Mount Stuart, North Ridge (early September, 1994)

Our plan was to climb the N. Ridge in a three day push. We'd leave Seattle at a leisurly time on Wednesday, drive to the trailhead, and reach the base of the climb by the evening. The approach is clear, but fairly demanding (I think it took us about 7 hours from the trailhead to the N. Ridge notch). The plan was to bivy in the notch, get an early rise the next morning and climb the 15-20 pitches the next day. If we summitted with daylight left, we'd descend that day, otherwise we'd bivy near the summit and descend the next day. Our plans went awry when the weather packed in on Wednesday afternoon as we were finishing the approach. As we reached the approach gully the weather had gotten pretty shitty and we hunkered down under a crumbly rock overhang and ate dinner. We considered spending the night under this creaky looking garage-sized boulder, but the crumbling from above and the bergshrund below freaked us out enough to force us out of the shelter and up to the notch proper. By sundown, it was raining steadily (not hard) and the temperature had dropped considerably. Because we were climbing with packs, we had packed very light, which for me meant a bivy sack and a 55 degree sleeping bag. My partner had a bivy sack and a home-modified down half-sack. We had one ensolite pad to share between the two of us. By midnight it had gotten damn cold and we were pretty soaked. By three in the morning, it started snowing. We tried to rig a tarp with my partner's emergency blanket, which worked for a couple hours but eventually got shredded by the wind. We stuffed the scraps into our soaked sacks, and I triumphiantly pulled out my 5 year-old emergency blanket which fell to pieces as I tried to unravel it. More scraps for the bags... I eventually slept and awoke to stars. I never thought I would be so happy for the rain to end. I dozed off until sunup. The sun rose and hit us fairly late.

We spread ourselves and our bags out and thawed ourselves out in the sun. By 9 (too late) we were ready to go and energized for the climb. The route was still frosty looking in places but we were ready to go. The first pitch is maybe 5.4 and straightforward. The second pitch was the hardest of the climb (5.7, provided you avoid the Gendarme, which goes at 5.9). It was my lead, and I hadn't yet put on my rock shoes and was climbing in my boots on wet/icy rock. A piece of rock that would have been easy going with rock shoes in warm weather turned into a nightmare of wet/icy rock, a too heavy pack, and freezing fingers. I free climbed to a muddy little stance, at which point I was sufficiently freaked to start pulling on slings. I "aided" the next few difficult moves. I felt increadibly stupid and humble when I reached a belay. My partner followed up, and took the next two leads (bless his soul) for I was emotionally and physically wasted from my effort. This was not a good state to be in on the third pitch of a 20 pitch climb. I grabbed the fifth lead, which took us out onto a knife edge of granite with a thousand feet of exposure on either side. At this point, I had my rock shoes on and just stuck my butt out a thousand feet over the glacier below and went for it. Periodically I straddled the ridge to sling a horn or place a piece. The climbing was exhilarating and beautiful and full of vertigo. It was at the same time the most scared and most excited I've ever been, but at this stage, unlike my icy nightmare an hour earlier, I trusted my feet, balance, and was used to the weight of the pack on my shoulders. My partner took the next section of knife edge ridge which took us onto an easy ramp. Off the top of the ramp, I lead and a strenuous move lead to easier climbing to the top of a pinnacle. We stopped at the pinnacle to gather our wits. It was 2:30 in the afternoon -- it had taken us over 5 hours to climb 7 pitches. We had at least 5 pitches left to the great Gendarme, a couple of pitches to get around the Gendarme, and then maybe 5 pitches of easier climbing to the top. The weather was starting to pack in again and threatening clouds were gathering above. My partner looked at me and said what I only knew too well. We weren't going to make the top, with only 6 hours of climbing left. And furthermore, we would be in a very bad way if the weather was going to get bad again. Finally, the exit gully to the left of the Gendarme looked plastered with the white stuff. Beckey claims that this gully can be wet and icy until mid-summer, but didn't say anything about a thick plastering of snow/ice. Neither of us were into dying and decided to come back another day.

This decision was hard to make, and even harder to implement. Retreating the ridge essentially meant back-climbing the sharp ridge sections of our route. We rappelled the last pitch, and down climbed to the knife edge, at which point we started rappelling onto the east face of the ridge, following a line of slings diagonally down towards a crumbly ledge system. We only had a single rope, so after numerous rappells and spent slings (to our comfort, we found many tangles of webbing on the way down -- we weren't the only ones who had gone this way) we reached ledges which allowed us to traverse back to the notch. On the way back, we realized that we could have easily scrambled on the east side of the ridge (the Beckey guide recommends a ledge system on the *west* side of the ridge, which does exist, but means that you miss much of the spectacular ridge climbing, because you don't join the ridge until just before the Gendarme) to a gully which lead up to a higher notch, near the end of the third pitch. This would have enabled us to skip the second pitch, which caused our stiff, chilly bodies and our foggy minds so much pain and trauma so early in the cold morning. We rested at the notch, it was 5 pm.

It had taken us 2 1/2 hours to retreat, and we still had a long way to go to get somewhere lower an more comfortable for the night. I nearly cried at the notch, thinking about all the highs and lows I'd experienced in the last 24 hours. Of course the weather had cleared in the meantime, which meant that we could've kept climbing, bivied on the route and finished the next day. Oh well -- we'll be back, and now that we know how to skip the beginning of the climb and still hit the high points, and now that we know that a small but solid rainfly would be much more valuable (and probably lighter) than two leaky bivy sacks (but hey -- it never rains on the east side of the Cascades in mid-September).

We burned one more sling rapelling into the gully from the notch. We traveled back accross the glacier and up to goat pass, where we met at least 6 people settling down in the still, clear night, getting psyched for the climb tomorrow. When we told them of the horrible weather the previous night they looked at us like we were bullshitting them. Snow? Ice on the route? An ugly looking exit gully? They looked smug as they settled into their fancy mini-tents and super gore-tex bivy sacks. Some had neither crampons nor axes. Many had packs larger than ours. Maybe they were planning to move a little slower and spend more than a day on the ridge. We wished them luck -- I bet they had a blast, or an epic, or both...

By the time we left Goat Pass, it was getting pretty dark, and we got to cross the "Rock glacier" under headlamps, which made for a pretty bruising trip. At the end of the crossing we had to scramble a crumbly scree slope. This was an absolutely hellish experience -- one step back for every two steps forward, with no idea how much further to the top. Eventually we gained the crest. Here we realized that we still had nearly two hours travel to Ingall's lake, and that we were really unfit to continue. Unfortunately, we hadn't stocked up on water at the glacier (assuming we'd make the lake), and had to spend a long, dry night, with only our celebratory mini-bottles of cheap Cabernet to quench our thirst and produce pounding headaches.

What did we learn? A real rainfly can be a lot better than a bivy sack that doesn't work any more. For two people hunkering down on an exposed ridge in steady rain and snow, a rainfly can provide more effective shelter, and be no heavier than two bivy sacks. Space blankets don't do well in the wind. Space blankets get brittle with age -- replace them if you don't use them. Climbing with a 15+ pound pack (crampons, ice axe, water, food, light sleeping bag, and hiking boots) is hard. Knock at least two, maybe three numbers off of what you're usually comfortable leading. Don't be afraid to pull on gear, stand on slings. If it'll keep you moving -- do it. Take everything Fred Beckey says with a grain of salt!

Our failure was that we tried to do a long, exposed climb very rapidly but couldn't handle and effectively function when the elements turned against us, or the climbing turned out to be harder than we imagined it would be. All in all, it was a great experience, and I dream often about returning. I'd done multipitch climbs before, but never any so long or so remote or with "heavy" packs.

Rack and gear description:

* One rope (Double 8.5s would probably be nice) * Medium Rack Two sets of stoppers (probably a little overkill) A few medium-sized hexes. #1, #1.5, #2 Friend, and #2 Camelot (you need bigger stuff if you want to climb the Gendarme) 20-25 biners 6 double slings 10 single slings * Ice axe, crampons (depending on the time of year, you might get by without crampons) * 5 liters of water (between two people)


About 48 hours from car to car. I think in principle a fast party could do this in a long long day (a full 24 hours), but I don't think I could do it in under 36 hours (7 hours car to notch, sleep at the notch, 10-12 hours to summit, 8-10 hours from summit to car). Hopefully I'll get to return some day and see if these figures are correct.