Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chair Peak Circumnavigation

On the first day of backcountry skiing that Roanne and I did this year we headed out to Pineapple Pass from Alpental and while we were there we met a group of four who were headed out on a circumnavigation of Chair Peak. I thought that sounded like a good adventure and put it on my tick list, so a few months later in mid-March we found ourselves headed for Snoqualmie Pass with that objective in mind. Before I begin recounting our adventures, let me put in a quick plug for a book that I discovered recently: anyone who has aspirations of backcountry skiing in Snoqualmie Pass should consider buying this book, it is really good and I wish I had happened upon it earlier.

We headed to Alpental to start the day, reasoning that we might as well make use of our season passes to gain 2000 feet of elevation and speed up the trip out to Pineapple Pass. We headed up to the top of Denny Mountain on Chair 2, and then headed down Upper Nash and through the Nash Gate and set out along the Great Scott Traverse. This was a little sketchy in parts, with the track pretty blown in with all of the new snow making for some precarious inching along over a steep drop while hoping that our skis wouldn't slip out. All drama aside we finally made it out to the bowl beneath the tooth, where we donned our skins and started headed up for the col between Bryant Peak and Chair Peak. Here is Roanne heading up the slope with Snoqualmie Mountain in the background:

There was a party of two ahead of us initially, but we soon passed them while they were busy trying to retrieve a dropped glove. After negotiating a steep traverse that seemed a little precarious due to the drop below we rounded a corner and the Chair-Bryant col came into sight, here I am continuing towards the col:

The going got pretty steep towards the end so we removed our skis and booted up the last 50 feet or so, which was quite fun since the wind-packed snow was really amenable to kicking good steps (I like to have at least one booter on each backcountry outing). It was pretty windy at this point, but as soon as we dropped over the other side we were sheltered which made things a lot warmer. We removed our skins here and descended down to Melakwa Lake on snow that could best be described as variable, ranging from sun crust to wind pack to powder in the trees. Here is Roanne heading down one of the better patches:

We skied right down onto the frozen surface of Lake Melakwa, and then after a short snack we resumed skinning, heading up towards Melakwa pass. This was a nice and gradual ascent which made for pleasant going. Here is Roanne heading down a short drop off a wind feature midway along the climb up to the pass:

And one more of her nearing the top of the pass. At this point we were following an existing track from two skiers who were in front of us, and the keen observer will notice that there is an unused skin track to Roanne's left in the photo below. This is the diretissima track that I had established; when I am following a track that is not up to par in my view I like to correct the error by setting a track of my own. This could be for various reasons such as not doing kick turns, but it is usually due to the pre-existing track using too many switch backs when a direct line is possibe, as it was in this case. Roanne, however, has a different definition of appropriate skin track gradient, and as such throughout our trip she shunned the aesthetic direct lines that I worked to establish in favor of the rather pedestrian low-gradient track.

We eventually reached Melakwa Pass, where we could peer over the edge of a very large cornice down to the frozen Chair Lake. Luckily at one point the cornice was small enough that we could comfortably drop into the bowl and head down to the lake, here is Roanne headed down for the lake and practicing her one-leg ski technique (on tours like this which are so far below her physical bounds she tries to stay entertained by doing drills like this):

From Chair Lake we initially thought that we could just keep heading down the drainage to Snow Lake, but after ascertaining that this would involve skiing off a cliff, we realized that we needed to ascend to a shoulder above Chair Lake before traversing a bit and continuing our descent down to Snow Lake. Here is Roanne on that climb with Chair Peak in the background:

At our high point we removed our skins once again, and before we started the descent we were treated to some really neat looking light on the snowy bumps to one side of Chair Peak above Snow Lake:

We headed down to Snow Lake, skiing partly down a slide path that had wiped out a skin track that looked like it had been set the day before. The snow was again variable, but we managed to find some decent powder hiding in the trees. Upon reaching the surface of Snow Lake we skinned up one last time to head across the lake and up and over the Snow Lake Divide:

The trip across the lake was pretty fun since it was so flat and expansive, and after reaching the top of the divide we headed down to Source Lake and out the bobsled track to return to the base of Alpental. At this point the chairs were still running (the tour had taken 6 hours), so I proffered the idea of doing a few lift-assisted runs, but Roanne politely declined so we headed to the car and back to rainy Seattle. This was a great tour that I would highly recommend, here is the topo of our route:

And an elevation profile, there wasn't all that much climbing since we did a lot of it by riding the lifts at Alpental before traversing out into the backcountry:

And finally, the Google Earth view of our route around Chair Peak:

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