Backbone Ridge

Our fist human powered trip from town to climb an alpine route in the Stuart Range.

After a couple of months of cragging, and only getting our toes wet in the mountains, Liz and I were ready to try what we came here to do, alpine rock climbing.

Even though there’s enough climbing in Icicle Canyon to keep someone occupied for a lifetime, our souls craved a summit, or at least the airy, boundless views that are only revealed with the commitment of a trip to the mountains.  Our objective was the Backbone Ridge of Dragontail Peak.  This mission would involve a 12 mile bicycle approach, followed by a 5 mile hike to Colchuck Lake, and a guidebook estimated 6-10 hours one way for the route to the summit.  We planned on taking two nights for this trip and packed some extra food in case we were motivated to try another route on Dragontail or nearby Colchuck Peak the next day.

Preparations were made and bags packed.  The trailers have yet to see this much weight and it was the bike’s first trip since their road themed overhaul.

Liz’s new Cold Cold World pack in the trailer.
Save the world, ride a bike.
Victory beers

A late start as always for us got us leaving the house around 4 o’clock, yeah, that’s in the afternoon.  An hour of riding got us to the 8 mile road leading us across the Icicle Creek and up to the Stuart and Colchuck lakes trail head.

Ahead lay the unknown, another 4 miles of unpaved, washboard and graveled road, how would we do?

Taking a break on the bridge, ahead lies the real climb.

The heat of the day took its toll and we sweat our arses off.  But we made it.  Only stopping a couple of times, even though the road seemed to stretch on forever.  A little over an hour after leaving Icicle Canyon we pulled into the trail head parking lot.

With the first leg over we refueled and re hydrated, looking forward to dinner and a nap up by the lake.

Spread out.

Another couple of hours brought us to the lake.  Dinner was made and bags laid out, only 6 hours from the house in Der-Town to Colchuck Lake, not bad.  The north face of Dragontail towered above us and bade us a good nights sleep.

Dragontail with some Alpenglow.

The next day dawned clear, we ate, packed up and started the march up the moraine to the base of the wall.

Liz making her way up to the wall.
Colchuck’s Northeast face with some early light.
Soak it up.
Dragontail Peak with overlay of Backbone Ridge and Fin Direct.

After 400 feet of scrambling the real climbing gets started.

Liz getting warmed up on the first roped pitch.

A short corner leads to the ‘crux’ of the route: a 5.9 off width.  The only pitch on the 2000 foot climb that requires “large gear” to protect it.  Other then not owning a number five, I was generally unwilling to haul a large cam up a 2000 foot for 40 feet of climbing.  After all of our beta gathering and prepping for the climb, we decided against bringing anything then our #3 Camelot, that and the rest of our single rack would have to suffice.

No pack = Send.

We set up a belay under the off width to judge the difficulties.  Rock, paper, scissors, and I was off squirming up the crack.  I managed to find a few pieces of protection and sling a few “questionable chockstones” (in Becky’s words) before the crack flared wider and I was on my own.  Run out for sure, but I topped out on the pitch, hauled up my pack and brought Liz up behind me.

An awesome pitch, anyone else thinking about doing the route should probably just man up and send it without a huge cam.  After all, what do you think those hard men who first climbed it went up there with? Balls.

Run it out, good for your mind.

The rest of the ridge was a blast, mellow 5.8 climbing leads to another couple hundred feet of low 5th class terrain that we decided to simul-climb.

More good views of NE buttress of Colchuck.  Future.

The Backbone Ridge finished, ahead, “The Fin”, a golden-white slab of polished granite that lay between us and the summit.  The normal route for the Fin is described as the “direct” finish.  The route we took, not so direct.  We managed to turn 3 pitches into 6 and find some loose rock and exposed belays that more climbers should go out of their way to find.  After all was said and done, it appeared we missed out on the first pitch and a half, then joined up with the regular route, pitching it out a little shorter on account of our confusion.

Getting started on The Fin, amazing cracks on that upper headwall.
Hot on the wall, looks like I’m duking.

We topped out on the climb solo’d the last bit to the summit, and celebrated with Leavenworth’s famous landjeager and some sort of chewy chocolate treat.  Over 10 hours spent on the wall, definitely not a speed ascent, but we were taking our time and enjoying the views.

Liz topping out on The Fin.
To the Top!
Feels damn good.

The descent down the backside of Dragontail was a trudge, the highlight being a steep snow slope right off the bat.  Down Aasgard pass we caught some excellent views of the Northeast side of Dragontail, home to some amazing stone and quality routes like Dragons of Eden.  Across the way lie Blake Herrinton’s new climbs Acid Baby and The Valkyrie.  Back to the lake, back to our stove and bags, we refueled on a very large dinner of lentils before drifting off to sleep under the same wall we began our day on.  The next day we awoke early to the buzz of mosquitos, continued to celebrate our climb with some quality oatmeal, and stared up in awe of the giant rock we climbed the day before.  Was it real?

Mountain World.

Tired and sore, we decided to head back down the trail and back to home, and the cold beers that awaited us at home.  The hike down the trail is always longer then the one up…but before we knew it we were down and jumped on our bikes.  The ride down 8 mile road was rough, a mix of sandy, gravelly washboard that takes a toll on your hands and arms, but soon that too was behind us and we were on the smooth asphalt of Icicle Canyon.  The skinny tires and rigid bikes proved to be almost too fast on the hills back to town.  Lots of braking.

Showers, beer, and lots of potato chips greeted our return.  Proper celebration was short lived as we were extremely tired, this trip fell during a good stretch of 95 degree and hotter weather and our bodies were taxed.  Later that evening the Leavenworth Mountain association was hosting a movie up at the ski hill lodge and we managed to pedal our sore butts on up the hill.  Pride was great at our accomplishment juxtaposed by the many townspeople relying on their cars to get them this far.  Thanks for boosting our egos, folks.

According to Guy Murchie, the interconnectedness of all life is one of it’s seven mysteries.  Indeed all things are connected, and accounting for the depth of our impact on this trip would require vast understanding and infinite wisdom.  Our bikes were built with the help of fossil fuels, but don’t run on them, compare that to the automobiles and small bits of fuel they all burn to get the few miles from town, or hours from nearby Seattle.  Our technical outerwear, ropes, climbing equipment, and digital documenting have their ties with industry and emissions that are far removed from the clear air and views of the alpine.  Also, considering the dried mango and few ounces of isobutane fuel we burned, we are beholden to societies luxuries as much as many others.  Deciding to ride our bikes might be a physically more difficult one than purchasing an electric vehicle, and less efficient at that, but perhaps it’s time we worked a little harder to appreciate the things we take for granted.  We’ve been making mole hills out of mountains for too long now.  Fuel?  Burn it up and see whats in those few blank spots left on the map.  Or swallow it and go for a walk.

First 100% human powered trip down, we know more are possible.  What’s next?


2 thoughts on “Backbone Ridge

  1. Max

    Stumbled across your blog in the summer looking for Backbone beta, actually did it 4 days after you did! You guys are core for biking that whole way, too…this blog rocks, shoot me an email at maxhueck AT msn DOT com, I’ve got some questions for you. Thanks! Max


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