It went as it usually does on an August weekend (2015). I was looking for adventure so I turned to Paulie and he said he and Beth were trying to hatch a plan for Mt Stuart in Washington, a 20+ pitch alpine route and one of the 50 classics. A team of 3 would be too slow so I only had a few days to convince a partner to come. There was only one person I thought of – Katie. Of course she agreed instantly and we were set to go.
The next few days were a frantic panic of emails working out logistics since there are many things to think about with an ascent of Stuart. Often its the art of figuring complicated logistics that becomes the allure for me.
So here are some of the things to think about; before you even get to the climbing there are a plethora of different ways to approach the route and where to leave the car. The ideal trails to approach and descend don’t start and end in the same place and you are looking at about a 2hr drive between the two (see overview map above). This could be done if you have a rest day to spare and want to spend it doing a car shuffle to trail heads, however driving from Vancouver for the weekend we weren’t very time rich, so it wasn’t really an option. I have shown some of the options for approaching in my maps below (remember – if the maps aren’t showing well, just click on them for a link to the full scale version!).
There are many factors that come into play when choosing how to approach and descend the route, but one factor is deciding where you are going to start it. There are two options. 1. Approaching Stuart by crossing the Stuart Glacier and heading up the 5th class gulley to the notch (Second green node on the map). 2. wrapping round to the very toe of the ridge and climbing the Direct North Ridge which adds 4 more technical pitches up to 5.9 and approx. 3 more long 5.fun pitches which can be simul-climbed.
We were all really taken with adding more technical rock pitches (4 pitches) to our adventure and to add to that none of us were too excited about carrying crampons and ice axes and other more cumbersome glacier travel equipment up the route. We had figured it would be too ambitious to be going for a day ascent, so we would probably also be carrying bivi gear and all that stuff together would just make the packs too heavy for much fun.
For us this meant that descending the Sherpa glacier would not be an option. Besides not wanting to take the requisite gear for glacier travel, late in the year the Sherpa is usually not very well filled in and a real challenge to cross. This is a shame because the Mountaineers route (from the North) is apparently the most straight forward route to ascend and descend with the least net gain in elevation. The problem is that to get back to the Mountaineers route after descending the Cascadian Couloir (which is the typical descent route) you need to almost circumnavigate the whole mountain, making a very long and arduous ordeal.
The maps represent a few of the more common options. Pros and cons are as follows
The other variance in the route is to climb the Great Gendarme or not. The Great Gendarme is a very cool feature that provides the 5.9 portion of the climbing if you don’t opt for the Direct start. It can be avoided with some tricky abseils, traversing and other tom-foolery, which means that if you eliminate the direct start and the gendarme the route caps out at a technical grade of 5.6/5.7, but logistically and aesthetically the 5.9 seems much more appealing.
After evaluating all the factors in play we decided on a plan. We would drive down from Vancouver on Friday night and bivi at the Ingalls Lake trail head (perhaps officially known as Esmerelda…but it goes to Ingalls lake!) where we would be leaving the car. The next morning we would head in on the Ingalls lake trail, up Goat Pass, then Stuart Pass and skirt the Stuart glacier to eventually end up at the toe of the North Ridge Direct, we would climb for as long as we could, taking the Gendarme and not the easier variation, until darkness or exhaustion set in and then we would bivi, wherever possible. We would then hope to top out, descend via the Cascadian Couloir, then ascend back to longs peak to pick up the Ingalls lake trail and back out to the car to drive home to Vancouver all in the second day.
We all met around Main street in Vancouver after work on Friday and jumped in the back of Paulie’s Van. Katie had pre-ordered us massive pizzas so we didn’t need to stop anywhere for dinner on the way. Paul did an awesome job of driving us all the way to the trail head in one push, via Cle Elum and then finding the forest roads in the dark without getting lost. We set up bivi at the trail head in the dirt by the van at about 11pm.
At 3.30am we awoke and packed our stuff in darkness. Beth surprised us with a 12 deep tray of Cartems donuts after being inspired by Andy Kirkpatrick’s blog to eat pastries for breakfast before a big climbing day. I think being faced with an imperitive three-donut-chug at 3.30am was more stressful than Andy’s advice intended. Nonetheless it was pretty awesome.
We set off in on the trail around 4am. The trail head is really easy to spot (even in the dark) on the right hand side with a big sign (see below). The trail to the lake is very distinct and well travelled and we had no problems following it. There are just two intersections to note. One comes about 500m into the trail and you want to make sure to take the right hand fork that climbs more steeply. The next intersection is at about a mile after the first, this is where the trail splits to the left for the Lake and the right for Longs pass. From memory the way to Longs pass is signed. Go left for Ingalls Lake.
I think it maybe took us 2 hours to reach the lake as it was just beginning to come light. We stopped at the lake and filled our water bottles. This was the last place we knew we’d definitely find water so we stocked up and treated it with iodine tabs.
Taking the left side of the lake (we read it was much easier to do so and there proved to be no issues this way) we continued on to pick up a sandy climbers trail that dropped for a while before heading back up to the ridge to gain Stuart pass. Avoid dropping too early in to the scree filled basin below the West Ridge of Stuart (photo 3. above) You’ll only loose elevation that you will need to gain back by battling over more large boulders than necessary to reach the other side of Goats pass. I actually really enjoyed the change in terrain that the large granite boulders allowed, playful hopping and jumping between them seemed to take away some of the pain that the steepness in grade dished out.
We stopped at Goats pass to grab a quick snack before making the last section of the approach to gain the toe of the climb. For some reason the top of Goat pass created a real wind funnel so we hunkered down in this existing shelter to eat.
We skirted below the Stuart Glacier and the route by which you would reach the notch became clearly visible. It was possible to completely avoid the snow line and still take a direct route to the base of the Climbing. It took us approximately 6 hours to approach.
Thankfully we had no problem finding the start of the route as it can be easily identified by looking for the right slanting roof that caps the 5.8 wider section toward the end of the first pitch. Unfortunately no one had any decent photos from our trip of the start of this either so I’m going to borrow someone else’s again since it illustrates where you should be so well.
Eager to start the route Beth began scrambling up what looked to be an easy section to gain a ledge where she would stack the ropes for the first pitch. Unfortunately this section wasn’t as easy as it looked in approach shoes and with a heavy pack so with my rock shoes on I climbed up and offered her a rope. With hindsight, we agreed that we should have started the roped climbing a little earlier to avoid that tactical error.
I think it was around 10am when we started the route. Paul and Beth went just ahead of Katie and I. The first four pitches are as follows;
- Pitch 1, (5.7) Layback to 5.8 squeeze.
- Pitch 2, (5.6-5.7) easy face climbing
- Pitch 3, (5.9+) corner crack
- Pitch 4, Short section of 5.7
I wasn’t looking forward to the wide section of the 5.8 first pitch as I have a history of being horrible at wide stuff and especially with a pack on this reputedly wriggly, awkward section was not appealing to me. Thankfully I found that although it took a bit of a thrash and a fight it really wasn’t that bad at all and you could get good, smaller sized cams in the back (which also meant you could get good hand and fist jams too!
I found pitch 3 really quite difficult and insecure in places especially for 5.9, but the crack is super aesthetic and very worth doing. apparently there is an easier alternative at 5.8-5.9 if you head out right but we did not look for it, it’s hard not to b-line for splitters!
The climbing eased at this point and the way finding was mostly always straightforward, sticking to the ridge, following your nose for the path of least resistance when in doubt. With Paul and I leading and Beth and Katie following both parties kept a similar speed most of the way up, it was really fun climbing in a party of 4 like this with some of your best friends. We had some spectacular views out across the skyline already and looking down onto the Sherpa glacier and Ice cliff glacier as they gave run off all day was pretty damn cool!
At one section just below the notch, we somehow lost Beth and Paulie and I remember being a little confused about way finding. We were on a belay on the left side and our easiest options for climbing scrambled across a face and up some slabs for a couple of pitches. There was a large clean roof heading back out left at one point to a pinnacle on the ridge but I couldn’t see beyond that so wasn’t sure where it lead to. I carried on across the dirty rock on easy climbing but was very nervous that I had lead us the wrong way since we had seemed to leave the ridge for a few pitches and the rock – despite being solid, didn’t seem very well travelled, incongruous to nearly all the reports I’d heard about the cleanness and quality of the rock on Stuart. Thankfully as we turned the corner on the other side of the face, we found Beth and Paul again, and the notch so it turned out we were in the right spot.
Paul said he had the same fear about being off route but he went to take a look up at the clean section on the left that I mentioned and it’d didn’t seem to go anywhere plausible. When we got home we read a TR that talked about climbing black licheny dirty rock for a few pitches which seemed to fit with what we had done.
At the notch there is some bivi sites and I’ve heard of a few people taking a day to do the approach the 5th class scramble to the notch, then sleeping there and going for the rest of the route the next day.
It was early afternoon when we made it to the notch so we pushed on. Back on the ridge the way finding seemed easy again and we were back to climbing almost as a four. As a team Katie and I weren’t comfortable simul-ing the whole way as although most of the climbing was pretty mellow, there was an occasional move which would give pause for thought. What seemed to work fairly well was if I lead out a full 60m pitch and if I wasn’t able to belay when the rope ran out Katie would start climbing with the understanding that I would belay as soon as possible afterwards. Since we were pretty efficient at building stations and on the change overs, pitching it out like this didn’t seem to make it too slow.
As the light started to dim and the great Gendarme came into view we regrouped on what appeared to be a good bivi ledge. The problem being that with four of us, we needed a bigger bivi ledge than normal.
The spot we chose was probably ideal for three people, with two good flat spots and one larger area that was not so flat but would have worked in a certain orientation (in the foreground in the above picture). There was also another flat spot just big enough for one down to the left on a ledge below the main bivi (just out of sight on the photo). No-one opted to take that spot as we anticipated a cold night and thought being stuck out on an isolated ledge would make us more susceptible to the elements. Opting for shared body heat over levelness Katie and I went top-to-toe on the uneven spot whilst Paul and Beth squeezed into the smaller flat space.
The night was actually really warm despite only having my sleeping bag and no pad to protect me from the rock but I wriggled the whole night trying to find a comfortable position where I wasn’t upside down and thus got barely got any sleep. In the morning I really wished I’d taken that flat spot lower down.
It didn’t take long before the beautiful morning light pouring over the cool looking great Gendarme dusted off any tiredness and weariness left over from the bad nights sleep. After a cool slab in crack pitch it was time to tackle the crux pitches of the gendarme.
The first was a very sweet looking corner crack over two wavy ledge features. I lay-backed and jammed and although I felt solid by the top move, with a pack on I was definitely getting pumped. A little bit of try-hard saw me pull over onto the ledge.
This is one of the the coolest ledges with the best views I have ever belayed from in the PNW. Next came the wide crack section which Paulie kindly left me an extra #3 for as we had got one stuck in the pitch below. There is a stuck #4 in the widest part of this section which is really handy as it meant we didn’t need to lug ours up there to protect this pitch. The widest section was bigger than my fists but only lasted for a move or two until you can pull into a break and head out right where there are more fixed pieces and the climbing eases. Although these crux pitches are 5.9 they still felt pretty serious with packs on, the climbing was sustained and the rock immaculate.
From the Gendarme there was about 5 or so more pitches to climb of easier ridge climbing with an occasional 5.6-5.7 move. I remember some sections of moving belays and down climbing but route finding was generally pretty straight forward. There was one crack pitch (I think labelled as 15 in the topo below) that was significantly stouter and steeper and required one or two moves of grunting but it was very stellar climbing. It wasn’t long before we hit the summit at around 11.30 am.
It was awesome to celebrate making it to the summit as a four but unfortunately our work for the day was far from over so we didn’t dwell there for too long. We faced an approximate 6 hour hike out to the car. The first part descended the notorious Cascadian couloir which we had been warned to be careful not to drop too early into and get the wrong one. Fortunately a party of four had just topped out Stuart by scrambling up the Cascadian couloir (I really don’t see the appeal!) but we were able to follow them back down into it. It was fairly straight forward to find as long as you scramble across and down on solid rock to descenders left before dropping into any of the couloir features. On a clear day such as we had, it was easy to see down to the base of the South side and pick out the route also.
The Cascadian Couloir was pretty hellish for most people but Paulie who has a penchant for this kind of descending. Dusty loose shale blocks threatened an ankle sprain with every step and when they slid out in unison a dust cloud was created that made breathe intake unfavourable. On top of that it was really hot and our water supplies were fiercely dwindling. Spirits were however lifted when the crowds dispersed and each member of our party of four were able to run off in different directions to take care of washroom business that may not have been taken care of yet that day since we had shared a rather intimate bivi.
We all became desperately in need of water and just as we seemed to hit a scree descending wall we miraculously found the right forking trail though trees that Eric and Lucie describe in their blog to short cut the couloir descent. I’m not sure how we managed to be certain enough we were at the right altitude to be in the correct place for this trail but we went for it anyway. Turns out our chance paid off and soon we were descending through a meadow to the sound of a river below. This was enough of an incentive for me and I started running toward the water supply.
Turns out we must have been a little brain-addled by this point in the weekend as our sense of direction had totally gone and we oh so nearly turned left at the bottom of this meadowy hill if it weren’t for a friendly couple walking their dog who put us in the correct direction by turning RIGHT. If we had turned left it would have been a 6 mile hike through desolate hillsides before we would have reached the road and realised we had gone wrong.
Once we had stocked up on water it was time for another ascent. This is the really draining part of this hike out. Descending for so long only to have to gain elevation again to get up and over longs pass and meet back up with the Ingalls lake trail. Fortunately our lungs had enough energy to belt out an ironic rendition of eye of the tiger to motivate us up the last bit of the steep gradient.
Back on familiar terrain it wasn’t long before we were closing in on the last switch backs that marked the very start of our mission some 38 hours before. Warm beer at the van felt like liquid gold. Once we’d refreshed at the car we headed into town for a bizarre Mexican meal experience and Margaritas to celebrate. I think driving Paul’s van back across the border and facing the guards usual interrogation with such a tired brain was the crux of the mission for me.
Another 50 classic in the bag, another incredibly memorable experience with awesome friends. Couldn’t recommend this route more! Get after it!
Other very useful blogs I used include:
- John Plotz solo’ the North Ridge in a day
- Eric and Lucie
- Todkilcup detailed TR with a bivi at the summit
- Upper North Ridge TR, desk to dirtbag
- Steph Abegg bivi on descent via west ridge