After we climbed Mount St Helens, we wanted to climb a few other volcanoes like Mount Hood and Mount Adams to get in shape for Mount Rainier. We called around to inquire about conditions and access but found out that most of the roads were still blocked by snow at least 5 miles before the regular trailhead.

Spoiled by the easier approaches and access we had been used to in Colorado, we figured we would wait a few days for the roads to improve and go climb some rock in Leavenworth in the meantime. The guidebook stated that it had great cragging, so why not? Well, because the book is lying... the rock is really not that great (at least compared to what we were accustomed to in places like Lumpy Ridge, CO, for example) and most of the rock formations are rather diminutive. After a day of cragging at Castle Rock (which has some good lines), we were ready for something else and opted to climb Colchuck Peak (8,705 ft) via Colchuck Glacier, a moderate snow climb on 35° slopes. We were also hoping to climb "Triple Couloir" on Dragontail (8,840ft) a much more serious snow and ice climb that follows a series of steep couloirs in the middle of the north face. Since both climbs are accessed from Colchuck Lake, we decided to go spend a couple of nights at the lake.

The approach to Colchuck lake is not particularly long (2,200 ft elevation and 4.5 miles), but was very tedious as there was no packed trail and we found ourselves postholing knee deep in hollow snow for most of the way up. With full packs, it took us 3 1/2 hours to reach the lake at about 5,600 ft. We found a ready made snow platform left by another party right by the lake. The lake was still frozen and we soon started the long (very long!) process of melting snow for water. We had not done much winter camping in a while and we were amazed again at how time consuming this is.

We planned to climb Colchuck Peak first and then give "Triple Couloir" a try if conditions permitted. The next day, we left camp just before sunrise and headed up toward Colchuck Glacier on moderate snow slopes. The snow was soft, making for easy climbing (it was very warm and the snow had barely re-frozen during the night). We soon reached the glacier and continued toward the Dragontail-Colchuck col. The slopes become steeper near the col but never exceed about 35°. From the col, a traverse across steep snow slopes leads to the summit plateau at 8,500 ft. There, broad open slopes led us to the small summit pyramid. We were on the summit at about 8AM and enjoyed great views of Mount Rainier. The descent backtracks the ascent route. We were back at camp around 10:30AM and rested in the sun the rest of the day. From camp, we had the greatest view of the north face of Dragontail and the Triple Couloir route. The temperatures that afternoon soared well into the 70's.

Triple Couloir had been the next day's objective, but it was becoming clear that it would not happen. Weather conditions have to be just right to attempt that type of route: continuously steep, with long sections of iced-up rock, and totally exposed to any avalanche activity above. And the weather was not cooperating. As it got warmer and we were observing the face from camp, Dragontail started to avalanche all over the place. We had never seen anything like it! Every couloir on the face was avalanching one after the other in an almost continuous roar. Having witnessed about 30 or so avalanches in an hour, we knew we would not climb the next day unless it got real cold, real fast.

The coldest it got that night, according to our altimeter, was 50°F, at 3AM! To our surprise (or was it horror?), two climbers started heading up the bottom of the couloirs very late the next morning (around 8AM). Wow! Some people are either a lot braver than us or completely out of their minds! Thirty minutes later, however, they predictably turned back.

Triple Couloir really looked impressive though... we might be back next season. While at the lake, we also got to look at a classic ridge line on the north face called the "Backbone Ridge". It climbs the entire face, following a sharp ridge line and ending on a beautiful looking steep face of lighter colored (i.e. lichen-free) granite near the top. We would be back for that soon.

Colchuck Peak, WA - Colchuck Glacier

May 12-14, 2003 / Grade II, 35° snow, class 3 rock, 1-2 days.
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Colchuck Peak - the Colchuck Glacier route ascends the large couloir to the col, then traverses behind the rocky ridge to the top.
 
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Postholing in the forest on the approach.
 
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Approaching Colchuck Lake.
 
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Digging to make camp!
 
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Lucie on snow-melting duty.
 
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Going up the slopes above camp just before sunrise.
 
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Starting up Colchuck Glacier.
 
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Approaching the Dragontail-Colchuck Col.
 
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On the summit plateau.
 
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On the summit!
 
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Sic.
 
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Views of Mount Rainier from the summit.
 
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Coming down the summit pyramid.
 
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Resting at Colchuck Col on the way down.
 
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Unwinding after the climb.
 
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The impressive north face of Dragontail viewed from camp (Triple Couloir goes up diagonally left to right above the large avalanche cone).
(high res. images are about 300KB)