Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Colchuck F#&% Up

On Thursday night I got a last minute invitation to try climb Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak that weekend. I really wanted to do this route and check out the Enchantment/Mt. Stuart region, having never been there before. I packed my stuff up that night, got up early and drove to Leavenworth the next morning. My partner arrived shortly after I did from Seattle. He had been up until 4am the night before at a concert and wasn't packed yet. Several hours later he was ready and we left the trailhead at 5:15pm. Our plan was to ski the 8.5 mile approach in and camp at Colchuck Lake. The terrain was rough and my partner, due to lack of sleep, lack of experience with his skis, and presence of a very unwieldy pack on his back, made slow progress. Seven hours later we were still not at the lake and stopped to set up camp. It was after midnight.
Looking up Mountaineer Creek from our campsite beneath Colchuck Lake.
 Needless to say, we did not get the alpine start that would have been necessary for climbing such a long alpine north face route on a sunny March day. We slept in to 11am. I was determined to go up and do something, anything, to salvage some of the time and gas money I had spent to get out there. My partner said he still needed to adjust his crampons for his boots so I went up to Colchuck Lake to wait for him.
Dragontail on the left and Colchuck on the right from Colchuck Lake.
Colchuck Lake is right beneath the north faces of Dragontail Peak and Colchuck Peak. These mountains rise more than 3,000ft above the lake in steep granite buttresses and spires. It is spectacular.
Closeup of the north face of Dragontail with the Triple Couloirs route marked.
Once the misbegotten partner showed up we crossed the frozen lake and began skiing up the slopes under the granite faces in time to see a party of four descending from the Triple Couloirs route. They said the route was not in shape, merely sugar snow on bare rock, making it impossible to climb. This made us feel somewhat better about fact that we had completely blown any chance we had at attempting it.
Under the north face of Dragontail, watching climbers retreat from the first couloir of the route (in the oval).

Close up of the four climbers down-climbing from the first couloir.
From the base of Dragontail we skinned up the Colchuck Glacier. My partner, tired and hungry, opted to stop halfway up. I continued to the col between Colchuck and Dragontail where I was greeted with an amazing view of Rainier to the south. I stashed my skis at the col and ran up to the summit of Colchuck Peak where I had an awesome view of Adams, Rainier, Stuart, and Glacier Peak, as well as almost every other craggy and glaciated summit in the Washington Cascades.
Looking south at Rainier from the Colchuck-Dragontail col.
Dragontail from the summit of Colchuck Peak.

The big north face of Mt. Stuart from Colchuck.

Glacier Peak from Colchuck.
I descended back to my skis and then skied the 2,500 vertical feet of sustained steep slopes back down the glacier to Colchuck Lake. Almost all of this run had 4-6 inches of dry powder on it. It was by far the best back country ski run I've ever had and almost made up for the past 24 hours.
Looking down the Colchuck Glacier to Colchuck Lake... getting ready to shred some gnars!

Looking back up at the col and the awesome ski descent I just had.

Once back at camp we settled in for an early night. I had not anticipated staying two nights but the ski out was not something we wished to repeat in the dark. I had little food but my partner offered to share his. We got up early the next morning. The 7.5-8 mile ski out to the car took a little less time on the way down, only six hours.
Skiing over bridges when the snow is higher than the hand railings is scary... this totally counts as 4th class right?

The partner crosses bridge #2... slowly.
Waiting is not my strong point. I'm a skinny guy and if I can't avoid a heavy pack altogether I like to go fast so I can get it off before it permanently alters my puny skeletal structure. I took off once we reached the last downhill section of road to the car. Here I unpacked, stretched and re-hydrated for half an hour before my partner arrived. I'm not sure what the trouble was on that last section but having watched him struggle for the past 3 days, I'd wager he fell over at least five times in that half hour.

The mountains from the Bavarian wonderland that is Leavenworth, WA.
We drove out to Leavenworth. From there I drove home to Bend, stopping in Yakima to pig out on tacos and ungodly amounts of pastry from a Mexican bakery. In the future I will be asking a lot more questions and spend more time on minor objectives before committing to a long alpine route with someone.


  1. Good to meet you up there, as I said on CC. Would you mind emailing me the photo of the four of us coming out of the couloir w/o the red circle?

  2. Dude, contact me sometime for some climbs. CARPOOL!