Sammy and I planned a day of climbing something for Sunday and we didn't want it to be too intense. After throwing around a few ideas we settled on Snoqualmie Mountain. I have never been up it, and Sammy had when there was no snow, so it would be a new experience for both of us.
We arrived in the Alpental parking lot a little after 7am and were discussing our route options. Sammy was originally thinking to come up the Commonwealth Basin and then access Snoqualmie from Cave Ridge. We had both done that approach for winter ascents of Guye Peak. The guidebooks tell a tale of going up the trail to Cave Ridge from the Alpental Parking lot. I suggested we try something new and if it went, the distance was a whole lot shorter than circumnavigating Guye Peak.
From the parking lot we picked a high spot below a tree band that we would go up and assess the conditions to see if we could continue upward. We figured on twenty minutes to that point and potentially leaving us with enough time to come down and try the other route if this one did not go.
We entered the snow at the "Transceiver Training Area" and started to head up. Within five minutes it seemed like we were half way to the trees. Then the slope got steeper. Sammy and I stayed in some tree where we were following steps and we felt the snow was a little better. It was still before 8am and the sun was not hitting the slopes and the snow was hard and icy. We wondered why we brought snow shoes and contemplated stashing them. I said it would be a guarantee that we would be in waist deep snow later if we cached them now, so we kept them on our packs. This was Sammy's first time on steep snow this season and he was not feeling great about the snow climbing and lagged behind me a bit. I broke out of our stretch of trees and waited for him at a final tree in a more level area before we were to make the push to the trees above to see if the route went.
At this point, Sammy was having reservations about climbing the steep snow. But we agreed to go to the trees to see if the climbing became less difficult. Since we were on more level terrain, we donned crampons at this time. That decision gave both of us a little confidence boost to make the trees.
Nearing the trees, I went ahead of Sammy to check out the situation. I had to cross a moat with a small ice bridge with the help of an alder grab and then front point up steep solid snow into the woods. I stopped below a fallen log. While I thought the terrain looked easier above the log, I did not see any easy ways around it that did not involve minimal snow on rock or other loose terrain. I relayed the information to Sammy who made the decision to descend.
Sammy downclimbed facing in while I attempted to get out of the trees without having to downclimb over the small moat I came up over. It took me a while to reach Sammy after he returned to the more level area where we had put crampons on. At this point we had probably burned too much time to attempt via the Commonwealth Basin.
Fortunately due to our time wasting, the temps were a little warmer even if the sun was now obscured by clouds. Sammy got a new dose of confidence and started to traverse the slope to our left. Before we knew it, we were following another boot path up into the trees and feeling like we might still have a chance at the summit. At a minimum we were hoping to gain Cave Ridge and get a view.
Then we followed the the boot path to ice. There was about an eight foot stretch of maybe 40° ice. I started to chop steps into it. I made some moves with my left foot on rock and my right on ice. I had to swing my ax just to get the pick in and inch. A few moves up I questioned what I was doing, and Sammy and I set about to find another option up. Sammy set out on a traverse left while I tried a section directly above us. Neither was going to go without spicy moves on thin snow over moats and wet rock with significant shrub pulling only to get onto a similar steep hard snow slope. All the while considering how we would get back down once we got around the obstacle. After checking four options around the ice patch we finally decided to head back to the car. We down climbed through the woods back out to the open slope where the sun was shining and the snow already quite soft. We removed our crampons and plunge stepped our way back to the car.
Before the plunge step down, I told Sammy it was our hubris that caused our failure. While perhaps an exaggeration, we both had underestimated this climb and had full expectation of reaching the summit. This expectation of easy climbing affected me (at least) in regards to my head space when the going got difficult. Climbing when not in an ideal head space is taxing, and not why I go out.
I usually say that you learn more from a no summit climb than from a climb where the summit is achieved. On the way down and in the car we discussed things we took away from this. One was that we waited too long to put crampons on. I guess we succumbed to the boiling frog issue on that one. Because we underestimated the climb and snow conditions, we did not bring second tools or steel crampons, not to mention helmets or any type of rope.
Overall we had a fun time and joked about the situation throughout. It was great attempting a climb with Sammy and now I'll have a better idea for the next time I give Snoqualmie Mountain a go.