Having failed to reach the summit on our previous attempt in 2011, I'm happy to report a successful summit of the 2nd highest non-volcanic peak in the state of Washington. It was also quite the accomplishment for my father at 63.
Rather than boring people with a bunch of personal details, I'll just try to share some practical information on the route that fellow scramblers aspiring to set foot on this breathtaking summit will hopefully appreciate. This is especially geared towards mountaineering novices like us who appreciate being able to get to a summit without too much indulgence in the fine arts of "bushwacking" and/or "route finding challenges".
First, here's a photograph of the mountain from Teanaway Road at its junction with the North Fork Teanaway Road. This is a great place to stop, snap a photo, and get a good look to assess the extent of the two major southeast facing snowfields, one below and to the right of the false summit, the other below and to the right of the true summit. Both of these snowfields are moderately steep, tend to exist late into the summer, and may not be possible to navigate around depending on the conditions.
The false summit snowfield is unavoidable through late summer, is roughly 35-40 degrees at its steepest part, and has a rather abrupt rocky run-out by mid-summer. Crampons and ice axes provide extra safety on the steep section of this snowfield.
Here's another view on the same day from Longs Pass. Note that you cannot see the full extent of the aforementioned snowfields from this farther west vantage point. As long as the upper ridgeline appears snow free from this angle, the scramble from false summit to true summit is easy class 3 with no snow crossings necessary. However, if you can see snow on the ridgeline from Longs Pass, you'll have to traverse it at some point and you'll be exposed to a potential 100+ ft fall down a 40-50 degree slope if you're unable to self-arrest. That prospect is part of what turned me and my father around last year.
For comparison, here's a picture from Longs Pass last year at nearly the same time of year. Notice the snow extending all the way up to the ridgeline, just right of the summit. In general the less snow, the less technical the scramble from the false summit to the true summit will be. The amount of snow at a given time of year obviously varies a great deal from year to year, as we found out on our attempt last year.
Though there was snow covering the trail in a few spots, particularly near the beginning where it crossed an avalanche run-out, overall the trail to Longs Pass was in excellent condition. This is a very gentle and well maintained trail that can easily be followed by headlamp if one plans on an early start or late exit. This is useful to know as you may very well end up hiking out in the dark if you want to make the trip spending less than two nights.
Unlike the gentle switch-backing trail from the Esmeralda Basin Trailhead to Longs Pass, the trail from Longs Pass to Ingalls Creek was a very steeply graded and largely unmaintained foot path with quite a bit of overgrown brush, water, mud, and blowdowns to navigate through. There was no sign, but the path started down about 20 yards west and slightly uphill from the col at Longs Pass. If the pass isn't too snow covered, you’ll see a cairn marking the way down as we did.
Though there was still some snow in the bowl below us, the upper lip was fully melted out, making it a short class 2 scramble to get down. At the very base of the snow/scree slope the path followed a small stream down into some light forest. In a couple hundred feet the path veered left off the stream, entering scrubby forest and some marshy areas. Don't worry if you lose the path here, just stay on a heading of 55 degrees until you come to a relatively flat marshy meadow with a stream bed crossing directly through it. If you've gone off-path in the marsh, you'll surely find it again here. For some reason the path is easier to lose here on the way down than on the way back up.
Beyond the meadow the path entered some deeper woods and passed a small campsite. Beyond the campsite the grade steepened once again as we quickly descended towards Ingalls Creek. Though steep and slick in spots, the path remains easy to follow from here to the creek. There used to be a nice sloping log crossing Ingalls Creek just west of the first campsite you encounter. As of our trip that log had broken and was starting to rot away. We got across it fine but future hikers may have to look for a different crossing at some point. Flash flooding from an unusually heavy summer thunderstorm had altered some things this year as compared to the previous years.
After crossing the creek we headed back to the campsite on the opposite side of the creek and found a path heading northeast. This short path crossed a minor stream immediately before arriving at a signed junction with the Ingalls Creek Trail. We followed the Ingalls Creek Trail less than a quarter of a mile southeast to the base of a large sloping meadow with views of the Mount Stuart summit block 4,600 vertical feet above. The entrance to the Cascadian Couloir is not clearly visible from this perspective. There were two very nice and comfortable campsites with easy access to the creek just south of the meadow. We chose the second campsite which was slightly farther east along the base of the meadow. We set up a nice base camp here and prepared our ascent packs for the next morning before cooking an awesome beef stew for dinner and retiring into our sleeping bags.
From the camp site we got started at 6:30 AM and didn't reach the summit until around 2:00 PM. We're only in average physical shape. Younger and more physically fit parties will probably do it faster than we did but it's a long slog in any case. We were also carrying a 30 meter rope and some extra climbing gear that we didn't end up using at all.
Anyways, the climbers' path to the Cascadian Couloir, marked with a cairn, started immediately opposite the first entrance to our camp area. We took off straight up, through a field of lupines and western columbine, past some scattered trees and large boulders. After continuing up a short distance through some tall grass we came to a slightly muddy landing. At this point the path appears to end in some boulders, but you will notice a cairn on one of them urging you to continue on. Climb over the first boulder, look 90 degrees right, and you'll see where the path continues. The path traverses a little east here and you don't want to lose it because you have to get through a band of otherwise impenetrable slide alder en-route to the base of the couloir.
After a couple of steep switchbacks, stepping over, ducking under, and beating back overgrown branches we arrived at the base of a long scree gully that lead steadily up into the Cascadian Couloir. As you approach the base of the couloir, near the 6000 ft level, you'll see a small rock face up ahead of you. We chose to go left around it, but you can go either left or right (or climb directly up it if you're a showoff)
From here on the route was obvious. On the way up it was helpful to detour off to the side of the gully every once in a while to avoid getting bogged down in the deep sand and loose cobbles. On the way down you can sort of plunge step into the sandy spots while trying to avoid the loose rocks as much as possible. Expect to slip and land on your butt, accidentally dislodge a loose rock, or do something else worthy of a loud expletive at least once, especially on the way down. Just wear a helmet and stay alert for rocks kicked loose by either your own partner or another party above you. It happens.
When we approached 7000 feet a second gully appeared to the left, running roughly parallel to us. We stayed in the right gully. We were very happy to be in the early morning shade for this part of the hike. You have until approximately 10:00 AM to ascend the first 3000 feet, up the meadow, slide alder, scree gully, and couloir, all in full shade.
Nearing the head of the couloir we strayed right and cut up through some moderate boulders, reaching a nice landing/ridge with scrub trees and some flat camp/bivy spots. Beyond this ridge we traversed northward across a snowfield and proceeded upward along its right edge. After scrambling up some more moderate boulders we reached a height of land at 8,500 feet with spectacular views of Sherpa Peak and the rest of the Stuart Range beyond.
Shortly thereafter we reached the false summit snowfield and donned our crampons. This snowfield began a bit higher and a bit more abruptly than what we'd encountered the year before. The steepest part involves less than 300 feet of elevation gain but it took us a long time to ascend. The conditions were wet and slushy near the surface yet somewhat hard only 3-4 inches underneath. The steepest portion is something between 35 and 40 degrees and the rock landing at the bottom is rather abrupt. Needless to say, you want to be able to self-arrest should you slip here so never take your hand off your ice axe. I actually did slip twice on the way back down but was able to self arrest quite easily.
We stepped off the snowfield on the right, just above the steepest part. At this point we were little concerned as the false summit was not clearly visible and where to proceed up was a bit ambiguous. We ended up scrambling to the right/north around the first large outcrop before coming to a large melting snow patch. I kicked and stomped at the snow near the edge to test it and easily broke through into a hollow underneath. The entire snow patch looked like it was potentially bridging some rather deep cracks and hollows so in my mind the only safe choice was to go around it, especially considering there were no recent footprints to be found on it. The right side of the snow patch was pretty exposed so we scrambled down a little to get around to the left side. At this point there was some slightly more difficult class 3 scrambling above. We decided to get well hydrated and ditch our packs for better mobility.
I wasn't certain whether we were on the correct route or if we were heading up a dead-end rock spur. Either way, I wanted to at least get a better view. I went up first to check it out while my father waited below. When I reached the top of a steep scramble up some rather large truck-sized boulders I learned there was indeed a small cliff just beyond. It turned out the actual false summit was short distance off to my right, beyond the razor edge I was standing on. This was the only real exposed section. I ended up having to step on a rock that looked like it was teetering on the edge of the cliff (don't have a heart attack!). I hung on tightly to a different rock and carefully tested it with my full weight. It didn't move. I quickly tiptoed over it and crossed onto a sturdier looking ledge. Then, very carefully, I worked my way over to the false summit area. I coaxed my father to follow in my footsteps and we both breathed a sigh of relief on the false summit. We noticed a piece of blue webbing wrapped around a rock nearby.
The view from the false summit to the true summit is intimidating for the uninitiated. We were worried it was going to take us forever if the rest of the scramble was anything like the section we had just gone up to reach the false summit. Neither of us said a word but I could see in my father's eyes that he was contemplating turning around. Just then I saw two other climbers emerge on the summit. The scale they provided reassured me that the distance wasn't as far as we'd feared. It actually turned out to be much easier than it looked. If you're willing to temporarily lose 50 or so feet of elevation there's actually a fairly decent boulder hopping path to follow just south of the ridge, marked with plenty of cairns.
After passing a small man-made rock wall and nearing the far snowfield we began to scramble back up towards the ridge, carefully looking for cairns marking the way up. This is a steep section that was snow covered and quite exposed when we went last year. This year this section was class 3 rock scrambling and boulder hopping all the way to the top. As you near the summit your route finding options are limited as you're surrounded on all sides by minor cliffs, i.e. if you go the wrong way you'll know it right away. Along the way we briefly crossed paths with the two climbers we'd seen earlier on the summit. They told us they'd finished climbing the North Ridge but didn't say much else. They quickly bounded past us, apparently in a big hurry to get down. They were the only other people on the mountain that day as far as we could tell.
The summit itself was spectacular. Unlike the higher volcanoes of the Cascades, Mount Stuart has the aesthetic appeal of having a classic airy peak of a summit. The only down side is there isn't much room to wander or stretch your legs without a undergoing a serious dose of vertigo. The drop to the north is especially awesome. I did briefly crawl to the very edge and peer down onto the Stuart Glacier far below. I thought there would be a summit register on top but we didn't find anything.
The Return Trip:
We didn't begin our descent until around 3:00 PM. It appeared that there was a different route, marked with cairns, passing to the right of the false summit. If we hadn't left our packs below the false summit we would've explored this route to see if it was any easier. We each carefully lowered ourselves down to the location where we had left our packs. Right after putting my pack back on I accidentally stepped on a wobbly boulder and lost my balance, falling forward and bashing my shin on a rock. I wasn't badly injured but I noticed a blotch of red appearing through my pant leg where I'd obviously just skinned my leg. I also scratched up my camera which I'd stupidly left out of its protective case in my left pocket.
Going back down the false summit snowfield turned out to be a bit of a pain as the snow had gotten much harder underneath with the lower sun angle but remained wet and slick on top. My boots were a little large in length (somewhat unavoidable for people like me with wide feet) and even with very thick socks my feet were slipping inside my boot whenever I kicked a step. By the time I got half way down the 300 ft snow pitch my feet were killing me and I was getting lazy with my steps. One or the other of my feet went out from under me 5-6 times. All but two I didn't go far as my axe was planted just enough to do a successful self-belay. The two times my axe came out I only slid about 10 feet or so in the self-arrest position and stopped by digging in my crampons. It was good to have the crampons for the last 30 feet above the bottom as otherwise you probably wouldn't have had time to self-arrest before hitting the rocks if you slipped. This small 300 foot section is safer with more snow as the snowfield ends slightly lower down and at a less abrupt angle, but with more snow the ridge to the true summit is less safe so it's a tradeoff.
As we were heading down towards the landing above the Cascadian Couloir it was getting fairly late in the afternoon and my father was feeling exhausted and weak in the knees so we decided to bivy there rather than going the additional 3000 feet back down to our tent that evening. In retrospect I'm glad we did as it gave us a chance to relax and enjoy the evening scenery. The ground was hard but we at least stayed warm. I don't think I've ever seen the Milky Way as clearly as I did that night as I drifted off to sleep. I could also see the faint lights of Ellensburg peaking out over top the lower peaks of the Wenatchee Mountains below us.
We ended up melting and filtering snow in the morning to refill our water supply before heading down and cooking up what was supposed to be the last night's dinner as a late morning breakfast before packing out. We reached camp around 10:45 AM, spent some time eating, and took a nice long nap since we hadn't slept too well on the hard ground the night before. We packed out in the afternoon.
Right as we were heading back up over Longs Pass, a large thunderhead formed directly over us, blotting out the sun and spitting some gigantic rain drops and small hail chunks on our heads. The thunder crackled overhead and we got wet but thankfully the most intense lightning activity stayed just to our west. At one point it got ominously dark and the booming claps of thunder off to the west seemed to be getting closer and closer. Luckily the main storm moved more north than east, never really reaching our location. The sun came back out shortly after we began the descent towards the Esmeralda Trailhead. You can see the storms hanging out off to the north behind Mount Stuart in this view from Longs Pass.
Overall this was a wonderful, if exhausting, trek for the two of us. I'd also classify this as my first real mountain as pretty much every other peak I've scrambled involved less than 2000 feet of off-trail elevation gain. Hiking to Camp Muir by snowshoe in November of 2010 is the only accomplishment that comes remotely close for me in terms of physical exertion.
Mount Adams, The Brothers, Three Fingers, etc… are some other peaks we'd like to get around to some day. I'd also love to do Baker and/or Rainier with a guide if I can ever get in good enough shape. The "West Ridge" of Mount Stuart also has me intrigued if I could find someone willing to lead me on a rock climb. I just need to figure out some better boots as I need to know how to kick steps without torturing my feet.
Camp site, Ingalls Creek:
Bivy site on descent:
Elevation gain on approach hike:
Elevation gain to summit and back:
Elevation gain on the way out:
Total elevation gain:
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