• Pathloom Guest Blogger

Life Lessons From Climbing Dragontail Peak

Self-Realization, Trials and Tribulations, and Lessons in Leadership Learned in Leavenworth, Washington


The dark waters of the mountain tarn Colchuck Lake nestled among giant mountains outside Leavenworth, WA

Colchuck lake and Dragontail Peak in the early morning. This is one of the most popular hikes in the Leavenworth area, and a must see when the Larches change color. Larches are one of only a few types of pine trees that drop their needles, turning bright gold before yielding to the winter cold.


 

Guest Blogger Knight Campbell and his team at Cairn Leadership Strategies take business professionals on weekend long outdoor adventures designed as a catalyst for leadership and personal growth. They fuse an MBA level leadership curriculum with chances to test out theory in real life and time spent exploring ideas around the campfire with other leaders. If you want to join one of the 30 adventures offered all over the US in 2022, check them out here.

 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

Rock climbers on a sheer cliff wall looking far happier than I'd be in such a situation

Surmounting the insurmountable on Dragontail Peak - Leavenworth, WA



We struck out at 4am, an ‘alpine start’ to get to the base of Serpentine Arete just before dawn. Somehow, the ascent to Colchuck Lake flew by in the dark, as if not seeing things makes them easier. Alternating between heavy breathing and ‘4:30am funny’ jokes, we made our way up the Colchuck Glacier moraine and finally got to the climb itself. As we racked up our climbing gear, we joked about how long it would take to climb the 2,000 foot granite face, most guessing between 6 to 12 hours... No one guessed thirty.


I have been climbing mountains for almost twenty years now, and I can honestly say all of the most important lessons in my life have come from time spent in the wilderness. This particular adventure slowly but surely transformed from a challenging undertaking to an epic. It encapsulated many of the key lessons that the mountains have whispered into my ears over the years. I share them here with you for fun and to plant seeds, but to truly learn these lessons you will have to experience them on your own adventures - and if you are lucky, your own epics!


Related on the Pathloom Blog: Top 5 Climbing Areas in the Pacific Northwest


A mediocre map of the trails taken on this epic climbing adventure

11 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain is serious, but should not take 30 hours!



When does it become an epic?


Epics are somewhat in the eye of the beholder. In my experience, anything can become an epic with a few key ingredients. Take any old foray into the unknown: mix in a little of the unexpected, take out a few of the tools you wish you had, throw in a dash of overconfidence, and then add about 20 hours to your expected completion time. Voila - an epic.


Climbers feeling great atop Dragontail Peak in Leavenworth Washington

At the top we are all smiles, but getting to the top is only half of the journey!



Lesson 1: It’s always easier than it looks


A funny thing about perspective and mountains is that they almost always look impossible to surmount from the bottom. What is actually a thirty degree slope or a maze of easily accessible goat trails looks like an impenetrable fortress. I almost turned around when I saw the cables up Half Dome in Yosemite for the first time. For the record it is a steep walk up with secure cables to hold onto - strenuous, but nothing to run from. Over the years I have learned that pressing on despite the fear instilled by a seemingly impenetrable rock face almost always results in a great day. When it looks impossible, go a little further!


Related on the Pathloom Blog: Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome: My Journey to Loving the Outdoors

The Glory of Yosemite


It's a long way to go and a long way down in this aerial view of a rock climber picking their way up the mountainside of Dragontail Peak, LEavenworth Washington

Long ways to go at Dragontail Peak: Leavenworth, WA



Lesson 2: It’s always harder than you thought it would be


So I am embarrassed to say I got lost on the first pitch of Serpentine Arete. I found myself run out (not enough protection below me) in a mossy crack ten minutes into our climb! This foreshadowed a full 12 hours of small missteps, staring up wondering where the route might go, and debating which gully was “the gully with a sandy ledge.” We had some amazing pitches of climbing, and others ended up being chossy - leaving us tiptoeing as we tried not to knock rocks off onto each other. We finally topped out the climb that should have taken only six hours, just in time to enjoy a gorgeous sunset.


The number of times I have been suckered in by a false summit, gone with less food or water than I needed because I assumed the climb would be easy, or been blindsided by unanticipated complications in the mountains is staggering. Here’s what happens with complacency. We carry extra first aid supplies for a while, and then not needing them for a year or two we take them out of our bags, item by item, until we have a major injury and no first aid kit left to handle it. It’s almost always more difficult than anticipated, so hope for the best but plan for the worst.


A gorgeous view of Washington mountains from the top of Dragontail peak as the sky begins to be tinted with the colors of sunset

Not a bad view from Dragontail Peak: Leavenworth, WA



Lesson 3: Demonstrate Hope


After a full value day, we felt confident that we could get back to the car by 2am- a mere 24 hours after we began. We merrily tromped our way down to the notch that leads to Aasgard Pass. We turned the corner, and came across a treacherous snow field but we had prepared for this (see lesson two). We took out our heavy crampons and axes and headed onto the narrow band of snow between us and a jovial hike down. Then we found a 50 foot wide section of blue ice - which our team could not safely cross without the right anchors or experience. Fighting the temptation to despair, we fumbled through many plans of sending one person over to set a fixed line and towing gear back; to rappelling off cliffs behind us and hoping for the best. After much deliberation, we found a small gully that went down the side of the glacier. We tied our ropes together and made the awkward rappel down to the dirt below the glacier. We finally all cleared the rappel around midnight, and let me tell you, we looked haggard.


This was the hardest part for me. I am fairly resilient and I can take a few unanticipated issues like poor route finding, slow climbing, or the wrong gear. But at some point, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” or so said General Patton in WWII. As a team, it would have been easy to feel betrayed by the mountain. Simple to give up hope. I wanted to sit down and cry when we found out we would need to spend the next three hours rappelling. That’s the moment teams and leaders have to be vigilant. A smile, a joke, a pat on the back - all these actions can mean the difference between finding a way out and a dangerous state of depression or apathy. Know it’s going to get harder, and demonstrate faith that your team will find a way. If you give up hope as a leader, hope is lost for everyone.


A midnight descent down a sheer face of blue ice is just what the doctor ordered after 20 or so hours of climbing

Dragontail After Dark: Leavenworth, WA



Lesson 4: You have more in the tank than you think… ...as long as you don’t complain


We made it about an hour down the treacherous slabs and cliffs that followed until we agreed that continuing only increased the likelihood of slipping or making a poor decision due to fatigue. We crumpled onto our packs, shivering in the cold night wind, and snoozed for an hour before someone said “I have to move.” All of us were happy to hear this, as we had all been thinking the same for at least the past half hour. We spent the next seven hours making our way down Aasgard Pass, and back out the Colchuck trail. On the way down excited hikers inquired “did you make it to the lake?” We chuckled, yes, we did (yesterday).

All said, we were moving for about thirty hours in mostly difficult and often dangerous terrain. We were thirsty, tired, sore, and happy. I never tire of type II fun, the type of fun that is perhaps more fun to fondly remember over cold drinks than to experience in the moment. It makes me feel alive and reminds me that with a good team, a good attitude, and some of the right gear I am capable of far more than I expected. You can do more than you think, unless you complain.


finishing off the climb up a ridge near the top of Dragontail PEak in LEavenworth Washington

Nearing the top of Dragontail Peak: Leavenworth, WA



It’s about the journey


I loved every minute of this epic adventure (ok, most of them - there was a dark moment in there when we were up against the blue ice). I used to climb mountains to prove to myself how cool I was. A mountaineering attempt without a summit was a waste of time. Somewhere along the way I realized that 10 minutes of happiness on the top for 24 hours of misery throughout the rest of the trek was not a smart deal. Now I love the challenge of it all. I savor the chance to test, and perhaps even strengthen my resilience. I cherish the time spent with other people who love the wilderness as much as me, and I truly love taking business leaders on these trips to help them realize that the summit isn’t what matters. It’s always the journey itself.


The view from the cliff face is absolutely epic as the sun beats down on the Cascades in LEavenworth Washington

Leavenworth, WA is world-renown as one of the best climbing areas on the planet


 

Guest Blogger Knight Campbell and his team at Cairn Leadership Strategies take business professionals on weekend long outdoor adventures designed as a catalyst for leadership and personal growth. They fuse an MBA level leadership curriculum with chances to test out theory in real life and time spent exploring ideas around the campfire with other leaders. If you want to join one of the 30 adventures offered all over the US in 2022, check them out here.

 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may enjoy:


Trip Report: Teton Crest Trail

The Glory of Yosemite

Very Superstitious: Phoenix In The Fall

The Resilience of the Redwoods: Big Basin’s Rise from the Ashes

Leave No Trace Principles

Types of Camping

Where the West Begins



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