Dragontail Peak (8840ft/2695m)
Backbone Ridge, 5.9 IV
September 2, 2013
Our friends, Todd and Jeremy, had climbed Backbone Ridge the week before and had drawn up a great topo map of the route, so Spencer and I took advantage of the excellent beta and stable weather window for our crack at this big mountain!
I had climbed Serpentine Arete long enough ago that I had forgotten what it was like descending Asgard Pass. I liken it, a little, like the descent off of Snow Creek Wall; It's the price you have to pay for climbing such a stellar route. But since Backbone ridge is over 2600' long it stands to reason that the nasty descent will be longer as well. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Spencer and I both had to work Monday so we were scrambling to get our shifts covered at the store. But we have the best co-workers anywhere and they all came through for us, so we were able to leave Sunday evening and bivy at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. Spencer had brought his REI QuarterDome T1 solo tent, while I was cozy in my trusty old Bibler bivy! It was 11:30pm by the time we had sorted the rack, loaded our packs and divided the common gear. It was at this time that I realized that I had forgot to bring my rock shoes. Fortunately I had brought my La Sportiva Gandas which climb very well. I would carry most of the rack on my harness and Spencer would carry the Mammut 8.9mm, 60m Serenity rope and the two largest cams, my old #5 Camalot and my old #3.5 Camalot. Up to this point I think I had placed these two cams, collectively 6 times. After Monday I would have placed each cam more than 10 times!
The stars were amazing with the Milky Way flowing majestically overhead. We pointed out some constellations and the Andromeda Galaxy as we were enjoying a tall frosty PBRs that Spencer picked up at the grocery store. We turned in a little after midnight with our alarms set for 3:40am.
Morning came early. I had slept most of the night while Spencer had only gotten a little. I packed up my sleeping gear and put in my contacts while Spencer brewed up some delicious Via Caramel Coffee. We secured things in the car that we weren't bringing with us then shouldered our packs and started up the trail. It was a little chilly but not bad once we got moving. We were making good time and once it got light we started realizing that we hadn't crossed the little foot bridge yet and the trail hadn't started climbing up yet. We then saw Mt Stuart in front of us and not Dragontail, so we recognized that we had missed our turn off and were on our way to Stuart Lake. We turned around and within 20 minutes we had found the turnoff to Colchuck Lake and were crossing the footbridge.
The trail was relatively flat for a few miles before it began to climb up the side of the hill to the lake. We came across a few tent sites as we neared the lake and stopped to qet a great shot of the mountain with Spencer and the reflection! What a spectacular place!
We followed the trail along the right side of the lake and around to the boulder field coming down from Colchuck Peak. Here we started our upward scramble to the moraine. Spencer remembered that we weren't going to climb with our packs and suggested we cache them on top of a large boulder. We found a large prominent boulder with a flat top and emptied our packs. Since I was going to be doing most of the leading, I left my pack and I loaded my extra jacket, Builders Bars and Gatorade in his pack. I took the rope and the rest of the gear.
Once we reached the moraine it was easy going up the ridge to where we could cut over across the steep snowfield. Todd had recommenended an axe for this section so I chopped steps with my trusty Raven Pro and Spencer followed carefully behind me. Spencer is a skilled snowboarder so he's no stranger to steep, firm snow but I was still concerned so I tried to make good, in cut, steps. It seemed to take forever but we finally made it safely across the snowfield and onto the peak, itself.
We scrambled up the steps in an ascending, leftward traverse for a few hundred yards until we reached the white colored rock. Here we roped up and simulclimbed up to a left facing corner which we pitched out. I saw a blue 9/16 sling and a 1" purple sling around a medium sized tree and clipped in as a belay anchor. I brought Spencer up with an auto-belay. From here there was a large ledge that brought us up and right to the base of the famous off-width crux pitch. I looked up at the crack and immediately started scanning for other alternatives. There were none that looked better so built a multi-directional belay anchor for Spencer and off I went.
Things were going reasonably well as I slowly made my way up the ever widening off-width. I was actually feeling pretty good as I pulled out my 3rd generation #5 Camalot and was about to place it when it slipped out of my hand and bounced down, passed Spencer and out of sight! I yelled, "Crap, crap, crap! Watch the cam! See where it goes!" There wasn't much we could do except let gravity, physics, and luck take their course. Spencer was tied into the belay anchor and I was chicken winged into the offwidth, so neither of us had much manuerverability.
I quickly went through our available options and realized that our best bet was to down climb and rappel down the route and try to find the big cam. Fortunately I had a chockstone in the crack that I was able to get a stopper and a small cam placed, so I equalized them and had Spencer lower me back down to the belay. I was more than 100' up the pitch so the rope didn't reach all the way down, so I called off-belay, untied and carefully downclimbed the last 15'.
We made one rappel then downclimbed a few hundred feet and started looking at the obvious ledges and small shrubs. Spencer had heard it bouncing off the rocks then suddenly stop. So we reasoned that it either landed in a shrub or it took a large bounce and went all the way to the glacier. Spencer looked around up higher while I kept downclimbing from bench to bench in hopes of finding our lost cam. For some reason I moved to my left and then I looked up and there it was! I couldn't believe it! I called up to Spencer that I had found it. He couldn't believe it either! I picked it up, admired the new dents in this previously pristine cam ( I had only placed it twice before on lead) and examined it as thoroughly as I could to ascertain whether or not it was fit to be used again. I deemed it was so we reclimbed our route then I relead the off width with the security of the big cam. It was still awkward and difficult but I was very glad to have the came above me protecting each move. As I climbed higher, the crack began to flare out to the point where my cam so longer was big enough. I was still about 20 feet from the top, but before I panicked I looked behind me and there were several large, rounded flakes that were just perfectly placed! I was able to easily reach the top of the pitch and build a solid anchor which I extended so I could take pictures of Spencer as he climbed up.
For only have climbed a few outdoor routes, Spencer was a very efficient alpine climber! He cruised up the crack, expertly cleaning and racking the gear so that our exchanges at the belay were very efficient. From here our topo showed us climbing a left facing crack and then a right facing crack just left of the crest and right of a white scar. We could easily see the crest to our right but there wasn't an obvious left facing crack to be found. So I tried to pick the "path of least resistance" which turn out to be four pitches of varying degrees of heinous rope drag that from jumping from crack system to crack system. It ended with a tenous A0 pitch up an low angle open "v" open book, ending in a roof. Here is where I plugged in cams and stoppers with long slings and "french-freed" the roof. I believe Spencer has ever aid climbed before, but he certainly has now!
Fortunately for me and Spencer, this was our last challenging pitch before simul-climbing three pitches of easy 4th and low 5th class terrain before ending up at the base of the Fin. From our topo we could pick out nearly the entire route up to the summit ridge, itself! We were very glad to be almost complete with the route because the hour was getting late and the sun was sinking fast. We again simul-climbed up the first two pitches of the Fin and ended up belaying under a large block after climbing up the obvious broken ramp past steep but easy corners. Here Spencer belayed me up and around the block to where I had to cut the pitch short to avoid more rope drag. These next 6 pitches were by far the best of the route. They were easy, 5.7, but the setting was hard to beat! Easy cracks for protection but very few hand holds - only feet! The setting sun cast a warm glow on the rock and at one point Spencer called out for me to turn around and enjoy the scenery! So I stopped, pulled out my phone and took three selfies and one of the sunset. I reached the summit ridge, expecting to find a trail to the top. Instead I found the backside of the fin which was not as tall but just as steep! What the heck!?!
There wasn't anything I could do at this point, so I brought Spencer up and then explained the bad news. It was getting dark at this point and we still had four technical pitches remaining between us and the summit which were NOT on Todd's custom, hand drawn topo. Curses!
Climbing by headlamp is all well and good but it's not something I particularly plan or train for. But we just took it slow and easy. From our summit ridge belay, I dropped back down onto the face of the Fin and followed the lower of the two upward and right trending crack systems to the summit ridge. From here we climbed on the backside of the Fin for another pitch and a half before I dropped back onto the face and followed a mostly horizontal ledge system to a loose 4th class gully that led up to below the summit.
Since it was full on dark by this point we passed on tagging the summit and followed the climbers trail back down to the snowfields which were much steeper than I remembered. As luck would have it my cell phone all of a sudden decided to get reception so I shot off a few text messages to friends and family and I called Todd. He and Jeremy had sent me several pictures of them on the summit of their climb the week before. My communications were a bit of a different nature. "Hey Todd, how long is this snowfield? And which side did you descend? I got most of the information before my signal cut out then my phone died. We stuck to skiers left and I belayed Spencer down then descended with the security of my ice axe. We did this a few more times before reaching the edge of the scree field. From here we picked our way down through the rocks and eventually made it down to relatively flat terrain. Rivelets of ice flowed down the hard alpine ice and we could hear water rushing under the ice in several places. By headlamp, we picked our way down to what we thought was the top of Asgard Pass only to find ourselves at a small alpine lake surrounded on three sides by steep rock walls. Nuts!
We knew we had descended too far to the right so we climbed back up, crossed a small stream the climbed up a sandy hill near the right shoulder of Dragontail. Spencer picked up a faint trail and we followed the tracks down for a couple hundred feet while trying to traverse to skiers right. We found and lost the climbers trail many times and eventually found ourselves between a raging stream and a steep slabby gully. One rappel off scrubby larch trees got us to a bench where we were able to cross the stream. Here we immediately saw a cairn and picked up the real Asgard trail! "Hoorah! we're going to LIVE!", I cried. It had been raining for an hour or so and we took shelter under and overhanging rock during the heaviest deluges.
Eventually we made it back down to the lake (2200' in one mile) and then waited for it to get light so we could find our packs that we stashed on "an obvious large boulder with a flat top". Once Spencer found our packs we loaded them up and made the last 6 mile hike back down to the trail head. It was 9:42am when we finally reached the car.
Thank you, Spencer, for a great climb, an epic descent, and most of all for sharing the drive home!