Riding the Dragon’s Tail

Dragontail Peak via Backbone Ridge, 2000ft, 5.9, 31 July 2020

I am not gonna lie. It has been a bit tough of a summer. 

Between finishing college and trying to figure out what initial brushstrokes to paint on this new blank canvas, the uncertainty of the Covid world, the rampant political unrest, amongst various other personal things, it has become increasingly difficult to view climbing as a top priority in life. 

Add in the fact that most of my summer has involved soloing moderate alpine rock routes with little to no room for error, I have found myself somewhat mentally drained. 

It has also been exactly two years since my accident in the Sierra, which adds another layer of reflection and perspective to the mix. 

I have been piecing together various reflections and insights in the last few weeks on these topics, and hope to have a full essay up on this site in short order. Stay tuned. 

But back to this trip report, for the time being. After a short trip to the Sawtooths, I came home to Bend to recharge for a bit and focus on other priorities in life. But the mountains keep calling. I have surprisingly never climbed in Washington’s Cascades, and after lining up a couple solid partners, my plan was to bust out a quick smash-and-grab trip to the Enchantments to climb Backbone Ridge on Dragontail, as well as Mt Stuart’s Direct North Ridge. This range has long both inspired and intimidated me. The approaches and routes are long, the terrain complex and littered with glaciers, and the weather perhaps a bit less reliable than elsewhere I’ve climbed.

Dragontail with Backbone Ridge visible about 2/3rds of the way to the right of the face.

I always like to introduce myself gradually to an area, and I was coming into a new range for the first time and going straight into a big car-to-car objective. So it was with a mixture of apprehension and excitement that I met Brett Erickson, my partner for Dragontail, at 3:30am in the trailhead parking lot for Dragontail. I was stoked to find a smart, enthusiastic, and young partner which boded well for the day ahead. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we shared a lot of similar perspectives on climbing in the mountains, and seemed to have a pretty compatible tolerance for risk and style. 

We began questing up towards Colchuck Lake, and, to my astonishment, passed four parties of hikers in the early morning darkness. The approach went smoothly, and with the daunting 3000-foot North face of Dragontail looming above, we knew we’d have to keep moving quickly and efficiently.

A short snowpatch crossing got us onto the rock, where we had a quick bite, some water, answered nature’s call, and racked up on a nice big lege system. We planned to solo easy terrain up to 5.6 to the base of the 5.9 offwidth, the first real pitch of the route. 

I’ll take walking through wildflowers over scree, any day

As I launched up off the ledge, I hurriedly laid back a few moves on a small flake, and next thing I knew, I had fallen.

I had ripped off a small rock in the crack and decked onto the ledge. The wind was knocked out of me and I struggled to breathe for a minute. I knew I was okay, but it felt that time had again stood still and that the mountains were perhaps telling me to fuck off, demanding some more respect. 

Colchuck Peak looming to our right.

We sat for a few minutes and contemplated our choices. There were some threatening clouds in the early morning, which had likely precipitated our rush to start climbing quick. I fought hard to look at the situation objectively; the route had not gotten any more or less safe because of what had just happened. But knowing that that could happen again, much higher than 10 feet above a big ledge, shook me to my core. 

In the end, we decided to go up carefully and methodically, but also to commit. We slowly soloed to the offwidth, which I then led very cautiously.

Mt Stuart, which will have to wait for another trip.

From there, we began simul climbing left of the ridgeline. I led a long simul block straight up through some surprisingly fun and clean 5.8/ 5.9 terrain, glad to find bomber cracks and good protection throughout, and quickly gaining speed and confidence and starting to find that elusive flow state. I fully trusted Brett’s ability, knowing he has done some hard soloing and seeing that he had a strong, cool head on his shoulders. A second long, much shittier block of simuling brought us to the base of the Fin, the huge, widely visible, 500+ foot steep slab near the top of the route. 

Sunshine and rainbows

Brett linked the first two pitches of the Fin with some simul climbing, and it suddenly felt like we were close to finishing this long 2000ft route. I then took the lead again, enjoying two of the route’s best pitches on amazing, exposed cracks. 

After peeping over a notch atop the Fin and not liking the extremely loose gully I saw on the other side, I opted to stay on the Fin and traverse right into no-man’s land, involving a pretty runout, thin downclimb to regain another good crack system. I found a perfectly placed green Camalot and plenty of rappel tat on a sketchy looking block, which all reeked of previous parties’ retreats. Glad to find a solid crack to belay, I leaned back and pondered our options as I belayed Brett up to me. He fell on the downclimb and took a bit of a ride, and my heart sunk for the second time that day. I was simply very, very thankful that I had not chosen to belay off that block.

Brett enjoying the money pitches while they lasted
Myself, riding the Dragon’s Tail.

We finally chose to continue climbing up the crest of the Fin; there were cracks, but they were thickly lined with black lichen that made the 5.9+ climbing feel very heady. But as I climbed up, an escape route shone ahead of me, and I made a big traverse into fourth class terrain, just a few hundred feet below the summit where we were finally able to unrope. 

Looking down at the Alpine Lakes from the summit.

We tagged the summit and headed down the big snowfield towards Aasgard Pass. We were very stoked to find deliciously crisp water flowing out of the snowfield above a little lake, and were finally able to take a deep breath and relax.

“Now for the easy part of the day”

On the tedious walk down Aasgard Pass, I felt a strange mixture of impatience and apathy. My motivation to get out quick was all but gone. I told Brett he should go ahead and run back to the car to grab beers in town. I took my time. I jumped in Colchuck Lake, and sat back in the evening light to contemplate our day. 

Needless to say, as I hiked back to the car in the dark, I knew that following up with Stuart the day after next was out of the picture. 

It can be hard, emotionally, to share every little detail in a blog like this, but that’s precisely why I am forcing myself to keep it up. It inspires reflection, and inspires learning. I feel that so much media around the outdoors focuses on positivity, success, and transcendence, and it can be hard to share deeply grounding experiences such as this. It’s so easy to move on from a day like this, preceded by a tumultuous couple weeks, and to dive straight into future plans. But for now, I just want to sit with it. Let’s play the long game. We’ll see what comes next. 

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