Bad Weather Down SouthAs with so many other trips, plans for the serpentine arete started out with other plans. The original plan was to climb Rainier, but bad weather down south made me reconsider the idea of sitting around in a tent for a whole weekend waiting for weather to clear up. So the plan changes and Dragontail peak became the peak of choice! Next, Chico, Colin and I had to decide if we were going to climb it in one day or two. We decided to arrive at the Leavenworth ranger station at 7:45 to see if we could get permits for Colchuck lake by the lottery. The plan was to climb in two days if we could get permits, one if the permits weren't available. Thankfully there were only two groups there in the morning, the other group got permits to camp in the Enchantments to climb Prusik.
With permits in hand, we had a whole day to do whatever we wanted. After getting a quick breakfast, we headed over to Castle Rock to climb it from bottom to top as a warm up for the climb the following day. I don't know what route we climbed on the lower half (and I forgot my camera in the car so I don't have any pictures) but Chico had never climbed on Castle Rock so we send him up Canary for the second two pitches. After relaxing at the top for an while, we got back to the car and drove to the trailhead and started packing.
Thursday Afternoon and NightIn packing all our gear, we were faced with the important decision of what rope system to bring. I said we should just bring one rope and have the two followers tie in 20-30' apart. But Colin insisted on having two ropes for the crux pitches so we brought one 9.8 mm single and another 9.1 mm single for the crux pitches.
With all our gear packed and ready to go, we sped off up the trail toward Colchuck Lake. This trail always seems to take a lot longer than it should, and it was no exception this time around.
But we eventually made it to the lake and found a campsite on a boulder just off the lake.
The camp was a bit windy but proved to be fine after building a few rock walls around our bivy sacks. Speaking of bivy sacks, I packed two in the trunk and was going to decide which one to take when I packed at the trailhead... I forgot both of them and used a garbage bag and my rain jacket, oops!
Anyway, clouds rolled in and started covering the tops of the peaks. Being the I had no protection for my down sleeping bag, I searched around and found every possible boulder to sleep under in case it rained. The clouds made Dragontail look very forbidding in the fading evening light.
We went to bed around 9:00 (I hadn't done that for years). Thankfully the clouds didn't stick around very long as I woke up around 11:30 to a sky full of stars, not a cloud in sight. This is when I discovered that my sleeping pad had a hole in it and lost all its air. I spent the rest of the night sleeping on a flat pad on rock and somehow slept just fine.
FridayAt 4:30 I was awakened by the sound of shifting boulders to see Colin snapping pictures of the sunlight starting to peer over the horizon. We were going to sleep until 5:30, but figured that since we were already up we might as well just go for it. We were hiking away from camp at 5:30 sharp.
We took our time hiking up the boulder field below the moraine and stopped to drink and fill our water bottles right where the stream left the snowfield at the top of the moraine. The morning light was beautiful and we were excited to have perfect climbing weather, cool and cloudless. Colchuck stood above us shining in the morning sun.
The hike up the moraine was uneventful and we were quickly at a short section of snow, about 150', between us and access to the rock. Colin and I brought aluminum crampons to go with our running shoes and Chico skipped the crampons and brought his boots. We opted to chop steps for this section as the rock was so close, this worked out wonderful and was quite efficient. Before we knew it we were sitting at the base of the climb sorting the rack which got mangled in the pack. We took out time preparing for the climb, laughing and relaxing in the cool morning air, until we saw another party heading up the moraine! We found out they were also planning on climbing the Serpentine Arete so we got our act together and headed off for the first pitch through the lower ledges.
Chico took these first few leads as his is an expert at climbing loose and undesirable rock. He managed to find a solid and fun (low 5th class) route through the lower ledges and in two long pitches we were below the left facing flake system leading to the crux pillar pitches. Chico led the flakes, which ended up being a bit icy, which proved to be fun climbing. At the top of this pitch Colin and I moved the belay around the corner to get ready for the crux.
Colin took the lead for the next three pitches. I was originally going to lead this pitch and colin the next two, but with the other team right on our tails we wanted to waste no time switching gear back and forth... speed was more important now! Colin decided to take the crack system right of the flaring finger crack and led the pitch with ease.
For this pitch and the two above it we used two ropes (trailed one for a third climber) to allow for full belays on both climbers. This was a great choice for picture taking as I wasn't worried about being belayed on the same rope as the person climbing below or above me. Chico and I climbed quickly, enjoying the clear granite, especially the short handcrack right below the belay.
The next pitch was more solid granite. Colin led into the shallow dihedral and tried stemming to make the thin climbing easier. Unfortunately for Colin, his rock shoes were old and had no rubber under the toes which made the polished rock even slicker. For a few seconds Chico and I watched Colin run on a vertical treadmill scratching for something to hold onto. It was a few tense moments but he made it through without falling. After a few minutes of belaying Chico and I were climbing the solid pitch and enjoying the surrounding scenery.
I found the flaring dihedral extremely fun as I stayed in the corner and found excellent finger jams the whole way. At the top of this pitch we looked down to the glacier to see a party ascending it, they sure looked real small and we were only a third of the route up!
Anyway, Colin led out one more time and quickly called "off belay!" after stretching the rope to almost it's full length. This pitch was annoying to me because it started with a flaring slot which game me more problems than anything else on the climb! But Chico and I both grunted up the slot and gained much easier ground above. The pitch ended right on the crest of the ridge and in the sun... all day we had been in the shade and cold, finally we could take off our jackets (only to put them back on because the wind picked up).
Since I didn't get to lead any of the crux pitches they told me I could lead until I got sick of the loose terrain above. We switched back to a single rope which we shortened to a little over half length to lessen rope drag while simulclimbing. After taking the rack I set out on what was going to be a LONG pitch. But at a rope length and a half I ran into an almost vertical crack that shot up and right for about 25'. I put a piece in and started up it. Right away I realized the climbing was too thin to just simulclimb but figured I could get above it and set a belay to get Colin and Chico thought it. But 2/3 the way up the crack stopped accepting pro as it was too flared and the feet disappeared. The moves to get to easier ground felt like 5.9 so I backed off after one move and downclimbed back to a ledge where I set up a belay and took in the rope.
After belaying in the other two I explored an option to the left of the crack (which had looked impossible from below). It turns out that going left was nothing more than 4th class or low 5th class terrain. We were quickly climbing together again.
About 2 rope-lengths later there was another step that was around 5.7. I climbed this and set a belay at the top, again ending the pitch much earlier than I had hoped. From this belay we climbed up through some east 4th class terrain and came to a decision, to go right of the imposing tower or strait up it! Strait up the tower looked tough so I opted for right, that is until I found going around to the right led strait in to loose and steep choss. I took a gully up the tower which had some fun climbing and topped out on an exposed and thin ridge. After crossing the ridge I came to a 20' drop of a smooth and almost vertical slab. I backtracked and downclimbed to get around this section but ran into loose and hollowing sounding rock, not the most fun thing to downclimb. As soon as I could I set a belay with the two last pieces I had and brought Colin and Chico up. This pitch was a good 400' long.
At this belay station we looked up and saw what we thought was the summit. But we quickly persuaded ourselves it wasn't as every trip report we read said the summit never seemed to come since the upper 2/3 of the ridge was so long. I told Chico that I would lead out on this pitch and he could take us to the summit from there. This pitch started out with another decision, to the right or left of another imposing tower. I chose to check out the left option this time. After cresting the ridge I was surprised to be looking down on the fin! Apparently what we though was the summit really was the summit!
I excitedly shouted the good next and led off toward the summit. I looked for the 5.7 finish to the summit block but was enticed by an airy chimney. The chimney proved to be fun climbing on hollow sounding rock. In no time at all I was belaying Colin and Chico off the summit horn! It was 3:30.
As Colin and Chico arrived we realized we hadn't seen or head the other rope team that was behind us since the flaring slot above the second crux pitch. We had began to wonder if they had decided to turn around (but couldn't come up with any good reason as to why they would be that). We enjoyed the views from the summit, took pictures, ate and relaxed. About 35 minutes later we head voices and saw the other rope team. Somehow, our team of 3 had pulled way ahead of them on the upper ridge. It was good to know they were ok. And, if either of you two are reading this, it was our pleasure to be climbing with you two for most of the ridge, you were great company! Their trip report is here
After talking to the other two and relaxing a bit more, we packed out gear and started scrambling down to the snowfield which would lead us to Aasgard pass. The descent proved to be very simple. Colin and Chico enjoyed a nice glissade down to the small lakelet at the top of Aasgard pass and I plunge stepped my way down opting to keep my pants dry. And what is there to say about descending the pass itself... lots of knee jarring boulder hoping goodness. Colin went down the middle and got cliffed out just before the lower slopes and had to make a rappel to gain easier ground. Other than that it was an easy trip back to camp!
At camp we took our time packing and started hiking out. We stopped once to get one last look at the mountain and our route.
From the end of the lake, we stopped talking and went into "get to the car" mode. That trail always seems so much longer than you expect. But we made it back to the car around 8:30 and took off for home.
Some ThoughtsI've heard a lot of people say this route isn't very good as the upper parts can be loose and the climbing isn't as high quality. I would agree that the upper ridge isn't the best climbing I've every done, but I don't think it's much to complain about either. Maybe I've been ruined by the Cascade's crumbly rock and my definition of loose isn't what it should be. Or maybe I'm just easily pleased. Either way, I found this route to be extremely enjoyable. And the looseness of the upper ridge can be mostly avoided if one stays on the crest of the ridge as much as possible, this means climbing all the imposing towers that loom in your path!
I had a great time on the climb and will probably end up doing it again someday. But I'd suggest doing it as a day trip as it doesn't take as long as one might think looking at the route from the lake.
We climbed the route in 11 pitches. One could easily do a lot more by simulclimbing shorter pitched or even pithing out the whole route. But I don't think the upper ridge is worth pitching out completely. Here is the route we took... the yellow dots are belays
Ice axe (trekking pole would be better)
Crampons (didn't need them)
Double Rack to 3" (not necessary at all but allowed is to climb real long pitches on the upper ridge)
Lots of slings