Elevation Gain: 783m
Total Time: 10.5 hours
Date: November 19th, 2022
Winnie reached out around mid November to take on a winter alpine objective known as Chair Peak in the Alpental back country. The plan was climb the NE Buttress, which offered a pitch of mix climbing, steep snow and a WI3 ice crux to gain the summit. This sounded like an amazing chance to get some alpine ice experience and Winnie’s friend Adam would join to help with the leads. Every trip report I found was later in the winter (February), but this didn’t deter us from giving it a shot. The plan was to leave Vancouver around 2am and hit the trail by 5:30am.
Right on time, I swung by Winnie’s to pick her and Adam up and made the 3.5 hour drive out to Snoqualmie pass. We discovered that the upper parking lot gates were closed, so that meant an extra 600m distance, but not a big deal. The air had chilly bite to it and we hit the trail fully layered up. Rather than the normal summer trail we followed what appeared to be a winter trail along the creek that fed out from Source Lake. This took us about 2KM in before the trail abruptly turned up the slopes and rejoined with the main summer trail. In the last 300m we had donned snow shoes to avoid post holing and now they were useless on the hard packed snow of the summer trail. Nonetheless, we kept them on and continued along the trail as the Alpental Valley slowly filled with light.
Just enough light in fact to spot Chair Peak. Even from our vantage several kilometers away, it was clear our route was completely out. There was hardly any snow to speak of and no one was keen to make the trek out to get a closer look. I had a quick scan around and spotted some back up plans. Running along the ridge system to Chair were a number of smaller named peaks and all looked interesting. One in particular looked quite doable: Bryant Peak. There was a narrow couloir/gully filled with ice at a choke point and then what appeared to be an easy scramble to gain the ridge to the summit. Adam and Winnie didn’t want to cut their losses either so we all agreed to give it a try.
I lead us out on to a blank slope cutting directly from the trail towards the gully. From here I took us into the forest, having to contend with some deep unconsolidated snow. Thankfully this section was short lived and I lead us across one more blank section of slope before reaching the gully entrance. We kept the snow shoes on until 1450m roughly where a short rock step seemed like the obvious place to switch to cramp ons. Again I lead us further up the gully and to the base of a short ice pitch guarding the exit.
As Adam and Winnie caught up, I thought I’d test out the pitch unroped as the only consequence was following into a deep snow pile below. I only made it perhaps 3m up before my tool blew off a rock section and I landed softly back in the snow. That was my indication that I’d better rope up here. Winnie and Adam were comfortable to solo it, so they went up then fed a rope down to me. I followed up and rejoined Winnie at a tree anchor in the gully. Now Winnie and I took turns breaking trail in highly variable snow towards the ridge. There were brief sections of solid crust which would then collapse without notice into deep powder. We noticed wind crust or slab forming in several spots, but there was no bed surface for it to propagate on and deemed it safe to continue.
Winnie took over the final lead up the ridge, taking us through a steepening snow route that meandered through several rock out croppings to a section below the ridge. Originally we thought to gain the ridge from the top of the snow gully, but weren’t sure we could bypass the obvious gendarme. As a result, we decided to head climber’s left around the gendarme and gain the ridge via a direct face ascent adjacent to the gendarme. From afar it looked like a scramble and looking directly above it looked blocky and easy. However, looking straight up at wall from an already steep angle offers deceiving results. I peered left at right and noticed the vertical profile of the wall and the blocky terrain was only present on the underside of the face, but did not offer obvious steps for one climbing above.d
It became pretty clear this wasn’t going to be a scramble, but rather a mixed pitch. Adam was the strongest leader on mixed/ice routes so when was keen to give it a try… the route was still on. Winnie and I tied into one end of each twin rope and Adam tied himself to both before I put him on belay. Armed with a small single rack, Adam started his was way up the first few moves of the pitch. The route unfolded into a number of tricky sequences, but Adam picked his way through it, move by move. After disappearing around the ridge further up, we eventually heard his call over the radio that we were now on belay. Winnie went up first climbing ~8 meters above before I’d start in case she fell.
By now, I was freezing as we hadn’t seen any sun on the north face and I’d been belaying without much movement for quite awhile. I stripped off my belay jacket and prepared to endure the cold ahead. I started the climb and found the first few meters were straight forward, but the pitch quickly turned “real” from that point. Unlike dry tooling in the crag, many of my potential options were buried under snow. Each move, I had to carefully scan around for the next placement. Where none were found, I would start excavating through spin drift deposits until I’d find something bomber. It was a battle of careful deliberate movements against the constant urge to shiver from the freezing elements. Slowly but surely I linked one sequence into the next and reached a land mark tree half way up the pitch. Above the tree I encountered my first section of true void. All the rock above was smooth, down-sloping and determined to keep me off its upper flanks. Finally, I resorted to swinging my tool into frozen earth in a small alcove above me. A test pull seemed good and now I was extra thankful to be on top rope as I pulled all my body weight off of frozen dirt. I didn’t stick in that position for long and quickly moved to solid rock above.
The final crux was a short traverse around a small head wall below the ridge. Again pick placements were limited, so I tucked the ice tools away and used my hands to reach out to the next hold. I had to put an unnerving amount of weight on a loose section of rock, but it thankfully held. The remainder of the pitch to the anchor was easy and I was both stoked and relieved to be off that pitch. Adam gets the real credit here for leading though, as it was way beyond anything I could do on lead.
As we gathered at the anchor Adam made a prudent remark about the time we had left. It was now 12:30PM and we were still at least 2 pitches from the summit. The first pitch took 1.5 hours so if either of the next two pitches were as involved, we’d be rappelling the summit in the dark and cold. All of us were chilled out as the ridge offered no shelter from the wind. With the prospect of another 3+ hours exposed to the cold and a complicated descent, we made the call to bail on the climb.
We decided to rappel to a section of trees at the col between the ridge and gendarme and then we could rappel either side of the ridge depending on what looked best. I rappelled first with a saddle bag setup to avoid the windy repercussions of a regular rappel. Unfortunately, it only just barely reduced the tangled mess the wind would have caused. My crampons got hooked in one of the loops and the rest was history. After no shortage of faff I did eventually make it down and Winnie and Adam had a more seamless experience.
Adam led the next rappel opting to descend back to our tracks below the ridge. With a 60m rope we bypassed all the steep down climbing and this was a better option than the west side of the ridge. From here we descended the snow gully until we were above the ice pitch and did one more rappel down. The rest was an easy plod on snow shoes back to the car and just before sunset no less.
While we didn’t get Chair Peak or even our random back up objective of Bryant Peak it was still exactly the type of adventure I live for. Adding to the totality of it all, we had zero beta on Bryant Peak really added to the excitement. To be able to show up to an unknown peak with just ice tools and protection is a really cool prospect. Hopefully, I’ll be in a position to take on such objectives on lead in the future. For now I’m happy to soak it all in and learn.