I wrote this horrible piece in 1983 or 1984 about an attempt on Mount Stuart in 1981. A local Seattle-area sports and recreation newspaper actually published it – my first time in print. I had no voice of my own and didn’t have the sense to copy someone else’s. I suppose the event being described was compelling enough that an editor ignored my evident lack of writing talent. During the summer of 1986 I found myself repeating myself. After climbing a new route on the northeast face of Mount Stuart Jeff Lowe and I descended the Cascadian Couloir. In the valley he suggested hiking out Ingalls Creek instead of going back over the pass to the north. Despite wearing rock shoes as the liners in a pair of Onesport leather “over boots” I agreed and my feet paid all night long. Then, in 2004 I found myself stumbling along the Ingalls Creek trail in the dark again, but on purpose, having to cross it on our way back to the Teanaway River trailhead where we’d begun the day.
Andrew was game for anything. We had a day off this week and wanted to climb. The forecast promised a cold front so rock climbing was out of the question. Perhaps we were a little naive to still want to go out but youthful exuberance can make up for experience in many cases.
We chose the Stuart Glacier Couloir because as an ice climb we figured on being able to get up it even in a storm despite the fact that Fred Beckey called it an “extreme alpine route, which should only be attempted under ideal conditions.” A cold front was hardly ideal but our ambition burned brightly.
The guidebook photograph showed a spectacular couloir bisecting the north face of Mount Stuart, a mountain I had attempted to climb the previous winter. Based on this picture we proposed to descend by traversing Stuart’s summit, negotiating a splendid ridge toward Sherpa Peak then down-climbing an easy gully to the valley floor.
Andrew and I settled on a small rack of hardware, hoping to make up in speed what we were sacrificing in security. The only technical climbing was a short section of steep water ice about halfway up the couloir, which our gear would certainly be sufficient to deal with. Besides, we’d have to solo most of the route in order to climb it and hike back out in a day.
The alarm clock was set for “stun” but the sound of rain convinced us to sleep in. By 8am the sun had shone through, a typical North Cascades start: late. With light packs we started up the trail. It was a late snow year and after five miles we were forced to change from trainers into climbing boots. Clouds hung alarmingly low around the mountain but we had come to climb. Weather was just something else to overcome. We had come to find the flavor that is rich in the books written by Rebuffat, Gervasutti, and Walter Bonatti. Mount Stuart is as close to being like the Alps as one can find in Washington so we had come to find our own “starlight and storm.”
It didn’t take long to locate the bottom of the climb in the clouds but trouble crossing the bergschrund wasted any time we had gained. We aimed ourselves upward with crampons and ice tools biting hungrily into the soft alpine ice. The incomplete view into the mist only heightened our curiosity. We scurried upward from one protecting overhang to the next; our ears constantly tuned to the warning sounds of an approaching avalanche.
Snow had begun to fall and I was concerned that the rapid accumulation made the couloir more dangerous by the moment. A few small sloughs of spindrift poured down but they were not too serious.
The couloir was bottle-necking down and its walls loomed steeper and higher above us. We turned the corner to our first glimpse of the crux. The 30 feet of water ice looked more like 300 feet as the blue-gray ribbon disappeared into the mist more than a rope’s length away. Nervously I placed an ice screw and hammered in one of my ice tools for the belay anchor. Andrew tied in to the end of our single 9mm rope, slung the meager hardware rack and mumbled something about hopelessness before starting out. He ran it out swiftly without stopping to place any protection until I shouted “Halfway!” He banged in our other ice screw and continued on. Minutes later he shouted that he was off belay and I was clear to follow.
“Great stuff” I whooped as I swung my tools into the Tupperware consistency; truly we had found the elusive single-swing ice. My borrowed boots hurt my feet but I was doing a great climb and I was happy. I reached Andrew and looked past his sheepish grin to realize he was belaying off of his tools. “Radical behavior, lad.”
The next pitch was thinner and steeper but we were in the groove, moving well, just like we had practiced. To lend the situation some validity a rock winged downward making a killing sound. I wanted so badly to drink in the view, to savor the spectacular setting but the clouds were too thick and set a tone of confinement rather than freedom.
The sound of hammering meant Andrew had an anchor and was off belay. I followed up a thinly iced chimney, stemming my feet into the splits and slowly working my hands upward. A calf-burning stretch of 70-degree ice placed us into the upper couloir where the angle laid back and the snow slopes broadened. I checked the belay anchor as I arrived ... ZOW! A knifeblade piton driven into a rock that stuck up through the ice. Was it actually attached to the mountain or was it an errant stone frozen into the gully?
Easier climbing above meant ropeless climbing, meant faster climbing so we untied from the cord and sought the security of our own skill. The snow gave way to some mixed ice and rock and then the crest of the West Ridge. It was still winter high on the mountain and we had to put all of our clothing on to stay warm. We weren’t prepared for 25-degree temperatures in July. A momentary clearing allowed us a view of the ridge rising toward the summit. Even now, I don’t remember anything ideal about conditions.
The trap had sprung: the storm plastered the rock with ice and rime, which, though not impossible to climb appeared to be just that. But we couldn’t rappel back down the couloir because we didn’t have enough hardware for anchors and going down the West Ridge looked as hard as going up. The urge was to go down but the end product of up was more appealing. Conditions would not improve while we waited and I wasn’t looking forward to a gearless bivouac so we tied in to the rope, gritted our teeth and turned our energy upward.
My crampons grated on the rock as I strained up onto increasingly smaller holds but I was thankful for them when I came across the odd bit of ice. Vertical progress was a painful process of clearing the snow away with gloved hands and making the moves with fingers bared. Eventually my hands grew so numb that I just left the gloves off, preferring to re-warm them when I reached a secure stance.
The long runouts between pieces of protection kept the fear ratio high but we were making progress. Two and a half pitches above the West Ridge Notch we came against a headwall that I could not climb. Andrew failed 15 feet up it also and he lowered off a runner back to the safe little ledge where I stood. Anxious words, another attempt, and the last of our water still found us no further. We couldn’t see a way around the barrier and the storm was whipping ice into our eyes driving us into a state of wild despair. We had to get down.
“Just a little more,” I thought. Easy to say, difficult to do and I recalled reading that “just a little more” is what distinguishes the victors from the vanquished ...
Back at the West Ridge Notch we realized our plight. Although we had no knowledge of the South Face we started climbing down the most obvious couloir, away from the summit, further still from the car but out of the storm. We managed to descend 1000 feet before we hit the first band of cliffs – God we didn’t want to have to climb back up – there had to be a way through. We traversed west around a small arete. Instincts or blind hope? Another gully led downward. We scrambled quickly, down-climbing everything because it was faster than rappelling and darkness was engulfing us.
Down in the valley, in the rain, we located the Ingalls Creek trail by headlamp. It was decision time again: up over Goat Pass to return to Stuart Lake and the trial home, back up into the snow and the storm or down the Ingalls Creek trail 13 miles to the Blewett Pass highway? Downhill, in the windless forest, and best of all it required very little conscious thought ... we chose the trail.
Each time we stopped to rest it didn’t take long for violent shivering to start so we walked through the night following hypnotic circles of light. Dawn found us on the highway, colder than ever, and no one stopping in response to our outstretched thumbs. Not so curious considering how we must have looked. The eventual ride was in the back of a pick-up truck, which was only slightly better than on the back of a motorcycle, I guess.
We walked penniless past the Leavenworth Safeway. Eventually getting a lift from the slightly overweight County Sheriff. According to him there had been over 50 accidents in the Enchantment Lakes area the previous summer and we had been fools to go out in the storm. I had my opinion as well.
Two years later I soloed the Stuart Glacier Couloir under the guidebook’s recommended “ideal conditions.” The climb and descent went off without a hitch but I felt empty and unfulfilled afterwards. The stormy epic had taught me so much more. Standing on the summit was insignificant compared to what Andrew and I had been through, compared to the view seen from the edge. The point is always to learn I guess, not to win or lose.