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Mountain Madness Climber

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