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Undocumented Ice Lines on Bryant Peak (WI4, 60-70 degree snow) and Melakwa Flows (WI4-) – Possible First Ascents
It started with a simple text.
“What do you think?”
Jacob and I text back and forth about mountain stuff every few weeks, but this was a new topic. I wanted his opinion on some intriguing flows Kylie, Logan, and I saw on the West Face of Bryant Peak during our Chair Peak Circumnavigation ski tour. There were multiple ice lines going up with uncertain finishes. I dug around in the Beckey Guide, WA Ice book, and online but could find nothing about these routes. Although it seemed improbable, these routes could be unclimbed.
“Looks promising. Want to give it a go?”
Being a weekend warrior with limited flexibility, we planned on January 25th-26th to explore those climbs and some others near Melakwa Lake. As the date approached, it appeared weather and snow stability would be good… but insanely warm! With high temps of nearly 50 degrees at Snoqualmie Pass, most people were running for the beaches, but we decided to give it a go anyways. We were not disappointed.
We arrived at the Source Lake trailhead within one minute of each other, a miraculous feat considering he drove from Spokane and me from Seattle. We had not seen each other since alpine rock climbing in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho last summer. Jacob is now rocking the two-days-of-classes a week in his senior year at Gonzaga, but I am in my first year of full time work. We made some small talk, exchanged gear and started snowshoeing towards Source Lake and then up to Great Scott Basin.
Above Great Scott Basin, we began traversing underneath Bryant Peak. Side hilling on crust, Jacob began to really struggle with his massive floaty Tubbs snowshoes. He could not grip the icy surface and had to take them off. This commenced a long hour or so of exhausting postholing for Jacob through the breakable crust all the way to the north side of Braynt Peak to Bryant Col. Darn Tubbs let us down (once again)! My MSR snowshoes did fine and I never had to take them off.
After a short descent, we came underneath the West Face of Bryant Peak, our objective for the day. It had taken us just over three hours to this point, not bad considering we had heavy overnight packs and the plight of Mr. Tubbs! We stashed our packs underneath a rock, donned our climbing gear and began traversing underneath the face, looking for some ice.
We quickly found a promising looking flow. It looked like it had a steep section, probably vertical for 15-20 ft and a little thin, but definitely climbable. Above it, there appeared to be more ice steps. I explored further across the face, but found nothing better. We talked about it and decided to go for the main flow. We were both nervous and excited, launching into an undocumented route!
The Climb: Hot Tubbs (WI4, 60-70 degree snow)
Considering I had not climbed any ice all winter (and have barely logged 10 days of ice in my lifetime), there was no question who was the stronger climber and would lead this pitch. Jacob started delicately up the ice. It was a little thin but fattened somewhat at the base of the vertical curtain, taking long screws. The ice was soft, but his picks were sticking well. He took a rest, pumped himself up, and launched up the vertical section! It was about 15 ft long and when he cleared it, let out a holler. It was inspiring!
He set up a screw belay and brought me up. Although it was steep and pumpy, I felt under control and followed rather easily. We looked up at the next pitch, which featured fatter ice, although a little lower angle. I agreed to take the lead.
It started out at a nice WI3 or so, taking long screws, before steepening at the final bit. There were two separate vertical pillars and I initially stemmed between them before committing to the right pillar and traversing right to get by the bulge. It felt kind tricky, probably WI3+ or so. I was nervous, but happy to be back on lead again. Above that, I climbed up bomber 45 degree snow for 30 m to a cluster of trees.
Jacob led the third pitch up and to the left as the cliff band above forced him. At this point, we were sure we were on the left of the two lines I had drawn on the original image I sent him. This pitch was long and I had to simul about 30 m of easy snow for him to reach a tree anchor at the notch, making for about 90 m in total.
At the notch, we got our first view of the “?” I had drawn in the photo. My guess initially was that we could traverse onto the North Face and reach the summit, but I really had no idea. Peering around the corner, I saw an incredibly steep (~60 degrees) snow traverse above huge cliffs. The exposure looked unreal. There were some trees spaced out and it appeared after maybe 40 or 50 ft, you could turn up and right towards the summit.
If it was not for the trees, I’m not sure we would have gone for it. I led out, immediately realizing the snow was super unconsolidated and unsupportive, the opposite of the snow on the previous pitch. My tools were useless and my boots post holed often two feet down before finding purchase. I was swimming.
Nevertheless, I made progress on the traverse, slinging one, then two trees. At some points, the slope kicked back to more like 70 degrees. At the third and tallest tree, I spied a thin ice smear on top of a slab that maybe led towards the summit. A few tenuous mixed and thin ice moves got me up.
Above that, there were two small trees to move between. The snow actually became vertical and I was up to my chest and unable to make progress. I eventually figured out how to stem the trees by digging out the branches and sticking my crampons into the trees. A few more minutes of wallowing and I plopped out onto the summit ridge. I was soaked. It was a surreal feeling to top out such a wild, exposed, Cascadian summit pitch.
It was difficult to communicate to Jacob from here, but I set up a belay on the other side of the summit ridge with a picket. It was warm in the sun and I could belay without my wet gloves on. Jacob had a huge smile on his face as he made the last few steps.
We walked across the summit ridge towards the true summit, being sure to give the cornices a wide berth. It was truly an epic summit, with steep drops to the east.
It was 2:30pm, about 4 hours after starting the climb. We were both tired, but incredibly inspired and happy about the climb. Even if it was not a first ascent, it felt like a first ascent, not knowing what to expect around every corner. A year ago, we had just climbed ice for the first time. We felt proud about what we had just accomplished.
We walked down along the west ridge, looking for a spot to rappel back into the bowl where we started. We got a good view of our tracks in the snow on the third pitch.
We walked down the ridge a few hundred feet to a more level point in the ridge. At this point, we found a large tree that would lead us down into the bowl. We made a rap anchor and were able to reach the ground with a full 60 m rappel. Success! From there, we walked 5 minutes or so back to our overnight packs, content with the climb and descent.
We decided to name the route “Hot Tubbs” in honor (or spite) of Jacob’s useless snowshoes and for the fact it was really warm all day.
- For just a 4-5 pitch climb, this route packed a lot of punch! Sustained vertical ice, steep snow, and a wild summit pitch made this climb feel much more alpine than we expected. It was truly one of the most fun experiences I have had in the mountains
- Starting around 10 am, we were able to stay in the shade nearly the entire climb, circling around from a west to north aspect.
- Even though it was warm, we did not experience too much ice and snow fall and no rock fall at all.
- We used 9 screws of varying lengths, 8 slings, a few nuts and a picket.
After packing up, we booted down the steep snow towards Melakwa Lake. It was getting late in the afternoon.
We made camp next to Upper Melakwa Lake just as it was getting dark. We set up our tarp tent in the snow, sorted gear, and made dinner. Although it was dark, we could see some of the Melakwa Flows and they looked promising, despite the heat and intense sun exposure they receive. After our success on Bryant, it was easy to feel optimistic.
We went to bed by 7 pm and slept pretty well although it was a little windy at first. Sometime throughout the night, the wind stopped and the temperature dropped below freezing thankfully. We heard lots of rockfall or icefall throughout the night.
I woke up around 5:30 am and took some night shots before getting ready.
We walked towards the Melakwa Flows, climbing steep, firm snow to the base of the routes in less than 30 minutes from camp. It was still dark, but we tried scouting some of the routes, picking our line. We quickly realized that these climbs were much larger and steeper than they looked from afar! “Short vertical steps” from below were actually 40 ft vertical pillars and rambly steps were actually multi pitch routes. As the light increased, our amazement also ballooned. These ice lines here were massive!
From beta photos, we knew that this pillar would lead us up to a left-ward sloping ramp and rambly WI3 looking terrain above for the second pitch. It seemed prime for a moderate adventure.
The Climb: The Line of Fire (WI4-)
It was a little unclear how to get up to the pillar and Jacob decided to start up a thin section to gain a ramp that would lead to the pillar. With a picket belay anchor, I belayed him as he started up the thin ice smear. On his first tool swing, I swear I saw sparks fly from his tool, but maybe I was just imagining. Unfortunately, there was water running underneath and the climbing was very tricky and delicate. After a few nervous minutes, he made it up, an impressive lead!
When Jacob got to the base of the pillar, he was a little burnt out from the heady start. He considered setting up a belay here, but I encouraged him to lead the pillar also. Fat vertical ice is what he is made for, and this pillar looked about as good as it gets! Once he committed, he had no problem sending the pillar, which was vertical or near vertical for about 15 ft or so. He called it WI4-.
When it was my turn to climb, I entered the sun right before the pillar. It was only 8:30 am or so, but this face gets early sun! The sun shone on all the ice and snow, lighting up the amphitheater. I climbed the pillar easily, glowing in the morning sun. It was sublime.
At the belay, I had a good view of the terrain above us. It was definitely choose-your-own adventure WI2-3 terrain mostly, with harder WI4-5 stuff to the right. I quickly racked up and got started since it was already warming rapidly.
It was complete Type 1 fun. The ice was soft hero ice (basically everything we did over the two days was), allowing effortless swings and bomber picks. I had seven screws for the long pitch, usually placing one before each steeper WI3 section. The suddenly, wham! Something exploded on my head. Snow bombs! I looked up and realized I was perfectly in the line of fire. Time to start moving faster.
I made it through a few more steps before getting slammed once again. My stance was strong, so I was not knocked off, but it was still disconcerting. Jacob was getting pummeled back at the belay. I picked up my pace, climbing with urgency, picks flying, feet kicking. Towards the top, there actually some nearly vertical steps. I plugged in my last screw, made some high swings, and grabbed for branches, pulling my way up to a large tree anchor. Sent!
Miraculously, the snow gods held their fire as Jacob climbed. He had a blast, cruising up easy terrain in soft ice. We wasted little time setting up the rappel off the tree since things would only get worse as it warmed. A single 60 m rappel got us down to steep snow. We quickly pulled the ropes and hurried down snowfields to safety.
We decided to name this route “The Line of Fire” because of the heat, sparks flying from Jacob’s tool, and getting hit by snow frequently. We were truly in the line of fire.
- If you avoid the terrible mixed start we did, screws are all you need for this climb, it is completely ice!
- These flows are impressively fat considering it has been a warm winter. They were almost climbable back in late Novemeber when I first saw them.
- Our climb, The Line of Fire, reminded us both of The Dribbles in Hyalite in terms of length, difficulty, and aesthetics. The Dribbles is a little longer.
- The Melakwa Flows have to be one of the densest concentrations of accessible water ice areas in the entire state! There are at least a dozen lines 150-300 ft long ranging from probably WI3-WI5. It is hard to express how impressive these features were and how surprisingly fat and steep the ice was. We would love to see others explore these incredible routes.
- There does appear to be some avalanche hazard in the snowfields above.
- These routes get early morning sun, so are not recommended on warm sunny days. They are mostly shaded again by noon.
Back at camp, we packed up and hung out in the sun. It was another warm June-uary day.
Fortunately, the snow stayed firm on our climb back up to Bryant col, but it was still tiring with such heavy packs. We continued to boot all the way down to the Source Lake Trail, where the post-holing through awful breakable crust made us put on the snowshoes again. We followed the conga line back out. It took us about 3 hours from camp back to the car.
Before heading out, I thanked Jacob for making the long drive to explore some crazy ideas I had, and he thanked me for doing the scouting to find these lines. Whether or not these climbs were actual first ascents, we got the adventurous experience that neither of us had ever felt before in the mountains. We will not soon forget the excitement we felt with each pick strike in the WI4 crux of Hot Tubbs, the uncertainty of the wild snow traverse near the top of Bryant, or the wondrous amphitheater of flows in the Melakwa Flows. For a short few days, we felt like pioneers.
- You can approach these either over Bryant Col (pass north of Bryant) or simply up the Denny Creek Trail. For the Bryant Col approach, head up into Great Scott Basin beneath the Tooth from Source Lake, then follow the highest snow covered ramps underneath Bryant Peak and around to the col.
- All approaches have significant avalanche hazard. Gear and training is recommended.
- If dong Bryant as a carryover, you could walk off (scramble) the SW ridge back towards Hemlock Pass. There is also probably a descent you could do back towards Great Scott Basin, although it would might require a rappel. I think you could scramble/walk snow down to the Hemlock/Bryant col, from which there is a steep snow couloir (looks great to ski!) back into Great Scott Basin.
- Whether or not you need flotation is simply dependent on conditions. Most of the time in the winter you probably will.
- There’s lots of other ice in the Melakwa valley on the Chair Peak side. Go explore!