MT. STUART, North Ridge Direct with Gendarme (5.9)

Category: Washington      Trip Report #: 27
Partner: Clint Cummins
Elev: 9,415 ft

One of my favorite all-time alpine climbs. We ended up bivying near the summit and spent a full day descending the west ridge with no water and one brownie.

With its classic exposed knife-edge north ridge and moderate rock pitches, Mt. Stuart has been on my "to-climb" list for a long time. When Clint Cummins, who I had met in the alpine club at my university, told me he would be in the Seattle area in early July and would be interested in doing some climbing, Mt. Stuart was certainly one of the first options that popped into my mind. Clint had soloed Stuart's north ridge some 30 years ago, but had always wanted to go back and climb the Great Gendarme 500 ft below the summit; the gendarme maintains the true ridge, but many parties avoid this intimidating 200 ft block by descending and traversing below. So Clint and I decided to plan our 9-day climbing trip in the Leavenworth area, since the south face of Prusik Peak was also a climb we were interested in doing (after Prusik, we headed north to Washington Pass to cooler weather and two stellar climbs: the East Buttress of South Early Winter Spire and the West Face of North Early Winter Spire.)

Since the weather forecast was perfect, we decided to start our trip with our climb of Stuart. We wanted to travel as light as possible on the climb, so we packed minimal gear, which meant leaving our sleeping bags in the car, even though we knew a bivy was likely given the length of the climb. We each brought 2 L of water, some food, a jacket and hat, boots, climbing gear, headlamp, and an ice axe.

Friday (July 7) night we slept in the Stuart Lake parking lot, and Saturday (July 8) morning at 5:45am we were on the trail to Stuart Lake.

After 1.5 hours, before reaching Stuart Lake, we turned off the trail and headed up along Mountaineer Creek. There were a lot of mosquitoes, even this early in the morning. For two hours we followed a faint climber's trail through the trees and talus to the moraine at the base of the north ridge. From here we ascended the edge of the moraine to reach the bottom of the rocky north ridge around 10:30am. Here, at the base of the direct north ridge climb, it was at about 6,600 ft, just a little less than 3,000 vertical feet below the summit. The photos below, respectively, show (1) the entire route up the north ridge as seen from the base of the moraine and (2) the technical 4-pitch route up the lower toe of the ridge.

At 11am, Clint was leading the first pitch up the north ridge. Pitch 1 involved a 5.7 lieback to an awkward 5.8 squeeze slot. Pitch 2 involved 5.6-5.7 face climbing. Pitch 3 was a fun 5.8-5.9 crack. Pitch 4 was a short section of 5.7. Fortunately, Clint likes to take photos, so I have several of me climbing.

After this we were able to simulclimb. For several hours we followed the ridge line leading up to the Great Gendarme. Stuart's north ridge is known for its exposure, and it was amazing to climb along the ridge, with the Ice Cliff Glacier far below on the left and Stuart Glacier far below on the right.

We reached the base of the Great Gendarme at 6:45pm. This is about 500 ft below the summit. We knew at this point that we would be bivying somewhere shortly after the summit. The direct climb via the gendarme was the best technical climbing on the route (the alternative is to rappel down 75 ft from the base of the gendarme to an easier traverse to the west of the ridge). Clint led the gendarme pitches. The first pitch was a stellar 5.9 lieback to the top of a pillar. The second pitch was a 5.9 offwidth which had looked intimidating on the topo but turned out to have plenty of solid holds and jams. The third pitch made an airy 5.5 traverse to the notch before the final ridge climb to the summit, where there was an initial 5.8 move and then a low Class 5 scramble to the summit. The photos below show the route on the Gendarme and Clint hanging out at the belay above the second pitch.

As we were climbing the Gendarme we saw the only other two climbers we saw that day. They had come up from Stuart Glacier and were planning on bivying at the base of the Gendarme that night. (A week later, Clint and I met one of these guys just ahead of us on the West Face of North Early Winter Spire!).

The sun was setting as we reached the final notch below the summit. This was a great position to see the sunset colors and shadow of Stuart on the mountains to the east. We made it to the summit at 10pm under a fading twilight. Luckily for us, the moon was full, offering enough light for us to begin our descent.

We had decided on the West Ridge as our descent route, so we started to pick our way down. Ideally, we wanted to find a bivy site by a melting snowfield, since each of us had only about 1 cup of water left and had less than 3 L the entire day (we each brought 2 L, and had filled up at the top of Mountaineer Creek before heading up the ridge). But after descending for about an hour, we were finding it too difficult to find the route or see the frequent rappel slings. Finally we reached a point where we could not find where the route went. We decided to build a bivy here and assess the situation in the morning. Below is a picture of our tiny bivy.

Without sleeping bags, we were rather cold and neither of us got too much sleep. I found that if I crawled into my pack I was a bit warmer. Thankfully, the night was short, and at 4:30am it was light enough to start to look for the descent route again, which we found jogged north over a cliffy looking feature on the ridge. We then drank what was left of our water and at 6:15am were heading down again. Thankfully, it was a beautiful morning. The photo below shows the sunrise colors on the West Horn below our bivy.

The descent down the West Ridge seemed to take forever. We faced numerous rappels, loose descent paths, and sketchy sections of downclimbing. I would suggest trying a different route down Stuart, like rappelling down the Northwest Buttress (disadvantage is that it is steeper and potentially dangerous if you get off route) or sliding down one of the class 3 couloirs (Cascadian or Ulrichs) (disadvantage is that the couloirs put you on the southeast side of the mountain, and if you need to get back to the Stuart Lake trail you then have to traverse around quite a bit). There really seems to be no easy or comfortable route down Stuart, unfortunately. Overall, for us the descent was an incredibly tedious 14 hours. It didn't help that on the entire West Ridge we found no water, and the only food we had between the two of us was three fruit bars and a brownie. The photo below shows one of our sketchiest rappels, where we rapped off a single nut. But at this point I didn't care - I just wanted to get down!

Finally, at 12:15pm we arrived on the sloping ridge above Stuart Pass. We still had not found water. We quickly traversed northeast over to Goat Pass (traverse took me about 1 hour). On the way over we were able to collect a small amount of water off dripping rocks in the snowfields. I found a small pool of dirty water in a depression of a boulder and drank that.

We glissaded down the snow fields below Goat Pass. This was the fastest and easiest part of the descent, and we were overjoyed to find a few small streams of snowmelt. Water never tasted so good! At the base of the snow slopes, we reached a cliffy area of steep heather and trees. For at least an hour we picked our way carefully down (I found an efficient thought slightly damaging way was to glissade down the heather). Eventually we were able to get to the gully after a final rappel off a tree. From the gully we found a faint trail and followed this to Stuart Lake, which we reached at around 5:15pm. The photos below show our descent route from Goat Pass.

We were exhausted, and the bugs were quite bad, but it was nice to finally have a trail. Just past Stuart Lake a party of friendly hikers offered us some extra gorp after hearing of our long day. This was just what I needed. After devouring a couple of cups of gorp, I hustled down the last couple of miles, arriving at the car at 6:45pm. Clint arrived an hour later. We had spent almost 40 hours on the mountain, but it was certainly worth it! What an amazing climb!

A few hours later, our bellies full with McDonalds burgers and warm in our sleeping bags, we fell into a deep sleep. The next day we rested, and then onto our next climbing objective, the south face of Prusik....