Dragontail Peak – Backbone Ridge (IV 5.9)

Kyle and I climbed Dragontail Peak’s Backbone Ridge on August 28th, 2021. I thought that this route was surprisingly high quality with a lot of fun pitches! We took about 18 hours car to car, which is a civilized day for a route of this size in the Cascades.

Kyle pleased to have reached Colchuck Lake in less than two hours.

I hadn’t seen Kyle since we parted ways on the summit of Mt Hood after making the first ascent of Cathedral Ramp in April. It had been way too long, so we decided to get on something in the Cascades together again. After debating a LOT of interesting options, we settled on Dragontail Peak’s Backbone Ridge. It’s known as a classic of the range, but I had some trepidation considering that I personally know four(!) people who have been injured on this route under various circumstances. However, Kyle and I are experienced in this kind of alpine terrain and I was confident that we could mitigate the risks that are present on this route. Really, they are the same risks that we deal with on any alpine route – risk management is part of the game.

4th classing the approach ramps at the start of the route. Photo: Kyle Tarry

After charging up the hiking trail to Colchuck Lake and passing perhaps 50 other people on the trail, we made a quick pit stop to fill water and utilize the convenient pit toilet near the South end of the lake. From here it was a quick churn up the moraine to reach the base of the route. I had done this approach before when I climbed Dragontail Peak – Serpentine Arête (IV 5.8) in 2017; Backbone Ridge starts perhaps 200 feet away from Serpentine. This route starts with a stretch of 4th class scrambling before reaching the first chunk of technical pitches where the ridge initially steepens and becomes defined.

Kyle finishing up the first pitch. Colchuck Peak was just starting to light up for the day.
Kyle on leading the crux offwidth. It got wider and steeper just above.

I lead an easy pitch before Kyle took the reigns on the hardest pitch of the route: the 5.9 offwidth. This is the most talked about feature on the route, and I see why. I just don’t climb many cracks this size, so this thing felt stout! Thankfully, Kyle offered some helpful instructions on offwidth technique from above while I followed the pitch. After the offwidth, two more long pitches went at about 5.8 and brought us to a stretch of simulcimbing. This lower-angle section of the ridge went quickly and soon we were at the base of the Fin.

Squirming my way up the last part of the crux offwidth pitch. Photo: Kyle
Questing up the mellow and fun pitch right after the offwidth pitch. Bear right here – don’t go all the way up to the “mini roof.” Photo: Kyle
It’s so much fun spending time in the mountains with friends!
Kyle setting off on our fourth belayed pitch. More fun, moderate climbing. Colchuck Balanced Rock is in the background.
Simulclimbing our way to the Fin, which is gleaming high above. This feature gets cooler and cooler the closer you get. Photo: Kyle

The Fin is an incredible geologic feature – an enormous slab jutting from the highest reaches of Dragontail. I had been this high on the face before, twice on Triple Couloirs to the left and once via Serpentine to the right. From this central location, I couldn’t help but look around in awe at all the features I’ve been studying from afar for years. The gully of Gerber-Sink (which Kyle and I attempted in April) was just to our left.

Kyle leading a 70+ meter pitch to get us fully established on the Fin. Most parties doing this route will be OK to continue simuclimbing through this pitch if the leader has the gear for it.
Starting up the first proper Fin pitch. You’ll be giggling your way up these pitches, so good! Photo: Kyle
Kyle firing up the second Fin pitch to a semi hanging belay.
Kyle working his way up and across one of the wildest pitches of my life, taking us to the top of the Fin.
Having way too much fun on the Fin. Photo: Kyle
Nearing the top of the Fin. Photo: Kyle

There are many variations on the Fin – we took the far left option as described by Blake Herrington in Cascades Rock. These three pitches are THE reason to do this route! The position is spectacular, the climbing appears improbable, protection is solid, and the final pitch may be one of the coolest alpine pitches you’ll ever do! I lead the first pitch which was a very enjoyable 5.8 pitch off of the main ledge on the face. Kyle took the lead and cruised a longer, harder pitch to a semi hanging stance – wild. The next pitch was out of this world – after some initial vertical cracks, the pitch veers right. A single, almost horizontal crack splits the face, which requires you to move up and across with no holds. You don’t do this for a few feet; this goes on for at least 20 meters before the crack system takes you to the top of the slab! This pitch feels incredibly committing but is not too hard. From the notch at the top of the fin, we swapped leads on two more easy, loose pitches and simulclimbed to the summit.

Looking back up at the descent snow slope (currently an ice slope). The rock wall we rappelled is on the right – we never touched snow throughout the day.

All day, we had been trying to move quickly knowing that we needed to locate the descent rappels before dark. We did not want to attempt the normal descent down the snowfield, which is really a minor glacier. At this point in the season, it is pure ice and would require real boots, real crampons, ice tool(s), and probably some screws, none of which we wanted to carry on our sunny rock route. We teamed up with new friends Jenna and Josh, who had climbed Serpentine Arete and summited at the same time as us. Some mellow scambling passed quickly and Josh spotted the first rap anchor. Two rappels went easily with a 70m rope – seems like you could get away with a 60m. Be very careful of loose rock if you are using these raps, and double check the anchors are solid.

Gear Notes

There is so much beta out there, but the question everyone wants to know is: what big cams do I bring? We took a 4 and a 6, and were happy to have both.

Strategy Notes

Early to mid-season, bring aluminum crampons and possibly an ultralight ice axe – the snow slope at the base of the route is steep! Late in the season, snow can be avoided at the start of the route, so you can leave snow gear behind altogether and plan to use the descent rappels like we did.

3 thoughts on “Dragontail Peak – Backbone Ridge (IV 5.9)

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