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Flattop Mountain - Dragontail Couloir


May 19, 2013

We all four wanted to get out after some of the vagaries of life pulled all of us up short over the past six weeks. For one reason or another, we've all been stuck at home and seasonal trips and weekend jaunts have been cancelled for one good reason or another. Regardless, the stars finally aligned, we knew we all needed to get out for our sanity, and we pulled it off on Flattop Mountain's Dragon Tail Couloir

The Dragon Tail Couloir is an easy and nearby moderate to steep snow climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. The approach is simple and short, the climb is fun, and the only downside is the retreat from the top, down through snow filled trees where the speed of the summer trail seems to be a wish never to be fulfilled. We left Cheyenne at 3:00 a.m. and met up with with Ed at the Bear Lake parking lot at a bit after 5 a.m. Admittedly, we dinked around a bit but the air was still and the sky mostly obscured by cloud. The sky coverage gave us a bit of time as we were not immediately in a race with the sun to avoid a climb beset with wet snow., i.e. a bust given the angle and loading we expected to find.

We hefted the packs, made a bit heavier as we all lashed snowshoes to be prepared for the hike down after the climb. We figured the route to the climb would be a solid boot pack but that the hike from tree line to Bear Lake would be through the trees and likely involve a lot of warm snow. The snow at Bear Lake was still deep so we know that coming off Flattop would be a pain in the butt, a pain that none of us looked forward to. We found what we expected, a solid boot packed trail from the parking lot to Nymph lake, to Dream Lake and to Emerald Lake. The lakes were definitely no crossing zones and we traversed alongside of all three. I did manage to probe Emerald only to punch through the edge before jumping back fast enough to keep the water out of my boot.

We traversed around Emerald and then climbed perhaps 100 vertical feet up the fan below the couloir proper in order to get to a rock suitable to stop to install crampons and break out the axes. All but G had one axe, G brought two for the climb as we had both done years before. No rope and no pickets for this climb as it really does not go beyond moderate until the very top where one can still hold it to moderate. In hindsight, two axes were not technically necessary but I think one in each hand with a good forward leaning stance probably gave G the best motion through the upper half of the climb.

We moved up through he snow covered fan at the base of the gully on firm snow but as the slot narrowed, we started traversing left and right to find the best footing. The issue was warmer temps over night leaving some parts soft enough to take a step. I was not interested in kicking steps, I was looking for some neve that would give the crampons purchase and maybe just a bit more. I wasn't gunning for blue ice or Tupperware, but I really did not want to kick a set of stair steps. However, 1000 feet later, I have to admit, I just loved the steps that Bob put in as the fatigue of a couple hard weeks set in and slowly sucked the energy out of my legs.

The center of the couloir had a deep runnel that we crossed over a few times but mostly avoided anticipating that rock fall would have to happen at some time during the climb. The runnel ran to within just a couple hundred feet of the top and to our surprise, not a rock moved over the course of our climb. We made the mid point and at about that time, a couple of boarders started their descent from the top. Talk about an optical illusion, we seemed to have just about the knocked the climb when the boarders started . . . tiny, just tiny figures way up there. The Dragon Tail really showed its character as a long climb that had quick and easy written at the bottom but later kept adding hundred foot increments as you climb higher and higher.

We got to the split and debated left vs. right. Bob had invested 75 feet in the left split so I plied him with the promise of a cornice on the right side that might take some fancy footwork to get beyond. Honestly, I'd scoped it out from the bottom and knew we would exit cornice right and that Bob would have a great time leading this steeper section. He was up for the game, traversed over on a ramp to avoid losing ground and took off from there. I followed with Ed and G but Bob never waivered as he set a set of steps all the way to the top. The last 20 feet of vertical were quite steep and took a bit of caution as there was a bit of loose snow as well. Bob topped out and stepped handily out of the gully and into the wind and blowing snow that we had seen sweeping the break of the slope for most of the climb.

G followed next, then me, and then Ed, as we all topped out and then sought the shelter of a boulder to get a snack in and a break from the wind. The down jackets went on and after about 15 minutes, we were moving downward. There was no need to hunt the trail as three of us had been down this slope many times before. We hit the tree line, shed the down, and then made a beeline down through the trees to avoid the switch backing summer trail that we couldn't find anyhow. Our downward traverse worked fine . . . until we hit the large boulders and talus right above Bear Lake. We had to pick our way through them but by then there was no snow. We finally hit the Bear Lake Nature Trail and were back at the parking lot just minutes later.

A good quick snow climb of six hours accomplished our mutual goal, got everyone away from the issues at home, hassles at work, and the like for a good 12 hour portal to portal day in the mountains. Was no better cure for the mind than what the doctor prescribed for us on Flattop Mountain.

April 26, 2009 - weathered out almost 4 years earlier . . .

This time the roles were reversed, G was recovering from an ACL repair and this was his first climb in four months, I was in good shape and Bob was looking to score a good steep snow climb. We checked the weather, which was forecast to include winds up to 45 mph and 5 to 7 inches of fresh snow. Though it was the end of April, this had the appearance of a winter climb. We left Cheyenne at the alpine start hour of 2 am to ensure that we would not have a sloppy climb if the weather let us make the climb at all. We arrived at the Bear Lake parking lost at 4:15 and were on our way up the trail at 4:30. The wind was coming in gusts but it was not steady. There were stars in the sky but we soon climbed into the winter zone. We found steady snow by Nymph Lake, steady snow and wind by Dream Lake, and a full bore, low visibility, winter wonderland at Emerald Lake. We figured that if the wind was whipping the snow into a low visibility mess in the valley, then the upper reaches of Flattop would be horrendously windy and cold. Enough of that possibility . . . we all shot a Goo, took a drink, and were soon on our way to the truck. 4 miles and 3 1/2 hours of PT prepared us well for a good breakfast at Ed's Cantina in Estes Park.

May 21, 2005

On May 3, I checked into the hospital and eight hours later I checked out minus one badly corroded gallbladder. The surgeon's admonition was that I stay out of the mountains for 3 weeks. That was not too bad as I had hurried the surgery date to get as much time between the operation and our mid summer departure for the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. I almost made the 21 day limit but an open day and the promise of perfect snow conditions meant I had to shave 3 days off the recovery curfew.

G and I got an early morning start from Cheyenne and arrived at Bear Lake at 5:30 or so in the morning. We were packed and out of the parking lot by 6 a.m., knowing that we did not have a long approach, perhaps one and one half miles and less than a thousand feet of vertical. We agreed that we would "take it slow" when we left the parking lot but we made good time up the trail to Dream Lake and on to Emerald Lake, the far shore of which is the base of the Dragontail Couloir.

We set our sights on the Dragontail a year or so before as we were looking for good preparation climbs to practice some of the steep snow skills that we would need in Peru later that summer. The Dragontail couloir is inclined at about 45 degrees and promised about 1800 feet of steep climbing, hopefully on sweet Spring neve.

The route to the base of the couloir is a trail hike, albeit snowy, to Dream Lake. From there we had to surmount a short highwall and cut along the right side of the valley to get to Emerald Lake. We traversed along the right edge of the lake, owing to the questionable state of the ice and then climbed to the runout at the base of the couloir. There was an accumulation of warm snow sloughs and some slab remnants but the snow in the couloir had a hard night's freeze so we were good to go.

We had a rope and pickets but decided to do at least the lower half of the couloir without any protection. Roping up is always a personal call and our choice not to do so is indicative of our comfort level that morning. On a less comfortable day, we might have roped up, but we were feeling good that day and the snow promised to give us good crampon purchase as well as a sufficiently soft layer to offer purchase to an ice axe in case of a slider. Up we went.

The snow was as good as it looked but we also knew that once the sun hit the slope, we would have a limited time to reach the top before warm snow sloughs would become an issue. We climbed efficiently and I led the lower half of the couloir or at least until took a breather about 900 feet above our starting point. I was starting to feel a touch of fatigue . . . no $#!+, as I had four round holes in my gut that I now had to start paying for.

G led off from the mid point and we both knew that the snow was starting to soften. it wasn't sloughing or making a drippy snowball in the hand . . . yet . . . but that point was going to arrive sooner than later. We made steady steps up to the pinch point in the upper couloir and chose to go left when we reached the upper most portion of the climb. We topped out by climbing the steepest portion of the exit taking in about 15 feet of about 75 degree snow.

We peered back down the 1800 feet of warming snow, content that we had scored a steep snow climb and that I had managed to pull it off in fairly good form. We traversed across the wide sloping shoulder of Flattop peak and started our decent toward the tree line. The open area of the mountain was, for the most part, blown free of snow, to tree line of course. However, once we hit the trees it the snowshoes went on once again and we more or less bee lined through the trees to intercept the trail back to the Bear Lake parking lot.

We caught lunch at Ed's Cantina and I was comforted with the thought that I could pull off a steep couloir. We'd made good time, beat the sun, and we were getting ready for Peru . . . what more could one ask for?