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.

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