Chair Peak - NE Buttress Attempt
We left the parking lot at a quarter to seven, optimistic about our
attempt to climb the North face of Chair Peak. Temperatures had been cold
for a week after a big rain event, encasing the backcountry in a firm
crust. Not much new snow had fallen, conditions would be good; or so we
View of Bryant Peak from Source Lake basin, as the clouds burned off in
We followed a cat track and trail to Source Lake, through terrain wracked
by last year's big avalanches. To our suprise, there was a significant
amount of new snow on top of the crust, about a foot. At this point, we
were still immersed in a whiteout. As Dave had never been to the basin
below Chair Peak, he was relying on me to navigate through the whiteout.
I pretended to know where I was going, while praying to the weather gods
to make the clouds part, so I could actually figure out where to go. My
prayers were answered.We ditched our ski/snowshoes at the Thumbtack, and
proceeded to climb a gully to gain access to a ridge leading to the climb.
There were two other parties of two ahead of us, both intent on the North
Face. We had semi-decided to try the northeast buttress instead, partly
due to that fact.
We passed one party, and watched as the first party went up to the base
of the North face, looked at it for a while, and then headed back towards
the northeast buttress. The North Face looked "thin", to say the least,
and the deep snow below the face was somewhat suspect. We caught up to the
first party in a little moat that looked like it was protected from the
wind, but actually wasn't. One of the guys said he was absolutely covered
in spindrift while looking up at the north face, and he couldn't see anything.
The third party, on the ridgeline approach to Chair Peak. Notice the wind-driven
The weather. It was fairly sunny, though the top of Chair was still
covered in an incredibly fast-moving cloud. The temperature was well below
freezing, and the wind was whipping across the ridge. It definitely felt
"alpine". I decided to put on warmer clothes, as I was beginning to get
cold. The down jacket went on, and then ss I pulled my fleece pants out
of my pack, my glove liners came with them, and the wind quickly picked
them up and started blowing them downslope. "Shit!".
"You can still get them." said Dave.
I started walking downslope, and as I was expecting the liners to stop
once the terrain flattened out a few hundred feet below, I didn't hurry.
But they didn't seem to be stopping, even though the slope looked flat.
So I picked up my pace, eventually taking big leaps, until I tackled my
liners. I stood up in a victory pose, and then began the long ascent back
to the moat.
On my way up, I passed the third party, who had just checked out the
north face. They said they were going to descend a bit, and have a break,
and "see how things go" (i.e. see if any of us make it up the northeast
butt). As I climbed higher, I noticed a fracture line about 20 feet long
in the slope... sign of instability.
View of the NE buttress (center) and N. face (right)
Dave and I were both feeling fairly hesitant about starting the climb. We
waited while the first party started up the right gully of the route. It
seemed to be working. Then Dave started getting heroic feelings, and we
decided to make an attempt. We ascended the 45 degree snow at the bottom
of the route as high as possible and set up a belay. Dave took the lead.
He inched his way up the mixed rock, ice and snow, placing the odd picket
or ice screw. I stupidly had set the belay right in the fall line, and had
to dodge the occasional piece of ice. Dave sunk his tool into a 4 inch thick
patch of ice, which immediately sheared off the underlying rock. It missed
me by a few feet. It would have been pretty unpleasant if it hit had hit
Eventually, Dave's arms tired out from numerous attempts to top out on the
rotten face... it looked like the climbing got easier just a few feet above.
I lowered him, and he told me it was my turn to try. Yeah right! He belayed
me up, and I was suprised at the mostly rotten ice... sometimes just a thin
crust with snow underneath. It felt very sketchy. There was some good ice,
but it wasn't sticking to the rock very well. A gentle tug on one of the
screws was sufficient to remove it, along with a few pounds of ice surrounding
it. Needless to say I wimped out and didn't attempt to go past the last
piece of pro.
Dave leading the first (and our only) pitch of the NE buttress
Descending back to the basin
We gave up and descended to eat pumpkin bread and skittles in the sunshine.
On the way down I triggered a tiny 4 inch slab. The third party, who had
been watching our attempts, had also since retreated without even trying
anything. As we ate lunch, another party of 3 climbers appeared on the ridge
approach, looked at things, and then also turned around. This made us feel
better. We looked up however, and saw the initial party surmounting the
final rock band, within spitting distance of the summit.
We had a good view into the basin below the east face of Chair. There
were 2 snowboarders and a telemarker climbing up to the top of the basin,
on fairly steep slopes (probably 45 degrees on top), on the same lee aspect
I had noticed instability over here. We wondered whether they were concerned
about the avalanche danger (rated as "moderate" on this day).
After food, we continued down the ridge, and came to a col with another
good view of the basin. The 3 boarders/skiers had started to descend.
Then we looked at the bottom of the basin... it was filled with avalanche
debris. Then we looked up, and for an instant, I saw only 2 people. Then
the third appeared, and we knew no one had been caught. The highest slope
showed a slab fracture about 100 feet wide, and maybe a foot deep at the
crown. The debris had descended about 500 feet to the flats at the bottom
of the basin. The three were still high up on the slopes, and Dave said
"wow, they must be shitting bricks!".
Apparently not. As we continued to watch them, the telemarker, who was
still at the top of the run, skied down into the fracture area, which
was now the safest area of the slope. He then proceeded to traverse left
until he was outside the fracture zone, and started making turns in powder
in the not-yet-triggered portion of the slope... apparently unfazed at
the avalanche one of his boarder friends had just set off! Luckily nothing
Phil skiing down from Chair Peak basin.
We descended to our gear cache, and began the trek out. I was glad I had
brought my skis, as the snow was excellent: A foot of dry powder... except
on certain crusty sun-touched aspects. The slightest change in slope aspect
meant a change from breakable crust to soft powder. I was careful about
where I skied. Source Lake basin was an absolute zoo. Full of backcountry
skiers and climbers; and even lift area skiers had traversed out to get
fresh tracks. It was noisy too. We met two middle-aged snowshoers on their
way up to the basin. They looked identical, except one was male and the
other female. They mentioned there were some people trapped on a cliff at
Alpental. No big news there, happens all the time I guess.
As we skied/shoed along the cat track leading back to car, we avoided the
occasional downhill skier... this was where they get funneled out from the
"backcountry" at Alpental. Then we passed by a cliff where Dave wanted to
check out a frozen waterfall... and, lo and behold, there were the trapped
skiers, on top of the cliff. Dave yelled up to them and asked if they needed
help. One of them yelled back that they were ok, and the ski patrol was
on their way.
Kiddies on a cliff
"Do you want us to come up?" asked Dave, and I think he mentioned we
were mountain rescue.
"How long will it take you?"
"20 minutes", shouted Dave. And we were off. Dave quickly vanished uphill,
his snowshoes much more efficient at climbing on this steep chunky terrain
below the cliff. I slapped my skins on, and reached his cached snowshoes
in a few minutes. I dumped my skis, lightened the load of my ridiculous
pack by removing my climbing boots, and then headed on up a steep snow
gully, ice tool in hand. Dave was nowhere in sight. Onlookers watched
I followed steps kicked into the hard snow. I was glad they were there,
because I wasn't able to kick any steps in, even with my plastic teleboots.
The ice tool provided good purchase, but I wished I had taken the time
to put on crampons. I finally entered the scene as I traversed over the
cliff. I climbed around a little kid and a patroller, who asked if I needed
a belay. I said no, but to get around the two, I had to climb exposed
50 degree soft snow... a bit sketchy, but soon I arrived at the center
of the scene, where Dave had set up an anchor, and a patroller was already
belaying one of the kids up. So, the situation was: a ski instructor had
accidentally led 10 or so little kids (probably 6 or 7 years old) the
wrong way down in Alpental's "backcountry", and they had "cliffed out".
Somehow, they had all managed to stop on the very steep terrain, and hadn't
plummeted over the 50 foot cliff. The terrain was too icy and exposed,
and the children too frightened, to climb back up to safety.
I backed up Dave's anchor, and we introduced ourselves to the 4 or 5 patrollers.
They had ropes, but only one prussik, so we became a gear supply. Dave had
set up a second fixed line that dropped down to another group of kids. We
would slide harnesses down to them, and the patrollers would put them on
the kids, and show them how to prussik up the rope, while climbing up 45
degree snow. The patrollers set up another line from us to a flat area 50
feet higher. As the kids came up, I transfered them to the next fixed line.
A ski patrol belaying up one of the kids.
The kids were a little freaked out, and we offered them water and hand warmers,
and encouraged them. These kids were good little skiers though. Apparently
one of them had skied down the hard gully we had climbed up. Ain't no way
he was gonna be "cliffed out". And after their ordeal, most of them put
their skis back on an skied a slightly "easier" way down, though still expert
Dave and "the anchor". It is important to have a simple, well organized
anchor system in rescue situations.
After all the kiddies had been hauled up, we brought up the rest of
their skis. The whole operation took an hour or so, and the patrollers
(and the ski instructor) were very grateful to have us there. We got invited
to the patrol shack for beer and free lift tickets afterward.
We put on crampons and downclimbed the "easy way down", back to our
stashed gear at the cliff base. There, we happened to meet our friend
Greg, who had been lift-skiing the Alpental "backcountry" all day. Just
another weirdness in a crazy day.
Exhausted, we continued out on the cat track. Dave thought he wasn't
going to be able to make it back to the truck, but he revitalized himself
by eating from a box of "wheat" from Safeway.
An exhausting day