Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cascade Climbs Part 3: In Deep on the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart

With success on Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, Drew and I were eager to keep the send train rollin'. Little did we know that the North Cascades were going to hand us an extra large serving of Humble Pie!

After drying out in the hotel in Bellingham, Drew and I decided to head in to Boston Basin for a brief weather window and climb the Torment - Forbidden Traverse. We got absolutely soaked and muddy on the approach into Boston Basin and it wasn't even raining! If you have done this approach, you know exactly what I'm talking about. We slept through a wet night only to hear rain on the tent as the alarm went off at 4am. After sleeping in, we had a casual breakfast with multiple coffees as the wetness continued. At 11am we changed our objective and decided to try the popular West Ridge of Forbidden. We navigated the glacier approach in full whiteout conditions and standing at the base of the route, staring into the mist we determined that the forecasted weather window wasn't coming and we were tired of being wet! 

We bailed, packed up, sketched down the trail and checked in to the hotel in Bellingham!

 I was getting tired of the rain. Nothing was drying out. We only had three days left before my Advanced Alpine Guides Course started and we needed another objective. After checking the weather forecast and brainstorming with guide books, Drew and I decided to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart.
Mt. Stuart dominates the southern end of the North Cascades. Being on the southeast side of the range means that it generally gets less precipitation. The North Ridge is a long committing alpine climb a days hike in from any trailhead. We chose to approach from the south, camping at Lake Ingals the night before. The full North Ridge is Grade V, 5.7-5.9 with up to 30 pitches of alpine ridge climbing. The standard descent is down the Cascadian Couloir to the south. No matter how you approach the North Ridge, you're going to have to walk around the mountain either to get home or get on the route. 

Lake Ingals and our camp south of Mt. Stuart.

We chose to climb the popular upper North Ridge (grade IV, 5.7-5.9) which crosses the Stuart Glacier and climbs a small couloir to gain the ridge at about half height. Here you can see the upper ridge in profile as we crossed the Stuart Glacier. The approach couloir is visible on the lower left, and the Gendarme is on the skyline at about half height. The Gendarme has two pitches of 5.9 climbing and requires a bigger rack. Our plan was to avoid the Gendarme by climbing around it, moving with a lighter alpine rack and climbing in mountain boots instead of rock shoes. Little did we realize when planning for the climb that all the precipitation we experienced in Boston Basin would translate to a significant amount of snow and ice on the north side of Mt. Stuart.

Some perspective on the scale of things... here I am approaching the "small couloir" which provides access to the upper North Ridge.

Drew and I have done a number of alpine ridge routes and I think we figured this would be a fairly straight forward ascent of one of the 50 Classic Climbs. I was a little surprised when the terrain and conditions dictated that we pull the rope out in the couloir. I had anticipated cruising through this unroped and moving quickly. Was this a sign of things to come???

Once on the ridge we removed our crampons for a stint and enjoyed the sun.  

Pitch after pitch fell away as we climbed splitter granite with snow on the ledges and some wet rock here  and there. The higher we climbed, the more wet rock we encountered. After several spicy leads it became clear that we were going to have to put crampons back on.

Here I'm leading a wet and snowy crack that would be easy fifth class when dry. The crack widened beyond the size of our gear and I had to run it out another 50' to the next belay. Like much of the wet climbing below, I found this pitch a demanding lead. 
The Gendarme looms overhead and our anxiety was building. Due to the conditions we were finding on the ridge, I began to question whether or not we were going to be able to bypass the Gendarme. The route around requires a rappel off the north side of the ridge into a gully, and then several more pitches of easy fifth class rock. 

The conditions on the north side of the ridge did not look inviting at all. Occasionally I would sneak a glance over the edge as we continued to climb towards the Gendarme. I pushed all thoughts and fears away in hopes that our route around would be obvious and less intimidating. 

Several more pitches landed Drew and I at the base of the great Gendarme... our fears were realized. Here we were 12+ pitches up the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. Climbing along the ridge was blocked by 5.9 climbing on the Gendarme. We had neither the protection nor rock shoes to attempt to the route; not to mention the cracks were visibly iced up. A descent down the ridge would mean essentially loosing our light rack as we would have to build rap anchors the entire way way down. This would take all day and would be, at the very least, complicated. Also, our camp was on the other side of the mountain and a retreat down the north side would mean retracing our approach to the south. The other option was to commit to the snow and ice gully. We had no ice protection, only crampons and a single snow axe each. Up to this point the climbing had been made more difficult by the snow. Looking into the gully and seeing only snow, ice and rock we were reluctant to leave the ridge...

Drew and I discussed our options. We decided that he would lower me into the gully to test the conditions. If they weren't good, I could potentially climb out and we would start our descent down the ridge. If the conditions were good, he would rappel to me and we'd continue up the gully. 
Constant sluffing had firmed up the snow so that I was front pointing every step. This was much better than I had imagined. I pictured shallow, weak, unconsolidated snow covering steep rock. I built an anchor and shouted up to Drew that it was a go. He rappelled and pulled the ropes. We were now committed to the gully, with retreat back to the ridge not too feasable.

I lead a run-out traversing pitch, slinging icicles as I went. Although the climbing was not difficult, I only managed three pieces of protection in 160' - two of which were slung icicles and more mental pro than anything else. The thought of a slip rang in my mind as spindrift and ice occasionally showered down from above. I kept telling myself that if I did fall, curl into a ball to try and prevent a crampon from snapping an ankle!

Drew followed the pitch and lead another demanding snow and rock pitch that brought us to easier terrain. We began to feel that the difficulties were behind us, but it was getting late and we still had 400'+ to the summit.

Through out the day I kept hearing what I thought were voices. I would scan the north side and determine we were the only ones on the mountain that day. Initially Drew did not hear them, but as we climbed higher, he too thought he heard something. There are lots of mountaineering tales where climbers talk about hearing voices or feeling a presence of another high on some remote peak. I began to wonder if we had pushed ourselves to the point where the spirits of the mountain had begun talking to us!

As the summit grew near, a clear and distinctive voice rang out: "Holy Sh*t! There are climbers down there!". We looked up to see someone standing on the summit block, silhouetted in the afternoon light. He gave us a wave and watched as we climbed steep snow and ice. Only a few hundred feet separated us, but we were a world apart in the shadow of the mountain.

Drew and I summited at 4pm, 10 hours after leaving camp that morning. Our initial plan was to return to Lake Ingals, pack up and hike out. On the descent, it became apparent that although possible, it would be better to sleep another night at camp and return to the trailhead in the morning. We had some food still and a restful sleep sounded a lot more inviting than hiking 4.5 miles at night just to get to the car. 
We began boogying off the summit towards the Cascadian Couloir. Route finding was made easy by the  scramblers who had ascended that way earlier. We caught up to them, chatted a bit and learned that there were several parties who had ascended or attempted to ascend the Cascadian Couloir that day. We blasted by several folks in the couloir on the way down, and after 4000'+ we hit the trail and had to hike back up to Lake Ingals and our camp. We arrived at camp just as the light was fading and collapsed in exhaustion. As we took off our boots and rummaged through gear we heard the distinctive sound of a helicopter approaching. We watched as a rescue helicopter hovered around the base of the Cascadian Couloir for about 30 minutes. We could see lights on the hillside signaling to the helicopter, but it soon grew dark and the ship flew away. In the morning, as we hiked out out, the helicopter returned and hopefully were able to complete their rescue.
Drew and I both agreed that our ascent of the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart was one of the more committing climbs we had done. I felt fortunate to have succeeded and humbled by the conditions and terrain we encountered. We have not heard about the rescue that day but my hopes are that everyone is OK. 

Thanks Drew for sharing the rope with me (and the great photos), and Thank You Mt. Stuart for the experience and allowing us to summit and return safely!


  1. Wow! What an adventure! I would have let you pass the alpine exam right there. Good capture, thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Wolf! Although challenging the route was a great culmination of lots of alpine climbing this season! Looking forward to so many more!