Chair Peak - Northeast Buttress, January 2003
Scott and I attempted to climb Chair Peak's Northeast Buttress about a year prior to the climb described in this report. Having only recently met Scott while ice climbing at the Big Four Ice Caves a couple months earlier, the trip helped cement our partnership for many climbs to come. Together we ventured up into Chair Peak Basin and savored our first views of Pineapple Pass and The Tooth. Looking down from the low ridge beneath the Northeast Buttress, we also saw Snow Lake draped under a uniform blanket of snow. To make a long story short, due to unexpectedly soft snow conditions and difficulty crossing a bergschrund which spanned the lower North/Northeast Face of the peak, we reluctantly turned back. Back at the Alpental parking lot, Scott and I decided to wrap up the day climbing the snow walls that tower above the upper parking lot. Yup, we backed down from Chair Peak's NE Buttress only to climb "parking lot ice". Anyway, I didn't return to attempt Chair Peak again until January of the following year.
With some fresh snow earlier in the week, three or four days of clear and sunny weather, and a mostly stable snowpack, I felt the time was finally ripe to make another attempt on the Northeast Buttress. I found a willing partner in Tom, with whom I had climbed several peaks last summer. Tom, in turn invited Eric Hoffman whom I had first met in person up on Dome Peak's Itswoot Ridge. Approaching the peak now for a second time, we climbed steep snow to a small notch in the cliffs and within minutes found ourselves below Chair Peak's Northeast Buttress. It was our intention to climb the North Face, but the lack of snow and verglas were enough to turn us back. The initial gully pitch of the Northeast Buttress however, though lacking adequate snow coverage as well, appeared doable.
The gully started out with one interesting move on ice over a step. The rest of the gully featured loose slushy snow and as such offered little in the way of purchase. Were these the conditions we would find on the face? Surely the crux ice-step would consist of solid ice, right? Doubts began undermining my confidence. We had doubled our ropes and consequently the length of our pitches shrunk down to 30 and 25 meters respectively. The short rope length dictated a belay halfway up the gully. This proved to be very frustrating, particularly for Tom. Looking down, I noticed another party preparing to climb the Mountain. It appeared they were going for the North Face.
With an exposed move over rock and highly suspect protection, I gained the upper gully and quickly reached the relative security of some trees and set up the belay. I left the trees for the open Northeast Face. I found my next belay at a comfortable ledge above the last trees on the right side of the face. Eric brought up the rear. The North Face party had apparently retreated and were now relaxing far below us presumably monitoring our progress. I led out carefully, kicking steps through the mediocre snow/slush coverage, frequently exposing slick slabs underneath. I placed a cam in a mossy crack, buried two snow-pickets in the slush, and clipped into an abalakov that someone had built into a lump of rotten ice just below the ice-step. Tom and Eric followed while simulclimbing as there wasn't anything to belay off of.
I approached the ice step and placed two screws. Neither screw placement was particularly reliable and I knew that I could not afford falling from the step. I threw my tools into the semi-solid ice left of center on the step. There was a steady trickle of water running down the "ice" to my right. I stemmed my right foot out into the rotten ice to my right and swung my tools over the bulge. The best ice on the top of the step was located to the left of where I had hoped. Being off-balance, my right foot came loose and I was left hanging from my tools. I pulled hard on my left arm and was able to mantle the front points of my left foot into the top of the bulge and scratch my way to safety. A fortuitous horn up and left of the ice step provided a solid belay. An easy slope is all that remained between us and the summit now.
The descent is made via the gully first encountered when one tops out on the Northeast Face. We carefully downclimbed this gully to a notch (final descent gully will be on your left). A large collection of rap slings secured to the rock in the wall above the notch provides an anchor for rappelling. We did a double-rope rappel down to the mouth of the gully and pulled our ropes. More careful downclimbing on steep snow got us back down to the basin where we had stashed our snowshoes. Soon we were back down in the fog and approaching the ominous orange glow of the night skiing operations at Alpental. We spent more time climbing than anticipated and attributed at least part of our slowness to the poor snow/ice conditions, not to mention the rope dynamics. I would like to go back and attempt the North Face, but only under ideal ice conditions.
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