By way of confession, I’d like to say that Wes and I “slayed the Dragon” of Dragon Peak. That would be the macho mountaineering thing to say, but that’s not exactly what happened. We did get to the summit. And we did return. But “slayed” would be a little misleading. One could argue that the Dragon simply wanted to be a good sport, so she played dead and let us walk away.
I’ve had Dragon Peak, part of the Sierra Peak Section, on my list for a while, but the infamous Airy Traverse has always given me pause. The peak is part of a cluster of peaks near Onion Valley that I have almost completed: University Peak, Mount Gould, Mount Rixford, Kearsarge Peak, Mount Bago, Independence Peak, and of course, Dragon Peak.
About 50 feet from her summit lies a highly exposed 40-foot traverse across a ledge that ranges from two to six inches wide with few handholds. A fall here is 100% fatal. Climbers rate this as Class 4 terrain. Class 5 would require ropes without question, but Class 4 terrain is a judgment call on the part of the climber. Most climbers don’t protect this traverse with gear, but I figured I would bring some along just in case.
About 50 feet from the summit lies a highly exposed 40-foot traverse across a ledge that ranges from two to six inches wide and few handholds. A fall here is 100% fatal.
I felt like I was ready to tackle this, but not by myself, so I talked my son Wes into coming on a week’s notice. He had finally recovered from a serious collar bone break from a mountain bike accident, and he was ready to get outdoors again.
We stayed the night in Bishop at a hotel, then got an early start at the Onion Valley Trailhead. Under the night sky, we started up the trail with headlamps. There was a cool breeze, but it was still warm enough not to need jackets. We both wondered how miserable the midday temperatures would get but tried to put these thoughts out of our minds.
Less than a mile in, we had to cross an overgrown creek. We had missed the easy crossing in the dark and ended up fighting our way through 500 feet of thornbushes before we were forced to retreat. Wes wore shorts in anticipation of the heat, later on, a decision he now regretted. Some of the thorns drew blood through my pants. Wes didn’t stand a chance. This was like the real-life fire swamp from the Princess Bride. The only thing we were missing was the ROUSs (rodents of unusual size). Once we extricated ourselves from these miserable thorn briers, we found the creek crossing and got back on the trail.
Some of the thorns drew blood through my pants. Wes didn’t stand a chance. This was like the real-life fire swamp from the Princess Bride.
Just as we crossed the stream, the sun cast soft rose-colored hues across the peaks above us. I drank in the spectacle as I always do and took some photos. I bent down to repack my gear, and when I stood up, the mountain had turned brilliant glowing orange as if it were on fire. Wow. I reopened my pack, got out my camera again, and took more photos before we started hiking again.
We gained 1500 feet of elevation in the next two miles where we came to a lake at the base of Dragon Peak. We ate, took some pictures, and we each drank a 5-hour energy for the 1500 feet of scrambling we still had left. This was the hard part of the day.
Across the lake lay a large boulder field that rose steeply into a shoot filled with talus. It took longer than I thought to make our ascent, but Wes and I were deep in conversation, so the time passed quickly. We watched a YouTube video the night before of a climber that gave a step-by-step walkthrough of the climb, and it was very helpful. As we neared the summit ridge, the shoot to our right was easily recognizable. This led to a large chockstone that we climbed under, then scrambled to a ridge where we had a view of the summit. We now had a view to the west down sheer cliffs with several alpine lakes at the bottom. We were in a vast multicolored rockscape that descended into granite basins far below. At over 12,000 feet we now had 360 views of granite peaks as far as the eye could see, with the Owens Valley behind us.
The Dragon Peak Traverse is All Hype
We scrambled our way across the exposed cliffs until we came to the massive rock monolith that crowned the mountain. At the top of this tower was the traverse we had been waiting for. This was the crux of the climb. We and I both scrambled a hundred feet of near vertical rock and positioned ourselves next to the traverse. This was the first time we had seen it close up. As I looked it over, it didn’t look as scary as I thought. The footholds and handholds looked easy. We discussed whether we should use the gear, and it seemed obvious that it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t overthink it; I just crossed, then Wes followed.
We discussed whether we should use the gear, and it seemed obvious that it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t overthink it; I just crossed, then Wes followed.
Two minutes later, we were both on the summit.
There was no snow anywhere, which is highly unusual, but given the drought we are in, it was expected. Looking into Rae Lakes and Sixty Lakes Basin made me reminisce about the times I explored those places. My whole body relaxed into a kind of beauty meditation state. I took some pictures and video, then sat on a rock and took it all in.
The Dragon Peak Traverse is Terrifying!
We stayed for nearly 20 minutes. There were just enough clouds gathering to motivate us to descend sooner than we might have on our own. Without giving it much thought, I started climbing my way back across the traverse. I find it’s often helpful if I don’t overthink it and make this kind of thing scarier than it actually is. About halfway across, I realized that I was tired, hungry, and lacked the coordination I had when I ascended. A pinch of fear gripped me, and I stopped moving. I wasn’t in the state of mind I needed to be to do this, but I was committed.
A pinch of fear gripped me, and I stopped moving. I wasn’t in the state of mind I needed to be to do this, but I was committed.
This was happening whether I was ready or not. “It’s just your brain,” I hold myself. “You are not your thoughts. You choose what thoughts you want to allow.” I felt myself regain my focus, and I moved slowly through the crux – a long step down without any good hand holds. I didn’t remember this move going up. I found myself grabbing the handholds with a grip of desperation. This is more than obvious in the GoPro footage I watched the next day. “What the heck! How did I get myself here?” I thought. Wes asked if I was OK, and I told him I was just feeling a little fatigued. He and I both knew I was lying, but I didn’t want to pass my fear on to him.
When Wes made the traverse, his technique looked flawless. I was relieved to see him moving so smoothly and took photos and video of this exceptional performance. “You were lying about the fatigue,” he said with a smirk as soon as he reached me. “I know,” I said as we both laughed at the insanity of the situation we had found ourselves in. We collected ourselves and started downclimbing.
“You were lying about the fatigue,” he said with a smirk as soon as he reached me.
Downclimb, Upclimb, Downclimb, then Rock Hop
We quickly came to a shoot, and I started downclimbing it with Wes following a few hundred feet back. The shoot was steeper than I remembered and dangerously loose. There was a chockstone 100 feet below me, but it didn’t look like the one we ascended over. I called up to Wes and told him to stop descending. Something was wrong. We checked GPS and realized we were in the wrong shoot, parallel with one from our ascent route. If we continued on our current descent, we would likely have been “cliffed off.” This happens when climbers come to an impassable cliff on a descent, but they have downclimbed or slid down terrain that is impossible to climb out of. This would have been a bad day for us, to say the least.
It was painful, and we were painfully tired, but we climbed out of that shoot and got our bearings on the summit ridge. We crossed an exposed ridge, then found our original descent route with the chockstone we remembered. What a relief!
By the time we got back to the lake, dark clouds had formed above us, and it started to sprinkle. It was warm and extremely humid. With our depleted energy, the last three miles were toilsome. Coming up the trail, we didn’t notice the rock hopping that seemed to go on for miles. Now it was torture. We marched on in that mind-numbing trance that concludes most Sierra adventures. I took a final look at the peak. I thought I heard that Dragon whisper, “Come back and play with me again. I’ll be waiting. But next time, bring your A-game. I’m no Disney dragon.”
I thought I heard that Dragon whisper, “Come back and play with me again. I’ll be waiting. But next time, bring your A-game. I’m no Disney dragon.”
Making it to the car was pure joy, as was the supersized lunch we ate at The Grill in Lone Pine before heading home. I had the blackened chicken sandwich with homemade potato salad. In that moment, there had never been a sandwich made in the history of sandwiches that was that good.
Retrospective: I’m an Idiot, and I’m Proud as Hell
Sleep came easy that night, but I woke up the next day with mixed feelings of post-adventure euphoria and a sense of being a little freaked out. I had some doubts as a father about my decisions on this trip. I regret not roping up on the traverse. I’m an idiot. We had the gear. We just didn’t use it. That’s on me. It’s a mistake I will probably never make again – especially with my son. But I am still conflicted.
Yes, there were a few moments of terror, but we were well within our skill level – and we walked away. Danger and beauty are inextricably linked in the Sierra experience. If there was no danger, I’m not sure I’d be doing this. I’m not saying the end justifies the means, but today I watched my son tap into a reserve he probably didn’t know he had. He could have freaked out, cried, or lost his composure in any number of ways. But he didn’t. With 500 feet of exposure below him, he subdued his emotions and moved almost effortlessly across the infamous Dragon Peak Traverse – and laughed on the other side. It was a holy moment that may only happen once in a lifetime, and I had a front-row seat. That was my son! He didn’t get a high score on some video game that simulated danger. He was unflinching in the face of real danger. At that moment, I could not have been more proud as a father.
With 500 feet of exposure below him, he subdued his emotions and moved almost effortlessly across that rock face – and laughed on the other side. It was a holy moment that may only happen once in a lifetime, and I had a front-row seat.
We might think we’d be brave in a situation where death is on the line, but we never know until we actually experience it. It’s only then that we know what we are made of and we gain access to some deep well of courage that can be used in the future. Link, in the video game The Legend of Zelda, collects power objects throughout the game that can be used later to defeat the game’s bosses. Courage in the real world works the same way. You only get it by willingly leaving your comfort zone. Having no fear in a situation doesn’t get it. You have to “do it scared” to get the benefit. And once you do, you immediately have access to a treasure trove of resilience you can tap into for the rest of your life. Wes has more of that today than he did yesterday.
Moreover, there is also a special bond that only happens when people face danger together. We often see this with veterans who have faced combat. The experiences themselves may have been hellish, but the invisible bonds that form are some of the strongest connections a human being can have – and they last a lifetime. You don’t get these by having coffee together or playing board games on the weekends. You only get these when you are in the crucible of danger and suffering together. I certainly don’t want to look for danger and suffering, but sometimes, these things are precious gifts in disguise.
You don’t get these by having coffee together or playing board games on the weekends. You only get these when you are in the crucible of danger and suffering together.
All that said, I think I’ll prioritize safety a bit more on future trips with Wes ;)