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Flattop Sampler: Dragon's Tail and Dead Elk Couloir

Posted by Matt Inoue on

Waking up at 3:30am is always hard when the bed is warm but having an exciting objective like Dragon's Tail Couloir definitely made it easier that morning.  I had my Icebreaker lightweight merino onesie, my Arcteryx shell pants, and softshell jacket hanging in the bathroom with all my gear so I wouldn't accidentally wake up my girlfriend tripping over myself in a darkened room.  Grabbing my skis and passing the kitchen, I regretted never investing in an alarm clock coffee maker for the early starts before coffee shops open before getting in the car and heading over to Alex's house to carpool up to Rocky Mountain National Park.  

It was the morning of my 27th birthday and I was excited to finally ski one of my long-time objectives, the Dragon's Tail Couloir.  I had stared at it when climbing on Hallett Peak's many east-facing buttresses -- the familiar streaked gray walls of Hallett have been an alpine almost-crag for me because of its good rock, short approach, and morning to early afternoon sun.

Sitting at a belay, staring across at the Dragon's Tail so many times had made me wonder how it would feel to look down the couloir with skis on my feet.  As I drove down the darkened streets on the way to meet up with Alex, I was excited but also nervous about conditions and whether other riders would be dropping in from above.  After 

briefly getting lost on the way to his house, I finally arrived and we loaded up his truck before getting on the road and discussing the timing of approach, climbing, and finally skiing. We reached the trailhead and quickly double-checked our beacons and gear. The full moon and clear skies lit up the walls of Hallett Peak and the couloirs facing them from Flattop Mountain.  We left the parking lot around 5:30am and started skinning up the wide, packed trail towards Emerald Lake.  As we crossed the frozen surface of Dream Lake, my excitement and nervousness began to grow -- there is something special about being in the alpine on the way to do something special as the sun's rays first crest the horizon.  The sky began to light up as we reached Emerald Lake and began to skin uphill towards the mouth of the Dragon's Tail.  

The conditions were firm on the frozen sun-crust and we quickly transitioned into crampons to begin ascending the 35-degree slopes near the bottom of the couloir.  Leaving early in the morning would mean that we would have to wait at the top for good snow conditions but limited the amount of postholing on the way up and gave us a little extra time to take pictures and enjoy the spectacular views.  Besides, 4am feels the same as 3:30am, to me.  Climbing our planned ski descent allowed us to check out terrain such as shaded frozen spots, exposed rocks, frozen snow snails, and chokes where the couloir narrowed.  About three-quarters of the way up the couloir, we were faced with a choice: should we go right or left?  The climber's left of the couloir is the standard route up Dragon's Tail and offers a short section of confined, steep skiing around 45 degrees.  This section holds snow because of reduced sun exposure and the underlying rock surface.  The climber's right fork, called the Incisor variation, lacks the steep rock walls of the left and is more prone to avalanche due to a slick rock slab underneath the snow.  We chose to go to the right because the conditions seemed safe and two 15-20 foot wide chokes seemed exciting and sustained from 45-50 degrees.

As we continued upwards, we remarked on the firmness of the snow surface and how waiting for increased temperatures and sun exposure might make the snow softer and the descent more enjoyable.  Finally, we were faced with a choice at another fork.  The second fork offered a steep, but small, cornice that appeared to have been skied in the past few days.  On the left, however, was a steep slope that appeared quite challenging and untouched.  We decided to go left and found a worrisome wind slab that felt hollow and was supported by a weak, sugary layer.  At 63 degrees, this slope would be high-consequence if one of us fell or if the slab collapsed.  Sinking down to my waist in the sugary snow, I debated whether I could safely make controlled turns on this steep terrain.  After reaching the top, we debated a downclimb into the standard variation but decided to descend the way, thinking "The devil you know..."

We transitioned slowly, hoping for conditions to soften before I decided I was just getting more and more nervous staring at the steep entrance below.  As I began to sideslip down the steep first pitch, I started to regret not bringing a rope for a belayed ski.  Digging my whippets into the crust-covered sugar didn't inspire confidence but I took my time, maintaining control and debating whether I should make a turn and start skiing rather than downclimbing with skis on my feet.  As I passed the last bulge and the slope eased to 58-60 degrees, I made my first turn and traversed to a more sun-exposed section with softer, better adhered snow.  Making a few more turns, I reached a safe spot above a small cliff and signaled to Alex that I was out of the way.  When he reached me, we agreed that softer snow would be nice through the next, 20-ft wide choke and that it was awfully nice that the wind slab above didn't collapse while descending over it!

After the first, very steep section, the day transitioned from Type II to Type I fun.  Linking turns down the 45-50 degree slopes for a few hundred feet felt great, albeit chalky and still pretty firm.  Taking a few hundred foot pitches at a time, we watched each other ski and took pictures as the conditions continued to improve and turned to corn.  Avoiding the 1-foot diameter frozen snails wasn't too difficult and Alex mentioned that he wanted to ski the Dragon's Tooth (also known as the Dead Elk) couloir adjacent.  I hesitated, but quickly agreed that we might as well ski it since we were already up there!

We once again transitioned to crampons, putting our skis on our backpacks before starting to head up our next objective, Dragon's Tooth Couloir (also known as Dead Elk Couloir).  

I was glad to have my helmet on when some small icicles fell from above as we slowly postholed up the bottom of Dragon's Tooth. Continuing up, the snow sheltered from the sun was firmer and the post holes became less deep and less effort to kick.  We noticed a rock step several hundred feet above us and briefly discussed whether it would be skiable.  As we got closer, it became apparent that we would not be able to ski over it and decided to transition there.  After chopping out a small platform, we took off the crampons, clicked into our skis and prepared to descend.

The snow had turned to perfect corn and the skiing was fantastic.  Alex's technique (shown above) was excellent and he skied the first 40 degree pitch with linked turns and whoops of joy.  Continuing down the couloir, the snow became softer and slushier -- our early start had paid off!  As the angle of the couloir eased, the turns got wider and we started to ski faster.  We both straightlined the last few hundred feet to cruise across frozen Emerald Lake.  Looking back at our turns arcing down the couloir, we fist bumped and congratulated ourselves on the excellent day.  Snapping a group photo, we headed back towards the car where I would meet my girlfriend for an excellent lunch of sushi, pastrami, and Kombucha before some bouldering.  It was a magnificent day in the beautiful Tyndall Gorge of Rocky Mountain National Park and the best birthday I can remember!

  • RMNP
  • Dragon's Tail Couloir
  • Dead Elk Couloir
  • Corvus Freebird
  • Black Crows
  • Dawn Patrol
  • Spring skiing
  • Couloir
  • Bent Gate Mountaineering
  • steep skiing
  • Dragon's Tooth Couloir

MSR Trailshot: Light, Compact, and Quick

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Rock Shoe Season Starter

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Peak Skiing 101: An Introduction to Ski Mountaineering

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Crampons for Ski Mountaineering: To Access Steep or Icy Terrain

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Staff Interview: Preparing for the Grand Traverse Ski Mountaineering Race

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Steep Skiing

My list of steep lines to ski this spring is growing steadily, and I’ve managed to sneak in a few relatively steep turns during the recent period of stability we had here in Colorado. The steep skiing that I have done so far this season has made me realize that I should spend some time [...]

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