The Tooth in Winter
Well, it's not winter, but it is the Tooth!
December, when the skies were clear, and the avalanche conditions were
pristine, Chris Nelson and I headed up to climb the Tooth. Not really
knowing what to expect, we brought two ice tools, crampons, a few ice
screws, and a very anorexic rock rack. Driving up to the pass in the
pre-dawn moon light and stars was absolutely incredible for the middle
of winter! We left the Alpental parking lot not too long after sunrise,
seeing as it was one of the shortest days of the year. The trail to
Source lake was hard packed ice, and a few time I wished I was wearing
my crampons. But we cruised on out across the source lake basin and
proceeded to climb up the powdery slippery snow into the Tooth's North
facing basin. The avalanche conditions were so benign in fact, that
we decided to walk directly up one of the smaller avalanche chutes leading
up to the basin! I have decided, after approaching the tooth from both
sides of the snow creek while the ground is snow-covered, that the trail
side, then traversing to the other side above Source lake is the best
route. This would not be the best route, however, under any kind of
elevated avalanche danger, due to the terrible position of Source lake.
When crossing the basin over the lake, one gets a full view of the gully
options leading into the upper basin (i.e. which one has pre-kicked
about two hours of walking, we found ourselves at the base of the first
pitch. From our vantage, the rock looked dry, warm and completely un
verglassed (the reason for the ice tools). So we left all the tools
and pickets at the base of the climb. I lead the first pitch which wasn't
too challenging except for a short steep snow section where I had to
pack in hand holds. Once at the wedged block, I belayed Chris up, and
he took the lead on the second pitch. His version of pitch two was slightly
different from the one I had climbed during the summer. He lead up and
right through a crack, and then into the 4th class terrain early. However,
this 4th class terrain was entirely covered in snow, and he ended up
climbing for over 60 feet up 35 degree snow without an ice axe or any
protection! Whoa, glad I didn't lead that one! :) At a tree belay, we
exchanged the 8 or 9 pieces of pro that we had, and I lead up through
the snow towards the infamous "Catwalk." To reach the Catwalk,
I had to surpass two 15 foot-ish rock bands that were mostly chocked
with snow, and offered very poor protection. At 60 feet off of the belay
with only a garbage cam between myself and the belay, I cleaned a huge
mass of snow out from behind a flake. Wedging my arms and then entire
body inside this flake, I was overjoyed to place a perfect No. 1 Camelot
upon reaching the top. Safe and satisfied at surmounting the two rock
bands, I tromped up the 30 degree snow to the base of the Catwalk headwall
and looked over my shoulder. I was terrified at the prospect of "if
I fall on this" meaning a 100+ foot screamer down the West face.
So I downclimbed the snow to a small rock outcropping and dug in the
snow until I found an excellent placement! Again, with confidence, I
trotted back up to the Catwalk and headed up. After inching my way along
the 4 to 6 inch ledge, I finally turned the corner onto the final ridge
to the summit. Then it came. "10 Feet!" Chris Shouted. Crap,
out of rope. So with the two chocks and one sling left on the rack,
I created a belay and brought Chris up. He lead the last few icy feet
to the top, and in a few minutes we were both on the snow covered summit!
The view was absolutely breathtaking. The Olympics, Mt. Rainier, Mt.
Stewart, and on and on as far as the eye could see. Rarely is there
such a smog-free sunny day.
descent was delightfully uneventful, and the walk out was beautiful.
My initial thought this summer was correct. This route, under summer
conditions with lots of rock protection and rock shoes, is beyond easy.
However, in the winter, with boots on, and a small rack and no ice axe
made this climb challenging! I would definitely recommend this climb
for any time of year. (an added bonus is that you'll probably not see
another soul the whole day in the winter!)