Ice Climbing at Alpental
February 21, 2005
Dan called me last night and asked if I had the morning free today for some ice climbing at Alpental. Last week the weather was gorgeous and I didn't get out to the mountains at all and felt like a slug because of it, so I said "YES" before he was even finished with his question.
We met at the Issaquah Park and Ride at 9am and soon were up heading up to Snoqualmie Pass. We talked about Dan's upcoming trip to Denali and what gear he was looking to bring. Earlier this winter we had tried to drive up to Alpental for some ice climbing but it had snowed so much that we could only get to Exit 38 in my new Accord. I hadn't put the chains in the trunk after we sold our old car, so we decided to turn around. The ice climbing conditions would have been poor and dangerous besides. So we consoled ourselves with a great breakfast and a "Damn fine cup o' coffee" at Twede's Cafe.
Today, however, the skies were blue and road was bare! We parked at the "ROAD CLOSED" sign at the lower Alpental parking lot and hiked across the muddy road to the Snow Lakes trail head. In the trees the snow on the trail was packed down and ice in places. Soon we were looking up at the Alpental I, II, III, and IV waterfalls. All but IV were running water and it had only thin sections of ice between the bare sections. We continued on the trail back into the forest, then decided to head across the valley to check out the ice on the other side.
So we left the trail and plunge-stepped through the snow over to the cat track on the other side. With the ski area being closed due to lack of snow, the trail wasn't the normal cat-track, but was reduced to several boot-track paths and ski-tracks paths. We ended up following a boot track that brought us up the floor of the valley to the creek. Near the creek a heavy hoar frost had developed on the surface of the snow and the crystals were nearly two inches long. I picked up a handful to take a closer look and was amazed at their delicate intricacies. From the creek we followed a wider trail up through the forest to where it passed under the waterfall we were looking for.
The ice was much steeper than in normal years. Since this area is directly in an avalanche path, the gulley usually accumulates a lot of snow which shortens the pitch of ice. Today there was a steep curtain coming up from the floor, which is usually a moderate ramp. Yummy! We talked about hiking up and around to set up a top rope for the steeper, chandeliered sections on the right, but I recalled a few years ago when I lead up above the pitch looking for a tree to TR from, and finding only steep, unconsolidated snow.
I hadn't yet been ice climbing this year so anxiously I offered to lead the pitch. The ice was soft and thin so I focused on using tool placements wherever I could. Once past the first curtain, I climbed up moderate snow to the base of the next steep section. Here the ice-melt from the upper flows had created an ice-crust on top of the snow. It was not unlike the chocolate dip cones we used to get from the Dairy Queen in Enumclaw coming home from a good day of sking at Crystal Mountain. However, this coating wasn't sweet and scrumtrulescent. This coating was large, heavy, thick, and sliding down towards me. While thunking in a tool to hang from while I placed an ice screw, I inadvertantly dislodged a 4x5 foot section of previously mentioned ice-crust directly above me. It slid a few inches then stopped. While bracing it with my right ice tool, I used my left hammer to break it into smaller pieces. "Ice, ice, ice!" I called down to Dan below me. As I sent the smaller pieces down, they came to rest in the snow ramp below me, so they never reached Dan. That is one of the fun things about belaying while ice climbing. Along with the leader, the belayer often gets his/her share of excitement by dodging ice chunks being sent down from above. Really neat.
Having passed this unexpected crux, I continued up the steep corner to the happy sling-anchors tied to the cascading cedar trees. This last section offered some of the most fun climbing on the pitch. Once I was tied in, Dan yelled up that the pitch had taken up over half the rope so we wouldn't be able to top rope it with a single rope. We had a second rope but we had afternoon appointments so Dan just tied his rope to the back of his harness and I belayed him up. He made quick work of the pitch and soon we were both hanging from the anchors. With no camera, all we could do was take in the view, set up the double rope rappel and rap down. On the hike out we ran into two skiers, one of which was Peter from the Redmond store who also works in the alpine ski department. His cool REI Staff Traverse pack gave him away.
Thanks Dan for a fun morning ice climbing, I'm glad we could finally make the trip!