|| By the Numbers ||
Date: Friday, March 13, 2020
Trip Duration: 8 hours, 50 minutes car-to-car
Trip Statistics: 9 miles; 6800′ elevation gain
The Team: Daniel Bolliger, myself
|| Timeline ||
7:40 AM — Leave car at Source Lake TH
8:15 AM — Arrive Source Lake
9:40 AM — N Face, Chair Peak
10:40 AM — Snow Lake
12 PM — Top of Holy Diver Couloir
12:30 PM — Bottom of Holy Diver Couloir
1:15 PM — Waypoint
2:25 PM — Top of Melakwa Pass
3:55 PM — Top of Bryant Couloir
4:15 PM — Source Lake, return
4:25 PM — Back at car
|| Pre-Trip ||
In the span of one month, I had attempted this trip twice before:
- The first time, my friend and I had driven all the way up to the Alpental Lot, only to find the access to Source Lake closed due to helicopter avalanche bombing. We ended up skiing the Slot Couloir instead (see trip report).
- The second time, a different friend and I made it up to Snow Lakes, when we decided to take it easy and picnic on the lake shore, then ski back down the divide to the car for an easy day. The visibility was poor and it was my friend’s first backcountry ski tour.
In a real small-world moment, Daniel had commented on a trip report I had posted in the Turns All Year (TAY) Facebook group, noting that he worked at the same company I did! We met up on Thursday afternoon after work and started to hash out a plan for Friday.
Throughout the week, as usual, high pressure made week days beautifully clear and sunny, but low pressure was expected to return Thursday night into Friday morning, bringing moisture to the Cascades. Earlier in the week, forecasts were uncertain as to how much snow this would translate to. As the week ticked on, it appeared that the front was moving further south.
Thursday night, we checked the forecast again:
- 2-3 inches of snow predicted for Snoqualmie and Stevens passes
- <1 inch of snow predicted for N Cascades
- 6-10 inches predicted for Mt. Rainier, more further south towards Mt. Hood
Daniel and I put together a list of options; he had made plans with a friend for Saturday & Sunday, and I was eyeing an alpine objective for Sunday, so we opted for a local option for Friday: Chair Peak Circumnavigation.
I had been up to Snow Lake recently, and from two previous attempts had studied the route thoroughly. Daniel had recently toured up to ski the Holy Diver Couloir off of Mt. Roosevelt; we agreed that adding the Holy Diver Couloir would be a fun variation on the circumnavigation.
We read up on the avalanche bulletin:
- Through the week, high pressure and clear skies had solidified the snowpack to a firm crust layer.
- The main concern for Friday would be wind slabs and aspects solar affected. We would need to watch out for cornices or other wind deposits.
Overall, though, the general avalanche hazard was low, especially on the low-angle terrain of the circumnavigation. There were two areas to keep our eyes peeled for:
- Bryant Couloir
- North Face of Chair Peak
- Holy Diver Couloir
These were the three “higher angle” slopes we would be moving across during the circumnavigation. We planned our route to circumnavigate counter-clockwise:
- Starting with an ascent to the Thumb Tack
- Descending the North Face of Chair Peak
- Climbing up to the Holy Diver Couloir
- Descending the Holy Diver Couloir and then traversing back to Melakwa Pass
- Descending Melakwa Pass to the base of the Bryant Couloir, above Melakwa Lake
- Climbing and then descending the Bryant Couloir back to Source Lake basin
Daniel met me at my house around 6 AM; we loaded up my Honda Element and began our drive up to the pass. Rain transitioned to light snow as we crested the pass, dusting the road surface in the early morning light. We arrived at the Source Lake trailhead around 7:15 AM.
Geared up, beacons checked, and Garmin inReach tracking, we headed off at 7:40 AM. Clouds were thick above, and visibility looked terrible, as it would remain the entire day. Snow continued to fall lightly, and as we made our way up to Source Lake, we could notice 2-3 inches of fresh snow atop a crusty layer that was icy in spots.
We took around 35 minutes to reach Source Lake basin, arriving by 8:15 AM. There was an easy skin track to follow all the way up, no real beta necessary here!
We could barely see up to Snow Lake Divide! The clouds were not going anywhere; we kept on up, contouring up to climber’s left on Source Lake basin up to Snow Lake Divide. Once at the divide, we took out our maps and took our bearings:
- We were aiming for the Thumb Tack, a saddle on below the Northeast Buttress of Chair Peak
- We wanted to descend the North Face of Chair Peak down to Snow Lakes. If we felt uncomfortable with the North Face, we would ski the Cache Couloir.
Once at the Snow Lake Divide, we removed our skis and began booting. The top layer of snow was sluffing easily off the crust beneath, and we felt that bootpacking the firm snow would be faster than skidding on a skin track back and forth. The booting was easy and fast, and we were able to take a very direct line up to the Thumb Tack. There was a large pile of avalanche debris just below the Thumb Tack; we kicked steps through it and up to the col entrance to the North Face of Chair.
For a brief moment, I paused and turned my head to my left, gazing up at what I could see of the NE Buttress of Chair Peak. There seemed to be an ice step on the first pitch that looked of beautiful blue ice.
Peeking down the North Face, we could not see ANYTHING! We could barely see 30 feet ahead of us. Slowly, we took the slope one turn at a time, and ugly turns at that. Turns out, it’s hard to ski when you can’t tell how the terrain is below you. Every 30 meters or so we would stop and look at Caltopo, making sure to stick close to our route. We knew that the North Face funnels down towards Snow Lakes, but we were aware that if we got off track there were a few cliff bands that could have tied us up. By taking the descent slowly, we were able to stick to our track, but the skiing SUCKED!
As soon as we exited the North Face, we traversed left towards the shoreline of Snow Lake below the climb to Chair Peak Lake and Mt. Roosevelt.
We reached this area by 10:40 AM and transitioned for our skin up to the Holy Diver Couloir. Here we had a check-in conversation on the day:
- Visibility was terrible; we discussed whether it made sense to keep going or turn around.
- We felt that our time pacing was good, and we wanted to investigate the visibility up towards the Holy Diver Couloir.
- Once we descended down to Snow Lake from the North Face of Chair, our visibility improved slightly. It appeared there were pockets of clouds in specific areas, clearly around Chair Peak.
- We felt comfortable going up to investigate the Holy Diver Couloir because
- Daniel had done it recently and knew the way
- We could always turn back if the visibility deteriorated further
- The approach up was low-angle and not very committing
Daniel and I alternated cutting track up to the Holy Diver Couloir. Again, the top 3 inches of snow was not bonding to the crust layer beneath, so in steep spots the skinning was tricky. We contoured onto a bench above Chair Peak lake and beneath Mt. Roosevelt, before traversing to the north to climb up towards the Holy Diver entrance.
For the final 200′ up to the Holy Diver Couloir, again we took off our skis and booted. The pitch was too steep in the conditions to easily skin; booting was much easier.
We topped the Holy Diver Couloir at 12 PM; the visibility was slightly better than on top of the North Face of Chair. At least we could see 50 meters now! The couloir was wide open, and Daniel and I felt comfortable skiing it.
I dropped first, and the snow was sweet! This time I could actually see where I was going! The Holy Diver is wide and a “fun” angle, 45 degrees for the entrance and then quickly mellowing out to low-angle cruising.
I snapped a single pic of Daniel skiing down the top of Holy Diver, before putting my camera away because of how terrible the picture-taking conditions were. Flat, low light with no contrast.
We cruised through the Holy Diver, making soft turns through 3-4 inches of powder on low-angle terrain. Daniel noted that it was advantageous to traverse hard to the NE at the end of the Holy Diver Couloir rather than following it down to the drainage below, as we would be losing unnecessary elevation. We turned and hugged the contour to our right once we were below a noticeable cliff band, contouring back towards the Snow Lake basin.
There was a faint skin track that we could follow along this traverse back to Snow Lake. By 1:15 PM, we were at a saddle above Gem Lake. We transitioned and clicked in to traverse back towards our skin track below Mt. Roosevelt, aiming for the bench above Chair Peak Lake.
On this traverse, we tried to keep our elevation as high as possible; we cut across a few avalanche gullies and drainages, and skirted through trees. We dumped back out to our skin track in the apron below the bench above Chair Peak Lake.
Once we met back up with our skin track, we slapped on our skins again and continued on up towards the bench above Chair Peak Lake. Once at the bench, we again checked in, both with each other and with our maps:
- Visibility hadn’t improved but it also had not deteriorated. We were feeling strong and confident in our ability to route find, but had concerns about the Bryant Couloir.
- We wanted to at least skin up to Melakwa Pass and investigate the other side of Chair Peak and see what visibility was like on that side.
- We felt that at the worst, we could side-slip our way down the Bryant Couloir if visibility was REALLY bad.
We chose not to transition at the bench above Chair Peak Lake for the 200′ ski down to the lake; it was short enough that our awful skin-skiing form was manageable. Once at the bottom, Daniel began to cut a track zig-zagging up towards Melakwa Pass. We topped out the pass at 2:25 PM.
Looking over towards Melakwa Lake, the visibility improved, slightly. We felt good to continue. We transitioned and agreed to try and traverse as high as possible over towards Melakwa Lake, keeping our elevation rather than dropping straight down. In the end, this strategy didn’t really save us anything, as we had to drop beneath a cliff band near Melakwa Lake anyway. The SW facing slopes beneath Melakwa Pass were horribly icy and wind scoured, so I was glad I was traversing rather than skiing down.
At Melakwa Lake, we transitioned to skins, only minutes later to decide that we just wanted to bootpack instead. Again, the SW slope was horribly scoured and icy, and firm enough that booting was so much faster. We climbed to climber’s right on the Bryant Couloir; no ice axe or crampons were necessary. Low angle and good snow made for easy bootpacking.
We topped out on the Bryant Couloir at 3:55 PM; I could see around 40 meters down the couloir. It looked wide and full of fresh snow. We noted that as the couloir narrowed further down, there was a divergence: a lower-angle option to skier’s left and a steeper option to skier’s right. We needed to identify this divergence to avoid a cliff band in the middle.
Again, with low visibility we took the descent slowly, but the skiing was GOOD! The top layer of 2-3 inches sluffed off easily over the hard crust, and with each turn I moved into my sluff from above. Still, the general conditions were stable: no major slabs, just a small top layer shearing off.
Once we sighted the split, we chose skier’s right and skied down towards Source Lake. Overall, the Bryant was wide and easy to ski down, even in low-visibility. No jump turns necessary, just tighter turns.
By 4:15 PM, we were back at Source Lake and ready for the return to the cars. We stayed as high on the skin track backwards as possible, following the skier’s return trail from the Alpental sidecountry. Quickly, by 4:25 PM, we were back at the car, skis still on!
Third times a charm! Daniel and I were happy with our tour, even though we barely saw anything!
|| Notes and Thoughts ||
- Definitely more worthwhile to do this tour when visibility is good and you can actually see things. Otherwise it’s a lot of work for little skiing.
- When visibility is low, make sure you and your partner are confident in your route finding abilities, especially skiing downhill on terrain you aren’t easily able to identify.
- Before you head out, point out choke points and cliff bands on couloirs so that if visibility is low you know where to head. This saved us a lot of hassle.