This climb on Dragtooth
is known by a multitude of names:, North Buttress, Dragway and Dragrace.
I am sure the infamous death block on this route is not how the peak got its name, but it should have been. The largest, most precarious death block I have ever climbed through or around is on the North Buttress’s 4th pitch.
It is located up high in the beautiful dihedral that would normally make this a classic line. This block is “dragging” down the dihedral under its own weight leaving drag marks on the right wall
that could be taken as claw marks or even teeth marks if they were on a tree. Thus, Dragtooth is such an appropriate name. However, since scramblers and peak baggers also reach the summit by more benign means, I am sure this is not the origin for its name. Jay Smith & Paul Crawford established the first free ascent of this route in 1983
Despite consisting of only five pitches of roped climbing, this is a long day in the alpine if done car to car as we did it. If I did it again, I would camp at the common bivy spot beside the tarn below Matterhorn Peak. This is a lush spot to be enjoyed in my opinion. It takes between 3000’ to 4000’ in elevation gain and quite a few miles to reach the base of the climb from Twin Lakes (your car). The descent is a pain in the ass.
You must lose quite a bit of elevation off the backside of Dragtooth before you can traverse south and re-ascend to the Matterhorn-Dragtooth col. Then a nasty (recently vacated by glacier) loose gully descent via several rappels finished with a studded ice, mud and large boulder descent back to the camping area. The first and second pitches are relatively uneventful. The third and fourth pitches offer fantastic climbing in the dihedral but of course finish by dealing with the death block. The fifth pitch is a splitter in the middle of the upper buttress face that climbs just as good as the dihedral pitches.
The 5th and 4th class scrambling (in that order) to the summit is no more mundane than many finishes in the Eastern Sierra.
Park at the resort at Twin Lakes as you would for the Incredible Hulk. Hike out of the parking area to the south and locate the Horse Creek Trail
. Follow this well developed trail up many switchbacks to a rocky slope above the falls (Horsetail Falls
). Cross the creek from left to right on the trail at the top of the large talus and continue up the right side of the drainage on more of a climbers switchback trail up steep and loose slopes (passing a bivy cave along the way). This trail dumps you at a small tarn with beautiful bivy spots in a lush meadow and running water. Load up on water here and continue due west crossing the outlet. Hike up slopes (little to no trail) aiming for a notch on the left side (south) of an obvious tower (Horse Creek Tower) to the west. At the top of this notch, the north buttress of Dragtooth comes into full view. Traverse southwest across large boulders (in September there was no snow to cross) on recently glaciated (and thus loose) terrain and aim for the upper left side coming into the north buttress from a shoulder on the east side. You will traverse in from the left by scrambling up a multitude of loose ledges. The first pitch chimney is easy to spot and becomes more obvious the closer you get to it. There is a rap anchor (2015) at the base of the chimney (where the climb starts).
Route DescriptionDragtooth, 650+/-, 5.10
1st Pitch- 200’- 5.7/
After scrambling up the tiered ledges to the base of the obvious chimney (old fixed rap at base), head up the easy chimney to another ledge. Continue left up the face to a stance below an obvious crack/flake system.
2nd Pitch- 100’- 5.9/
They call this a “loose 5.9 traverse” but it is soft for the grade and I found it rather straight forward on mostly decent rock. Head up the obvious flake/crack until an easy traverse right shows up. Extend your placements well and make the traverse to a short steep section through suspect rock, starting on the right side, moving back left to the base of the beautiful dihedral (a single piton in 2015).
3rd Pitch- 115’- 5.9/
Head up the dihedral placing gear at will with mostly hand jams and stemming. Stop at a stance and several old bolts and build an independent belay on gear. These bolts have aged beyond use (2015).
4th Pitch- 100’- 5.10/
This is the crux pitch of the climb in several ways. The most important being how you deal with the substantial (size of a horse) death block teetering on two much smaller detached blocks. My advice is not to touch it, nor try to go through it. Rather face climb up the right side via small to micro gear. The off-width section is all located below the block and is typical C4#4 off-width, mostly arm bars with creative feet. Sometimes you get decent finger cracks within the main crack with a few facial features that allow you to supplement the OW with a few stem moves. It eases way up under the block. But the face climbing I suggest up and right is in the 5.10 realm again. At the top of the block, I was able to do a wide stem and throw myself back into a short off width (avoiding the block) finish to a ledge with multiple blocks and gear belay. I advise the 2nd to not try and clean the block if his first has stopped where I did. The vibration itself could cause the blocks on the ledge to become unstable. I walked a #3 up for a short bit and then walked two #4’s for quite a distance and left the last one right below the block. I placed several pieces of micro gear to protect the climbing above the block. Bottom line is don’t fall on the block!
5th Pitch- 130’- 5.9/
This final pitch is every bit as good as the two dihedral pitches. Traverse via a hand rail to the obvious splitter in the adjoining wall. Climb this finger/hand crack to the top of the buttress which lands on a sloped shoulder below the ridge. A lot of good moves on solid gear. A good pitch.
There was no descent beta available when we climbed Dragtooth in 2015. From the top of the route, you are heading south for the col between the Matterhorn and Dragtooth. To tag the summit, we un-roped and scrambled 4th and 5th class to the top of the ridge and then along the ridge (mostly right side
) until finally arriving at the jumbled summit. There was a summit register in 2015 that was destroyed by moisture. From the summit, if only we had known it would have saved us a lot of time, descend all the way down to where soft talus/ground meets the western rock face of the Dragtooth which is an obvious distinction in the topography.
On most mountains, if you stick with the ridge, you can down climb and make a few raps to reach a descent col. In this circumstance, as we attempted to follow the ridge all the way over to the col, we made several up and down excursions before we determined it would be more efficient to descend down the west side to the soft talus and re-ascend to the col. There would have been quite a few raps if we stuck with the ridge with plenty of re-ascending, rapping, re-ascending. If we had descended directly from the summit down to the soft talus, a simple traverse over to below the col and re-ascent would have saved us a ton of time. When re-ascending up the west side to the Matterhorn col, take the right fork.
Once at the col, descend the loose and raw gully (recent glacier activity) taking slung raps where you find them, make your own or just slide down the loose choss. We utilized three existing slung raps with only the last one that was mandatory over a short and loose overhanging wall near the bottom of the gully.
After that pinch off, pick your way down the studded glacier ice (2015) and mud to the muddy tarn below. Cross this short drainage area via large boulders and the lake where you should have left your packs and/or camped will come into view to the northeast. Descend the large boulders angling left back to the small lake and drainage. We did this climb as a day trip in approximately 14 hours car to car from Twin Lakes. If we had better descent beta, it would have shorted our day by several hours.
A lightweight single rope, 70m will not help shorten the route in any meaningful way and there was only one mandatory rap in the descent gully and it was not long. Double C4#4’s are essential on the crux pitch (4th). I had two and bumped them quite a bit as it were.
You could leave the #3’s at home to reduce weight. Single rack after that with an assortment of wires and/or off-set cams. The pitches are not that long and the crux climbing is the off-width. You might prefer a regular double rack depending on your comfort level for the 3rd and 5th pitch if you wanted to sew those pitches up, but with the long approach, I would rather go with a single rack and bump a few pieces. Helmets are advised due to the nature of the young rock. This is a north buttress, so expect chilly temps at this elevation most of the year. Your last water is at the normal bivy site for the Matterhorn. There was none after that on this route in early September. 1.5 liters seemed pretty spot on.