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[TR] Dragontail Peak - Backbone Ridge 6/15/2014


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Trip: Dragontail Peak - Backbone Ridge


Date: 6/15/2014


Trip Report:


In June 2014, Josh, Steph and I climbed Backbone Ridge on Dragontail, a beautiful climb that culminated in a rather epic shiver bivy. Expecting a mellow weather weekend, a blustery snowstorm and temperatures well below 20F kept us pinned to the summit through the night. The story of our misadventure follows. Photos at the bottom.


How could we have gotten ourselves into such a boondoggle? At the time I was really baffled, and performed a fairly careful meta-analysis of Backbone trip reports to see where we went wrong (the source of some of the extracts are cited below). By late June, alpine amnesia had set in, and I set aside the analysis as Steph (my wife) and I moved on to other climbing objectives. WIth the weather now having turned to fall and winter, I’m finally finding time to write up what we learned, for others to benefit.


The details of the shiver bivy are painful to recall, but I’m going to summarize what happened, and then switch to detailed reflections on the route and our decisions. Overall, this story is a case of “light and fast turns to cold and slow,” with its own variations. For instance, before heading into the mountains we had checked some recent reports that said snow was soft late in the day and crampons weren’t necessary. We brought no crampons and one ice axe for three people with a few spare layers but no planned bivy gear. That turned out to be a major mistake.


Summary of climbing:

Sleeping at the Stuart Lakes trailhead, we rose at 2:30am, and were hiking in by 3am. We cruised past Colchuck Lake and reached the last snowfield before the scrambling start of Backbone around 7am, under overcast but calm skies. The snowfield was pretty hard (but not impenetrable), so we crossed it carefully in our boots.


We scrambled up the toe of the formation and found what must’ve been the start of the route (the early season snow covering the base of the pitch made it difficult to discern), since one pitch of climbing put us right below the P2 OW. Josh led the first block of pitches, including the OW on little more than a #5 cam and a single big-bro (#3). He did so boldly, with a freaky run out, and that’s why he’s often called the mountain wizard. Steph took over after 4 or 5 pitches, and she smoothly brought us to the Fin and one pitch up it. We were making OK time for a party of three, but when you’re going for a grade IV in a day, OK time sometimes isn’t enough.


At this point I’m going to slow down the story, because just as things switched to my lead block (beginning one pitch up the fin), it started to flurry. For those who haven’t been up there, the Fin is confusing. You access the fin via a pretty chossy ramp system that places you below a wide blank face split by a maze of cracks. From the ramp below you’re squinting to see what cracks go where, hoping whichever you chose is not going to deadend.


The route I ended up taking started by following the blue line of this topo for two pitches (belays denoted by red dots):


Image credit: the discussion from this 09/02/2006 TR:



Those two blue pitches are very nice, and go at about 5.9-. More importantly though, the flurries were growing denser and the light was visibility dimming as the temperatures dropped precipitously. While my leading and top-belaying was keeping me pretty warm, Josh and Steph were freezing, and there was a looming sense that we needed to get off the route as fast as possible if we were going to have a chance of getting down before dark.


From the second belay on the blue route, I left the blue line and climbed more directly up with the goal of gaining what I had interpreted to be a key notch (found at the top of the red route on the above image) based on the beta we had (a photocopy of Selected Climbs in the Cascades by Nelson and Potterfield, not nearly as fancy as these photo overlays).


About that fin variation:

As I left that blue route I climbed a very nice 5.8ish crack. I saw the notch grow closer, and spotted a horizontal crack for foot-shuffling that crescented in from the left, which my beta had predicted. This was the notch we needed to gain, the notch that could get us over the fin.


Warning: continue reading this section if you enjoy super detailed beta, otherwise feel free to skip ahead three paragraphs. At the top of the crack I placed a great BD #2 cam, extended it to prevent rope drag, but then stared up at a lichen-covered and seemingly blank face, with a restful stance in the notch torturing me 8 feet up and to my left. As I studied the blankness, I started to piece it together.


First, I spotted a great 2 inch deep horizontal rail just to the right of the exit stance in the notch, and figured “If I can hit that money rail, it’ll be in the bag.” I continued to look around, and saw what looked like a sloper just out of reach. Maybe it’s positive? Connecting the dots, I spotted a closer tiny but solid crimp rail, which could get my hands up to the sloper.


I started moving. The sloper was indeed a sloper, definitely not as positive as I’d liked it to be. Balancing to keep my hands friction-glued to it (the cold helped), I worked a foot up to the lower crimp rail and gently stood up. The “money rail” was now four feet to my left, and I was almost level with it. At this body height the sloper started to fail me, and I found a small hold higher up, for my right hand, that kept me in to the wall. I began a series of desperate thrutching bumps with my left hand, and my eyes popped with joy when my hand reached the money rail. My body swung left as I match hands, and boom! Sent! We were off the fin! Hell yeahhh!!


When Josh and Steph reach the top of the 5.8 crack they were each startled to see what I’d led through the building storm. Both sent it without difficulties, but with eyes equally popped in disbelief as their bodies swung left and they stepped into the notch. Welcome to the top of the fin!


I’d probably call these blank face moves 5.10b, though it’s more like a V1 boulder problem. What’s interesting is that, based on a review of CC trip reports, it seems as though many have been lured into precisely this crux before:


8/31/2012 TR:


“At this point, in hindsight, we probably should have A0 tensioned left across the slab and gained the notch above the gendarme. Instead we set a belay on the slab and, around 7 PM, I began leading another pitch up and right through a strenuous splitter hand crack - by far the burliest pitch of the day, probably .10a.”

7/29/2006 TR:


“The crack system is good 5.8ish climbing, but ends blankly 6 feet from the top (!!!) so scott pendulumed left 6 feet into the correct crack system and did the final moves to the crest of the Fin and a belay.”


+ Comment: “Did the route a week prior to you and essentially had the same issues and did the same "variation" (down to having to pendulum left to reach the crest of the Fin).”

8/21/2004 TR:


"It’s now clearly obvious the notch to my left is the correct finish on the Fin. However, to get to the notch from my belay station there is an impossible traverse."


+ Comment: “It was way too slick to make the friction move to the notch so I built a belay at at fixed yellow cam and brought up my partner. From there We lassoed a big horn at the notch with a bight of rope and my partner pulled himself up and belayed me while I did the same.”



“Just below gendarme, traverse left (blank face, we A0-ed on tension) and go up into a notch right before gendarme (you’re sitting on the crest of the Fin). Nelson and Potterfield variation likely reaching the same notch via a foot shuffle crack coming in on the face from the left.”

If you enjoy A0’ing, or if you like your 15th pitch or the day to turn up the heat two notches above what you thought was the crux, go for it!


Getting off the fin:

Navigating the fin through the snowstorm took time, and by the time we’d reached the notch it was around 8pm, albeit in mid-June, when sunset comes around 9pm. Atop this notch, the ridge of the fin looks down into what we now know to be the top of the Triple Couloir route. As the sun started to set, we climbed an easy pitch on the backside (Triple Couloir side) of the fin ridge, reaching a higher notch in the ridge, where the blue line topped out in the above photo.


And here’s where some mistakes were probably made. With the sun down and light fading, snow in the air, and but one ice axe and zero crampons, we started to realize the seriousness of our situation, and wanted to get down quickly.


We saw two options. The first was to get back onto the face of the Fin (rather than the Triple Couloir backside), hoping that things weren’t too difficult to navigate in the darkness. The other option was to downclimb or rappel into the couloir behind the fin, and exit up the couloir.


Josh is very comfortable on snow and ice, a realm in which Steph and I have less experience. We discussed for a few precious minutes, and decided to take the couloir. Not knowing where the rock would lead and with visibility dimming into the snowstorm, the couloir seemed like the more secure choice at the time, even with only one ax and no crampons between us. We switched to boots. There was far too much loose gravel and choss to make the downclimb feel safe, so we opted for a short rappel down to the snow (watch for loose blocks if exercising this option). Josh went first and built a belay anchor. I followed, bringing down our second rope on my back, and belayed Josh on that rope as he climbed the final 100 feet of the couloir, chopping footholds for his boots in the hardening snow with our only ice axe (and no gear for protection). Then Steph rappelled down to join me on the snow, we pulled the rap rope, and both climbed up Josh’s cut steps by glove-pawing at the frozen foot holds.


We were off the fin, but the daylight was now gone. This was actually a bigger problem than it seems, because of the now thickly falling snow. As we turned on our headlamps, snow was whipping all around us, and the headlamps did little more than surround us in light bubbles, as the light reflected on the whirling snow. By now it was probably 9:30 or 10pm (sussing out the rappel into the couloir, plus chopping steps, had taken time). We put on all the clothes we had brought (not much: little more than a micropuff and rainjacket each). We evaluated our food and water: a few clif bars, and 1.5 liters. We split a clif bar or two for dinner, saving two as a meal for the unknown future.


Of note, we’re far from the first to drop into the Triple Couloir finish. Here are some excerpts from previous TRs:


07/30/2005 TR:


“The nastiest, loosest gulley I've ever climbed. Looking towards the summit, we had three options. On our right was a steep featureless face which we discarded as too difficult. Straight up were large blocks that looked climbable but questionably stable, possibly hard, and possibly difficult to protect. On our left was a short gulley. I dropped left into the gulley. Without exaggeration, three out of every four holds I tried would break off.“

7/14/2013 TR:


“Todd leads up through the most horrible gully I've ever been in, not only is it scree but the sides appear to be solid rock but crumble underneath your fingertips. You gotta scrap for that summit!”

8/12/2011 TR:


“When we thought everything was done, instead of climbing an easy crack going under the gendarme on the face, we did not see it, and went around the back, sketchy loose crap in the gully, the worst part of the climb. Do not go there. We did a couple more pitches in the very loose dirty gully and scrambled to the summit…”

9/30/2006 TR:


“We short-roped again for the last bit of climbing, traversing the crappy, crumbling, scary rock above the top of the 3rd couloir which we eventually climbed into and up for the last 60 feet. I am still wondering if there's a more aesthetic--not to mention solid--finish to this otherwise amazing climb. “

The answers to that last question is yes, there does indeed appear to be a more aesthetic finish: Instead of dropping into the TC gully, it appears to be much more advisable to switch back to the face of the fin! Very good to know for future attempts!


Getting off the ridge:

In good daylight, we probably could have found an easy scrambling route up the rock ridge from where the Triple Couloir route ends to the summit. But we were extremely cold, and none of us could see more than 20 feet in our snow-blinded light bubbles. As we walked the flat part of the ridge southwest toward the summit, we were blocked by a giant bullet-hard snow drift, effectively forming a featureless 60 degree ice blockade. We walked the ice wall to the left, reaching the cliff above the snow slopes far below (which to us was just a void). No go. We walked the ice wall to the right, reaching rock that we couldn’t get a good read on for more than the 20 feet our headlamps reached. We were cold. Very cold.


At this point, Josh entered hero mode. He picked a spot on the headwall, tied in, and started chipping a ladder into the ice. Steph and I stood on flat ground at the base of the ice wall while he meticulously engineered a passage over the ice with our single axe. Steph kept Josh on belay, though it was an unprotected one until he found protection at the top of the ice. While we huddled there below the ice wall, I have a specific memory of being awed by the inch-long rime ice cystals that had formed on the cams still hanging on Steph’s harness as she stood on the exposed slope, slowly paying out rope. I didn’t photograph these crystals, or in fact anything during the hellish night, but this is one of those visuals I expect to stay with me for some time. It was beautiful, but freaking cold.


Josh boldly topped the ice wall, which was probably 50 feet tall. He built an anchor on solid rock and brought us up. At this point I believe it was close to midnight, but we soon found the trail to the summit, and were finally “on route”, after several hours of frustration within the light bubbles of our headlamps.


The shiver bivy:

It was midnight. Perhaps past midnight. A major advantage of getting over the ice wall that pinned us to the ridge was that we were now able to find protection from the wind that was blasting us from the west. We considered our options, scouting down the trail heading south that brings one off of Dragontail, only to find the 30 degree snow slope that one normally descends to be just as bullet-hard as all the other snow we’d battled. With no view of where the snow slope trailed off to (in the event of a fall) or how steep the slope might become further along, we were trapped by uncertainty. The snow whirling around us was not accumulating enough to give us grip, but it was just enough to blind our headlamps. The crampons were still very much at home.


From the previous morning we knew that dawn was going to arrive around 5am. While the sunrise would not help soften the snow (too cold, and too much overcast), it would enable us to see where we were going. After some very cold discussions, we opted for a shiver bivy, hunkering down halfway under a boulder we’d found near the summit that provided good shelter from the wind. We uncoiled ropes for bedding, stuffed pant legs into our socks, etc.: all the tricks we could come up with. And we shivered. Leg cramps hit us from dehydration. The little water we had was now a frozen slush. Josh marshalled us on walks around the summit area every half hour or hour, when we’d try to shake the numbness from our limbs.


The descent:

Finally, dawn began to spread its fingertips of gray, just as the snow that had been whirling decided it was finally time to start accumulating. With the ambient light of the dawn, we could now finally see several hundred feet. We turned off our headlamps, brushed snow off our gear, and split our last two energy bars. We started the march down the rock ridge to the start of the snowfield. During the nighttime walks, Josh had found a second frozen bootpack that was better than the frozen bootpack we’d spotted at midnight. Steph and I grabbed self-arrest rocks, and the three of us roped up, with Josh at the rear with the ice axe. We headed down.


To give an idea of how hard the snow was, lining the side of the frozen bootpack were the frozen plunge-holes from ice axes in warmed times, which now formed rocksolid finger pockets for steadying oneself on the descent. We crawled our way down the ice, and could soon see the top of Asgard. We had escaped! When we reached Asgard we cracked the surface ice off a pool of water and filled up on 32F H20. We were going to be ok.


The descent down Asgard was a bit hairy, as often the trail was covered by large snowdrifts that were still very much frozen even at these lower elevations. We took some wrong turns, but eventually reached the lake. We painfully slogged down the approach trail, having been on the move for 30 hours.


Our final car-to-car time was on the order of 32 hours, reaching the lot around 11am. No injuries, no frostbite. We drove into Leavenworth and went into Kristal’s Diner for “brunch”, aka the mother of all post-climb gorges. I devoured a chicken-fried steak, and feeling myself fall asleep at the table, excused myself to go sleep in the car as I offered to take the second shift of what would undoubtedly be a multi-shift drive back to Seattle. I passed out immediately, took over driving just past Stevens, and we were in Seattle by mid-afternoon.



Encountering frozen snow without crampons or ice axes can be a very serious showstopper. Be absolutely certain that the high country snow is in fact soft if deciding to leave them at home. We relied on a trip report that was less than a week old, but didn’t notice that the Enchantments had in fact been very cold since that trip report was posted. We also set out on a “20% chance of percip” day, which in fact turned into a snow storm up high. Be prepared.


Probably the most important lesson learned was one that crystallized for me this fall while reading Marc-Andre Leclerc’s November blog post here on CC:



Simply put: in the "fast and light" school of alpine climbing, you have to be fast first, and only then you can allow yourself to go light. Very bad things happen if you try and go light hoping that you will be fast. We should have been much more realistic about our speed. Perhaps we shouldn’t have planned to climb such a big route as a team of three. Perhaps we should have opted for Serpentine (which we considered). And if we did aim for Dragontail as a team of three in those conditions, we should have brought axes/crampons, extra food, and/or proper bivy gear. We were lucky that things didn’t turn out worse. In summary, a beautiful route that very possibly can force a heinous bivy: be prepared!


Sunday funday footnote:

Perhaps the most lasting detail of the trip was the fact that we had set out on a Sunday morning, thinking we’d be back in Seattle for work on Monday morning. Josh was off work and I had the flexibility of a graduate student, but Stephanie in fact had a real job to report to. By the time we regained cell reception around 11:30am on Monday, half her building had been alerted to her absence and was looking for her. Many months later, she’s still known to many people in her office as the gal who weathered a snowstorm under a boulder at 9000 feet.


Dawn Above Colchuck:



Finishing the approach:



Josh starting up P1:



Belaying above Colchuck:



Josh leading through endless options:



Steph takes over:



View of the fin:



Steph reaches the fin:



Johan on the fin:



Nearing the top of the fin in blustery conditions:



Tough folk, the morning after, descending Asgard:



Steph and Johan:



Gear Notes:

Standard rack plus BD #5 and Bigbro #3. Could have really used a #6.

No crampons, one ice axe (the cause of our ordeal).


Approach Notes:


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Wow that's quite the detailed TR! Thanks for sharing the story. The Backbone can be a sandbag in terms of length. And the Fin can be tedious climbing on loose rock, which is time consuming.


As for the descent, I always think it's a sandbag when people recommend leaving the pons. That descent slope is steeper than you think.


Late season I like to hike around the backside of the Witches Tit to the east and double back to Asgaard Pass, which is easy and safe class 3 hiking with little to no snow. But in your case in a blinding snowstorm would probably not have been possible.


Good job sticking it out with no frozen digits!

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Nice work! I too have been beknighted on Dragontail, and we were also climbing as a party of three. Spooning on the summit is not a fun way to spend a Saturday night..... Much better to drink beer all night and wake-up in a stranger's front yard.

Way to stick out the night and save all your digits!

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Heh, that leftward traverse was an entertaining scene for us on Dragontail, as well.


me: "@#%$, I'm 6 feet to the right of the notch!"

partners: "Awesome! Nice!"

me: "Not awesome. Not awesome at all."


I agree that it's a 10a/b traverse, and certainly exciting. I also agree that the third couloir of the triple is lined by the most heinous arrangement of boulders in playdoh I've ever experienced.


Nice work on making it up and down safely!

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Very good-I'll pass on the epic scale someone noted to me after me and my partner also bivied atop Dragontail and had a shiverfest.


According to Rob Kelman's Epic Rating Scale, you're at E4:


E1. Delay in completing route resulting in being an hour late for dinner with your significant other.

E2. Same as E1 except that climbing partner is of opposite sex.

E3. Same as E1 except that bivouac is required.

E4. Same as E2 except that bivouac is required.

E5. Hung up on short route requiring rescue.

E6. Same as E5 except injury is involved.

E7. Same as E5 except route is isolated and elaborate rescue required.

E8. Same as E7 except that injury is involved.

E9. Some, but not all, members of the party are killed.

E10. Same as E8 except a major, dangerous effort is needed to rescue the injured and recover bodies.

E11. All members of the party are killed.

E12. The entire party vanishes.


Congratulations! Sounds like a great time.


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Good job keeping it together. Here's another bit of hindsight: When you hit the fin and knew you were late, you could have bailed off to the right on the Hidden Couloir north face route, a faster and easier option. Scoot all the way across the base of the fin on that ledge, over a rib, over another rip and up, then more traverse right and up. Maybe 5.7, with a steep bit to finish onto the summit block.


That's what we did when we were benighted (party of 3, no headlamps, in early May, but all had axes & crampons) and we butt glissaded the slope down to Asgard pass in the pitch black and bivied somewhere on the pass where we found enough wood for a fire.

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Oh man, I thought I had an epic before, but it doesn't even make it on the scale. I never plan on dinner with my wife the night I'm due out of the mountains.


And, wait a sec, wasn't his wife with him?


Oh - correct. Scale needs the "s" modifier to indicate spouse is with you in this boondoggle!


Thanks for report. Gotta be entertained somehow as there is no snow. :cry:

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