Wilderness Sports Conditioning
Train Today for
Mt. Stuart - West Ridge, 8/30-9/1 2003
Fully laden with as many trip reports and time estimates as we could find for the West Ridge of Stuart, four of us (Susan and Danny Geiger, Doug Schurman and myself) left Seattle at 7 a.m. Saturday (8/30) for a Labor Day/birthday adventure. The drive out to the Ingalls / Longs Pass trailhead (4,243’; this TH is in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness, out by the North Fork of the Teanaway River) took roughly 2.5 hours. Though the parking lot was full when we arrived, the permits box was empty. We hoped we could successfully explain our way out of not having one on us if we happened across a ranger in the backcountry. We changed into mountaineering boots and started walking at a leisurely pace just after 10 a.m.
The first part of the approach is a comfortable (though dusty this time of year) stroll along a trail that parallels a beautiful stream flowing through Esmeralda Basin. Before too long we started switchbacking upwards toward 5400’ where the trail reaches a fork; the right branch heads towards Long’s Pass (which was to be our return route); we headed left and reached Ingalls Pass (6450’) in a little less than two hours. Three men and two young boys were headed in about the same time we were; two of the men had plans to try the North Ridge. We took a short photo and snack break at the pass before heading steeply down into the valley on our way over to Ingalls Lake. The last time I’d been in this area, Ingalls and Stuart had been covered in snow; what a difference it makes to see all the glacier-polished rock that sits underneath snow half the year!
Once we were in sight of the lake we saw several sunbathers and heard a few people diving into the cold, clear blue water at the base of Ingalls Peak. A pair of disgruntled looking climbers made their way past us. We asked what they’d been climbing, and only one replied gruffly, “Stuart.” Bummer! Must mean something went pretty wrong if they had to downclimb the West Ridge instead of traversing to the Cascadian Couloir as most people do… I clicked a few more photos as I’d done all the way in, and then hastily scrambled up a few boulders to catch the rest of the group. In my haste, I didn’t realize that the camera case was partly open, and suddenly I looked down in time to see my camera slip out of the case and plummet 15 feet below me into a wide crack. Expletives shot out of my mouth causing the others to turn around suddenly. I ditched my pack and went scurrying down into the crack as quickly as I could to see what I could retrieve of the digital camera, convinced that we would have to come out again some time to visually document the climb. The body of the camera had lost two pieces, and yet we were able to retrieve all but one of the four batteries. I held my breath as I inserted the three and a spare into the camera, then breathed a sigh of relief when it seemed to function. The viewfinder was blurry, the case wouldn’t close, and I was unable to preview – but I decided to keep taking pictures and hope for the best. Fortunately for us, our Olympus D-450 Zoom camera “took a licking but kept on clicking.” Pictures 11-30 are from the dropped camera.
At the north end of Ingalls Lake we paused to filter water and refill our bottles. We each planned to carry 4 liters, in anticipation that there would be no snow or water until we started down from the summit. We soon reached Stuart Pass and started across the boulder field toward the second of three parallel gullies. As soon as we reached 7,100’ and looked up, we whooped – the smooth, step-wise, debris-free rocks that greeted us made for fun, delightful, high-quality scrambling. We made our way up the gully to about 8,200’ where we saw 6-8 comfortable bivy sites, just below a notch that topped out with a view looking to the west. Not knowing whether there would be such great spots higher up, we chose to stop at 5:30 and make camp right there. I stumbled upon a snow patch on the other side of the notch down below several large boulders, and hastily made my way back over to camp. “Hey guys, I have some fantastic news, there’s SNOW up here!!” We took inventory of our water and ended up melting and filtering an additional 6.5 liters of water from that little patch. 4 liters per person simply IS NOT enough in the heat of summer. However, if you know where to look for it, there does seem to be snow practically year round close to the route; just look on the west and north sides of any of the spires or deep in the gullies where sun won’t reach.
We had a tasty soup and potato dinner, drank copiously, refilled all our water bottles, and enjoyed the echo chamber quality of our bivy site as well as a beautiful sunset created perhaps by the sun hitting the soot-laden air from numerous forest fires around the state. Once the sun went down about 8 p.m. we prepared to do battle with the Snafflehound. I neglected to bring earplugs this trip, so my senses were grossly heightened, jolting me awake at every slight sound from twittering birds, chirping chipmunks, snoring, overhead planes, or even whispers across the couloir. We tend to do more camping than bivying, so I actually enjoyed being able to watch abundant shooting stars dashing across the blackened sky with a bright Mars to the south. I could feel any slight breeze across my face, though the bug net I wore to try to prevent Snafflehounds from dashing across my face helped keep me warm. It seemed I woke every half hour to check my watch and see how much longer I had to worry about the rats, but we never ran into any.
When my alarm went off at 5 it was still too dark to get moving, so we waited until 6 to pack up and started moving about 6:30. We continued scrambling as before, finally reaching the notch at the top of the gully we’d bivied where we dropped down into another gully that would take us to the base of Long John’s Tower (LJT). We kept far right and slowed by what looked like a single low fifth-class pitch that had enough exposure to warrant roping up, especially with overnight packs threatening to set us off balance. We chose to start far right and traverse left until we could resume scrambling to the notch just left of LJT (8,700’) where there is a nice bivy spot. Per directions from Steve Firebaugh, we scrambled DIRECTLY up the rocks there to gain the ridge, instead of traversing low, and then made our way toward the West Ridge Horn (WRH) and on to the West Ridge Notch (WRN). Stay high here on the traverse (but not too high, keep watching for cairns but be wary of dead ends); we ended up descending farther than we needed to, resulting in even more elevation gain. Keep an eye open for worn rock, sandy paths, small cairns and bivy sites, as they litter the route; if you find yourself on mossy, lichen-covered rock, dead ends, or grassy patches, you’re definitely off route.
The time estimates we were following seemed especially generous in reading through the descriptions, but unless you already know the route, you can count on it taking about 5-6 hours (via Ingalls Pass) to reach 8,100’ (includes some of the scrambling); another 2.5 hours to get to Long John Tower (less if you know the route), 4 hours to the West Ridge Notch, another 4 to the summit, 4 back to the river via Cascadian Couloir and 2 from the river back to the cars. Routefinding issues seem to add the most time, but climbing with overnight packs can also slow down an otherwise quick party. In the long hours of daylight mid-summer with an early start from the car the first day, this climb is definitely comfortable and quite doable in two days.
Once we started climbing the four remaining roped pitches up the main summit block, it was approaching 1:30. Our goal to be able to drop down to the river was a summit by 4. The first roped pitch starts from a triangular ledge on the northwest side of the summit block; scramble up (roped) airy rock on the north until you reach a notch that takes you back toward the southwest. Pitch 2 is either a pair of parallel cracks just on the other side of the notch at the base, OR an easier scramble pitch farther south that forms a big “C”, bypassing the cracks and topping out at the small notch directly over the cracks. We belayed just below that notch since the third short airy pitch involves dropping down on the other side into a crack (for feet; good hand holds up high) and then moving up and left to gain the ridge. The next (4th) pitch is really an exposed down climb and scramble to a series of sandy ledges that narrow, widen, and then stop. From here the 5th pitch involves downclimbing into a hole to a sandy ledge, then stepping across and starting a traverse right and up. Danny and Susan chose to go up one way from here; Doug and I opted for a stemming ledge system that felt a bit airy but doable. Some guides describe the next section as a “right-left-right” zigzag, but somewhere along the way we seemed to get off route.
On our final pitch, Doug led and seemed to be stalled for quite a while. I kept looking at my watch, as we got closer to 4 p.m. We could hear another pair of climbers coming up close behind us; they stayed farther west (did they know something we didn’t?) Finally Doug radioed to us that he wasn’t too confident about the 20 foot crack he was about to try. Susan checked a few trip reports and reported back that if we were indeed on route, it was the crux of the climb, and he could anchor his pack and lead it without the bulky weight pulling him off balance. Silence. A few minutes later, the rope inched forward, and stopped. We got another call: “I’ve made a little progress.” We looked at each other, relieved. We had to be close, our altimeters indicated that we were only about 30 feet below the summit! The rope moved some more, this time more quickly. I knew that if Doug was struggling with the lead, it was probably going to be a doozy.
After what seemed like an eternity, Doug finally called down that he was off belay, and I made my way upward, leaving pro in for Susan and Danny to use so we could get through this part as efficiently as possible. Ignoring style, now, I ended up using my knees a few times in my haste to keep moving. There in front of me were the cracks that had stymied Doug. Gad, how had he done that with boots and a full pack? He kept the rope nice and tight and gave me some helpful tips on how to do the route. I asked if he was aware that several of his pieces weren’t clipped, and he told me he’d left the cams there as “aid” hand holds. Not overly confident they’d hold me, I opted to use the ledges to the right and left, and the quickdraw through the piton in the center as I inched my way upward. Once I reached him, he had me continue to the summit while he gave Susan a top rope. It had taken our foursome 9 hours to reach the top, but we’d made it without getting too badly off route.
To the north and west we could see a number of wildfires up near Darrington and Mt. Baker. The sky seemed hazy and brown, with only a gentle breeze. Two guys reached the summit from the Cascadian Couloir (CC) (our descent route) carrying ultra light loads of water bottles and jackets. We found an empty corner of the full summit register, snapped some photos, removed our harnesses and coiled our ropes so we could head down in search of the CC. Final destination: the valley and cars if possible.
Stuart has numerous gullies and couloirs leading down its flanks. To reach the appropriate one, we headed toward the false summit, following the small cairns and the white shirts of the two scramblers racing ahead of us who knew the way down. There in front of us, 200’ below the false summit, was a path through loose dirt and scree beside a long dirty snow finger—we kept helmets on nearly the whole way to the river since the couloir this late in the season is just a mess of loose crumbly rock. Once we passed the dirt we headed far right, over boulders, to a climber’s path of sandy dirt and talus. Stay right, and take the first gully down through sparse trees; there are several paths that meander the width of the gully, but they all lead down. By 8 p.m. it was starting to get fairly dark, and then we reached another crux: a bushwhack through brush and slide alder to regain the trail. We kept the stream to our left, ran into another stream and dense brush, then finally as it got really dark we came out in forest that allowed easier travel. Once we reached what looked like an obvious path, we saw two Tika headlamp beams in the distance – two climbers who had done the North Ridge were headed for their car. We turned west and followed them for five minutes through a flat camp area where there were a few tents. Eureka, the stream! Water!
Uncertain exactly where to pick up the Long’s Pass trail on the other side of the stream, we opted for a bivy under the forest canopy. The winds had picked up substantially but the temperature remained comfortable and the sleeping was much better on the soft forest floor compared to the sandy ledges at 8,200 feet. Except for the breaking branches snapped off from wind and the sound of deer (or something large) racing off at first sign of human movement, all was relatively peaceful, and my sleeping stints extended from 30 minutes of the night before to three hours. At first light, we filtered more water and headed up the switchbacks to reach Long’s Pass within about an hour, down to the junction with the trail leading to Ingalls Pass in about 25 minutes, and returned to the car in another 25 minutes. Our victory celebration was a huge breakfast at the Cottage Café in Cle Elum, where we relived the camera snafu, the awesome scrambling, tricky routefinding, and amazing crack lead that Doug pulled off to save the climb.