. A sawtooth ridge of granite spires come up from two sides to crescendo at a large flat topped spire with a large slot clean through from north to south about 100' below the summit. The face is about 400' of clean granite. Draped over the treeless shoulders are huge blankets of white snow that roll down to the edge of 300' walls with water everywhere falling,..falling............

"shit dude. I don't even have gloves".

"Relax I brought two pairs". "Got a light?"

We bivied in the snow at about 7000'. I cut and maimed about a hundred trees to make a bed of springy delight. We built a "Smokey mother" and started roastin wheenies. Then we noticed the clouds. Huge cummulus building over the crest of the Bitterroot never means dry socks in the morning. The wind howled. The fire smoked. I froze my my er wheenie. I mean it. My breakfast wheenie was frozen solid as a rock. Couldn't get a stick into it. Couldn't fry it cause we didn't have a damn pan. Hell. We didn't even have a pair of gloves. Mikey gets stoned ya see. An when he gets movin towards the rock he just, well, he just keeps movin.

The traverse over the snowfields above the 300' waterfalls was a little tense but the top kind of leveled off from all the rock fall. So we made it to the base of our proposed first ascent in good time. Mikey led up through a snow filled gully to where it ended and dumped him out on a ledge at the base of a very blank looking face. My turn was run out and a little scarey when I got into the wet section but I was never in danger of a grounder so I didn't dare whine. Mikey crested the wall and pulled his way up through snow to the base of the next face. It was what made it all worth it. Clean white granite with knobs and stemming everywhere. We made it to the notch in two pitches and looked out into the whole Bitterroot wilderness. One pitch took us to the base of the summit block and we spiralled around that to a spot just big enough for two of us to sit and spit.

By the time we made it back to camp we were soaked from the wet snow and the temperature was dropping fast. We slid and barreled and sometimes flew out that drainage. I will never forget that cold miserable night in the Bitterroots in a "high pressure system". I will never have as much fun as I had on that, my first, first ascent.

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Middle of last week roles around and I figure I just need to get on a long rock route to enjoy the weekend. After talking over a variety of routes with my friend Avi, we decide that Serpentine Ridge on Dragontail would be a good route--long, fun, and moderate. Since we both already had plans for Friday night, we decided for a Saturday afternoon start.


The Plan

Hike into Colchuck lake, avoid "The Man" by bivying near the face of the climb since we were clearly not going to get permits to camp at Colchuck Lake on such short notice, then get an early start on the 2000ft route, top out at 8800ft and be back in Seattle by 10pm Sunday.


The Execution

As to be expected, we got a late start out of Sea-town on Saturday. Finally on the road at 1pm, we dodge various traffic messes on Hwy-2 and arrive at the trailhead at 4pm. Crap no trailpark pass. Hmmm, I still have last years annual permit in the glove box, I bet you we could punch out the appropriate sections and make it a 2-year pass. Knife in hand, I delicately cut a circle through the 01 date and punch out the November month--Bingo! We've got a pass that still works through the end of the year.


4:30pm we are on the trail. Five minutes in, Avi recalls that he left his headlamp in the car. Shit. The derated start time is no 4:45 and we are humping in towards the lake. 6:15pm and we get our first views of Colchuck lake. Sweet. We're almost there. Halfway down the side of the lake, we run into some guy who we start chatting with. Unbenknownst to us, he is an off-duty ranger. Avi casually mentions that we don't have a permit. "The Man" says, "you're lucky I'm off duty today--don't let me see you tomorrow." Not quite the way I wanted to start the trip, but what were we going to do now. After Whitey was out of site down the trail, I slapped Avi upside the head and call him a dumbass. Oh well. I guess we'll just roll with the punches. As it turned out, this was a good attitude to take.


Pumping some fresh water and knocking back a little food, we cruised up the scree/boulder field to the depression in the moraine above Colchuck Lake. The views were great, as were the two bivy sites we found pre-cleared for us. It was getting a bit late, so we decided to forgoe the hike to the base of the climb and stay at a known-good bivy site.


In the attempt to go ultralight, we had decided to go without sleeping gear--e.g. bags, tent tarps, pad, etc. Recall that Satuday night was the coldest night in many weeks--about 45 in Seattle. At 6000ft it was quite a bit colder. We spent a miserable night shivering in down jackets and fleece pants with feet stuffed in our packs to try to keep warm. On the plus side, we did have a great view of the start of the meteor shower. Too bad we were only able to steal less than an hour of sleep each.


5:30am came around far too early and we got off on an early start. 6pm and we are on the go up to the base of the climb. As it turns out, from the bivy site in the moraine, route picking is key. We chose poorly... We were not near the base of the climb until 7:30am. A small, inclinged snowfield about 40 feet long sperated us from the boulders at the base of the climb. It was hard and slick--no way we would be able to safely cross in our approach shoes. Ice axes or crampons? It seemed awefully silly to put on crampons for 40ft, so out come the ice axes for the only time during the trip. A few chopped steps allow us to make it safely up the snow patch.


The 5.8 chimney was wet so, we opted for the 4th class gully/ramp system shown in Nelson's book. The first 400ft of which was straight forward and we blasted up it in about 45 minutes, even though we had decided to be cautious and belay over this relatively trivial ground. Ok, now we are feeling good and the misery of the previous night is soon forgotten.


Looking at the route from the lake (and several years ago from Colchuck peak) the line is pretty straight forward. As mentioned in posts earlier this year, however, the route is not climbed that often. The routefinding proved to be tricky for the first few pitches based on the beta that we had--e.g. Nelson's book. There were random rappel stations scattered throughout, which caused us quite a bit of confusion. Did we just do a whole pitch? God that seemed short. Where the hell are we on the topo? We're supposed to go up what dihedral?


From the top of pitch two, I spent a miserable 2 hours on lead looking at different crack systems and dihedrals trying to find one that looked right and wasn't clogged with grass. After climbing and downclimbing two 60 ft sections to no avail, Avi convinced me to say screw it and just go up, we'll just roll with the punches. With rope drag starting to make upward progress slow and tedious, I setup an anchor. Figuring we were at the top of pitch 3, we thought there was one more mid-fifth pitch then a whole lot of easier ground to cruise on.


As I set out on (what we thought was) pitch 4, I was excited as this would get us back on track, time-wise, and the terrain should be getting easier. After topping on this pitch, again short due to rope drag, we pulled out the topo and looked again at where we were on the route. The terrain above looked nothing like what was described. Hmm. What to do now. Avi supposed that the only thing to do was to go onward and upward as we were clearly not quite matching our pitches with the beta we had. No problem. Its 1pm, still plenty of daylight left, though we are lagging a bit behind our initial plans. Little did we know it would only get worse from there.


Onward and upward we go, relatively straight forward route climbing with many variations possible allowed us to cruise. One minor detour too far to the right around pitch 8 slowed us down, but otherwise we were doing ok, though it was getting late. Looking upward at the belays, we would ask ourselves reassuring questions as we checked our watches.


"How much further do you think?"


"Oh, just two or three more pitches" came the reply.


We did this banter back and forth for 3 pitches--never chaning the number of remaining pitches. Clearly, we had underestimated the length of the climb.


9pm rolls in and light is fading fast. The sun has set and we are only at the top of pitch 12. No way we can bivy again. Time to haul ass. We make a conscious decision to simul-climb the remaining distance by headlamp as it would probably be faster than doing fixed belays.


10pm comes around and I have just cleard the crest and downclimbed 10feet to sandy ledges on the east side. Success! Avi is close behind. As he down climbs, a fist size rock comes loose, falls about 3 ft and knocks me right in the helmet. I guess if I were to be hit any place that would be it, though I was glad it had not fallen further or been any larger.


Hmmmm. what to do, what to do. Since it was dark, only 4th class to the top, and there wasn't going to be any good views from the summit in the dark, we decided to pull a Becky and call the route finished. Now, how do we get down from here?


The Descent

Sandy ledges everywhere. That was all that was evident in either direction. To the south, two gulleys became steeper and steeper with no good way to descend making themselves obvious. To the north, there was one block that we could use for a rap. Looking out and down all we could see was black. Solid ground was no where to be seen in the range of our headlamps. Rolling with the punches and Avi as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, we set up a rap station (sling over block) and Avi disappeared into the black void. As it turns out, having a 60m rope proved to be key. Two feet from the end of the rope (ends tied together), Avi lands on a small ledge (1ft by 3 ft) and finds two fixed pins with a perlon sling tied in. Perfect! The pins are still secure. While we can't see the ground quite yet, we know we can't be too far off track. Down I come. After another full length rap into the unknown, Avi is down on the 30 degree snowfield. As I'm coming down, the rope knocks a football size block loose. As it careens downard, it hits a lower angled section once, splits in half. I scream "ROCK" at the top of my lungs, hoping Avi can find cover. He leans into the base of the rock. One half of the rock lands two feet in front of him and another three feet to his right. "Holy Shit! What the hell was that?" Now safely on the snowfield at 11pm, we think, "OK, it should be straight forward from here."


We crampon towards Asgard pass, arriving at 11:45pm. Now, if only we can find the right trail down so we can get out of here. We find a cairn and off we go...till the trail runs out 50 ft later. Search a little, find a section of trail. Descend till the trail runs out. Repeat ad naseum, until at 2pm we find ourselves stuck at a ledge. Waterfall to our right, impassable gully to our left. Rapping next to the waterfall off a #13 Smilie nut (blue) in the middle of the night was pretty cool, but it left us on a large ledge between the waterfall we had just come down and its lower neighbor. Cautiously I belayed Avi across the fast moving stream off of an ice axe kicked into some snow, both of us praying that he would not slip and fall.


And so we returned to our ritual of finding what we thought was the trail only to watch it disappear in front of us. 3am rolls around and it is time for another rappel. Once again, Avi stepped up to the plate and pulled through in the clutch. We were on the ground again and the terrain was starting to level out. We found the real trail by 3:15am and were down to the lake by 3:45. After a quick stop to refill water bottles that had been dry since 8pm and force down a bit of food, we were back on the trail at 4am.


After some initial troubles finding the trail around the lake, we bush wacked our way south. Just as we were feeling that our luck was running thin, we push through a stand of trees to find a well maintained trail in front of us. Trusting it was the right trail we start a fast walk back towards the car. At 6:30am we were back at the trailhead--tired, dusty and bruised but not broken.


A stop by Safeway to pick up a Coke and we were on the way back to Seattle. Home just in time for morning traffic. A quick shower and we were into work by 10:30am. Not the most productive day of work ever, but that is another story.


Beta on gear left behind so you can go get some booty--

Double length sling and biner left on ledges for rap at top of Dragontail

one #13 nut and locking biner left in Asgard pass for rap #1 by waterfall

one Cordellete and locker left in Asgard pass for rap #2.


If you find the gear all of it is in great shape--enjoy using it.


[ 08-13-2002, 01:44 PM: Message edited by: Gerg ]

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Originally posted by Bug:

I much prefer the North Face route from the very bottom toe of the face. It is cleaner, longer, and has more exposure. Then follow the ledge across the face of the Fin and it is a great 5.7 route.

I couldn't agree more. I did that N. Face route and just loved it. A couple years later we did Serpentine, and somehow it just... lacked in comparison. The crack pitches right of the tower were sweet and all, but the total package was just not as tasty. I was under the impression that Serpentine got more traffic these days, yet another reason to choose the route from the lowest toe.

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