Chair Peak - NE Buttress Attempt
(by Phil)

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 thought.

View of Bryant Peak from Source Lake basin, as the clouds burned off in the morning.

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.

The third party, on the ridgeline approach to Chair Peak. Notice the wind-driven snow.

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 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 me.

Dave leading the first (and our only) pitch of the NE buttress

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.

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 happened.

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.

Kiddies on a cliff

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.

"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 below.

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.

A ski patrol belaying up one of the kids.

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.

Dave and "the anchor". It is important to have a simple, well organized anchor system in rescue situations.

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 terrain.

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

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