The Walk Back – A Winter Attempt on Dragontail

I love the feeling of being completely thrashed.  Not at the bar, not after a party, but after dragging my arms and legs around the mountains for hours or days on end.  The feeling comes after the action, after the main show.  It comes during the big slog, on the way back to the car, or while melting water in a storm.  It is the feeling that I and my body know how to keep going, in spite of everything, even having savored everything.

On Tuesday of last week, Colin called me to ask if I wanted to go climbing.  When I asked where, he blindsided me with the suggestion that we take advantage of the forecast weather over the weekend to go to Dragontail Peak in the North Cascades.  There’s a route there called the Gerber/Sink which has seen more traffic in recent years.  How could a 1000 meters of moderate mixed climbing not?

Dragontail Peak in Winter
Colin approaches Dragontail Peak across Colchuck Lake. Parts of each of the Triple Couloirs are visible cutting the center of the peak, and the Gerber Sink follows runnels connecting prominent snow bands to the right of center, finishing in the 3rd couloir.

Saying yes was a bit of a leap for me.  This isn’t usually my thing– not that I don’t want it to be, but that I have zip-zero experience climbing in the Cascades in winter.  But Colin is strong in body and mind, so I said yes, trusting his decision.

At 5:00 pm on Friday we left Portland and drove into the night to the trailhead in Leavenworth, WA. At 3:15 AM the alarm woke us as we slept inside the car, I in the trunk and Colin in the passenger seat.  Four miles of hiking up a snow covered road gained the summer trailhead, and another three led up through dark and snowy forest to Colchuck Lake.

There, across the frozen expanse of the lake was the toothed mass of granite that we’d come to climb.  It stands along and unabutted, a crenelated castle of stone streaked in snow and split by craggy couloirs. It looked, more than anything has in Oregon, wild, foreboding, and alpine.

Across the frozen lake, we stopped to melt snow.  From our vantage, we could see our friends John Frieh and Daniel Harro a few hundred feet up the route we had come to climb. We watched as they searched multiple times for passage through the rock above them, They yelled to one another unintelligibly.  Sensing fruitlessness, they bailed and joined us on the ground.  They had found no ice, and only sugary snow covering smooth rock slabs.

Gerber/Sink Route Detail Dragontail Peak
Detail of the Gerber/Sink:  The route begins on snow ramps just right of the low point of the face.  From there it follows the runnels which split the band of dark rock two-thirds up the face.  John Frieh is barely visible, at the pair’s high-point, on a small central snowfield just below the first band of snow which spans the face.


We discussed how to salvage the day and opted to break trail to the triple couloirs route that splits the face.  though it had been periodically shedding impressive movements of spindrift from its mouth, it was much less daunting than the more direct North Face approached by the Gerber/Sink.

Colin in the first couloir of the triple couloirs on Dragontail peak
Colin climbing through a small choke midway through the first couloir.


I broke trail to the base and put on crampons.  A brief solo up a short but steep step of alpine ice accessed the first couloir. Inside, tall granite walls shelter a high couloir. Daniel broke trail tirelessly to the base of the second couloir. Here, stepped rock was covered by a light dusting of powdery snow, with none of the ice which marks the route’s condition. We collectively remembered mention of a possible bypass, climbing past the beginning of and then rappelling into the second couloir.

John Frieh pulls a short mixed step at the top of the First Couloir.
John Frieh pulls a short mixed step at the top of the First Couloir.


I climbed up to a short mixed step, and then balked at scrambling it. John and Daniel soloed up and threw done a rope, and Colin and I followed. After a quick strategy vote, Colin tied in try to find the rappel into the couloir. He first tried a leftward traverse on snow across a rock slab, but without protection the rotten snow promised only trouble.  He pointed up the fall line and disappeared from view over a ledge, slowly drawing rope from Daniel’s belay.

Colin snow traverse on Dragontail
Colin, traversing snow over slab, searching for a rappel into the Second Couloir.


John, Daniel, and I stood showered by spindrift at the belay for a short eternity before Colin decided that it wasn’t happening. We agreed, and made a quick rappel through the mixed step. Down climbing quickly, we reached the icy entrance to the route in just a few minutes.  Timing the exit between showers of spindrift, a quick down-solo and leap over the minuscule bergschrund put us back into the benign, and within a few minutes, the sunshine.

A skier from Bend, OR climbs into the sunshine as the sun creeps over the West ridge of Dragontail.
A skier from Bend, OR climbs into the sunshine as the sun creeps over the West ridge of Dragontail.


The walk down through the woods and onto the road stretched into eternity. My heels ached with a repetitive bruising, and my toes hurt with the swelling beneath my callouses. We lapsed in and out of conversation, but once we hit the road, I drifted away and into silence. At the eleventh hour, figuratively and in reality, I felt similarly to when Alex and I walked out from Stuart in the moonlight– stretched and beaten, but durable to excess. This is the tired but well-earned crown of the weary climber. We go, we try, and even when it doesn’t work out, we still made something of ourselves in the company of good and stoic people.

I am grateful to have been asked to climb with climbers much more experienced than I, and now, as the blisters heal, I’ll be chomping at the bit.  I’m only beginning to discover that the climbing community in the Northwest is both tiny and filled with giving personalities.  Thanks to John, Colin, and Daniel for the rope and the company. A return to Dragontail now ranks highly among ongoing projects.

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Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingClimbing & Mountaineering



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