By Ethan Pringle

After two straight days of rain, we woke to just a thin layer of cloud cover. We figured it would burn off so after breakfast and a gear racking session, we started the trek around the side of the mountain to the ridge. We really should have gotten an earlier start that day, but we figured the good weather would last.

The rain couldn’t come back now could it?

[Ethan Pringle sorts through loads of gear in preparation for the Dragon Back Ridge attempt. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

The team hiked for a few hours around the corner and across the severely steep hillside until we arrived at a pretty decent campsite and, knowing that we’d get benighted on the ridge above if we tried to continue, we opted to spend the night there. It was a really awesome little campsite with jaw dropping views of the fjord. The glaciers across the bay seemed to be sliding right into the ocean. That night we crashed out earlier than the sun went down.

[Mike Libecki unloads at one of the most beautiful tent sites in the world. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

Panic set in when, early the next morning, I felt a couple raindrops on my face. The cloud cover had gotten thicker since the previous evening and it looked like it might start raining. The team seemed optimistic, probably feeding off of Mike’s constant positivity, and packed up our stuff and started hiking.

[Ethan Pringle, Mike Libecki and Angie Payne navigate uneven terrain. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

Our first obstacle came after about a half an hour of hiking—a steep, muddy scree slope up the side of a huge crevasse ridden glacier just below the ridge. It looked pretty scary to me, but Mike casually navigated up its features, placing his feet on rocks imbedded in the ice. We soon found ourselves on the flat upper section of the glacier, and it was a surreal moment. The glacier felt like the surface of an alien planet, the horizon of its downhill side dropped straight into the fjord below.

We gingerly moved across the ice field to the next obstacle—another serious looking scree slope comprised of unsteady looking boulders and rocks that would lead us to the base of the ridge.

[Angie Payne makes her way onto the glacier. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

We started up the ridge, taking care not to dislodge any more rocks than was necessary. Angie was gripped, and I felt for her. Boulders shifted, and the whole scree slope threatened to give way and send our fragile bodies sliding towards the crevasses below. Fortunately, the scree slope stayed intact long enough for all of us to gain the notch below the start of the ridge.

[Angie Payne tries to avoid loose rock in a scree filled gully. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

The notch marked the beginning of the long ridge that extended like a dragon’s back, reaching all the way to the top of a prominent tower. Mike and I started racking up. I flaked the rope and Mike organized the gear. We both donned our harnesses for the first time of the trip, and Mike slipped into his sticky rubber climbing shoes.

Then it started raining.

[Flaking in the rain. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]

It was a light rain at first, but we were familiar with how the rain came and went. It was clear that this rain was not abating any time in the foreseeable future. It blanketed the mountains to the north and thicker sheets of it were coming our way. The rock was getting wetter by the minute. It was a hard realization to accept, but given the seriousness of our goal, we couldn’t start up the ridge in the rain. It was time to bail.

[A light rain makes for slippery gear. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinksi]

Our retreat down the scree slopes and back across the glacier was extremely nerve wracking as it continued to rain and rain. We eventually made it safely back to the camp where we’d bivyed the night before. We all squeezed into Mike’s small Hoopla Tent, ate some food, and rested a while as Mike made us laugh with tales of hilarity from his past expeditions.

Even though the rain had shut us down, we’d actually done something really cool as a group. Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to press onward, and when to bail. Hanging out in a tent with good friends, listening to the rain patter on the tight nylon—is never a bad thing.

-Ethan Pringle

2 Responses to The Dragon Back Ridge

  1. Devin Zoller says:

    Awesome writing and killer photos. I hate scree slopes more than just about anything, they’re so nerve wracking and tedious. Just got back from Denali and probably walked 20 miles out of the way to avoid scree. Better luck with the rain next time, smart move- not getting sucked into “we came all this way” mode. Cheers.

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