winter

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.

Gold Creek Extreme

Prompted by Martin Volken and spurred on by the views we gained last weekend, Erin Smart and I headed out Wednesday for a Gold Creek adventure. Our goal: a 2,800' couloir that drops off the west side of Alta Mountain.

We found our way up onto the plateau of Rampart Ridge using logging roads and some very fun little breaks in the terrain. It ended up being quite a haul: the day totalled 5,200' of climbing and 13 miles. My feet are still sore.

We skied the couloir very carefully, as we had only a few photos and the map as references. The couloir starts right off the summit! Remarkably, we found good snow the whole way down.

We also found a few vertical steps. With a longer rope we could have rappelled the biggest one, but instead we skirted into the trees skier's left. The rest we were able to bypass with some billy-goating.

It was a long 3,000' run from the summit to gold Creek. Erin and I have both avoided Gold Creek exits on numerous occasions, fearing the epic slog. Indeed, skinning downhill for 5 miles is a little trying. But the valley has a very wild feel in its upper reaches, and I find myself looking forward to my next visit. I saw some big tracks that MAY have been wolverine, and the slide paths alone are reason to check it out. A fine adventure in Cascades ski mountaineering.

Alaska Mountain Powder Fest

With relentless storms battering the North Cascades--and a wounded Cascade River Road--I relocated a recent Forbidden Tour further south. With Mike, Andy, and Erin I headed north from Snoqualmie Pass toward the Chikamin High Route.

A very sunny first day saw us up Commonwealth creek and over the Kendall Catwalk. Powder lay cold and thick over our route, and we made sure to get a few turns in on the way to camp at Gravel Lake.

The following day we awoke to howling winds. On the ridge above, huge plumes of snow whipped like pennants. With steep ground and crucial stability calls guarding the way northward, we were stuck. We wiled away the hours with chocolate, whiskey, and vigorous shoveling. A few salvos of infectious song quoting escalated, culminating in my ruthless rendition of Def Leperd's "Le's get Rocked." All parties involved quickly agreed that we should quit, as someone could get hurt. At nightfall the wind fell and the snow began to fall intensely. We picked up 6 inches in about two hours before we were finally able to take a rest from shoveling and get some sleep. The crowns were plentiful come morning!

Day three we re-organized: without enough time to finish our planned arc behind Chikamin and around to Alta, we headed for Alaska Lake. On the way we found great snow on a broad, 1,200 foot north-facing ridge. We dropped overnight gear at the lake's outlet and headed up the steep south side of Alaska mountain.

Alaska is great ski peak. Its committing southeast face is very alluring from Gold Creek, but few ever make it up to try (I think the majority of ski visitors to Alaska are participants in AMGA ski guide's courses). We skied back down our line of ascent, connecting cruddy pow in the big trees. We avoided rope work where in the past I have been cliffed out. Satisfied with a long, fine day of skiing, we made camp and enjoyed the free running water at the lake's outlet.

Our final day we headed back toward the Catwalk, where a fun, skis-on rappel lead back to the Commonwealth drainage. Here we claimed the sweet powder through which we had climbed on day. Amazingly unaltered by three days of weather, it provided a fine finish to a great trip.

On the run back to the highway, I found myself daydreaming of a certain long, steep couloir we had spied...

Pow Pow Power Rangers

Saturday I went out for a Pro Guide Service TGIS (Thank God It's Saturday). The day lived up to the name, as we found nothing but faceshots from Pineapple pass down to Denny Creek.

Jeff and I headed north toward Melakwa Lake, marveling at the silence--the real mark of winter. The snow just kept falling, feather-light and without a lick of wind. We scooted up to Bryant Peak Col and the summit directly north of it. All that remained was to ski the Bryant Peak Couloir, which neither of us had ever done. It's a fun, generously spacious couloir that pinches down near the bottom for a few fun, tight turns. A little ice and rock thrown in for good mesure, and then the apron of pow down to Source Lake. What a gift of a day!