Friday, August 15, 2014

Dragontail and the Backbone Ridge

It all started with a simple question "What route havent you done?"

After a day of 100 degree temps and swimming in the Wenatchee River "World Class" and I headed up to the Stuart Lake trailhead to make final preparations for the Backbone Route. This route summits Dragontail at 8,840' and is within the Alpine Lakes wilderness. Also Dragontail is the second tallest peak with in the Stuart Range and the Enchantments. The trailhead starts at about 3,400' and asecnds to 6,400' the remaining 2,000' is technical rock climbing up to 5.9. In addition this route is grade IV with a total of 11 miles round trip. Our objective, to complete the route in one day.

Looking out through the car window, up towards the sky, stars shown brightly as we settled in for "a big day" in the mountains. Our eyes slowly shuttered close, the galaxy flickered away and just when we had fallen asleep the alarm started to buzz. In short order we ate a little food, brewed some joe, and we were off through the darkness on headlamp lit trails. Up the Stuart Lake trail following Mountaineers Creek to the junction with the Colchuck Lake Trail, along the dawn lit shoreline of Colchuck Lake and past scattered campsites. Eventually we chose a route up talus and scree then with crampons we crossed a small snowfield.
World Class approaching the Ledges Start
The route starts up class IV ledges that climb left past the backbone ridge and then back up to the right. Following the ramps up and back right to the ridge leads to a groove or dish that goes back left to an optional first pitch that goes at 5.2 . Alternately taking a more direct line up instead of right takes one directly to the base of what maybe pitch 0. At this point we soloed in approach shoes passing a ring slung tree then right to gain the ridge. This is where we roped up and started up on pitch 1.
Pitch 1 & 2 Including the Offwidth
Pitch 1 starts on moderate 5.5 climbing over blocks and around a bush to the base of pitch 2. This astonishing 2nd pitch starts out with hand size jamming but quickly goes to arm, leg, and then shoulder width. This climbed well with a left side in including side pulls on the right edge combined with stems and mantles on the right side face.
World Class Following Pitch 2; Yes That is a #6
Prior to this climb I read about the route including gear beta. Rest assured anyone on this pitch will be pleased to have a #5 and #6 C4. I bumped these pieces up for about 45 feet until I exited the off width to the left. Following this stunning off width crack we moved our belay left to start the 3rd pitch. On this pitch World Class started up the corner moving out left into low angle dirty cracks gaining a nice finger crack that would go at 5.7. Although just to the left of the belay were steeper cracks that lead more directly into pitch 4. World Class and I climbed the first four pitches in 2 pitch blocks so she continued up pitch 4. She left the belay to the right and up a short 12' hand crack to slabs and into a gradually widening hand to off width crack. Once gaining the offwidth portion World Class stepped down and left into a right facing dihedral with a finger crack in the corner and face edges to the right. Eventually she topped out to the left after 5.8 moves. After getting to the pitch 4 belay we realized that our pitch count was off thus leading us past an often climbed left facing dihedral. From the top of pitch 3 or what maybe referred to as pitch 4 one could "step down and left" to gain the crack system that leads to the left facing dihedral. Continuing up pitch 5 I followed a low angle hand crack up and left, out and around a corner, across a class III ledge and up to a comfortable shaded belay ledge. This is where a team could short pitch, simul, or solo however we continued to pitch out short 5.6 and 5.7 crux moves spaced with low fifth class terrain. We climbed a full 200' 6th pitch then simuled the 7th for another 200'. This lead us to a nice short 5.6 crack on the left side of the ridge. I placed pro for the 30' crack then ran out the remaining 150' for pitch 8. One more runout low fifth class 9th pitch took us to the base of the Fin Direct and lunch.

After a pleasant break soaking in the views from Mount Baker to Mount Rainier, World Class started up leading the 5.5 ridge and into easy ledges for a full rope length. After 200' of leading we finished the remaining 75' of 5.6 by simul-climbing creating what became known as "the longest pitch of the summer." Eventually we exited left up face moves to a comfortable ledge in the middle of the Fin Wall. This was our choice for pitch 10 instead of the chimney corner to our left. This corner  is often used as the lead in pitch to the comfortable ledge in the middle of the Fin Wall.

From this ledge I lead pitch 11 out left from the belay, into 5.7+ face moves, up to short parallel cracks that topped out on a smaller ledge. World Class followed then lead out left again for pitch 12. Thin 5.9 face moves lead into an open book with a crack in the back, climbing out left onto an arete, and up into a right facing dihedral with a combination of jamming and face moves for what we thought was the "short pitch" referred to in the route descriptions.

Two options exist from this belay. One is directly up into what apeared to be a 5.8 hand crack or traverse right across a ledge and into "twin cracks." I led the 13th pitch across the ledge, into the "twin cracks" (5.6)  reaching a dihedral where I built an uncomfortable hanging belay. In hindshight continuing up through the dihedral onto a broad ledge would have been a better option. World Class continued for the 14th pitch up the left facing dihedral with hand and foot jamming, across a broad ledge, then up and left through varied crack jamming and face moves to another "mid pitch" belay directly right and below the Fin. Next are nice 5.7 cracks that meander up, ending at a headwall, then climbing left into a variety of unprotected but short 5.9- face moves into the notch of the Fin for pitch 15.

From here a 16th pitch 4th class ledge leads to a notch on the right. The 17th pitch leads right across a class 3 ledge to join the top of the Serpetine Arete. These last two pitches could be soloed, simuled or short pitched. After coiling our rope and bagging the rack we scambled in approach shoes the last 100' to the summit of Dragontail.
Sunset on Dragontail
Finally we summited about 13 hours after leaving the Stuart Lake trailhead. Our casual pace eventually caused us to be slightly rushed thus leading to the aforementioned mid belays for pitches 13 and 14. After a short break at the summit we reconfigured our packs and started our descent. Once we reached the east side snowfield we put on crampons and descended to Mist Lake and Aasgard Pass. Then to a dusk colored Colchuck Lake down to Mountaineers Creek and back on headlamp lit paths to the trailhead. Roundtrip took me nearly 19 hours while World Class was patient and waited numerous times for me to catch up.
Mist Lake
This route is top notch with 17 pitches of climbing, unparalleled rock and pitch quality, in a wilderness setting, among a grand range of superb alpine rock there isn't better climbing for the grade. A fromidable approach with the possibility of frozen snow or ice and a staggering technical rock route this mountain is a delightful challenge. Considering ones own drive during a single day ascent or a multi day journey through one of Washingtons best alpine rock climbing destinations you will be challenged and you will be rewarded.