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Backbone Ridge - First Winter Ascent

Story by John Plotz.  Photos by John Plotz and Ade Miller.

The morning silence is broken by the faint, persistent beep of Ade Miller's alarm watch. It's freezing inside his tent as only mid-January can feel, and I'm not that disappointed that Ade continues sleeping as the alarm beeps. Finally in his British, matter-of-fact tone, Ade says, "John, we have alarmage. I'll fire up a brew." Our camp is perched on the southern end of Colchuck Lake—and I mean right on the lake! My fitful night was interrupted by the cracking and popping of the ice on which our tent sits. The evening before we hacked through six inches of ice to reach unfrozen water for cooking.

Photo: Camp at Colchuck Lake

We've come to climb Backbone Ridge on Dragontail Peak. This is a route I've done numerous times before, but always in the summer. The obvious difference now is that it's mid winter, and this may very well be the route’s first ascent in the winter. There aren't that many "firsts" left in our area, so I am eager for this opportunity. And all the elements have been lining up in our favor: The inversion has turned the atmosphere upside down, leaving Wenatchee in a gloomy, near-freezing stagnation while up high it is actually warmer when the sun shines. Additionally, our familiarity of this route means no time-sapping route-finding errors. Finally, my climbing partner is no stranger to the cold.

Ade Miller is an understated, persistent Brit with a bone-dry sense of humor. But don't let his unassuming nature fool you. At 6' 2" and over 200 lbs, he's built to withstand discomfort. And he is one of the best all-around climbers with whom I've had a chance to climb, with first ascents in the Yukon and Canada. Ade has been trying to bag this first winter ascent on Backbone for the past five years—he’s come up here and bailed on several tries, mostly due to weather. Three years ago Ade made the first winter ascent on Serpentine Arete, Backbone's neighboring route. So, having invested so much time and energy, I can tell he's also enthused to grasp this weather opportunity to nab this "first".

We got a great look at Backbone Ridge on the approach yesterday and, surprisingly, it looked relatively free of snow. Of course, it is a ridge route and naturally does not hold much snow. The trickiest part could be The Fin (a headwall-like slab of rock near the top of Dragontail), but it also looks to be fairly snow free. If we can withstand the cold, I think we can do this! 

By 6 a.m., we're kicking steps up the Colchuck Glacier in mild temps. And by mild, I mean above freezing! I trudge up trying not to overheat, and quickly strip layers as does Ade. We gear up at the base of the ridge, putting on crampons, tying into the ropes and cinching down the ice axe leashes. Ade's forte is climbing on mixed ground, or rock that is covered in loose snow and ice. He leads out making quick work of the scramble to the base of the dry rock. On one section, he has to make technical moves over rock in his crampons, no easy task. He brings me up to the start of the ridge crest proper. We lose the metal spikes and heavy boots, and happily don our climbing shoes as Mt. Cashmere explodes in the pink hues of morning alpenglow. The air is incredibly still and just tolerable for climbing rock.

I lead the first rock pitch up to the base of the famous off-width pitch. It takes me about 5 minutes to get there and set up an anchor to bring Ade up. As he arrives, he remarks how on his last attempt, his partner had to painstakingly aid this pitch. Next is the 5.9, six-inch crack that is a total bar fight! We have a monster camming device just for these next 70 feet. I hand Ade the rack. "Cheers," he says and is quickly off. He aids (no pun intended) and yards his way to the top of the pitch. This is winter, so the point is to move quickly by any means possible and avoid spending a bone-chilling night on the route. He hauls the packs up to the top, and I follow as quickly as I can. I snatch the rack from him and climb upward on dry rock, gaining comfort from being so familiar with the route. We swap leads, then simul-climb up to the base of The Fin, where we stop, "to have a proper break," as Ade puts it. It's 1:30 p.m. and our ability to finish this ascent is looking really, really good!

The pink granite on The Fin is crumbly at any time of the year and now it looks to have more snow than we had seen from 2,000 feet below at the lake. We can't sit for too long before starting to chill. I gear up again and head out across slabby rock. Slowly and methodically, I tap each hold and am super careful not to grab what I haven’t tested--injury up at this height in the middle of winter would be disastrous. Up to this point, it's been so easy--now the realities of climbing in winter come zooming back to us. The 4th-class ledges that I usually solo in summer are caked with a thick layer of verglas ice. My climbing becomes very slow as I carefully choose each step--sticky rubber has no friction qualities on ice! There are just enough places to step to make this traverse possible.

I get to the normal belay ledge and see with alarm that it is also full of snow and ice. I set up an unanchored stance below the ledge—there are simply no features or cracks that allow for an anchor. I yell to Ade that he is "on belay" but advise him not to fall. He reaches me and comment that this has now become a winter ascent.

We swap cautious leads up The Fin, each pitch having a little snow and a little ice. In between bouts of fear, I am overwhelmed to be up so high on this technical route in the middle of winter. The remoteness is palpable! In the summer, I'm used to seeing climbers on this route, or on Serpentine, or hiking around the lake below. But today, it’s just us rippling the silence.

We reach the top of The Fin, and must now traverse a steep ramp composed of crumbly rock, snow, and ice. On our tiny stance, Ade changes into big boots and removes his ice axe. Slowly he makes his way across this tricky ground and rolls out of sight. He eats this stuff for breakfast! I hear a couple grunts and he calls, "I'm safe!" I don my boots grab my ice axe and make my way up the ramp to his belay. From here, I put on rock shoes again and, in near darkness, lead up icy rock to a stance just below the summit.

Photo: Ade Miller left, John Plotz right.

Minutes later we step onto the summit of Dragontail, feeling both tired and uplifted. We both know the hike off the backside of the mountain and down Asgard Pass, so we’re no longer in a hurry. The inversion clouds create an interesting phenomenon as the lights of Wenatchee and Cashmere illuminate the underbelly of the fog below us. I see the same glowing effect from Leavenworth, Ellensburg, Yakima, and even Seattle. I watch cars make their way down Badger Mountain. The lights of Waterville are clearly visible. Our ceiling is unlimited, revealing Orion and the Big Dipper. And there’s not a breath of wind—we’re surrounded by a sea of silence. 

It's one of the best summit experiences I've ever had—11 hours on the route, a first winter ascent of a route that is like a good friend, and now this panorama. I congratulate Ade and he states, "Let’s hold that until we’re back at camp." By 8 p.m. we're back at our tent, replaying moments of our climb, tired but giddy. We feel safe enough now to officially congratulate ourselves. To celebrate properly, Ade fires up a brew.


Details, Details

Gear. For a summer ascent bring a medium alpine rack with a #5 and #6 Camalot for the off-width.  For a winter ascent, add: some small knifeblades (we didn't have to use them, but with more snow and ice, you’d probably place a few), boots, two ice tools each, crampons, alpine aiders.  Increase rack to include doubles of each size in case you have to aid any of the pitches.

Ropes. We used twin 60-meter, 8.1-mil ropes (essential if you had to retreat because you have 200-foot raps). 

Conditions. The route was first done in 1970, so it took 39 years to get a winter ascent.  Obviously, doing the route in winter is very condition dependent, we got really lucky in terms of decent temperatures and light amounts of snow.

Permits. In summer you need a Northwest Forest Pass (parking) and camping permits for Colchuck Lake. I’m not aware of any permits needed for winter.

Access. We parked at the Bridge Creek Campground (about 8 miles up the Icicle Creek Road where the Eightmile Road is gated.  We skinned the road (using randonnee skis) all the way up to camp.  As for the descent, we kept the skins on due to the snow being very compact and icy.  Skins allowed a more controlled descent back to the road.  We then skied the road back to the campground as normal.

Climbing Details. For more details about climbing this route, Google "Backbone Ridge, Dragontail Peak".  You will find many trip reports with photos and route beta.  As far as guidebooks, Selected Climbs in the Cascades (by Nelson and Potterfield) and the Cascade Alpine Guide 1 (Fred Beckey) are excellent resources. Also, check the many trip repots on Cascadeclimbers.com

Descent. We plunge-stepped through about six inches of powder down the backside of Dragontail.  Asgard Pass was almost devoid of snow on the upper 500 feet, then we plunge- stepped down consistent snow to the lake (in spots the snow was quite hard). We kept our crampons on the entire way from the summit of Dragontail to the lake. 

Tip. key to staying warm is to have almost no down time.  It took us only a couple minutes to set up each anchor and start belaying the second.  The belay change-overs need to be very efficient to save time and stay warm. We were lucky to have temps that were above freezing and just warm enough not to make the climbing agonizing. The rock was cold, and it took some climbing on each pitch to get the blood back to the fingers.  We were very alarmed by the ice on The Fin, and slowed down considerably.  I think it took us longer to climb the Fin than the entire lower half of the route.