Saturday, January 1, 2011

Backcountry skiing in Chair Peak Basin

What better way to ring in the new year than with some backcountry skiing? On the first day of 2011, Roanne and I rose bright and early and headed for Snoqualmie Pass. There was almost no one on the roads, and we pulled into the Alpental parking lot a little before 9:00am, just as the lifts were starting to run. We suited up, and after a quick beacon check we skied onto the Armstrong Express and headed up. The plan was to ride the lifts to the top of Denny Mountain, and then take the Great Scott Traverse out into the backcountry.

It was an amazing day with a perfect blue sky, though a bit on the cold side. I checked my thermometer as we exited the upper lift at the top of Denny Mountain and it read 9 degrees F, yikes! We headed down to the top of Upper International, which Roanne was none-too-pleased to find out was a double black diamond of which we had to descend a couple of hundred feet before setting out onto the traverse. I was none-too-pleased about it either, but I already knew what it was like from having skied it a couple of times previously. To make the icy moguls even less appealing, there was a bunch of exposed rock that made the entrance to the run a little hairy/bad for your skis. After a short debate about whether we should continue on or head back to the lodge for hot chocolate, the former eventually won out and we headed down.

The icy moguls weren't as bad as they looked, and we were soon heading along the Great Scott Traverse towards Pineapple Pass, with a mix of gradually descending traversing and side stepping up short ascents. Here is a shot of Roanne sidestepping her way up one of these sections:

We eventually finished the traverse, and dropped down into the hanging valley below Pineapple Pass and the Tooth. Our objective for the day was the Chair Peak Basin, but we decided to take a little side trip up to Pineapple Pass since the skiing looked pretty good from our vantage point. We donned our skins and climbed the 500 or so feet up to the pass, here is a shot of Roanne on the way up:

At the top of the pass we met another group of 4 skiers who were setting out on a circumnavigation of Chair Peak, which sounds super fun (next time!). We deskinned and headed down, with decent snow aside from the patches of wind slab that made turning a bit difficult. We continued down past where we had put our skins on, and dropped into the Alpental Basin just above Source Lake. Here we once again donned our skins and headed up a well-established skin track towards the Snow Lake divide. We paused at the divide for a photo opportunity, here we are (note our matching green outfits):

From this point we continued up through trees towards the Chair Peak Basin, here I am enjoying the rare January sunshine in Snoqualmie Pass:

The skin track was pretty steep in spots which made the going a bit tough, but no complaints since the pre-set track sure made things easier. Roanne hadn't done any backcountry skiing in a year due to all of her treatments last winter so she was a little rusty, but she improved throughout the day. Eventually we popped over a shoulder and into the Chair Peak Basin where we had a great view of Chair Peak, here I am continuing up through the Basin:

The route that we were following (from our Washington Backcountry Ski Guidebook) described ascending to the east ridge of Chair Peak. Roanne was feeling pretty spent by this point, or maybe she just wasn't into bootpacking up a steep chute in order to justify some yellow highlighter in a guidebook, but I love ticking things off in guidebooks so she waited patiently in the basin while I headed up to gain the east ridge:

There was a thick icy crust on the snow near the top of the ridge which made my descent an exercise in survival skiing (actually, most descents for me are exercise in survival skiing but it always seems fun in retrospect), but after a series of crash turns (wherein the skier makes a turn and crashes immediately afterward as a means of rapidly decelerating) I made it back down to Roanne in one piece.

We then headed back down towards Source Lake with some great powder along the way as much of the descent stays shaded and had not established any kind of sun crust. From Source Lake we hopped on the super highway that is packed in by skiers who do giant lift-powered loops from Alpental, and after a few kilometers of bobsled-style descending we were back at the Alpental Base area ready to do it all over again. Actually there wasn't enough daylight for that and we were both pretty tired, so we headed for the car and drove back to Seattle.

I took my GPS along (GPS is so awesome, if anyone reading this doesn't have one please go buy one immediately), here are some of the outputs from that, starting with a topo of our track file where we did a clockwise loop, and the straight lines are when we were riding the lifts to the top of Denny Mountain:

Next is the elevation profile, with the first climb one that we cheated on by riding lifts, and the other two major climbs being Pineapple Pass and the east ridge of Chair Peak:

And finally, a ground-level view in Google Earth of our GPS track (thanks to Skooks for alerting me to this cool way to view your track), with the Chair Peak Basin on the right of the view and the ascent to Pineapple Pass not visible:

Happy New Year!!!

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