Little Big Chief Mountain
Little Big Chief Mountain (USGS Big Snow Mountain, Mount Daniel)
Jock Kinne and I made the long trek into Waptus Lake recently as a base for climbing Little Big Chief Mountain (Marked as 7225' on the Big Snow quad). While this isn't the shortest way into this mountain (try Middle Fork Snoqualmie, for the shortest), it has a reasonably maintained trail and shortens our drive from our location in Wenatchee. You will encounter a ford of the Waptus River below Waptus Lake, since the hiker bridge was washed out in 2007. We found it passable using either an ice ax or staff for support, with water-depth about knee high. The standard route to the summit described in Beckey is reasonably accurate, but my route from the base of the summit pyramid to the top may be a variation.
Jock Kinne enjoys the view from Waptus Lake. Left side (L-R): Summit Chief, Middle Chief, Little Big Chief; Right Side: Bears Breast Mountain.
The best views of the Chief peaks is at the spot where the trail first reaches the lake (est. 9 miles). Numerous campsites are here and several others exist along the north side of the two-mile long lake. We choose a nice site about 1/2 mile up the lake from the south shore. Camps closer to the peak are located on either side of the bridge crossing of the Waptus River above Waptus Lake and near the ford (easy, but wet) of Chief Creek, perhaps 12+ miles from the trailhead. Here I left Jock and traveled on my own for the remainder of the day, with Jock opting to rest the pinched vertebra of his neck for the hike out the next day.
The switchbacks leading up the slopes above Chief Creek are in reasonably good shape, considering that this trail seldom receives maintenance. Many years ago, this was the route of the PCT leading south towards Snoqualmie Pass, but has been replaced by the trail over Escondido Ridge and the "Kendall Katwalk." Instead of continuing on the trail all the way to Dutch Miller Gap, I varied the approach to Little Chief by ascending the creek that flows into Waptus River about 1/3 mile south of Lake Ivanhoe. Later in the year when more snowfields are melted, this variation might prove brushy in places. I was able to find a mostly snow route to a high saddle allowing access north into the drainage directly west of Lake Ivanhoe.
After using this drainage to gain the high eastern basin of Little Big Chief, I ascended to the north ridge, via a short class 3 portion. Beckey reports a short exposed rock notch. I would rate this as a minimum class 5 move, with significant exposure here and a short move up a crack system. From here the guidebook description of moving left across ledges and snowfields to the south end of the east face was accurate and mostly easy. An ice ax to cross exposed snowfields was needed. Near the top of this snowfield, a moat that extended along the base of the east face prevented easy access to the rock above. Perhaps this is where Beckey's description of a class 3-4 face is located.
View from near the top of Little Big Chief. Left Center: Middle Chief with its slabby right side; Center: Summit Chief Mountain; Behind: top of Chimney Rock; In the distance: Mount Rainier.
Here I was able to turn the SE corner and descend a short ways (class 3) to a shallow rock basin on the south side of the peak. The views across to Middle Chief and Summit Chief from here brought back memories of my climbs there back in 1987. Based on Beckey's description, I was no longer on the "standard route", but the shallow basin lead up and back right via class 3-4 ledges to gain a higher notch on the SE ridge, very close to the summit. More exposed moves on the east face (class 3) lead to the summit.
It was a small and precarious summit, allowing me to stand, but I used all fours to inspect the summit area for a register, finding none. I felt both the remoteness and the inevitability that all of the exposed sections had to be downclimbed before I could really relax. This I did after the exposed notch on the north ridge that represented the single most difficult move on the peak.
I varied the descent by descending the northwest slopes to the basin just west of Dutch Miller Gap, much of it with boot-glissades. After crossing Dutch Miller Gap and locating pieces of tread towards nearby Lake Ivanhoe, I thought that the technical portions were done. However, the trail on the southeast side of the lake has steep snowfields yet to melt that demanded use of the ice ax to prevent sliding right into the lake.
From the Chief Creek crossing, the climb was 4000+ feet of elevation gain, so expect a full day depending upon your pace and how close you camp to the peak. From our camp along Waptus Lake, I estimated a 16 mile summit day.
Charlie Hickenbottom, Wenatchee, 7/12/2008