Who's Out There? Doing What?
Mount Stuart West Ridge
Trip date: 07/28/2006
Reported by: Tim Hanson
Climbers: Carl Rantzow and Tim Hanson
Mount Stuart. When the clouds aren't protecting it, we see it every time we head towards Seattle on I90. At 9,415 feet, it is the 7th largest peak in Washington. It is also the most massive hunk of exposed granite in the United States. Its technical routes have been the source of many epic adventures. Even from a distance, it's lines look huge and complex and of course, inviting. Carl and I had several routes to choose from; the Cascadian Couloir offers some stellar 4th class scrambling, but we wanted more. The North Ridge is considered a classic, but we knew we weren't yet climbing to the standard required to get up its famous Gendarme pitches. We could have chosen to bypass that section but then we'd miss some great climbing - saved for another time. The West Ridge route is long and complex and offers upwards of 5 technical pitches to reach the summit, in addition to hours worth of 3rd to low 5th class scrambling. With a 5.6 rating, this seemed like the route for us. Being only my second year climbing rock and both of us having accomplished only a dozen or so more minor trad climbs to date, we were at first a bit nervous about the technical sections. But at 5.6 with supposedly easy and abundant pro, Carl and I both felt up to the challenge. We took the "epic" warnings seriously and planned thoroughly - we were as prepared as could be. Ignorance is bliss?
The big day finally arrived. I met Carl at his shop at Selkirk Landscaping (shameless plug), and we sorted through our gear to come up with a complete rack. We left Spokane at 1 pm on Friday, and within a short time were approaching Ellensburg, where Stuart made its presence known in the distance. The sky was clear. Knowing that we'd soon be on its granite, we analyzed it more intently than ever before; like a puzzle. We zoomed towards the Teanaway Trailhead, looking up at Stuart every chance we got.
A bitterly cold creek near the trailhead made for a perfect spot to hide a few brews for the return celebration. Our selected approach was via Longs Pass. The plan was to go over the pass and set up camp at Ingalls Creek, approximately 1 mile west of the bottom of the Cascadian. Saturday morning we would regain some altitude and ascend the trail westerly to Stuart Pass (located on the ridge between Ingalls Peak and the west ridge of Stuart). We would then climb the west ridge and continue from the summit towards the Cascadian, where we would descend back to our camp sometime in the late afternoon. We'd then rest and return to the trailhead on Sunday morning. A nice relaxing itinerary.
The hike up to Longs Pass follows gentle switchbacks and before you realize it, you're cresting over the top and getting your first close-up views of Stuart. The entire route is laid out before you from left to right. We spent some time burning the images of landmarks into our heads. Stuart Pass is at the head of the valley to the far left. The west ridge flows directly to the right of the pass with the 2nd gully (the one you go up) appearing very obvious. At the top of the 3rd gully, Long John's Tower was a bit more difficult to discern in the foreground of the West Ridge Point. We tried to trace the traverse to the West Ridge notch but spotting small ledges at that distance was impossible. The summit looked so close, as they always do.
Satisfied that we'd soaked in as much as we could, we descended down the other side of Longs Pass, following a very steep climbers trail to the bottom. Camp arrived shortly before the sun departed. We threw down the tent and gobbled up some carbs. Even on a thin bivy pad, sleep came fast. So did the screaming of the alarm at 4:15 am. The day was cloudless and somewhat chilly. A low pressure system had arrived and we suspected that the temperature would not reach the 90s that we'd seen the rest of the week. This was forecasted, and we planned clothing and emergency bivy gear accordingly.
We got a slow start out of camp and arrived at the bottom of the second gully around 7 am. What appeared as a chute filled with scree from a distance turned into one of the most enjoyable 3rd and 4th class scrambles I've ever done. With a small amount of effort, low 5th lines could be had as well. It took more effort to avoid them though. Carl and I spent some time enjoying the rough textured granite in this chute. Sandy bivy sites abounded as we pawed our way to the very top of the chute. From there, we scrambled over the subridge into the next gully where we got a good view of Long Johns Tower. From our perch below, it was difficult to spot a 4th class line to the notch that separated the tower from the rest of the ridge. We looked hard and eventually decided to take a direct route up to the notch. I took off and soon found myself facing an awkward undercling traverse over to a large vertical crack. I placed an extra just-in-case cam for the crux move out of the undercling then reached deep into the crack. Working upwards, raps slings were plentiful as well as a few pieces of fixed gear. I easily bootied one piece at the halfway mark then finished off the pitch with another 30 feet of small crack and little crimpers to a loose rock bench. Finding a spot to set an anchor was difficult, but in no time, Carl was popping up over the top. Certainly off-route and much stiffer than 5.6, but still loads of fun, and it got us to where we needed to be.
After more scrambling through a neat little tunnel, sliding down a steep slab and inching across exposed ledges, we soon found ourselves at the West Ridge Notch. From here, an easy scramble up the crest of the ridge brought us to a seeming impasse. We searched for a bit then found that the route crossed over to the north side. Carl took the lead and quickly disappeared around a corner. I followed and marveled at the exposure. The traverse threw us out over the Stuart Glacier with its tiny little crevasses far below. A sketchy bear hug move and a much-appreciated fixed pin brought us to a small chute leading back to the ridge top. An excellent pitch and I was a bit jealous. Next, we had a choice; rap off to a lower ledge on the south side or continue up the crest to The Tiny Notch. We chose to rap down to the ledge then do an ascending 4th class traverse to a pair of cracks. Both cracks looked terrible so I flipped a mental coin and took the one on the right. It started out gentle enough then expanded to take in my single #3 Camalot. After much sliding of the #3, the crack narrowed and began to lean outward and a burn started to build. Finally, at the top and with my last piece ten feet down, I was faced with a chockstone that blocked my path. Behind the chockstone was piled a mass of smaller boulders waiting to make their escape. As gently as I could, I stemmed and pulled over it crying and wimpering and shaking. An exposed traverse took me to a bench where I set up an anchor and brought up Carl. One more pitch to the summit. Carl grabbed the rack and took off. He made good time and I was soon following. Another exceptional pitch for Carl to end the technical sections just a few feet below the summit. We organized the gear and ripped off the rock shoes before scrambling up the last few feet to the top. Views always seem more magnificent when you feel like you've earned them and the view from Stuart's summit was phenomenal.
We knew we were running short on time and had hoped to get into the Cascadian before dark, where it should be fairly easy to follow the trodden path back to camp. We signed the register, took a few poseur shots then sprinted off towards the Cascadian. As we reached the 4th class downclimb section below the false summit, the horizon gobbled up the remaining light and we were left staring at the fading view of loose 4th class rock with a snow finger far below. We were presented with two choices; bivy there, where sandy little caves were abundant or rap the 4th class stuff in the dark and search for the path below. We opted to make the raps. The route was very loose and we were slowed by having to check the rope for damage after each pull brought down a shower of rocks. By 1 am we were off of the steep stuff and past the snow finger, but still had not spotted a path in our headlamps. We decided it was time to bivy and wait for light before heading down into who-knows-what.
We found a slab next to the ridge, which provided only a little protection from the wind. The temperature dropped significantly - much more than expected. We had prepared for a cold bivy, but temps that could drop below freezing seemed very remote. The water bottles began to ice up right away. We laid out the rope and pulled on every layer we had, dragged out the emergency blankets and stuffed our legs into the packs. Carl brought mittens, and I was once again jealous. The cycle went something like this till 5 am: 1. Shiver for 15 minutes till fall asleep. 2. Wind blows off blanket. 3. Click heels together three times and say "There's no place like home." 4. Repeat previous steps over and over again. A gazillion shivers later, I opened my frosted eyes and saw that the gully was firmly fogged in and ice was floating on the air. So much for getting a better view of the route.
We waited for a bit, hoping the fog would lift. Within half an hour there was enough of an opening to see that the gully we were in widened and looked like relatively easy downclimbing. I traversed across it and found the path heading down. We plodded down the well-worn path of the Cascadian Coulior and were back at camp by noonish. A 20-minute nap was in order before heading back over Longs Pass to the trailhead. At the top of the pass, we stopped to look back for one last view of the mountain, but by then, it was entirely encased in clouds. We relaxed a bit at the trailhead before heading into Cle Elum for burgers.
What a great climb and great company. The West Ridge route is long and provides for some interesting route finding. It provided us with plenty of fun, and I'm looking forward to a return trip with an ultra-light bag and bivy.