Enchantments Volume 2: Dragontail

Dragontail Peak has as beautiful of a North Wall as you'll find in the Cascades. You can see that it has a tidy bowl green lake at its base, it's separated from Colchuk Peak on the West by the Colchuk glacier and it's solid granite, right? On our second day in the Enchanments Amy and I decided we'd head out and climb the 1600' Serpentine Arete. It was graded at a modest 5.8. It looked like there would be only 4-6 pitches of sustained rock. I guessed we'd be on route for 8 hours or so.

When we left camp in the morning the rest of the crew bid us farewell? I had an odd feeling that they weren't sure if they'd every see us again. For me, I thought I was going on a little climb, they were treating us like we were walking the plank. You'll notice I didn't say we left camp "early" in the morning.
John Petrie always says there's no downside to starting early. I always agree w/ him in conversations. In recent weeks, I found myself leaving Smith in the pitch black, cleaning routes w/ a headlamp. I had twice narrowly gotten back to the trail before nightfall. Just last week, we rapped up a ten pitch route finishing the last pitch w/ headlamps and doing the route finding and rappelling in the dark. In many ways, the "success's" go to your head. I had this confidence/arrogance that told me that no matter what, I'll get it done. In lots of ways, I think I did some real skill building but more than that, I had started some bad habits. On snow, I don't mess around, but on rock, I've made it routine to start routes 4 hours later than guide book time. I'm not trying to sound tough, I'm just trying to learn from my mistakes and hopefully, others can learn from them as well. As the saying goes, "once is an accident, twice is a pattern, three times is a problem."
We roped up sometime between 10 and 11 am maybe even after eleven by the time the belay was on:-( After spending a bit of time trying to make certain we were starting in the right spot, we were off. We had 16 pitches of rock to climb and not much time to do it. I have to admit, I love the feeling. My heart is starting to race just thinking about it. The route starts out w/ four crumbly pitches. Each rope length had a few mid fifth class moves but it was generally just low angle blocks/choss. We probably should of simul-climbed but I wanted to give the Momma some time to warm up to the exposure.
One pitch ends at a tree and the view is spectacular. The fourth or fifth pitch starts out w/ some route finding. There' are several dihedral's that all look like they would go and several looked like they got climbed somewhat frequently. I ended up finding the best way up a 5.6 ish tower that lead to the base of the off-width pitch. In my head, I imagined a vertical, wide crack. What I got was more of an awkward chimney thing. You have to "protect" it about ten feet below the move unless you brought a 7 inch cam. If I fell, I'd land on the ground. It turned out to be a bit of a gruntfest but it was pretty secure. Amy glided up it! I don't know how she does it sometimes. The reward for getting up the off-width is about 70' of choss. I had to place pro to direct the line away from the chossy ledge. It looked like a dump truck came and dumped two loads of football sized blocks on the pitch. But, I have been dubbed the "Hoss of Choss," so I felt right at home.
Finally we get to the crux pitch and some real granite. It seemed like the time was flying by but after reconsiderring, it's not so much that the time flew by as much as I just didn't leave us much of it. You can see that I was still wearing that stupid grin that says, "no trouble here."
You reach a headwall w/ three options/variations. To the left, there's a 5.8 dihedral that looked pretty easy. The money crack was dead center. Most of the trip reports recommend going all the way to the right for a fun not sustained 5.7 broken crack system. You can probably guess that I went w/ the more difficult central crack. Cracks are hard to give a difficulty rating. If you have big hands (that's me) big cracks look easy. If you have small hands, small cracks are perfect. The route I chose started w/ a very tight seam, you almost can't see it behind the rope in the pic above.
The discription says that you'll start w/ finger locks. For my sausage fingers, all I got was a pinky to thumb smear/pinch. After several desperate moves, you get to a flaring but shallow crack. It was actually pretty secure and I was able to get some good nut placements. I heard rocks breaking loose and tumbling down the glacier below us. The sounds would echo and reverberate for minutes. I looked down and saw Amy's concerned expression on the belay ledge, behind her Colchuk Lake. I was in my element.
Than I pinched the rope between my foot jamb and the crack's side. I couldn't go up any further. I panicked for half a second. When I regrouped, my focus was sharp. My options: fall while I was still close to my last peice, down climb or place a peice of gear and hang on it while I freed the rope. I wasn't really in the mood to fall. The last move was the hardest move on the pitch and I didn't think I could down climb it which would lead me back to option one; falling. I placed an overhead cam but couldn't bring myself to hang on it. I didn't hike all the way back here and swim through the choss to hang on gear. This is what it's all about for me. I summoned the force and was able to reverse the moves, free the rope and then clip my trusty .75 green camalot. I love this stuff. Amy thinks I'm madder than a hatter and I tend to agree w/ her.
The last 50' are a perfect hand crack w/ chicken heads for feet. I was able to ration both of my one inch cams for this stretch and when I got to the top, I was psyched. I can't say that this was a super hard pitch and that I'm an exceptional climber but I can say that it was hard for me and stepping up to challenges feels good even if they're self-inflicted. It doesn't matter if it's 5.5 or 5.12.
I was also pleased that Amy didn't glide up this section and that she had to work hard for it.
The next pitch was the most fun pitch of the route. I didn't pinch the rope w/ my foot or pull any other obsurdities and it went too fast.
We didn't take any more pics till the morning but I wanted break up all of the words w/ some pics. Here's me in the morning w/ Stuart in the sunlight. I think it's obvious now that we started too late?
OK back to yesterday. We finished the last of the crux pitches and we had eight pitches to go but only a couple hours before sunset. Should we stop at the next good ledge and settle in? Heck no.
I brought Amy up to the easier ground and broke down the situation for her. She was clearly tired. I didn't want to freak her out but I wanted to express urgency. My other climbing partners can attest that I get grouchy/serious when things are getting serious. I get kind of bossy. I don't have a problem "encouraging" people to hury up. Saying things like "If we can't move faster, we're going to be sleeping in a hanging belay." It's alot different when its my wife! One cross word and she'll throw me off the mountain! To the rest of the world, I'm a tough guy, to Amy, I'm just a chump who needs an adjustment.
I gave her my best Mel Gibson speech (think Braveheart) and we were off like a rocket. This was the first time Amy had to dig deep on a climb. She surprised herself w/ how much energy she was able to muster. We simul-climbed the last eight pitches w/ one fixed belay to get the gear back on my harness. We had 100' to go. The crack looked hard but it went easily and five minutes later, I climbed the pitch and had the belay built. I got to the summit and let out a giant scream! I could hear the people at camp recipricate. It looked like I was going to get away w/ another one! I belayed Amy up and we were able to get radio communication w/ the Wild One and the rest of the folks at camp.
They expressed that they thought it would be best if we settle in for a cold and miserable but safe evening rather than stumble off a cliff.
I was still pounding my chest and there was no way I was gonna bivy w/out a fight. The standard decent was melted out and sketchy w/ rock fall. Sketchy is my middle name? Bill began describing the alternate decent when our radios lost communication for no apparent reason. I firmly believe that this was God's way of showing me that I'm an idiot and it's time to pay for my idiocy. Since I'm writing this, you can guess that I didn't pay the "ultimate price" but I think I'm on a layaway plan.
Amy, grateful to find the cairn in the morning that marked the decent route. I'll always remember the relief.
We wandered around in the dark but I soon realized it was time to give it up. I had made a terrible decision to start so late in the day on a Grade IV route. (Grade IV means that competent parties will need all of a day for the technical, roped sections of the climb that involves serious remote alpine terrain) I could press on and heap more bad choices on to the first one or I could sit down and have an XL portion of humble pie.
At first we cuddled and enjoyed the stars. We played the "remember when game" and life was good. It was real good. I underestimated the length of the route and Amy dealt w/ it gracefully. She climbed hard and her attitude was awesome.
Then life was grim, real grim. I was laying so I was blocking the wind from Amy (It was time to start taking my lumps) and I got very cold. I was trembling and I couldn't imagine spending the rest of the night shaking like a leaf, plus I was bored. We wandered around some more and we finally found some water. We tanked up and life was good. Than it was cold again.
We settled into another bivy. This time we sat tobagan style and I was warm. I dozed for most of an hour when I woke to Amy trembling. So we walked some more. Soon it was light and we found the above mentioned cairn and life was good again.
From the cairn, we could see down to our camp. It's on the for side of the two lakes in the above pic. We felt bad that we had everybody at camp worried. They said it was cold in their tents, in their sleeping bags and that they didn't feel bad for me, but for Amy they did. I get what I deserve besides me and misery are old mates. They greeted us w/ tea and it was nice to be at camp w/ friends. As we told our tale, somehow the cold just became words and the fun pitches became "amazing pitches." The night "went fast" and we were already talking about how next time, we'll leave earlier. You know you've had a hard night when Bill is sight for sore eyes!
The following day, we didn't go far from camp and this was the only view I had till about 300pm. Amy hasn't left me for somebody a little more domestic who thinks a good vacation involves hotel rooms and window shopping. She's also made it clear that next time, we're taking a freaking blanket. It's hard to not feel like the luckiest man in the world.
Light n fast only works when you give yourself the benefit of time. Otherwise your just cold n miserable. Had we left a half hour earlier, or climbed a half hour faster, we would have made it back to camp w/ headlamps and I'd still be running around thinking I can do grade IV's in a half day. We would have slept in our tents. In some ways that just doesn't make a good story.
Two good things came from my poor judgement on our start time. First, I've learned that I should take some basic bivy provisions when I climb grade IV's, especially if I'm going to do them when the daylight hours are few and the start time is wreckless. The second good thing; we had an extra dinner at camp!

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