Wilderness Sports Conditioning
Train Today for
Colchuck and Dragontail Combo 5/24/03
Our intentions were honorable; weeks ago we’d set Memorial Day weekend aside to try the Leuthold Couloir route on Mt. Hood in Oregon. Our fourth scheduled attempt, but doomed never to happen (to date) because of high risk of avalanches. So mid-week we scrambled to find an alternative ice climb. After talking to several ice climbers and reading a number of reports on www.CascadeClimbers.com, we chose to go with two mountains in the Enchantments: Triple Couloirs on Dragontail (8840 ft.) and the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck (8705 ft.) With one recent account from 5 days prior saying the route was in the best condition ever, we thought we’d rush out and try to catch it before the summer thaw hit; unfortunately, it hit the day before we were able to get out there.
Four of us (Doug Schurman, Courtenay Schurman, Gene Saxon and Ken Hahn) headed out of Seattle Friday 5/23 and got caught in the stop-and-go traffic so common on any big holiday weekend. It didn’t dampen our spirits, however – we were on a grand adventure! We had an especially auspicious start to the weekend when the sheriff who pulled us over for speeding simply let us off with a warning to slow down to 35 mph. We found 8.5 Mile Campground just beyond the already-too-familiar 8-Mile Campground and crossed the river, headed uphill four miles to the Stuart Lake Trailhead. When we arrived at 10:30 p.m. we found eight other cars already there, including one gent who had driven all the way from Portland bivying beside his car. Doug swore he saw a mouse scamper by his foot as he ate a snack on the back of the truck, but we later figured out that it probably was a chipmunk. After dozing off for half an hour, we awoke to the sound of Ken and Gene pulling in beside us.
Saturday morning the parking lot bivier and the Seattle threesome who stayed across the lot from us were up before we were; we hit the now-visible trail at 5 a.m., no longer needing our headlamps. A nice cool morning, with hints of hot mid-day temperatures to come. We crossed several (5) foot bridges, including one with a stream option for horses, and reached our first snow patches about 45 minutes into the approach. A short time later, at a bare plateau, we caught our first glimpse through the trees of the Triple Couloirs route on Dragontail, and my immediate thought was “We’re going to be climbing THAT!!?” From our vantage point it looked nearly vertical, greater than the 50-70 degrees mentioned in the book. Once we reached Colchuck Lake (5570’ at three hours), still covered in snow but melting rapidly at the edges, we took about an hour-long break, looking for a nice flat snowy spot for a 2-person tent and 2 bivy spots under overhung rocks, setting up camp, getting a snack and some water, and repacking for the day’s adventure.
As we set up camp, we could hear avalanches letting loose on a fairly regular basis, and we could see new debris at the bases of Dragontail’s Hidden Couloir (first of its Triple Couloirs) and Colchuck’s couloirs. We could also see the three Seattle climbers postholing toward the Hidden Couloir. We decided it was going to be too warm and dangerous for us to try a steep ice route that day, but we’d recon the lower-angle (40-50 degrees) Intermediate Mountaineering route on Colchuck, and perhaps climb Colchuck via Colchuck Col and Dragontail by the Basic Alpine traverse route from the Col to Aasgard Pass, and keep our fingers crossed that a cold front might chill things overnight…
So we ditched all our heavy climbing gear -- ropes, pro, screws, second ice tool, and warm clothing--grabbed our helmets, food, water, first aid kit, and glissade pants, and secured our extra food high in a tree. Equipped with a tool apiece and 3 day packs we headed for the boulder field at the base of Colchuck around 9 a.m.
The going was a bit frustrating, as we had to go up and down and around several inlets, postholing in places where the snow was melting out rapidly around boulders. However, we made good time and kept our eyes on the vertical walls around us, as well as the trio still waiting their turn for the Triple Couloirs route. Finally we saw what looked like another team, this one of two, coming DOWN the Hidden Couloir. The five powwowed at a rock out of the way of avalanches for quite some time, then two headed up Aasgard Pass as we reached the terminal moraine on Colchuck’s lower flanks about 10:20.
I was relieved that they’d turned around, as I couldn’t see how conditions would hold long enough for anyone to safely get up that ice route. 30 minutes later, as we passed the exposed snout of Colchuck Glacier and reached a vantage point directly opposite the NE Couloir, we saw a huge cornice break off from the top and race quickly down the route we’d considered early in our planning process. Had we been an hour earlier, we might have been buried in snow and ice! At the bottom the snow dissipated into a funnel-shaped deposit, a deep “glissade-like” channel through the middle of the couloir prior evidence of much recent activity. That option was out. We continued up toward the col on the gentle 30-degree slope, reaching the top of the col by 12:10, where we encountered two other parties of two heading down from the summit. We paused briefly at the col to put on warmer clothes and get a bite to eat.
Gene had been sipping Cytomax out of a camelback and was surprised to find out how low he and Ken (sharing a pack) were on fluids. I offered to share a few “Vitamin I” to try to help Gene with his headache; we found a few melting rivulets and managed to partially fill his water bottle before continuing to the top of Colchuck. I opted to keep my pack on while the guys decided to ditch theirs at the watering hole. The postholing was getting worse, but since I was by far the lightest of the four I didn’t have the same problems the guys had poking through, even with a pack. I let Ken and Doug test the snow and then managed to avoid most of the deep holes they created with every fourth step. At 1:15 p.m. we reached the top of Colchuck. I can see why people rave about the Enchantments – they are, truly, magnificent. I’d never seen Mt. Stuart from the north before, and Argonaut, Sherpa, even Glacier Peak were visible – we also had an incredible vantage point of the steep north face of Dragontail. Gene snapped a few photos of the cornices about to topple over the north couloir routes on Colchuck; so much for our scouting report – the routes we’d chosen were pretty much impassable this time of the year.
About 20 minutes later we headed back down toward the col, launching into a heated debate about whether we should try the traverse over to Dragontail. I felt strong and was definitely ready to go for it, especially since it didn’t look like either technical route would be in shape to climb the next day, and given the warming afternoon and incoming clouds, we might not have another chance Sunday to climb Dragontail. It became more apparent to me that it was now or not, at least for this weekend. Gene decided he just wasn’t feeling good enough to go on and wanted to head back to camp. Doug and Ken both were hedging. How Ken bashed his finger (again) I have no clue, but I was the only one with a first aid kit when he needed it. I said aloud, “I can’t believe I’m out here with a bunch of weenies!”and when someone pointed toward a solo climber kicking steps up the western slope of Dragontail, I thought it was a no-brainer.
“I can do 800’ gain in my sleep, folks, especially with kicked steps! It’s now or not.” Ken reminded us, in the paraphrased words of Seattle climb leader and mentor Doug Smart, that we just had to make a decision and get moving on it. The three of us opted to attempt our second summit of the day. Gene headed back toward the lake, while Ken, Doug and I started our traverse across the col at 2:30 toward the 30-degree western slope, through a field of shifting talus and heather with quickly-melting snow on top of it. Ken pointed out the snow path of a large rock that had covered the solo climber’s tracks. Recently. We hastily made our way right of the rock outcrops while avoiding the sloughing snow far to our right. Merely 33 minutes later, we were at the top of the chute gazing over at the summit. We radioed down to Gene that the summit was attainable and we were going to go for it.
We stayed on the boulder field to the south of the jagged summit ridge, poking through on occasion where melt-out left troughs near the huge rocks; the vertical exposure to the north was dramatic, but the south slope had considerable run out and wasn’t too intimidating. We all kept a firm grasp on our ice tools, however, just in case. At 4:30 we perched atop the summit block of Dragontail for a few pictures and marveled at the eastward views of Little Annapurna, Temple, Prusik, and McClellan Peaks, and glimpses of snow-covered lakes in the Enchantment Lakes Basin. The weather began to deteriorate, and as we quickly retreated toward Aasgard Pass, clouds engulfed the summit. We had a very quick descent, primarily glissading, and noted the massive, compacted avalanche debris on the slopes that had been deposited perhaps days or even weeks earlier – nothing fresh, however, on the 30-degree slopes. Returning to camp was definitely a slog, as we’d gained roughly 6000 feet of elevation, ascended two peaks above 8500’ and covered perhaps 15 miles of highly varied terrain. When we walked into camp on the north end of the lake about 6:30 p.m. we were relieved to have camp already set up.
More campers had made the trip into the area, but nobody had been successful on the ice routes. We felt good about what we had seen, done, and reconned for future trips. Gene and Ken got some hot food and water in them and then decided they’d prefer warm beds to wet bivy bags, so they headed for the cars in the dark. Doug and I decided to enjoy ourselves and spend the night camping, then head out at a leisurely pace the next day. It rained perhaps 5 drops all night, and we remained dry and comfortable (except our feet.)
Sunday we left camp around 8 a.m. and could still hear avalanches coming down off Colchuck, where at least 15 people were queued up waiting their turn to ascend Colchuck Col. We were back to the car in two hours, where we encountered a park ranger about to inspect our vehicle for a parking pass. Fortunately we were able to hand him our trail pass before he could write up a ticket. A very auspicious ending to a highly enjoyable (but unforeseen) weekend adventure! The lessons learned? 1) Always have a back-up plan or two in case the intended plan does not work out; 2) Know your own strengths and limitations, and don’t be coerced by anyone else to do something you know you’re not prepared to do; 3) Read all the signals: party strength, weather, temperatures, hunches, topography; and finally, 4) Get as much skills and technical training as possible so you have a huge arsenal of tricks to draw on when making safe judgments for yourself about what you’re attempting in the mountains.