Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dragontail Peak - Backbone Ridge - 07.23.13

Matt and I had talked early in the year about getting out and doing an alpine climb. Some grand ideas were tossed around until we landed on the Backbone Ridge with Fin Direct on Dragontail Peak. This was a route we could do in a day which was all I really had available for a climb.

We had worked out some logistics, but Matt and I had never climbed outdoors before with each other. Our calculations put us at 16 hours car to car which we felt good about for the trip. So we headed out the night before and slept in the car with a wake up time of 4am.

We hit the trail at 5am right behind a mountain goat and followed him to the first creek crossing. We were making good time to the lake when we stopped for a break at the one hour mark. We were off again and hit the far end of the lake and went around it a bit before ascending to the moraine. This turned out to be a bit longer and more time consuming than heading straight up the moraine from the corner of the lake. At the time we thought nothing of it, but looking down from the route later it was obvious to me that the way we had chosen was longer and not necessarily less difficult.

We got to the top of the moraine and that is where the difficulties arose. Crossing the snow was easy with a fair amount of sun cups. I took the lead in my heavier approach shoes while Matt followed with his trail runners. We took a bit of time to figure out where we should gain the rock and after taking that time made an incorrect decision. We took the highest of three ramps which had a steep start and at one point a tree to climb through. Higher up on the scramble we noticed the nice ledge system below us and worked our way down to easier terrain. Then we were questioning where the route started. A quick look at the route description told us we had to gain 500' of elevation scrambling, so off we went until we got to what we decided was the base of the route.

I geared up for the first pitch and at this time another party caught us and their leader climbed past me leaving me in a position of having to climb under his rope to continue which I did not look forward to. So I waited until their second climbed past, and I remained hot on his heels. I brought Matt up to the belay and we waited for their party to finish the pitch before we started.

Once Matt started the off-width pitch he made steady progress. It didn't look too hard, especially seeing the second from the other team going up it. Matt got to the top and put me on belay. The first moves in were easy enough with some extra cracks and bulges to use for hands and feet. The lower portion of the main crack was also taking a foot jam from me without any real off-width technique being employed. Then I got stuck. I could not make upwards progress. The nubbins for my right foot ran out, and I got in a position where it felt like my right half of my body was useless in getting me up the pitch. I struggled. I grunted. I thrashed. Nothing was working. I yelled up to Matt about the possibility of lowering me back to the bottom of the pitch and hauling the pack. He wasn't into it. I contemplated a lowering and putting the approach shoes back on for the ability to jam the crack. I wasn't going to get lowered. I put a prusik on the rope and tried to pull up a few times. This got me a little progress, but not significant. As I panted and my heart raced, I decided we needed a quicker way and yelled to Matt to set up a haul. He did, but I still had to help him somewhat. So I still thrashed up the route. Every time I would stand up, he would haul rope. I eventually made it to the top and we had a talk.

We had blown lots of time in the approach and the first two pitches. Matt asked if I was up to continuing. I said yes. I told him we could be more efficient, and being there was no more off width, I could run up pitches if he led them. We opted not to rap off at this point, but knew we were setting ourselves up for a significant uphill battle for the rest of the route as we had lost a lot of time. Neither of us wanted to descend Asgard Pass in the dark. We had about eight hours of daylight left to make that happen. We had a brief lunch and continued.

Matt led the next pitch which mostly felt on route, although had quite a bit of lichen on the later part of the pitch. The two of us climbed that third pitch in less than a half hour which lifted our spirits for getting back on track. The next pitch was decidedly off route and took a touch longer, but we were still optimistic about our timing. I led a short pitch and then another to a corner feeling like perhaps we were finally at the pitches we might be able to simul climb. This was untrue as Matt had to climb around a corner and upward still. I fell following that pitch on a lie back roof, which left me further beat up.

Once at the top of that pitch we finally simul climbed. Rope drag slowed us down and I stopped us a bit short of the fin so I could belay Matt in from the shade of a rock. I led up the fin next but also stopped a bit short, although I had most of the rope out. Then we wandered up the ramp system on the fin for two more pitches before Matt saw a ledge system he was willing to conquer. At this point I told him I was too tired to lead and it would be all him if he wanted off the peak without sleeping up there.

This is actually where the nice climbing began. Unfortunately for us, we were too tired and thinking about getting off before sunset to enjoy it. Matt led out on a ramp than turned upward and left to a hand crack with some exposure. (Pretty much the first exposure of the route for us.) He went a touch too far to the other side for the belay, so I set up a belay at the top of the ridge to belay him back up and on his way to the next pitch. Unfortunately during that belay up and out we forgot to transfer gear to him and a bit out on the pitch is where he realized. He down climbed back to the first piece he had in and then hauled the gear up on the rope so he could continue. I followed the pitch which had a crack that widened to off-width. This one was significantly easier. However, having struggled through the previous off width and having been on my feet for the past 15 hours I was done. I didn't have the strength or the reasoning to overcome the problem. I applied a prusik to the rope and yarded up through a few moves before reaching easier ground and a traverse to Matt's position.

We did one last pitch on the fin (total of six pitches on the fin) as we watched the sun set over the mountains to the west. We simul climbed the last of the ridge to the finish where I heard Matt exclaim "we can descend!" as he popped over to the south side and witnessed the full moon over the enchantments. We took our first rest in hours sitting in the glow of the moon while we removed rock shoes and put our approach shoes back on. We left our helmets and harnesses on and put most of the gear away before starting down. I gave Matt the lower portion of my whippet to use as a tool to help get down the snow and we made our way slowly down to Asgard Pass under headlamp and the shine of the moon. We stopped for water on the snowfield briefly and continued down. The snow was soft enough for plunge stepping and we made good time for it being dark and having been up for so long.

We really started to slow down on the way down Asgard Pass as we had to pick our way down trying to stay on the trail. We passed a few people camped out in tents who perhaps underestimated how strenuous it is to get up Asgard before dark.

Back at the lake we lost the trail a bit and wandered through drainages until returning to the trail to hop some boulders back to the other side of the lake. Then it was a relatively uneventful hike out in the darkness for a few hours. We arrived at the car around 3:10 am a full 22 hours after we left it in the morning. Our hope was to drive into town and get some food before returning to Seattle. But as suspected, Leavenworth was all shuttered up and we could not get food. So we drove to the rest area west of town on Highway 2 and slept for a few hours before continuing home.

It was really fun to get out, but this trip highlighted a few concerns about my lack of time in the mountains. One is climbing ability. While I don't know if I would have had an easier time with the off-width if I had been climbing a lot, it would be nice to have at least been ready for the rest of the technical climbing. I don't feel I did as well as I could do on the rest of the route. Of course this could be related to expending a ton of energy attempting to thrash up the off-width and being significantly more tired for the rest of the route something that more climbing would probably not have mitigated. But that brings me to the second concern of conditioning. While I was able to complete the 22 hour long trip, I was slower than I would like at many parts of the trip. (The walk out most notably.) Could I have been faster and less tired if I was doing this every weekend? I'd like to think so, but perhaps nothing really prepares you for 22 hours on your feet? Part of the time while on the climb I was thinking "You're 43 now, and 'off the couch' is not working anymore." While it may be true it is not a good idea to work hard for 22 hours off the couch, I feel more like this was a unique circumstance as I did seem to feel fine until climbing that second pitch.

Oh well. Next trip out might determine just what kind of shape I am in.

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