Chair Peak Circumnavigation
December 28, 2020
is a sport that takes a long time to learn and master. This is usually a good thing, as backcountry skiing has a complex matrix of issues that can arise in the backcountry, and it simply takes time to learn. Sometimes, however, that means that you get excited about a goal with a friend, and then it takes a while to actually complete that goal. Tessa and I had always wanted to do the Chair Peak Circumnavigation because, heck, it sounded really cool to be able to travel in the mountains around a peak that is so iconic to the Snoqualmie backcountry! We had brought up the idea at least two seasons ago, and had at least two attempts that got thwarted by conditions. But finally, a week ago, we realized our schedules were going to line up and it was looking like the weather was as well. We were psyched to ski the circumnavigation together.
Looking at Chair peak with the Thumbtack in sight as well. Time to go up and over!
Now, by the time that our schedules and weather finally aligned for this, it felt pretty attainable. Tessa had also been eyeing this run called Little Alien couloir, which rose up right from Chair Peak Lake, so we added that to our goal for the day. Little Alien has a pretty narrow choke at the top of the couloir that requires aggressive jump turning, and this is a skill that we both had been practicing before this tour. We were excited to try to put it to the test on this couloir that, while intimidating, has a great runout.
We got to the parking lot at 7am, geared up quick, and were on our way by 7:15. We made quick work of the skin up to Snow Lake Divide, and within an hour found ourselves at our first decision point of the day. Our "A" list descent down to Snow Lake was to ski the North face of Chair. This consists of rolling knolls, and a skiers left traverse down to a steep descent which spits you out at the west end of Snow lake. Pretty efficient for the circumnavigation's sake. Our "B" route was to ski from the North Face down Cache couloir, which we had both skied with Dan when we skied Holy Diver. And our "C" goal was to just ski across the divide and all the way across the lake.
What made this decision tricky at the time was that we had been skinning up to the divide in thick clouds (see pic next to the first paragraph). We were guessing that the clouds were staying low, as there was an inversion forecasted for today, however the thought of skiing the North face of Chair in a whiteout was making us not so stoked. We decided to continue up and see what the clouds did, since we knew that we could ski our "B" goal relatively easily if we needed to. As we skinned up to the Thumbtack, we were pretty elated to find that the clouds had cleared and we found ourselves overlooking the cloudy inversion below us in the valley. Perfect. We felt confident enough to go ski the direct North face of Chair. We didn't ski it as directly as we'd like (take a look at my strava track below if you're curious to see where we went), as we went up the couloir directly to the North of the Thumbtack, which put us a little too skiers right to make it perfectly direct. Next time, we would have wanted to look into the couloir just west of the Thumbtack, which we think would have given us a more direct line.
Tessa skiing down the bottom part of the North Face of Chair. Right to the west side of Snow Lake. Perfect!
Our proud little DNA squiggles down the beautiful corned up face.
We skied the North face of Chair, set off up towards Chair Peak Lake, and made quick time up there as well. Going up the slope, we did observe a couple roller balls that caused us to consider how sun affected the slopes past Melakwa Pass were. We internalized that bit of information, and went up and over in to Chair Peak Lake. By that time it was only 10:45, so we weren't too concerned about the current warming situation. "Ooh, there's Little Alien!" Tessa said as we descended into the lake. I looked up and saw the striking line cutting up in front of me. It looked awesome. So enticing. However what we were most excited about - the constriction at the top third - wasn't quite in. We decided that it would probably make the most sense to come back later in the season, when it is more filled in, to ski it for real. We skinned on, and from Melakwa pass, went up Kataleen peak a bit to ski a south facing slope that looked like it was being baked into perfect corn. After the first couple buttery turns, we found that it was indeed, perfect corn. Tessa went first, and I turned opposite of her turns to make a cute little DNA strand down the face. At the bottom we took a second to admire our handiwork, and then skied on down the basin to Melakwa lake.
Tessa up high on the N Face of Chair
Tessa heading down to Melakwa Lake
Looking up at Little Alien. Look at that constriction!
From the lake, we knew we only had one more ascent to do. We grabbed a snack, and started skinning on up to get to the Bryant-Chair col. We skinned on up in the baking sun, and saw some climbers making use of the shade and attempting to climb Hot Tubbs, which is an ice climb up the West face of Bryant. However, it didn't look like it was very in, and the climbers seemed to be bailing off the climb as we passed them up the col. We got up to the col pretty quick, and I looked at my watch. We had only been moving for 5.5 hours. Awesome! A faster day than we were expecting. We ripped skins and started heading down the Bryant couloir. The exit of the couloir was the last "crux" of our tour, as we were doing this relatively early season, and we weren't entirely sure of the best way to exit the col. We had some awesome turns down the top half, cruised the middle section, and then got to our last decision point. We saw most of the tracks heading down - the standard exit when the couloir is in. We saw only a couple of tracks heading off left.
Tessa standing right above the waterfall that is usually the exit for the Bryant. Oops! We ended up going skiers left of where she is.
Now, my husband Dan had skied the col the day before us, touring with our friend James. They were just skiing the col for the day, but the only beta they gave us for the exit was "stay left and you'll be okay". We sat there, thought about their beta, but the tracks going down were just a little too tempting. "Besides, we can always boot back up if we have to" I said, trying to reason my way towards skiing the line in front of me. I made my way down, and saw a stark waterfall drop off below me. That was the normal exit for the Bryant. "Dang" I said out loud as Tessa came up behind me. I looked to my left and saw a steep, narrow slope that looked like the escape that all the tracks before us had taken. I am always trying to improve my skiing, but some things remain a little more spooky than others. For me, side slipping/stepping can be my Achilles' heel. Probably because I ski really light flexy skis, and they just don't side slip the same way as my heavy resort skis do. (Little did I know that these skills would come in handy on my tour tomorrow!) I told Tessa I was a little spooked, and might consider booting back up, but she had a lot of confidence that we could get down it. We agreed that she'd go first and I'd follow, just taking our time to get down. After much side slipping, side stepping, and a couple of deep breaths, we made it down off the exit. We did a little high five celebration, and took off back to our car.
All in all, our tour took us 6.5 hours, and we ended up with a bluebird day, minus the inversion that stayed in the Alpental Valley. It made us psyched to see what else we could do, and potentially how fast we could do this route in the future! Also, this tour made us psyched to find another day later this season to go back and ski Little Alien. Hopefully, I'll have a write up of that soon.
Total mileage of the day - 14.29 miles
Total elevation gain - 5,000 ft
Total time - 6 hours 37 mins
Max slope angle of the day ~ 45 degrees, with the steepest parts being the North face of Chair, and Bryant Couloir. It is possible to avoid these and hit lower angled slopes if you'd prefer by skiing the Snow Lake Divide, and Pineapple pass respectively.
GPS via Strava - https://www.strava.com/activities/4531496409
Song that was stuck in my head all day - "Like a Girl" by Lizzo. Yes, very fitting.