Chair Peak, NE Buttress
In the pre-dawn, Steve and I hiked from the upper Alpental parking lot towards Source Lake on a well-defined cat track, then ski/snowshoe trail. From the lake, we tried to guess how to get to the basin below Chair Peak, wondering aloud where it might be. We followed tracks up the moderate slope, then left them when they turned right towards what must be a saddle to Snow Lake. Breaking tracks in steeper snow, we went straight up a gully, then emerged on a forested slope and found tracks again. Guessing about where we were, and heading up through small trees and deep snow, we arrived in the basin with surprise. It is completely hidden from below, and only in the basin directly below Chair Peak can you properly see the mountain.
We left some gear near the Thumb Tack, and started up towards the NE Buttress route, which began at a ridge saddle. Within minutes, we confronted deep, powdery, incredibly difficult snow, definitely the worst conditions for upward progress we’d ever encountered! Even though we had snowshoes on, we would sink up to our waist in the snow, then leave behind us a trough that could not be followed, only enlarged. So occasionally the follower had to venture out and make separate tracks to the side! We tried various techniques to get higher, including the Chris Koziarz patented “long step,” in which you step high and far enough away from your current position that your knee is behind your ear. This worked pretty well, but was very hard on the legs!
Finally, after an ocean of time spent on this 400 foot slope, we attained the ridge, already dubious of snow conditions higher on the mountain. We overcame a small overhanging snow cliff formed by wind, then kicked up part of the first pitch. We knew it was time to get the rope out and belay, looking at the route ahead. Wallowing in the starting gully, we tried to find picket placements, but even after digging 4 feet into the snow, nothing was consolidated to accept even a dead-man anchor. Picturing scary non-belays higher up, we decided to cancel our attempt, and find something else to do with the day.
Snow Lake looked very pretty, there was even a solitary set of tracks crossing it. In fact, it was an incredible blue-sky day, and we had a great view from our position. We hung out for a while, scaling various points on the ridge crest. We saw skiers come into the basin and look at our poles we had left. Since they didn’t molest them, we didn’t have to unleash the cornices beneath our feet and come roaring down in vengeful fury. We turned away and stomped down powdery snow towards Snow Lake. Above the lake we followed ski tracks towards the saddle, eventually meeting up with a horde of skiers and snowshoers. I had no idea how busy this basin could be on a winter’s day. Coming around the mountain, we hiked back up to the Thumb Tack and retrieved our gear. I scaled the Eldorado-like snow cap on the Thumb Tack for a probable first ascent. The vibrating, unstable snow mass kept Steve from following! We went down a ways, then, aimlessly, I decided to dig a snow cave. I could cram my body into the hole after 15 minutes of digging, but the only position I could muster was fetal, sitting up.
Stomping down to Source Lake, Steve spied an ice climber on some impressive ice curtains. We were going back up there and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. By now, our weary limbs were tired of carrying us back up slopes that we had promised we were finished with! We got our crampons on and bouldered around the base, but the steepness of the ice kept us from going further. We did climb a short snowy gully with ice placements buried under powder, and we found an impressive little “ice house” for a gnome or fairy to live in.
Very tired, we hiked out to the car, feeling a pang of disappointment when we saw ice climbers on a formation right by the trail. It looked easy enough for us to climb too! But the hour was late, and we were beat. In the next two weeks, Peter and I would go back and climb this twice.
All in all, it was a great recon trip. Now we knew how to get to the basin, how to get to the Snow Lake saddle in winter, and we found some climbable ice. We promised to come back in two weeks.