Tahoe Daily Tribune — Just One More Climb

A kiss of sun on the Dragtooth’s north buttress

I love the smell of wood-burning stoves in the crisp autumn air. There’s something refreshing in the sound of saws and splitters, the wind in the leaves, and the lonely call of the coyote at dusk. The combination ignites a craving for crockpot dinners and long cold nights snuggling under thick bedding. Like a child, I am captivated watching each storm roll in. For me, fall is the domestic season, when splitting wood, storing the bikes, and tucking away the barbeque are chores I willingly embrace. Why? Because winter’s on the way baby, and that means we’ll be skiing before too long.

However, this year the shoulder season has been just a little bit frustrating. I was hoping for little precipitation and a long, drawn-out Indian summer. To be fair with Mother Nature, we did get these conditions to some extent, but it just wasn’t enough to make up for the ridiculously late start to the season. Let’s just say it: summer was too short this year! At least by my account.

Most climbers I know didn’t get into the big mountains until late July or, in my case, early August. The deep snowdrifts that stood as a testament to an amazing winter of skiing, became an annoying impediment on approaches to rocky peaks. When the canyons and drainages that give access to the high mountains finally cleared up, climbers found that large deposits of snow still clung to the bases of many walls adding a spicy prerequisite to already demanding conditions.

For those of us who were eager for the wild places found only high in the range, we made the best of the situation and got to work in earnest. However, in October satellite feeds showed old man Winter’s long arm reaching out for the Sierra. Wearing winter coats and beanies pulled low on our heads, we figured that the goals for the summer season would just have to wait until next year.

Despite the early snow that blanketed the high Sierra, warm temperatures quickly returned, and with them came the opportunity for one more mountain rock route. With an encouraging forecast of highs in the 50s and lows in the 20s at ten thousand feet west of Bridgeport, CA, I began colluding with my partners in climb.

In a time where “select” guidebooks seem to rule gear shop bookshelves, many have found it more appealing to seek out lesser know gems. Converging on this notion, it was suggested that we aim our sights on a peak in the Sawtooth range known as the Dragtooth.

Just north of the better-known Matterhorn Peak, the Dragtooth has a beautiful buttress on its north side that catches a crescent of sunlight each morning this time of year. In addition to its aesthetics, the peak has an interesting history, with Tahoe climbers making a significant contribution to its development.

The first official summit of the Dragtooth was made way back in 1931 by Sierra Golden Age icons Walter Brem, Glen Dawson, and Jules Eichorn. They tackled the twin summits of the Dragtooth after a traverse from Matterhorn Peak. 1931! Not bad for a bunch of guys who had yet to learn proper European rope techniques.

As amazing as this early ascent was, by modern standards their route was little more than a ridge scramble. It wasn’t until 1971 that the main feature on the intimidating north buttress was ascended using Yosemite aid techniques to surmount the most difficult sections. Just to clarify, aiding is a technique by which climbers use the safety gear in the rock to hang on and move upwards. In contrast, free climbers carry all their weight and move upwards using only their hands and feet. However, free climbers still use safety gear as a backup.

Jay Smith and Paul Crawford’s names are all over Tahoe’s climbing with first ascents of some of the best routes in the area. In the 80s (and currently) free climbing was the highest form of climbing technique and style. Mountain routes previously aided were low-hanging fruit for long, all free ascents because there was already a record of an established route.

Despite the benefit of information, the pair encountered insecure rock on the first free ascent of the Dragtooth. Not surprisingly, this aspect of the climb stood out in the mind of Jay Smith several years later. Somewhat weary of this ominous description, my partners and I packed our bags for a quick two-day trip.

Snow and ice define the approach and descent of this peak in late-season conditions. In the shadow of another peak, the kiss of sun on the shoulder of the Dragtooth was a motivating milestone in the route. Not only did the sun promise warmth, but it also marked the completion of the technical climbing.

The final pitch before hitting the ridge and the warmth of the sun

Shivering and joking about how stupid we are for thinking that this sort of thing is fun, we grunted, cursed, and inched our way to that slice of sun above. A sunny ledge, a bite, and a change in footwear put a smile on everyone’s face. Late in a short day, we dashed off on a very fun ridge traverse to the summit. And, that’s where the real “fun” began.

Descents by definition are the opposite of climbing, and although I love to ascend, I strongly dislike to repel. I’ll just leave it at that. With stars twinkling, we finally got ourselves back onto the Sawtooth glacier and on the path home.

Forgetting our discomfort, we talked about better clothing and maybe sneaking in another climb before the weather really goes south. I guess this snow put an end to that. Oh well, at least I have all those shoulder season comforts to keep me occupied.

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