Chair Peak 6238 ft (attempt)
Rescue on the Northeast Buttress
December 10, 2005
Bala's photos are here.
It hadn't snowed in two weeks so I e-mailed Dan to see if he was interested in taking advantage of the stable weather and do some ice climbing. Dan had already made plans with Bala to climb the NE Buttress of Chair Peak and invited me to join them. Bala had made the long drive from Pullman and met us at the Alpental parking lot at 7am. As is usually the case on a sunny winter weekend with stable weather, the parking lot already had 6 cars in it and two more arrived a little later.
Dan and Bala had climbed several peaks together earlier this summer. Most notably Prussik Peak and Eldorado Peak, each in a day. This was my first real outing of the winter season so I was doubtful of how I would keep up with these two. Dan and I chose skis for the approach, while Bala went with the always reliable snowshoes.
On the approach we passed the Kiddie Cliffs and the ice was coming in pretty well. As we were making our way above Source Lake, I met up with a backcountry skier and splitboarder. I was moving pretty slow so I let one pass at a swtichback, and the other passed while I was laying in the snow where I fell. My skins just weren't holding the way they used to! Dan and Bala were waiting at Thumb Tack Rock where we cached our skis and snowshoes. The snow was deep but stable as we made our way up the gulley to the ridge coming down from the Northeast Buttress.
From the ridge we had excellent views of Snow Lake and the surrounding peaks of Snoqualmie Pass. We also had our first good views of the North Face route which appeared very rocky with little snow or ice. As we approached the start of the Northeast Buttress route we spotted a climber on the first pitch. A closer look showed that the climber was by himself, soloing.
The first pitch or S-Couloir as it is often referred to, was quite dry. Since Dan had the most experience on this peak, we gave him the first pitch. Three pitons, and a slung horn later, he called "off belay"! Dan later recalled that the conditions were the most difficult that he had encountered in his 10+ previous ascents. Bala and I carefully followed up on our ropes, climbing rock far more than ice. As we neared Dan's belay anchors in the trees, we heard a climber below us yell up that the soloist above us was stuck and needed assistance. Dan had heard him yelling also, and called back that we were on our way. Dan happened to be the farthest up the slope at our cramped belay so we put him on belay and sent him up the next pitch to the stranded climber.
After reaching a tree to build a secure anchor, Dan brought Bala and I up and we could see the predicament that the soloist was in. Instead of the heading left towards the east face, the soloist had climbed right and stayed on the north east buttress proper. As he climbed up he found himself stuck on a small downward sloping slab, unable to climb higher or to downclimb what he had come up. He had a rope and rock protection with him but the cracks in the compact rock around him were too small for even pitons. Since he had been there for probably close to an hour already, we asked him if he was cold or needed anything. He said he had a down jacket in his pack but he was balancing on such a small area that he didn't feel comfortable taking off his pack to get to it. We let him know that we would climb up to him as soon as possible. Switching from climbing mode to rescue mode we talked about our options and decided that it would be best to climb up to the left of him, build and anchor and try to get a rope to him so we could lower him. We relayed our plan to the climber and from his viewpoint he told us what looked to be the easiest route to him. Once again, Dan took the call and climbed up the rocky face. There was an overhanging bulge of rock that Dan had to overcome which was no small feat. After about 30 minutes of tenuous climbing Dan had reached a perch that was even with the climber but about 15 feet away. Once Dan had built a solid anchor, he untied one of the ropes he was climbing on and tossed it over to the stranded climber. He was glad to finally be secure after hanging on precariously for approximately two hours with three hundred feet of air below him.
Dan then traversed over farther and was able to build another anchor that was closer so the soloist wouldn't pendulum when Dan lowered him. A few minutes later, a relieved climber was standing next to Bala and I. He was very greateful and acknowledged what a serious position he had been in. We were just glad that he was alright. Dan rappelled off his gear anchor and soon all four of us were crowding around the tree anchor.
Since the rescue had taken a good portion of the day, we decided the best retreat would be back down the route we climbed up. We had to make an awkward double rope, downward, traversing rappel to reach the trees at the end of the first pitch. A second, easier double rope rappel found us back at the beginning of the route, safe and sound. It was nearing four o'clock in the afternoon and the sun would soon be down behind the mountains. We donned our headlamps and made our way back down the valley to our waiting cars.
At the parking lot we all shook hands and the soloist, with the sincerest gratitude, thanked Dan, Bala and I again for our aid.