Chasing the Dragon Part 2...
When John Plotz emailed me last weekend completely convinced that conditions on Dragontail’s Backbone Ridge were going to be perfect I have to say I was skeptical. Previous experience told me the Colchuck Lake basin was bitterly cold most of the winter. But local knowledge is local knowledge and it’s not like I had anything else planned for the end of the week.
So… Thursday morning found me standing at the Eight Mile trailhead waiting or John and Kyle to arrive so we could ski into the lake. If winter climbing in the Cascades demands nothing else it demands optimism.
We skied up the road in the cold fog convinced warmer air lay above the inversion. Kyle had originally planned to accompany us to the trailhead and possibly further but a fall the previous week had left him with a back injury and he wished us luck and turned back shortly after we left the cars. John and I continued skinning up the trail. The previous week’s rain had reduced the snow cover and it was mostly easy going all the way to the lake. Either that or my skinning has improved which doesn’t seem that likely. At the lake we retrieved a cached rope and some large cams and pitched a tent on the edge of the ice.
We planned to climb the route in a single day figuring we might be able to rappel from the base of the Fin into the top of the Triple Couloirs route and climb that for a quick finish if darkness looked like it was going to overtake us. Being benighted would not be fun. An early start was in order…
The following morning John and I left the tent just before six and hiked the twelve hundred or so feet up from the lake up to the base of the route at 6,800’. The snow was really well consolidated so we made really good going and reached the base by around dawn just after seven. We geared up on the moraine and I set off to the start of the route.
In winter the lower part of the route climbs a shallow gully and then traverses easy angled snow slopes first left and then back right to the base of the 5.6 corner a pitch below the off-width. We simul-climbed the snow to the corner using trees as belays. Soft snow made it seem like hard work but at least it was really easy climbing.
There are actually two obvious corners below the off-width, in winter the left hand one looks to be the better option. It had less ice than on my previous attempt a few years ago with Alasdair. The snow ended in a short ice smear up the base of the corner. We drytooled and then rock climbed the corner to the obvious tree anchor. Probably at about M4 or so – because every Cascades route seems to get M4 these days.
We put away the boots, crampons and ice tools and put on rock shoes and, in my case, attractive 80s style leg warmers. The warm temps and rock shoes allowed John to make short work of the pitch Alasdair and I had spent ages aiding on our last attempt. Heavy packs made the first 5.6 moves feel like hard work though.
By 9:30 we we at the base of the off-width corner which had some snow deep in the crack but was pretty much dry. We broke out the aiders and big green Camalot. I was worried the corner might really slow us down but a combination of aid, French free and free climbing soon had me hauling packs and John following the corner. The wall above looked largely free of snow.
We were able to free climb the 5.8 pitches above the off-width to gain easier ground on the ridge crest below the Fin. We simul-climbed the forth class pitches to the base of the Fin. All really fun climbing without much of the unpleasantness usually associated with winter climbing. In fact other than the overly heavy packs, it was all starting to seem a bit too easy.
From the base of the Fin we could see directly into the upper of the Triple couloirs. Like everything else on the face snow cover was thin. As we were watching a TV sized block came bouncing down the gully dislodging other rocks and taking them into the lower couloir. This made our cunning escape plan seem a whole lot less cunning.
John led the first pitch up from the base of the Fin across the ledges. Which is where Dragontail started to bite back. There was a lot more verglass on the slabs and icing in the cracks than we’d found lower down making the climbing somewhat harder and hard to protect. John did a great job of making it to the belay ledge in the middle of the Fin without being able to get much gear.
I led a short pitch up the face but was stopped as grove above me was filled with snow. Further up the remainder of the crack system was completely iced in and not in a fun mixed sort of way. I belayed John up to our high point and we examined our options. These seemed somewhat limited given that we are over a dozen pitches up the route and our bailout option of the Triple Couloirs looking very unattractive.
Other than the groove leading right there was another set of cracks to the left. I remembered a topo showing the left hand variation so we opted to give it a go, neither of us actually having done it before in summer. It seemed like the only, and therefore best plan.
John headed up the first series of cracks to a great belay at the start of a rightwards traversing rack system. While the cracks weren’t iced in you definitely had to be careful where you put your hands and feet as there was much more icing than lower on the route. I climbed the cracks right and ended up in an obvious notch in the crest of the fin and belayed John up. We were rewarded with a fantastic position and amazing view of the surrounding peaks and the lake far below. On the minus side the sun was starting to set over Colchuck and it was getting cold.
I’d been to the notch before in summer while exploring another variation – usually called “being off route” - and vaguely remember a loose ledge system on the back side of the fin. The ledges led to another notch, onto the front of the Fin and then ultimately to the summit. Of course in winter this turned out to be covered in either ice or soft snow. We quickly changed out of rock shoes and into boots. It was now past 4pm and darkness would be on us in under an hour.
The traverse was slow going with many loose blocks waiting for the unwary. After a little aid and a lot of cursing we regained the ridge crest just as it got truly dark. Rather than continue traversing the summer route’s iced in ledge system we opted to put rock shoes back on and simul-climb the crest of the rock ridge. I belayed in the dark as John grunted up another easy (in summer, in daylight) off-width to the ridge crest and continued along it. He ran out of gear just below the summit. I followed the cracks - more swearing and grunting - and finished off the final fifty feet of mixed rock and snow gaining the top just after 6pm (total time on route about eleven hours).
We took a few photos and headed down. The descent was straightforward except for a short section of scree at the top of Asgard Pass we were able to plunge step most of the way to the tent for a round trip time of about fourteen hours.
Next morning we left camp early the and John skied and I slid down the the trailhead. Yes, there is a difference. How anyone can ski with a forty pound pack on is beyond me, I half expected John to rail slide the handrails on the bridges over the creek. Either way we made it to the trailhead were we were met by Kyle. We swapped stories and then skied down the road to the cars.
By 2pm I was waiting in Starbucks in Leavenworth with the other sheeple trying to get a coffee for the drive home. A full value trip and the weekend wasn’t even half over with.
Gear: Full rock rack to #6 Camalot with some doubles in the mid-sizes. Pins (KBs and Angles) not used. Ice tools and crampons required, we took one heavy set for the leader and a light weight set for the second. Double ropes increase your options should you have to bail.
This has been a project of mine for the best part of five years since climbing the
Serpentine Ridge in winter with
Alasdair Turner in 2005. Numerous winter attempts with Alasdair, including one that failed above the off-width, and several summer rehearsals with Forrest, Justin and
John and Kyle Flick all contributed to being able to make the most of the weather this time and get it done.
Thanks to everyone who’s tried this route with me – summer or winter – and especially John for watching the weather and being an excellent partner for the trip.
First Winter Ascent of the Backbone Ridge (Weigelt-Bonneville, 1970) with Fin Direct left hand variation (Anderson-Brugger, 1974). Ade Miller and John Plotz, Jan 16th 2009 (2000’, 5.9 A1 mixed).
The route follows the summer line climbing easy snow to the base of the 5.6 corner. Climb the corner system (mixed) to a tree (possible belay) and continue up rock to the base of the offwidth. The the route to the Fin crest is as described in Beckey. On reaching the crest traverse the south side of the Fin on loose icy ledges (mixed, one pt. aid) to regain the crest at an obvious notch. We avoided further ledge systems on the north side of by climbing up to the crest and traversing towards the summit.