BackgroundAbout two weeks ago I mapped out the Cascadian Couloir route on TOPO and discovered that in opposition to my previous assessment of the peak as an intense two-day climb, the approximate milage was only 9 round-trip (this does not take into account trail details, think-as the crow flies if it were trying to follow the trail). This meant that Stuart became my priority one-day climb and last Saturday (yesterday as of this writing) I finally attempted it.
The ApproachStarting from the trailhead at around 8:30 I climbed the 1800ish ft to Longs Pass, which despite half a dozen trips out of the Esmerelda Basin trailhead I had never visited. Not seeing an immediately obvious way down, I simply scrambled through the rocks, which, lack of exposure aside, was possibly the sketchiest part of the day. On the way back up I would realize that the actual trail turns left (facing Stuart) along the pass, around a lingering snowbank.
The trail below the pass was basically as reported, a gentle snowfield followed by a patch of marshy, muddy, trail-actually-a-small-stream ground. Once a little farther down the trail became much more distinct, although still rough in comparison to the well-maintained Ingalls Way trail.
The log bridge has unfortunately disintegrated considerably since the photo on Josh Lewis’ route page was taken, as it stands it is still crossable but for how many more seasons I cannot say. I was nervous, I do not have a good history with wet logs, but saw no better way to cross.
The ClimbLeaving the Ingalls Creek trail, I found a surprisingly distinct climber’s trail through the brush to the base of the couloir; the last 200 ft or so are actually in a dry stream-bed. Once again, the couloir was as reported, a mess of loose granite and dirt so dry and soft I could almost plunge step on the descent. Going up I tried to stay on the more solid rock sections to the sides, even if it meant a few unnecessary class 3 moves. This was probably the low point of my climb,
– it was hot and I was getting tired, it was nearing 12 and I hadn’t stopped for more than a few minutes to drink some water and study the map for over three hours.
When the couloir started to open up I finally stopped for lunch, this would have been around 12:30, and became concerned about my water situation. The last couple climbs I’ve taken to carrying a filter instead of a second quart bottle and I had neglected to re-fill at the last creek before the couloir; as I started up the talus slope to the snowfields I saw a few small trickles but nothing I could really make use of.
About this time I started meeting other climbers, a pair descending told me that, contrary to my assumption that there was still a ways to go, I was only about an hour and a half from the summit. Another man, apparently part of a larger group that I had gone on ahead, told me that larger snowfields lay ahead that might have more substantial meltwaters. In the end, I didn’t find a good enough stream until the I was within 200 ft of the summit, at which point I decided to stop on the way down instead.
After climbing up the snowfield, which was steep and slushy with underlying ice sections, I scrambled over the false summit and had a brief moment of terror when I spotted a rappel anchor ahead before I could see the true summit, but I still can’t figure out what it was for because from that point it was an easy class 3 scramble to the summit, or to the base of the small cliff the anchor was positioned over. As it happened, I summited at 2, only an hour after actually leaving the top of the couloir, and by 2:30 I was descending (with full canteens).
The DescentThe snow-slope, however gruelingly steep on the ascent, was treacherous on the descent. As I reached the top I saw a large group below me down-climbing carefully, crampons on and facing toward the slope, this seemed painfully slow and I started to plunge step. This worked well until the slope steepened and I hit an icy section (maybe an inch of slush over neve instead of 4 or 5 inches), at which point I slipped and I executed what may well be my first life-saving ice-axe arrest. I also managed to scrape up my elbows nicely and engender more than a few disapproving glances from the larger, and predominately older, party below me.
The descent down the couloir was dusty and unpleasant, but went quickly and, like during the ascent, I was glad to have the place to myself. From there the return was straightforward, just a few miles up over Longs Pass and down to the Esmerelda Basin trailhead. The only event of note was a few unusually forward mountain goats with kids on the pass, who, as I was sitting on a log eating the last of my food, walked within 8 feet of me.
Overall EvaluationMy total time from trailhead to summit was 5.5 hours, including about 30 minutes in breaks, which causes me to question how it is people turn this into a 2-3 day climb. Especially considering that it seems like ideal conditions for this route were probably sometime in June, when there was still snow in the couloir. This brings me to my main point: Mt. Stuart is a fine peak, and the scramble across the false summit was all that can be expected from a Alpine Lakes Wilderness class 3-4 route, but conditions in the Cascadian Couloir, when free of snow, are as if Pacific Topsoil dumped about a thousand yards of premium dirt-sand mixture down Asgard Pass (if Asgard pass was 50 ft wide). Now, as Asgard Pass is also greatly preferable with a strong snowpack this may not be saying very much, and, in fact, I barely noticed the rockfall hazards until I was descending, but regardless, that section of the route is far from enjoyable.
photos can be found on my blog, http://ifiwereacrow.blogspot.com/2012/07/mount-stuart.html