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Rocky Mountain National Park: The DragonTail Couloir

3/9/24
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Posted by skistache on 3/13/24 11:45am

As I've started to learn the Front Range a little better and continue exploring Colorado backcountry, one area that I hadn't visited this winter was Rocky Mountain National Park. Home to Longs Peak and a collection of steep and classic lines, it was a glaringly obvious hole in my touring experience, so I bought the $70 annual pass and am now determined to use it. 

As always, trip planning started with looking at the safe and simple routes. Flat Top Mountain (yes, it's very flat) looked like a nice starting point. Of course, the Dragontail Couloir caught my eye immediately, and that little voice that inspires bigger and bigger adventures grew in volume and urgency as the avalanche forecast improved, and weather conditions continued to show promisingly pleasant temperatures with no wind. 

With another early start to avoid the crowds, I set off from the popular Bear Lake trailhead a bit before 6.45. The 3000ft climb up to Flat Top was a simple, straightforward 2.5 hours, and the thin, uninspiring snowpack on the expansive ridge hardened my resolve to ski something steep, particularly after getting glimpses of the gorgeous Tyndall valley below. I found the top entrance to the Dragontail with a little booting after a short ski down from Flat Top (it never fails to surprise me that you can be 12,000 feet up a mountain out here, and still have exposed dirt and rocks everywhere). 

The Dragontail has it's status as Colorado's Premier Couloir for a reason- much like the Slot on Snoqualmie, it's easy to get to, big (1700 ft), and impressive enough to excite even the biggest hardo. Looking over the convex rollover straight down to Emerald lake gives the impression of a sheer drop and certainly wakes up the butterflies in your stomach. But can you really call it an adventure if you don't get a little scared sometimes? 

The first few hundred feet of the couloir I took very cautiously- the entrance was scrubbed by wind and sun into a bulletproof surface, and a few chattery turns got me to the first restriction- a small cliffband that required a traverse over thin cover, and sideslip down an 8ft wide chute in between exposed rocks, and a straight shot into a more open area of the couloir. Luckily, the snow here was pretty good! Drier packed powder through this section was the best of the day. 

Just above the apron of the Couloir the walls close in to create a 300ish-foot-vert ribbon of snow that again rolls over steeply to 40+ degrees. Slough management is key here, and a few judicious wider turns kept the surface-level slough from picking up too much mass. On the apron I passed a group of climbers ascending the aesthetic sheer rock faces, and the crisp temperatures at the top had been replaced by above-freezing air and warm sunlight. Snow here was the grabby mix of packed pow and a tiny little sun crust, just enough to put you in the backseat and add some friction to the turns. 

Always appreciated is the well-established skintracks and snowshoe trails on the way out- with some pole-pushing and skating I was able to get all the way back to the parking lot without a transition

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skistache
2024-03-13 18:45:59