Flattop Mountain, 12,324 ft

East Ridge, Class 5.2,  ~ 7 miles, ~2850 ft, April 20th 2006 (Jared & Brian Hynek)

After reading a trip report on a skiing site that mentioned that The Dragon's Tail couloir on Flattop was in condition I decided to go try to climb the thing.  A frequent climbing partner of mine, Brian Hynek, enjoys snow climbs and decided to join me on this outing.  I met Brian at his house in Nederland at 5:30 in the morning, April 20th (Merlin's 2nd Birthday), 2006 and, after an egg and bacon sandwich we headed out.  As there was the possibility of a stretch of rock climbing we brought along a 35 meter length of dry rope, some nuts and cams, a few draws, and a 20ft cordellete  (in addition to the obvious axes, crampons, etc).  In general, I now carry a small assortment of rock gear on any climb where the possibility of 5th classs climbing or the need to bail on the route might come up.  

The approach to Dragon's tail is a short 1.8 mile hike in from the Bear Lake parking area in RMNP and ends at Emerald Lake.  

Dragon's Tail is the right couloir in the picture below, the general finish takes the left branch.  Dragon's Tooth is the couloir to the far left.  We bailed and headed up the diagonal tree line about halfway up Dragon's Tail.

The bottom portion of Dragon's Tail is absolutely solid right now and we headed up to the small rock in the picture above before donning crampons. Above this point the snow became quite variable with deep areas and solid areas appearing at random.

We continued up and past the first major rock at the entrance to the couloir.  There were beautiful icicles adorning the rocks but it was warm enough that there was a large amount of ice fall.

As we headed up the angle increased greatly before easing back.  What became apparent as we climbed higher was that there were at least two distinct layers of snow through which we were climbing.  The bonding between the two layers was far from solid and had me worried that a wet slide from the upper reaches of the couloir could bring a wave down on us.  With so much ice fall it seemed a very likely possibility.  The lower layer seemed set in well enough but even that varied from place to place.   At this point it was still early enough in the day that the upper layer was not going to peel off but it seemed that another hour of warming in the sun would be all it would take to turn the couloir dangerous.

We decided to stop at the point below and take stock of our surroundings.  While the conditions seemed safe enough, for the time of day, up to where we were stopped they did not seem safe up above.  The warming sun, ice fall, poorly bonded snow layers, as well as the presence of the cornice in the right branch all pointed to calling the climb at that point so we did.  

The picture below shows some of the early snow sloughing off due to ice fall.  An hour later and it could be 6 inches of the slope, 2 hours later, 15 inches, enough to easily kill you.  With the current warming in RMNP I'd STRONGLY recommend putting this climb on hold for a couple more weeks.

We decided to cut right and head for the trees.  This path lead us to a cliff which separated us from the main summit ridge.  In the cliff dwelled a narrow couloir.  We were able to stay on easy ground and walk to the top of the trees a nd the top of this other couloir.  WE had to traverse across some steep snow at this point including a short 60 degree section.  At this point we had two options:  We could either climb up a bit of rock and take a 50 or so degree snow field to the ridge on Flattop or we could traverse across some icy ledges with wicked exposure, set a belay, and run a pitch to the ridge top.  I never like the idea of contouring across icy ledges 1000 feet off of the ground but Brian was insistent that to take the snow route would put us in a good deal of danger from the rock and ice fall above whereas the rock route was shielded.  We watched the ice falling above and the path it took and I ultimately agreed he was right.    

Entering the next couloir (much steeper than it looks)

Moving towards the icy cliffs where we set a belay

I was able to sling a horn and set an alien for an anchor before Brian headed up the rocks.  He moved up around 80-100 feet on 5.3-5.4 but wet, icy, and lichen covered rock.  After he was anchored above I moved up the route.  In dry conditions it would have been cake but with ice, water, lichen, and me wearing crampons it was decidedly harder.
The start of the fun climbing

Some how Brian always manages to cut himself quite badly on climbs

A picture from between Brian's boots at his anchor

After joining with Brian we were faced with another 100 or 200 vertical feet to the ridge.  We could have continued to easily pitch it out on solid (and now dry) rock but the snow above us in this couloir was quite nicely consolidated and suffering from no wet slides or intermittancy issues so we headed on up. This final pitch probably went between 45-55 degrees at its steepest.point.

Brian, being Brian decided to head up to the middle of the couloir and go up the vertical  step

Me, being me, decided to hop on rock and skip putting myself at the top of a 1500 foot narrow funnel on steep snow.

Here is us topped out from whatever couloir we contoured into and finished

A couple pictures of the supposedly 'In' Dragon's Tail

Let it warm up a bit more and a good 12-15 inch layer might go and bring everything from the top down with it

The final summit push

We headed down the standard route but as it was entirely snow covered we decided to skip the meandering trail and contoured right towards Bear Lake.  There were some cliffs to be avoided and some extreme postholing fun but we got down quite quickly this way, the only downside was that I snapped a Leki pole in half.

All in all it was a beautiful day.  We still had a fun climb but I'm a bit dissapointed I didn't finish Dragon's Tail.  Sure we still climbed the peak but I've been interested in that route for a while now, oh well, it will be there in a month and over the years to come.  I read allot of reports of people jumping on these things under marginal conditions and while we probably would have gotten to the top without any incidence why take the risk?  After all, I'd never have gotten home to catch Smallville in time if I had been killed by an avalanche.

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