Story and photos by John Plotz
Car-to-car suffer fests in which you pack several days of activity into one stupidly long push (like climbing the Complete North Ridge of Mount Stuart in a day) only work when both climbers stay
healthy. Throw in an injury on a remote climb like the North Ridge of this peak, and getting back to the car in under 24 hours becomes a pipe dream.
This was my first attempt at approaching and descending the North Ridge of Stuart this way. I’ve climbed the ridge in a long day before by way of Ingalls Lake/Esmeralda Creek Trailhead, and found it quite straightforward. On this trip, my friend Pat and I made plans to climb Stuart’s monster North Ridge, car-to-car from the Stuart Lake Trailhead. We planned to descend the Sherpa Glacier and tromp merrily out Mountaineer’s Creek to the car. Simple on paper.
We blast off from my second home, otherwise known as the Stuart Lake Trailhead, around 4 a.m. Not that I’m counting, but this is my 9th trip of the year up this trail. The going to Stuart Lake is leisurely and pleasant, quite unlike the steep approach to Colchuck Lake. Every now and then we catch glimpses of the North Ridge towering above Stuart Lake. This is Pat’s first climb on Mt. Stuart, so I recount the virtues of this route that have made it one of the 50 classic climbs of North America. The lower ridge has some difficult pitches on solid rock, and the upper ridge is indeed classic, ascending knife-edge arête on bullet granite.
By mistake I take us up to Horseshoe Lake above Stuart Lake. It’s not a deal-breaker for our climb but it does add an hour to the approach. We traverse around the basin and arrive at the toe of the 3,000-vertical-foot ridge. We gear up and I’m leading the first pitch. Besides the perfect rock my senses are overloaded by the sounds and sights of this magical place. We’re humbled by the spontaneous rumbling of the calving Ice Cliff Glacier, and can feel the vibration of tons of falling ice in our chests. This mountain is wild and alive.
Plotz looking (and feeling) spent on the summit…with still a long way to go.
Climbing on the lower ridge.
We swap leads up the first five pitches then unrope and scramble the next 1,500 feet up to the notch of the north ridge. The notch is a great bivi spot for climbers doing this route at a more reasonable pace. And, this spot marks an entrance gulley for people who want to experience the exquisite upper ridge only. This day however, we’re the only ones on the route. We enjoy a nice lunch, then continue soloing up to some of the steeper sections. I lead a short steep pitch, and notice Pat’s pace has slowed considerably. When he reaches the belay, he announces he has “done something” to his knee. We simul-climb slowly up to the gendarme, the crux of the upper ridge. We dispense with those two pitches, then simul-climb to the summit, reaching it at 6pm.
Pat and I are in no mood to dally on the summit–with the glacier descent we know our day is truly only half over. We’re currently apprehensive about getting back to the car at all much less without a heli-assist. Pat downs a couple Vicodin to ease the pain and we traverse slowly to the Sherpa Glacier col below Stuart’s false summit. The snow below the col on the glacier is thankfully soft. From my vantage it looks steep! On skis, this would be fun; with light hikers, and a hobbled partner, I see potential for disaster. At the bottom of the steep section is a gaping bergschrund, ready to swallow up any climber unfortunate to make a mistake.
We begin the tedious downclimb, 1,000 feet of it. It goes slowly. I get the huge open crevasse at dusk and panic at the thought that there is no means of getting over this monster. After some tense searching, I find a tiny snow bridge just barely providing passage over the darkness. Pat is still way above me, so I wait below the schrund. I coach Pat to the tiny bridge and we are greatly relieved we’ve both surmounted this descent crux.
But Pat is in trouble still. He limps more than walks and doubts his ability to descend the rest of the way. Pat is both worried and apologetic about creating such an epic. I shrug it off, stating the weather is stable and I could use the sleep. We prudently find a large boulder on the glacier and spend the night buffeted by cold wind gusts. This is the problem of “light and fast”, which translates into “cold and sleepless” if you have an unplanned emergency bivi like tonight.
Morning comes oh so slowly. When it does, Pat, the walking pharmacist, takes a few more Vicodin and announces he may be able to descend on his own. In fact, he does amazingly well on the slow hike back to the car. For him, it’s a long journey and exercise in pain management. For me, it’s an exercise in coming up with an excuse for my unexcused absence from work.
Details: Climbing the Complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart
See the Stuart Lake
entry in the WenatcheeOutdoors hiking guidebook to get you most of the way there. Follow the Stuart Lake Trail until it more or less peters out, then follow a route around the lake and to the base of the climb. Climber’s trails come and go along this portion of the approach. We actually went up to Horseshoe Lake, but that will add mileage and time…Horseshoe Lake is beautiful, by the way, and worth the hike!
Start of the Route. The lower North Ridge begins below an obvious roof which is seen in the trip-report photo above. There is an awkward chimney section that your pack will assuredly hate, but it’s short. Look for a clean, scrubbed vertical crack about 200 feet up the toe of the route and aim for that. This is the crux of the lower ridge, with thin jams and physical laybacks. After that, just follow your nose up the cleanest rock. Route finding on the upper ridge is a “no-brainer” as it’s heavily traveled and clean. On the upper ridge, one can bypass the Gendarme by rapping down into a loose, often icy gulley. Why people avoid the two best pitches on the climb is beyond me. In my opinion, the objective hazards of the Gendarme bypass gulley far outweigh the technical difficulties of actually climbing the Gendarme.
More Route Info. For additional route information and sketches of the route, see the Cascade Alpine Guide: Volume 1 by Fred Beckey, and/or 50 Classic Climbs of North America by Steck and Roper. Selected Climbs in the Cascades : Volume 1 by Nelson and Potterfield does a good job of covering the upper ridge.
Rock Gear. Our rack consisted of doubles of finger-sized cams to one three-inch cam. If you’re not entirely solid on off-width climbing, you may want to bring along a 3.5-inch cam for the second pitch of the Gendarme. There is a fixed, 4-inch cam in the off-width pitch (as of July 2008). We used a single, 60-meter, 8.5mm rope. If you plan on falling a lot, bring a thicker rope.
Snow Gear. I used light hiker (shoes) with aluminum crampons and Black Diamond’s lightest ice axe. This was sufficient for the descent down the Sherpa. That being said, if the snow had been harder on the glacier, I would have been in trouble.
Bergshcrund Issues. I would say that our climb (7/12/2008) may be the last one of this season where you can cross the bergschrund on Sherpa Glacier without a rappel. Additionally, if the schrund is melted out, the snow up high will also be mostly gone and scree surfing down 45 degree slopes will be even more insane. I would emphatically recommend approaching and returning via Ingalls Lake/Longs Pass from this point in the summer on forward.
Descent of Mountaineer Creek. A little luck can make the difference between fairly good walking and some fairly unpleasant brush. As you approach the main trail to Stuart Lake veer toward the higher portion of the trail sooner rather than later… this will help you avoid the marshes and skeets.
Drugs. After this experience I am a firm believer in stronger pain meds for long alpine outings. My partner probably would not have made it out on his own steam had he not had his Vicodin.
Other Gear. I wish I’d brought extra hats, a light sleeping pad, and wind pants. These all would add a lot of bivi warmth with neglibilble weight penalty
Final Tips. When pushing the envelope of what you can accomplish in a day, try to be as familiar with the route as possible. Nothing adds more time to a climb than trying to figure out where to go while on route. Also, be comfortble with your partner so that you can comfortably simul-climb, thereby efficiently covering moderate terrain. If you were to belay every pitch on the North Ridge, it would potentially take you three days to complete the climb. Get your food down to a science. There are some really great snacks and drinks out there these days that can provide the boost when you need it most and actually taste good. Finally, as a former local ice climbing hardman once told me, learn how to suffer well!