Monday, August 18, 2014

The Backbone, Dragontail Peak

I forget where I first saw or heard about the Backbone Ridge. Probably when I first got a copy of the Nelson/Potterfield Select guide. The north face of Dragontail Peak where this route sits has held my imagination since I first saw a photo of it. The 2,000 foot plus wall of granite rising above Colchuck Lake is intimidating and inspiring. It is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to climb.

The north face of Dragontail Peak towering over Colchuck Lake.
My first attempt on D-tail's nordwand came in March of 2013. I arranged to climb the Triple Couloirs, a classic ice climb, with someone who I had not climbed with much before. In an obsessive push to try get onto a "real" winter alpine climb I missed my partners obvious hints that he would rather go to Joshua tree and work on his tan while smoking dope and drinking beer. After the most frustrating approach of my life, I at least managed to climb neighboring Colchuck Peak and bag an awesome ski run while he chilled out and recovered from pre-trip partying. In retrospect, even with climbable conditions and a good partner, I probably wasn't ready for that route.

Dragontail and Colchuck Peak in March of 2013.

With Triple Couloirs out of the picture for a while I fixated on the Backbone; one of the longest, most aesthetic and sustained rock routes on the face. In August 2013 I lined up some partners and time to go climb in Washington again. I suggested the Backbone but my partner countered with the Complete North Ridge on Mt. Stuart, the longest route on the biggest peak in the Stuart Range. I couldn't resist and the Backbone was relegated to a backup climb. After climbing Stuart in questionable weather, the forecast for the week deteriorated so I drove home several days early without trying any other objectives.

Looking down through swirling clouds from an unplanned bivy on the Complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart last August.

In June of this year I again had time for a trip and considered the Washington Cascades, but a combination of bad weather and lack of partners sent me south to the Sierra for some soloing. After that trip I started graduate school, got married, and spent the hot summer bouldering at the gym. Finally classes allowed me to procrastinate enough and my friend Chris, jonesing for a multi-pitch fix, jumped on the Backbone band wagon.

Chris is a meticulous planner and a solid rock climber. Our abilities are closely matched; Chris is a little better on hard pitches and I'm a little more comfortable running it out and moving fast on moderate terrain. We both have lots of multi-pitch experience and know what to expect on long routes. Not wanting to blow our one weekend we did plenty of research and planning. Then in true alpine climbing fashion threw all the good advice out the window, slimmed down the rack, lightened the packs, and told ourselves that we could climb the route much faster and with less stuff than most people suggested.

Chris has climbed a lot of routes in Red Rocks and has dialed his system for a long climbing day to a very small pack with water bladder, jacket, and a couple energy bars. He carries everything else on his harness. I was coming from a more alpine background and brought a light-weight 30L pack with more food and a camera. The second pitch of the route is a 5.9 off-width and this is definitely the crux of the ridge. We had read many comments saying that a #6 Camalot was the only way to protect a chunk of the pitch, but this cam is quite large and heavy. Instead we took doubles to #3 and one #5, I rationalized that the 5.9 off-width on Stuart's North Ridge was short-lived and had plenty of other places for gear.

We left Bend Friday afternoon and ate burritos made with Chris' favorite hot sauce in the car. After sleeping in the truck near the trail head, we started hiking at 5:30 in the morning. We blazed up the trail and easily reached Colchuck Lake (5 miles) in 90 minutes, circled the lake and started hiking up the glacial moraine to the base of the route. We encountered a little bit of sketchy snow and ice crossing to the start of the rock. Fourth class scrambling led up ledge systems to the ridge and the real climbing. We started climbing lower than anticipated due to water on the rock from rain the day before. Chris went up a wet corner and we simuled through to the base of the off-width, during which we heard heated conversation from above. We arrived at the belay ledge to find a man and a woman preparing to retreat, they said they had left the trail head at 2am and the man had decided they were going too slowly, the woman was evidently not happy with his decision. While they rigged a rappel off the ledge, Chris and I stared at the off-width which looked awesome and not that hard from below. Chris said he was psyched and asked for the lead, I didn't argue. He racked and took some deep breaths before starting up. He inched his way up the slot very slowly, from below I began to feel antsy, why was he taking so long? Eventually he committed to the top section with the #5 cam tipped out well below him. I followed and realized how glad I was that Chris had led the pitch, but it was still my favorite pitch of the whole climb. Chris would cite one of my leads as his favorite, an exposed traverse with heinous rope drag. Ironically, each of us hated leading the other's favorite pitch.

Taking a break to use the squatter at Colchuck Lake only 90 minutes after leaving the car.

Looking up at the route from Colchuck Lake.

Early morning light on Colchuck Peak and a very melted out Colchuck Glacier.

Another shot up at the route from the base of the glacial moraine.

Colchuck Peak with the moon above as we climb up the fourth class section low on the route.

While we were on the off-width two locals from Wenatchee caught us. The rope-gun, John, was obviously on top of his game and knew where he was going. Above Chris led another careful pitch up wet slabs before I took the lead for that traverse with awful rope drag. The other two guys passed us on adjacent cracks and shot up to the Fin, an amazingly positioned slab of white rock at the top of the ridge. We then ran out a short traverse on loose rock before I blasted off on a lengthy simul pitch up stair step terrain, chasing the other climbers. Chris led another quick simul pitch out ledges to the base of some cracks on the Fin, which I then climbed to a large ledge. I led yet another pitch up, stretching our 70m rope to reach a ledge at the top of a fun corner. Chris moved our belay down the ledge and let me have yet another stellar lead as I blasted up a sketchy wet corner to a dead end before cutting right around an arete on loose flakes, I reached the vicinity of the belay I'd seen the other party use and asked Chris how much rope I had left, "half-way" was what I heard so I punched it. I placed a marginal nut and hesitated briefly before pulling through an awesome undercling section to a short chimney and a belay on the crest of the Fin. Chris came up and traversed right to easier ground before we half-assed a short step and scrambled to the summit. In retrospect, Chris let me lead way more than my share and I guess I owe him some belays! On top, the clouds cleared just enough to give us spectacular views and we snapped some pictures joyfully before scrambling down.

Chris at a rest on the off-width before tackling the crux.

Colchuck Lake looking inviting.

Colchuck Balanced Rock and other spires east of Colchuck Lake.
Awesome views to the north and west with the Sandpiper (rock diving board) and Stuart Lake.

Chris coming up a corner at the end of the rope stretcher on the Fin with Colchuck Lake behind.
Dragontail's summit shrouded in cloud.

Chris coming up the undercling section on the last real pitch of the Fin.

The whole route had taken us longer than expected and it was already after 7pm. We cramponed down the snow field on the east side of the summit and descended into the Asgard Pass gully. Neither of us had ever been up or down Asgard but we had heard it was loose and not fun. I was a little concerned about our route finding as the light was quickly fading. We found a trail, sort of, and started down. In hindsight, there were no cairns and our "trail" was really just a goat track. After lots of loose talus and some sketchy chimneys we found ourselves in some trees looking down a cliff. We back-tracked, crossed some flowing water and went down third class, moss covered, streams to reach a talus field. Extremely unstable rocks went on forever in the dark. We kept traversing down and left. Finally we hit some trees and headed down, eventually reaching the cairns marking the real Asgard Pass trail. At this point we were only a couple hundred yards from the end of the talus slopes and the actual trail, definitely not the most efficient descent. We hiked the last six miles back to the trail head slowly on weak legs and sore knees, arriving back at the car at 12:40am. We ate a snack and fell asleep in the back of the truck. In the morning we drove to Leavenworth and ate breakfast before driving back to Bend, much too sore and tired to contemplate even a little cragging.

Mt. Stuart sticks out of the clouds beyond the summit of Colchuck.

Looking down into the Enchantments from the summit of Dragontail.

I'm stoked to have finally ascended this truly beautiful feature and that I was able to have so much fun doing it. This is the third peak, and second rock route I've climbed in the Stuart Range. While Backbone is only half the length of the Complete North Ridge, it is a little more sustained and has worse quality rock. I would say it's roughly two thirds of the Complete North Ridge in terms of time commitment. Once more I found that many pitches were close to 50m and that things took significantly longer than expected. Many people mention that route finding is a issue on this ridge but I would say that it is still a lot easier than the lower North Ridge, or maybe I'm just more experienced now. I definitely felt that I climbed more confidently and quickly on this trip, but then again I had not been climbing much last summer before Stuart and we had an experienced party to chase. The next time I go to the Stuart Range I think I will be looking to either climb technical winter routes, or some of the high quality rock routes on Prusik Peak.

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