Dragontail Peak – Triple Couloirs

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dragontail Peak – Triple Couloirs 5/4/15

Dragontail Peak

Dragontail Peak is an inspiring piece of rock. It has a stunning ascetic, especially when it’s holding snow. Dragontail Peak is the second highest peak in the Stuart Range, second only to Mt. Stuart. It stands tall at 8,840 feet in the enchantments, just 5 miles from the Stuart Lake Trailhead. Colchuck lake lies at its base, and behind it stand several alpine peaks, on which there are a long list of routes waiting to be ticked off the bucket lists of every climber who loves quality rock in an breathtaking setting. I first climbed up there nearly two years ago with Brenda via the Colchuck Glacier.

Andres asked me about this route a few weeks prior. Once our schedules finally lined up with the weather he was all about it. Andres has climbed ice all over the place, and spends most of his time touring and ski mountaineering. Considering that my ice experience is very limited, I was excited to be invited along.

Triple Couloirs follows a series of  (you guessed it) three narrow, steep 40-50 degree, gullies (aka couloirs) which are seperated by sections of 70-80 degree water ice, and rock depending on condition. The rock protection can be scarce in places, so it’s best done when the ice is both in and thick. It travels a total of 2500 feet up the peak’s 1,759 feet of prominence. The route is far from contrived, following a clean and obvious line, although when on route, you cannot see very far ahead of your position, an attribute that keeps you guessing and attentive.

Overlay of the route

After some city traffic problems, a quick stop at the grocery store and our 2 hour drive, we made it to the trailhead at about 11pm Sunday night. We sorted gear, packed up and caught a couple hours of sleep. The alarm went off at 3am, a quick breakfast later, we were on the trail by 3:45 and cruising. We reached the lake at about 6:30 and cashed our trail shoes and trekking poles. At 8am we were racked up and on route.

Andres heading up
The Hidden Couloir

Now at the base of this thing, I had about eight, 30 meter pitches of WI3-4 under my belt. I was apprehensive about soloing anything, I started up the first low angle ice/mixed step unroped and felt fine. I was nervous, and aware of consequences, but fine. Two tool placements at a time, followed by two to four steps, the feeling of unease started to fade as I was pretty focused on what I was doing, and doing it methodically.

 Gaining the first Couloir
Near the bottom of the first couloir
Almost to the runnels

About half way up the first couloir we had a pretty large rock come whizzing down, a blunt reminder that time was still a factor. Feeling a little winded, I tried to keep up with Andres as best I could.

We reached the first set of runnels and I was relieved to see him excited to lead. The ice was gorgeous, Andres built a belay while I was finishing up, and he was ready to go once I got a sip of water and flaked out the rope.

Gorgeous Ice!
Screw, Pin, Nut

The runnels took longer than we had hoped, but we were still moving pretty efficiently. This went on for about 3 full rope lengths until we reached the second couloir. It was getting warm, and the snow was getting soft. We pitched out the second couloir, swinging leads on dodgy picket belays through its 600 feet until we reached the second set of runnels. The second couloir is strait up the middle of the peak with exposure that can make anyone question the sanity of those who have made the ski descent of this route. Andres led the second set without incident and we were glad that we brought pins, because we ended up using 2 of them. The rock gear really is sparse on this route, stubby ice screws would have been nice too.

Looking down the second couloir
Glamour shot

We reached the bottom of the third couloir and took a break, it must have been nearly 4pm, the snow wasn’t getting any softer. We hydrated and got a snack before finishing out the last couloir, unroped to the top. The exposure was pretty amazing, and the last couloir is no “gimme”, its pretty long.

Andres finishing up the last section
Topping out
We topped out at 5:30 and got moving down pretty quickly thereafter. It wasn’t the speed ascent, but considering it was the only time I had ever climbed 50 degree alpine ice, I was just stoked to finish with daylight left. Coming down was less than enjoyable, non-stop post holing all the way down Aasgard pass. The snow was slushy, and there were rotten pockets everywhere.
Andres – walking out  just before Aasgard pass
The descent
The first couloir, taken on the hike out

We made the classic Aasgard mistake of getting too close to the lake and had some trouble finding our shoes and poles. We found the cashe, got refueled and repacked around sunset and started making our way out under our sore feet. For whatever reason, the Stuart Lake Trailhead has an amazing quality of seeming very short on the approach and about 5 times as long on the way out. The thought of “the truck is just around this next corner” keeps echoing in my head, and once I let go of it…. there’s still 2 miles to go.

We reached the truck just after 11PM making our day just shy of 20 hours, again, not the speed ascent, but not bad considering we did it Car-to-Car and it was a new type of route for me. I didn’t bring my suunto, but I estimate that we covered was somewhere around 13-15 miles round trip.

Triple Couloirs was an amazing route that opened my eyes to routes with alpine Ice and Water Ice. We stayed efficient, kept moving, and most importantly, we managed risk well by making good decisions. It was a long day, but I pushed my limits and expanded my idea of what is possible for me. It was very valuable to climb with Andres, someone who has experience outside of the Cascades, and to learn from his experience gained in Alaska and the Adirondacks. I felt that my experiences on several grade III alpine rock routes really translated well, allowing me to focus on the ice and snow facets of the route. Learning to climb steeper snow and alpine Ice was pretty big for me, and gaining the confidence to do it unroped was a big leap for me. A big thanks to Andres Torres for the mentorship.

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