Dragon Peak is a 12,995-foot (3,961-meter) mountain located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It gets its name from its appearance because it is comprised of a conspicuous chain of black metamorphic peaks that vaguely resembles the spine of a dragon in profile when viewed from the west. Gould Pass is the low point on the dragon’s spine, the summit is actually the dragon’s head, and just to the north stands the iconic Dragon’s Tooth.
From the perspective of the alpinist, the summit block of Dragon Peak is a sinister pinnacle of pitch-black stone riddled with jagged spires and furrowed chasms. Approaching from Gould Pass requires traveling along an interesting class-3/4 ridgeline up to the base of the final slab. This near-vertical slab looks to be in the class-5 realm (even standing at the base of it!) but close inspection reveals a thin ledge cutting diagonally up the bare face. This feature, not more than ten inches in width, is described as “exposed class-3 foot ledge” in Secor’s The High Sierra guidebook. Although this section is technically simple, a state of vertigo-induced panic would put the climber at risk of a two-thousand-foot plummet to the valley floor.
SUMMARY: I climbed Dragon Peak with Max in late June of the year 2015 during our fifty-day northward romp along the crest of the Sierra Nevada. This was the second day of our ten-day trek between the towns of Independence and Bishop. We started this segment with Casey and Giselle also, climbing up to Gould Pass as a fearless foursome. From the pass, Giselle and Casey descended to make camp in upper Rae Lakes basin, while Max and I scampered up to Dragon Peak via the south ridge during the waning hours of the afternoon. The two of us barely reached the summit by sunset time, then descended and joined the other two at camp in the early evening.
25 June 2015
I stand alone at 12,400 feet above sea level, crouching to catch my breath at the lowest point along the Dragon’s Back. This is Gould Pass, the apex of a seldom-traveled cross-country route into the high country of California. We’ve reached this point having experienced pristine lakes and treacherous snow couloirs, amiable rats and bloody wounds. That adventure deserves its own story, because the overall trajectory of our route was to bring Casey to the summit of Mount Gould and not Dragon Peak. But here I am now at five o’clock in the afternoon with the wind howling through my teeth and thoughts drifting towards the sinister mountain-creature standing not one mile to the north. “That must be the Dragon’s Head,” I say to myself, recalling the words of our friend Tanya who vowed to never venture up that repulsive death-trap.
But Max and I, we love fantasy; we crave the angelic and the sinister alike, finding ourselves inexplicably drawn to convoluted death-traps as much as graceful smooth routes. He’s some distance behind me, however, and I’m aware of the fleeting sunlight. I scribble a note to a scrap of paper and pin it to the dirt at the pass with a evil black cobblestone cast down from the mountain itself.
Gone to climb Dragon Peak (the peak to the north). Max: if you arrive before 6:00pm I suggest you scramble up and meet me on the summit. See you guys at camp. D
So I start up the south ridge, thinking it to hold the most stable rock in a sea of murky choss. What it holds is a startling string of free-standing spikes sticking skyward in sickening fashion. These, I realize (as if literally crawling onto the back of a big sleeping dragon), are the vertebrae.
Catching my breath several hundred feet up the slope (probably climbing the neck now) I glance back down the sinuous ridgeline and narrow my eyes to the low notch of Gould Pass. Not exactly to my surprise, I catch sight of Max hoofing it valiantly up the base of the scree slope, I mean really booking it… mobbin’, as he would put it.
I figure I might as well take a seat, especially considering that I’ve been searching for the way upward and can’t seem to find it. I find a nice boulder-chair and orient myself facing west, where (to my delight) a perfect hand of rock stands atop a passionately artistic chunk of metamorphic rock, thrusting a peace sign into the hazy summer sky.
Max joins me at my boulder, we frantically share last-two-hour stories, and together the two of us take to the mountainside. We manage to climb to a subpeak of sorts, but the summit is still blocked by a near-vertical, polished slab. The decision is made that we traverse around the peak on the west side in the hopes of locating a safe passage upward.
Amazingly, we encounter a dike of pristine granite striking diagonally up the southwest face that affords stable handholds on the rather perilous class-3 traverse.
The angle of the overhead slab lessens on the west ridge, and we make an attempt to climb it. Not more than thirty feet up, and (painfully) not more than fifty feet from the summit, we encounter an impassable headwall. No option but to turn around – we know we’re in for it now. Our hearts pound with adrenaline as we inch our way back down the slope, testing footholds several times before trusting them with our weight, holding our breath and craving a safe ledge.
When the safe ledge is finally reached, there is no talk of retreating from the mountain. The two of us continue traversing the ledge, wrapping around to the north face… where a whole nest of horrors awaits us.
The north face is a thousand-foot tall amphitheater of unspeakably loose rock scattered in a giant staircase of infinitesimal ledges. The climbing is careful class-3 with an undeservedly high consequence, but it seems preferable to the steep, polished slabs on the opposite side of the mountain. We scramble up the trashed bleachers of the metamorphic stadium.
But above the thousand-foot amphitheater is a thirty-foot wall of broken rock, resembling more a library bookshelf than a climbing route, each dusty novel wedged with residual frost and ready to be removed without warning from its position. At one point, I look up and Max is ten feet above me, spanning an ice-choked cranny, sputtering uncertainties and hypotheses about reaching the top. I urge him to come down, and he obeys, but promptly turns and attempts to climb again, this time by a slightly different route, but still failing. In fact, I join him in the vain effort, each time coming face-to-face with sinister dragon scales and being forced to timidly retreat.
I realize that we’re probably spending more time crawling delicately around on that awful north face than any human soul ever should. Max agrees with a sigh, and we head back around the mountain and down to the pass. We can’t help but scan the now-familiar walls as we side-step across the generous ledge, searching desperately for a route in the waning sunlight.
Somewhere on the south face, near the end of the ledge traverse, a magical feature materializes before my very eyes. A diagonal ledge sticking out from the wall, not more than a minuscule bump on an otherwise foreboding slab, but continuous to a line of blocky, easy terrain on the southwest aspect. In fact, I declare my discovery immediately to Max with full confidence, despite the ledge being still fifteen feet above my head and separated by class-4 terrain.
“Are you sure?!” he hollers, skeptical.
With hardly a breath of hesitation I call back, “This is our ticket to the top!” and begin scrambling up to the ledge.
The ledge is barely big enough to fit my boot, but it provides a secure crossing of the airy slab. I rise (or perhaps rather plunge) into the state of mind that only comes from climbing thousands of feet above the ground with no ropes.
Unable to hold back yips of excitement, my tittering eyes follow Max’s meticulous footsteps across the ledge, urging him to the other side where I stand. The two of us scamper to the top as if children at a playground, rambling purposefully towards our ultimately meaningless but ever so eternal goal: a mountain peak. The summit log on Dragon Peak reads “12,995 feet… felt more like 13,005,” in reference to the more docile neighbour Mount Gould to the north, which stands ten feet taller.
The sea of mountains is almost overwhelming. Max and I giddily go about rattling off the names of peaks on the horizon before realizing that there are too many to count. Instead, we sit back and gaze out from the head of the great Dragon, meditating on each subterranean breath of the mute beast.
The ledge is even more scary on the way down due to the unspeakable thousand-foot drop being of view. We stay focused on each step, applying incredible deliberation with every last twitch of every last muscle fiber, not relaxing our minds until reaching the opposite side of the slab.
Then before we know it we’re scrambling back down the south ridge towards Gould Pass and the fiery sun is slumping to the western horizon, casting a rosy glow onto the alpine basin.
From Gould Pass, Max and I retrieve our rucksacks and spend one hour picking our way down a huge talus slope down to camp, the only lights in sight being our headlamps and those of Casey and Giselle, their voices casting muffled words of encouragement across the syrupy night sky (thick with wildfires). But we land soundly in camp and relay our story to Casey and Giselle beneath a oxide-stained white boulder.
26 June, 2015
We awake next to that very same boulder, perched on a broad bench in the very uppermost reaches of Rae Lakes basin, still several miles of rugged, trail-less terrain away from the Interstate JMT, or any established trail for that matter. I pull myself from my tent and nearly stagger backwards when I clap eyes on the terrifying mass of Dragon Peak rising starkly above our vulnerable little camp.
We brew several cups of coffee, staring up at the peak and tracing our twisted path, before packing up camp and ultimately climbing back up to Gould Pass. From there, we spend the rest of the day bagging other peaks along the Dragon’s Back, like Mount Gould and East Rixford Peak. From all angles, Dragon Peak is instantly recognizable, striking a dark chord of reverence within me, as if we had actually tiptoed up to the top of the dragon’s head and returned without a scratch.