"Dragontail, Backbone Ridge, Fin Indirect"

After much confusion on permits, teams, and objectives, Russ Kelley, Susan Nelson, Jeff Power, and I arrived at Colchuck Lake at dusk one beautiful July 6th evening, with our sights set on the 5.9 Fin Direct finish of the 20-some-odd-pitch Backbone Ridge route, probably the most sought-after route on one of the largest, most beautiful rock faces in Washington State. The photos only hint at how gorgeous the Enchantments and this route are.

Hot shots on Cascade Climbers had casually reported one-day trips on this route, so I gave us about a 2/3 chance of completing this route in a day. Very funny. In hindsight, it's obvious that since only hotshots submit to Cascade Climbers, one should double all posted time estimates! What with swapping lead teams, cautious route decisions, a couple of minor route errors and conservative gear placement, we managed about 60% of the route the first day. Fortunately, we had brought just enough bivvy gear and the weather was warm enough to avoid extreme discomfort and cold, and actually manage a little sleep.

Full credit to our rope gun, Jeff, who braved the off-width pitch, which the rest of us lamely seconded. The next three 5.8 pitches were absolutely outstanding: perfect rock, interesting and varied moves, other than some lichen scraping and the loose chockstone I pulled while taking a variation left on the first 5.8 pitch. Resulting in gently settling onto a cam and an energized second effort!

Note: at the top of the third 5.8 pitch, it's easy to get too enthusiastic about climbing the ridge, miss the ledges exiting left, and tree yourself into a buttress and an ugly short downclimb/rappel.

We arrived at the sole bivvy area with plenty of daylight to settle in and build up the sites, but nowhere near enough to do the Fin. More good luck: free water just 60 feet down in the gully below.

The next day we figured we had plenty of time, so didn't hurry. But we decided to look for the quickest way up and abandoned the fin direct, taking the easy low-5th ramp angling right up the base of the Fin. Fools! We regrouped at the top of the ramp, and decided we didn't trust our route finding through the jumble of the old classic 5.7 route. So we took what looked like a good route directly up the right side of the fin, starting at the top of the ramp. A stuck wire suggested some past traffic.

The first pitch went very nicely at 5.8, but the crack of the second pitch veered right into a hard-looking overhang. Again, Jeff volunteered to gun the rope, and after some discussion elected to take the overhang instead of trying a short A0 pendulum left. At least someone had gone that way, as evidenced by a stuck #1 Camalot. But the pendulum would have been far easier - the overhang was 5.10a, forcing Jeff to hang the pack and me to collect it and haul it up and over with several takes to clear gear. Into my most frightening second ever: Jeff topped out by climbing over the knife-edge top of the ridge - a fin no kidding! I had to follow, and be lowered off 15 feet to a narrow ledge, suspended from a poorly directed existing sling placed over a tiny flake.

While I belayed Russ and Susan up to the notch (which I believe the fin direct route eventually reaches) we looked into the gully behind and were horrified: soft 45-degree snow, pasted over/adjacent to the most rotten rock imaginable, short of totally loose scree. And us without our axes. Jeff earned even more hero points by leading up this mess to a reasonable anchor, from which we could walk to the top.

As soon as we hit flat ground and likely line-of-sight to Leavenworth, everyone started phoning home, as we were 1 hour behind our 6PM drop-dead call time. Sure enough, spouses were panicking and calling rescuers. The intermittent cell access only compounded the problems - they didn't get the message that we were only a hard hike away from base camp we weren't in fact clear about that among ourselves. We ran out of energy and daylight as we dragged back into base camp, so didn't attempt to hike out that night - safer for us, but ironically causing more worries back home. As we didn't get back to town to call until noon the next day, they had called rescue again and we had to go put out the fire. (The rescue people of course knew better than to jump right on the call...)

It took me almost a week to recover my energy, but oh how well it was spent!

Next time, leave more slack time on a climb this long, write down the communication restrictions (e.g. no way to call between summit and town), and make sure the message out is clear, simple, and agreed-on...

view from trail  

jeff silhouete   view from lake v  

view from lake  

colchuck sunrise from approach  

start 4th  

lake from scramble   lake from chimney pitch   start chimney pitch  

colchuck ne buttress   pitch3 lieback  

ne buttress from bivvy   fin sunset  

russ jeff bivvy   colchuck col  

view from bivvy  


jeff pitch4 fin base traverse   down fin base ramp  

colchuck tail from mid-ramp   up fin base ramp  

fin direct p1   jeff sue top p3 adjust  

nridge colchuck  

jeff starting lead   jeff starting lead  

jeff fin top crux   pasted block from notch  

route bivvy from notch   russ susan gully  

upper gully   gully exit summit ridge  


dragontail plateau  

headed home  

pond colchuck   pond colchuck ducks