Photo: Mt. Stuart from camp in the Headlight Creek Basin, The West Ridge is the left skyline.
by Andy Dappen
I’d already underestimated it twice. I’d found out the hard way that Mt. Stuart, was one big hunk of uplifted granite.
Twenty five years ago my wife and I took on a north-face route up Razorback Ridge. Knowing that friends who were technically less proficient had completed the route car-to-car from the Esmeralda Trailhead in 18 hours, we were confident we had plenty of time for a tent-to-tent ascent from Lake Ingalls. The climb went well but it was long and we reached the summit minutes before the sun dipped below the western horizon. We hurried down the Cascadian Couloir but it was soon pitch black as we negotiated the tedious descent. Being prepared mountaineers, we pulled out the one headlight budgeted for the two of us (weight savings, you know). The batteries died within 15 minutes and for the next few hours, using Braille more than sight, we crawled down the mountain to the valley floor.
Off the mountain, it was simply too black in the woods to complete the several mile hike back to the tent. We wrapped ourselves in an emergency tarp carried for such occasions and shivered all night long. Shivered and slapped. The only thing happy about our predicament were the mosquitoes. My wife has never asked for a rematch with Stuart.
A few years later, however, I returned with my brother hoping to even the score. We left the trailhead in early evening and at dark camped near Stuart Lake. Early in the morning we launched our assault of the upper North Ridge, confident we would make the summit, descend the Sherpa Glacier, and be back at the car by evening. Once again, blackness engulfed us as we descended the lower stretch of the Sherpa Glacier. Once again the batteries of our one headlight died quickly and we worked our way down the mountain by touch. And once again I was forced into an unplanned bivy—this time on the lumpy talus of the glacier’s moraine.
After this thrashing, it was me who gave up on Stuart. For twenty-some years I avoided the peak. Recently, however, Bill Dobbins enticed this rusty gunslinger to try Stuart yet again. On a Friday evening in early August we hiked by the golden light of a setting sun toward Lake Ingalls. Slightly before dark, we established camp in Headlight Creek Basin near the lake (camping is no longer allowed at the lake). The objective ahead: a tent-to-tent climb of the West Ridge.
Photo below: Climbing the first gully up to the West Ridge
August 8, 2009
I’m confident we’ve got Stuart by the balls today. The climb entails a huge amount of third- and fourth-class scrambling with a few fifth-class pitches sprinkled in. We’re both fit, experienced, and technically capable. On this charmed third attempt of the mountain, our supreme machoness should make Stuart whimper.
We leave camp at 7 a.m., hike around Lake Ingalls, contour a short distance toward Stuart Pass, and then take the beeline approach, dropping some 500 feet to Ingalls Creek and climbing directly up to the starting gully. At the start of the climb (the first continuous gully leading up to the West Ridge), we estimate our down-and-up approach was less efficient than contouring to this point from Stuart Pass. No problem, we have squandered a trivial 15 or 20 minutes.
Onward we go. Making good time, we reach the top of the first gully, traverse into a second gully, and reach its top. The mountain is quavering under our awesomeness. Making the long traverse under the West Ridge toward the West Ridge Notch, however, I realize Stuart isn’t quavering but laughing when we find ourselves dead-ended on a traverse. Although we shouldn’t need it yet, we rope up, complete some technical climbing, and find our way back to easier ground. Poof—an hour dissolves into smoke.
Photo: Bill Dobbins climbing on the West Ridge a few pitches below the summit
We keep moving, now somewhat hesitantly, and reach the West Ridge of the summit pyramid, scramble the ridge a short distance, and rope-up. A pitch later we reach a notch where we could scramble on easy ground over toward the peak’s south rib. Hard men that we are, we opt to stay right on the West Ridge and attack the summit directly. It goes. But there’s an added pitch of technical climbing and that pitch is harder (5.8). Poof – another half hour dissolves into smoke.
We reach the summit two hours behind schedule and enjoy the summit views and a 30-minute rest. Then down Cascadian Couloir we go. We reach this route’s steep snowfield near the 8400-foot level and poke around for a faster, snow-free alternative. Nothing obvious presents itself. We unpack our ice axes (thank God we brought them!) and start backing down the snow. We think about glissading but, with our soft running shoes, some spills are almost guaranteed and these steep snows terminate in a killing field of boulders. We play it safe and slowly back our way downhill.
It seems to take forever…except when we compare our progress to two other climbers who have no axes and who are belaying themselves down the snow. Those two are moving so slowly they’ll be sleeping on the mountain tonight. We, however, intend to escape.
We’re out of the couloir and two miles up the Ingalls Creek Trail by 8:30 p.m. At what I believe to be the 5,500-foot level, I make a suggestion to Bill. Following the established trails back to camp will have us traveling the two long sides of a triangle. Take that route and there’s no way we’ll beat the oncoming darkness. But we could walk, cross-country, up the Headlight Creek drainage and be back at the tent with minutes of daylight to spare. It would make the day’s tussle with Stuart more of a draw than a defeat.
The hitch? The air pressure has been oddly variable today. I keep readjusting the altimeter at known points, but after a short climb the instrument is misreading. Using an elevation reading to start our cross-country route is a gamble.
Bill is game to roll the dice. We leave the trail and follow a bearing back toward camp. We make quick progress before that progress comes to a quick halt on a rock spine with a dim view of the surroundings. The altimeter’s reading was bunk and we left the trail too high. Time evaporates as we traverse convoluted ground into the creek drainage. The sky is charcoal gray and this terrain will be hard to negotiate with the one headlight we carry … especially if that headlight carries the curse of my Stuart Karma. For a third time this awesomely dim climber has learned this is not a mountain to be underestimated.
I’m humbled, yet still proud — I don’t want to get completely spanked by this mountain again. As darkness pinches in around us, I shift into a higher gear. A cool three minutes before absolute blackness, we stumble into camp.
Road Access. Follow Highway 97 south of Blewett Pass about 14 miles and veer right onto Highway 970. Follow Highway 970 roughly 5 miles then turn right on the Teanaway Road. The Teanaway Road is paved for the first 13 miles. At the end of pavement, go straight, following the North Fork of the Teanaway (Road 9737). Follow Road 9737 about 9.5 miles until it ends at the Esmeralda Trailhead where the trails to Lake Ingalls and Longs Pass begin.
Camping. Hike the trail about 3.5 miles to the Headlight Creek Basin located about a half mile before Lake Ingalls. There are designated places to camp here and,as of 2009, camping is not allowed closer to the lake.
Bivy Options. Many people climbing the West Route travel with bivouac gear. They bivy before or on the mountain (approaching the route from Lake Ingalls), carry all gear over the mountain, and return to the car by hiking over Longs Pass. There are scores of good bivy sites all along the route, but by mid-summer there is no water on the route.
- From Lake Ingalls, follow the trail northeast and then east to Stuart Pass. Traverse east on climbing trails leading to the first continuous gully system cutting up to the west ridge.
- From the 5,800-foot level of Ingalls Creek, head uphill in a northeasterly direction into the gully described above.
Map: See map below for more information (print on 8″x11″ in portrait mode).
The instructions below mix Fred Beckey’s route description of the route (from the Cascade Alpine Climbing 1) with our observations. If you pick your route carefully, there’s only class 3 and class 4 climbing leading to the West Ridge Notch. From this notch there’s more class 4 and some class 5 climbing leading to the summit.
- From about the 6,800-foot level, scramble up the first continuous gully system leading up to the West Ridge. Climb this gully to its top (about 8,200’). Then traverse east along ledges leading to a divide into the next big gully.
- From the divide, descend slightly into the next gully, then climb this gully working slightly right as you ascend. Some of this is exposed 3rd class that, depending on the choices made, can easily lead you into exposed terrain with some class 5 moves…study the terrain carefully as you move up. Reach a notch (roughly 8,600’) with Long John Tower (about 8700’) off to your right.
- From the notch there are two choices. 3a) Bear left from the notch and follow a ridgelet upward a short distance before traversing east across another gully; move up this gully to the ridge crest west of the West Ridge horn (a formation at about 9,080’). Traverse on a ledge (on the south face) that’s roughly 150 feet under this formation and under an obvious scissors-like formation near the skyline. Descend slightly while traversing small ribs and more gullies before reaching the West Ridge Notch (9,020’). 3b) Descend slightly from the notch then traverse in an easterly direction following irregular ledges that sometimes rise and sometimes descend. Intersect the gully rising to the West Ridge Notch; climb to the notch.
- From the West Ridge Notch, climb just south of the ridge crest for about 150 feet then cross to the north side of the crest on a ledge and follow this about 60 feet before climbing back to the crest at a small notch. A few feet south of the crest follow cracks and stair-stepping blocks straight toward the summit for 160 feet to a very small notch in the ridge. From this notch the standard route descends a ramp about 15 feet and follows a ledge across the SW face about 250 feet. Near the ledge’s end (close to the South Rib), class 5 cracks curve upward to easier rock on the rib (1.5 leads).
- A more direct variation does not traverse from the aforementioned notch. Instead, stay on or near the West Ridge all the way to summit. From the notch, a short meandering pitch (rope drag issues) works left around a block on the skyline then descends a short distance south of the crest. Jam up short, strenuous twin cracks (5.8) then stair-step up class 5 blocks leading directly to the summit in about 200 feet.
- Additional route information from thisSummitPost link.
Rating: 5.4. There is a lot of exposed, class 3 and class 4 climbing and route-finding errors can land you in more severe terrain. The route is best tackled by climbers who lead at a higher standard than the rating would suggest.
Time: 6 hours. If this is your first time on the route, budget extra time – Stuart is a complex peak.
Descent. Descend via Cascadian Couloir. To reach the couloir, follow a true bearing of 123 degrees away from the summit. Near the 8,400-foot level, descend in a more southerly direction (true bearing of 163 degrees). Even in August, steep snow can be encountered on the descent and an ice axe is recommended. There is a way to avoid the permanent snowfields by traversing east across the south face of the mountain several hundred feet below the ridge crest connecting the summit to the false summit. The traverse brings you into Cascadian below the steep snow, but it’s easy to get sucked too low and cliff out. If this happens, climb higher looking for ledge systems leading you into Cascadian.
Rope: one 45- or 50-meter rope.
Protection: small rack with gear to 3”. Plenty of single- and double-length runners.
Other gear: carry an ice axe for the descent (crampons recommended in early season).
Permits. Much of the area is in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and a self-issued permit must be filled out at the trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the trailhead.
Leave It Better Than You Found It. This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route.You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.