Slaying the Dragon Tail

Posted on April 14, 2011

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Four years ago, I arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park for an educational adventure in the art of snow wizardry, and I was forsaken a vision I would not soon forget. That sight was of the Dragon Tail Couloir, a mythical strip of snow that falls continuously for nearly 2,000 vertical feet above the shimmering Emerald Lake.

For the following quarter decade, I would take several journeys to explore the enchanted forests surounding the Dragon Tail, washing my face with the deep snow above Dream Lake and Lake Haiyaha, while spinning tales with my companions about the several other routes visible from the Lakes’ shores. But there was only one, only one mesmerizing snow path that rose above the others, so obvious and yet so beautiful, that would continuously hold my gaze for longer than all.

She was a beautiful couloir, one that had taken the hearts of many explorers before me. I knew she contained something special, something that could be shared with many others that treasured her, but she could also be deceiving. Many men and women before me had found her hard and un-descendable, or worse yet, variable and impossible to commit to, leaving their desires for complete fulfillment vain.

With the help of two companions on a sunny Saturday in the month of April, I decided it would be my turn to see what the Dragon Tail had in store for us.

The stout Knights who came along

With two sets of usable crampons, a pair of axes, and a single whippet between the three of us, we decided that a technical ascent of the mythical route to be useless. Instead, we ventured into the dark and foreboding forest at the base of Flattop Mountain, a place none of us had been to. The Spring conditions were challenging, but we overcame them with superior switchbacks and bushwhacking skills to prove that we could handle such a climb. We stumbled upon a path, and the pace quickened. Soon, we came upon a ridge that allowed a single peek at our decent. Oh yes, my readers, the pace quickened again…

Before long, we came upon lesser mortals, who were adventuring simply ascend the summit of Flattop. They wished us the best of luck for our journey, and could see that we were prepared for the descent with our beacons, shovels, and probes; tools they lacked for such an adventure. Although one wielded an ax, they also lacked the slippery sticks that make the Slaying Of Dragon Tails possible.

With the wind coming from the summit, it seemed as if dearest Mother Nature wanted our pace to slow. And yet, she then provided us with just a small amount of cloud cover, just enough to shade the snow from melting too quickly. She was on our side, and quickly we arrived at the top.

The sun crept out of the clouds, stinging our bare skin and reminding us that time was of the essence for a safe descent. We transitioned into our protective war garb, each with a particular color to represent our past.

Your fabled story teller, making battle plans in blue Cross gear. Photo: Tyler Grubb

After assessing the battle plan, Tyler dropped in to excite the Beast.

Photo: Zach Paley

Tyler called back that the initial turns were, to be colloquial, orgasmic. The snow had corned up perfectly, and it was my turn to experience the joy below.

Tyler was right, and the third journeyer of our party soon followed suit.

Zach drops in

The snow was soft and stable. The tail would be slayed! Zach continued on from the first safety zone, loving life and all that had suddenly been bestowed upon us.

Zach continued to slay

Tyler followed suit, and then it was my turn to experience the magic in one single run.

Photo: Zach Paley

(The Dragon’s Tail did win one battle, and that was by preventing myself getting any usable moving photos from the journey. Tyler, however, was able to capture some from his moving-picture device, visible here.)

Zach on the apron with the line above.

Tyler on the apron with the Dead Elk behind

Before I could believe it, we found ourselves on the white frozen shores of Emerald Lake, a place I had only been once before when it was rocky and barren in late October many moons ago. Now, with it’s frozen surface glistening in the sunlight, all was well in the world. The Dragon Tail had been slayed, so we sat for a spell on the shore and bask in the glory we had experienced.

Before long, the pesky sun decided to burn us while we sat in pleasure. We bid a fond farewell to that special place in upper Chaos Canyon, paddled our way across Dream Lake, below the cliffs of the famous Terrain Park, around the shores of Nymph Lake, and back to the dock of Bear Lake. The journey was over.

There will be no more tugging of my heart strings when I return to this magical place for hiking, powder, or even other big lines. Instead, there will only be a fond memory of the time I Slayed the Dragon Tail.

Special thanks to Cross Clothing, SickStickz, Phar North, Bent Gate Mountaineering, and the US Government for not shutting down and closing the park.

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