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Skiing Dragontail: Triple Dare, Triple Scare

 

In 2002, I climbed Triple Couloirs with Kyle Flick in the infancy of my mountain experience.  At that time, I considered it a significant alpine accomplishment.  The route had moves and ambience that never before had I encountered.  Steep snow, a couple pitches of vertical ice, roped simul-climbing.  I look back and chuckle when I realize that it was at the edges of my comfort level at that time.  That's why in the spring of 2006, I was completely dumbfounded when Ross Peritore skied the Triple Couloirs with a free heel and free mind!  I thought to myself, "How could anyone ski a line that steep and committing?"  Thus, it was with great surprise and anticipation that I found myself, last Saturday in 2010, locked into my skies, perched on the edge of the Third Couloir, ready to drop in and ski the 2,500 precipitous feet back to the bottom.  As far as I knew, only a handful of people had ever skied this route, and Dan Helmstadtler, Will Terrano and I were about ready to add our name to the Triple Couloirs Guest Book.

Will and I had camped the night before at the Stuart Lake/Colchuck Lake junction, and planned to join Kyle Flick at the start of the route.  When at 8:00am we arrived at the mouth of the steep gully known as Hidden Couloir (the first of the three couloirs, hence, Triple Couloirs), Kyle was climber #10 in line for the route, which meant Will and I were numbers 11 and 12.  It was going to be a busy day for climbing, but as we found out throughout the day, everyone was in a great mood, and passing was never an issue.  One advantage of this decadent start was that we already had a number of climbers create a stair-stepping ladder up the consolidated snow.  I've broken my fair share of trail this season, so neither Kyle nor I were complaining as we quickly made our way up the first couloir.  Unencumbered by skis and ski boots, Kyle booted easily upwards, with me not far behind.  The boot steps made it a pleasure to carry on a conversation, helping distract us from the exposure below and the uncertainties of skiing this route.  Towards the top of the Hidden Couloir, Kyle states incredulously, "You're nuts if you think you're going to ski this!"  And I had to admit, given the hard, bullet "powder" of this steep couloir that reached 50 degrees in spots, I was beginning to have my own doubts. Will caught up and I asked his opinion on skiing it, to which he declared, "I think the snow can hold an edge.  I say we go for it!" 

For this route, the climber has three options.  Option #1 is to ascend solid ice in the "ice runnels" into the second couloir.  When in shape with frozen goodness, this is a fun couple pitches of vertical front pointing and ice pick hacking.  However, this season that ice has not formed, instead leaving sugar snow over slabs of unprotected granite.  Everyone appropriately avoided this option.  Option #2 is to climb up a pitch higher, traverse in at the top of the ice runnels, then rappel into the beginning of the second couloir and continue up steep snow.  This has been the choice du jour for most climbers this year, and today was no different. 

 

But not for us.  Instead, I had been scoping out the North Face of Dragontail all season.  I noted that the Hidden Couloir ascends and empties out onto the north face, from where the climber can make his/her way easily up to the third couloir, completely bypassing the complications of the second couloir.  And how pleased I was when this option proved to pan out for us.  This is known as Option #3. 

We made quick work of the north face, up to the headwall protected by a 50 foot rock pitch.  Flick was the mixed ice/snow ropegun for today.  He tied into the rope for the first time, and took a bold lead up the snowy granite bereft of any ice.  Save for a lone, fixed piton, there was no other protection other than frozen turf embedded in the rock.  For a terrifying 30 minutes, Kyle worked his way slowly up the pitch until, out of view, he called down, "Off belay!"  Will and I followed simultaneously, and at the top we congratulated Kyle on a rather fine lead in the alpine.  From here, we unroped and scampered up the third couloir to the summit ridge.  This option allowed us to move ahead of three other parties. 

 

 

By about  noon, Will, Kyle and I were on the sunbathed summit of Dragontail, spending only 4 hours and 20 minutes on route.  Kyle mumbled something about getting back to spend time with the wife, turned and bolted down the backside, back to Asgaard Pass and the lake.  At this time, something totally unexpected happened.  Yet a third skier showed up on the summit:  Dan Helmstadtler.  At 6' 4" Dan is a lanky guy who lives for steep skiing.  His normal playgrounds are Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier.  Last year, Dan skied the Edmunds Headwall and the Mowich Face of Rainier, both considered to be expert, extreme skiing on Washington's biggest mountain.  Dan had plans to ski Triple Couloirs too, and was more than happy to share the descent with Will and me.

We waited another two hours for the rest of the climbers to top out on the route, so as not to pelt them with our slough as we skied down on top of them.  By then, we all were anxious to get the ski started, the steepness and the snow quality weighing heavily on our collective psyche.  With boots tightened and poles lashed on wrists, we took our first turns cautiously down the third couloir. 

 

The third couloir starts out mellow, but angles sharply steeper in a hurry as one skis further down, but pleasantly the snow was soft and edging was excellent, allowing for more aggressive, continuous turning.  We skied down to our top out point from the North Face, where I quickly set a rappel anchor of two pins and two camming devices.  We took turns rappelling down onto the north face, skies still attached to boots.  From there, we skied this face where the lower we got on it, the harder the snow became, the snow obviously wind scoured.  This deposited us at the top of the Hidden Couloir, which would be the longest and steepest section of the entire descent.  The crux. 

 



Dan took a few turns off the top, a visceral reaction in my stomach when his edges created an icy scratching sound on the frozen snow.  It wasn't ice, but neither was it soft powder.  Dan would make one turn, come to a stop, gather himself then make his next hopturn.  This would not be graceful skiing that one sees in those slick skiing movies.  Rather, this would be survival skiing at its best.  Dan found a sheltered spot about 500' down, and I took my turn making oh-so-slow, making careful progress down the couloir.  There would be little to no chance for self-arrest on this portion of our descent should one of us lose an edge on this boilerplate. 

 

 

Despite the stress, we all found a decent cadence of careful skiing.  We took turns so as not to pelt the skier below with hardened chunks of snow, or "snice" as it was more appropriately called.  At the bottom of the Hidden Couloir, there is a 60 foot cliff just willing and eager to launch the less cautious skier out onto the hardened slopes below.  By the time I was near the exit, I fought the urge to hurry myself through this section, with the drop off just below me.  It was a feeling akin to summit fever, but more appropriately, it was exit- to-safety fever burning hot in my stomach. But patience was still required. We still had to make a few more turns in order to safely ski around the cliff to the safety of Asgaard Pass. 

 


By now, a small audience of skiers and climbers was at the entrance looking up, watching the show.  We all made the right number of jump turns and skied to the welcoming, mellow slopes of Asgaard Pass, safe at last.  We let out our whoops of joy at having made it out in one piece, and stared back up at the frozen gully in amazement of having skied down this objective that just four years earlier, I thought would never would have been possible to ski.  Yes, the emotional deflation would come about an hour later as we lethargically packed up tent and sleeping bags for the long hike out.  But for now, Will and I sat on our packs on the still frozen Colchuck Lake staring back up at Triple Couloirs, in awe at being able to ski this beast of a mountain down its steepest, most continuous passage.

 

 

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See the video footage of this adventure that Dan took with helmet cam. Exciting...and a little stomach churning.