Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mt. Stuart N. Ridge!

The south face of Mt. Staurt from our campsite

A huge sigh of relief swept over my entire body as the man with the headlamp loudly shouted, “I found it!” Despite packing an extra set of batteries and testing my own headlamp before leaving, the on/off button had somehow broken and I was left in the dark.   At this point in the day we’d been going for about 14 brilliant hours and my thinking skills were suffering from lack of food, water, and exhaustion.  I’d done the N. Ridge of Mt. Stuart before and thought I knew what to expect.  The difference however, was that in July vs. September EVERYTHING, including the route, was covered in snow and ice.

One of the hundreds of mountain goats that inhabit the area

I’ll start from the beginning and then circle back to the end in describing this refreshing and humbling day in the mountains.  There are many logistical questions around doing the 20+ pitch, 5.9, upper North Ridge of Stuart in a day.  This mostly stems from the easier descents being on the opposite side, thus forcing climbers to traverse half of the mountain to get back to camp or car.  We’d decided to camp up in headlight basin to chop off the first 3 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation from the start of our day.  While allowing us a shorter approach this also meant we had to hike back up over Stuart pass at the end of the day.  This was a decision we were willing to make for the security of a tent and extra food.

Ingalls Lake

After drinking a Kokanee, the self appointed, “Glacier Beer,” I watched the sun set and anxiously dozed off to bed.  All too soon the alarm clock went off at 4:30, and it was time to start moving.  The approach went quite well up and over into Ingalls lake, a quick stop for some water, and then onto Stuart Pass.  This vista, also the start of the classic West Ridge climb allowed us a view of the valley below, which to our surprise was blanketed in snow.  After descending the pass we were forced to do a long and winding traverse on a 40 degree snow field to get to goat pass, our next objective.  The last time I’d done Stuart we took the right side of goat pass, as it puts one out closer to the climb.  I told Jason we should take this way again, but upon gaining another 500 feet of elevation found out that with all the snow, that this route would be impassable.  We had to come back down and take the left side of the notch.

On top of Stuart Pass, Goat Pass is behind me in the left side of this picture
Mt. Rainer

This brought us to the glacier, which in the current condition was heavily crevassed, and much steeper, than it had been before.  We quickly made the decision to not rope up for it as we didn’t have snow pickets and to just be super careful.  Each movement was calculated and precise, a kick in the snow, the planting of the axe, and then another kick.  Each step had to be solid, because any mistake would result in a virtually impossible to self arrest fall in the crevasses.   It took us a while but we made it fairly easily, and arrived at the notch, which is the start of the climbing on the N. Ridge. 

Stuart Glacier

Let me just say this route is amazing, it has provided me with two of the best climbing days of my life.  Once on it you have around 2,400 feet of clean granite to the pinpoint summit.  From the route you can see Rainer, Baker, the enchantment valley, and many rivers and lakes.  It is a surreal experience as for the most part the ridge maintains the width of a sidewalk, and at many places narrows to a knife edge.  On one side is the Stuart Glacier, and the other the Sherpa Glacier. You must move fast on this ridge, and unless you want to bivy on the route, you cannot pitch everything out.   

Getting onto the route
Somewhere on the ridge
A week prior Jason and I had practiced our simul climbing out of McCall, ID, on another one of my favorite climbs slick rock.  We were able to quickly work out our system and ascend the 1,000 foot 5.6 route in 1.5 hours.  We started simuling right away on Stuart and quickly worked our way up.  After navigating some tricky pitches that were covered in snow, we finally made it to the Gendarme.  This feature is incredible and holds two splitter pitches of 5.9 that give access the last 5 pitches of the route.  The last time I’d been on the gendarme we decided to haul our packs and made every mistake possible in doing so.  First the ice axe sticking out of the pack got stuck in a caribiner, and then we couldn’t get the packs to pull upwards.  This time I decided to just go for the lead with my pack on.  To my surprise, and the highlight of the day for me, I very solidly got both pitches clean and without too much hassle.  The pitches up above had tons of snow on them so the climbing consisted of a combo of kicking steps in my climbing shoes, brrrrr, and placing protection when I got to clean rock.  We navigated some very loose blocks, and shot straight up to the summit! We'd finished in around five and half hours, not bad for 20 pitches!


Once on top we quickly high fived, changed shoes, and started the descent.  The Cascadian couloir was our ticket down, and I was not looking forward to it.  This 3rd class route features about 3 hours of walking through talus and scree.  But again, the whole thing was covered in snow.  Kicking steps and essentially down climbing a 40 degree slope took us over an hour.  After this however the angle lessened and we were able to glissade for over 1,000 feet!  With everything still covered in snow we had no idea where the actual trail was and wandered around looking for a route down into the valley.  After crossing a few ridges, Jason said that he thought he saw a trail, we wandered over, and to our surprise, it was!  Another hour or so put us on the valley floor and by the creek where we refilled water and prepped mentally for the hike back up over the pass.

What started uneventful quickly turned interesting again as more snow covered the trail we needed.  ‘We wandered uphill and to the left and eventually after much bushwhacking found it.  Coming over Stuart pass we were rewarded with a sunset of bright reds, oranges, and purple.  We figured at this point it was only another 40 minutes or so to camp and were still doing pretty well.  From here all we had to do was walk down to Ingalls lake, and then over to our campsite below.  While on Stuart pass we talked to a large group coming in who was doing the West Ridge the next day and began following their footsteps.  This was a mistake on my part.  I followed their footsteps the opposite way around the lake as we’d come thinking they’d done a shortcut.  This turned out to be wrong as we became cliffed out, with our campsite agonizingly in sight.  Instead of backtracking a few miles I decided to build an anchor, leave some gear, and rappel off of the cliff.  Darkness was quickly approaching so I pulled out my headlamp, went to turn it on, and nothing.  Somehow the on/off button had broken…  So between the two of us with one small headlamp we set a bomber anchor, rapelled safely, and walked back to headlight basin. 

Sunset coming back down

A huge sigh of relief set over me as we came in.  At this point we were both a bit mentally fried, and physically spent.  As we walked around looking for our tent it was nowhere to be found, me stumbling around without a headlamp, and Jason with a poor excuse of one.  This continued for a mentally trying hour or so, when some other campers finally agreed to help us.  After another 20 minutes or so one of the awesome folks from Seattle yelled out, “I found it!”  I felt silly to be so mentally helpless.  There were points where we would just sit down and try to gain composure, but to no avail. 
The next day after brewing some espresso, we hiked the 3 miles downhill back to the car.  We split one beer, felt buzzed, and then drove to Cle Elum for apple fritters, more coffee, and pizza.  I once again tested myself in the mountains, was humbled, and remain stoked for more adventures!