Elevation Gain: 3000'
~4 miles RT (Not including our little off route excursion.)
Left car: 5:30 am
Summit: ~2:30 pm
Back at car: 6:30 pm
13 hours car to car
I was finally able to make this happen. Although truthfully I had little to do with the planning of this trip. After a few failed (as in not even leave town) attempts of Chair, Scott had contacted me about climbing it on Saturday. Steve was unavailable, and I snapped at the chance. This was actually nice because it meant that I did not have to do the planning. And Scott's plans were in line with what I wanted to do. (A climb of the North Face of Chair.)
We met at the very early time of 4:15am at the Mercer Island P&R. We arrived in the parking lot with one car ahead of us and they left behind us as they awaited their friends (from another car) to gear up. We hit the trail under headlamp at 5:30am. The snow was very firm and Peter started with crampons on. It wasn't long before Eric caved in and put some on. I lasted only a bit longer before I decided it would be easier as well. Before we left the woods, all four of us were on crampons. While it made for surer footing, and faster movement, but it was noticeable to me at least that it required more energy. Also, using crampons on relatively flat terrain hurts my feet.
In what seemed like short time we were already heading uphill from the Source Lake basin. This is where the law of diminishing returns applies to alpine starts.* Peter was the only one who had climbed the peak previously and he suggested we were too far left. I stated that going right would lead us to Snow Lake but the north face did run down to Snow Lake, so perhaps that was correct. We checked the map by headlamp occasionally and wound up at what is probably the very toe of the buttress near Snow Lake. Unfortunately, we didn't like where we were and had to backtrack to get back on course. By this time the sun was up and we could see our objective. We were also able to see that the other party of four had passed us.
We were moving slowly but Scott was still full of energy. He arrived on the ridge before us, and went to check out the north face. He came back saying it was thin and thought that the Northeast Buttress was a good plan even if it meant waiting for the other party of four ahead of us. So we geared up and ate while waiting for the other party to get under way. While we waited, we got pelted with snow from the first party above and two other parties arrived behind us.
There are at least three variations to the first pitch of the route. I'll describe them in the conditions we saw them in. The right variation which follows the summer rock route was very thin ice and snow on rock. The party that went ahead of us placed mostly pitons to protect it. It had a steeper section but most of it was lower angle. The middle variation went up some steep snow to a thin ice slab and then to a steeper step of thicker ice. The left variation which we took crossed a rock rib and then got on some ~60° ice that was good climbing. Since we were there to climb ice, that is why we chose that variation.
After some equipment issues, Peter was the first of our group to lead off. When he went out of site after crossing the rock rib about a half rope length up he was stationary for a while. (When I arrived at the belay I found it was because he was having a crampon malfunction.) He continued up and eventually I was on my way. Followed closely by Scott. The first pitch climbing was enjoyable. The ice was firm and took picks well and soon I was on the snow slope above.
I arrived at the belay and exchanged the rack for a steep snow slog to the next belay. The snow had a sun crust and below that was sugar snow. (At this point I believe we have moved from the NE buttress proper to the East Face Variation.) Footing wasn't great, but it mostly held. If you were kicking new steps into the slope (I was trying to use existing steps) you would shower everyone below you with chunks of the crust cascading down. During my lead Peter took a piece of ice from another party to the cheek and left him with a battle scar. Protection on this pitch was limited. I moved mostly from rock to rock to gain protection. This included my first placing of a piton on lead. Then I ran it out to the next belay.
A good rock anchor was already occupied by the party ahead of us so I had to look elsewhere. We were planning on taking this ice step to the left, so I moved leftward in hopes of building an anchor out of ice screws. The ice I had to use was perforated with at least a dozen existing screw holes. I placed a screw in a new location higher than all existing holes, and then I placed another lower in an existing hole. Since the ice was thin, I had to tie off both of the 16cm screws. I brought up Peter and he began the next pitch.
We were taking the easiest option on this pitch which was a hacked out section of lower angle ice just to the left of a pillar. Peter climbed it well and was soon on the snow slope above. Later, I was yelling that he was running out of rope. Then the rope tightened. I could not hear him due to all the parties around trying to communicate. Fortunately he knew to build an anchor and I did eventually hear him yell I was on belay. This possibly gave me little confidence in climbing the next ice step which I had difficulty with. Partially for not being able to find pick placements, but also because it was a bit awkward. I cleared the ice step with no issues and reached the snow slope above where Peter was belaying me off a picket and an ice ax. (Yipe!) When I got to a rock that he had placed a few cams in, I made that a belay and belayed him to a few small trees so he could belay me up the slope proper.
I continued from that position up a bit more where the slope narrowed on a bit of an arete and reached the false summit. I gave Peter a belay up and we basked in the sun. (The first time I had been in the sun since the start of the second pitch.) The wind in the summit area was strong and it was difficult to eat and organize gear. We waited quite a while before Scott and Eric joined us. Then we all ran over to the summit. Once back we geared up to get down.
Truthfully in the conditions we had we could have down climbed the first gully. But since we had two ropes, we rappelled the gully. The lower gully does not look easy to down climb and required another double rope rappel to gain the bottom. Unfortunately it was off a wonky anchor. Once done with the second rappel, we down climbed the slope below it before it opened into the basin and we were able to hike out. During our descent we shared our rope with a party of two who arrived near the summit after us. This lengthened our descent, and we were using headlamps by the end of the second rap. We then slowly worked our way back to Source Lake and out to the parking lot.
Overall this was a great trip. The weather forecast of afternoon snow never occurred, and we had mostly clear skies during the day. (There were some low clouds on the peak early on and then when we were leaving.) Conditions were good and we all had a great time. My only complaint is that I did not get to lead any of the harder pitches. We all had a fun time and were moderately delayed by other parties. Next time I'll go back and try the north face. While I do not think we did the NE buttress proper, it was an enjoyable climb and exactly what I was looking for. And I think having those options on the route make it what it is, choose your own adventure.
*The law of diminishing returns as applied to alpine starts:
While I am a fan of the alpine start, I notice that too many times the start is too early. This can be gauged by the pre-dawn mishaps that occur and possible late day issues. If you wake too early, party members may not get enough sleep and that affects performance throughout the day and may even cause mistakes. Although my hunch is that leaving too early causes everyone to be slower and ultimately you wind up returning at the same time as if you had left later. Another issue is navigation by headlamp. If you know the route, then this is not really an issue. Or if it is a well beaten path or trail, it may not also be an issue. But we had difficulty navigating in the dark and it did cost us the ability to be first on route. So timing is everything to get the most out of your alpine start investment. Too early and you risk mistakes. Too late and you risk success.