as a Mountaineers Basic Rock Climb
Friday, September 4th, 2015
4 person party: myself, Brad, Nick, & Nickerson
We had an enjoyable day with a strong group and the mountain all to ourselves. It was the first time up Chair Peak for all of us. Brad did an excellent job setting a brisk pace for the group. Alpental parking lot at 5:30am, went right at the T at 1.75 miles in and switchbacked up to the ridge overlooking Snow Lake, leaving the trail at 4400’ at 6:30am. A well-defined climbers trail runs due east on top of the ridge. When it breaks out onto a big open talus field, ascend to 4600’ and follow cairns through trees and more talus straight towards Chair. We were at The Thumbtack (47.4599, -121.4607) at 7:15am. The NE Buttress route is easily visible from here, but don’t be tempted to scramble up on top of the ridge too early. For the least scrambly approach, keep traveling on talus (probably a snowfield other months of the year) towards the East Face of Chair, rather than towards the NE Buttress. When you’re due south of the NE Buttress (it feels like you’ve gone past it, 47.4593, -121.4639) look up and spot some flagging tape on trees. If you haven’t already put on helmets for the talus, now would be the time. Ascend class 2 terrain with some very loose rock up towards the base of the NE Buttress. The last 50’ to gain the ridge stiffens to class 3 on some slabby rock before you’re on top and can see Snow Lake again. (Later on our way back out we rapped that 50’.) Here at the base of the NE Buttress we stashed our packs at 8:15am. Everyone climbed in boots.
Since this was my first time up Chair, I didn’t know for certain which parts of the NE Buttress needed to be pitched out and which could simply be scrambled, so I opted to be conservative stay roped up the whole way. With a 60m rope, I made if from the base to the false summit in 5 pitches, (from 8:45am to 11:30am,) as follows:
my P1: (4th class with some low 5th moves, full rope length.)
This is blocky S-shaped gully (aka open book) that every route description has a photo of. It goes up, curves to the right, and straightens up again to end in a clump of trees. Doing it as a single pitch all the way to the trees is a rope-stretcher, a full 60m, but very doable. Extend all your pieces with double runners. Many other route descriptions encourage breaking this up into two 100’ pitches, so do whatever makes you happy.
my P2: (3rd class, full rope length)
Continue up through the middle of the clump of trees. There’s a flat dirt area on the left big enough to camp on (not that anyone would.) After exiting the trees it’s open and rocky 3rd class terrain that lends itself more to unroped scrambling than rock climbing. I stretched the full length of the rope again, ending at a loan tree straight up with a whole rats nest of slings concealed under it’s pine boughs. I only placed two or three pieces of pro during this pitch, partially because there was almost nowhere to place it, and partially because pro really wasn’t necessary at all on this 3rd class terrain.
my P3: (3rd class, most of a rope length)
More of the same kind of scramble terrain, and again not much opportunity for pro, but not much is needed. Angle slightly left and scramble up through a band of red rock. Somewhere in the middle of this whole non-distinct terrain is a pair of little rusty bolts that you’re aiming for (slightly left of straight up from that belay tree.) The leader should be careful on this pitch: it is possible to scramble unroped all the way to the bolts, but only if you know where you’re going. Too much exploring could get you into 5th class terrain. Once you find them, consider backing up the bolts with gear placements, if possible.
my P4: (4th class with some low 5th moves, less than half a rope length)
Look up and left, and you can see a gnarly tree against the sky. To get there, make a leftward traverse from the bolts until you reach the rock rib directly below the gnarly tree. A 5th class move steps around the rib, and then it’s easier climbing straight up to reach the gnarly tree. Belaying here allows you to watch your follower below, so you’re not yanking on them during the traverse. For us, there was some water on the rock mid-traverse, which made the moves more delicate but still doable.
my P5: (3rd and 4th class, a full rope length with a little extra stretching)
From the gnarly tree, go up on the climber’s right side of the rock rib. Angle right, and use double runners on any pro you might place. You’ll pass a rap station probably 40m up, though clipping it pulled my rope further left than I would have liked. Just below the false summit I ran out of rope at a medium tree with some rap slings on it. The terrain eases off to 2nd class here, so after finishing this pitch we unroped and scrambled to the false summit and then real summit.
I would do my P1, P4, and P5 the same way next time. I’d definitely scramble P2. For P3 (getting to the bolts,) if you are bringing up a less experienced climber, perhaps the leader should scramble to bolts while trailing a rope, but then bring the follower up on top-rope. If in doubt, pitch it out, it doesn’t take that long if you move efficiently.
We discussed as a group, and everyone agreed they were comfortable scrambling down some of the portions we had pitched out on the way up. It was much easier to make that call after having climbed everything to get a feel for it. We agreed to combine four 100’ rappels with scrambles as follows:
- First rappel from the tree were our last pitch had ended. (Definitely tie stopper knots!!) Rap 100’ to the ends of the rope, then simply get off rappel (you’re still on sloping terrain, but slightly less steep) and scramble down what’s left to the gnarly tree (which was our P4 belay anchor on the up.)
- Second rappel from the gnarly tree. Like before, rap 100’ to the ends of the rope, which puts you on scramble terrain a bit lower than that rusty old pair of bolts (which were our P3 belay anchor on the up.) No need to return to the bolts, they are quite far to the side of the fall-line anyway.
- A longer scramble back to the clump of trees, to the tree we had used as a belay anchor at the top of P1. Take your time and move carefully, there’s quite a bit of exposure for being unroped, you really don’t want anyone to fall. If anyone isn’t comfortable, or if the rock isn’t dry, you may need to come up with a way to do this roped.
- Third rappel from the tree that was the top of our pitch 1. A single-rope rappel only gets you halfway down, so look for another rap station on a rock horn (there may even be more than one) which you can clip yourself into before getting off rappel.
- Fourth rappel puts you back on the ground at the base of the NE Buttress, where we stashed our packs.
- Optionally, a fifth rappel could be made to get down the 50’ of scrambling you did at the beginning of the day to reach the base of the climb.
After an enjoyable lunch on the summit with the awesome view coming and going as clouds rolled around us, we started our descent at 12:30pm. Everything went smoothly until we did our third rappel (1:30pm.) We hadn’t made a clear decision earlier about what would be the next rap anchor, so the 1st rappeller wasn’t sure where to stop and get off rappel. We eventually decided on a rock horn at the very stretched ends of the rope. All of the webbing there looked terrible (I couldn’t identify it’s original color) so I replaced the whole damn thing with new blue 7mm cord and a fat dark-red rap ring. That took some time, and while doing so the fog around us turned to storm, dropping sleet on us with thunder nearby. We were all very thankful we weren’t anywhere higher on the mountain at this time, and especially that we had completed all the unroped scramble portions of the descent. We also had know precipitation was possible that afternoon, so we were all already wearing rain shells. We hurried, finished that rappel, and then doing a fifth bonus rappel to get down the now-very-slick 50’ of 3rd class scramble returning from the ridge crest into the talus bowl south of Chair, finally putting the ropes away at 2:30pm. Tired climbers picked their way carefully down talus fields, and we eventually gained familiar trail down by Source Lake, and hiked out to the parking lot by 5:10pm.
There’s two important aspects of the NE Buttress that influence your rack selection. First, there’s not a lot of places to put pro. On what I described as the scramble pitches, I’d go a full rope length and get about three pieces of good pro in. Second, the NE Buttress is a whole lot of 4th class, with a few low-5th moves here and there. To be a rope-lead on this, you should be confident enough leading 5th class stuff in the alpine that you really don’t care about only having three pieces of pro during a full rope-length of 4th class, since you’ve probably soloed harder stuff before. (The NE Buttress is not a good place for anyone still fresh at learning to lead trad.) So, a small rack really is all that is needed. Here’s what I’d recommend:
- 4 single runners
- 6 double runners
- small to medium sized nuts (I believe the largest one I used was BD Stopper size #8)
- singles of BD cams up to #1. Optional: a #2 if you want it too, but it’s not super necessary
- Tiny cams are the most valuable. I was happy having a BD #0.3 and #0.4. I might bring a #0.2 next time too, but it’s optional.
- Don’t bother with tricams or hexes, I never found a place that I wanted to place either.