The Ephemeral Ice
I find myself driving up to Snoqualmie Pass quite frequently during the winter, and one of my favorite activities is track the progress of ice forming on Black Ice Crag, one of the Exit 38 crags. It is relatively low elevation (1500 ft) and close to the Puget Sound Lowlands, but its northern aspect seems to give it the ability to form ice when it seems too warm for lowland ice. I have watched it form to a certain extent many times, but never gotten out there before it fell apart.
We had a short cold snap that began on Sunday when Logan and I skied Snoqualmie Mountain and Red Mountain. At this point, there was absolutely no ice on the wall. It typically seems to take at least a week of cold temperatures (highs below 40 and lows below freezing at Exit 38) to form. But when I drove by on Wednesday afternoon to go skate skiing up at Cabin Creek, I was astounded to see such fast ice growth at Exit 38. Even south facing cliffs had ice daggers. And Black Ice Crag looked (relatively) fat!
On Thursday, I had a meeting in North Bend in the afternoon, but was able to get a look at the crag in the daylight. Despite daytime high temperatures of 55 in North Bend, the ice was hanging in there!
Porter met up with me after my meeting and we drove to Exit 38. It was now completely dark, so we tried to follow the Mountain Project approach beta. It appears that the “old jeep road” has seen very literal traffic since the creation of Wayne’s World, a superior dry tooling crag at the Far Side of Exit 38. We promptly began bushwhacking through the darkness, but we are sure that any trail that ever was there has been reclaimed by nature.
The surprisingly adventurous 0.2 mile approach continued, but we eventually hit the boulder field and scrambled our way through the loose rocks, bypassing the lower crag and reaching the Iron Horse Trail. It had taken less than 20 minutes, but was far more adventurous than expected.
We flashed our lights up at the ice. The leftmost route, CYA, looked fun to climb, but there was no way we were leading it. The ice was thin, visibly wet, and highly textured, which is typical for immature lowland Washington Ice. As we looked around, a laser followed our headlamps against the ice. It seemed to be coming from a truck on the far side of Exit 38. Porter said he guessed it was the laser from a rifle. Yikes!
We looked around but did not see an easy way to top rope any of the ice. In theory, one could supposedly hike around and set up a top rope, but I could tell that it would require climbing through steep forest and cliffs above the crag and then down to our climb, so it would not be easy. But that seemed to be our only option, so we donned crampons, a single axe, and quested around the right side of the crag.
The top rope access was definitely non-trivial. We scrambled easy mixed moves on mossy slabs, kicked our crampons into downed logs, and scratched with our tools for good turf sticks. But we eventually got to the top of the crag and began traversing left and then down. This led us perfectly to a tree with some old slings. Bingo! In all, it took us nearly 30 minutes to get to the top anchor. The darkness certainly added to the difficulty.
We added a new sling, saddlebagged our rope, and then rapped down into the climb. As we were descending the wall, we heard an “Off Belay” in the wind. Who else would be climbing at this time? And what were they climbing??
A 70m rope barely got us down to the bottom. This crag was bigger than we thought! The longer routes would require two ropes tied together.
The hard work was now complete and we could finally enjoy the climbing. We each took one lap, climbing about 30m of progressively thinner and more delicate ice. If you swung with much force, the ice made a resounding thunk and cracked. The climbing was very insecure, so we were fortunate to be on top rope with no overhead hazard. But it was very fun and engaging.
It was clear that the lifetime of this ice was measured in hours, not days. So after one lap, we decided to pull the rope and head out! CYA later!
On our descent, we took the direct approach back to the road and found it to be much quicker and more pleasant. It only took about 5 minutes!
There is something quite satisfying about climbing such ephemeral ice moments before it is gone. Ice climbing in Washington can be frustrating, but also highly rewarding if you are opportunistic and bring an adventurous attitude. Here is an ice feature that tens of thousands of people drive by each day, I had passed dozens of times, and yet few people ever actually climb! And thank you to Porter for going along with a silly backyard mission like this!
- This route is listed in the Washington Ice Guidebook as CYA (WI4, M4).
- For the approach, I would just park at the point where FS 9020 branches off Homestead Valley Road and hike straight towards the crag through the forest.
- The forest above the ice was surprisingly dry. So there does not need to be snow on the ground to form this climb, but I think the ground does have to have a certain amount of moisture. This is my guess why I have not seen it form so quickly when similarly cold in Nov-Dec.