Mount Stuart - North Ridge, July 2005
So there I was, once again kicking dirt on the Stuart Lakes Trail. How many times have I hiked this damn trail over the years? Nine? Ten? Too many. After five I think I naively pronounced myself done with it. I know better now. With the abundance and quality of snow, ice and rock routes in the Stuart Range, not to mention better weather than areas west of the crest, I may very well find myself hiking this trail for many more years to come. In any case, I certainly wasn't done until I had climbed Mount Stuart's classic North Ridge.
Probably one of the best "moderate" alpine rock routes in the state, on the most significant peak in The Enchantments/Stuart Range, the North Ridge is an obvious "must-do" climb. With that in mind, Martin Cash and I decided to climb the ridge over the July 4th weekend. As the holiday weekend approached, details of our climb began to emerge. Despite my silent concerns that we might be biting off more than we could chew, I agreed to climb the complete North Ridge with the option of forgoing The Great Gendarme pitches if we were short on time. We would hike in via Stuart Lake Trail/Mountaineer Creek on the north-side, and return to camp by descending the Sherpa Glacier Couloir (reported to be in good condition). By doing so, we'd avoid the unpleasant south-side Cascadian Couloir descent not to mention the final demoralizing hike back up to the usual camp at Ingalls Lake. Or would we?
Well, not exactly. We wound up climbing the abbreviated "50 Classics" version of the North Ridge; a far cry from the complete North Ridge. We would also enjoy a semi-unplanned bivy in a horse-camp down along Ingalls Creek and nearly circumnavigate the mountain en-route to our north-side camp the following day. Despite all of this, Martin and I still thoroughly enjoyed the relatively easy yet exquisitely exposed climbing the North Ridge has to offer. With only a light breeze and valley temperatures reaching highs in the 80's, the summit was also a wonderful place to relax and vegetate. We could have lounged up there for hours, but with the nagging specter of 1000+ ft of icy face-in down-climbing looming before us, our grief was far from over.
Having twice previously approached via Mountaineer Creek (en route to Ice Cliff Glacier), I located the climber's path after only a short off-trail thrash. We reached camp beneath the Sherpa Glacier in about three hours from the trailhead. We pitched the tent and killed time swatting mosquitoes, before making a short reconnaissance hike up to the terminal moraine below the Ice Cliff Glacier. With a close-up view of the lower North Ridge, we tried reconciling the route description with what we were seeing before us. It certainly didn't appear obvious to me, but one thing was for sure - we'd be climbing steep 5.8/5.9 rock right off the bat...and without a morning coffee no less! We worked on a few boulder problems after dinner and called it a night shortly thereafter.
We left camp around 5am and soon found ourselves scrambling up sandy ledges near the base of the lower North Ridge. After much poking around, we eventually located the first 5.7 lie-back pitch just left of the highest larches. In our flailing to reach a suitable belay spot, and generally having a hard time climbing with surprisingly heavy packs (we each stuffed boots, crampons and a sleeping bag in our packs), Martin and I began to question the wisdom of continuing on this course. Without much hesitation, we decided to abort while we still had time and go for plan 'B' instead - the upper North Ridge via the standard approach gully and notch.
After changing back into our boots, we slogged up onto the Stuart Glacier proper. Front-pointing up the glacier was a bit interesting with a lightweight aluminum axe and crampons, but we soon intersected an obvious boot path leading up a steep snow gully to a notch (a few exciting low 5th-class moves near top). Roping up at the notch, we were soon joined by a party we previously saw traversing the glacier from Stuart Pass. Having left the car at 2:30am to climb the route in a day from the Ingalls Lake Trailhead, and wearing just one crampon each on the downhill foot for the glacier traverse (trail-running shoes and no ice axe), these two gave new meaning to the term minimalism.
With Martin at the sharp end of the rope, we simul-climbed the entire ridge with only the occasional belay - more for rope management than anything else. Most of the climbing was solid mid-5th (some loose, licheny 4th-class rock at first), mostly left of the crest, save for one committing 5.7-ish move to regain the ridge crest just above where the bivy sites apparently are. With a third party starting up from the aforementioned bivy site, we endured a brief traffic jam as all parties converged on the same bottleneck. Patches of snow still clinging to lower-angled slabs down low also forced creative route finding, making for some interesting climbing.
The ridge then narrowed and we briefly traversed an easy but incredibly exposed ledge on the shady, right-side of the crest to reach a small notch. Fun climbing up slabby rock then brought us up to a broad ledge where we stopped for a rest. Continuing on the crest we gained a small tower followed by a short pitch of exposed down-climbing that looked harder than it was. The oft photographed "slab with crack" now stood directly before us, with the Great Gendarme looming behind. Martin cruised right up the slab and quickly disappeared from sight. Beyond the slab lies the classic finger traverse pitch. Wow! I'd say this pitch is definitely the highlight of the route!
From a small but comfortable ledge I belayed Martin up the final easy pitch to the base of the Great Gendarme. After re-racking gear and flaking the rope, Martin somewhat reluctantly but bravely led up the first "old-school" 5.9 lie-back pitch. Unwilling to commit to the final 10 feet of difficult climbing, Martin had me lower him from a nut. We were in a bit of a predicament now. Still choked with snow and ice, the otherwise easier gendarme bypass route to the right looked like suicide to me. The prospect of down-climbing and rappelling the ridge back down to the notch wasn't sitting well with me either. Shit! Fuck! Now what? Only adding to the pressure, the bivy ledge party was now upon us, waiting to clip in to the anchor...waiting for our decision.
If Martin was tiring of my repeatedly asking "are you sure", he certainly didn't show it. Despite my reservations, we rapped down to a ledge and had our fun with the ice and wet slabs on the gendarme bypass pitch. With a belay off a solid 3-cam anchor, Martin carefully worked over towards small section of wet slab. With scarcely a divot for his boots (excavated from beneath a thin layer or ice) and only the pick of his axe thrust into the brittle ice above, Martin delicately inched his way over to a marginally better stance just next to the icy gully. Once there, he had to chop a couple steps in order to get across and back onto rock (our crampons would have been utterly useless).
A few more careful moves on wet, licheny rock, and he was able to clip a piton and take a much needed rest. Working up and right, he clipped one or two more pitons before committing to one final greasy, wet-slab move followed by a sketchy, albeit short step across the last bit of ice. A blocky ledge then led up to easier ground above, whereupon Martin set up a belay. It was now my turn, and convinced that I was going to slip on the initial slab traverse and pendulum into the rocks, somehow I managed to scratch myself to safety and soon found myself at the belay. Phew! I then led the next pitch of 4th and broken 3rd-class rock to a saddle in the Northwest Ridge. From the saddle, we booted up patches of wet snow and climbed loose 4th-class (some 5th) rock on or near the ridge crest for the remaining pitches, reaching the summit around 4pm. A short nap was in order.
After re-hydrating, we started down towards the Sherpa Glacier Couloir only to be disappointed with what we saw when we got there. With steep, icy snow and a rock band about 200 feet below, it looked nothing like it did when Eric and I descended the couloir in June of last year. Unwilling to gamble with whatever unknown difficulties lay ahead, our only option was obvious, yet totally unanticipated. Good thing we brought our sleeping bags, eh? 5,000 feet of blister-popping scree later, we finally arrived at the base of the Cascadian Couloir. Locating a large campsite down along Ingalls Creek we built a fire and settled in for the night. Lying on my pack with the rope at my feet and Martin lying mostly in his pack, we both slept better that night than we did the previous night in the tent. Go figure.
The next morning we continued up-valley towards Ingalls Lake. The hiking was easy and the alpine meadows around the lake were quite pretty. Hey, this ain't so bad I thought to myself. Without breakfast and only scraps for dinner, however, the steep grind up Goat Pass and annoying boulder traverse to Stuart Pass sapped what little energy we had left. After downing about five Gu's in one sitting and Martin finishing off the last of his energy bars, we set off for the final snow traverse beneath the Stuart Glacier, reaching camp in a surprisingly quick sub four-hour trek. We reached the trailhead around 5pm and quickly downed a warm beer before heading home. Dropping the W8 into 6th, I cruised over the pass and made it home in time for a BBQ with friends and the July 4th fireworks...a fine send-off for a fine long weekend in the mountains!
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