Dragontail Peak (8840ft/2695m)
Serpentine Arete, 5.8 IV
August 14, 2008
My friend Day Frostenson and I both had today off from work so we decided to go climb Serpentine Arete on Dragontail Peak. I had only seen this awesome peak once before when I climbed Colchuck Peak a few years ago. I had forgotten how big it is. If I had known the numbers beforehand (the base of Dragontail is over a mile wide and it towers 3300ft above Colchuck Lake), I probably would have opted for an overnighter. The approach and the longer descent made for a 17 hour day car to car, so I was thoroughly wasted by the time I got back to the trailhead. Day on the other hand has been running 50k's this past year so for him it was merely a long day.
Leaving Seattle a little after 4am Thursday morning we drove over Blewett Pass to Leavenworth and then up Icicle Creek Road to the Stuart Lake TH where we started the hike in. The trail was in great shape and we made decent time to Colchuck Lake, arriving in 2 hours. From here we followed the trail around the right side of the lake to the boulder field below the Colchuck Glacier.
We filled up our water bottles from the stream coming off the glacier. A bit silty, but it was cold and delicious. With the power of the glacier now a part of us, we made our way up the moraine to the base of our climb. From the route description and topos in the Nelson guide and the Beckey guide, we were able to look up the face and locate the "prominent pillar" where the roped climbing would begin.
Day was wearing his LaSportiva Exum trail shoes while I had my trusty old Trango Guides. We made our best attempt trying to follow "class 3-4 slabs and steps" up to the sandy benches near the base of the pillar. We each took different routes soloing up. The climbing was fairly easy although several places were quite exposed.
I was very happy to finally take the 9.8mm climbing rope out of my pack and tie in. The pace of the hike in to the lake, the scramble up the moraine, and the climbing up to this point had taken it's toll physically. I welcomed the slower, technical climbing that we were about to begin. The impressive view down to the lake showed the progress we had made so far, but we knew the summit was still more than 1500' above us.
With our harnesses and rock shoes on, we tied into the rope and I took the first pitch up a fun corner to some broken blocks that ended on a ledge at the base of a huge wall. I used almost the entire 60m of rope, and was just barely able to reach a crack to build an anchor. Somehow I got the second pitch as well and this one was a bit spicier with a few committing moves up an awkward dihedral/chimney system. This pitch ended at a small pillar that I had to down climb the other side to get to a detached slab.
Here was our only casualty. While reclipping my camera to my harness, I accidentally unclipped my orange emergency whistle and it fell down about 30 feet to a ledge below us. I thought for a second that we could lower down to retrieve it and prusik back up, but I knew that we didn't have time for that. "Good bye whistle!", I said. "You were a good whistle! I loved you!", I lamented. "Whistle knows. Whistle knows", came Day's thoughtful reply.
Day got his turn to lead the next pitch and climbed up the thin finger crack to a difficult corner. I was glad I was on top rope when I got to the corner. Nice lead, Day! The next pitch looked like it went right up a right facing crack on a slab covered with lichen, but after about 10 feet I realized that I was probably off route. The crack was getting thinner, and I couldn't see any white granite, the tell-tale sign of a well worn route. So I backed down, and headed off to the left up a flaring dihedral with a hand crack in the corner.
I was getting tired at this point, and if I had been fresher I might have been able to find some good feet to climb it proper, but desperate times call for desperate measures so I plugged in a cam and yarded up on it, french-free style. I dubbed this the "blue collar pitch" since I was forced to muscle my way up it. A the end of the pitch I was glad to see easier terrain above. The problem was that it was easier terrain almost everywehere we looked. At the belay, Day suggested we just untie from the rope and solo up the last few hundred feet to the summit, but as tired as I was I wanted the security of the rope. I may have been hallucinating, but I could swear that I smelled skunk while scrambling up.
So we simul-climbed the rest of the route with me in the lead and Day cruising along behind. The route wasn't as loose as we had read/heard and we only knocked a few small rocks loose from the rope flipping them loose. There were a few spots where we had to stop and look around to make sure we were going the right way, but we finally made it to the left shoulder of the summit ridge, below the top. The guide book says there is a short 5.7 pitch to reach the top, but we kept traversing around until we found a sandy ramp that took us to a perfect bivy site about 15 feet below the summit. We dropped our packs, scrambled up to the top and took in the view.
It was about 7:45pm and the light was incredible as we ooohed and awed of the spectacular 360 degree view. The rugged granite peaks of the Stuart range were all around us and it felt like I was back in the Bugaboos. We could look down on the lakes of the Enchantments and pick out Prusik Peak, The Temple, McClellan Peak, Little Annapurna, Colchuck Peak, and of course Mt Stuart. There was a forest fire a few ridges northwest of us which gave the area a Mordor like feel.
A nearly full moon was rising in the south east over Tranquil and Isolation Lakes and I told day that I've stood in some beautiful places but this setting was among the most awesome I've ever experienced.
We wished we could have bivied on the summit and savored the moment longer, but we still had to get back down to Asgard Pass, and then make our way back down to the lake where the trail would take us out 5 1/2 miles to our car. All of that was too much for my tired brain to tackle together, so I just broke it down into manageable pieces. We figured that if we could make it down to Asgard Pass before dark, then we would be OK from there.
As it turned out, there is a really nice trail descending the south side of Dragontail which ended at a col where 30 degree snow slopes took us south east down to Asgard Pass. We made standing glissades down the slopes and I was finally able to take my ice axe off my pack. Earlier we were commenting that to be a true alpine climb you have to have an ice axe and crampons. Day is a Pro-ski patroller, so he left his axe on his pack and made the glissading look effortless. In my tired state, I was glad to have my axe in my hand!
Once down at Asgard Pass we followed a dusty trail marked by huge cairns back down to the lake. As we made our way down, we could see the lights from the various campsites around Colchuck Lake. I'll have to confirm the times with Day, but it was pretty dark by the time we hit the lake. We had seen lots of goat droppings (but no goats!) on the trail down from Asgard, so I waited until we crossed the stream that fed from the Glacier to refill my water bottle. Over the course of the day, I had eaten a Builders Bar, two Louks Sesame Snaps packages, and four GU's. I had another Builders Bar, a Sesame Snaps package, and one last GU, but my stomach was starting to get acidic and the only thing that sounded appetizing was Milk and a cheeseburger!
I knew that it would be many hours before I could get those, so I sucked down a GU and tried to focus on not tripping over roots on the trail. It's amazing how many nocturnal critters are out and about late at night on weekday evenings. I saw daddy long leg and black wolf spiders, crickets, some really big beetle like things, and a pine martin. Pretty cool. And to think that I would have missed all that if I hadn't been hiking by headlamp around midnight. The only real downside were the moths. They would go for the headlamp, and then I would have to turn my head away so it wouldn't fly into my face.
Well, dear readers, around 1:45am I finally stumbled back into the parking lot, very glad to finally get off my feet and ease the pounding. (Day had arrived earlier, then dropped his pack and hiked back up the trail to make sure the moths hadn't eaten me and my schoeller pants) We crawled into my car and made the long, uneventful, drive home.
Leavenworth had shutdown for the night, but we were very happy to find a service station in Cle Elum that was open where we got some chocolate milk, and a breakfast sandwich. We rolled back into Seattle just after 5:30am, right as the sky was beginning to get light in the east. 25 hours house to house!
Thanks Day for a great climb and for keeping me awake on the drive home!