Compared with many of my posts, this one will be rather shorter and more picture driven. Enjoy!
We began what would be our most difficult climb together yet at 12:30 AM. It was very late in the season for this climb, but we had to finish this testpeice of mountaineering classics. The infamous Dragon's Tail that we had failed to locate last season.
We didn't really know what to expect. Most people climb this about a month earlier, and even then there is some rock climbing. I brought every piece of gear I could imagine we would need should we run into some rock steps. We believed there would be snow all the way to the top. Unfortunately, we would be proven wrong...
Dragon's tail is a 1500 foot very steep couloir found in Rocky Mountain National Park just above the famous Emerald Lake. Easy access makes this a popular climb for experienced mountaineers, but a siren call for the uninitiated. Some have died on this steep, avalanche prone route. Just this last winter, three separate accidents involving avalanches were reported. Although that would not be our problem today, these avalanches were a symptom of the sheer angle of the couloir itself, which could approach 60+ degrees and (in our case) end in an overhang known as a cornice.
Unfortunately, the steep angle and difficult climbing did not allow us to get too many pictures. But the ones we do have make up for it I believe. Most mountaineers know of the junction about two thirds of the way up the couloir. The left branch is famous for rockfall and a 5.3 rock step. The right is famous for avalanches and a huge cornice. Once at the junction, we decided the left step would be a better option since it should hold more snow. The above picture proved us wrong. I had never put all my skills to the test like this. I had climbed many harder routes, even some overhanging rock! But never with crampons unroped above a 1000 foot snow slope. All of my physical and mental training had led to this one moment, and the hard work did not disappoint. I was able to quickly and confidently negotiate the steep rock.
No description ever mentioned a 5.3/4 rock climb on the right branch, but with the current snow conditions, up was our safest bet. We had just done 1000 feet of steep tough climbing, and from previous experience down climbing would be much harder, slower, and more dangerous. After taking a long time debating on our next course of action, we decided to continue up. From this point forward, it was up or nothing. Beyond this point, we could not return back down the way we had come, and we knew we were committed. We had no idea what to expect beyond this point. Was there still a massive cornice? Was the rest of the snow melted out? How far until we reached snow again? Was there a harder climb just around the corner that we couldn't see? There were a lot of unknowns, but we decided the risk was worth it.
There was no chance of protection. I had to climb unroped since it would slow us down too much to get set up, and the rock did not offer much in the way of placing cams and nuts to protect me in a fall. So up I went, praying to see snow just on the other side. God heard our prayers. It was very steep from here on out, but at least it was snow! I am not the best rock climber. Not by a long shot, but as long as there is snow, I can climb it. The couloir was now no more than 10 feet wide. If one of us slipped here, it would be a miracle if we could self arrest in time before we were moving too fast.
The climbing was difficult and steep, but it was straightforward for us. We were very tired by this point, but we knew the top must be close. Just one more corner to get around and then we would know our fate...
It was steeper than any other finish I had yet climbed. Vertical to overhanging on the left, just shy of vertical on the right. An unsupportive snow bridge over a twenty foot drop lay between us and the top. Unfortunately we could not just jump over the problem as the angle was probably about 60 degrees at that point. I decided to head once more onto the rock and skirt along the edge of the snow. One we were tucked in as high up as we could get, I climbed vertically onto the weirdest angled snow I've ever encountered. I was climbing vertically, yet I had to shimmy my body over to the right out onto the exposed face of the snow which was a completely different angle. From the picture above, follow the bergashrund on the left side. We climbed along that rock, just around the corner, and then had to climb a ten foot high section of snow to get back on top of it.
From this point, it was a quick couple of moves to the vertical section of snow. I had two choices: climb vertically and hope the snow could support me, or traverse the vertical snow and finish on the class 4 rock. I went with the rock. The traverse itself was sketchy enough for me after having overcome all the previous difficulties. For the first time, I was climbing on vertical snow, my feet straight below me and a 1500 foot drop behind. Once I had both feet on the rock, I let out a sigh of relief and knew we could make it. Topping out on this route was one of the most rewarding exits I've ever had. We had climbed a classic!