Friday, August 30, 2013

Mt. Stuart's Complete North Ridge

On Sunday Aug. 25th I met Travis in Cle Elum. Our goal was to climb Mount Stuart via the Complete North Ridge, also called the Direct North Ridge, or Lower and Upper North Ridge w/ Great Gendarme (V 5.9). For me this climb was a culmination of sorts. For the past year I have been trying routes in varying weather conditions and becoming more comfortable climbing in these less-than-ideal situations. I have also been wishing (perhaps naively) for experiences where things don't all go according to plan. Most importantly, this was going to be the longest and most technically challenging climb I had yet attempted.

Stuart's North Ridge, the black rock rock buttress, from Colchuck Peak during my first trip to the Stuart Range in March.

Looking across the Stuart Glacier to the bottom of the North Ridge with Colchuck Peak in the background.

We hiked in from the south via Ingalls Lake and over Goat Pass. It was cloudy and sprinkled rain on and off. After dropping down onto the north side of Stuart we crossed snow fields and rubble beneath the Stuart Glacier to arrive at the base of the North Ridge. We slept on a nice bivy platform and awoke at 6am to clear blue skies, filled two 4L Droms with melt water and started toward the technical climbing. My Drom, poorly secured, fell out of my pack and burst. This left us with only four liters of water for the entire climb and set us up nicely to have an "experience."

Cloudy skies looking west from Goat Pass on the approach.

The Stuart Glacier and North Ridge with the moon above it in clear morning light. Time to climb!

Maybe it was the clouds that suddenly rolled in with a vengeance. Maybe it was the rumble of collapsing seracs on the Ice Cliff Glacier. Maybe it was the loss of drinking water. Maybe it was that the first few pitches felt hard and scary with packs on. Maybe it was my awareness of how long and potentially committing this route was. Maybe I was scared that I would screw up. Maybe it was all of those things, but I was nervous most of the way up the lower ridge. It didn't help that I didn't know why. I couldn't pinpoint any particular reason for me to be nervous, I just was. All these different possibilities kept running through my head, all distractions. Finally it happened, as it always does on long routes, though it took a while on this one. I looked down at the rubble and glacier beneath me and couldn't tell how far up I was. There was no difference between this belay and the last one. My mind could not comprehend my location on something this big so the only thing it could do was focus on the rock in front of me. A couple pitches later the angle kicked back and we started simul-climbing. I was focused, strangely comfortable while being decisively uncomfortable. Nothing mattered except what I was doing right then, not whether we summited or even lived or died, because I had no way of knowing what was in the future. I only knew what was right in front of me and so that was what I dealt with. Clarity, focus, presence of mind, "living in the moment" if you will. This is when the act of climbing becomes justifiable in and of itself, and is not merely a means to an end.

The Ice Cliff Glacier from the base of the North Ridge. The rumble of ice fall filled our ears every 10-20 minutes.
Looking down the lower North Ridge it's hard to tell how far up we are.

The clouds thickened, the visibility dropped, the day moved on. We climbed, swapped leads, climbed more. It spit rain, the rock slickened, we climbed anyway, the rain stopped. I don't really remember many specifics, everything blends together. After 12 hours of climbing I started leading up the Great Gendarme, the crux of the upper ridge. We needed to get through this and fast. Light was fading and we needed to find a ledge to sleep on. Our intention had been to summit and be descending by this point. Obviously that wasn't going to happen. I plugged a #3 cam and hauled myself onto the belay ledge halfway up the Gendarme. You can link both 5.9 pitches but pitch two is an off-width and I would need that #3 to protect myself effectively. I belayed Travis up and started toward the off-width. "I see snow flakes," said Travis. I didn't care, I just wanted to be done. I yarded on the #4, then again on the #3. I need water, I need food, I need to lie down. Then I'm out of the off-width only to be confronted with various cracks, slabs and blocks with no idea which way to go. After down-climbing a couple times I find a ledge and belay Travis up with terrible rope drag. Travis leads off behind the Gendarme hoping to find a decent ledge to sleep on. Luckily he does and belays me to a small sandy bivy supported by loose rocks. We sleep in our harnesses, clipped to the mountain. My head and shoulders are hunched up on the rock behind me, my feet dangle off the edge. We toss and turn, half-sleeping the night away, and I contemplate every possible meaning of the phrase "be careful what you wish for."

Travis is up there somewhere leading more wand'ry bullshat.
The weather tries to decide what it is doing as rain and sun float across the ridges to the west.

In the morning we can see sun patches through the clouds but they quickly disappear and we are left in the mist. We can barely make out the rock 40 feet away. After a couple false starts I am leading toward the final headwall, a short 5.8 crack. I am still in my approach shoes to keep my feet warm. I get tunnel vision and end up in the wrong dihedral. The rock steepens and this is not the low 5th class that it's supposed to be, but I just want to be done, so instead of down climbing I push on. Bringing my knee up quickly for a foot jam I bash it into the rock. The dehydration and lack of sleep amplify the pain and I feel like I'm about to pass out or puke. I look down at my last piece 20 feet below me but instead of being scared I get angry at myself for not thinking straight. I force myself to pay attention, throw in two cams and build an anchor. I belay Travis up to my hanging stance and he takes over the lead, traversing to a very easy chimney just to my left that I hadn't seen. We drink the rest of our water and then he leads us through the 5.8 headwall. Back on easy terrain we simul to the summit and take a few quick photos before starting the descent.

Vague hints of sun are briefly visible 2,000 ft below us from our bivy ledge. My feet are in the bag at right.
Travis' feet on our bivy ledge and the mist filled void beneath.

Travis enjoys some food beneath the summit.
Me, finally standing on the summit of Mount Stuart.

Finding the descent route in the clouds proved difficult but we eventually got on the east ridge and found great cairns following easy sandy ledges towards the Cascadian Couloir. The cairns went up into a notch above the ledges and we were unsure whether this was correct, but after following the sandy ledges to a dead-end we returned to the notch which deposited us in the top of the Cascadian. It seems that many climbers have lots of bad things to say about the Cascadian as a descent route. I am not sure if this is because they have limited experience on scree and talus, or if they ended up in the wrong couloir, or if I am just getting too used to the awful Oregon Cascades. But Travis and I both felt that this was quite an easy descent. A short section of following cairns through loose talus leads to a well defined trail through the scree. Frankly, the whole thing is better than the trail up South Sister, and everyone and their grandmother hikes that trail.

Looking back at the south face of Stuart from Ingalls Creek. The summit is still socked in.
Once down in the Ingalls Creek valley we drank extensively from streams and bushwhacked our way over to Long's Pass. This delightful 1,500 ft uphill really gave my legs a nice break from going downhill before the final switchbacks down to the car. We met Caitlin in Cle Elum five hours after we said we would. Luckily she was hanging out in the library working and hadn't called search and rescue yet. For dinner we ate massive quantities of Mexican food, then I took off for Leavenworth and points north with the intention of climbing more. Two days of car camping helped me to recover and think about Stuart, but unfortunately the weather did not improve and I headed back to Bend.

Things I should have considered before Mt. Stuart:
1. This climb is listed as being roughly 28 pitches long, since it is an old school mountaineering route most of these pitches are closer to 50m than 30m, making it more like 40 crag pitches or 4,000 ft of climbing.
2. Mountain Project lists this climb as 5.9+. I usually poo-poo things like this on MP, thinking that people want to talk up their climbs. However, given the people involved in the FA of the upper and lower NR, and the era in which they were climbed, you have to expect this "classic" 5.9 alpine rock route in the Cascades to be fairly stout. It sure felt that way.
3. I made a loaf of peanut butter and honey sandwiches to eat on this climb. These are difficult to eat without water and make you thirsty afterwards which sucks when there is no water on route and you have to carry it all (and your Drom breaks, halving your water supply). Also, food variety is nice.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Monkey Face via West Face Variation: Continuing Education on Smith's Moderate Multis

When I first started climbing at Smith the one climb I really wanted to do was the West Face Variation to the Pioneers Route. This is supposedly the best route to the summit of Monkey Face that doesn't involve climbing sandbagged 5.11 or harder. For those who don't know, the Monkey is the most iconic spire at Smith. It towers over the Crooked River and is overhanging on all sides, which makes for a spectacular piece of rock.

Monkey Face and the Crooked River. West Face Variation comes up the back side to the notch.
Over the last 18 months, Monkey Face never lost its appeal, but for some reason I never climbed it. I quickly added many more routes to my ticklist, most of which came from the Alan Watts guide book. (There is a list of the 2-5 best trad and sport climbs at each grade. I wrote down every route on that list that is a multi-pitch and/or a trad climb for every grade up to 5.12a.) After climbing all the routes up to 5.10, the West Face Variation on Monkey Face was still undone. In fact, it was the last route on my list under 5.10. Obviously the time had come.

The West Face of the Monkey. You can see the face with its mouth cave at the top. A climber in red is on Bohn Street.
On Saturday my friend John was passing through town and we met at Smith for some cragging. I haven't been rock climbing much since Squamish and wanted to get in some mileage on moderate terrain. We eventually decided to do Monkey Face and found the route free and open, which is truly amazing for a summer Saturday at Smith.

John's van in his personal parking space at Smith... Yeah, he is that cool.
We cruised up the trad pitches and then, while I was belaying John up to Bohn Street it started to rain. Luckily the ledge was sheltered by the overhanging face above. We assessed and decided we might as well climb the bolt ladder to the mouth cave and see how it was. We had opted to climb the bolts old school ghetto style and had not brought etriers or daisies. John led off, yarding on quickdraws and taking between bolts. He reached the top quickly but in the distance we could hear thunder. We decided it would be better to have me clean the bolt ladder and then try make it to the main rap rings before the storm really opened up. I headed up and got myself into a muddle standing on slings and loops of cord. Juggling too many pieces and not sticking to a straightforward strategy, I mis-clipped a draw and it fell to the ledge below. Frustrated with myself I tried to focus and pulled awkwardly into the cave.

Looking up the West Face of the Monkey.
The best rap rings were directly above us through the cave roof and I would have to lead the short but exposed 5.7 pitch to get to it. Between the weather and the dropped draw I let myself get unnecessarily nervous and muscled my way up the pitch with some really ugly climbing. As I reached the belay ledge with beautiful, huge rap rings, the sun came out. John followed and we figured we should just belay the short scramble to the summit. Minutes later we were on top, hollering at hikers and relieved that the weather had cooperated.

John on the summit.
We got back to the rap rings and prepared for the two rope, overhanging rappel. We extended our belay devices for prusik back-ups and then I made my second mistake, which was to clip my belay biner to my harness to get it out of the way. Maybe I automatically thought it was just like a PAS and didn't consider the ATC on the end, but before I knew it my rappel device went tink... tink... gone into air. Now I'm several hundred feet up a free-standing rock pillar that is overhanging on all sides without the one piece of gear I need to get down. Sure, I could Munter, but on a rap this long with two different rope diameters things could get ugly. John, ever the scholar and gentleman, gave me the cool stare and said, "dude, you need to stop dropping shit." He then rapped, tied his ATC to the rope, I hauled it back up, and rappelled on his device. Thanks John!

"Dude, you need to stop dropping shit."
We pulled the ropes, walked back to our stashed packs and ate lunch. Given that I've wanted to do this climb for a while, and that it was the last one under 5.10 on my ticklist, I wish it had gone more smoothly. I felt like I should fly up it with style and ease, and not drop shit. Instead I learned that I'm still just a beginner and rock climbing is challenging no matter the grade. I have a lot to learn and I definitely learned some stuff on Monkey Face. I guess the important thing is that I survived and learned from my mistakes. From that perspective it was a pretty good experience. John, I owe you a beer and a quick draw when you get back to Smith. Thanks for being a great partner and being stoked to climb awesome routes!

Monkey Face after the rappel.

My Smith Rock Tick List (up to 5.9)
Western Chimney, Mesa Verde Wall, Smith Rock (5.5R, 1 pitch)
West Face, Brogan Spire (Marsupials), Smith Rock (5.5X, 3 pitches) Solo
South Buttress, Brogan Spire (Marsupials), Smith Rock (5.5X, 3 pitches) Solo
Super Slab, Red Wall, Smith Rock (5.6, 3 pitches) Solo*
Moscow, Red Wall, Smith Rock (5.6, 3 pitches) Solo*
Bookworm, Dihedrals, Smith Rock (5.7, 2 pitches)
Spiderman, Spiderman Buttress, Smith Rock (5.7, 2 pitches)
Living Blindly, Opossum (Marsupials), Smith Rock (5.7, 3 pitches) Solo
Sky Chimney, Smith Rock Group (R of White Satin), Smith Rock (5.7, 3 pitches)
Birds in a Rut, Wombat (Marsupials), Smith Rock (5.7, 6 pitches) Solo*
Out of Harm's Way, Spiderman Buttress, Smith Rock (5.8, 1 pitch)
Lion's Jaw, Morning Glory Wall (L side), Smith Rock (5.8, 1 pitch)
Round River Direct, Koala (Marsupials), Smith Rock (5.8, 3 pitches) Solo*
Sky Ridge, Smith Rock Group, Smith Rock (5.8R, 3 pitches)
West Face Variation, Monkey Face, Smith Rock (5.8 A0, 5 pitches)
Marsupial Traverse, Marsupials, Smith Rock (5.8, 10 pitches)
Moonshine Dihedral, Dihedrals, Smith Rock (5.9, 1 pitch)
Sundown Dihedral, Mesa Verde Wall, Smith Rock (5.9, 1 pitch)
Peking, Red Wall, Smith Rock (5.9, 3 pitches)
White Satin, Smith Rock Group, Smith Rock (5.9, 3 pitches)
Wherever I May Roam, Smith Rock Group, Smith Rock (5.9, 5 pitches)
*climbed with a partner first

Another thank you to all the awesome partners who have gone out with me and taught me the basics over the past 18 months. It has been a blast climbing with you all!

Friday, August 9, 2013


After a month plus in Alaska, recovering from too much partying, finding a new apartment, and trying to figure out other pesky "real life" issues, I was excited to plan some alpine outings.

On a Thursday morning I met a new partner, Travis, in Sisters. We were going to climb Three Fingered Jack by its south ridge. This easy "5.2" route is standard Cascade volcanic choss... and by choss I mean a badly constructed sand castle several hundred feet high. There are some bands of more solid rock but they are so isolated and fractured that it doesn't really improve anything. I digress...

Looking west from low on the ridge.
We left the car shortly after 6am, starting at the PCT trail head on Santiam Pass. The hike went quickly and we had no problem finding the climbers trail (a lack of snow can be nice I guess). After scrambling up the ridge we figured we should actually use the rope and pro that we had brought and pitched out "The Crawl." Apparently people literally crawl across this ledge on all fours. This seems a little overly-dramatic and not very effective so we stayed upright.

Travis tackles a short step.
After that we simuled up some more easy scree and a chimney (the 5.2 crux!) with tons of knobby holds that all seemed ready to pop off. I belayed from some rappel tat thinking the summit was just above on solid looking rock. We then left the rope, which we soon regretted, and continued around the corner onto very loose conglomerate. After a step the ridge narrowed, just before the true summit. Gripping the knife edge and scooting toward the summit it felt like the whole thing was moving and was easy to believe the first ascent party's statement that the whole mountain swayed in the wind. This is confidence inspiring stuff... NOT!

Smokey views to the east.
We photoed a bit and down climbed to the rope. One rap and a reverse lead of The Crawl went fast. Then interminable scree and a hike out (which always seems longer than the hike in) got us to the car around 12:30. Yay! Now I still have time to move more stuff into the new apartment.

Travis approaches the summit on a sketchy knife edge ridge.

The south ridge from the summit, Mt. Washington in the distance.

Jefferson to the north from the summit.