Mixed Routes and Big Challenges on Dragontail
North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck Peak. Ian Nicholson photo
I met Dave B. in downtown Seattle on a particularly wet and rainy morning. His goal was to climb as big and challenging alpine ice and mixed routes as the Cascades had to offer. The forecast for the western slopes of the Cascades was rain and snow for four out of five days. But Dave was open to objectives as long as they were big, challenging and icy!
Dave B. ascending the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck Peak. Ian Nicholson photo
Luckily, we were greeted by broken skies over Leavenworth and the Cascades eastern front. We drove all the way to Stuart Lake Trail Head where we hiked to the picturesque Colchuck Lake, one of the more popular camping areas in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Partly cloudy skies greeted us the next morning, but the weather was on an improving trend. We packed our bags and hiked across the middle of the frozen lake and ascended the edge of the Colchuck Glacier to the base of the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck Peak. The climb was fun; fantastic neve snow with the occasional icy or mixed section led us to the top of the couloir where the route flips onto the North Face. We raced up the final steep snow on the North Face to a final mixed climbing pitch, where steep layback moves on solid granite lead us directly to the summit!
Dave on the summit! Ian Nicholson photo
After hanging out on the summit for close to 30 minutes hoping for a break in the weather we descended the south side back around to the Colchuck Glacier. The glacier still had enough snow and was soft enough that we could glissade almost 3,000 feet back down to the lake, a quick and extremely fun ride! We got back to camp in time to relax and prepare for the Triple Couloirs on Dragontail peak, a Cascade mega classic offering 2,500 feet of technical climbing, including several crux pitches that offer steep, thin and challenging ice.
Ian Nicholson photo
The third morning proved as we had hoped, perfectly clear skies and a very hard freeze overnight. We hiked across the still frozen lake to the base of the route, requiring only a pleasant 45 minutes to reach the base of the route. After one challenging pitch to gain access to the Hidden Couloir (the appropriately named first couloir) we were greeted by excellent neve snow. After racing up the first couloir we were faced with the crux; a 3 – 4 pitch section of the climb called the “runnels”, which connect the first and second couloirs.
Climbing the Hidden Couloir. Ian Nicholson photo
The first runnels pitch was amazing, offering sustained steep ice that was rarely thicker than 3 or 4 inches. The second pitch started off with a steep bulge that was likely even greater than vertical to an incredible and exposed belay. This was followed by even more delicate 2 – 3 inch thick ice on a slab of granite that required great care to climb. The final pitch of the runnels proved to be the most challenging because the ice, which was very thin to begin with, was quite rotten and required a lot of stemming onto rock and tapping into thin smears of ice.
Dave belaying at the top of the second ice runnels pitch. Ian Nicholson photo
Starting the second set of crux pitches. Ian Nicholson photo
After displacing with this section Dave declared it the coolest climbing he had ever done anywhere in his life! After the challenges of the runnels the second couloir, which is the shortest, felt easy. We blazed up it without hesitation to the base of the next crux section, two pitches of mostly snow over rock that demanded a lot of feeling around with your tools in order to make upward progress. We fought hard to get through this with Dave relishing in the unique movement required by this steep and unobvious mixed climbing. Once past these pitches, we relaxed, starting to feel our thighs and calves from the previous days efforts as we pushed onward. Topping out on the summit was amazing, with all the peaks around us that had been shrouded the previous day now out in all their glory.
The second-to-last crux pitch before the third couloir. Ian Nicholson photo
On the summit! Ian Nicholson photo
A quick descent down the infamous Aasgard pass had us back in camp 10 hours after leaving it. Despite the long day, Dave wanted to make sure he made the most out of his final two days where we planned to rock climb down in Leavenworth. So after barely grabbing a bite to eat, we packed up camp and hiked out, finishing in the dark at 10pm more than 15 hours after we had started the day.
Dragontail Peak. Ian Nicholson photo
The next two days in Leavenworth we dodged brief rainstorms to work on Dave’s leading skills and multipitch efficiency. The final day of the his trip, despite threats of afternoon rainstorms, we climbed over 1,000 feet of rock and nine pitches all before 2pm and another squall. Dave said that this was the best trip he had ever been on and states that it’s so good Mountain Madness should offer it as a specific course. Anyone considering it will love it, at least according to Dave B!
~ MM Guide Ian Nicholson
Last day in Leavenworth. Ian Nicholson photo