Along with Serpentine Ridge (IV 5.8), this is another “classic” line that climbs the 2000+ foot northwest face of Dragontail via the ridge (or “rib”) immediately left of Serpentine Ridge. Though both lines are comprised of a similar number of pitches (~15), the going is more sustained and arguably more interesting on Backbone Ridge. If Serpentine Ridge gets a grade IV rating, Nelson and Potterfield correctly (=self-consistently) give Backbone Ridge a “IV+” (both ratings are on conservative side). The route has evolved considerably from the time of the first ascent in 1970 by M. Weigelt and J. Bonneville:
The 1970’s line (per Beckey guide) started much lower on the ridge than the modern version which starts at the same elevation as Serpentine Ridge (~6800 feet). At least one pitch of 5.8 and likely much 4th class scrambling is bypassed by majority of climbers today. Additionally, the 1970 line traversed the ledge system at the base of the Fin (large 65 degree slab near the top of the face and clearly visible from the base) but did not venture onto the Fin itself. The Fin “variation” was put up in 1975 by P. Cruver and K. Lewis.
Modern Variation: Backbone Ridge With Fin Direct is the line taken by most climbers today. In its modern format, lower buttress terrain is bypassed (hike higher to where Serpentine Ridge starts) and the last ~4 pitches climb the spectacular crack systems on the Fin. This likely makes the line more sustained and the Fin pitches with the turquoise-colored Colchuck Lake forming the background below make for some unforgettable climbing!
Follow the driving and hiking directions to reach Colchuck Lake on the Dragontail Peak page. Follow the final approach directions from Colchuck Lake to base of route on the Serpentine Ridge page. As you face the base of the NW face of Dragontail, Backbone starts up low-angle, left trending ramp systems (bushes) that begin ~200 feet below the start of Serpentine Ridge.
Pitch 0: low 5th class, 500 feet. Scramble or simulclimb the low angle leftward trending ramps for ~200 feet until the terrain angle eases. Continue traversing left until you can cut right and uphill. Traverse right and up heading for the crest of the ridge. Belay (or continue simulclimbing pitch 1) at the base of a low angle, right-trending dihedral that will put you on the crest of the ridge.
The Backbone Ridge:
Pitch 1: 5.6, 160 feet. Climb the low angle dihedral to the crest of the ridge and belay at the base of the obvious OW crack in a right-facing “groove”.
Pitch 2: 5.9, 90 feet. Climb the stellar OW (#5 Camalot). The going is not very sustained on the lower half – low angle and plenty of rest stances and chockstones. Things get harder on the upper half as rest stances disappear and the angle kicks up for the final 20 feet. Beautiful clean crack! Belay on good ledge at the top.
Pitch 3: 5.8-, 180 feet. Move left 30 feet and climb up a crack system of choice. Key is to keep left away from crest of ridge.
Pitch 4: 5.8, 180 feet. Continue climbing up blocky terrain with abundant cracks. Keep traversing further left away from crest of ridge. Endless belay options here.
Pitch 5: 5.7, 180 feet. Traverse further left and climb up till the angle of the ridge eases (and the Fin is visible above). Either continue via simulclimbing or belay when rope drag stops you.
Pitches 6-9: low 5th class. I’m using Nelson and Potterfield numbering system here. Continue moving along the ridge (now low angle) via 4th and low 5th class terrain. Belay at the base of a steep groove/ramp directly below Fin.
Pitch 10: 5.6, 200+ feet. Climb up the dirty groove to reach the left edge of a large ledge system running along the base of the Fin. Don’t go too far right along the ledge system (belay when the terrain first crests).
Bid farewell to Backbone Ridge proper and brace yourself for some crack fun on the Fin. Many variations exist here – though we’ve tried to follow the Nelson and Potterfield variation, we ended up on the Kearney variation for the last pitch of The Fin. All seem very good.
Pitch 11: 5.8+, 80 feet. Now the fun begins! Climb directly up the well featured face and pick up the twin cracks 20 feet above ledge. Climb cracks up to the left edge of another large ledge on the Fin (lotta loose stuff on the ledge).
Pitch 12: 5.9, 100 feet. 5.9 face move brings you to the right-facing dihedral (N&P call this a flake) above the left edge of the ledge. Climb to another small ledge on left side of Fin with even more loose blocks on it!
Pitch 13: 5.7 – 5.9, 160+ feet. Move right (face holds) and traverse via food-shuffle in a crack. The crack begins to turn upwards (and a second nice crack appears at face level). Within about 20 feet of the large dihedral off to your right, you have a choice to make: go directly up the face (crack peters out presumably only for a while?) as Nelson and Potterfield suggest (supposedly 5.7) heading for the crest of the Fin ridge OR climb the nice jam cracks (5.9-ish) in the left-facing dihedral (this is where you join the Kearney description). We did the latter and belayed on good ledges atop the dihedral.
Pitch 14: 5.8, 160 feet. If following the Kearney variation, climb the obvious cracks system above the ledge toward the base of the final gendarme atop the Fin. Just below gendarme, traverse left (blank face, we A0-ed on tension) and go up into a notch right before gendarme (you’re sitting on the crest of the Fin). Nelson and Potterfield variation likely reaching the same notch via a foot shuffle crack coming in on the face from the left.
Pitch 15: loose 4th class, 400 feet. Simulclimb or pitch things out. Scramble down the easy ledges on opposite side of Fin. You’re traversing (level) above a snow gully. Continue up the snow or scree gully (very loose!) to the crest 150 feet below the summit (clearly visible).
Scramble to summit via 3rd-4th class terrain (you need to tag the summit as the descent hike starts from the opposite side).
Follow descent directions (some steep snow, mostly hike down) on the Serpentine Ridge page. Time down to Colchuck Lake via Aasguard Pass is ~1.5 hrs.
This is what we brought – pretty conservative:
Very light set of nuts
2X green and yellow Aliens
3X #0.5 and #0.75 Camalots
2X #1 to #3 Camalots.
Helmets (lots of loose stuff)
Ice ax and crampons (depending on season, needed for approach and/or pitch 15 and/or descent).
This still involved walking the #5 Camalot about 30 feet up the crux of the OW of pitch 2. In retrospect, I’d leave the #4 C4 behind. Note that anything over #3 Camalot is deadweight after the OW on P2.