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Summary of the route:
We wanted to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart in a single push--without bivuacking en route. This grade IV route has over 30 pitches of rock climbing between 4th class and 5.9. The route climbs through two buttresses of 3 to 5 pitches each, which are separated by a classy stretch of 4th to mid 5th class ridge climbing. After the second large buttress, which is called "the Great Gendarme," you climb several hundred meters of easy 5th and 4th class to the summit. The route has a few hundred feet of nice 5.8 and 5.9 cracks, including two squeeze chimney-like features on the lower buttress and one, short offwidth on the Great Gendarme. As all the guidebooks note, the options for approach, descent and retreat mid-route ratchet up your commitment to completing this route on time.
On August 8, 2009 at 4:00 PM Thom and I of Atlanta, GA began hiking at the Ingall's Creek Trail. We passed over Ingall's Pass, Stuart Pass, and Goat Pass, staying on the knife edge ridge between Ingall's Lake and Stuart Pass. We reached Goat Pass at 8:00 PM. From Goat Pass we descended and traversed talus and some small snow fields, heading East toward the base of the N Ridge. At 8:30 PM we reached the base of the North Ridge of Mt Stuart. We bivuacked beneath a large overhanging boulder about 50 meters beneath the start of the North Ridge. The bivuack was flat, warm, protected from wind, and near snow melt streams.
We carried two packs, two synthetic sleeping bags, a light alpine rack with ten cams between 0.6" and 3", six nuts from medium to large sizes, one 8.6 mm x 60 m rope, rock shoes, tennis shoes, lightweight pants, t-shirts, silk weight base layers, shells, two 2-liter water bottles, headlamps, 18 GUs, 8 bars, a dozen oatmeal cookies, and a large pizza from the new Pizza Rita on Main St. in Ellensburg. The hike was comfortable with this much weight, but we could have brought less food and still been well fed.
We planned to carry everything up and over, and in hindsight this plan worked well. It afforded us plenty of time to climb and the added security of bivy gear in case it rained (we had a forecast 20% chance of afternoon thundershowers, but the weather turned out to be fine). We planned to simul-climb everything under 5.9, hoped to be at the notch (where Selected Climbs in the Cascades tells people to start) by noon, and hoped to summit by 6:00 PM.
We woke at 4:15 AM and the route was lit up by 5:15 AM. We started climbing at 5:30 AM. At 9:30 AM we finished the lower buttress and reached the notch to which one can ascend from the Stuart Glacier. At 11:30 PM we reached the base of the Great Gendarme. At 2:30 PM we reached the summit. We climbed the route in about 10 big simul-climbing blocks, stopping every now and then to use a fixed belay on a harder or more exposed section. We used fixed belays on: the first 4 pitches, including the two 5.9 cracks and some 5.7/5.8 stuff; and on the two 5.9 pitched on the Great Gendarme and the 5.8 pitch immediately after it. We hauled the pack on the vertical slot on the first pitch of the route and on the short offwidth pitch of the Great Gendarme. We could protect this pitch very well, even without a cam larger than 3". We simul-climbed with about 70' of rope between the two of us. The gendarmes offer a lot of easy protection. The cruxes of the route came on the lower section, where the follower had to squeeze through moderately difficult terrain with packs on. It would be easy to haul packs in these sections. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger!
We descended by Cascadian Couloir, but got off path and ended up in slopes of open forest on the Southeast flank of Stuart. We traversed back West over easy ground, found the Cascadian Couloir trail, then made it through the meadows and alder patches to the Ingall's Creek Trail. There is no water between the slopes just below the summit and Ingall's Creek, but that will vary by season. At 6:30 PM we arrived at Long's Pass. At 7:30 PM we arrived the trailhead. Descending the Cascadian Couloir was dirty and messy, but not tiring. The hike to Long's Pass from the Ingall's Creek Trail was a pleasure--we were rewarded with great views of Stuart, a pretty trail, lots of water, people to meet, and great evening temperatures.
Climbing the complete North Ridge route in a single push is a lot of fun and a lot of climbing. We'd like to return for winter conditions. This time, we made it in a single push because we simul-climbed most of the route. We liked our strategy of hiking in the evening before and bivy-ing at the base. It afforded us plenty of time to navigate the descent in the light. But instead of bivy-ing at the base, you could start the hike around from the South at 3:00 or 4:00 AM. This would put you at the base in late morning. You could top out by late afternoon, descend and be back to Long's Pass by dusk. You'd climb even quicker without a sleeping bag on your back.
The route that I have done which is most similar to the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart is Dark Star (V 5.10c) on Temple Crag in the Palisades massif of the Sierra Nevadas, CA. The North Ridge is a mini-Dark Star. The North Ridge has easier and shorter cruxes than Dark Star, but the ridge climbing is cleaner and more exposed. I remember taking 13 hours to climb Dark Star with less weight than we had on the North Ridge, whereas the North Ridge took us 9 hours. The North Ridge is a slightly more committing line, taking the retreat options and weather into account.
(1) Carry two packs rather than one. This splits up the weight and makes simul-climbing safer.
(2) Retreat from the notch to the Stuart Glacier requires just two rappels and there is fixed gear to rappel from. A single rope suffices.
(3) We recommend bringing light crampons and at axes if you think you may have to retreat from the Stuart Glacier. The angle of the glacier is only around 30 degrees, but you will fall into a huge crevasse if you slip and do not self-arrest.
(4) If you plan to bivy en route, the last very comfortable sites are at the notch connected to the Stuart Glacier.
(5) Approaching this route from the North during the summer is not as nice as coming from the South. The Sherpa Couloir descent is dry and difficult to descend, plus you cannot tell how much snow is in it from below the couloir. If you plan to descend it, then you will have to carry up the North Ridge at least 4 lb. of boots, 2 pairs of crampons and 2 axes. You may have to rappel if the couloir is too dry to down climb. Camping at the head of Mountaineer Creek after approaching from the North means getting eaten alive by mosquitos. The final talus hike up to the North Ridge is loose and uncomfortable. Compare that to the final descent on firm talus from Goat Pass to the base of the North Ridge. It is much, much easier. The best descent of this route is by the Cascadian Couloir, which takes you back to your car. All in all, we think that approaching from the South is the wisest choice. One user on this site descended the West Ridge of Stuart. It took them a while!
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