March 11, 2010

The Most Popular Winter Climb in Washington? - Chair Peak, North Face

With only a couple days left in Seattle before road tripping for a few weeks, I was anxious to get one last adventure in.  A moderately questionable weather forecast left enough room for optimism that I decided Tuesday would be as good a day as any.  After calling Craig and convincing him to skip out on work, I received a call from Evan who was looking for a Tuesday climbing partner.  In a miraculous coincidence, Evan independently proposed climbing the same peak that Craig and I were already planning to climb.

Chair Peak from the Southeast (the right skyline is the Northeast Buttress)

We decided on the North Face of Chair Peak, conveniently located on top of Snowqualmie Pass.  We ambitiously hoped to also climb the Northeast Buttress on the same peak, but ended up not having enough time.

We skied the approach through 3 to 5 inches of light, cold powder over a sheet of ice (it hadn't snowed in the area for a long time until the previous day).  We skied nearly all the way to the saddle that marks the start of the Northeast Buttress route before switching to crampons.  We packed our skis up a little further and left them at the base of the northeast buttress before traversing to the base of the north face.

Evan Skinning Up, Craig and Source Lake in the Background

Craig (Luigi) with Chair Peak in the Background

With three climbers climbing on twin ropes, it's inefficient and a bit awkward to switch leaders in the middle of a climb.  Since Evan had climbed the same route 3 days earlier and Craig wasn't demanding to lead, I got the privilege of leading our team up the north face.

The route climbs straight up the ice and snow covered north face for about 200 meters.  It's never vertical, but quite sustained and up to about 70 degrees in places.  Three full (60 meter) pitches and a fourth shorter pitch put us a short scramble to the summit.

Craig and Evan in the Middle of the North Face

Me Leading the Second Pitch (thanks for the photo Craig)

The first pitch was more ice than snow with quite a few spots having ice good enough to place trustworthy screws.  I hammered in two solid pickets for the first anchor.  The second pitch and beyond was quite snowy, with a few trees here and there to sling as protection.  There was an option on the third pitch to stick to the right side of the gully and sling trees for protection, or head straight up the middle and hope for good ice.  I was pretty sure I saw a small patch of thick, solid ice about half way up in the center, so I took the more direct route.  I turned out being correct and was happy to place a bomber screw several meters before finishing the pitch at a nice tree anchor.  At the top of the final pitch, I had to wallow through deep, nearly vertical snow to gain the ridge top.  If it was any deeper, a tunnel would have been more appropriate.

Wallowing through snow near the top of the final pitch (thanks again Craig)

The summit views were amazing in all directions!

After spending several minutes on the top in much nicer than anticipated conditions, we began our descent.  This went very smoothly thanks to Evan knowing exactly where to go.  We climbed down the ridge to the east for about 100 meters before reaching a rappel station built of three old pitons.

The Old but Solid 3-Piton Anchor

Tying the twin ropes together, we rappelled 60 meters down steep snow before continuing to downclimb.  We were able descend to the elevation where we left our skis and traverse under the east face directly to our cache.

Craig Finishing the Traverse Under the East Face to our Skis

The ski down was variable, generally consisting of five inches of powder snow over one of the following: ice, icy crust, or avalanche debris.  Adding to this the flattest light conditions imaginable made the descent quite interesting.  At one point I went off a small jump, sunk deep into some icy crust upon landing, and proceeded to do a one-skied somersault.  Once we got back to source lake, the ski was flatter and on a well traveled trail resembling a bobsled course.

I think we left the parking lot at 8:00am and returned to the car at 5:30pm, for a respectable 9.5 hour day.  I didn't feel that we were particularly fast nor particularly slow.  The weather turned out to be fantastic and the fresh snow didn't negatively affect the conditions of the route, although getting to it was made slightly more difficult.  The fact that one can do an alpine climb of this quality in under 12 hours (Seattle to Seattle) from a major city warrants the popularity of this climb.  Climbing on a Tuesday was the perfect choice as we only saw one other party, and they were on a different route.

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