riding the dragon's tail

Some weekends are longer than others, this one unexpectedly so. Everyone’s home and safe now, but I’m still not sure whether our little trip was better than work…

TR: Riding the Dragon’s Tail

Adventure. That little word has given me some pretty interesting times.

I. Prologue

It started a few weeks ago when some we took a half day off away from our cubes and code and spent it hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for some team building.

We hiked up to Emerald Lake, and that’s when I saw them — a pairof looming spires across from Halletts and connected to the Flattop massif. The feeling was simple; I wanted to climb the larger northern spire and stand on its summit.

Staring up for a few minutes, I saw a line of weakness that seemed feasible. There was a large crack system slash gulley sort of thing that went to the summit. The plan slowly forming in my
mind was to climb that line without any knowledge other than what I had scouted out that day.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

II. Approaching the Dragon

At the bottom of the first pitch, I watched Anon slowly make her way up. Too slow for my taste, but I was forgiving. What choice do you have when you’ve not climbed much with someone before?

I had pitched my idea for adventure to a few friends. All were put off by the idea of launching up something without beta. Anon was interested in the climbing, but insisted on looking at a guide book. At this point, desperate to climb the pinnacle, I conceded.

We were to climb the Dragon’s Tail, and the route I had scouted was the Old Route. The description was typical of the old guidebooks, where it gave a brief description of how to get up and down and a hint of the difficulty and commitment involved. Focused on preserving the sense of adventure, I was pleased that the description was vague.

During the approach, the plans changed. Anon wanted to climb a different route with a pitch by pitch description. I pointed out that her route, the South Ridge, wandered all across the face,
and that we would be challenged by route finding, whereas the Old Route went up the obvious line. She felt more comfortable having more description rather than less, and again, I conceded.

In retrospect, a long trad route in the high country is not the place to learn how different your partner’s climbing style is from your own. Also, we should have bailed then and there.

III. Let Sleeping Dragons Lie (or else)

Somewhere on the second or third pitch, the clouds I had hoped would blow off, didn’t. A light drizzle started coming down.

At this point, retreat would have been possible — maybe — but difficult. I honestly thought we could move fast enough to finish the climb, and continued upwards. Ha! By now, the plan was for me to lead all the pitches for expediency’s sake.

A pitch later, the skies opened up. I thought about retreat, but didn’t see a safe way down. We were on a bulging part of the spire, and I couldn’t see past the overhang. Committing to that sort of unknown rappel wasn’t appealing. Also, I mistakenly thought that we were more than halfway up, and so decided the best way off was to continue up.

Somewhere along the way, Anon started going hypothermic. She was requiring tension on just about every move and was moving extremely slowly. To say I was getting nervous would be an understatement.

We were traversing now, and I turned what should have been two pitches into about four or six. With Anon’s condition, I wanted the climb/belay cycles to be short for several reasons. I thought if she kept moving, she would stay warmer. I also wanted to keep a closer watch on her. She was moving and thinking slow, but was still coherent. If she deteriorated any further, I wanted to know about it sooner rather than later, and felt that being closer to the belays, I would be in a better position to communicate with and assist her. Her movements were deliberate and cautious, and we both double-checked everything she did at the belays.

So I continued to traverse, stopping each time I found another spot in the lee of the wind and rain. These short thirty to forty foot pitches added to our slowness, but seemed like the best option, given the conditions.

After the second or so of these, we reached a ledge with enough room and shelter to untie so she could put on a change of clothes. I also stuffed as much food and water into her as possible and told her that we weren’t moving until she was feeling better. Fortuitously, it also stopped raining, and the amount of improvement in a few minutes was amazing. I felt better as well and thought the end was near.

Continuing the traverse, my goal was to find the “easy face directly below the notch in the summit and climb up it”.

IV. A Little Interlude

Hm. This face may be the easy one, and I think that’s a notch. I’ll try it and see how it goes

I’m in a slick left facing dihedral and have a piece in down 10feet below, and another at my level. I see some possible moves up the face that involve traversing out left away from my top piece, and start exploring the face. The granite is slick, and the holds I thought were good aren’t. Disappointed, I traverse back to my top piece and remove it, preparing to downclimb.

A few moves down, I look up once more and see a hold that I missed the first time. Perhaps it’s the secret hold that unlocks the face. To get there, I make a few face moves, reaching the secret hold.

It’s good, but the surrounding ones are not. Fatigued now and worried by the slickness, I’m fighting to get back to the safety of the crack. I’ve achieved a completely awkward position, and my right foot starts skating on the glass like surface.

This is the tipping point, where you know the Bad Thing is going to happen. I look down at my piece ten feet below right before my hands slip off. Clarity:

Damn. That piece is far away. This is going to hurt.

My body position causes me to start down head first, on my back. I bounce off the sloping wall and gain enough horizontal clearance to avoid the large ledge below. As I fly past the ledge, I can feel a rock scrape the back of my helmet.

Wow. I’m glad I was wearing that thing.

Abruptly stopping now, I’m upside-down and bouncing gently on the rope. Immediately, I shout that I’m ok, and take a second to catch my breath, still inverted. Righting myself, I clamber back atop the ledge and look over at Anon who is surpised, to say the least.

She tells me to sit down and make sure that I’m ok. Physically, I’m fine, but for the first moment on this climb, I’m wishing I was somewhere else. Tired, cold, wet, and a bit shaken, I just want off.

V. Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

We’re so close to the summit and escape, but darkness is insidiously creeping in. I move as fast as I can upwards and pray fervently that Anon will do the same. We’re two pitches upwards of my 20 foot whipper, and I’m desperately hoping we’ll start the descent by darkness.

Alas, no. Optimistic as I am, I’m starting to get a bad feeling. I creep over a small notch and cross from the east side of the spire to the south side, where I’m immediately blasted by howling

Moving by headlamp now, I explore the rocky ledge system. It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to be able to get her up this stuff and down safely. It’s not going to happen.

I bring her up and by the time she reaches me, it’s night. This is bad, because we’re still a bit damp, and the wind is gale force. I’m looking for a way to get off the back side, but again, there’s enough overhang to make the rappels dubious at best.

Anon finds a small notch that offers a bit of shelter from the wind. It’s just large enough for two bodies, and after some preparation, we cram ourselves in.

She’s lying atop the rope, and I’m on top of her. We have our feet stuck in a small backpack, and I’m using the larger pack as a blanket, as I’m more exposed to the wind.

My clothing is minimal. Starting out, it didn’t even cross my mind that we’d be spending the night out. At seven pitches and a 5:30 AM start, my worst case scenario had us summitting by 3 pm and back at the car by 5 or so. No way would we have to bivy.

I’m dressed for light and fast. I’ve got a short sleeved wicking shirt, a fleece vest for my core, a hat, and a nylon shell for wind and light rain. Well, I got the light part right…

The only way I can stay warm is to bring my arms out of the shell’s sleeves and inside the fleece, so I’m hugging myself. It also renders me useless for adjusting our position in the tortuously cramped notch, since getting my arms in and out of the vest is a major production.

We both have periodic violent shivering bouts, and this gives me some slight encouragement. As far as I can remember, it’s when the shivering stops that you’re in Big Trouble.

It wasn’t a talking bivy. Unlike the stories I’d read about partners talking all night to keep each other awake and alive, we both retreated into our minds and tried to find something to keep us going. I settled for an occasional “Are you ok?” and shivering spasm to confirm that we were still alive.

The wind continued howling, and changed direction a few times. Our shelter wasn’t, although it was better than nothing. I cursed life in general and continued to grit my teeth and wait. I learned a new definition of the word “misery”.

It was a long night.

VI. A Moment of Weakness, Followed by Redemption

The next morning, the wind hadn’t subsided. I dragged myself out of the notch and stumbled around, looking for an escape route. Blasted by the wind, I was immediately shivering violently and my teeth were rat-tat-tatting uncontrollably. I simply couldn’t get my balance, and it seemed like it would be a long time before we were in the sun. The rappels in the daylight didn’t look any better than the night before, so up was our only option.

That meant that I had to lead some more pitches, a prospect I was not looking forward to. I seriously wondered how we were going to get off, and thought it was ridiculous that civilization was a mere hour away while we were enjoying our own private hell.

I have a strong sense of self-reliance, and was slightly annoyed last night when Anon started yelling for help and shining SOS with her headlamp towards the Bear Lake parking lot. Although it
wasn’t the most pleasant of situations, I thought we were far from needing a rescue.

That morning, though, if a helicopter had swung by with a litter attached, I would have climbed in without a second thought.

We finally got collected enough to start moving again, and by the time I was geared up and ready to climb, I at least had my balance back, and the dizziness was gone. Looking upward, I saw that just 15 feet above was sunlight. Eagerly, I climbed towards redemption, and at the end of my rope, found a belay spot that was in the full sun and sheltered from the wind. By the time Anon reached me, I was actually feeling good again.

One more short pitch, and we were on the summit.

Now it was time to start the descent. The description was to downclimb into the notch behind the tower and continue northward along the ridge towards Flattop. We stayed roped up, and at the beginning of the second “pitch”, I looked down and saw a beautiful sight.

The oldest most tattered piece of purple webbing in the world was lying there, and looking down at it, I saw the escape ledges below. The “we’re going to make it” feeling clicked. Relief flooded my body.

The webbing itself was torn and wrapped around a rock that wasn’t even chocked into anything. I laughed. Luckily, I had some webbing and rap rings and we found a giant chockstone that wouldn’t budge no matter how hard we pushed it. As I was tying the water knot, a voice floated over.


Pseudo?! [her husband]

No. It’s the park service. Are you ok?

[me] Yes — we’re ok. We have one rap and then we’ll be on
the ledges to get off.

Ok. I’m going to come closer for a better look.

We did a single rap and were on the ledges. I went first, and by the time Anon reached me, Ranger Matt was halfway down the couloir that we’d have to scramble up to get off to escape.

Anon’s husband Pseudo had put in the call last night and was extremely anxious to find her, to the point of taking the 5 AM shuttle that morning and hiking out to try and find us. Along the way, he was exhorting the Park Service to get their own search teams going.

We made our way over to Matt, and scrambled up and out of the couloir. On top, he gave us all the water we wanted, and some MRE rations. We all made our way to the Flattop trail and began the hike down.

A few miles later, we met up with Ranger John, Pseudo, and our friends Matt and Cara who were hiking up to meet us.

VII. Epilogue

Adventures usually turn out to be learning experiences. Some important lessons were impressed upon me. But first, credits:

Thanks to Rangers Matt and John for coming out and looking for us. Matt gave us a personal escort back down the trail, and his concern for our safety and well-being were well appreciated.

Thanks to Ranger Mary Beth for coordinating between our concerned friends and family and the Park Service. She also led the debriefing session afterwards, and yelled at me good-naturedly to treat the high country with more respect.

Thanks to Anon’s husband Pseudo, and our friends Matt and Cara for being so concerned about our well-being. They all had to take the day off work, and Pseudo and Matt were up since 3:30 AM that morning in an effort to start the rescue effort.

And finally, my own self-analysis.

Judgement, judgement, judgement.

The most important thing I took away from this experience was that I need more judgement. We should have bailed after the first pitch, after seeing how slowly we were moving and the cloudy conditions. There is no route that needs to be climbed that badly. Retreating immediately would have been the proper action.

Long trad routes in the alpine are not the place to learn your partner’s climbing style and ability. Save that for the gym or cragging destinations, and only head out to the high country with someone you’ve personally vetted.

More clothes would have been nice. The few extra ounces of weight you carry might be the difference between a miserable night and a bearable one. A long sleeve capilene shirt and perhaps an extra
pair of thick socks would have gone a long way last night, and weigh close to nothing compared to everything else.

Speed is safety, but that mantra is meaningless if you don’t actually have speed. And once you lose it, your options are extremely limited once you slow down. Again, a little bit of preparation would have been minimal but would have paid off big time.

Finally, a climbing team is exactly that: a team. If one person on the team is in trouble, you all are. It’s pure hubris to think that you’ll be able to compensate.

Everyone on the team needs to be functioning at a high level for the team to be safe. If you’re not all on the same page, you need to consider the safety of the team first and prioritize accordingly.

VIII. Afterword

Well, it was an exciting 36 hours or so, and I’m writing this so I can finally get to sleep.

I’m looking forward to wisdom and old age.

  1. This is the approximate spot of our bivy
    • This is where we met up with Ranger Matt This is just a picture I found online. There was no snow when we actually climbed it.