Mt Stuart (9415ft/2870m)
August 28-30, 2006
All photos courtesy of the Todd Hogan Collection
Ok, so no speed records were set, but Todd Hogan and I completed what we set out to do last year. We climbed the upper north ridge of Mt Stuart and enjoyed almost all of it. We lost a little time on the descent- about a day, actually -but besides that it was a really enjoyable route with varied climbing on beautiful granite and stellar views!
Last year Todd and I were snowed out on our attempt, so we were happy to be back at it for another go. Since neither of us had been on the route before, we decided to err on the side of caution and just climb the original or upper north ridge route. We also made the decision to bring bivy gear and spend a night on the route.
We left Seattle around 5am and arrived at the Esmeralda Basin Trailhead around 8am. It was crisp and cold as we hit the trail at 8:15am. Our first sign that things weren't going to be easy came early. About a half hour into the hike, Todd's camera battery died. He was able to snap one shot and that was it.
Lucky for you all, kind readers, that we ran into a nice couple at Ingalls Lake who were on their way out and gave us their flashlight batteries! We drank some water and ate some food as we visited with the couple. They had hiked in the Esmeralda Basin trail and made a loop around Ingalls Peak via Jack Lakes where they were accosted by a herd of goats.
After saying goodbye to our photographic record saviors, we hiked around the far side of the lake where a group of campers were breaking nearly every Leave No Trace rule in the book. With their tent pitched five feet from the lake shore and their dog running all over, it was no wonder we didn't see any wildlife.
Near the head of Ingalls Creek we filtered water that we hoped would last us until we crossed the Stuart Glacier. Here we met two climbers hiking back down the north side. They had intended to climb the north ridge but decided to turn around because of difficult access to the Stuart Glacier from Goat Pass. They said the glacier had receded away from the ridge so they would have had to scramble down about 500 feet to get on it. While this was troubling news, Todd and I continued on to take a look at it ourselves. Rather than dropping down to the valley floor, we found a trail that allowed us to traverse high on the ridge around to Stuart Pass. There were several nice bivy sites at the pass with rock walls for windbreaks.
We dropped down the other side and made an ascending traverse across a large boulder/scree field under the looming west wall. We scrambled up to Goat Pass anxious to see what the glacier conditions were like. It really wasn't too bad. I suppose in early season the greater snow pack would allow one to make a more direct crossing high on the glacier to the notch were the north ridge route begins. We made our way part way down the other side to where we got on a steep snow finger. Crampons went on and ice axes came off our packs as we kicked steps backwards down the slope.
Gentler slopes allowed us to traverse under and around a rock finger where we could ascend the glacier up to the notch dividing the lower ridge with the upper ridge. On the glacier we were able to fill our water bottles from the run off. As we climbed closer to the ridge, the route up to the notch became more obvious. From across the glacier it wasn't so obvious to us.
At the notch we were amazed at the near perfect bivy sites that we found. Flat, sandy ledges with rock walled windbreaks! We had originally planned to climb the first five pitches and then bivy, but we had heard that the bivy sites higher up the ridge weren't all that great. So the decision was made to relax and rest up for our big day tomorrow: climbing the entire route and descending via the Cascadian Couloir.
Life was very good as I sat it my cozy bivy sack, munching my deli sandwich, taking in the spectacular views! There were at least four other excellent bivy ledges with windbreaks and since we had the route to ourselves, we picked the two best. Todd's site was a little lower than mine and had the benefit of being under a large protecting overhang. Mine was perfectly level and had a great view looking up the ridge and back down to the Stuart Glacier. We were treated to a stunning sunset before we retired. It's been said that the anticipation of joy is joy itself. It had been a good day and we still had the north ridge waiting for us!
I awoke with the sun and was surprised to see Todd was already up. We had both slept pretty well, although some rock fall in the middle of the night had awoken us and caused us some alarm. It was then that I envied Todd's site with the protection of the overhang!
After eating some food and packing up our gear we tied into the rope and coiled a third of it for easier simul-climbing. We were using Todd's skinny rope, a Black Diamond Joker with its lithe 9.1mm diameter. Since I was planning on doing most of the leading, I brought my rack consisting of a handful of Stoppers, two medium hexes, and six cams supplemented with our co-worker, Marcus's #4 Camalot to be used on the off width pitch of the Great Gendarme!
Todd and I climbed quickly and efficiently and the first several pitches flew by. I would stop only when I ran out of gear. While planning the trip we had talked about getting out for some warm up climbs to practice simul-climbing together, but they never happened. Even so, we worked very well together. I tried to keep moving only placing gear at corners or exposed places, and Todd cleaned and racked the gear so fast that I never felt a tug on the rope.
Near the big slab below the Great Gendarme the weather started to change. We knew from the forecasts that a small front was moving in the evening of our second day, but we hoped to be well on our way down before that hit us. Well, as luck would have it, the weather came early and with the winds the temperature dropped like a rock. Frost was visible on the rope and our toes and fingers were blocks of ice.
The cold slowed our pace and we arrived at the base of the Great Gendarme around 3pm. We knew the extra pitches of the Gendarme (and the hauling of packs) would add significant time but to climb the North Ridge without climbing the Gendarme is like going to Disneyland and not riding The Matterhorn. And I don't get to Disneyland very often!
So I changed into my Mythos rock shoes, and up we climbed to the top of the pillar. The climbing was much easier than it looked from below. Several ledges provided good rests and the hand crack offered plentiful gear placements. Even so, with my cold hands, I had to take a few feet below the top to warm them up. Once on top I built an anchor, tied in, and then lowered my end of the rope so Todd could attach my pack. My ice axe kept jamming in the crack so I would have to lower it down, swing it around, and then haul it back up. It was at this moment that a "light and fast" strategy really made a lot of sense!
To save time, Todd climbed the pitch with his pack on. I was amazed! The second pitch of the Gendarme traversed right for about 15 feet to the base of the off width crack. Inspired by Todd I led out with my pack on, but looking up at the off width quickly curbed my enthusiasm. A well placed #2 Camalot held my backpack as I wedged my way up the wide crack. I placed my #3.5 Camalot and climbed past a dead #4 cam that had a weathered sling. I placed other gear and kept saving the #4 Camalot for the "offwidth" part of the crack and was surprised to find myself at the belay cave at the end of the short pitch! I found a large crack at the back of the ledge where the #4 fit nicely so I clipped in and called off-belay! I equalized the bomber cam with a marginal nut and then traversed out right where I was directly above the crack so it would be easier to haul my pack up from Todd. I built another anchor here so I was able to belay Todd up and haul my pack with relative ease.
The last short pitch of the Gendarme was significantly easier than the first two and we soon found ourselves on top at a large sandy ledge. My toes were freezing so I changed back into my Trango Guide boots. It was instant warmth as I put on my hiking socks and boots! The next pitch was somewhat awkward, dead ending near some slings. I really didn't want to rappel, so I found a way to do a downward traverse that ended at a prominent notch. Here we lost some time as I was feeling pretty tired and the steep cracks in the face in front of us didn't look very well traveled. I led up to the base of the crack, then turned around and tried climbing down and around to the right. That was a mistake, as the rock was loose and it would have involved difficult climbing to gain the easy terrain that we saw farther still. So back up I climbed to the belay and then back to the cracks that we were looking at originally. The climbing was probably around 5.8 but being as tired as I was, it felt very strenuous.
Above this face, the climbing got much easier and Todd and I simul-climbed the last 300-400 feet to just below the summit. It was a little after 7pm and we still had to get down the Cascadian Couloir so we quickly coiled the rope and stashed the rack in our packs and headed down the summit ridge. We followed the ridge down to the false summit, passing many cairns and bivy sites. We knew Ulrich's Couloir was directly below the summit itself, so we kept following the cairns down and left. We passed one obvious large couloir but the cairns kept following the ridge so we continued up high on the ridge until we came to the next couloir. Still following cairns we headed down this couloir, believing it to be the Cascadian. A few hundred feet down it, the cairns ended at some cliffs. We tried continuing farther east but over the ridge it was very steep. Next to the cliff was a steep snow field which through us off because we had heard that the Cascadian didn't have any snow in it. We thought about putting on our crampons and climbing down the snowfield, but with the cold weather, the snow had firmed up quite and bit and self arresting in our tired state might be difficult so we chose to climb back up to the ridge and look again for the Cascadian.
We followed the summit ridge back up to the top of the next couloir west and found a set of cairns leading down it. This must be the Cascadian I reasoned since the next couloir up was Ulrich's and the one we were just in had snow in it, which the Cascadian doesn't have. So we followed the cairns down the large couloir. At the summit I had tried to use my cell phone to call Kim but couldn't get a signal. There was definitely a front moving in as we could see dark clouds in all directions. I had left my phone on in the event that there would be a break in the clouds that would allow a cell signal to get through. Sure, enough a few minutes down the gulley, my phone beeped indicating that I had a new voice mail. I immediately called Kim and after a few attempts I got through and let her know that we were going to be very late, but we hoped to make it down tonight but if we didn't feel safe we would bivy and come down in the morning. Todd was able to call his wife as well and give her the same message. We knew that we would lose the faint signal we had as soon as we descended further, so that would be our last communication until we were able to drive back to Cle Elum.
No sooner had we hung up and it started to snow and the cairns ran out on the left had side of the gulley at the top of another cliff! We backtracked up to where we could scramble down the right side of the couloir and found ourselves at yet another cliff. It was after 9pm by now and it was getting dark. Not knowing exactly where we were and running out of daylight and energy we made the decision to bivy for the night. There was a cave on the right hand side of the couloir so we smoothed out the sandy floor to make it somewhat level and unpacked our gear. For an unplanned bivy it was pretty cush! We were out of the snow and the wind, we had warm sleeping bags, bivy sacks, sleeping pads, extra food, and even water left over from the climb. The only thing we didn't have was a way to let our wives know we were ok.
After our full day, we slept pretty well, although the small cave forced us to sleep with Todd's feet right next to my head. Even so, it must not have bothered me too bad since Todd heard me snoring during the night. The next morning we awoke to about two inches of new snow. We packed up our things and once again retraced our steps back up to the summit ridge to try to figure out which gulley was the Cascadian. Once again we followed the cairns back down the same gulley to where they ended on the left side, but this time we noticed a cairn higher up on the ridge. A short scramble up a low fifth class jumble of rocks, and we found another set of cairns heading down into a gulley that we couldn't have seen from the two previous couloirs we had checked out!
I had climbed up the Cascadian Couloir on a Mountaineers climb about 8 years ago, but it was in early July so we were on snow most of the way. I thought I remembered a few of the slabby areas but for the most part it was unfamiliar. In the end it got us almost all the way down to the valley floor. We had been working our way down opposite sides of the couloir and we both came upon steep cliffs that would require rappels. Here we exited the couloir to the right (west) to easier terrain where we picked up some game trails that we followed down to the Ingalls Creek Trail.
Happy to be on trail, but not quite out of the woods yet, we tried to figure out which direction to hike to get to the creek crossing that would access the trail up to Long's Pass. We hiked east for a little bit, then decided to hike west up the valley towards Ingalls Lake. We had enough of trying to locate trails so we figured that if we didn't find the creek crossing, then we would just bite the bullet and hike the good trail back up to the lake and hike out the way we came in. It was a few miles longer than the Long's Pass trail, but at least it was on good trail and we knew exactly where it led.
We arrived at the mouth of Ingalls Lake around 5pm and didn't stop until we arrived at the trailhead at 7:15pm. As we were approaching the trailhead, I joked to Todd that I was a little disappointed since on my last unplanned bivouac, my partner Dan and I were met by a National Park Ranger on our hike down and no one was on the trail to greet us this time. Well, I had barely finished my words when a white SUV pulled up in the middle of the parking lot and a big Deputy Sheriff stepped out. He called out, "You wouldn't happen to be Peter, would you?" "Yes, I am sir!", I replied. "That makes me very happy. We were about to get things started to go look for you guys." After thanking the Deputy for coming out to look for us, he told us he would radio in that we were found and let Kim know.
So tired and hungry we drove back to Cle Elum in need of something to eat other than Powerbars and GU! Thanks Todd for a great climb and sorry to Kim and Lena for making you worry.