Dragontail Peak - Triple Couloirs, April 2003
Paul and I ventured back up to Colchuck Lake the weekend following our Colchuck North Buttress Couloir trip to take care of some unfinished business on Dragontail Peak. Route conditions were reportedly still quite "in" and it was now possible to drive within a half mile of the trailhead. Certainly, neither of us were willing to wait till next season to attempt the Triple Couloirs. We drove up and pitched our tent on a flat patch of snow off the side of the road a little beyond the Eightmile Creek Trailhead but just before the bridge across Mountaineer Creek. We awoke the next morning at the ridiculous hour of 3:00am, packed our gear, and started hiking the road to the trailhead. Shortly after the second creek crossing it started to get light out and it began to snow lightly. The peaks across the valley were cloaked in a blanket of cloud and fog. This wasn't a good sign and Paul and I contemplated climbing a much less technical route on Enchantment Peak and attempting the Triple Couloirs the following day.
By the time we reached Colchuck Lake, the snow flurries had tapered off for the most part, the clouds appeared to be lifting, and we found few excuses not to go for it. After ditching our trekking poles next to three other pairs by the lake, we put on our harnesses and followed a fresh bootpath leading up towards the base of the first/Hidden Couloir. Following older tracks, Paul traversed left over a small cliff and found himself on a steep, exposed slope, with thin sugary snow over slabs. He carefully retreated back to where I was relieving myself, and climbed directly upwards to the base of a short ice step. I joined Paul at this step, and easily climbed up, and over the bulge onto softer snow above. The moves were a bit spicy considering the exposure and the fact that we were unroped. But, we had better get used to it, considering what lay ahead.
The climbing in the first Hidden Coulior felt a bit like the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck Peak the previous weekend; possibly a bit steeper, maybe 50 degrees or so. We heard voices from above, echoing off the rock walls around us. The couloir widens near the top and the notorious ice runnels leading into the second couloir reveal themselves to climber's left. Paul traverses deep snow to our first belay at a large flake (good for cams and a sling), immediately below the first ice pitch in the runnels. The ice runnels are typically climbed in three pitches. Considering where we placed our first belay anchor, and that we had an annoyingly short 50m rope, I was unable to reach the standard second belay spot at the next big rock. I was quite surprised when the rope tightened on me. I figured it had gotten caught somewhere. I downclimbed to my last piece, a small nut in a shallow crack, and started yelling at Paul (who was out of sight behind the boulder) to help free the rope.
Paul had apparently been shouting warnings that the rope was about to pay itself out. Now that I had stopped moving, I finally heard Paul say that I had run out of rope. Shit! Now what? I was fortunate to find good ice in which I placed two bomber screws and set up a "hanging" ice screw belay. I nervously leaned back and felt my personal anchor come tight on me and pull on the screws. The screws definitely weren't going anywhere. I called to Paul to begin climbing. Paul came up, cleaning the one picket and screw I placed below me, and joined me at the exposed ice screw belay. Paul agreed to continue on for a fraction of a pitch to the next belay at a small platform by a large rock. With what looked (and felt) like awkward stemming moves in a frozen chimney, Paul sank a picket in a hole in the ice (or did he simply drop it in there?) and pulled himself up and left over the bulge.
I soon joined Paul at the next belay (a good small cam and small nut in a good crack), and continued up and traversed left on thin snow over slabs under a small rock band. I gained the final runnel, banged a picket in the neve, and continued up towards the base of the final WI3 pitch. Again, I was very pleased to make two very bomber screw placements in the water ice at the base of the final dihedral. I belayed Paul up to where I was standing, whereupon Paul expressed his displeasure with having to lead the next pitch. This certainly was the crux of the entire route, but the climbing didn't appear particularly difficult ~ 70 to maybe 80 degrees for a few moves. After some rope management issues at the cramped belay, I led up the frozen dihedral, placing a smaller cam in a crack below the last bulge. The last moves were on thin ice and somewhat off-balance and awkward, but I soon found myself topping out and gaining the second couloir proper.
Traversing deep snow in the second couloir, I aimed for the rock wall on my right and desperately sought a crack or a feature of some sort in which to set up a top belay anchor. Once again, however, the rope tightened on me shortly before reaching the rock (which looked featureless anyway) and I was forced to set up a belay using two pickets in deep and unconsolidated snow. We were relieved, knowing the worst was now behind us. The relatively non-technical climbing of the second and third couloirs stood between us and the summit. Paul led out, following a boot track through the snow, which we were more than happy to follow. We simulclimbed the rest of the route.
Another short section of thin ice over rock separated the second and third couloirs. Paul dispatched the ice with ease, placing a picket, instead of a screw, which ripped off a hunk of ice, exposing bare rock as he attempted to screw it in. The rest of the route was mostly wallowing in deep snow up the third coulior and across a steep slope to eventually reach the summit. As soon as we got there the clouds finally broke and we were able to warm up and enjoy the spectacular views.
We descended from the summit and had a most enjoyable glissade down from Aasgard Pass. We stopped briefly to chat (and drink some whiskey and smoke a cigarette) with Andy Ball and friends camping at the lake before we continued on our way. Paul and I were both staggering by the time we reached the car at around 10pm. We put on dry clothes, drove into town, and had a much deserved meal and pitcher of beer at Visconti's. We returned to Bridge Creek Campground for the night knowing there was no way either of us could drive home in our current state. In the end, we spent about 9 hours on the route proper, and had been up for about 23 hours straight. I have never slept as good as I did that night.
Click here to view photos.