Dragon's Tail Couloir

April 14-15, 2009

During Spring Break I originally planned to visit my friend Cindy Chiu in Tucson and rock climb with her, but she would be busy that week so I considered other options.  Since I plan to spend this summer in Seattle, climbing the nearby mountains, I thought it would be a good idea to visit Colorado and take advantage of the spring snow climbing there.  My friends in Colorado would all be there, but no one is interested in climbing, and I felt my skill level was not high enough that it would be safe for me to go alone at this point.  So the only real option was to contact a guide service.  I don't like having to use guide services, and would much rather learn from friends, but there was no alternative and I didn't want to waste my break.  So searching on the internet I found the Colorado Mountain School, which guides in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I probably could have searched more and found a less expensive service, but the CMS is well-established and well-known and I figured I could try them out the first time.  My friend Mike Vermeulen was able to take Thursday and Friday off, so we'd be able to go up to Frisco together Thursday to Saturday and ski then.  That meant Tuesday and Wednesday would be the best time to snow climb.  Unfortunately the CMS only has classes on the weekend, so I would have to hire out a private guide for those days, which is much more expensive.  Still I felt it would be worth it.  The plan was to spend Tuesday on snow skills review (since I hadn't snow climbed since Shasta in 2007) and go beyond that to learn some things like how to build snow anchors, and then Wednesday to do a real climb.

I flew into Denver Monday afternoon, and first stopped by the REI flagship store which was quite impressive.  I still needed to buy glacier glasses, and I wanted to find something that would fit over my normal glasses well, since prescription glacier glasses apparently run around $300.  Fortunately I found a model, the Julbo Colorado (appropriately!), for $60, which fit very well over my glasses and has a very nice design with flexible ends you can wrap around your ear and keep the glasses on tight.  This way they let in only maybe a tiny bit more light than if I had regular glasses, and they worked great.  I got some energy food and a map as well.  I then headed to Golden where I met with two other college friends, Tina Voelker and Linnea Avallone, and their families, for dinner.  It was a lot of fun to catch up with them, and then I drove to Fort Collins to Mike's place.

Tuesday, April 14

Tuesday morning I left early and drove to Estes Park.  I was just going to stay in a motel there as I usually do, but the CMS has a climber's lodge that is only $25 a night, and I figured either I could meet other climbers there or I'd get the whole place to myself, either way a win.  As expected it turned out to be the latter--midweek this time of year isn't a particularly popular time.  I met my guide, whom I'll just call G, at 8am, and he looked at my equipment to make sure I had everything I needed and then we dressed for climbing.  I drove us both to the Glacier Gorge trailhead near Bear Lake, and we headed to the base of the practice area, about 2 miles away.  G had me carry his rope (about 30 meters), and I think this was partly to give me some extra weight so he could judge my fitness.  I had no trouble following his pace, and he was impressed by this.

G was an interesting guy.  He had by far the worst people skills of any teacher I've ever had, and he had no clue how to teach.  This is one reason I normally avoid guides--I figured they would typically not be people who had any love of teaching or ability to teach, but rather just people grudgingly guiding to support their lifestyle.  G fit this stereotype perfectly.  On the other hand he was a very experienced climber who had put a lot of effort into thinking about how to do things optimally, and I did manage to learn a great deal from him over the two days.  I don't know if it was the way he was taught himself or what, but our relationship was not so much student/pupil as one would normally envision it, but rather more as I would imagine the old master/apprentice relationship to be.  That is the apprentice should unquestioningly follow whatever the master says to do, and the master will yell at and berate the apprentice if the latter doesn't do everything perfectly right the first time.  Not a pleasant or even good way to learn, but I still managed to get a lot out of it.

I learned a lot of little details from him.  Right away G showed me a different way to hold my trekking poles than I was used to--keep them short and walk with your palms on top of them.  I was initially skeptical but this worked very well.  The approach trail was entirely covered with snow and it was enjoyable just to hike on it.  The scenery was beautiful, but I didn't have time to stop and take pictures.

Eventually we got to the base of our practice area, and I wasn't paying the closest attention so I'm not exactly sure where it was, but it was in the Loch Vale area and so probably on Thatchtop or Half Mountain.  We dropped our packs and put on our harnesses and crampons.  G was very much into speed and optimizing every movement, which is something I appreciated and tried to absorb as much as possible.  So many aspects of alpine climbing appeal to me--the early start, the emphasis on speed, moving fast with few and very short breaks, and getting down off the mountain early.  I'm a fast hiker but don't have the other skills yet, and in particular am very slow doing just about anything but walking.  So G would show me techniques to speed up other things, as basic as how to carry gear on my harness, how to clip things into carabineers, and so forth.  This was all very valuable and clearly things I need to practice until they are second nature before I do anything serious myself.

We did some basic footwork review for snow climbing at first, and then as the slope got steeper started setting anchors.  I wanted to learn more about how to build snow anchors, so G showed me some basics of how to use a picket, both pounded into the hard snow and as a deadman in a T trench in softer snow (which was the case here).  I wanted to try myself but G didn't know how if we'd have time.  Instead he set up a rock anchor, had me belay him, and he set up a deadman anchor higher up.  Here I've taken his picture after taking him off belay.

We did a little more after that--I forget just what.  Then G did let me try creating my own deadman anchor.  When I tested the first one I pulled it out easily, and although partly the problem was that it was not buried well enough I also had pulled it out straight up, whereas the angle of pull would actually be downward and it would have been much stronger that way.  I tried again and did a much better job.  It was a lot of work and quite exhausting to bury the picket well, and certainly I'm very inefficient and need to practice, but it was great being able to try.  G had me try it out at the top of a steep slope and hold my ice axe ready to self-arrest in case the anchor popped.  But nicely it held.

I then practiced self-arrest, from all the different positions.  It was good I did because I thought I'd remembered well intuitively how to do it but I'd gotten it backwards somehow and was about to do it on the wrong side of my body, which is very dangerous.  I really need to practice it again each time before I climb to make sure I get it right.  Self-arresting from the head-down position is still quite scary, but I was able to do it.

By the time we got down we'd made a nice circuit and I'd had the chance to practice a variety of skills.  It was a nice day.  I asked G what climb we'd do the next day, and he suggested Dragon's Tail Couloir.  I had bought Dave Cooper's excellent book Colorado Snow Climbs and had read about this one--since it is rated as steep snow it's not something I ever would have attempted on my own, but with a guide it looked perfect, and a superb climb.  I was really excited to try it.  We actually got a glimpse of the climb from where we were--I was thinking the right branch is visible in the middle of the picture here, but now I'm not sure.  Anyway it's somewhere around that area, maybe hidden behind the mountain in the foreground in this picture.

When we were hiking back G saw a group hiking in snowshoes on top of a frozen stream rather than the trail and said that was dangerous since it could melt out soon.  He asked the group where they were going and they said Longs Peak, and he pointed out they were going the wrong way and had missed a turn at a previous junction.  So that was lucky for them as there was no way they'd get to Longs Peak the way they were going.  We returned to the lodge and I took some picture of the inside of the building which I had all to myself.  Here's the kitchen area in the lower level. 

Here's the area right next to it for preparing to go out and climb.

And here's my bed upstairs.  No worries about disturbing anyone else!

I went out for dinner and took some pictures around Estes Park.  Here's the CMS from the outside

Downtown Estes Park.

Another part with a sign for CMS.

I decided to just get fast food, and was going to go to McDonalds when I saw a KFC nearby which would be a better meal.  As you got into this art of town you had fantastic views of the Rockies which towered over the smaller foothills.  Truly spectacular.  I had basically this view from KFC, and was thinking my $5 meal there was getting me a much better view than you'd get for $100+ meals at other places.

G had taken a look at my food and thought it was too little, so he told me to buy a sandwich at Safeway, which was right by KFC.  He said he'd had to carry a guy out once who had run out energy from not eating enough.  But I never need to eat too much on a climb and always bring too much.  I went into Safeway but didn't feel like buying a sandwich.  I did bring some extra granola bars that I'd already purchased, and it turns out I did end up bringing too much food.  But better to be safe.

I got to bed reasonably early but didn't sleep well, mostly due to itching from poison oak which I still had from the previous climb of the Citadel in Pinnacles.  Nevertheless I had no trouble getting up at 4am and it was nice I could just turn all the lights on and not have to worry about anyone else.

Wednesday, April 15

I was all ready to go when G arrived at around 4:40 or 4:45, and we drove to the Bear Lake trailhead this time.  We must have arrived and started hiking around 5:15am but I didn't check my watch.  The map below shows the rough route for the day--I'm sure the winter trail doesn't quite follow the summer trail.

It was before dawn but just getting light enough to see when we arrived at Emerald Lake, which was frozen so we just walked across it, and I got my first glimpse of the climb.  This isn't a great picture since it's so dark, but there are much better pictures on the web, and also on the front page of the 2009 CMS climbing brochure!  The climb is actually more impressive from far away than close up, because as you'll see you don't get a good feeling for the steepness when you are right in front of the climb or on it.  This picture was taken at 6:02am.

Now at 6:04am, already it's a lot brighter.  G can be seen in the picture to give a sense of the perspective.

Now at the base of the climb (6:09am), the main couloir (left center) can be seen, and the right branch near the top.

We got ready and started up sometime between 6:15 and 6:30.  G was very efficient, eating a sandwich as he got ready, something good to learn.  He had had me carry the rope again, but now took it and put me on short rope.  I'd read about this but had never seen it done before, so it was interesting--it's really something for a guide and a client, or two people of very unequal abilities.  I might want to do it with my son someday, so it was useful to see a bit how it works.

The slope starts out fairly mild but quickly gets steeper.  It was interesting that the snow was of very uneven quality, sometimes fairly hard and icy, and other times soft and of varying thickness, and these sections seemed arranged more or less randomly with no real pattern I could discern, and it seemed G couldn't either.  The advantage of going early in the morning is that the snow is harder and easier for crampons, but I found if it was too hard that it was very strenuous.  G liked to walk in using sort of sidesteps, changing direction after a while to give muscles a rest, but I found this very tough as my muscles aren't used to it, especially on the left leg.  So I tried to duck walk more which was less painful.  The softer snow was actually easier for me because G would break trail and then I'd just follow his footsteps, which were fairly flat.  But he hated this, especially since the antiball plates on his black diamond crampons weren't working well.  He was cursing them and said he'd buy a pair of my Grivel G12 crampons since the antiballing works much better on them (but he said the BDs are better for climbing).  I did have some trouble with snow balling up under my own crampons at times, though, especially when descending.

I should mention too that my glacier glasses worked perfectly as well.  G was worried that they'd fog up, which I thought was something that happens in colder weather but actually according to G it' the opposite--the fog problems happen in warmer weather.  It was quite warm that day, and interestingly while G's $200 sunglasses fogged up many times I never had trouble the entire day.

Speaking of equipment I learned a fair amount from these two days.  The weather was fairly warm and I found myself overdressed the first day wearing lightweight long underwear, fleece, my softshell and goretex raincoat.  The softshell I have is rather thick and although this layering is good for skiing it was too much for climbing.  So I took off the fleece and didn't wear it either day and that was perfect.  From the pictures you can see I didn't even wear the raincoat most of the second day.  I had bought a down jacket since they told me to bring one, but never used it (and in fact found the medium size was too large and returned it and got a small instead, which is still on the large side for me--but then Mountain Hardwear seems to make stuff for fat guys, whereas my favorite Arc'Teryx makes clothing that fits me perfectly, but they don't make a down jacket).  For my legs over the long underwear I just wore insulated pants and rain pants, which were perfect for this day.  My boots were fine but I did notice my toes getting a little cold the previous day when I stopped for a while, so I wonder if they are not warm enough for Rainier.  I did wear thick socks this day along with thin liners.  One thing I learned is that my gloves are not nearly warm enough--G recommended Black Diamond Guide gloves, whereas mine are Glissades.  One problem is that they are not at all waterproof.  They were fine for a warm day, but would be useless for anything colder.

I found myself struggling to keep up with G's pace at the beginning, and when he asked how I was doing I asked if we could slow down a little.  I'm not sure if he really did, but I did find it easier to follow him later especially in the softer snow, when he had to worker harder and I could take it easier.  I got into a good rhythm following him, taking steps to match his, and felt I was getting very good at the rest step.  The altitude (the climb stays under 12K feet) never bothered me.

After what seemed like a long time we finally stopped for a short break, finding a safe place near the left edge.  It was interesting for me to see what a good rest spot was like.  We ate a little food and I had a chance to take some pictures.  Here's one looking down the couloir, although you can't see it very well.

I got G to take a picture of me too.  This was at 7:59am.

We then continued up, taking the left branch.  The snow gets steep and is apparently around 45 degrees where the branch is and then goes to 55+ as you get closer to the top.  There's a short rock section (apparently 4th class or easy 5th class) that G soloed up and then belayed me up, running the rope around a large rock as the anchor.  This is the first time I'd climbed rock in my crampons, and it was hard but fun.  There's a picture of this section (although more melted out in the picture than it was when I climbed it) here (and there are other good pictures on that page as well).  After the rock section I think there was just a little more to go, and we made it to the top at about 8:45am, so under 2.5 hours to do the climb.  I recalled the climb was 2500 feet from Cooper's book and G was amazed we'd climbed at 1000ft/hour, but it turns out I'd misinterpreted it and and its actually 2500 feet from the trailhead, whereas the main climb is only about 1800 feet.  Still not a bad pace.  Here's a picture from the top looking kind of down the couloir (as close to the edge as I was willing to get).

For the first time I got the see the views to the north.  G is in the picture.

More great scenery.

Here's a view toward the summit of Flattop Mountain--we'd still have to go a ways to get to the summit, but it didn't look pleasant (likely deep snow) and I'm not a peak bagger anyway.  Certainly G made no suggestion of going this way.

G kindly took some pictures of me at the top of the climb.

He also pointed out that we had a great view of Longs Peak.  I hadn't realized this because I'd never seen it from this side before.  The Keyhole lies somewhere in the ridge that is extending toward the left, and the wide gully to the right of the summit is the Trough, which is as far as I'd gotten (the last time I tried Longs the Trough was too icy for my comfort level, and this was before I owned crampons or knew how to use them).

Longs Peak is really spectacular so I took a lot of pictures with varying zoom.

Another one with the left couloir more visible.

Since we had enough time, G thought we might try descending the right couloir instead of taking the trail down, and I was very happy to try this as I want to learn more about how to descend steep snow.  This next picture is from the top of the right couloir, and it is now 9:08am.

Long's again.  So awesome.

Soon after we started down.  The right couloir is extremely steep at the top--G thought it was 70 degrees or more.  So he belayed me and I walked down backwards, plunging the ice ax in.  Soon we got to less steep terrain and he took me off belay but still had me on short rope.  I think tried various techniques for descending, usually walking backwards (it's hard to tell where you're going, though), either plunging the shaft in or using the pick depending on steepness.  G kept saying I was going too slow and gave a lot of advice about how to speed things up which helped a lot.  As the slope got less steep he got me to face out and plunge step.  As the snow quality still varied I had mixed success with this.  When it was softer I got good steps in and felt fairly secure, but on the harder and icier parts it was scary.  I was very cautious and G got upset with me, saying that since I was on short rope I should take the opportunity to be more aggressive.  So I did try to push myself beyond my comfort at times but ended up falling twice, causing G to have to arrest to catch me.  I'm glad he did this as I'm not sure I could have self-arrested on such a steep slope.  It was physically and mentally exhausting to push myself too hard though, so to G's disappointment I mostly remained cautious and would return to descending backwards after a fall.  I did pick up my speed overall, though, and certainly improved.

Eventually we reached the main couloir and then it got less and less steep, and at one point G suggested I try "butt sliding", meaning a sitting glissade.  He said I could decide if I wanted to be taken off the short rope, and the slope looked okay for me so I said fine.  In fact the snow was soft enough and the slope gentle enough that the problem was that I actually couldn't get up any real speed, but I still practiced self-arrest a couple times, and enjoyed the slow and easy glissade.  Near the end it got flat enough that it was easier to just stand up and walk down.  I made it to the bottom around 10:30, so about 1:15 to descend.  I took this picture at 10:45am.

We then hiked out and made it back to the car around 11:15am, so about 6 hours car to car.  G had said the day would be 8 hours car to car, so this was much faster than either of us anticipated, and G said this was the fastest he'd ever done this climb with a client.  Since he kept complaining I was going too slow the whole time, I wonder how he treated the other people!  Even though it was a short day and I'd paid for a full "alpine" day of 9+ hours I felt I'd gotten my money's worth.  It was a fantastic climb, easily among the very best and most fun I've done, with a lot of variety, beauty and just pure enjoyment.  We had the route to ourselves and the weather couldn't have been better.  The temperature was just right and there was no wind either day, which G said was very unusual for this area (and indeed I recalled a lot of wind my previous hikes up Longs Peak).  Just an incredible day.

I took my time getting changed, and then we headed back to Estes Park, arriving at CMS around noon.  I dropped off G and then drove back to Fort Collins, where I had lunch at Arby's and then spent the afternoon at Mike's place (I'd borrowed a key).  He had a Spanish class at night so I went to the nearby mall and got some pizza for dinner.

Thursday, April 16

The next morning Mike and I drove to his parents' house where we picked up a key to their condo in Frisco, and then drove up to Frisco.  The plan was to take this day easy, since I thought I'd be exhausted from my two days snow climbing, but I felt great and we both wanted to get in some skiing.  I'd never cross-country skied before and wanted to try that out, which would be a lot less expensive than going to the resorts (this was their last weekend of the season) as well.  It turned out my shoe size, 8.5, is the same as Mike's mother's size, and I didn't realize men's and women's shoe sizes are basically the same before, but I found I fit her cross-country shoes and so was able to use her skis--this would be completely free!  Mike used his old skies.  I used my hiking poles as ski poles which worked great.  The baskets on Mike's old poles actually broke off later in the day which caused some problems.

We first went to the Frisco Nordic Center, which had just closed for the season, but the trails were still open and in fact free.  They weren't really groomed well anymore and the snow conditions were quite poor.  It was rather slick and icy, so we tried using purple wax (the second most sticky after red) and it seemed to work okay.  We went on fairly flat trails and Mike told me the basics of how to move.

Mike then wanted to try a classic trail next to Quandary Peak called McCullough Gulch, which was rated as "more difficult" (meaning intermediate) in the book he had.  As my downhill ability is still beginner and I'd never done x-country before this worried me, and I know from experience Mike is happy to get me into trouble.  But I decided to try it out and figured I could stop if things were getting too dangerous.  The trailhead is a fairly short drive away, just south of Breckinridge, and we were soon underway.  Here's Mike at the trailhead at 2pm.

The scenery was beautiful as the next couple pictures try and fail to capture.

Here's Mike showing good technique.  My technique was still lousy, but I learned a lot.  The snow conditions were again lousy, quite icy, and I'd find myself on steeper uphill sections (the route goes uphill, and then downhill on the way back) sliding backwards and then falling.  I fell quite a lot, in fact, but it's good to practice falling.  Mike showed me how to get up the icy steep sections by sidestepping with the skis perpendicular to the slope, and I soon got fairly good at this.  I wonder if this trail wasn't in fact more advanced than intermediate due to the snow conditions.  But I soon got better, and found my skies stuck fairly well going uphill.  I developed a good feeling for just how to go up the slopes--I could duck walk with various angles for the most part, and only sometimes had to sidestep.  Mike's skies for some reason were a lot slipperier than mine and he had more trouble going up.  But I had a good time even though it felt closer to simple hiking than skiing.

As we went further along the scenery got better, and in particular Quandary Peak started coming into view.


And closer still.  I climbed this peak with Mike via the prominent East Ridge back in 2006

Me in front of Quandary.

More scenery.

And a closeup of Quandary.  Another beautiful 14er.

Even more closeup.

Looking back the other way, Mike in front of Red Mountain.

We went as far as this hut, about 1.5 miles in, before turning back.  It took a little over an hour to get here.

Then the fun began.  Going down was quite scary.  Mike had warned me that descending with x-country skis is a lot more difficult than downhill, because you have less control with the skis, and also of course the route was narrower so you can't really make turns.  The only ways I knew to slow down were to snowplow or crash.  And as it was often too icy to snowplow effectively I ended up deliberately crashing a lot, trying to find good snow banks where it would be less painful.  On many steep sections I just sidestepped down, but if it didn't seem too steep and there was enough runout I did try to ski down, even though it was certainly beyond my ability and comfort.  But I figured this wasn't a bad way to learn.

Unfortunately near the end of the trail I hit some particularly icy patch, fell backwards, and although I think I landed on my forearms I still felt a sharp pain in my upper back, right in the spine.  I immediately knew something bad had happened, and was really upset I'd hurt my back.  I lay down in the snow for a while just to make sure I was okay, and although I had trouble breathing the pain did mostly go away and it seemed it might not be so bad.  I was able to stand up again and hike out, carrying the skis.  Just about the time I crashed a blizzard started, which would last for the next 48+ hours.  Here's a shot of the conditions as we reached the trailhead at 4pm.

There's a hospital in Frisco but from friends' experiences I have a feeling doctors don't know much about back problems, so I thought I'd avoid seeing one if possible.  I got some Alleve from the supermarket and looked up things on the internet.  It sounded like if I did see a doctor the only thing they'd say was to take anti-inflammatories and take it easy.  Even in the worst cases, which I feared, of a slipped disk or broken bone, there was nothing really to do (except in extreme cases for which surgery would be required) but let the back heal itself.  I was lucky in a way that the injury was to the upper back which is fairly stable and thus more likely to heal properly.  At the time I'm writing this (April 29) my back still hurts at times but seems to gradually be getting better, and it appears the injury was not so severe as I feared.  I'm hoping it completely heals within a couple more weeks.

Friday, April 17

The back pain somehow took my mind off the itching from the poison oak, and as if to catch up on all the sleep I'd missed I managed to sleep some 15 hours that night until around noon on Friday.  With the back injury I had to give up any plans for downhill skiing or anything that had the risk of falling again.  Still you're supposed to keep active to help your body stay strong and heal itself, so a nice walk in the snowstorm seemed a good idea.  We walked along a bike trail in Frisco, and just walking in the snow was wonderful.   Injury aside, this was exactly how I wanted to spend my spring break.

Here's Mount Royal which I've climbed a couple times before.

We then went to the library where I looked up the back info on the internet, and otherwise took it easy this day.  Due to the blizzard I-70, the road we needed to take to get back to Denver and Fort Collins, was closed, but it seemed it would reopen sometime Saturday and we were hoping we could get out in the afternoon.

Saturday morning I-70 was still closed so we decided to try driving to Mayflower Gulch, an "easy" level x-country trail that I figured I could try and not fall on.  We first went to the Nordic Center again and tried the trails there, which were now covered with reasonably deep snow and hard to ski on for opposite reasons than the first time.  The drive to Mayflower Gulch, a bit past Copper Mountain, was scary on road which were only partially cleared, and we found there was really no place to park at the trailhead except right on the recently plowed road.  Someone else had just driven right into the snow bank but I didn't want to do that.  I didn't want to get a ticket leaving my car on the road either.  Mike went to check out the trail and found the snow rather deep there, so we just decided to give up skiing there and drove back.

By this time I-70 had reopened so we decided to give it a try.  The drive down to Denver, the first time I've driven in snow since I was in high school and the first time on mountain roads ever, was extremely stressful and no fun.  Fortunately grades in Colorado are gentle and even the "steep" sections were not steep at all compared to California roads.  There were sections which were quite icy, however, and I'm happy to say the Jeep SUV I'd rented out, otherwise a terrible vehicle, did handle fine on the road.  As if to point out how dangerous it was I saw a car in front of me fishtail, spin out, and drive into a snowbank on the side of the road.  Fortunately I'd kept good distance and there was no danger of hitting it.  I always managed to stay in control, but it was very scary and unpleasant.

The road was some 80 miles long, much of it with snow and ice, but we did finally get past that and into more rain, and by the time we got to Mike's place even the rain stopped falling.  So an interesting experience.  We got some food at the mall for dinner, went to bed early, and then I got up around 4:30 to head out to return my rental car and catch the 8:30am flight back to San Francisco.  Everything went well on the return trip.

Although the back injury was certainly not fun, otherwise the trip was incredible--just a fantastic spring break.  I'm looking forward to returning to Colorado and doing more snow climbing (and more skiing as well!) there and elsewhere.