Colchuck & Dragontail Peaks 05-03-2021

#thehad in his element…
Erik Approaching Banshee Pass…

Erik Schulz was brave or foolish enough to invite me on an adventure in The Enchantments, given my penchant for long days and alpine finishes experienced first hand on our summit to Preacher Mountain.  Erik has an e-bike and extolled the virtues of an e-bike for long approaches to climbs on forest service roads.  Intrigued about the increased opportunity for more car-to-car (c2c) climbs vs. planned camps or unplanned bivys’ (Big Snow, Lake Constance, The Brothers, and others), I quickly agreed to join him on this adventure while also increasing Erik’s experience with alpine finishes.  Our plan was to take a trip to The Enchantments, and after a night of pouring over many GPX tracks, we agreed on a loop – climb the Colchuck Glacier, bag Colchuck Peak, summit Dragontail via Pandora’s Box, drop to climb the Witches Tower, and finish with a stroll to Little Annapurna, then descend to Colchuck Lake via Aasgard Pass.  Simple enough!  I was up for a record day for hours and altitude in an outing, given I had gained 11,700 feet and 19 miles on a day trip a little over a week ago.

I rented an e-bike for this trip as I did not have sufficient time to research a purchase and did not want to drop $5K on something I may not find all that appealing or have a sufficient ROI.  About one mile into our journey, my bike stopped moving and displayed ERR6 on the instrument panel.  After an hour and three miles of pushing the bike uphill, we commenced on foot from the Stuart Lake trailhead.

Our plan to start early paid off as the temperature was sufficiently low that the snow was firm for the ascent to the lake.  This was critically important, as on the hike out from the lake, we encountered endless miles of tree wells, rock well, rotten stream-covered snow bridges, contributing to my 56,000 steps and 12,000 calories burned.  The exit fee from the Enchantments is high!

Please be mindful that the rising temps are rapidly changing the conditions on the trail, lake, snowfields, and glaciers.  Although the lake has been skied on and walked upon recently, to do so now would result in an unplanned ice bath and shortened outing. Also, note that the boot path to Aasgard Pass and the Colchuck Glacier approach traverse part o the lake. Please find a route that avoids crossing the ice-covered water, as it won’t be ice for much longer.

As we approached the lake, we enjoyed watching the sun illuminate the sky and surrounding peaks.  We gained the slabby rocks nearing the lake and were greeted by early morning hues of pink and purple lighting up the tips of Cashmere Peak and Mountaineer Ridge.  We arrived at the lake just before 6 am (my new e-bike already taxing our time itinerary) and took in the majestic views of Dragontail and other surrounding peaks, enjoying the beauty and magic of the aptly named Enchantments.  From here, we made our way around the lake, enjoying the smaller inlets and bays, taking in the snow-covered surroundings, and refilled our water bottles at the small tarn just west of the lake – avoiding an unplanned dip, although Erik is ever hopeful I will find my way into the water on some future outing. We made our way to the boulder field at the southern edge of the lake and opted to cache gear we would not need for our planned summits, recording a waypoint allowing for easy location and retrieval regardless of our path down.

We ascended the Colchuck Glacier, which was in the shadow of the sun for the entire climb, making our way to Banshee Pass, impressed and appreciative of the natural beauty and grandeur of the surrounding granite cliffs. Upon nearing the saddle, we met a pair of skiers who were traversing from Dragontail to Mount Stuart – impressive stuff!  Fortunately, they kicked in a nice boot path to Colchuck Peak, which we followed.  The view south from Banshee Pass to the peaks of the Teanaway is stunning.  Most of the Teanaway 20 were visible.  We agreed that hiking and climbing with a modicum of cloud cover are preferred as it not only provides a respite from the beating sun, it also provides much more interesting and beautiful vistas of the sky and imminently more interesting backdrop for photographing peaks. 

We reached the summit of Colchuck Peak and enjoyed the stunning views of Argonaut and Sherpa Peaks and Mount Stuart, all so close, we felt we could reach out and touch the summits.  Soon enough, and another Bulger in the books.  We dropped back to Banshee Pass, had some lunch, and prepared for the climb up to Pandora’s box.  Unlike Colchuck Peak, we had no pre-paved path to follow.  We scratched and clawed our way up the col in ever diminishing snow conditions – which only become more challenging with the increasing grade and sun-softened snow.  Fortunately, we brought two sets of axes, which were needed to make the ascent.  I am sure we resembled two bears crawling uphill, relying on the purchase of our picks as our feet were only effective at dislodging snow down the slope. As we climbed upwards, I was thankful we would not need to descend this way and that another, a more civilized route down awaited us.  Now I was awaiting what was instore inside Pandoras Box.

Upon reaching said named block, the clouds were rolling in, and visibility was rapidly dropping.  I gingerly approached the edge of the ridge, as it was snow-covered and possibly corniced, and I had no idea what was on the other side, although the topo maps and routes gave the impression that it was a gentle saddle.  As I peered over the edge, it was a rather steep knife-edge of snow of about 75+ degrees.  I could see some tracks about 100 feet below, but without a rope or other protection, it would have been a sheer drop – given the effort to climb the col to this point, I lacked the energy for such a downclimb and also was not in the mood to descent the col we just climbed given the pitch and softness of the snow.  I was still emotionally attached to the notion we could traverse the ridge to the Dragontail summit and take a more gentle path down and make Aasgard pass.  There appeared to be a “scrambleable” route to the left, which I lacked the energy to test, and I did not explore the immediate area around Pandora’s Box to assess a viable route around the block.  With the visibility increasingly getting poor, and our high level of exhaustion, we agreed that the safest route of egress would be to descend the col, regain Banshee Pass, and glissade down the Colhcuck Glacier.  I was crestfallen with disappointment and dread at this new, unplanned descent route. 

We downclimbed about 200 feet, traversed to the west to once again reconnoiter the potential ridge to Dragontail, only to find about 2500+ feet of sheer cliffs over the edge to the west.  Down the col we went!  We found a nice rock from which to doff our crampons and assumed a partial self-arrest position for the descent, given the pitch was steep.  Our axes were able to bite into hard snow and ice about 2″ below the softer snow, which provided adequate braking for the descent.  We dropped about 500 feet, then made our way to the Colchick Glacier.  About 2500 feet of safe yet swift glissading was in our future.  We dropped altitude very fast as we descended and had a fast journey to our gear cache at the lake.

With our shortened trip, I thought surely we would make it out prior to dark (as my e-bike would certainly be able to coast downhill) and enjoy a proper meal in Leavenworth.  Needless to say, the path down was completely treacherous with post-holing delights, delaying my well-intended plans. Dinner consisted of yet more bags of Jelly Belly Sport Beans and Cherry Blosson Honey Stingers.  Schnitzel and wurst from the Andreas Keller Restaurant would have to wait until the next trip.  I believe we made it back to the trailhead around 10 pm or 11 pm – but who’s counting. It was still an alpine finish, FTW! Erik cruised down on his motorized e-bike while I coasted down on my newly minted Luddite version.  I wrapped the evening with a last-minute booking at the Post Hotel. Breakfast and a spa awaited me in the AM – most civilized!

Given the solitude I have enjoyed on my last two outings to the Enchantments, including my late December snowshoe trip to Colchuck Lake, I doubt I could brave the throng of the masses, trampling their way to the lake and beyond.  On this trip and my last, I did not encounter another party (campers and skiers excluded). I think that off-season in the Enchantments will be my season in the future.  I love the snow and the solitude, and the climbing is so much better in winter – alpine vs. trad rock.  Also, Erik is super fun and great hiking and climbing partner.  He brings a magical glee and super positive attitude to the alpine and mountain experience.  So glad I met him as he seems willing to accompany me on future outings…for now.
Yours truly, #thehad

Dawn over Cashmere Mountain
Ascending the Colchuck Glacier
I’ll be back!

One thought on “Colchuck & Dragontail Peaks 05-03-2021

  1. Amazing excursion. Best to get your own bike in the future. Glad you have a new friend in the climbing world

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