Skiing the North Face of Chair Peak

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25 January 2006

Chair Peak Simply irresistible.

2009 editorial: Oh, how I'd like to do this in better style with the right conditions! But it's unlikely now that Chair Peak is no longer my backyard. I'd love to hear about it if and when somebody does.

North Face of Chair Peak Chair Peak viewed from the high divide between Source Lake and Snow Lake. The line is our climb and descent of the North Face. The magenta dots show two points from which we made 15m rappels.
Click here for a large version of the photo with the line and dots showing the raps.

Chair Peak stands proudly above Source Lake at the head of the Alpental valley. It's not as tall as Snoqualmie, which is just across the valley from the Alpental ski area, but it looks much more dramatic. I've been wanting to ski one of its steeper aspects for a few years now. Two years ago I made an attempt to ski the Northeast Buttress, which resulted in a ski descent of the south gully from the false summit, down a gully on the southwest face to below Melakwa Pass. Looking at the maps, in retrospect the bail descent was a good route, since it features the longest vertically-sustained route off Chair Peak. But I still wanted one of the proud lines on Chair Peak's north side.

The snow is deep in the Cascades this winter. A short weather window convinced me to look at Chair Peak after longer objectives frustrated my patience and legs, with mile after mile of heavy deep snow on the way. Ross, my normal weekday partner in crime, kept telling me some "I gotta get ready for a two-week trip to rock climb in the desert sun" crap. What a wimp. I met Eric playing hoops at the IMA and we'd talked about skiing together, so I broached the subject with him. He was game. Tuesday morning would have been perfect, but he couldn't go. Wednesday it was.

The day-late penalty was ubiquitous crust. I had high hopes that the sheltered, shady North Face would be crustless, but to no avail. The crust was very thin though, thinner than elsewhere. It was easy enough to stomp a ski through the crust so we decided to give it a go.

One of the biggest challenges of the day was getting over the moat. We retrieved my 35m rope below it and I was able to surmount the chasm with a stretchy kick and some skillful swimming strokes. We simulclimbed for approximately 500', using one ice screw, two pickets and two trees. I stopped at a tree to rerack below a cruxy looking spot near the top.

Eric approaches the belay tree. I lowered him 30m from this point on the descent; I took a 15m rappel from here on the descent. This slope had lots of rock and ice just below the snowy surface. Eric climbs the North Face of Chair Peak. We both «skied» everything below this point sans rope shenanigans.

"Hey Eric, want to do a lead so you can say you pulled your weight?"
"Sure, you shit-talker."

Eric styled his pitch, with an undercling to boot, before I followed and we simuled another half pitch to the top.

We unroped at the notch and climbed to the summit. After booting to the notch again it was showtime. Forget the crust, there's powder right underneath it! Eric had brought the oh-so-appropriate Karhu Jaks for the descent. He wasn't throwing the towel and I sure wasn't going to tell him what he could and couldn't do.

Chair Peak North Face Ski Sickness Eric "skis" off the top. That's the true summit above him.

The cornice was interesting and I didn't want to boof onto the little 55-degree slope below the first 70-degree ice bulge without at least getting a feel for the snow on skis. So I booted into an icy little ramp next to the cornice and clicked into my skis there. Eric asked, "How is it?"

"It's not bad, but don't fall."

I did some side-stepping to get a feel for the crust. Fifty feet below me the slope dropped into the abyss. Finally I decided it was time to demonstrate my stupidity and make a turn. The turn wasn't so bad, so I traversed to a snowy rib and made a few more. Making a final turn five feet above the ice bulge, the crust collapsed on the steeper slope and let me take an interesting little slideslip before I stopped just above the drop. My heart was pounding: Ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump.

I had been considering a boof off the bulge onto the "flatter" slope below, but I came to my good senses when I realized that the "flatter" slope was 55-degreeish icy runnels with hidden rocks and a thin coat of fresh snow. And a delicate crust to top it. Here is a picture of Eric doing a rappel on skis over the first bulge, before "extenuating circumstances."

We made a fifteen-meter rappel from a tree just above the ice bulge (the higher of the two magenta dots in the route photo). Extenuating circumstances led to Eric downclimbing to another tree. I traversed an icy runnel, with a mental-security-blanket belay from Eric for the last five feet.

The extenuating circumstances also led to me lowering Eric the full thirty-meter length of the rope from the tree. From there he downclimed another 10-15 m to below the last icy bit. I made a second fifteen-meter rappel from the same tree and advised Eric to find a safe spot while I "skied" the last steep icy bit.

I side-stepped and kick-turned through this section. The weather was quickly approaching a whiteout. Below the bulge turns felt more reasonable (away from the depression in the middle of the slope where sloughs keep the surface a little icier).

The exit was easy. A small boof over the first bulge was no problem, excepting the fact that the crust had hardened enough to make the landing pretty rough. One more spinal tap over the bergschrund and we were free.

This route could certainly be done in better style. If more snow sticks, maybe the top could provide a reasonable boof for a rap-free ski. As I write this five days later, it hasn't stopped snowing and approximately five more feet of snow have fallen. Rest assured, when the good weather comes more interesting descents should follow....

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Sometimes you get lucky.