Wanting To End Summer With A Bang...I have been intrigued by Mount Stuart for many years. The mystique of the mountain, by pure virtue of how it towers over the rest of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, has fascinated me. I had a busy summer this year, in regards to hiking and mountaineering, but I never seemed to get a good enough opportunity to feel comfortable attempting Mount Stuart. It seemed like either weather conditions did not cooperate, or I would have other plans, or my regular hiking/climbing partners would have other plans. Then, with Summer officially ending earlier during this past week, it appeared I might not get an opportunity to climb Mount Stuart again until next year.
But then fortunes changed. The weather outlook for the weekend of September 26-27 looked great, possibly the last Summer-like weekend of the year, especially on Sunday when I had no other prior commitments. Then "Gimpilator" contacted me last Wednesday and asked about the possibility of climbing a peak like Mount Stuart during the upcoming weekend. We were hoping 1-2 other climber friends might join us, but then it became clear that we would be attempting the trip ourselves, just the two of us. Gimpilator hoped to make the trek into a two-day adventure, but due to me having a busy schedule on Saturday I convinced him that we could do the trip as a long one-day jaunt.
I got home late on Saturday night, falling asleep sometime around 11:15 PM. I was already packed for the Mount Stuart trip, but I had to wake up at 1:15 AM, get showered and dressed, and then pick up Adam at 2:00 AM. We wanted to get an early start, and from past experience I did not think my two hours of sleep would affect my ascent of the mountain too much. Road construction on freeways caused multiple long delays and detours, but we finally arrived at the Esmerelda Basin Trailhead at 5:15 AM. We began hiking the trail by 5:45 AM, with our headlamps leading the way.
Finding A New Mountain Friend...We ascended several miles to Longs Pass, reaching it at 6:30 AM. We did not mind hiking in the darkness during that span of the trek, as we each believed it was probably the least interesting portion of the journey. Plus, we knew if all went according to plan, we would be traveling that section in daylight during our return trip. From Longs Pass, we descended down a section of infamous switchbacks and steep terrain to Ingalls Creek. Shortly before the creek junction, we passed a group of four men heading up towards Longs Pass. They had summited Mount Stuart the previous day, gave some good advice for the ascent route up the Cascadian Couloir, which was our intended route for the peak. A short distance after crossing Ingalls Creek, we encountered a large sloped meadow on the lefthand (north) side of the Ingalls Creek Trail. A well-defined trail led up the meadow on the westernmost side of the meadow area, but we several reports said to use the faint boot path on the eastern side of the meadow... so we chose the second option as planned, at approximately 7:45 AM. Due to the rugged nature of the boot path as it traversed up the meadow slope, Gimpilator doubted it was the actual route but I remained positive that it would lead us in the correct direction towards the Cascadian Couloir.
We then entered a boulder field above the meadow area. We followed up an apparent seasonal stream gully, finding several cairns along the way, until reaching the entrance to the Cascadian Couloir. Because of the rugged appearance of our ascent path from the Ingalls Creek Trail, Gimpilator believed we were actually in the first couloir located east of the Cascadian Couloir, also known as the "Variation #1" route. However, upon looking at my GPS and map, I remained confident we were entering the Cascadian Couloir. It did not really matter to either of us, as we knew both routes were non-technical and led to the same location.
Shortly after entering the steep terrain of the couloir, we put on our helmets. Only 200' elevation higher, while ascending a small rockface above me, Gimpilator accidentally and unknowingly knocked a large granite rock loose. I had just taken a photo of him, and turned my face downward to put my camera away when... BOOM!... the rock hit me in the center of the helmet, smashing the rock into multiple fragments but keeping my helmet (and my head) intact. Thank goodness we had helmets and were using them, which many people ascending the route do not do, or else I would have had serious injury (or worse).
The couloir was not very scenic, excpet for views to the south. There was a lot of loose scree and dirt, as well as boulder-hopping, throughout the route. As we ascended the couloir, Gimpilator noticed a cairn to our left that appeared to lead through a notch. I determined that we were still too low in elevation for that to be a part of the standard Cascadian Couloir (or Variation #1) route, and it appeared to be the entrance to what Fred Beckey refers to as the "Variation #3" route. We continued our ascent of the couloir as planned. I noticed a ridgeline getting closer on our rightside, and I deduced that we were on the Cascadian Couloir and that the "Variation #1" route would intersect our route at the top of the ridgeline.
My prediction turned out to be correct, being verified when I found an ascending solo climber, Bill Doyle, reaching that intersection location at the same time as us. Using the "strength in numbers" philosophy, we decided it might be best to work together. This was especially useful for Bill, as his altimeter-watch battery had died during his ascent and he had no idea how far up he had gone or still needed to go. We each had something valuable to offer as part of the newly formed team: Gimpilator had motivation and maintained a positive attitude (as indicated by his multiple "easy" comments for difficult traverse locations), Bill was extremely comfortable with scrambling and low-end rock climbing, and I had the GPS, map, and assorted information to help guide us up the route.
"Are You Certain This Is The Correct Route?"As we neared the top of the mountain, we noticed a gully to our leftside that appeared to head towards the false summit. We began ascending the gully, which contained very loose rocks and dirt. The steep gully probably would have been easier to traverse if it were full of snow, and using crampons and an ice axe. About halfway up the gully we noticed a narrow notch up on the left side of us. Bill and I could see a cairn in the notch. Looking at my GPS, I thought we should continue further up the gully towards the false summit, but Bill and Gimpilator thought it was best to head in the direction of the cairn. Gimpilator was already on the same side of the gully as the notch, but Bill and I had to traverse across a YDS Class IV section of rock to get there from our location. This took me out of my general realm of comfortability, as I did not yet have a full mindset of a rock climber.
When we each got to the top of the narrow rocky notch, we walked around the south side of the area and did some boulder-hopping. A couple of cairns seemingly led the way around the rocky terrain we were on, but then our intended path seemed to end at an abrupt cliff. Bill scurried across the cliff, using every small natural handhold and foothold he could find, while Gimpilator and I headed down. It was definitely intense, as one misstep could mean a serious injury and/or fall. When all three of us made it around the cliff, we were on the south side of the summit ridge and facing west towards the true summit.
We found a few cairns scattered in the area, seemingly leading towards the top of the summit ridge. Once there, we found an established bivy site and encountered two Forest Service rangers heading down from the summit. They gave some advice for which route to take to the summit, although we seriously questioned their advice when they mentioned YDS Class IV & V parts of the summit route when the standard route should not have sections much more difficult than YDS Class III. However, they showed exactly where we should descend from the summit ridge, which was much different than where we had ascended to the ridgetop. We kept following cairns the rest of the way, climbing up one short vertical rockface, before arriving at the true summit at 12:15 PM... only 4.5 hours after leaving the Ingalls Creek Trail.
We spent an hour at the summit, taking photos, making short videos, and having snacks. We each signed the summit register and rested. The views were spectacular, some of the best I had ever seen in Washington. We could not have asked for better weather, as it was neither cold nor windy. Four men were rock-climbing the steep western side of the mountain to the summit, and they ended up descending our route shortly before us.
A Long Descent...At 1:15 PM, Bill, Gimpilator, and I began our descent. As we climbed down the narrow vertical rockface near the summit, a solo climber approached. He continued up to the summit, and we figured we might not see him again during the trip. We headed across the summit ridge, enjoying the views along the way, until reaching a notch at the false summit area. We climbed down from the notch, which contained several cairns, and entered the top of a gully... the same gully we had been in during our ascent. If we had just kept following the gully until near its top, rather than leave it midway, we would have been on the correct standard route the entire way during our ascent. But the main thing was that we had made it to true summit safely, and had regained the standard route for our descent.
Approximately 2/3 down the gully, Bill (who was a short distance ahead of us, down the slope) yelled "Rockslide!!!" We each paused and made certain to not be in the path of the rocks tumbling down the gully. After the rocks ceased to slide, we each looked up the gully and saw the solo climber heading down. We yelled up to him, to let him know where we were and to make him aware of what he had caused, and he waited for us to leave the gully before proceeding with his own descent.
When our group reached the intersection of the Cascadian Couloir and "Variation #1" routes, Bill said his "good-byes" to Gimpilator and I before we went our separate ways. We had worked well as a team, and Gimpilator and I hoped to hike with him again in the future. Gimpilator and I then proceeded down the Cascadian Couloir, arriving back at the Ingalls Creek Trail at 4:15 PM... only three hours after leaving the summit. We stopped for a while at a small stream crossing a short distance away, to get some water, before leaving at 5:00 PM for the return trip to the car.
We arrived at Longs Pass by 6:00 PM, took a final look back at Mount Stuart, and then arrived back at the car at 7:00 PM as the sun began to set. We stopped at Cle Elum for dinner on the way home, then made a couple of brief stops for "power naps". Apparently, 13.25 hours in the backcountry, 8000' of total elevation gain for hiking/climbing, and several hours of driving each way... after only two hours of sleep... was finally catching up to me. We arrived back home by 11:00 PM. It had been a very long day, but a day neither of us would ever forget and well worth all of the effort involved.