October23, 2003: just corrected all East and West references in the trip report (thanks to an attentive reader who pointed out the brain glitch). Must have held the map upside down or something... or maybe too many beers went upside down that day? Anyway, if you followed our description too scrupulously before today, you may have climbed the wrong mountain! Sorry!
The North Ridge of Mount Stuart had been on our hit list for a while. Not only it is one of the 50 classics, but it is supposed to be an enjoyable climb on very solid rock. It has a couple of major variations. The classic version climbs the North Ridge starting from a notch a third of the way up and bypasses the Great Gendarme, a much steeper tower that blocks the ridge near the summit, with a rappel followed by 4th-scrambling. A much nicer, more direct finish adds three great 5.9 pitches by climbing the Great Gendarme directly. The other variant - the complete north ridge - climbs from the very toe of the ridge instead of gaining the notch from the top of the Stuart Glacier. This adds about eight more technical pitches (mostly chimneys and wide cracks in the 5.8 range) to an already long climb (~18 pitches from the notch, ~26 pitches in all).
Climbing Stuart poses a bit of a strategy problem. The dilemma is caused by the fact that the normal descent from the summit is down the infamous Cascadian Couloir (or variations thereof), on the south side of the mountain, forcing the climber to go half-way around the mountain before or after the climb. One option to avoid this would be to approach from the north (Mountaineer Creek trailhead), climb the entire ridge from the toe, and descend the south side to a second car left at the Ingalls Lake trailhead. We contemplated this option for a while but we don't have another car.
The entire ridge could also be climbed from the south by going through Goat Pass, a high pass on the west side of the mountain, then dropping all the way to the toe. This seemed like too much for a one day ascent. Many parties bivy on the ridge but if you can climb fast, or simul-climb most of the route, a one day ascent is quite reasonable, particularly from a high camp at Stuart Pass (near Ingalls Lake). Besides, we didn't know if there would be any snow for water on the climb.
Thus, the plan was: hike in from the south to a high camp near Ingalls Lake, go around the west side of the mountain in early morning, traverse the Stuart Glacier and go up the couloir to the notch, simul-climb the ridge, belay the Gendarme, go down the Cascadian couloir, and hike back up to camp. A one day trip, plus at least one each to hike in and get out. While there, we would also climb the South Ridge of Ingalls Peak if time and weather allowed. We packed food for four days, which would also give us a rest day at camp and/or a chance to wait out a day of bad weather.
We left Leavenworth on July 21, 2003 and drove to the north fork of the Teenaway River, the standard south side approach for Mount Stuart. We found great, free camping at the Twenty Nine Pines campground along the Teenaway River Road. That camp appears to be privately owned and maintained by a logging company! Wow! I guess that gives us at least one nice thing to say about loggers!
We hiked to Ingalls Lake on July 22. The hike is relatively short (5.5 miles and 2,300 ft elevation gain) but there is no shade on the approach which can be very hot. Taking an early start is highly recommended. Camping is no longer allowed around Ingalls Lake but we found a good site with great views of Mount Stuart less than a quarter mile or so past the lake, on the way to Stuart Pass. We repacked our gear for the next day and spent the afternoon enjoying the views. It was incredibly hot.
The notch is still a long way up from a camp near the lake. To reach the notch, we would have to hike up to Stuart Pass, climb steep slopes up to the base of the West Ridge route, drop into a large boulderfield (the "rock glacier"), traverse it, and climb back up to Goat Pass, the gate to the north side of the mountain. From Goat Pass, we would traverse near the top edge of the Stuart Glacier to finally ascend the gully leading to the ridge. It's a long route, with an even longer descent, so we planned a very early start, hoping to get to Goat Pass before first light.
We left camp at 1:45AM and reached the base of the West Ridge after an hour. We stopped there to drink and eat before beginning the long boulder hopping session to Goat Pass. We reached Goat Pass around 4AM. We waited and rested there for a good 45 minutes, watching the sunrise. We then roped up to cross Stuart Glacier. The traverse stays high on the glacier, skirting well above any large crevasses. We encountered a short stretch of crevassed terrain at the base of the couloir that leads to the ridge proper. It took us two hours to reach the notch on the North Ridge. The snow gully leading to the notch was mostly melted out so we climbed reasonably sound 4th-class rock on the left. We spent some time at the notch admiring the views and the bivy sites. There was a small triangular snow patch left just below the notch. We added some snow to our water bottles for the long day ahead.
From the notch to the base of the gendarme, there are about 11 pitches of low to mid-5th-class climbing (maximum difficulty 5.7). To speed things up, we simul-climbed those pitches, using a 9mm by 50m half-rope, folded in half. On several occasions, what must have been huge portions of seracs calved off the Ice Cliff Glacier in the deep gully just east of the ridge. The thundering noise of the ice crashing down the deep cleft was rather impressive, even from the safety of the ridge, and added to the feeling of remoteness of this great route.
The climbing on this section of the ridge is really enjoyable, easy, and airy as it follows the ridge crest very closely. The rock is excellent and offers plentiful protection. We reached the base of the Gendarme in two and a half hours. You move pretty fast simul-climbing, so we were pretty tired when we reached the Gendarme. We rested at the base of the first 5.9 pitch for quite a while. We belayed the next three pitches. We had brought two half ropes, but it turns out that all three Gendarme pitches are relatively short (80 ft or less) so they could be led on a single lightweight rope folded in half. Knowing this, we would recommend taking only one, 60m by 8mm rope for this climb.
The first Gendarme pitch liebacks the left side of a detached and stepped pillar (5.9). The second pitch is harder as it follows an offwidth crack to a recess (5.9). Some easy climbing leads to the base of a small headwall and a third short section of 5.9 crack climbing.
Once past this, the climbing eases so we switched to simul-climbing mode again. In about five more rope lengths, we reached the summit and found a summit register (the first we've seen in the Cascades). It was about 1:45PM, but the hardest part was still ahead of us.
The descent off Mount Stuart is a really tedious and unpleasant piece of work. After traversing east past a false summit, it goes down loose slabs and a very loose scree gully (the Cascadian Couloir) for 4,500 ft before going back up for another 1,800 ft and couple of miles to Ingalls Lake. After some time on the summit, we started on the long way down. We were fortunate to find melt water from a snowfield just south of the top which would at least keep us well hydrated for the next several hours of scorching sun on the dry south face. Going down the Cascadian was as unpleasant as expected and simply interminable. The best sections were those where we could "ski" the thick layer of fine dust: much faster and easier on the knees. Several hundred feet above the bottom of the gully (and the Ingalls Creek trail) we located a faint trail that appeared to take a shortcut to the west. We tried our luck and followed it fort a while but it quickly disappeared. We continued on our near-level traverse, with occasional bushwacking through timber and swampy areas almost all the way to the end of the Ingalls Creek valley. There, we found the trail leading back to Stuart Pass and eventually to camp. The shortcut - mostly animal tracks - was hard to follow and at times we almost regretted following it, but it saved us about 800 feet of elevation loss in the couloir. Once we reconnected with the trail along Ingalls Creek, the bugs were really awful! At last, exhausted, we were back at camp a little after 8PM. An 18 hour day.
The next day was to be a rest day, so we slept in late. When we stepped out of the tent, a group of mountain goats were hanging around camp. We enjoyed their company while having breakfast before going up to the lake to scope the route we wanted to climb on Ingalls Peak.
We climbed the South Ridge on Ingalls Peak the next day before hiking out. Back at the bus, we spent a couple of days working frantically on the website and getting some well-deserved rest before heading to Washington Pass for more rock climbing.
Note: Before climbing the route, we were not really sure about which strategy to adopt. Climb it in a day or with an on-route bivy, approach for the north or the south? After climbing it, we think that our strategy (climb it in a day from a camp near Ingalls Lake) worked extremely well and we would recommend it to reasonably fast parties. Hiking back to camp (6,400ft) from the southern base of the mountain is a long way at the end of a long day. A direct exit from the Cascadian Couloir to the trailhead avoids this but still forces one to climb over Longs Pass (6,300ft) before dropping down to the car. Some people bivy at the notch to shorten their summit day, but this forces one to carry bivy gear over the top (and down the descent... ouch!). The added weight also makes you climb slower, so it is not clear if there is any net gain at the end.
We took 50m double ropes (9 mm) on the climb which is not an optimal choice. You cannot simul-climb efficiently on a full length rope so we used just one of them folded in half as we always do in such cases. This however meant that Lucie had to climb the entire ridge carrying the other rope on her back! What we did not realize is that the harder pitches on the Gendarme are short enough to be climbed with 25 meters of rope as well. Any retreat from the ridge (below the gendarme) would consist mostly of simul-downclimbing with possibly a short rap or two, so there's no need for two ropes there either. Once on or past the gendarme, "retreat" just means going faster over the top and down the south side. Our recommendation is to take a single 8mm by 50m rope (or maybe 60m for a bit of extra length on the Gendarme) and use it doubled over itself as a twin for the entire climb. This saves nearly half the weight compared to a pair of half ropes or a single 10.5mm rope.
Credits: The music clip that opens this page is by Ben Harper, from his album "Welcome to the Cruel World', 1993-1994.
Mount Stuart, North Ridge (Gendarme)
|Mount Stuart seen from the southwest.|
|Great free camping at Twenty Nine Pines campground.|
|Views of Mount Rainier on the way to Ingalls Lake.|
|Hiker going up to the lake with a huuuge pack!|
|Lovely Ingalls Lake.|
|Mount Stuart from Ingalls Lake.|
|Our camp near Stuart Pass with Mount Stuart in background.|
|Ready to go.|
|Watching the sunrise at Goat Pass.|
|Crossing the Stuart Glacier.|
|Looking down toward lake Stuart.|
|Approaching the notch on the North Ridge.|
|Roping up at the base of the route.|
|Looking toward the South Cascades with Mount Daniel in the background.|
|Somewhere on the ridge, after simul-climbing a couple of pitches.|
|Several pitches further.|
|...and down, following the ridge crest.|
|On the last pitch before the Gendarme (pitch 11).|
|Below the Great Gendarme.|
|Eric leading the first pitch up the gendarme (5.9 lieback).|
|On the harder second pitch (5.9 offwidth).|
|Views from high up on the ridge.|
|On the final pitches with the summit block of the Great Gendarme in the background.|
|Eric scrambling toward the pointy summit.|
|Impressions from the summit (AVI movie).|
|Summit register (the first one we found in the Cascades).|
|Trying to get away from the sun on the descent.|
|Going down the Cascadian couloir (very unpleasant scree descent).|
|Mountain goats on the buttress just above our camp.|
|The same ones hanging around our tent.|
|They're not shy... (Eric being stared at by a mountain goat)|
|Taking a break on the hike-out.|
|Back at camp. Working frenetically on the website and...|
|Leaving our nice campground, direction Washington Pass.|