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[TR] Dragon Tail - Backbone to Fin 8/2/2008


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Trip: Dragon Tail - Backbone to Fin


Date: 8/2/2008


Trip Report:

I am posting this trip report in honor and memory of Andy Basque... I had finished the write up a few short hours before I received the phone call from a good friend telling me that she had died climbing this exact route 5 days after we had done this trip... apparently she liked the route so much the first time, she had decided to do it again. For a while I struggled with whether or not it was appropriate to post this report but came to the conclusion that instead of burying and forgetting, we should celebrate, share and talk about Andy and the bright life she led. Andy, you will be sorely missed...




Dragon Tail.... sounds fun, let’s do it! And so another adventure began... The idea was for Bernie, Andy, Jeff and I to pack in to Colchuck Lake, camp, get up early, climb backbone into the fin direct, camp then hike out on the third day – great plan except we were missing one simple step, the permit! When I started reading up on the permit process, I figured we were hosed so we all came up with alternate plans if we couldn’t swing one of the raffled daily permits. After some discussions, the "favored" plan "B" seemed to be to pack light and do the whole thing in a day... all I can say is that I’m glad we didn’t have to opt for plan "B"!


Andy packed and headed up to Leavenworth on Thursday so that she could get up early and try for one of the permits Friday morning. The rest of us were going to ride up Friday morning and meet her there and figure out the rest. The short story is Andy woke up early and was first in line (what a surprise) out of approximately 30 (as it turns out, being first in line doesn’t do you any good...). The doors to the ranger station opened and everyone milled in... first thing the ranger said was "who is going for Colchuck Lake"... Andy raised her hand and looked around... nobody else! Sweet, we are in! The next thing the ranger said was "OK, we will hold off on Colchuck and deal with the enchantment permits first....". OK – no problem... that is, no problem unless 2 more parties show up for Colchuck while they are processing the enchantments! That’s right, 2 more parties showed up and wouldn’t you know it, one of them won the single permit! Crap! On a side note, we had met these 2 folks the weekend before while we were climbing in Squamish – nice folks but that really didn’t make it any better. Anyhow, as Andy was leaving the ranger said one last thing, "well, we do have one remaining permit for Colchuck... the folks that have it have not called in and are not here... if they don’t show up in the next hour, we will raffle it". Damn, another chance! So @ 9:00, Andy and the other remaining party showed up for the last raffle of the day for the last permit to Colchuck... and the winner is – damn straight! Andy you are my hero!


We met up in Leavenworth happy as clams, downed some burgers, fries and shakes, headed to the Stuart trailhead, tweaked our gear and headed in to find a camp site. All I’ll say here is that the trail is great, the views amazing and the company stellar. I’ve never been back in the alpine wilderness lakes/enchantments area and have to say it really is amazing, especially that massive rock we were going to climb called Dragon Tail! Anyhow, we set up camp (snagged an amazing spot), ate some dinner, packed for the next day and headed off to bed.



The Crew: Jeff, Bernie, Andy and myself (Ray)





Dinner time!


Next day we were up @ 5 and on the trail by 5:45. Thinking this was going to be a quick day, I was entertaining ideas of talking everyone into hiking out that evening so that we could go do Outer Space or Orbit on Snow Creek Wall the next day... boy was that a foolish notion!



The approximate route (taken)...



Morning view of Colchuck Lake


Around the lake and up the slope to the bottom of backbone was the first folly – on Jeff’s and my suggestion, we headed up the slope a bit too early and ended up going higher and farther right than we wanted to. That wouldn’t have been a problem except the snow slope we had to cross to get back to the base of the climb was damn hard (even icy in some areas) and everyone had decided to leave their crampons @ camp... let me also interject that I am not super strong on snow (yet, give me rock or ice and stand back but snow... not so much) and was getting uncomfortable with the risk/reward. Was I worried? Hell no, we had Bernie with us! After a pretty quick crossing using a boot/axe belay, we were back on route and @ the base of the climb... oh, I should mention that it was about 7:45 at this point.






The next 500 feet is mostly scrambling and simul-climb type stuff. Earlier we decided that Bernie and Andy would be on one rope and Jeff and I on the other. On that, Bernie and Andy took off like a shot and Jeff and I made our way up trying to follow in their wake. We ended up setting a formal belay about 50 feet below the off width pitch which is pretty much what I consider the first real pitch. There was another party on the climb (two fast climbers) and they just beat Bernie and Andy to the off width so they had first go. By the time Jeff and I made it up to the ledge, Bernie was suiting up and getting ready to lead. The plan (at least the plan that was in my head!) was that he would lead the pitch, bring Andy up, pull up the packs, lower the #6 (yes, we lugged that up there and let me say, it was worth it!) then I would have a crack at it (pun intended)... unfortunately, it had taken too much time to get to this spot (it was now 10:15ish) so we decided that Andy would drag our rope up and we would proceed from there.






All I can say is that I have absolutely no idea where the time went over the next 4 pitches but it was after 2:30 by the time Jeff and I caught up to Andy and Bernie (thanks Andy for tying Bernie to that rock and making him wait for us!). Let me take a moment to say that when you are into a 15 or so pitch climb and it’s taken about 8 hours to get to the base of pitch 5, you should be concerned! The very short story is that we decided to mix up the teams and make sure everyone was focused on efficient climbing... Bernie and Jeff took the lead and Andy and I were right on their heels. Funny how a little motivation can get you moving! The next 5 pitches went by in about 2 hours and we found ourselves @ the base of the fin by about 5:00. Now we were cookin’ with Crisco!




I probably need to interject here that I have been climbing with Bernie for about 7 years now and would climb with him anytime and (almost) anywhere – he’s a great friend, can deal with difficult situations and climbs like a monster. That said, trying to get him to slow down when he sees the brass ring sometimes requires a lasso, duct tape and a hammer! By the time I caught up to him, we were one pitch (or two depending on your perspective) from the top of the fin and he was racking up for a wild traverse to get to the far right dihedral... anyone that knows this climb is probably saying right now "he can’t be talking about that manky looking, huge off width dihedral on the right side of the fin could he" and let me respond by saying, yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Any how, I arrived at what can only be described as a questionable belay station (there was one bomber 1” crack for gear but everything else was piles of hollow stacked flakes). A quick assessment of the situation and it was decide that up was the best way.... from our vantage, we couldn’t see many features although a couple of possible cracks seemed likely so I loaded all my small pieces on Bernie’s rack and off he went. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we forged a new route on the fin but I will say that it was very obvious that no one had been on this section in a very (very) long time! Needless to say, Bernie did a great job in gunning the rope to the top. In fact, the route he slung up the fin probably couldn’t have been more fun and ended up putting us in the perfect belay spot to finish the final traverse to the top (completely bypassing the entire crap scramble on the other side of the fin). Not having lead the pitch, it’s hard for me to rate but if I account for the small (but somewhat significant) run out on the start, I would probably give it a 10a... that said, it was full on adventure climbing and I’m glad Bernie had the lead.



Jeff @ the manky belay on the last "exploratory" pitch...



Bernie on the last pitch



Approximate route taken on the fin...


So we all finally were at the top, happy that the sun was still shining (it must have been about 8:30) and ready for the descent. We took a few minutes to swap out gear (it was much cooler on the back side!) and started down the climbers trail to the notch to make our way back to Asgard Pass. Again, we had a snow slope to cross which caused us to go slow and chew up time but the angle wasn’t as steep as the one in the morning and the descent was uneventful. Asgard Pass is impressive from the top and takes a bit of concentration to go down (the trail is good but steep). I can’t imagine lugging a big pack up that trail! The rest of the hike back to camp was mostly uneventful (except for the few times we lost the cairns and had to backtrack to find the trail). Everyone was happy to see camp (at 11:15) and after a quick dinner (I got a taste of Halsey’s freeze dried chili – dude, you can cook for me anytime!) we were sacked out before midnight.



The enchantments area/back side of Dragon Tail



Asgard Pass (was the best I could do in the dark!)


The next morning was another stellar day, relaxed and mellow. We packed up, hiked back to the cars then drove to the river for a quick swim. From there it was back to town for more burgers, fries and shakes, a quick hack(y sack) in the parking lot, farewells then on the road for a relaxed daylight (for a change!) ride home. All in all I have to say that this was one of the best and fun climbs I’ve been on, not necessarily due to the location or quality of the mountain but in particular to the people I climbed with. Thanks Bernie, Andy and Jeff for an amazing weekend experience!



View from our camp site....



Andy giving me what for!




Gear Notes:

#6 cam was very handy...


Approach Notes:

move around to the top of Colchuck Lake before heading up to the route!

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I am so sorry to read about Andy. John Plotz and I were the ones on the route with you folks at the beginning and climbed to the offwidth just ahead of Andy and Bernie. When I spoke with her at the belay, I sensed she shared a love of and comfortable competence in the mountains. A true tragedy that she was taken before her time.

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Andy had that amazing smile and was always showing it off....... The last time I saw Jeff and Andy was at Smith Rock for the AR class. Jeff and I stayed up late at the fire talking about how we met our wives. Andy had scooted off the bed early.....


I will miss you Andy.


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After talking with sheriff's office (who spoke with her climbing partner), it appears that Andy fell on the approach moraine before reaching Backbone Ridge. Apparently she lost her balance and fell backwards and down the east/left side of the moraine. Very sad. One would never suspect the moraine as dangerous, but it is exposed and obviously with some momentum after a slip, you would not be able to stop in the steep, compact dirt and rock.

My condolences to her husband, family and friends.

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Andy was my first assistant in AR this spring. We climbed Karate Crack at Smith together with Terry Campbell. Andy was amazing. She showed me how to tape my hands for "street cred". She literally showed me the ropes of trad climbing. She was incredibly encouraging, positive and skilled, as well as a wonderful person who liked to laugh and was a joy to be around. My heart goes out to Jeff and all of her friends.



Brandon Smith

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