The Tooth in Winter

Well, it's not winter, but it is the Tooth!

In December, when the skies were clear, and the avalanche conditions were pristine, Chris Nelson and I headed up to climb the Tooth. Not really knowing what to expect, we brought two ice tools, crampons, a few ice screws, and a very anorexic rock rack. Driving up to the pass in the pre-dawn moon light and stars was absolutely incredible for the middle of winter! We left the Alpental parking lot not too long after sunrise, seeing as it was one of the shortest days of the year. The trail to Source lake was hard packed ice, and a few time I wished I was wearing my crampons. But we cruised on out across the source lake basin and proceeded to climb up the powdery slippery snow into the Tooth's North facing basin. The avalanche conditions were so benign in fact, that we decided to walk directly up one of the smaller avalanche chutes leading up to the basin! I have decided, after approaching the tooth from both sides of the snow creek while the ground is snow-covered, that the trail side, then traversing to the other side above Source lake is the best route. This would not be the best route, however, under any kind of elevated avalanche danger, due to the terrible position of Source lake. When crossing the basin over the lake, one gets a full view of the gully options leading into the upper basin (i.e. which one has pre-kicked steps!).

After about two hours of walking, we found ourselves at the base of the first pitch. From our vantage, the rock looked dry, warm and completely un verglassed (the reason for the ice tools). So we left all the tools and pickets at the base of the climb. I lead the first pitch which wasn't too challenging except for a short steep snow section where I had to pack in hand holds. Once at the wedged block, I belayed Chris up, and he took the lead on the second pitch. His version of pitch two was slightly different from the one I had climbed during the summer. He lead up and right through a crack, and then into the 4th class terrain early. However, this 4th class terrain was entirely covered in snow, and he ended up climbing for over 60 feet up 35 degree snow without an ice axe or any protection! Whoa, glad I didn't lead that one! :) At a tree belay, we exchanged the 8 or 9 pieces of pro that we had, and I lead up through the snow towards the infamous "Catwalk." To reach the Catwalk, I had to surpass two 15 foot-ish rock bands that were mostly chocked with snow, and offered very poor protection. At 60 feet off of the belay with only a garbage cam between myself and the belay, I cleaned a huge mass of snow out from behind a flake. Wedging my arms and then entire body inside this flake, I was overjoyed to place a perfect No. 1 Camelot upon reaching the top. Safe and satisfied at surmounting the two rock bands, I tromped up the 30 degree snow to the base of the Catwalk headwall and looked over my shoulder. I was terrified at the prospect of "if I fall on this" meaning a 100+ foot screamer down the West face. So I downclimbed the snow to a small rock outcropping and dug in the snow until I found an excellent placement! Again, with confidence, I trotted back up to the Catwalk and headed up. After inching my way along the 4 to 6 inch ledge, I finally turned the corner onto the final ridge to the summit. Then it came. "10 Feet!" Chris Shouted. Crap, out of rope. So with the two chocks and one sling left on the rack, I created a belay and brought Chris up. He lead the last few icy feet to the top, and in a few minutes we were both on the snow covered summit! The view was absolutely breathtaking. The Olympics, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Stewart, and on and on as far as the eye could see. Rarely is there such a smog-free sunny day.

The descent was delightfully uneventful, and the walk out was beautiful. My initial thought this summer was correct. This route, under summer conditions with lots of rock protection and rock shoes, is beyond easy. However, in the winter, with boots on, and a small rack and no ice axe made this climb challenging! I would definitely recommend this climb for any time of year. (an added bonus is that you'll probably not see another soul the whole day in the winter!)