Dragon Tooth PD

Sat, Aug 13, 2022

With: Robert Wu

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Continued...

Day 9 of the Sierra Challenge saw me skipping the long outing to Torchbearer in favor of a rock climb of Dragon Tooth. Robert had driven up from Southern California to join me for an outing we'd been talking about for more than a year. Tom Grundy and Iris had climbed it two years earlier and reported it a fine adventure, but not one suited for a large Sierra Challenge group. It is climbed infrequently and still has the original register from 1946 at the summit. We chose to start at 6a to give us pretty much all day for the route, even though the approach isn't all that long. The Sierra Challenge folks had started from the same Kearsarge Pass TH, but at 5a, so we missed the gathering. Zee Chunawala was heading to Dragon Peak and joined us for the hike up the trail.

We spent the first hour on the lower part of the Golden Trout Trail to climb out of Onion Valley. The trail is steep and poorly maintained, if at all, but with no pack animals it was far preferred over the Kearsarge Pass Trail. In the middle section between Onion Valley and the unnamed lakes, we found uncut downfall across the trail and eventually lost it in a talus & boulder slope leading up to the lakes. We regained it briefly across a meadow where we took the right branch in the drainage. We had lost the trail completely by the time we reached the first of two lakes. We went around the north side of the lake and then further up to the second lake over mellow terrain. Once at the first lake, we could see Dragon Peak rising high above the far side, with Dragon Tooth clearly visible to Dragon Peak's right (north). At the second, larger lake, we could see the features of both peaks to better advantage, though they were still some distance off.

After passing the second lake on the south and west sides, our hiking became more of a scramble with acres upon acres of cruddy morainal material to work through. We parted ways with Zee who took a line up to Dragon Pass on the south side of Dragon Peak. Robert and I scrambled across boulders, following the drainage up to North Dragon Pass on the north side of Dragon Tooth. The last bit might be rated at class 3, but most of the route to the pass was no more than class 2. It was 9:15a by the time we reached the small saddle and looked down the northwest side to Rae Lakes. The continuing route over the pass looked no better than what we'd just ascended, and I couldn't help but think how awful it would be carrying a backpack over it. We unburdened ourselves of our loads and went about sizing up Dragon Tooth from our vantage point.

In addition to beta from Tom and Iris, we had more from Richard Shore and Natalie who had also climbed it in 2020, a month before Tom and Iris. Even with both sets of descriptions and staring up the North Face, the route was hardly obvious to either of us. While Robert went about loading his harness with climbing gear, I scrambled up the class 3-4 start on the left side to see if I could gain clarity with a closer look. The rock was a bit crappy to start, but not too bad. It looked better higher up. After gaining a ledge, I worked my way to the right but found only difficulties above that. I retreated to the left side and decided that side held more promise, but too difficult to solo, so back down I went to report my findings. We seemed to burn an inordinate amount of time at the pass, reason unclear. Maybe we were tired, maybe we figured there was no need to rush. The weather was certainly better today than it had been the fast few days, no threat of thunderstorms anywhere. In our musings, Robert had mentioned something about folks leaving registers at passes, and only a few minutes later I spied a small plastic bottle tucked under a rock. It had been left in 1982 and had only a few entries, the last in 1991 - evidently the hiking place was a little too good. We signed it and tucked it back where I'd found it. Ten minutes later we were ready to head up. Robert left his pack at the pass while I shouldered mine with the rope atop, and we headed back up the class 3-4 section on the left side.

Once at the shelf on the left side, we roped up and got ready to climb. Robert first tried a direct line up, bold but overhanging. He then moved left where he found an easier route at 5.6 or 5.7. This led to a second shelf above that I could not see on my earlier exploration. Here he moved far right and set up a belay to bring me up. It was a sloping shelf with a solid anchor of three cams, positioned directly under the crux. We didn't recognize it at first, as it seemed easier than the advertised 5.10+. We were both scoffing a bit until Robert started up for the second, very short pitch. It was soon apparent that it would hardly be easy - the thin crack would only take finger tips and was not buoyed by any real foot placements. Robert set several small cams in the crack before trying the harder moves which proved worthy of their rating. He was hoping to be able to free the route in proper style, but ended up hanging on the rope a few times as his arms became exhausted. He would shake them out, add more chalk, then go back at it, eventually working his way up without having to pull on any of the gear. It was an excellent effort, I thought, but his disappointment was evident. After passing the crux, he put in another cam above this before moving right about 20ft to set up an anchor and belay. Now it was my turn.

I had no such ambitions to free the route. I immediately got out the mini ascenders I carried just for this purpose. I had thought that I had a cord for my harness and a second for my feet, but when I uncoiled the pair I found I had two of the same version for the harness. Hmmmm, not what I expected, but I would make this work. I attached an ascender to each cord and then to the rope, then the other ends of the cord to my harness. It worked even better than expected, though I might not have been as successful if the crux had been vertical. As I removed the three lower cams in the crack, I was glaringly aware that my safety was depending on the one cam above the crack that was taking my full weight and transferring it to Robert at the anchor well to the right. If it pulled, I would go crashing down in an awkward pendulum that would have me in a world of hurt before the rope went taut at the anchor. I was happy to see it held. Once above the crux, I collected this last piece and joined Robert at the anchor. The anchor here was a piton and a small nut left by others in decades past, the same the previous two parties had used in 2020. It seemed a solid arrangement. The rest of the climb was one long pitch using most of our 60m rope, though not as technically difficult as the first two pitches. It goes down a ramp (of sorts) to the right for about 60-80ft, a short traverse, then up, more or less directly towards the summit. The crux of this pitch was a short section about midway up, perhaps 5.4-5.5. By the time I had joined Robert at the top, it was 12:40p, about 3.5hrs after we had first reached North Dragon Pass. It was no speed record to be sure, but it had been great fun.

The register was found in a small cairn at the spacious top. We relished reading its four pages, adding our names as the 7th ascent. However, we were soon realizing we weren't quite at the very top. To the west are a couple of large, awkward summit blocks that constituted the highest point. I walked over to examine the two features. The lower block takes a reachy mantle to gain its edge. One would then need to scoot along this edge towards the second block, and make a stretch move onto the higher block to "Ride the Tooth!" as Iris described it later. I backed off after the initial mantle, suggesting it would probably be better to do this with a rope for safety. Robert then went over to repeat the same initial move I'd made. We hemmed and hawed about the two blocks, eventually convincing ourselves that we could climb them if we wanted, but that doing so wasn't really necessary. The jury is still out as to whether that was the right decision, but in the end we left them untrammeled.

Instead, we made our summit stay brief and then went about setting up for two rappels. We moved northeast off our perch to find the first rap station. Richard and Natalie had cut a piece of their rope and tied it around a block to rap off. Tom and Iris had used the same rope piece two months later on their climb. It wasn't looking so solid two years later, so we used a large piece of the red webbing I was carrying to facilitate the rappel. Robert went down first, dropping to the top of our short P2 pitch where he then tied into the piton/nut combo. After I descended, we pulled the rope and set up a second rappel with the remaining webbing we had with us, backed up by another piece of the older Richard/Natalie rope. The 2nd rappel would not reach all the way to the pass, but would make it to where we had started the roped climbing atop the lower ledge. We would have to downclimb the class 3-4 section at the start, but having done it once already, it wasn't of much concern.

It was 2p by the time we had packed everything back up and started down from the pass. After the initial bit of class 3 scrambling, the remainder was tame but somewhat slow. It would take us more than two hours to work our way back down the 3.5mi of the drainage, the weather to continuing to cooperate nicely. When we got back to the TH, we found Zee hanging out with Jim at the RV. He'd gotten back several hours earlier, though most of the others would be out many hours longer, not returning until after dark. I was not envying them, happy to join Zee and Jim for an adult beverage in the shade of the RV...

Continued...


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