by John Plotz
Tick-tock, tick-tock…the clock is running and Kyle Flick and I are sedentary below the second pitch of the lower north ridge of Mt. Stuart. The young gun leading above us is taking way too long on the 5.9 immaculate finger and thin hand crack. It’s already 10am and we have to get another 2,800 vertical feet of climbing done and another 4,000 feet of punishing descent to cover before it gets dark. So we sit and stew in self-righteous frustration, knowing that we could whip out this pitch in less than 15 minutes. I let out a breath of relief as he calls down that he’s off belay. His partner follows efficiently enough, with me nipping at his heels. They graciously allow us to pass, and Kyle and I are off on a long segment of simul-climbing that doesn’t end until we’re at the base of the famous gendarme, 2,000 feet higher.
Mt. Stuart is a Mecca of sorts. I try to make the pilgrimage to the North Ridge at least once a year. There is good reason: The route follows a perfectly exposed knife edge ridge on its upper half, and juggy fun climbing on its lower half, most of it on clean granite. For the 5.9 climber, the second pitch of the lower ridge is not to be missed. Today the temperatures are perfect (in the mid 60’s) and that ensures we won’t top out in a dehydrated delirium, babbling in incoherent, swollen tongues.
Once past the two climbers, I have relaxed into a rhythm of simul-climbing, of non-stop movement as quick as my following compadre will allow me. Which isn’t too fast. I find I can take two small steps upwards before the rope comes tight. I rationalize that I’ve been climbing more this year than Kyle and slow my pace to allow him peace of mind. This is hard to do, as I’ve done my share of solo climbs this year, and yearn for that untethered feeling of moving quickly, quietly, and efficiently up to the summit unencumbered by partner, rope, and rack. I adjust my paradigm today, however, and create my daily mantra: “Embrace the pace.”
Photo: Why so serious Kyle? This is supposed to be fun.
Three-quarters of the way up the lower ridge, I’m afraid to look at my watch. I’m guessing it’s probably around 4 p.m., and we’re going to get “benighted” on this route– something that’s never happened to me before. We have no bivy gear to speak of, and though I enjoy Kyle’s company, I would resist spooning with him in the frigid night to keep from freezing. Choose your partners wisely! I relent and dig my watch out of my stuffed pocket: 1:15 p.m. Good. We’re moving quicker than I thought. We make the notch by 1:30 p.m., which by consensus is generally considered the halfway mark on the north ridge. We take no breaks despite making up a lot of lost time. Kyle hands over the lead to me, and I gladly accept.
This part of the route is the “WHY” every alpine rock climber should lay hands upon this mountain. The route weaves up a backbone of white granite, as pristine as any route in the country, buffed clean by the many climbers that have passed over in years past. This is why the North Ridge is one of the 50 Classic Climbs the U.S. And it’s in our backyard! I smear, jam and pull my way up the incredible ridge, and quickly catch Team Phoenix, two climbers from Arizona who we had spotted on the lower ridge about four hours ago. They are reveling in the climbing as am I. However, the difference is that they are feeling the altitude and overall length of the route. They graciously allow us to pass, and we reach the base of the gendarme, furiously racking gear and flaking-out rope to fire off two of the best pitches on the upper ridge.
If the first pitch of the gendarme were right off the road somewhere in the Icicle Canyon, it would be “just okay”. But up here, around 8,500 feet above the Stuart Ice Cliff Glacier, and way above Horseshoe and Stuart lakes, with Colchuck and Dragontail peaks off to our east, and a thermal breeze urging us upward, it’s just about the best climbing available in the area. Kyle usually leads this pitch, but he’s feeling the effects of our long approach and the relentless simul-climbing and defers to me. I jam and lieback for 70 feet to the top of the exposed pillar and look thousands of feet down on the broken glaciers below. Kyle follows easily enough, and we don’t exchange any pleasantries as I re-rack for the second pitch. It’s a splitter crack that is larger than my hands, but not so much that I can’t shove a meaty fist into it and pull myself up. A few of these moves leads to much easier ground, but still remaining steep and incredibly airy. Too soon I’m at the belay, bringing Kyle up. He grabs the rack and races up one last belayed pitch. With the hardest parts over, we’re fighting time now. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
I race to the top on lead, simul-climbing mode once again. We touch the top around 5.30 p.m. We’re surprised at the time we made up considering the human obstacles. We don’t linger too long because we’re about to slog down the Cascadian Couloir (or “Crapcadian” Couloir as it is affectionately known in the climbing circles). This descent route is fairly straight forward, but loose and interminable. The length of it, 4,000 feet down, will lie to rest any prior delusion of merrily skipping back to the car whistling a happy tune. Moving at a steady pace, Kyle and I just barely make it to the Ingalls Lake Trail by dark.
Photos: John Plotz chilling for a moment and afternoon clouds assaulting the peak.
Think you’re done yet? Not in the least! Now we have to re-ascend a steep 1,500 feet up to Longs Pass only to lose that elevation once and for all on the limp back to the car. I curse each and every switchback on the backside of Longs, and by the time we reach the car, 22.5 hours after starting out, we’re hobbling more than walking.
I’m in pain, and am oh so tired. But I have a terrible memory about the brutality of these climbs. In a few days I’ll remember the kinetic sensation, clean line, exposed setting, solid stone, and the steady company of the experience.
Details, Details: Complete North Ridge in a Day
by John Plotz
Travel Strategy. I recommend the Esmeralda Creek Trail as your access and exit point, especially in late season. In early season, the Stuart Lake\ Mountaineer Creek approach is nice, fast, and convenient for us Eastsiders. But the Sherpa Glacier has to be in shape!! As the summer wears on, there is a large bergschrund on the Sherpa Glacier waiting to gobble up any mistakes, and the jaws of the schrund only widen as the summer progresses. On August 2, a party of two attempted to descend the Sherpa Glacier after climbing the N. Ridge. On one of their rappels, the anchor failed, and one of them subsequently had to be airlifted out. If you approach from the Esmeralda Creek Trailhead, your descent will be down Cascadian, which is straightforward and you can turn the stress-‘o- meter way down. Yes, this descent means you have to climb up and over Longs Pass, but, hey, it’s alpine climbing where suffering is a packaged deal. Plus, you get nice parting shots of Mt. Stuart and the headlamps of those bivying on the summit!
Access. We started at the Esmeralda Creek Trailhead at the end of the road up the North Fork of the Teanaway River. This is the trailhead used for accessing Lake Ingalls and Longs Pass. We slept at the trailhead the night before and blasted off at 2:30 a.m.
Route. Follow trails to Lake Ingalls and Stuart Pass, climb over Goat Pass, traverse down the north side of the mountain to the toe of the North Ridge, climb the complete North Ridge (5.9), descend Cascadian Couloir to Ingalls Creek, and hike over Longs Pass back to the car.
Map. See map below for more information (print on 8.5″x11″ paper in portrait mode).
General Climbing Strategy. Be confident and practiced enough to simul-climb most of the route. Kyle and I were way behind schedule, so I initiated the simul-climbing after the second pitch, all the way to the gendarme. Other parties less familiar with this style of climbing may want to belay the first 5 pitches, then start the simul-climbing where the lower ridge angle kicks back some. On the upper ridge, you may want to belay portions of it, but it’s 95 percent simul-climbing to the gendarme. The gendarme is two pitches of belayed climbing, then another pitch after that on a short, 5.9 crack. Then, it’s simul-climbing to the top. For this kind of climbing you must have utmost confidence that you or your partner will not fall!
Rope. One 50-meter or 60-meter rope. Much of the climbing is simul-climbing on a low-angle ridge crest, and the belayed pitches are no longer than 30 meters at best.
Rock gear. A recommended rack would be a medium alpine rack to 4 inches, doubles of 0.5″ to 3″. One four-inch cam is good for the second off-width pitch of the gendarme, which also has a fixed #4 Camalot in place. Bring 10 to 12 alpine quick draws as you will want to sling all your pieces out long on the simul-climbing portions of the climb. If you insist on sport draws, then have fun with your uninvited third partner, Mr. Rope Drag.
Snow tools. Bring an ice axe and crampons. There are portions of the traverse to the lower ridge from Goat Pass where we were very happy to have crampons. We left the ice axe behind, but it is strongly recommended that you bring one. Ultralight poons/axe are adequate for this route.
Footwear. Leave the clunker alpine boots at home. I recommend light hikers and comfortable rock shoes. The approach is long and punishing with 6 – 7 miles of hiking, climbs over two passes, and a long traverse to the start of the ridge. After the climb, you get a 4,000′ descent down Cascadian Couloir, a 1,500’’ climb back to Longs Pass, and another 4-mile drop back to the car. Light is right with the footwear.
Permits. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass 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.