The Plan and ApproachTracy (gurlyclimber), our friend Jody and I are all planning an ascent of Rainier this July and wanted to get up on some snow together as part of our training. In looking through all of our books the North Star Couloir on North Arapahoe Peak seemed really appealing, and with the potential for some nice ridge scrambling we decided to give it a shot over the Memorial Day weekend. After hitting the snooze alarm an extra time, Tracy and I met Jody in Boulder Canyon and we all drove up in the dark. We hit the 4th of July Trailhead at dawn with just enough light to be able to keep the headlamps off. The trail conditions were pretty good, some patchy snow but not too bad for the first part of the hike. As we neared treeline and the 4th of July mine the snow got more consistent but it was good and solid and we made good time. From the mine we saw several people starting up Skywalker but we continued to the north up a snowfield to the saddle between Quarter to 5 Peak and South Arapahoe. The snow was nice and hard and we decided to don our crampons at this point. The backside of the saddle was rocky at the top, but we kept our crampons on and negotiated the rocks back to snow. From here we traversed towards the base of North Star Couloir.
North Star Couloir and SummitAt first the couloir was difficult to find, we kept looking to our right saying "Is that it?". We saw one potential candidate that looked really good and decided to keep going and check out the face a little further. Instead of finding a couloir, we found the cliffs that Gerry Roach mentions in his Indian Peaks book as indicating we had gone too far. We headed back to the good looking couloir and after a quick break started our ascent.
The sun had not yet made its way over the top of the couloir and we had good hard snow for our ascent. The snow was perfect: It was soft enough to be able to use our edges to give the calves a rest, but not so soft that we had to worry about postholing. The steepness is indicated as not exceeding 45 degrees in the guide book, and I would say that even if there are any 45 degree sections they are minimal, mostly it was around 40 or even a little less. As we ascended the sun broke over the top of the couloir illuminating our way. Small pellets of ice would trickle down the couloir as the sun heated the run off coming off the cliffs to either side of us (bring a helmet), we would try and catch them but like Plinko Chips on The Price is Right they would change direction at the last second.
As we climbed on we got buzzed by a small plane, almost the same elevation as we were and close enough to see the pilot in the cockpit. He tipped his wings to us as we waved. Closer to the top the sun had begun to warm up the snow and we had some minor postholing, a little farther we were presented with a fork in the couloir. The left looked like it had more snow and the right was mostly just skree. We chose left and managed to connect bands of snow between the rocks to reach the top. From here we got a dramatic view down the North Face and towards Navajo Peak and its neighbors.
We had a quick snack break and continued up the rough ridge. If one is so inclined, you can keep the ridge at class 3, but where is the fun in that? All three of us climb technical rock and had no problem with taking on the reasonably solid class 4 sections head on. Near the top the slopes level off to an easy class 2 with a cairn the size of a small shack indicating the summit just above us. We had the summit to ourselves, where we hung out taking pictures, eating snacks and admiring the surrounding peaks.
North to South TraverseFrom the summit we had a great view of the ridge traverse that lay before us. At first we thought in order to save time and avoid getting wet from the thickening clouds that we would try and bypass the difficulties of the ridge crest and follow the easier cairned route below. At first this was the case, but somehow along the way we just got bored and started looking for more challenging terrain. We knew we were going the right way because we kept finding orange arrows on the rocks after each section of scrambling. Of course when going south to north, route finding is easier because the arrows are before the moves.
We found ourselves at the top of the famous slab section, I downclimbed facing sideways, but my partners climbed face in and found it to be really simple. We dowclimbed the small chimney below and continued on our way. We debated whether or not to call that move class 3 or class 4, it was more comfortable climbing face in and I usually use face in vs. face out as my dividing point in class, but if it is class 4 its a pretty easy move. A few more quick scrambling sections and we were on the summit of South Arapahoe Peak. All in all the traverse was a lot of fun, but having not done it before and going North to South makes the route finding much trickier and more time consuming. There were some patches of snow, but none that affected any of the class 3 sections. On the summit of South Arapahoe we took a break to rest our weary bodies with a snack. Three friendly marmots (including a baby) watched us with cautious curiosity, probably looking for a handout which we did not oblige them. We decided to get a move on as the weather continued to cloud up on us and headed towards the trail for our journey back down.
The DescentWe started our descent following bits of climbers trail and cairns, but quickly found ourselves off route and back into some scrambling. Partly we were trying to avoid wet and snowy sections, but partly we just plain went the wrong way. We had to cross a tricky gully (that was probably the top of Streetwalker?) with some scrambling on not entirely stable talus and blocks. I skipped ahead while my partners started this section to make sure we weren't getting ourselves in trouble and was pleasantly surprised to see nothing but class 2 talus remaining back to the trail. Again, not entirely stable, but we were able to safely get off the steeper slopes of South Arapahoe and back onto the trail to relieve the stress on our knees.
The timing was perfect as most of the way down the trail we were snowed on. The trail was easy to follow back to the mine, including some brief patches of snow that previous climbers had kindly packed down for us. On the trail below the mine we saw several day hikers and their dogs. As we got lower the snow turned to rain and the trail got muddy.