Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dragontail Peak, Serpentine Arete

When we arrived in Leavenworth this spring, it was the first time either Liz or myself had ever seen the town, the Stuart Range, or the Cascades.  A dry ski season had left us with strong legs, weak butts, and a voracious appetite for climbing.  With only our bicycles for transportation our appetite was indeed larger then our ability for those first few weeks.  Slowly we worked our way into the season with short trips up the Tumwater and Icicle canyons, the packs on our backs were heavily laden with gear.  Hobo's Gulch, Clem's Holler, Castle Rock, Pearly Gates, we methodically worked our way up the road, each ride a little farther, each climb a little harder.  After a while we wised up and put some slick tires on our bikes and threw down some dough for a couple of B.O.B. trailers to get the gear off our backs and save our asses some unnecessary pain.  We've come a long way since those first weeks of this human powered season, our cycling has become more efficient, faster, and more pleasurable, and our climbing has improved in the same ways.  Not only the physical nature of our trips has increased though, the mental toughness required to undertake a multi night adventure in this style is demanding.  Should either of us be hurt or otherwise compromised, we're a long walk and ride from town.  The more we've become accustomed to this risk and accepted its many challenges, physical and mental, the more successful, exciting, and purely awesome our trips have become.  On our most recent bicycle-powered excursion into the Stuart Range, we wanted to push the envelope even farther by undertaking a committing alpine climb, from town, all human power, in one day.  We aimed high, and were rewarded with one of the finest climbs, and most rewarding experiences of the summer.

Dragontail Peak's 2000 ft. Serpentine Arete.

Dragontail Peak's Serpentine Arete is a moderate, but committing climb.  While one of the easier routes on the Northern side, it's still a serious undertaking on this mile wide, 2000 foot face.  The arete is neighbors with the Backbone Ridge and offers a few pitches of awesome quality and location, along with thousands of feet of moderate scrambling and climbing.  The day would call on all of our skills, and require cool heads and a fast pace to complete before dark.  

With days getting shorter and our hopes to avoid a descent like our previous weeks bushwacking in the dark, we made for an early start, enjoying some coffee and granola, and rolling out of town under the cloak of darkness around 5 am.  The light caught up with us quickly but the ride out Icicle road and up the canyon was cool and we lost little energy compared to previous weeks of cycling in the heat.  A freshly grated and compacted road up Mountaineer Creek afforded us a speedy ascent to the parking lot of the Stuart Lake TH, the first leg of out multi-sport day going down in only about 2hrs, our first time up with day packs and a full 45 minutes faster then any previous attempt.  A quick refuel and we set off up the trail to Colchuck lake, again the early start and cool temperatures played in our favor and we were at the lake enjoying a snack in about only an hour and a half.  Around the lake and up the moraine got us to the base of the climb, just in time to transition to vertical movement and start using our hands,  as both of us were starting to feel a little tired from the waist down.  

Morning sun catching up with us over Colchuck Lake


Fueling up on top of the moraine.  We've come a long way already.

The first several hundred feet of the route are similar to backbone ridge, about 500 feet of scrambling gets progressively steeper, harder, and more exposed until the space below you motivates for some roped climbing.  A bit of simul-climbing and some exciting moves get you to the right side of the great pillar and the start of the fun climbing.  The next few short pitches were the highlight of the climb, clean, steep, moderate cracks and face climbing rated in the 5.8 range soon gave way to the blocky arete and loose rock the route is known for.  

Sending.  Liz sporting custom S.A.G. chalkbag with the Colchuck Glacier showing in the background.

Following up the money pitches.


We hadn't seen any parties on the wall when approaching from the moraine, somewhere below the great pillar we heard a shout or two but thought it might be resonating from the more popular lakeside.  Just before reaching the pillar we realized the shouts were coming from above and that we were following another party.  Most of the beta for the climb warns about a lot of loose rock and the reality that you'll probably not want be below other parties.  Where we were, the rock was still clean and we thought there was plenty of terrain to pass or keep to the side should conditions persuade us.  

We worked our way up the moderate sections high on the route, taking time to rest often as it was obvious the party ahead of us was not into letting us pass.  This made for some lost time but we figured we were doing great anyway and would be able to make up time on the descent.  Waiting quickly got old, however, and we made use of the available moderate terrain to try and sneak beside the other party to an alternate finish.  While scrambling and simul-climbing on the loose, gravely ledges I pushed off a few rocks that pushed off a few more and before I knew it, they were careening towards Liz below.  "rock..., Big Rock!"  I yelled, as Liz darted and swerved, but a softball sized chunk of granite connected with her hand and smashed her finger pretty well.  "You got me", she announced between tears, but she continued to climb up to me and I took her sobs for laughing because she was still moving and I hadn't realized she'd been hit.  I wouldn't have expected someone to get beaten by rockfall and immediately continue climbing, tough girl I've got here.  I belayed her up to me and we assessed the situation, bloody, beaten, but okay.  I taped up her finger so it wouldn't fing and like the hardwoman she is, Liz sobered up and pushed to the top.  

Close to the summit, Enchantment Basin in the background.

Bloody and taped up, but still smiling.

We were only a few minutes from the summit and before we knew it the climbing was over.  We enjoyed a snack, and a few of the most delicious, locally crafted, raw chocolate truffles from Sage Mountain before starting the descent towards Aasgard Pass.  We made some nice turns boot-skiing down the back side, and made good time down Aasgard.  Back at the lake, we hydrated and appreciated the view of the beautiful, and imposing mountain we'd just climbed.  We hoped to make it home by dark so we kept at the pace and again made quick work of the trail, getting back to the parking lot in another hour and a half, about 12 hours since we left it that morning.  All that lay ahead was the bicycle back to town, and as they say, it's all downhill from here.  

Now to go down...

Smiles on our faces and the wind in our hair, we soaked up the glory of the day in the most fitting way possible, coasting on a bike down a long hill.  Liz's finger got smashed, and that sucks.  Not cool.  But it could have been worse and it was a wake up call for us both to be more alert and careful, and as always, patient.  Otherwise the day was smooth, successful, and satisfying.  We dreamed big with this single-day, human powered, committing alpine climb, and were rewarded for our training, patience, and mindfulness.  One of the finest climbs, days in the mountains, or days of our lives, that either of us has ever experienced or shared.  This summer has been unreal, and the season for climbing is just getting started.

By the numbers (estimates):

Miles Biked:  25
Miles Hiked:  15
Vertical Feet Climbed:  2000
Total Vertical Ascent (feet):  7600

15 hours door-to-door



  1. YA! Super awesome guys im really excited to try and come down and do some sending!

  2. Did you at least sign the rock for the lady? Dad still has the disc I got tagged with at Lebanon....

  3. Don't you know it's not good form to beat up your old lady? Awesome blog! fotomat