This past weekend I had the pleasure of being invited to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, noted as one of the top 50 classic climbs in America. I was intrigued and excited for the opportunity. I’ve only done one other real Alpine climb in the Cascades and that was Der Sportsmen on Prusik Peak in the Enchantments with Jens Holsten back in 2009. From that experience, I kind of had a clue what I was in for on this climb but as I’ve come to learn, Alpine climbing has an element of surprise to it that can impact any planned summit attempt. The compounding effect of our situation and decision making led us to retreat and reconsider the summit for another day.
As I reflect on the experience there are some definite lessons learned. First, we were a team of 3. I was the wild card, since I have the least experience in the mountains and least experience climbing with either party outdoors. The other two had done numerous climbs together and I suppose that is why I conceded to let them drive the coordination. By not participating more fully, I did not sanity check our gear, passes, or mindset for the climb. This led to several things like 1) me leaving my hiking pole, which killed me not to have it on the hike since I had strained a muscle earlier in the week, 2) one person in our team did not bring proper snow gear (no ice axe, crampons or prusik). This could have been a team decision, though I was too preoccupied to understand if this was a poor choice or not. I did think everyone had the impression that the complete north ridge would not entail any snow so the idea of leaving it behind or swapping it out with lesser gear (micro spikes and hiking pole) would have been sufficient. Finally, 3) our driver got a ticket for not having the parks pass, which while not impactful for the climb, was simply annoying when a $75 fine was found on the windshield. My point is that as a team we should have been checking these things or rather as a team member, I now know that I have to be more participatory in the prep, pack and park logistics.
After the hike was underway, things went relatively smoothly. We had great navigation (thanks guys!) and found ourselves on the Stuart Glacier with minimal impact and still with plenty of daylight for the climb. We were, however, in need of water. After finding water low on the glacier, we imbibed then reconsidered our approach to the climb. It looked like we could tackle just the North Ridge and forego the initial climbing pitches which also boasted the hardest pitch. In a climbing party, it is important that everyone be on the same page and feel comfortable with the undertaking. Given our group, time, and etc. it seemed like a good idea to cut the climbing down. Our goal was to get to the 4th class gulley that leads to the North Ridge climb, then bivy on top. The glacier is on the north eastern side of Stuart and the snow was soft and easily approachable from having been in the sun for a few hours that we each agreed on the new direction.
What we didn’t understand was how crevassed the snow was and how difficult they would be to navigate around. Our micro spikes climber was leading and checking the ice with an axe all along the way. The glacier angle was getting steeper and the crevasseless paths narrower. I looked nervously down towards Stuart lake as we traversed higher, unroped and unprotected. This was my first glacier travel experience and I trusted my team completely. Therefore, I continued along as cool and calm as I could (a little naively) muster. When we started having to consider jumping the crevasse or finding a bridge, we had to plan for potential rescue should one of us fall through (most likely it would be the leader, but…). I have read about these kinds of things, been prepped by fellow climbing friends (since I had this idea of doing Mt. Rainier this year) and had a basic refresher course there on the glacier, but the reality was that I had no practical skills in this area. I just hoped we wouldn’t have to test my textbook knowledge.
We made it through the crevasse minefield and approached the gulley. I could feel the tension ease up in the team with the idea that we were very close and this scariness could be behind us. I know the feeling of easing up or losing focus too soon and since I was still out of my comfort zone was still very aware of the danger I was in on this ice. We were now roped but there was nothing but a self arrest to save me (that would be using my ice axe and my body to dig the spike into the ice and hope it will arrest a fall, preventing me from sliding all the way down the mountain (and finding myself in Stuart lake!). J This last bit of ice was in the shade and seemed steeper than the 30 – 35 degree ice we’d just been traveling through. This posed new risk. Thankfully, my other climbing partner is overly cautious and questions our motives and moves every step of the way. In this last stretch I hear him ask what the plan of approach is and warns that the leader needs to remember to take my skills into account. There is an ice bowl that we need to either navigate around or go through. The leader must decide. As a team we agree to set up some sort of belay using our axes (we didn’t bring ice gear like ice screws or a picket). This was the safest way we thought someone could go out to scope out the terrain. As we set about this, we realized that if our leader were to fall, he not only would pendulum but there was a crevasse below us and he might end up in it. We made sure the leader had a prusik and he agreed to set about the scope with this risk in mind. While he was motivating, I was dealing with the rope. It had gotten into an uncoilable mess.
I’m standing on a flattened spot on the ice, with no axe, in crampons, trying to uncoil the rope so we can belay. I am now feeling even more apprehensive of our direction and decision. I’m aware that compounding risks is setting a team up for disaster. I did not want to jinx us, I actually wanted to get to that gulley, but I was scared. I knew that retreating had it’s own element of danger, but I didn’t know which was safest. It seemed retreating was at least a known problem, except after we decided to retreat, I was told that because of the crevasses, we couldn’t just go back the way we came. We had to forge a new path. I swallowed my fear and set on our way, slowly. The sun was now hitting the ridge line and would soon be behind the rock, which meant the snow would only harden making our descent even riskier. We had to hurry, but go slow enough to be safe.
Though our retreat was going slowly, we were making progress. All of a sudden our leader slipped. I watched him in somewhat slow motion. He had fallen and turned in my direction such that I could see his expression on his face, his eyes were wide, he was grabbing his axe and at that moment, in that split second when I realized he was falling, I self arrested. No hesitation and not even a thought about what I should do. I just did it. I went down and I saw his axe dig in and he caught himself as well. I looked behind and our follower was on the ground with his hiking pole in the snow. We were ok. Everyone could recover, but I was now terrified. I knew that had this approach been decided before coming out here, had they known glacier travel would be in the equation like this, I would never have been invited to join. I was not prepared for this and having no experience on this terrain kept me on edge until we found ourselves back on the lower boulders. I feared another slip by our leader or myself. We had to move quicker if we were going to get down. Quicker meant more room for error and the need for more confidence. I was not sure I could compose myself enough, at first, but there was no other option. I did my best to stifle my fear and concentrate on my ice technique. Thank goodness I had some ice climbing experience! I had to down climb the ice, stabbing the front spikes into the snow and leveraging the one axe I had and my other bare hand to balance and hold myself as I gradually made my way down. As soon as we made it to the boulder fields, I took the crampons off, ate a little, drank a little then nearly passed out on the rocks with exhaustion. Our goal at this point was to get to the base of the West Ridge and regroup. This meant a few more hours of hiking, back tracking and that meant I had to dig deep and keep my cool because some of the terrain was not stable and had high risks.
Nothing overly adventurous, compared to the glacier travel, ensued. I was sick to my stomach from the prolonged stress and when we finally made it to the pass, I immediately crashed. I had to decompress and the 20 minute rest was enough to rejuvenate. I was ready to tackle whatever plan the group was up for, but the group had only just decided they needed to rest. Therefore, we set up a bivy for the night on this ledge and everyone fell fast asleep. The winds kicked up during the night, the temps dropped, but at least I had enough layers to keep me warm. Morning came and we considered doing the West Ridge to the summit, but the wind and the temps did not inspire us. There had by this point been several parties headed to the North Ridge. We cautioned them on the approach, but everyone seemed keen to do the complete north ridge and we figured no one would have any trouble if they did that.
We packed up camp, determined to come back another day (armed with this new information) and try the North Ridge, again. Taking our time out, I had plenty of opportunity to ponder Mt. Rainier and my preparedness and willingness to suffer on a mountain like that. I was told there was nothing as technical as the glacier on Stuart on Mt. Rainier, but I worried nonetheless that I would not enjoy it. Slogging to the top of a mountain just to make a summit isn’t appealing to me, but adventurous, technical approaches hold my attention and make the summit seem like a worthy goal. We may not be the right team to take on such an adventure, and I might not be up for it anyway, but I have a new found appreciation for the skills required to tackle such peaks. I’m eager to go back to Stuart and see what the fuss is all about on the climb. The photos look spectacular and I feel like I missed out. Even so, this trip was worth it. I learned and experienced a lot more than I thought I would, had fun with my climbing companions and enjoyed the stunning views all along the way.
This will be a trip I will not soon forget.
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