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The extra six mile roadclimb scared me away from Mt. Adams this weekend so I decided instead to go to Dragontail, where I found a trailhead completely vacant of snow.
Started out on the trail on Saturday at 2pm.
A couple miles from the trailhead I came upon two hikers who were going at a snail's pace. One was an elderly man who evidently had a lot of determination. As I came up on them I noticed two ice tools strapped to his pack. Indeed, he must have a hell of a lot of determination. The younger guy saw me and let me pass. The older man was unaware and after hiking behind him slowly for a minute, I said "Mind if I squeeze by you?" and just as I thought he was moving aside to let me by, we had a small collision. I apologized and headed on.
The snow started piling up the higher I got through the forest. Here's the first stupid thing I did. I was crossing an area with a lot of downed trees and boulders creating a lot of gaps in the snow. One area looked particularly sketchy.. a posthole was made by someone else earlier and all the surrounding snow looked weak. Preparing myself to sink in a little bit I took a step, slipped and before I knew it, by entire body fell through between the tree and a boulder into a small "cave". About a foot above my head there was the opening that my body and pack had made. All around me there were massive icicles. I could move freely, at least. I checked myself out. Some cuts on my eblow, those would heal--more importantly I didn't rip my new scholar pants. And I was covered in an overwhelming fresh pine scent. Threw my backpack over my head and crawled out.
Reached Colchuck Lake at 5pm and talked with some backpackers who had hung out for the day at the frozen lake.
Around the lake I started the ascent to Aasgard pass at 7pm. Aasgard Pass is a notorious 2200' snow "wall" rising that height in less than 3/4 mile. I figured I'd have 1-2 hours of daylight left to reach the pass. My alternative was to hang out and try it tomorrow, but I'd just be bored down by the lake for the rest of the evening. I figured now that I was out of the trees the snow would be much better. That was a mistake.. the snow was worse, sinking a full leg every few steps. I found it was easier to break new trail than use someone else's deteriorated tracks.
Kept looking at my altimeter, thinking at 6000' feet that I had a full 1000' left to climb. That was going to be tough given how tired I already was. Then reaching 6800' and still not seeing the top of the pass. I Looked at the map and realized that the pass was actually at 7800'. Oops. Another 1000' to climb. That's when I started looking for a place to bivy on every rock outcropping I'd see. From the underside these boulders with their smooth faces looked like they'd be completely flat on top, but as I'd reach them I'd be disappointed to see their 40 degree angle of snow on top.
This was grueling work. I'd kick five quick steps and then rest for 20 seconds. I found this easier than a slow constant pace.
Every now and then I'd see what I thought to be cougar tracks, adding the thought of a wild animal attack into the mix. What was a cougar doing up here? Remembering the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Taking five more steps.
Thinking of Tom Waits songs, thinking of all the money I'd have after I sell all of my climbing gear, (since this would be the last time I'd EVER go climbing in my life). But thinking mostly of the story I was going to tell after completing this thing, which is never as good as the story you come up with while its happening.
Five more steps.
Why did I decide to come up the pass so late? Why did I decide I had to bring my full pack up to the peak? What makes the snow this crappy? Why is there a seventh Thai restaurant opening up in Fremont?
Five more steps.
With the pass in sight a couple hundred feet away, near exhaustion, I postholed my whole leg yet again, only able to whisper the whimpiest yet most sincere "dammit" I've ever uttered.
Due to high elevation, clear skies, and a treeless, snow-filled landscape, I was fortunate I could still make out the subtle texture of the snow in the dim nighttime sky as I arrived atop the pass at 9:55pm. There was a large depression on the other side that my headlamp couldn't reach, so I decided to bivy right there on the pass, behind two small boulders.
As I was stomping out my sleeping area I could still post-hole my entire leg right down into the middle of my would-be bed. I could only imagine what the ground under me looked like without snow. I was a little bit concerned that the shifting of snow below me would cause my head and upper body to fall into an unknown hole beneath me as I slept, the sleeping bag not allowing me to break free. I fashioned my ski poles perpindicular under my thermarest to prevent this from happening. Yes, I am this paranoid.
Fired up the stove, melted snow, ate Tasty Bite. Eventually fell asleep to the full moon shining down on Dragontooth on a windless night.
Woke late to overcast and low visibility which didn't hurry me out into the cold. I packed up and headed off to the peak at 11am. Up another steep 1000' snow wall to the start of the ridge that makes up Dragontail. The morning snow wasn't any better than yesterday's evening snow until I reached the top of the ridge and it became very rubbery, almost elastic. Once on the ridge I could spot Colchuck Mtn. The rest of the way up to Dragontail is a class 2 scramble. I used ski poles most of the way and never broke out the crampons. Made the top at 1pm. The summit isn't very big but quite fierce looking. I can see how it got its name.
I was on the peak for a few minutes when another cilmber made his way up, the only one I'd seen on route the whole day. He introduced himself as Rick and I recognized him from the trail with the elderly man. We chatted and thought about traversing over to Colchuck until the clouds suddenly got much lower and reduced visibility to 100 feet. That pretty much called it off. We talked on the way back to Aasgard Pass until Rick was too far ahead of me, traveling like a mountain goat over the icy rock.
Over lunch on some rocks at the pass we chatted some more. He had hoped to be climbing today but the weather wasn't really providing much hope, and we'd both heard plenty of rocks and snow breaking free during the night. "Plus Fred's a little worn out.. it's tough on an 80 year old." He said his friend, Fred, had done several routes on Dragontail before.
"Is Fred's last name Beckey, by any chance?"
"Yep, that's him."
"Ah, I think I ran into him on the trail."
I glissaded down Aasgard at about the same rate as Rick was plunge stepping (he was fast) and I sat on another boulder in the sun taking in the scene one last time. Rick headed over to the cliff wall where Fred was waiting. I could see Fred talking and pointing up at the cliffs quite a bit. I was ready for dry clothes so I busted around Colchuck and postholed it down the trail back to the car. 5pm. Ate greasy food in Leavenworth. Ahhh.