North Face
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Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!

Chair Peak, North Face

December 29, 2001

Bleep bleep bleep SMACK! Shit. Is it 2:30 already? I feel like I just fell asleep. Bleep bleep bleep SMACK! I roll out of bed and turn off the alarm. Buck naked, I pad down the hall, down the steps, into the basement "gear room".

Slowly I dress as the chill from the concrete floor seeps into my feet. Gilded in synthetic fibers, I find my way to the kitchen and turn on the coffee pot. I kiss my wife goodbye and write a note: "Chair Peak. Snoqualmie Pass. North Face or Northeast Buttress."

I start carrying my gear out. Jens arrives and piles it in his car as I return to pour the coffee. As we pull away from my house shortly after 3:00, I'm starting to feel awake and, in my head, I run through the armloads I brought out, making sure that gloves, crampons, or some other critical piece of gear isn't laying on the living room floor.

Satisfied that I am fully equipped, I begin to sip my coffee. Just as I empty my cup, we pull of I-90 and head toward the upper Alpental lot. The "dreaded ice fog" of Snoqualmie Pass greets us. In the lot we discover that there are no other cars. If we can make reasonable time, we'll be first to the base of the North Face, our preferred route for the day.

The air is cool, but not cold. Damp, but not wet. We quietly prepare and just after 4:00 we skin out of the lot. The "trail" (it is groomed for the first 1/2 mile) is firm and covered with boot tracks. We both wonder aloud if it wouldn't be easier to walk, but silently agree to keep skinning.

On the well-packed trail, we make decent time. The ice fog is dense when we reach the lake at 4:45, and leading, I miss the turnoff for Chair. I realize it about the same time as Jens and we turn and glide 100 yards back to the cut-off. We start up, and I wonder when and if we'll climb above the fog. Between the dark and the fog, I can't see much. We pass some trees to our right, a familiar sign. The slope steepens and the skinning becomes challenging. I'd been expecting rock-hard snow here, but instead there is a thin crust with loose, granular snow underneath. Suddenly the fog reveals something very unexpected: Avalanche debris. The path we'd been skiing up disappears underneath.

Jens just above Source Lake.

Jens is a few hundred feet down the slope, suffering from a sinus infection and worn out 3/4 length skins. I poke at the debris, evaluating it in a very unscientific way. It is frozen in place and has dusting a fresh snow. A couple days old maybe? I'm not finding the stable snow I expected today.

I continue up and the expected rock buttress appears to my right. The gully becomes narrower and my progress slows. The ice fog begins snowing on us. Finally, 2/3 of the way up the gully, I give up on skinning and pack my skis away. Still hopeful of firm snow, I put on my crampons. Below, Jens packs his skis, too. We make better time this way, and shortly we are exiting to the right, out of the gully, and also out of the ice fog. A high overcast and an intervening ridge cheats us of a view of the nearly full moon, but above the avalanche debris the track is better.

One short, steep slope and a short traverse later we enter the Chair Peak basin. Though it is still dark, I can see as we walk in that most people have been gaining the ridge the leads to the routes through a gap far to the right and farther from the routes than I've seen before. We briefly confer and decide to take our 'usual' approach route. Just after 6:00 we stop to stash gear that we don't need on the climb: Skis, poles, and an extra quart of water for me. We snack and I put on my harness. As Jens finishes getting ready, I posthole away toward the gap in the ridge. I try to stay on an old and firm track, but it is obscured in newer snow. When I leave it I sink past my knees. Plodding along, it doesn't take Jens long to catch me. He takes a turn in the lead, and one more for me and we are at the gap. The wind is howling, causing me to walk like I'm drunk. We are happy to follow the well-established track up the ridge, and then across the base of the north face to the base of the climb.

Sandwiched between ice fog and pink clouds at first light.

Morning sunlight on Glacier Peak.

Where the traverse ends we find a nice platform. We drop our packs and gear up. Our rack consists of two screws, a handful of nuts, three cams, and some slings. With a 37 meter rope, our plan is to simul-climb much of the route. "Mind if I have the first lead, Jens?"

"Nope. It's all yours."

I rack up and lead out. The first moves, clearing an odd moat/bergschrund, is easier because of those who've been on the route in recent days. I pull over and climb up a steep snow toward an inviting looking low-angle ice flow. It turns out to be a mix of nice, blue ice and Cascade cheese ice. Near the top of the ice Jens hollers out "Twenty feet!". I climb up ten more feet and place a screw in solid blue ice. I clip the rope and continue up past a short, steeper step. Above that I find snow covered rock. Twenty more feet and I see something odd: The end of a cordellette laying in the snow. With no other gear in site I lift the eight-on-a-bight out of the snow and clip it. I follow it up and find it tied to another. At the end of the second is an anchor of sorts: A fixed pin equalized with two nuts. After a visual inspection and a few tugs, I add a locker and tie off. I can see the end of the route above and, having led for two rope-lengths, I decide to take what is offered and let Jens lead through.

Jens leading just below the pin he placed.

He joins me shortly, takes the rack, and leads up. The terrain is less steep, and thusly more covered with snow. The rope comes tight as he slings a tree. I break down the belay, taking the nuts and cord, but leaving the aged pin, and follow. As I reach the first slung tree I hear the distinctive "ping ting ping" of a pin going in. The rope comes tight and I continue up. Two more slung trees and then a long gap before I reach the pin. I'm pretty sure, but not certain, that Jens has reached to col just below the summit now. For several minutes I beat the pin back and forth. It isn't coming out. I give up and pound it home. Ten minutes later I join Jens at the belay. We untie and scramble to the summit. I glad to be there and disappointed that we'd climbed into a cloud. No views from the summit today.

On the summit.

We return to the packs and stow the gear. I look down at the gully below us and remember our first climb of the North Face, when we mistook it for the descent gully. I smile, glad to know the correct, and much shorter way. We climb up and over the small hump toward the Northeast Buttress. The correct gully appears and we start down. It passes quickly, with just a bit of front-pointing. At the col we decide to downclimb rather than rapping with our short rope. I break through the cornice on the far left and carefully descend, reverse frontpointing. The snow is loose and unconsolidated. I'm glad to be descending and not ascending. At the constriction Jens waits while I climb through and traverse out of the fall-line.

Shortly after we're both on easier ground and we walk down together, talking about our first visit to this basin, when a twelve foot avalanche crown caused us great problems getting back to our gear. To this day I wish I'd taken a picture of it.

Clouds cap the peaks of the Middle Fork.

Jens descending toward the skis. The arrow indicates the gap we used to access the ridge.

As we near the gear I take note of the snow. There is an evil crust over soft, dry granules. "Skiing is going to suck, Jens."

I'm surprised to see that there is no sign of other parties in the basin. No tracks, no gear, nothing. Odd. We take a nice break and enjoy the views as we eat and drink. Eventually we buckle down randonnee boots and pack up. At 10:40 we start skiing, if you can call it that. The crust is challenging, about the worst I've skied. I fall down at half my turns and several times in between. Finally we make it back to the avalanche debris in the gully. The debris isn't any easier to ski, but it is at least different. I side slip some and make some tentative jump turns. Near the end of the debris we enter the fog and the light goes flat. Jens waits as I huff and puff my way down. When the debris ends the crust isn't as bad. A few more turns and I reach the beaten-in track around Source Lake. From there it is a fast cruise though the flats back to the car. We arrive at 11:20.

The East Face and Northeast Buttress (right).

Good climb, good fun.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
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