| A Classic RMNP Circuit: Flattop to Powell via Dragon‘s Tail
Flattop Mtn (12324')- unranked
Hallett Pk (12713')- CO Rank 847
Otis Pk (12486')- CO Rank 1015
Taylor Pk B (13153')- CO Rank 521
Powell Pk (13208')- CO Rank 478
June 2, 2007
14.7 miles RT, 5740' gain
via Dragon's Tail couloir, down Glacier Gorge trail
Rocky Mountain Natl Park
Participants: James Just, Jeff Schafer, and Kevin Baker
With couloir climbing season in full swing, I was looking for an interesting one to climb. James Just suggested Dragon's Tail on Flattop. Flattop is a rather benign unranked 12er in RMNP, so I was hoping to add some other peaks to the day for more bang for the gas buck. James and Jeff are more into interesting routes than peak bagging, so I would continue on from Flattop by myself. This turned out to be a 14 hour day that really hammered me!
We met at the popular Bear Lake trailhead bright and early at 4:30am to take advantage of firm snow. A few other groups showed up as well, so we probably weren't going to be the only ones on Dragon's Tail. We set off at 4:55am with a temp of 43. This trail is probably the most popular one in the park next to Longs Peak. We made good time up the dry trail past Nymph and Dream Lakes on the way to Emerald Lake, where the apron of the couloir begins. There were patches of snow to deal with, but everything was firm. Here's a shot of Dragon's Tail from Emerald Lake.
We went right to get around the lake, which involved a little boulder hopping but nothing annoying. You would probably need your crampons to traverse the other side or you might end up in the lake. We geared up for the couloir where the snow began and a group caught up to us, one of which was probably a guide as he was very knowledgeable of Dragon's Tail. He and his partner were taking the right branch and we were going left.
We set out at 6am on excellent snow, and the conditions seemed to improve as we climbed. There was a nice track to follow as this route has got some attention from a recent Dave Cooper article in the Denver Post. The conditions were light years better than what I experienced on the Y on Pikes last month, not too soft and not too hard. Here's a view down the couloir about halfway up.
We took turns breaking trail, although the effort wasn't too bad as we were already following other tracks. The coulour is probably around 50-55 degrees at its steepest, with sustained 45 degree climbing the rest of the way. We went left at the fork as planned and took a break at a nice bench. James gave me an ice tool to use if needed on a section of rock that we needed to negotiate near the top. A recent TR noted that rime ice was covering it, although it was dry for us. I felt comfortable with just my axe since I was following on the steepest parts. We encountered the best conditions below the rock step, as the snow doesn't get much sun there.
James climbed the rock step first, which probably goes at hard 4th class for 10 ft or so but it is awkward with crampons. Here's James on the crux.
A fall here would send you shooting a long way down. Since we brought protection, I thought it was best to use it. I was glad to have the protection since I'm not much of a rock climber, as was Jeff as a flake came loose on him. Once past the crux, we cruised up the last exhilirating 100 feet or so with great views below. Here's Jeff and myself topping out.
We degeared at the top and then hopped on the trail to the true summit, arriving at 9:42. James and Jeff were nice enough to take my climbing gear down as my pack probably was 30 pounds with all the water I was carrying. We parted ways and I set off for Hallett while they descended the trail back to Bear Lake.
I came across a couple guys heading up Hallett as well and one announced he was turning around because of clouds to the west. I told his partner they were nothing to worry about yet, but they still turned around. I could already feel my legs crying for mercy after the steep couloir climb as my calves were already shot! The good thing about this loop is that Taylor is the only peak with sustained vertical, the rest are 400-500 ft each. I made good time up Hallett's mellow n.w. slope and topped out at 10:25. From here I could tell it was a long way over to Powell, but the climbs are gentle. Just pace yourself!
Next up was neighbor 12er Otis, which is another dramatic peak with a mellow hike up its west ridge. Otis kind of sticks out by itself and affords excellent views all around. I was glad to add this 12er to the day, topping out on it at 11:22. Here's the view to Otis (foreground), Taylor (right), and Powell (behind Otis) from Hallett.
I then descended to Andrews Glacier and assessed the weather. This was my bailout if the weather was iffy, but the clouds to the west seemed to be moving south. Here's Taylor from Otis.
I hung my pack on the sign at the pass and grabbed some food, gatorade, and extra clothes. I moved much faster without the pack, but it still was a crawl. Taylor offered the longest sustained vertical of the traverse at ~1200 ft. I weaved up patches of talus and tundra up the gentle north slopes. I was worried about the storm to the west, but it kept moving south. I would turn around if thunder/lightning started, but it looked like just a gentle shower.
Taylor has multiple personalities, gentle slopes on one side and dramatic cliffs on the other. All of these Divide peaks are like this, which affords for some sweet eye candy when you reach their summits. My energy was beginning to wane, but gummy bears refueled me for the final journey to Powell, a mile as the bird flies to the north but longer due to the cliffs in the way. Just off the summit of Taylor is a huge, dramatic window with views down the cliffs below. Don't fall through this in winter if there's a cornice!
If I wasn't able to skirt around Taylor on the way back, I probably wouldn't have gone for Powell. The endless talus hopping was starting to get annoying, so I scoped out a return on a lower snowfield. Powell played games with me as it seemed to never get closer. I topped out on the ridge and noticed the true summit was the furthest bump. Why does that always happen? I clamored up the summit block arriving at 2:26, happy to be done with most of the ups.
The summit is a dramatic perch that is simply spectacular. The view of Longs from here is exceptional. I found registers on both Taylor and Powell and noted that few visit them even though they're in RMNP.
The weather was now iffy, so a quick descent was prudent. The snowfield descent was great as my knees took a break and it was faster than talus hopping. One final surge up a bench on Taylor's west ridge and I was finally heading down for good. Graupel began to fall lightly on the descent to Andrews Pass, but no thunder or lightning. I called my wife at Andrews Pass and told her the arrival at the car was TBD based on how much postholing commenced.
I was hoping for a sweet glissade down Andrews Glacier, but it was steep enough only on the top 1/3 to do as the snow was pretty soft. I picked up a trail at Andrews Tarn down to a steeper slope below it. I was postholing on this slope and noticed a small wet slide happening below me. I got off this quick and traversed over to a lower angle slope to glissade.
I picked up a ski/snowshoe track that led me down to treeline, but I lost it and headed too far left, cliffing out as a result. After some frustrating postholes and backtracking, I found the trail, which follows the north side of Andrews Creek. The slog back to the car was borderline death march material as I didn't get out of the snow until about 10K'. The Glacier Gorge is spectacular, but I couldn't enjoy it. Here is Alberta Falls.
The 1/2 mile walk from Glacier Gorge TH to Bear Lake TH was killer as I had to go back up again. I should have had James drive my car over there! I stumbled back to the car at 6:40, happy to survive the long day although the world class scenery really took my mind off the pain. Here's the GPS track.
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