Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon - Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

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Snow finally resumed unleashing its fury mid-March, following a dry January and February.  After a warm Saturday skiing laps on the Dragon’s Tail and Dead Elk couloir we were itching for a change of pace, a proper alpine climb.  Snow had mostly melted off the south facing rock of the Dragon’s Tail and having scouted the approach to ‘Enter the Dragon’, we made it Sunday’s objective.  Facing South, the idea of sunshine on a winter alpine climb sounded ideal.  The views and position on this whole route are spectacular and the climbing is varied and fun.  If M4 is all you’re thirsty for, the first four pitches are worth doing and a good warmup for the stout final pitch (or two pitches depending on how you want to divide and conquer your fears), which puts a fantastic amount of space beneath your heels.

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

‘Enter the Dragon’ (M4, 5.7, 6 pitches)

Topo and detailed route description available in guidebook: Rocky Mountain National Park, by Richard Rossiter.

APPROACH:  With limited information we were worried that finding the start of the climb would be the crux.  In hopes of providing you, the ambitious reader, with a little more pulp in your beta juice the following is our go at providing you with more information than the “get to the middle of the face and head up” advice we were provided from a brief word of mouth spray down.

Approach the route by heading up the Dead Elk couloir, the first couloir past Dragon’s Tail. To avoid a backtracking scenario after a long day in the hills, rack up at the base of the Dead Elk couloir, as you will be descending from the route via the Dead Elk couloir.   Post-hole up the couloir to the shelf which cuts almost all the way across the prow and separates the two couloirs.  Proceed to traverse across (we had thigh deep, thawing snow) to about halfway or two thirds across the face and you will reach the obvious start of the route; the first obvious weakness, a right facing chimney of about 40-feet which for us held a healthy amount of alpine snice.  Climbed: April 3, 2016.

P1 (M3): We roped up quickly at the base of the 40-foot, right facing corner and began climbing the fun start of the route.  I immediately regretted my decision to not bring any ice screws as I got increasingly further up the corner with solid ice picks but no options for rock pro.  Near its top, I found a nice icy flare I assumed would provide mental pro for at least my belayer, and was even happier when I placed my shiny new red DMM Dragon 2; the new triple grip cam lobes we were gear testing made for a solid placement a psyche enhancer.

Mantling out of the P1 chimney onto a rock and snow ramp, the remainder of the pitch was a relaxing snow romp with the occasional rock to boulder over, reminiscent of similar snow stretches on bird brain boulevard.  I setup a belay below the next near vertical 50-foot step.

P2 (M3): The next step while not as vertical as the first was more mixed.  The ice lattice in the corner offered some meaningful picks but was more an exercise in faith I had hooked something substantial.  Pulling out a final roof bulge the second half of the pitch was again a long snow field.  I belayed in the wall to the right of a deep 40 foot chimney.

P3 (M4): The chimney’s start was unconsolidated snow.  Stemming while insecure proved the most viable solution to upwards progress.  After about 15 feet I got pro and the back of the chimney turned to ice and turf sticks.  A rock then spits the chimney at its top forcing you backwards.  I took the left side my partner the right so both go.  Pulling past the vertical step the climbing remains easy mixed for another 40 feet before transitioning to steep snow.   I built an anchor on the right at the first sign of human traffic, a piton, before the next rock step.

(P4 M2):  The easiest rock step so far even if the longest.  It consisted of a series of 3 short steps which bring you onto the shoulder of the prow near its top.

P5 (Class 4): We traversed the ridge to the next vertical rise in the prow.  I wanted to head up an obvious corner to the left.  As we soaked in the sun and had a delicious GoMacro Ancient Bar my partner found a photo of the final pitches.  The route went improbably to the right, traversing out onto the cold North-east facing aspect of the prow.  We ended the traverse early at slung horn which as it turned out was going to be useful on the descent.

P6 (M5): From the horn I traversed out to the base of pitch 6.  There are a few cracks to pick from as the wall drops away beneath your feet into a massive overhang.  Snow filled the cracks which were 3″ wide making for some exciting torquing.  I stopped at ledge 50 feet up the vertical face having used up my light rack and with hands now frozen solid.  This face was freezing cold after having delayered for the warm sunny faces of the earlier pitches.

P7 (M5): You are in a pretty amazing position now with hundreds of feed below you.  Off the ledge, an off width right facing corner ends in a roof.  A crack runs under the roof and connects with a splitter crack to the right.  Transitioning the cracks though I found to be the crux of the route as you execute some hard moves right with gear below your feet.  The second crack achieved, upwards progress was hard but enjoyable with some good torques and hooks.  Near the top, with the sun visible 20 feet above were some massive mushrooms.  I attempted to chimney them when all of a sudden something very heavy was pressing down on my back.  I had one tool in what I hoped was a great hook.  I slowly slid to the left, and whoompf.  The snow mushroom that was 5 by 20 feet slid off my back and shot into space.   Breath.  As I watched hundreds of pounds of snow flying down into the Dragons Tail couloir my feet gave away as the second snow mushroom decided to dive after its friend.  I was now hanging off one tool, feet dangling, repeating to myself I was not going to die while wondering why I think this is fun.

As I regained my composure I realized the fall of the snow mushrooms had presented some brilliant cracks up the overhanging face in front of me.  I plugged in a cam, and then another two for good measure, and pulled through the final 10 feet to the ridge.  There was a giant slung block and sunshine and the top of a great route!

DESCENT:  I was convinced the route was a walk off and we could summit.  My partner who was now fully aware my route research had been limited to the advice of my alpine crusher friend’s “head straight up the middle” words of wisdom, decided it was time to takeover.   My original thought to top out Tabletop mountain looked heinous, a mile of snow covered ridge beyond where the line topped out.  Descent options varied from rappel the route, rappel the giant overhang and “drop” the last 20 feet into the Dragons Tail couloir, or rap into Dead Elk.  Descend by rapping into Dead Elk.

From the route top out locate the fixed anchors and aim for the ledge you belayed from at the top of pitch four.  Scramble down an obvious ramp, heading over the ridge to the West to a fixed nut and hex anchor.  This second rappel drops you off on a snowfield.  Either downclimb the snowfield or sling a horn and rappel to the final anchor at the end of the snowfield.  On climber’s left is a ledge covered by an overhang.  This final rappel will get you into the Deal Elk couloir proper and an easy walk back down to your stuff and out to the car.  Rappels are double rope length.

Photo Album (pitch-by-pitch beta sponge bath)

Article by

Eric grew up in Southern Los Angeles, surfing the beaches and hiking the Sierras with his mom and dad. He is an avid backcountry skier and climber having led alpine ski descents of Denali and Mont Blanc as well as numerous Colorado and California fourteen thousand foot peaks. He has climbed extensively in the Sierras, Colorado and throughout the Alps.

Eric has written 17 articles for Thrillseekers Anonymous.

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