Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mount Stuart - The Complete North Ridge in a day

Ever since I first moved to Seattle back in 2003 I remember hearing about the North Ridge of Mount Stuart as being an awesome climb. Most people "only" do the upper half of the north ridge, which is reported in "Selected Climbs in the Cascades" as being a Grade IV 5.9 with 20 pitches of climbing on solid rock, "best done as a 2-3 day climb". Another option described in the Beckey guide is to do the complete north ridge, which tacks on another 16 pitches of climbing up to 5.9 on the lower half of the ridge, which links into the 20 pitches of the upper ridge.

It has been on my radar ever since I first heard about it, and after almost attempting it last year with Fras (we ended up doing Prusik Peak instead) I finally got the chance to give it a shot at the end of August with Jesse. We obviously planned on doing the complete variation, and because Jesse had a flight to catch on Sunday morning at 6am we had no choice but to try and do it in a day. This could be seen as a positive, since it was added motivation for us to "get 'er done" on Saturday so that Jesse wouldn't have to buy another plane ticket.

We left Seattle around 8pm on Friday night, a little behind our planned schedule because we both had to make abbreviated appearances at summer BBQs with our lovely ladies before heading for the mountains. We headed east on I-90 to Cle Elum and headed north to the Ingalls Lake trailhead, since we would be approaching from the south to allow a more direct return to the car after descending the Cascadian Couloir. We found the trailhead without too much trouble, and after being amazed at the number of cars there we grabbed our sleeping bags and headed into the woods for a few hours of sleep before our 3:00am wake up call the next morning. Here is Jesse about to go to sleep, wondering where I got my awesome pillow from (my Mom made it for me).

The alarm went off as planned at 3am, and after dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags we headed over to the car where we suited up and made some delicious bagel sandwiches for lunch, with cream cheese, sliced turkey, swiss cheese, and roasted garlic, delicious! Here is the delicious bagel assembly line in full swing at 3:15am:

Just as we were preparing to head over the trail head I heard an "Oh, stinker!" from Jesse, and upon inquiry he revealed that he had just checked his GPS and thought that we were at the wrong trail head. We thought we may have missed a trail head back down the dirt road we had driven in on (it had been dark and neither of us had been there so we were not 100% where we had been going), so we hopped in the Subaru and drove back down the road. We didn't find anything convincing though, and upon further exploration we ended up back at the same trailhead about 30 minutes later with the conclusion that Jesse needs a new GPS. Merde! Oh well, chances were very good that we were going to be finishing in the dark in any case, so a 30 minute setback wasn't the end of the world. We started hiking up the trail and soon saw signs confirming that we were on track, headed for Ingalls Lake. As we crested over Ingalls Pass we caught our first sight of the massive granite bulk of Mount Stuart looming above us:

Cool! We continued along the trail through headlamp basin and toward Ingalls Lake as the sun began to rise:

We made good progress, and before long we were skirting along the shore of Ingalls Lake, with Ingalls Peak looming above.

From Ingalls Lake the trail dropped down, and as we continued we came across another group of two as we overtook them, they also had the plan to do the North Ridge in a day. The trail then began to climb gradually through some nice meadows with wildflowers toward Stuart Pass (or something like that, I may be making up names and landmarks throughout this report so if anyone is reading this who knows the route well please disregard all of my nomenclature). Here is the Bod moving fast and light through the meadows, no time to stop and sniff the flowers:

From Stuart Pass we continued up towards the southwest ridge of Mount Stuart, where we had a nice view of Rainier as the sun continued to climb in the sky:

We then traversed across a mix of snow and scree to head up to Goat Pass (that name I am sure of). Here is Jesse heading up the snow toward Goat Pass:

As I crested Goat Pass I was pleasantly surprised to find one of its namesake denizens hanging out and catching some morning sunshine:

Buongiorno, goat! It was now about 7:45am and we were way behind the overly ambitious schedule that Jesse had put together for us, but we refused to let our spirits be dampened and enjoyed some delicious Clif Bars as we surveyed the rest of the approach:

We then headed across the bottom part of the Stuart Glacier, brandishing the ice axes that we had been carrying but still not finding a need for the crampons that we had also been carrying. partway across the Stuart Glacier we saw where the approach for the upper half variation split off, crampons would definitely have been needed for that as it ascended a steep snow couloir. We prefer granite to snow, so we gave the snow couloir a miss and continued heading down to the base of the north ridge. Here is the view looking across the Stuart Glacier:

And here is Jesse making his way across, wielding his ice axe like a wiley old alpine veteran:

As we made our way across the glacier we overtook another party of two, arriving at the base of the north ridge just before 9:00am and a few minutes before the climbers we had just overtaken. They planned to bivy on the route so were not too bothered about us starting ahead of them. We geared up and started climbing, with Jesse stringing together the first two pitches of 5.7 and 5.8. The 5.8 was some sort of weird squeeze chimney and felt really hard the way that we climbed it (not as a squeeze chimney, sport climbers with backpacks on don't climb squeeze chimneys), I was very pleased that Jesse had led that one. I then took the next pitch which was a pretty long 5.9 crack, perfect hand size, but for some reason it felt quite hard. Some reasons for that could be: 1. Just having gained 4000 feet in a 5 hour approach to the climb, 2. This being my second outdoor climbing of the summer and my first trad climbing of the year, 3. Wearing a heavy backpack with 3L of water, an ice axe, crampons, etc. Here I am working my way up the 5.9:

Okay, enough excuses. In any case, I managed to fight my way up it but was pretty relieved that much of the climbing that lay ahead fell into the low 5th class and 4th class range. Here I am happy to be done with 5.9 climbing for a while (until the gendarme pitches on the upper half, which I planned to draft Jesse into handling):

From here we set off simulclimbing, having recognized that the only possible way to climb 35 pitches in a day was by not belaying. Jesse led about and strung a lot of pitches together, then I strung a bunch together, then Jesse again, then me, and before you can say "that's a lot of granite!" it was 12:30pm and we were at the notch where the lower ridge joined into the upper ridge. The climbing was awesome, lots of good exposure with the ridge dropping steeply to the Stuart Glacier on the right and to the Ice Cliff Glacier on the left:

I had thought that reaching the upper half of the ridge might be cause for celebration or maybe just lunch, but as Jesse reached the belay he matter-of-factly accepted the gear and and then launched up into the upper ridge. Here is a shot looking back down the ridge to the belay at the top of the lower half (if you look really closely you can see a red helmet in the middle of the photo, this is me):

Jesse did a long simulclimb, then I did a long simulclimb, then Jesse did another one (hopefully nobody reading this was expecting detailed route beta), and we found ourselves looking at the nice "slab crack" pitch that I recognized from photographs:

It looked a bit hard but was actually super stinkin' easy, here I am looking back down at Jesse:

I ran this into one more simul-lead that brought us to the base of the Great Gendarme at around 3:45pm, which was the final two pitches of 5.9. Jesse offered to try and link these two pitches together, which I wholeheartedly endorsed given my lackluster performance on the 5.9 pitch at the start of the lower half. I was pretty sure that my climbing powers had not strengthened in the interim 7 hours, despite all the practice I had just gotten in. This conviction was strengthened by the fact that my forearms were starting to feel like they were about to cramp. Luckily Jesse is a crack climbing machine, so he headed up the Gendarme without hesitation:

The Bod dispensed these pitches with ease, and I followed, here I am arriving at the belay: 

From the top of the two Gendarme pitches there were 4 more until the summit with only the first being 5.8, so I set off and did one last long simul-lead that deposited us both on the final summit ridge just before 6:00pm. Great success! We unroped and then scrambled up the last few meters to gain the summit, yee-haa!

Here is team Lemon-Lime soaking up the evening sunshine on summit of the crown jewel of the cascades:

So awesome!!! We hang out for a bit, enjoying our last sandwiches and some delicious Trader Joe's chocolate until 6:30pm when we decided we better start to hustle to try and get down as much of the Cascadian Couloir as we could before darkness fell. The descent was pretty easy to follow, and as we progressed we had some more nice views of Rainier:

We made our way across a bunch of rock and then down a bunch of snow (still no crampons needed, too bad we carried those the entire time!), then funneled into the Cascadian Couloir where some fun glissading on snow led to some less fun sliding down scree slopes and then some even less fun descending loose and dusty stuff which dropped a notch further in fun factor once it got dark and we were still in the Cascadian Couloir. Luckily we had encountered water part way down the couloir, since we had both run out by the summit and were really thirsty. We continued down in the darkness (aided by two of my frankenstein hot rod Petzl Zoom headlamps), finally reaching the Ingalls Creek trail where we encountered some campers having a fire who offered us marshmallows and candy. We had both just overdosed on chocolate trail mix so we politely declined, and continued along the creek trail until the crossing where we had to start hiking up and over some 1500 foot pass to get back to the car. Here I am on the log crossing:

Legs don't fail me now! Here is Jesse working his way across with the turbo-powered zoom lighting the way:

After a painful hike up and over the pass we paused to look back at the mountain and were surprised to see two headlamps pretty high up in the Cascadian Couloir. Oh man, and I thought we were having an epic long day! By this point it was 10:00pm and they were probably about 2 hours behind us. Stinker! We continued on down toward the car, finally reaching the trailhead just after 11:00pm for almost 20 hours on the go. Whew! I think this was my biggest ever day out in the mountains, I think I'll call this my birthday challenge for the year.

Needless to say we were both very very tired, but somehow managed to pilot Jesse's car back to Seattle while both experiencing weird hallucinations and visions along I-90. We finally arrived back in Seattle at 2:00am, just in time for Jesse to go home, pack for his trip to Michigan, and then get 1 hour of sleep before heading to the airport. Well, I must say that this was a stinkin' amazing day out in the mountains. Everyone should go do this route (not all at once though, that would be too crowded), it is great climbing on super high quality rock.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Getting lost enroute to Mt. Thomson

As the first week of August drew to a close, several of my work colleagues and I started talking about doing some sort of climbing activity on the weekend. I suggested a scramble up the east ridge of Mount Thomson, as I have been meaning to climb it ever since I had seen it's distinctive bell shape while skiing in the backcountry around Snoqualmie Pass. Everyone was on board, so at 6:30am on Saturday morning Bing, Kate, Jake and I all met at Jeff's apartment on Capitol Hill where we piled into Bing's car and headed east for Snoqualmie Pass. Here we are unloading and suiting up.

Mount Thomson is a 4th class scramble so we had brought a rope along in case we wanted to rappel any part of the route, and we were also vaguely aware that there might be snow along the way so we had ice axes. That is, everyone had ice axes except Kate because the memo to bring ice axes had gone out at 11pm on Friday night and it turns out that only the gentlemen in the party were all still packing at midnight. So, we headed out along the Pacific Crest Trail. Now, if anyone has ever hiked or done climbing approaches with me, you may be aware that I love shortcuts. For this approach, I had read about not one, but two great shortcuts that were possible. The first involved splitting off from the PCT after a few hundred feet and re-joining it to cut out a big loop, and the second involved exiting the PCT at the next switch back for a short bushwhack to cut out an even longer section of switch backs.

So, as I somehow found myself leading the charge as we set off along the PCT, we took the first short cut. I had never been on these trails in the summer despite having skied in the area several times last winter, and it turns out that I missed the section of trail that would have put us back on the PCT and we somehow found ourselves on the flanks of Red Mountain. At this point we were pretty sure it was the wrong way but we persisted anyway, heading past a lake at the base of the west face of Red Mountain (seen below) and taking, you guessed it, another shortcut up a talus slope to re-join this trail as it headed toward Lundin Peak, in the opposite direction of where we wanted to head.

As we continued it became clear that we were not going to re-join our intended route, with the point being driven home by a sign that we encountered where the trail petered out on the ridge:

Yikes! Definitely not on track. After a short detour down a snowy slope that proved much too steep to descend in running shoes, we regrouped on the ridge and considered our options. Here is Jeff looking skeptical as I try to convince him that we are still on track to make the summit of Mount Thomson.

So, we turned around decided to cut our losses and re-trace our path to hopefully pick up the second short cut that we should have taken. Here are Kate, Bing, and myself heading back down the talus slope and back across Red Mountain.

We picked up the trail that we had come in on again, and continued down the ridge. I felt that we should try to cut across the slope to try and pick up the second short cut, and after tentatively hinting at this for a while (still smarting from the blow of my last few shortcuts having failed), the others eventually acquiesced and we left the trail and set off through the woods. After some mild bushwhacking we encountered an avalanche slope that I recognized from skiing, with lots of snapped trees from a really big slide that must have come down in the spring:

All those obliterated pine trees sure smelled good! We re-entered the bushes and continued our cross country foray, eventually emerging into an open valley below the PCT that we needed to intersect. Jake and I were ahead, and it was fun to look back and try to pick out the others as they fought their way through the bushes.

Good work everyone! People were being pretty good sports about following me on these off trail excursions, and I kept thanking my lucky stars that my wife Roanne was not along on this trip as my head would have been served to me on a platter several times by this point if she had been. After a quick lunch break on a large boulder we continued up this drainage, now reasonably sure that we were on track for the second short cut that we were supposed to have taken. After some more cross country travel and a short scramble up beside a water fall we emerged into a snowy basin with a clear route up to the PCT. Here are a few members of the party in the basin. You might think that Bing is leaning over in an act of recovery from the exertion; in actual fact he is trying to recover from being nailed in the groin by a snowball courtesy of Jake, who is looking all too pleased on the left side of the picture.

After a short break we continued up the snow slope towards a talus slope that we were sure would finally lead us to the PCT:

Here we go! The talus slope proved quite friendly, and it was fun scrambling over the larger boulders. Here is Bing leading the charge, despite his talk of being hopelessly out of shape from having spent the last month touring factories in China:

After some more brush-battling when the talus slope petered out we ran into more snow covered slopes, and then after a short steep section we finally stepped onto the PCT. Great success! By this point we were about 6 hours into our adventure, and an aging hiker who passed by as we were regrouping on the trail told us that it had taken him just 4 hours on the PCT. Stinker! Oh well, you never know unless you try. We continued along the trail, passing the "Kendall Catwalk" which was nice to see since it was new for all of us. Here is Jake leading it out as we depart the Kendall Catwalk, continuing along the PCT in our quest for Mount Thomson.

The dirt of the trail soon gave way to snow slopes, and we continued on our way without a real firm idea that we were headed in the right direction. Here are the troops still in high spirits, making their way along the snow slopes:

I needed to be back in the city by 6 or 7pm that evening since Roanne's parents were coming in to town, and since by this point it was after 1pm we were all aware that our chances of summiting the elusive Mount Thomson were dwindling. Luckily the snow slopes continued to prove amusing, here is Bing putting his snowboard skills to good use carving some turns on a downhill:

Eventually we reached a nice frozen body of water in the form of Ridge Lake, and given our now imminent failure with respect to Mount Thomson we all declared Ridge Lake a worthy substitute and decided to call that our objective for the day. We took a short nap by the lake and then posed for a picture before turning around and heading back:

Good times! For the way back we all agreed that it would be best to take the PCT the whole way (though on the inside I still felt we could have nailed those shortcuts on the second time around), so off we went. The trail passed very close to Kendall Peak which we decided was worth a short scramble to make up for our lack of scrambling due to not having reached Mount Thomson, so we set off on a jaunt along the north ridge, and though we stopped short of the final summit it was a good exercise, especially since the sun had now emerged from the clouds. Here are the troops heading up the ridge:

And finally, stopped at our high point on the summit ridge, shortly before an extended exercise in throwing rocks at a cornice to try and make it release (unsuccessful, but revealing that Jeff might have been a world class shot putter).

From here we headed back down the trail, and after a short delay to help out two female hikers who were convinced that a whistling bird needed rescuing, we jogged back down the trail to the car and headed back to Seattle. All told it was a great adventure, and needless to say we (or maybe just me) we will be back to show those short cuts who's boss.