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AVALANCHE!
posted by John : January 5, 2014


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Good morning, Chair


There are some mountains that can only be climbed in winter. Usually, this is because there's no "real" trail and it's a skin-shredding brushfest. Since I've had my share of those terrible ideas I hadn't even considered climbing Avalanche Mountain without snow.

Now that we had at least a trace of snow, though, it was time for some serious consideration. And serious consideration is definitely justified when you're talking about climbing a mountain called Avalanche in the snow when there could be an actual avalanche. However, NWAC said the danger was low to moderate and we had the training and skills to assess conditions on-route so we set out from the trailhead at 6:30am.

It was the same trail I had taken the kids on the week before, but there was a touch more snow and in the dark, the four of us (me, EWB, Matt, and Tom) were all alone. It took no time to pass the rock field where the kids had lunch and get to the first switchbacks that climbed to the ridge. At the ridge, the sun lit up Chair Peak and reminded us it would dominate the views all day.

The Snow Lake trail is always a mixed blessing. The views are stellar and the lake itself is amazing. However, from the ridge, it drops to the lake a few hundred feet below. That means on the way out you need to climb before the final descent. On this trip we weren't headed all the way down to the lake, but ducked off at the second switchback.

There were tracks in the snow and that made our progress much easier. We didn't even need snowshoes, though three of us had them on our packs. (Conditions were expected to be mixed so we also had crampons, ice axes, and trekking poles.) The tracks headed straight up to the saddle, which we were avoiding because it was a rocky ridge not suitable or the dogs... or us.

We chose the direct route to the ridge above the saddle, which meant a very steep climb on a mix of powder and ice. The missing front points on my trail crampons (don't worry, they're on the way back for repair) were definitely a problem in spots, but at the top it was the axes that were the most important.

On each side of the ridge, the slope was… steep. In some spots a fall would have been… bad. There were a couple of steps that made me feel… uncomfortable.

All along the final ascent, though, the views got better and better. The backside of Snoqualmie Mountain was far more severe than I had expected. Chair Peak, Roosevelt, Preacher, and Wright Mountain were gorgeous above Snow Lake.

On the summit (with the dogs tied just below) we toasted the blue skies, but didn't spend too much time. It was surprisingly calm and warm at the top. It didn't get windy and cold until we were well below the ridge on the return. Weatherman Matt explained that the ridge was the low point so the dense cold air was spilling over and blah blah blah blah. (I usually tune out after he tells us if it's going to rain or not.)

Back on the trail, we were surprised we hadn't seen many others. Oops, spoke too soon. There they were. All of them. Mountaineers ready for Everest, overnighters testing their skills, dayhikers loving nature, and the lucky ones. Lucky they hadn't yet perished given their lack of preparedness.

Seriously, miles from the trailhead in the snow without a coat? No water? In Converse? I realize I tend toward being more prepared than most Boy Scouts, but COME ON! I guess next time I'll need to leave the safety gear at home so I can be cool. Then maybe I'll be able to keep up with everyone.

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