Trip Report    

Intermediate Alpine Climb - Chair Peak/Northeast Buttress (winter)

Finally got the right ice and snow conditions for this route but weather was worse than forecasted and the fair weather window did not materialize. Still a great trip with great people.

  • Road suitable for all vehicles

This was our team’s second attempt at Chair Peak winter. It was also a mentored climb for myself. We had tried on January 13th and turn around after the first pitch. While we had great weather then, the conditions on the route were really bad with too thin ice and very soft unconsolidated snow on the route.

This time weather and avy conditions were favorable and we hoped to find better ice and snow conditions on the route. Weather forecast was for partly sunny with a chance of snow showers but very low accumulation by 4 pm. Avy hazard moderate. We also chose to start very early (4 am) to give us more time to complete the route and rappel in daylight. As it turned out even with a 4 am start we took much longer than we had planned and return late into the night. But that is for later in the story.

The approach was without any incident. We started at 3:57 am at the trailhead under starry skies and no moon. We tried to follow an easier route than last time heading towards the Snow Lake summer trail but eventually reverted to the same route we had taken in January up a steep gully to the left and then traversing back to the right before reaching “The Thumbtack”. From there we headed up along a steep snow section to the base of the NE Buttress. The snow conditions on that very exposed slope were far better than last time and we were able to quickly traverse following another party of two. The party of two was already climbing pitch 1 when we arrived at the base of the climb but timing worked great for us as they moved off the first anchor right when our first leader made it there and we never encountered them again.

The first pitch had a layer of about 10 inches of semi-consolidated snow that was easy to make steps on with ice below which took well to tools and crampons. It is not possible to protect the very start of it but the conditions made it safe to get to the first rock pro option with no pro. We found an intermediate anchor less than half a pitch up but decided to just sling it and keep going to make it a full rope (60 m) pitch. There are a couple of short ice steps on this pitch with good ice taking well short screws. The end of the pitch is on a snow slope again with good ice underneath. A big tree works as a great anchor at the end and there are a few smaller trees than can be used to protect the section below. Light snow showers begun at this point. Sky still seemed bright and clouds were high.

The second pitch is a steep snow pitch and the route may be a bit confusing. It should be noted that is much better to traverse left to a snow slope and around a clump of trees instead of straight up towards the rocks. The clump of trees offers the only natural pro along the almost full-length pitch. If you go straight up to the rocks, you will find thin ice on rock and not much pro opportunity and end up away from the tree anchor and too far right to begin pitch 3 which also aims left to the ice step. Perhaps in different conditions that may be a more viable option. We protected this pitch with pickets that took to the ice below the snow very well and one sling on a tree. Pitch 2 ends at a lone good tree right below a large rock horn. Both the tree and the horn have webbing and cords but we chose to use our own material to build an anchor on the tree because the horn was too high and the webbing on the tree was buried in snow and unclear what it was attached to.

Pitch 3 took a full tope length to reach the base of the ice step. It is another steep snow pitch with a long exposed traverse but there was very good ice under the snow that allowed for solid footing and tool or axe placement. We were carrying one axe and one tool which was a good set-up for most of the climb except the water ice step where a second tool would have been better. The anchor at the end of pitch 3 is in ice below the waterfall. We used two screws and one picket as an anchor there.

Pitch 4 begins with the water ice step. It begun with a 15-foot ramp and continued with a 7-foot vertical section (WI3). We placed two screws here but a third one would have been a good option before the final section to get above the water-wall. Once above the step, an ice ramp follows and then a steep snow slope with good ice under. One rock partly exposed half-way up the slope provided a great opportunity to place a brand new piton we had brought along. The pitch can be ended at a rock band that provided a few spots for a rock anchor at another full rope length from the base of the ice step. We used two cams and two slings anchored on rock horns.

Pitch 5 is a short pitch (just over half a rope length) to a tree. It goes just to the right side of the rocks on the ridgeline, in the snow, passing a couple trees to your left, and ending at another pair of trees, also on the ridgeline to the left. There are other trees around. From there one can un-rope and scramble to the summit but we decided that given the late hour and limited daylight we had left and the blustery wind and snowfall that we would just forgo the summit this time and begin our descent. We had all climbed plenty of ice and placed plenty of screws for ice credit. This was the top of pitch-5, and from those trees, we could look to the left directly down the descent gully. This time of year, the top of that gully looked like a very small saddle with a small cornice on our side. About 30 feet down the gully, there is a perfect anchor opportunity at a little clump of trees. That had been used as a rappel anchor down the gully before and we used it as the final anchor as well as a rap anchor.

As daylight was dimming, while waiting for the second team to join, one of us did a single strand rappel using one of our 60 m ropes to reach the next anchor down the gully. It was critical to find that anchor in daylight. We found the 3 old pitons and some nice new cord on them. While our second team finished pitch 5 and got ready to do a double rope rappel to the piton anchor, darkness fell and a very cold wind picked up blowing snow. We were there a long time and got very cold.

We finally got the second rope and set-up for the last double rope rappel into the final gully. It should be noted that some parties do not rappel the first section of the gully. We chose to as it seemed the safest options given the dim light and icy conditions in the gully. It took us more time this way but safety was always our main concern. The last rappel was tricky to set up as the rope anchor had to hanging beyond the rim of the cornice in this gully to make sure it would not get entrenched. We really did not want to deal with a stuck rope on this climb.

At the end of the gully we landed on a steep snow slope that we down-climbed most of the way to get to the place we had stashed our snowshoes. Lots of snow had fallen through the day but we had taken a way-point of the place and we found our gear within close distance of that spot. Back to gentler terrain at the Thumbtack, we chose to follow a gentler route towards the Snow Lake trail to get back to the Source Lake Basin and finally back to the cars.