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So it was set, I was going to climb Dragon's Tail Couloir in just a few days. I was a little nervous not knowing exactly what to expect, as this was my first significant steep snow climb. I also knew that there was a small rock step involved that would require some climbing. But I was going with some very experienced climbers who have climbed all over the world, so I told myself I would watch their every move, ask the 'stupid' questions and try to learn as much as I could.
As well as Andy and I, Fabio Somenzi and Nelson Chenkin would be along for the climb. We met at the Bear Lake trail head at 6:00 and were hiking by 6:15. It is a short but beautiful trek to Emerald Lake and the base of the climb. After assessing the snow conditions and gearing up, we were off, climbing up the lower slopes of Dragon's Tail. There had been some small slide activity over the previous days, as you can see in some of the pictures. But this looked to be a good thing as any unstable snow had already 'sluffed' out of the couloir.
On the lower slopes, the snow was a little inconsistent. It would be rock solid one step, then you'd sink to you knee with the next. But as we climbed, the snow became more consistent and we had very solid footing the entire time. Before too long, we made it up the first quarter of the couloir through soft and steep snow to the base of a huge boulder. Here, the couloir narrowed and the snow hardened so we all pulled the crampons out and traded our hiking poles for our axes, and up we went. This is where is got fun!
The couloir gradually steepens and narrows as you ascend. I hadn't looked behind me for quite some time until Andy mentioned something about the view. My jaw dropped. It was literally breathtaking. What my eyes saw as I turned to look behind me will be ingrained in my head forever. I thought of how, about five years ago, I was down on the other side of Emerald Lake squinting to see if those were really people up there. I was now squinting to see if I could really see people way down there! It was a very surreal experience for me. I have been in places where I have had some great views before, but this was different for me. I think all I could muster up was "Wow, that's awesome." Andy replied, laughing, "yeah."
With a permanently affixed smile, I returned to the task at hand, turned around and starting moving up. However, I'd make myself stop and soak in the view every few minutes. Up and up we went. The sounds of climbing on snow are always great to hear. The kick stepping with crampons, the sound of ice axes being jammed into the snow, heavy breathing, the wind whipping through the spires high above, kick stepping, more heavy breathing, even more heavy breathing, another step, more axes, biners and pro rattling against each other, and of course, the sound of silence. The nothing but you and the mountain and your climbing partners.
We would, for the most part, climb single file. But then one of us would want to get a shot or some footage of the climb and race ahead or lag behind to get the shots they wanted. We were going at a great pace, not too fast, but moving along nicely. The perfect pace to enjoy every little thing about the climb. It was also nice that there were two climbers about 3 minutes ahead of us that made nice steps for us all the way up. So we saved a lot of energy not having to break trail.
What seemed like minutes, but was actually probably two hours, we were approaching the rock step that chokes the couloir about 3/4 of the way up. The steep walls were getting very close now and it was nothing but rock ahead of us. We watched as the climbers ahead of us made their way over the rock, which turned out to be pretty rotten. We had to dodge a few rocks that were kicked down towards us. And as we ascended, it was difficult not to dislodge a lot of our own. Now it was our turn. I went up as far as I could and picked a fun scramble up and over a very icy ledge with another 3rd/4th class move to gain the top of the step. It wasn't nearly as bad as I was anticipating, but it did demand my full attention.
With the crux of the climb now behind us, we had only another 300 feet or so of steep snow left before topping out on the ridge above us. I stopped to get some shots of Fabio heading up and of Nelson and Andy topping the rock step below me before making the final steps up and out of Dragon's Tail. Shaking hands with Fabio and the climbers above us, I felt like a kid running down stairs on Christmas morning! I can't speak for everyone, but that was a climb I will remember, vividly, forever. We had great weather, the snow was in great shape, I was with a fun bunch of guys and fantastic climbers in a place of unmatched beauty, and it was a couloir that I had been eyeing for a long time. This is going to be a hard one to beat. But I'll sure try!
We made our way down the "trail" and ended up taking a shortcut through the 'banana bowls' on the lower eastern slopes of Flattop. We got to pay our trailbreaker's back on the way down, as they didn't have snowshoes. So we stomped a good trail down for them through the soft snow and made their lives a lot easier. So it all evens out!
We were soon back at the trail head, then made our way to Ed's Cantina for a beer and a fish burrito. We talked about the climb, about past climbs, and about climbs we should do in the near future. With our stomachs full, our legs tired and our souls rejuvenated, we parted ways and I spent the afternoon relaxing at the lodge wishing I could start the day over and do it one more time. There is always tomorrow...
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