The "Backbone Ridge" on Dragontail Peak is one of the classic ridge climbs in the Cascades. It is one of the more easily accessible of the long alpine rock climbs in the range. The ridge rises 2,000 ft over Colchuck Lake and follows the first visible rock rib on the northwest side of the peak to the prominent white slab (the "Fin") and onto the crest. It is about 15 pitches long with about 6 of those in the 5.7 to 5.9 range (the rest is mid-5th-class rock or easier).

On July 12, we hiked up to Colchuk Lake. We got up early and after the usual horse food and an English muffin or two, we left the bus around 6:30AM. We drove to the Stuart Lake Trailhead, about 20 minutes away. Once at the trailhead parking lot, we loaded our pack with last minute items and started hiking shortly after 7AM. It took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach the lake. The hike follows a good trail and seemed easy in comparison with the postholing fest in deep hollow snow among fallen trees we had suffered earlier that spring when we climbed Colchuck Peak. At the lake, we found a very nice spot with a flat platform and a small rock slab "beach". We had lunch on our private beach before we set up camp. That chore out of the way, we spent the afternoon lying in the sun. Big clouds started to move in by mid-afternoon. Shortly after that, we started to fix dinner. Quite tired of freeze-dried food, we tried something new: mashed potatoes and slices of pepperoni. Not bad... anyway, pretty much anything beats freeze-dried after too many trips! After packing our gear for the climb in the small day packs we brought with us, we hit the sack early. The wind was picking up speed and the clouds were thickening. We were starting to wonder whether we would climb the next day. We set the alarm for 2AM (we don't like to climb behind other parties).

By the time we got up the next morning, the wind was blowing hard and thick dark clouds were hiding the mountain tops. Disgusted, we went back to bed. It's funny how there's always a mix of disappointment and relief in those cases: you cannot do the climb you planned for but the pressure is off, and last but not least, you don't have to get up at this insane hour! Drifting back to sleep, we could hear the sound of raindrops falling on the tent...

We slept late and had breakfast by the tent. It was windy and cold. Clouds and fog were moving in and out. At times, we could not even see the top half of Dragontail Peak. After a lengthy breakfast (we made not one but two cheesecakes, albeit the instant variety!), we decided to hike to the base of the Backbone Ridge to scope the route and check out the short traverse across the steep snowfield (40 degrees or so) to the rock. There were some tracks in the snow leading to a ramp lower on the ridge, but we settled for a higher ramp which appeared to offer easier access to the base of the route proper. We hiked to the snow slope to check the snow consistency and find out whether we would need to carry crampons in addition to our ice axes to traverse it in the morning. The snow was fairly soft and we were able to cut small steps by kicking a few times with of our boots. No crampons then. The traverse was also about a rope length wide, so we would have the option of belaying each other from firm ground if necessary.

We saw a party of two high up on the route near the Fin. They appeared to follow the 4th class variation to the right instead of taking the more appealing 5.9 finish on the left side of the Fin. We did not envy them, as they were being engulfed by clouds at regular intervals and seemed to be moving pretty slowly. We went back to our tent and started preparing a 4-course freeze-dried dinner. You gotta eat! Later in the afternoon, the clouds started to thin out. Hopeful we could climb the next day, we were in the bag by 6PM.

Our trusty alarm clock awoke us again at 2AM. After some hard-to-swallow cereals and hot cocoa, we left camp at 3:15AM. A few minutes later, as we were walking around the lake, we noticed two headlamps shining near the lake ahead of us. Another party was just getting up. Quickly switching to stealth mode (we've climbed a lot of classics in Colorado, so we have it dialed), we turned off our headlamps and continued around the lake at a fast pace. When we got closer, we tried to be as quiet as possible, moving like cats along the trail then the boulder fields not 200ft from the other group. They never noticed anything. We were half way to the base of the route before the lights below started to move toward us. A few minutes later, another group of three bright spots was racing the first up the slope. We were moving so fast up the steep moraine we were drenched in sweat. There is so much loose stuff on a climb like the "Backbone Ridge" that you really don't want to be behind another party. Arriving second at the base would have meant not climbing the route at all.

With our substantial head start, we won that race, arriving at the snow traverse around 4:30AM, a good 1/2 hour ahead of anyone else. We belayed across the snowfield. As we were making our way up the 3rd class ramps and ledges to the base of the route, the other two parties arrived at the traverse... and continued on! False alert! It turned out that they were going to climb "Serpentine Ridge", another good climb next to "Backbone". All that running for nothing!

Scrambling upward, we arrived at the base of the technical pitches a half hour later. We roped up and started climbing at 5:30AM. After two short pitches of mid-5th-class, we were at the base of the 5.9 offwidth. The offwidth is easily protectable with one #5 Camalot if you keep moving it up with you. There is also a sling around a chockstone you can clip in to protect the first 30 ft. The next few pitches were about 5.7/5.8, easy climbing but on very mossy and slippery rock. After 6 or 7 pitches of that, we reached the large ledge at the base of the Fin around 10AM.

From here, the climb follows a loose ramp/dihedral diagonally to the right for some distance. These pitches were the least enjoyable of the climb as the rock was horribly lose, to the point of being quite dangerous. We somehow never found the twin cracks that were supposed to lead us to a higher ledge system. Instead, we climbed up moderate faces (5.9'ish) to reach the ledge a bit too far to the right, then traversed back up and left on a good diagonal crack to rejoin the route documented on our topo at the base of the 13th pitch. That pitch follows another diagonal crack across the delightfully exposed Fin to a blocky gendarme. The 14th pitch put us on the crest. Two more pitches of low-5th-class led us to the saddle just east of the summit. A final 4th-class scramble on questionable rock brought us to the summit by 2PM. The weather was fantastic. We spent an hour and a half on the summit, eating, resting, and making movies for Lucie's family with our digital camera.

The descent was straightforward. We hiked down the easy south ridge, and then descended 30° snow slopes to Asgard Pass, the col to the east of Dragontail. From there, we followed the well traveled but steep trail back down to the lake. It took about two hours to get back to camp. Once there, we rested, had dinner, packed, and finally left just before 9PM. On our way down, we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Pink and purple light was bathing Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks. After an hour of hiking, we reached the small bridge across Mountaineer creek, refilled our water bottles, and had to turn on our headlamps. We made it back to the trailhead at about 11PM. We had the good surprise to find a $50 ticket on the jeep windshield. A ranger ticketed us because our Eagle Passport (that substitutes for a Northwest Forest Pass) had fallen off the windshield. Somebody (not the Ranger!) had written on the back of the ticket: "F@#k the Forest dis-Service. Say no to fee demo!". We couldn't agree more. We drove back to the bus and went to bed at midnight, quite tired (we had been on the move for 22 hours).

Dragontail, Backbone Ridge (Fin Direct)

July 12-14, 2003 / 5.9, ~15 pitches, trad.
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Dragontail Peak seen from Colchuck Lake.
 
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The "Backbone Ridge" follows the ridge of the dark buttress to the light colored rock face near the top..
 
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Preparing the gear.
 
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Our camp by Colchuck Lake.
 
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Sunbathing on our private "beach".
 
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Bad weather the next day kept us from climbing.
 
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Colchuck Balanced Rock seen from the moraine.
 
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Mosquitoes! Welcome to the Northwest!
 
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Scrambling 4th class rock to the base of the route.
 
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Roping up.
 
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Going up easy terrain on the first pitch.
 
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Eric leading the 5.9 offwidth and ...
 
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...taking a rest at a good stance.
 
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Lucie following one of the first 10 pitches.
 
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One of the many low-to-mid 5th class pitches below the Fin.
 
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Somewhere along the ridge.
 
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Taking a break at one of the belays.
 
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The last technical pitch before the Fin.
 
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Face climbing up the Fin.
 
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Going up a crack system (2nd pitch on the Fin).
 
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"Ridge silhouette".
 
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One of the nicest pitches, a 5.7 right-angling crack with great exposure.
 
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Hanging belay off a horn on the Fin...
 
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...about 12 pitches up.
 
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Taking a rest at the top of the Fin.
 
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On 4th-class ground just below the summit.
 
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This is the summit!
 
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Views from the summit (Colchuck Peak with Mount Stuart behind).
 
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Self portrait on the summit.
 
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Looking back toward the ridge.
 
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Mmmh! Chocolate and almond paste!
 
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Looking toward Prusik Peak and the Enchantments Basin.
 
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Eric on the South Ridge (descent).
 
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Descending from Asgard Pass to the Lake. Don't miss the cairn!
 
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Dragontail Peak just before sunset.
 
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Hiking back to the car.
 
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Enjoying another beautiful sunset.
 
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Still going ...
(high res. images are about 300KB)
A long, handsome line up the impressive North Face of Dragontail.
The Fin Direct variation goes through the most striking feature on the face: a large, smooth face of lighter-colored rock near the summit.
Some fun climbing and great airy positions, but lots of dangerously loose rock along the route detract somewhat from the otherwise enjoyable route.