Snoqualmie Classics: Slot, Snot*, and Crooked Couloirs

||By the Numbers||

Start Time: 8 AM, Saturday March 7, 2020

End Time: 4:15 PM, Saturday March 7, 2020

Trip Statistics: 5 miles, 5800′ elevation gain

Caltopo/GPX: https://caltopo.com/m/2QAM#

The Team: James Ellis, Joe Sawyer, Ethan, Sam Chaneles

|| Timeline ||

8 AM — Start up from Alpental Lot

9:30 AM — 5200′, near exit col

10:50 AM — Top of Slot Couloir

11:20 AM — Bottom of Slot Couloir

12:15 PM — Top of exit col, Round 2

12:40 PM — Top of Snot Couloir

1:50 PM — Back up at top of Snot Couloir after failed rappel

2:15 PM — Top of Crooked Couloir

3 PM — End of Crooked Couloir

3:40 PM — Top of exit col, Round 3

4:15 PM — Back at car, Alpental Lot

|| Pre-Trip ||

For months, I had been trying to get out on a trip with James. . . and it finally was happening! We had been trying to nail down ideas for a Saturday tour. A Friday front was brining a few inches of snow to the Cascades, more so in the north (turns out Baker received 2 feet!).

We had thrown a few ideas around, but James mentioned that a pair of his friends wanted to hit the Slot Couloir; close to where I live, and an epic run, especially with a few inches of fresh, I was sold.

Conditions for the day were lining up:

  • Cloud cover was forecasted to be constant, keeping sun exposure low on the Phantom Slide path and any southern facing slopes on Snoqualmie Mountain.
  • The 2-3 inches of fresh snow that had fallen over the course of the previous day had bonded well to the top layer crust, from my previous observations the day before doing a brief tour up to Source Lake.
  • Low winds the day before and on Saturday would keep my worry of wind slab low; still, always something to look out for.

The night before we planned to meet up in Issaquah at 6:45 AM, to reach the Alpental Lot by 7:30 AM. We knew that many other locals would be hitting the Slot on Saturday, given that there was fresh snow and, well. . . it’s the Slot. We didn’t want to be coming through after it had been tracked out. It wasn’t a dawn patrol mission at all, but we figured 7:30 start might give us a chance of beating the major crowd (turns out we were right).

|| Uptrack||

We reached the Alpental Lot around 7:20 AM, just before James’ other two friends, Joe and Ethan, rolled in behind us. As we geared up for the day, we discussed our plan:

  • Skin up the Phantom Slide Path/trees, keeping to the climber’s left of the waterfall and trying to follow any tracks we could find.
  • Hit the Slot first, as that would get tracked out near immediately.
  • Bring a rope for a rappel into the Snot Couloir. The top 60 feet of the Snot can be icy, and at 60 degrees is a risky ski, in my opinion.
  • If time permitted, take a final lap on the Crooked Couloir, the farthest to skier’s right on Snoqualmie Mountain.
  • Each lap, climb up to the exit col, then take the ridge on Snoqualmie Mountain to access each couloir.
A brief diagram of what our plan for the day looked like. Climb up to the exit col, and take laps on each of the three couloirs.

We started out from the Alpental Lot around 8 AM and headed up towards the Phantom. There was a top layer of soft snow, around 2-3 inches in most places, that got us excited for conditions on the north side of Snoqualmie Mountain. We figured in the protected couloirs this top layer would be more significant.

The Phantom uptrack was icy and hard to skin at points; for a few sections, we took off our skis and stomped a boot pack when the edges of our skis wouldn’t hold. There were remnants of a previous skin track that we followed all the way up to the exit col; Ethan lead the group the whole way like a champ!

We reached the exit col around 9:30 AM, and from that point on decided to bootpack up the ridge towards the Slot Couloir, our first line for the day. The snow was firm enough that booting was quicker than skinning, in our opinion, and we planned on lapping this circuit so we figured we would only have to cut a bootpack once (or the massive group of locals behind us would!).

In the distance we heard faint voices, and we knew this meant the local crowd was coming in. We hadn’t seen any recent boot prints or skin tracks ahead of us, so it seemed we had beat the crowd!

We reached the top of the Slot Couloir around 10:50 AM; I had skied it last week, and this time it looked more filled in. The top entrance into the couloir had a nice top layer of snow this time, which allowed for sweet jump turns, as opposed to side-slipping in last time over unbreakable crust.

We planned to stagger our entries into the couloir, allowing for the dry sluff to shear off as each skier descended. I went first and waited for the rest of the group to meet up at our first “safe point,” just off to skier’s right near the start of the couloir. James came next, then Ethan, then Joe.

With each turn, there was a decent amount of sluff coming off the crust underneath, not quite a slab but definitely enough to want to stagger skiers. We were glad we were the first party to make turns; later in the day, we knew the Slot would be tracked out.

I started descending down the rest of the couloir, and MAN WAS IT SWEET! The top layer of 3-4 inches was nice, dry powder, protected from sun exposure by the couloir’s northern aspect. With each turn I made, the sluff sheared off, occasionally throwing me a bit off my balance as I turned back into its path. By the time all three of us had come through the couloir, there were certainly some deposited areas of dry sluff.

|| Round 2: Up to Snot ||

We were at the bottom of the Slot Couloir by 11:20 AM and began transitioning for our climb back up to the exit col. Being the first party down the Slot meant we got fresh tracks, both down and up. I began to cut the skin track up to the exit col, slowly through the fresh powder. As the slope began to steepen, the skinning became difficult, as the 2-3 inch layer of fresh snow layered on top of a firm crust. Around 300 feet from the exit col, we removed our skis and began to bootpack, and found it much faster, as the snow was firm and we did not posthole. We reached the top of the Snot Couloir around 12:40 PM.

The entry to the Slot Couloir is a bit involved: the top 30 meters, or so, is nearly 60 degrees and often icy and rocky. Skiers braver than I may ski the entry. . .but our group planned to rappel into the couloir. Earlier in the week, Joe had heard a guide from ProSki had left rap tat at the top of the couloir after scoping it out for prospective clients. We brought two 30m ropes and planned to tie them together for a rappel. Each of us had brought a harness and prusiks. We initially weren’t sure if it would be better to rappel with our skis on or off, but I felt it would be better to rappel with them on, as I knew that putting the skis on might be difficult once in the couloir.

Thank you to whomever set up and left this anchor!

I volunteered to rappel first, to scope out the condition of the rappel and report back my findings. I had an ice axe and crampons, and an extra prusik in the event I would need to ascend back up the rope. I extended my rappel using a sling and backed up my rappel with an autoblock, tied two stopper knots in the ends, and away I went. . .

On rappel!

The rappel was surprisingly easier than I would have expected. Having my skis on promoted leaning back, and for the most part the initial 20 meters of the rappel was over firm top layer snow; I could tell there was bulletproof ice below, though, and I was glad I was not skiing, but rather, rappeling.

Rappelling down, courtesy of Joe’s iPhone 7.

As I got further into the rappel, I could tell I was going to come up short, 5 meters short! I was so close to a spot that I could start to ski. . . but just not enough. UGH!! I hung on the end of the rope for a few minutes, discussing the reality with Joe, Ethan, and James at the top. After scoping out all other options, we agreed, I would climb up the rope, Joe putting me on belay. I had my ice axe and crampons, so it would be easy going.

I came up just short! Fortunately I was prepared. Courtesy of Joe’s iPhone 7.

Getting my skis off and my ice axe from my pack, though, was not so easy. After minutes of fumbling around, I managed to clip my pack to my extended rappel, clip off my skis and attach them to my pack, and get ready to start climbing back up. It sounds MUCH more elegant than it looked, I am SURE! A few skiers booted up the ridge while I was getting ready, and laughed with James, Joe, and Ethan at how dumb I looked. Eh. . . I probably would have laughed at myself too. But I was prepared and safely maneuvering the situation. That was all I cared about. I had the necessary skills and tools to self-rescue, and I was about to come back up to the ridge.

Once I got my ice axe (I ended up leaving my crampons in the bag because I couldn’t easily find them), the going was much easier. The slope was only 55-60 degrees, and having my axe was a blessing. I kicked steps with my ski boots into the variable snow and ice, and Joe had me on belay. Within 10 minutes I was back up at the top, munching on my peanut butter sandwich and talking about what we could have done better for next time:

  • Bring a longer rope
  • Set up a single-strand rappel with our rope, then come back up to get it
  • Rappel it first without a pack to scope it out, then ascend back up for my pack

In the end, we agreed that next time we will set up a single-strand rappel with a 40m rope, which will give us plenty of working room to enter the couloir.

By 1:50 PM, I was back up at the top of the couloir, almost an hour after we had reached it to begin with. The hour long diversion of trying to rappel in was over: we agreed we had enough time to head over to the Crooked Couloir, on the far side of Snoqualmie Mountain.

|| Crooked Couloir ||

The Crooked Couloir is on the NE side of the summit of Snoqualmie Mountain. To access it, we continued to bootpack up to the summit from the Slot Couloir, then followed the ridge to the entry further down. Visibility deteriorated for a few minutes once we reached the summit, and we could not quite tell what conditions were like in the entrance. We waited for the sun to poke back out through the clouds: the entrance was steep for a brief portion, but opened up to a wide bowl, that appeared to have a similar profile of snow as the Slot. We were excited.

Tracks on the Crooked Couloir

Once again, we staggered our entrances to allow for the top layer of sluff to shear off without interfering. James went first, and remarked that there was a firm crust layer beneath the top layer. I came next, and found the same to be true. The sluff sheared off easily, 2-3 inches of fresh powder. James and I waited in a protected spot for Joe and Ethan to make their drops.

Ethan dropping in. You can see the entrance above him, with Joe standing patiently.

Once we were all in, the “couloir” was more like an open bowl, not narrow at all. Visibility was low, so we aimed to keep within sight of one another, staggering our descents within 40 meter portions. We knew the run turned to skier’s left towards the exit of the Slot Couloir, so we followed the natural fall line in that direction.

There was one section where the run narrowed into a “couloir”, just above the exit of the Slot. In this section, Ethan noted a patch of blue ice hidden below fresh snow. I had veered to skier’s right onto a slope with low shrubs on it to avoid, the “choke.” I relayed the message to James and Joe as they descended.

Ethan finds the section of blue ice.

Once at the exit of the Slot, we were not surprised at how many tracks there were from skiers throughout the day. The Slot had been bombed! We were down at the bottom of our run by 3 PM.

Skiing down the end of the Slot, this time with many more tracks!

Joe, Ethan, and James mentioned getting in a run of the Snot Couloir by bootpacking up. Looking at my watch, I knew I had to be back in Issaquah by 6 PM, and I figured that would be a tight timeline. James and I had carpooled together in the morning, and he very graciously agreed to forego the extra lap on the Snot to accomodate my timeframe. THANKS JAMES!! Joe and Ethan headed up the Snot, as James and I followed our tracks (and many others) back up to the exit col.

(A note from Joe and Ethan: “Started [the Snot Couloir] getting super slabby part way up so we turned after 600 [vertical feet]. Good skiing though!”)

James and I were back up at the exit col by 3:40 PM, transitioning into downhill mode for our ski down the Phantom Slide path. From my memory of last time, I knew I had to stay to skier’s right on the slide path to avoid the waterfall that lies at the end. I was determined not to make this mistake again!

Stay to skier’s right when the slide path begins to narrow to avoid the cliff below.

The snow at the top of the slide path was SWEET! Further down, though, as we descended in elevation, it became more of the notorious Snoqualmie mush.

As the slide path began to funnel towards the waterfall, James and I veered to skier’s right into the trees to avoid the waterfall. The turns were tight, narrow, and icy, but we side-slipped down and avoided the waterfall! Victory in my book! We were down the slide path by 4 PM, in sight of the cars and happy with an amazing day!

|| Final Notes ||

  • On days with fresh snow, the Slot Couloir is going to be crowded! (And yes, I know I’m not helping by publicizing it here, but I feel that sharing beta and lessons learned is more valuable)
  • As I mentioned in my previous report, the Slot Couloir is an avalanche chute; take caution with conditions. The top layer of snow we were dealing with was 2-3 inches and it was still sluffing off.
  • Unless you are comfortable down-soloing, the rappel into the Snot Couloir is really 35 meters in length. Bring a 70 meter rope for a double strand rappel, or set up a single-line 40 meter to make your life easy.
  • Being over-prepared for my rappel made my situation easily navigable. I had an ice axe, crampons, and plenty of extra prusiks and carabiners to make for an easy exit.