Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Chair Peak: NE Buttress

The Northwest was graced with an extended high pressure system in early to mid February. I had skied Eldorado Peak on Saturday and decided to make the most of the good weather and skip work on Tuesday to climb the NE Buttress of Chair Peak with Josiah.

Chair's NE Buttress is one of Washington's classic easy alpine ice routes. Ski touring around the Alpental Valley had given me plenty of time to admire it, and after spending two weeks learning to ice climb in Bozeman I felt that I finally had the skills to climb it.

The NE Buttress of Chair is the trough just right of center.
Taken on 11/18/2017 on a failed attempt of the Chair Peak Circumnavigation.
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

Josiah picked me up at 6am and we headed up to Alpental. A party with climbing gear left the parking lot just as we arrived making me regret not leaving earlier. We skinned up to Source Lake quickly and passed them.

The basin above Source Lake is usually a mellow skin, but today it was an ice skating rink. We struggled upwards for a while before swapping our skis for crampons.

Approaching Chair Peak. We could have put our skis back on here if we weren't so lazy.
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

We ditched our skis, racked up, and started a rising traverse across the basin below the Chair's East Face, aiming for the bottom of the NE Buttress. The snow well consolidated and perfect for kicking steps.

Josiah lead the first pitch up a narrow gully through a rock band. In different conditions this pitch can involve mixed climbing and be the crux of the route, but we found it completely filled in with snow.

I lead the next pitch up steep snow with a couple small trees for protection. I brought Josiah up and he cast off across the steep, blank snowfield before the ice step.

Josiah taking us to the base of the ice step on P3

Enjoying the exposure on P3
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

Josiah's bomber anchor at the base of the ice step
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

I lead the ice step and found it to be in good condition. I continued up through steep snow and built an anchor with a deadmanned picket and my ass.

The ice step
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

Josiah climbing steep snow above the ice step

Josiah took us up another pitch of steep snow to the false summit. We unroped and scrambled to the summit.

Josiah scrambling to the summit

Labeled summit panorama
Full resolution here
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

Sitting on the chair atop the Alpental Valley
Photo: Josiah Brubaker

We downclimbed the summit block, retrieved our rope, and continued down a narrow gully to the south. A rappel off some old pitons took us over a huge cornice and off the ridge. We pulled the rope and downclimbed some more steep snow into the basin below the east face of Chair, then plunge-stepped through avalanche debris to reach our skis.

Not convinced that we had achieved full value, we decided to do some skiing. We climbed the couloir above the Thumbtack and skied a couloir choked with avalanche debris down to Snow Lake. The icy conditions made for excellent skating across the lake. We climbed back up to the divide and did some more ice skating down to Source Lake and then to the car.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Eldorado Peak

I woke up at 3am and struggled to cram down 3 pieces of bacon, 2 eggs, and 2 waffles. I never have much of an appetite this early in the morning but I knew that it would be a long day. I met Matthew and Nate at 4am and we headed out to Eldorado. The Cascade River Road was clear of snow and blowdowns so the drive went quickly and we made it to the trailhead a bit after 6:30am.

We took our time getting ready and didn't leave the parking lot until 7am. After wandering around for a while trying to find the best way across the N Fork of the Cascade River, we gingerly worked our way across some icy logs, careful not to fall in and doom the trip before it even started.

We picked up the trail and bumbled our way up through the forest, catching our skis on plenty of low-hanging branches. The snow started around 3,000' and made for easy booting.

Climbing out of the forest

At 3,900' we broke out of the forest into a boulder field. There was a hard crust dotted with pockets of wind slab. I started skinning across with my dull edges barely hanging on, imagining falling on a kick turn and sliding uncontrollably off the waterfall at the bottom. I decided that would be a stupid way to go and put my ski crampons on. With ski crampons I was able skin quickly as Matthew and Nate gingerly edged their way up. Nate opted to boot a short steep section and punched through the snow into the slide alder underneath. His skis fell onto his face, chipping one of his teeth. I worried for a second that our trip would be over, but Nate is a trooper so we continued on.

We continued up below steep east facing cliffs through the avalanche debris they had shed during the last storm. It felt more like June than February with the sun shining bright. We took off all the clothes we could without risking heinous sunburn.

After ascending the boulder field, our goal was to cross over the ridge separating the Eldorado Creek and Roush Creek basins. We had seen wind loading lower down and could see cornices hanging off the ridge above. Following Martin Volken's sage advice, we gained the ridge at 6,200' and found an easy boot down on the other side.

Skinning up the Eldorado Glacier

I found my rhythm as soon as we hit the glacier. A few inches of light powder on a supportive crust made the skinning easy. I was so happy to be in this beautiful place in the middle of winter with absolutely perfect weather. It really doesn't get much better.

I crested the slope onto the ice cap and waited up for Nate and Matthew. Nate had already skied Eldorado before and didn't want to continue and decided to wait for Matthew and I to summit. By now it was 1:30pm which didn't leave us too much time to do the 1,500' climb to the summit of Eldorado and make camp before dark.

Matthew and I set off across the ice cap. We skinned to a small gap in the east ridge of Eldorado at 7,800' where we found plenty of rime ice. The ridge itself was fairly windblown so I put on my ski crampons on again. Matthew followed, struggling a bit with the icy conditions.

At 8,300' the ridge steepens significantly. The right side looked quite wind loaded and there was a thinly-covered crevasse running along its entire base. I tried scouting it out but found that my ski crampons couldn't get any purchase on the dry, chalky snow. The left side of the ridge was wind blown, but a fall would send you down the steep cliffs of the S face into the massive bergschrund underneath. It would be no problem with ski crampons, but Matthew hadn't brought them. We decided to boot the remaining 500ft to the summit.

Booting the last 500ft to the summit
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We made it over the steepest section of the ridge with ease and continued up low angle terrain to the knife-edge ridge that guards the summit.

Matthew booting the upper east ridge

The knife-edge ridge was easy to climb, but I certainly wouldn't want to fall off of it! It's a beautiful position with the south face dropping to the ice cap on your left and the NW face dropping down to Marble Creek on your right.

The view was the most beautiful I have ever seen. We could see the entirety of the North Cascades from Snoqualmie Pass to BC, all the peaks cloaked in snow. Matthew made an excellent panorama and I labeled almost 70 peaks on it, including 18 of the 25 highest peaks in Washington. You can see the full resolution image here.

Labeled panorama from the summit of Eldorado
Full resolution image here
Photo: Matthew Koppe

From the summit we had a clear view of Goode Mountain, which my great-grandfather Othello Phillip Dickert first climbed with Wolf Bauer, Joe Halwax, Jack Hossack, George MacGowan on July 5th, 1936. I hope to repeat their route this summer.

The SW face of Goode

Goode or bust! My great-grandfather in the upper left.
Mountaineers: A History page 57

After enjoying the warm, windless weather on the summit, we down-climbed the ridge and walked back to our skis. We skied icy, windblown snow down the ridge then enjoyed powder to the ice cap.

Descending the knife-edge ridge

Skiing down to the ice cap
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We met up with Nate again and discussed what to do next. We had planned on camping on the ice cap but the winds were already ripping through and they were forecast to strengthen overnight. Not wanting to sacrifice sunny conditions today for a white-out tomorrow, we decided to head down and make it a car-to-car.

Enjoying sublime snow on the Eldorado Glacier with the Johannesburg looming in the background
Photo: Matthew Koppe

As soon as we started skiing the Eldorado Glacier I knew that we had made the right call. The snow was just as perfect as the view.

We climbed back up the ridge and dropped into the Eldorado Creek basin, skiing a combination of ice, breakable crust, and rock-hard avalanche debris back to the forest. After some of the best snow of my life on the Eldorado Glacier, this felt like some of the worst.

Sunset on Johannesburg's mighty North face with the Starship Enterprise cloud ready to take us home
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We made it to the forest at 5pm and swapped skis for headlamps. The descent was quite nice to start with plenty of snow to plunge step. As the snow receded and the forest closed in around us it became more difficult, but we were all in good spirits. After another sketchy river crossing on icy logs, we made it to the car at 6:30pm for a car-to-car time of about 11.5 hours.

Days like this where you can ski perfect powder under sunny skies high in the North Cascades don't come around often. I feel so lucky to have had this one.