Thin Times

The ice has been a little reluctant to fatten up in the Alpental Valley this December. That's not unusual, and it's not a show-stopper. The last few weeks I managed to sharpen the tools and come up with some great options.

Think Thin

I climbed the north face of Chair Peak with some friends. The last time I climbed it was many years ago, and it was a perfect sheet of neve then. What we found this December was very different, with incipient ice barely coating the underlying rock and heather. While the terrain isn't steep, the conditions served up some challenge. A few short constrictions offered gymnastic fun, where later they are filled in completely. The constant shopping for good placements re-calibrates your sense of "good," and the lack of pro keeps you paying attention. Choosing thin conditions for a climb well below your comfortable limit is a great way to work your alpine skills.

Fail, then go cragging.

I went to the east face of the Tooth with Kurt Hicks. This route follows a ramp system across the big face above Pineapple basin, then heads for a chimney directly under the summit. The climbing was fun right off the ground, with runnel ice and rock moves, and just enough pro. Kurt built a belay on top of the first pitch and the ambience was distinctly alpine. Only an hour and a quarter from the car!

Well into the next pitch I pulled the plug. We wanted more ice on this pitch, and the pro was just not materializing to protect the snowy rock moves. I slung an iffy horn, clipped the rope with a beater biner, and started downclimbing. It will be there waiting for me next time.

On the way down we stopped by the Rap Wall for some drytool  action. In no time we had a good pump going, and the rock moves on the east face already seemed more doable. A few days later I ran into some fellows at Bryant Buttress who had just turned around on the first pitch of Chair's north face. They were using the same strategy--fail and then go cragging--which is a convenient fringe benefit to climbing in Alpental Valley.

Go looking

There are great unskied couloirs and unclimbed lines all over the Snoqualmie backcountry. On the Solstice I went out with the Pro Guiding Service guide crew for a wild tour north of Snoqualmie. One the way I saw two great, nameless couloirs, and a half-dozen intriguing mixed lines. Entering these in my "Black Book" database back at home always gets me excited for the variety and adventure of winter. And it reminds me that these mountains are, well, limitless.

Sahale Armor

During the brief sunny window offered on Monday and Tuesday, I went to the North Cascades in search of seasonal ice. While guiding Sahale this summer, I noticed this extremely narrow slot of a couloir dropping down the east face from near the summit; the Scurlock photos of course added to my excitement. I couldn't tell if it was a ski run or a climb, but I felt compelled by the thing.  The storms of late September and early October gave me hope that some magic had taken place, and I convinced my friend Kurt Hicks to go have a look with me.

The gentle trail to Cascade Pass went quickly with our eyes pasted on the north face of Johannesberg. I think we talked about every line we had ever dreamed of climbing or skiing.  We passed a pair of utterly fearless ptarmigans, just three brown feathers left on each wing. They were scuttling about in the heather and a rather fresh set of bear tracks (you can just make them out in the photo above). Later the tracks lead up Sahale Arm to a tight stand of hemlocks where the bear had bedded down. The patchy snow broke our rhythm and made my pack feel heavy; the bear, too must have grumbled at all the berries too soon covered by snow. Life can be hard in the in-between times.

We pulled into our camp at the toe of the Sahale glacier and shook our heads: we would be camping on new snow. We both agreed that the year had offered exactly one calendar month without a night spent sleeping on snow. The sun went down over the vastness of the cascades to our south, and we set our alarms for 3AM.

At 3 it was warmer than at sunset. Still, the stars shone and we agreed we should at least go for a walk. We wandered down in the dark, the land dropping away in mysterious slabs and gullies, the moonlight only suggesting that poor choices might well be possible this morning. We took our time, a little convinced that the route wouldn't be in. Two hours brought us down into Horseshoe basin, up onto the Davenport glacier and over to the base of the route.

The first pitch took an hour. A tall fin of last season's snowpack stood in the center of a vertical chimney. I tried climbing on the right, chimneying between the rock and ice. An overhanging exit made me back down. Kurt sent me over to the left side, where a similar chimney scheme got me up to an exit through a little hole and the easier terrain of the couloir. You can see Kurt popping out of said hole in the photo above.

As I had hoped, the couloir was exceedingly narrow. The snow was still pretty soft and made for some real work. I think it averaged 50 degrees with some steep bulges. Ice crept up here and there, with the occasional good tool placement offering some solace in the face of the constant rain of ice bits from the walls around us. We belayed again at the exit, where sugar snow and an infant cornice offered a fun mantling problem.

A quick scramble up the summit and we were able to change out wet gloves in the sun, eat some food, and chuck the ropes down the south side. I felt lucky that I love such a strange thing as mountain climbing, and luckier still that I have friends who share in my strangeness.

On the hike down the Arm, a powerful wind picked up, and we had to lean into it in order to keep walking a straight line. I thought of Johnny Cash's song, "Outside the leaves are falling, a cold wild wind has come." Here's to the in-between times.

Today Sahale, tomorrow the world

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Boston Basin again, this time in the company of Dan. A fairly recent transplant from Utah, Dan has been skiing and playing in the mountains his whole life. This was his first venture to a North Cascades summit. It only dawned on me late in the trip, but Sahale was also my first summit in the North Cascades. It truly is a fine introduction to the range, to alpine climbing, and to a world of possibilities.

When I was 18 years old I took a 12 day mountaineering course. I enjoyed the whole trip, but it was our nights in Boston Basin that really enthralled me. I watched the northern lights swarming above Forbidden Peak and the pale glaciers on the dark mass of Johannesburg. Our summit must have been splendid, although I don't remember it. Mostly I recall the sense of possibility, the new reality of endless, mysterious mountains spilling out in all directions from Cascade Pass.

Dan's trip combined an introduction to glacier travel and crevasse rescue with a summit of Sahale. The Quien Sabe route is a great way to encounter the essential elements of alpine climbing, especially for back-country skiers looking to expand their repertoire. It will also get you excited about further adventures. Whether your aspirations involve ski traverses, classic alpine ridges, steep descents, or wild lonely summits, the view from Sahale will tantalize you.

Thanks to Dan for a great weekend!

Bienvenue dans le Ghost

In November I visited Alberta to enjoy the legendary water ice. En novembre je suis allé gouter les glaces légendaires d'Alberta.

We found Hidden Dragon in excellent shape, with a quick approach and no river fording. On a trouvé Hidden Dragon en excellente forme; marche d'approche de 45 minutes et pas besoin de patauger dans les eaux du Ghost.

I capped off the trip with a visit to the very classic Sorcerer. This 200 meter waterfall casts a spell; I will definitely be back. Thanks to Cécile, Jen, Nick, Colin and Maurice for showing me around. Cécile took the first two photos, and Maurice took the second two. J'ai fini le voyage avec les 200 metres du classique Sorcière. Cettr cascade m'a enchanté tellement, il est sûr que je reviendrai dans le Ghost.