The Art of Alpine Sufferfests: Mt. Stuart's North Ridge
“So we had I clearing pattern,” I said weakly, panning my camera across the bivy site documenting the mists that enshrouded everything in a matte grey curtain.
“Not so much,” Ryan flatly responded.
I peeked over the edge of our exposed bivy site, praying for any porthole through the clouds that would indicate any chance at along-awaited liberation from our clouded jail cell. The panorama I grew accustomed to out to the west of Mt. Stuart’s North Ridge: Snow King, Boston Basin, and Glacier Peak capping the rugged peaks in the foreground had all but disappeared. In fact, we could not even see down to the glacier directly below us. At that moment in time, my partner Ryan’s and my world consisted of grey mist bleeding into grey rock, giving us a sense that we were imprisoned in some sort of bizarre mountaineer’s nightmare of a sensory deprivation room.
Soon the rain began to fall over the top of the mountain, lightly but steadily, and the two of us clambered beneath what meager rain protection we had: trash bags, sleeping pads, and a National Geographic waterproof map; it was as if we were slinging pebbles at a giant. It seemed that the two of us were putting up a laughable fight against what was steadily descending into the traditional, well-worn definition of a “sufferfest.”
I gauged our options from where we were at our bivy site: no view up to the Great Gendarme, only a few hundred feet away. No visibility, wimd, rain… I peered over the edge again, pondering the distance down to Stuart Glacier.
“How could the forecast be so wrong about today?!” I thought.
Ryan, seeming to read my thoughts from my facial expression, snapped from his empty stare out into the void and reiterated what he had said a few hours earlier, “Forecasts… never reliable in Washington State.”
My mind drifted back to the drop to the Stuart Glacier…4…5…6 rappels?
“Hang in ‘till the morning,” I thought, mustering as much positivity as I could.
More mind drifting. I needed to pass the time. I reached for my phone, and pressed the ‘play’ button.
And we danced. And we cried. And we laughed. And had a really, really, really good time…
“C’mon, you gonna rap with me?” I turned to Ryan, trying to pull both of us out our bivy-induced lethargy the best I could. He continued to stare out into space.
I pulled my trash bag a little higher over my sleeping pad, and continued rapping.
Rewind to Better Times
The tailgate slammed shut. Sending a short echo through the mostly empty parking lot at the Teanaway Trailhead. I turned on my phone screen, recoiling slightly as I felt my pupils quickly dilate to the brightness. 5:30am. I started up towards the peaks of the Teanaway, expecting to see some hint of Mount Stuart peaking over the top somewhere, though I knew better: Stuart was seven miles away and over three passes.
“Alright, let’s get aaalll the way up there…” I looked up towards what was essentially indeterminable half-light. The sun had yet to rise over the peaks. Ryan and I looked at each other, both popping earbuds in as we prepared to pass the type of long march that so succinctly defines climbing in the Cascades: giant, vengeful overland treks to equally giant climbs with equally vengeful descents to get home. We set off, our quadriceps weakly protesting to being subjected to exertion so early in the morning.
The landmarks passed quickly. Ingalls Pass, Ingalls Lake. We stopped to use the most scenic wilderness bathroom stationed in the cirque before the lake… all while being accosted by a very bearded mountain goat, wandering up within feet of our packs. I quickly conjured up the warning sign from the trailhead board: “WARNING: mountain goats WILL drink your pee.”
At Stuart Pass, I turned around and look downhill towards Ryan:
“The slog!” I tried putting a positive spin to the long haul. “Nice views, though.”
Ryan did not hear me, as he kept marching up the switchbacks toward my position. When Ryan reached my position, we briefly came out of our music bubbles. I pointed my camera in his direction,
“Here’s Ryan, the anti-social hiker.” I poke at him. “What do you have on?” I ask, though I can venture a guess from the few notes that escape his earbuds and reach me.
“Macklemore.” He smiles. It had become our trip’s anthem.
We begrudgingly descend from Start Pass down into the chossy boulder field beneath the start to the Stuart’s West Face. The rocks shift unnervingly underfoot: the large boulders threaten to begin rolling in homage to Indiana Jones; the small rocks flow liquidly downslope; the sand cuts any forward progress in half. The wind funnel effect eventually hinted that we were cresting the pass, and quickly the entirety of the Enchantments Basin opened up before us, a glacier feeding down to the countless lakes below and surrounded by the granite ramparts of the Stuart Range.
I looked over at Ryan, “It’s glacier time… to get over there.” I look toward the chute leading to the notch of the North Ridge.
“Who knows what that gully will be like,” Ryan says, peering across the first portion of the glacier.
We cross the first snowfield with ease, finding a nice glacial runoff to refill our water. I thought the iodine tablets sure would make it look appealing to those mountain goats…
At last, we reach the real section of Stuart Glacier, complete with gaping crevasses and even some late-season blue ice veins criss-crossing the heart of the glacier. I look down at my approach shoes; haggard veterans as they were, I still had to subject them to crampons not meant for them. I flip on my camera and point it at Ryan:
“You want to describe to us our very interesting… mildly ghetto rig here?” I ask.
Ryan is unsure whether to respond seriously or humorously. “We’ve got crampons… not meant for approach shoes… on approach shoes, so…” Ryan peels two compression straps off of his Cilogear pack and wraps them around the center bar of his crampons. His aggressive Grivel G14s paired with his summer approach shoes give an aesthetic akin to someone putting racing gear on their aged Dodge Neon.
The glacier passes without a hitch, even through a few front point moves, the only casualty coming from my cheap trekking poles--the first I ever bought--one shearing in half through the final front pointing moves into the chute.
I looked up at the teetering mess of the gully above, “So we made it into the choss… ditch…”
“Looks like fun!” Ryan says wryly as he wraps up his rock-gritty crampons.
“You feel like a choss boss yet? Death scrambling?” I ask him.
He flashes the thumbs-up sign, as we continue weaving through the maze of choss, thrutching through scary 4th-5thclass terrain at the top of the chute.
We finally pull into the notch, surprised to find a slew of bivy sites.
“Beckey does lie.” I laughed to myself, thinking of how all the approach times we had used for other trips in the area were vastly underestimating the time it takes us mortals. “But he did get this right! Bivies everywhere.”
The blue half rope folded in half and tied between us looked unusual, extra vulnerable-looking against the backdrop of Cascade granite. I peered out over the Enchantment Basin. Some low clouds hovered over the valley,failing to be vaporized by the sun’s increasing heat and rays. I turned back to the rock and began climbing, following the habit trail through the rock lichen left by previous summiteers also seeking the top of the coveted classic route.
The lower section of the upper ridge was fairly chuggable, maxing out at mellow to moderate 5th class terrain. Soon, we poked out over a knife edge, a thin divider between the Ice Cliff and Stuart Glaciers.
“We’re on the North Ridge now!” I yell down to Ryan. “Look at that!”
What begins as simul-climbing terrain soon gives way to the first earnest belay of the route, as the ridge forced us off of the crest and onto a thrillingly exposed wall far above the Ice Cliff Glacier. Ryan snapped his GoPro into place atop his helmet. He sheepishly grins, “I always feel weird having this thing on the top of my helmet.”
“Production value, bro.” I jokingly remind him, looking down at the camera bag strapped to the back of my harness.
The simul-climbing becomes a rhythmic, therapeutic routine, as we cover ground fairly quickly, up and over a tower and up over more pitches of the ridge, knife edges surprising me intermittently with a coursing adrenaline kick. But soon, the rhythm comes to a halt, as if someone has ripped the needle off a record player at my favorite part of the music. I peer up towards the Great Gendarme, which had been sliding in and out of fog for close to an hour. I looked down to readjust my stance, and I strained my eyes up into the clouds again. The Gendarme vanished, consumed in mist. A low marine layer of clouds was swamping the range, streaming across the passes and over the nearby mountain tops. The fog swirled around and zipped about as it ran aground like a ship against the huge masses of Cascade Granite.
“We might as well stop here to get water.” Ryan says, motioning around a corner.
I edge my way to his position, just as the clove hitch keeping me attached to the anchor pulls up against my belay loop. Sure enough, the lone snowfield remaining on the ridge was right next to us at the belay, with the addition of some awkward down climbing and traversing, of course; nothing in alpine climbing comes easy.
Ryan ventures down to the meager snowfield.
“You think we should stay here the night?” I ask. I hesitate to consider how much climbing we would be left to deal with the next morning.
“Well, we did plan on bivying on or near the summit.” Ryan sprays himself with snow as he chops away a block he extracted from the snowfield. “But I guess we don’t know what’s up there…”
“Yeah, though the beta did say bivies everywhere.”
Ryan looks down, “… like right here.”
The two of us look down the ramp on which the snowfield sits. Sure enough, just before the ramp disappeared down the precipitous Northwest Face all the way down to the glacier, there was a small, walled bivy site. Might as well take both the water and the bivy.
We hunkered down in the small flat space with barely enough room to extend our legs once we settled with gear, even resorting to a hanging gear belay to free up space.
The fog swallowed up the cirque below us and streamed up theNorthwest Face and up the side of the North Ridge. Our world was shrinking, until we were left with no view at all, our view ending just beyond the cliff that dropped hundreds of feet to the glacier.
My mind grew numb, idling in this small space no larger than a double bed.
“Maybe if I think hard enough, we may get a clearing pattern… if only humans could do that kind of stuff,” I thought.
Every small, fleeting break in the fog, my eyes would dart and follow it, only to watch it meld back into the grey wall of mist.
“So we had a clearing pattern,” I blurted.
Ryan looked blankly at me, “Not so much…”
Into the Night
The rain and wind soon came over the top of Mount Stuart, and Ryan and I quickly tried to assemble whatever jingus rain protection we could rig. The proverbial “Light and Fast” model was living up to its reputation: we climbed fast, but we ended up being (too) light to comfortably wait out weather. We both sat on Ryan’s pad, slinging mine over our heads. The ends of our sleeping bags were covered in flimsy garbage bags with the remainder of our exposed gear covered in a waterproof Nat Geo map, weakly rigged it to my mat with carabiners in order to keep it from flying away in the wind.
Neither of us could sleep. It seemed that the storm could sense each time we overcame the discomfort in our curled lower bodies to get a fitful few moments of rest; the wind would suddenly lift the map and threaten to pull it from the flimsy rigging holding it to the sleeping pad and cast it down to the Stuart Glacier below.
Hours painfully slid by. We had stopped climbing a little after lunch and made our decision to bivy in the early afternoon, so by dinner, cabin fever had set in a bit. We ate our camp rations mostly in silence, I occasionally attempting to break it by playing absurd Macklemore tracks from my phone.
With the day almost finished, Ryan and I prepared to settle into camp for the night, fully expecting the sufferfest factor to remain much the same for the rest of the night, and we returned to sitting in our contorted positions along the short dimension of the bivy. As if on cue, the cirque began to appear from below, the curtain of fog dissolving and giving way to the colors of the valley below; not long after, the peaks across the cirque followed; finally, we could see back out to Glacier Peak again. A low cloud ceiling remained ~10000 feet as sunset commenced.
The sunset exploded like a Cirque de Soleil light show. The sun, having been hidden in the thick soup of clouds the entire day, sank beneath the marine cloud layer, sandwiching it between the clouds and the horizon. God rays shot out across the Central Cascades, illuminating everything in a gold and red glow; the clearing sky soon turned a deep blue, creating a color palate that would have given French Fauvist painters a run for their money.
“The sky is on fire right now! Look at this thing!” I exclaim as my eyeballs bulge “Whaaaa! This is so cool! That’s all I can say right now. My brain’s just like ‘what?!’”
Ryan, the resident Washingtonian, was stunned staring out at this divine scene. “I’ve seen a lot of mountain sunsets. This is by far the BEST!”
It seemed as if suffering the entire day was the price of admission to this explosion of color and light.
Assuming the worst was over, Ryan and I finally had the conditions to sleep properly, moving away from the ridge wall behind us and sleeping lengthwise along the bivy site. I laid out my mat and stretched out my legs, feeling the blood finally rushing back into them and flowing out properly. The sense of resolution even seemed to dampen out the small rocks poking at me from beneath my sleeping pad, made even better by some of the stars emerging through the clouds. But some dark spots remained. Just as I began dosing off, I felt rain land on my face…
The Long-awaited Summit
I peeked out from my sleeping bag, half-expecting to see the marine cloud layer blanketing the area again. To my surprise, obscured through the gunk on my contacts, blue sky filled my field of vision. I groggily lifted myself up from my mat. Ryan turned over indifferently.
An early morning sense of excitement ambled into my mind, too tired to really cause a ruckus this early in the morning. Being on the west side of the North Ridge, the sun was still concealed by the walls behind us.
After Ryan slowly came to, we packed up our bivy, eager to continue climbing before the weather could have a chance to turn—you never know in the Cascades. We quickly shot up the pitch preceding the slab under the Gendarme, marveling at the giant, uninterrupted exposure down to the Ice Cliff Glacier below.
“Wooo! Look at that all the way down to the glacier! YEEAAH!” My thoughts were indiscriminately piled together from a night of fitful sleep and day’s worth of sufferfest, but the euphoria of being on the ridge again quickly began marshaling my mind into order.
We arrived under the Great Gendarme with clear skies. I stared up the lieback first pitch up the pillar. Ryan pulled up behind me, his look much less thrilled by the appearance of the Gendarme up close.
“I’m not sure about this, Ryder. Looks pretty burly.” Ryan says with a hint of anxiety in his voice.
“Confidence, man. You’ve been climbing a lot lately.” I try to reassure him, but I see his gaze has moved to the rappel bolts on the side of our platform that lead to the chossy 5.7 bypass of the otherwise sustained 5.9 crux pitches directly up the Gendarme.
“… I know you climb hard, but I don’t know if I can keep up. A grade IV 5.7 is still pretty badass.”
“Well, we came all this way with the goal of the Gendarme. Both of us.” I said.
We went back and forth for a few minutes… a few more minutes than we needed to.
“You have the strength. You have the skills. We’ll get through this.” I clapped him on the shoulder encouragingly.
With that, I started up the pillar, debating with myself if I was doing a service or disservice to my friend. I knew he had faith in our strength in our climbing team, but I knew that we would were walking the fine line of reward and risk through overextension. I pulled through the first of the two bulges, resting beneath the third and final section, the crux of that pitch. I regulated my breathing and looked at the adjacent wall forming the corner with the pillar: the confidence-inspiring footholds that made the layback easy on the first two bulges were gone, replaced by minuscule, rounded ripples in the rock. With adrenaline kicking in a bit more aggressively, I pulled up to the top of the pillar, elated to be done with the first pitch, though reserved because I caught a glimpse of the hyper-exposed offwidth pitch above me.
I put Ryan in on a bomber anchor and he began up the pillar. Climbing became thrutching halfway up the pillar. After a brief rest beneath the final crux bulge, he climbed through, finally casting his hand onto the top of the pillar, and pulling up next to me.
I turned on my camera. “Ryan, after being a master…”
“Of suffering…” He laughed wryly, still regaining his breath after the crux.
“Nah, he’s doing great,” I peek back over the edge back down the pillar and then up to the next pitch.
I look back at Ryan. It was obvious he was strained through the last pitch, but I could see a hint of excitement peeking through, as he proved to himself that the pitch he quickly resigned as too hard had been climbed.
“Alright, next pitch!” I pipe up, trying to coax that excited feeling out of him.
I rack up and traverse off the pillar, again regulating my breathing to keep the adrenaline at bay. The exposure opened up instantly, like stepping off the edge of a skyscraper. The entirety of the Northwest Face was below me, a massive chasm that ran for ~1000 feet all the way back down to Stuart Glacier. Mellow breezes riding up the face encouraged me up to the rest beneath the offwidth. With one final rest, I thrutched up into the crack, sliding the #4 cam, which had been deadweight to this point, along with me as I advanced higher in the crack.
I felt tendrils of lactic acid finally breaching my forearms, and I began to feel the adrenaline testing the walls of my calm resolve that I had worked to build up during the entire route. I settled the #4 in place and moved over the final section of crux, wondering if there would be peace-of-mind gear placements above. Around the bulge, I was greeted with what seemed like, at the time, the manna from heaven: a fixed #4 Camalot. Clipping it, I looked back down at the exposure and to my own #4 a considerable distance below.
“Well that was heady, indeed,“ I thought, pausing to dab off the small bit of blood the crack had extracted from my hand.
Finding a big sandy ledge, I anchored in and called for Ryan to climb, feeling the rope to gauge his progress up the offwidth. He finally emerged around the corner above the offwidth, death gripping the final moves out of the crux. A look of uninhibited excitement had spread across his face. He had proven himself wrong and finished the entirety of the Great Gendarme.
“Yo, he finished the offwidth!” I yelled down as he took a rest stance atop a block.
“Suffered through it!” He said as he pulled himself over the lip and onto the belay ledge. The most satisfying fist bump ensued.
“… and now it’s easier to the summit.” I filmed the chasm down the Northwest Face, panning up to the top, now fully in view. “Let’s get there!”
We climbed up some easy terrain, a welcome reprieve from the crux below. Though a mildly rude interruption came in the form of an awkward, exposed traverse followed by a leaning crack climb, we at least found unequivocally easy ground—4th to low 5th— after the crack to the summit. The full-value ascent (we knew a full-value descent remained… Cascades style) was finally complete, and we absorbed the 360-degree panorama much in the way a devout pilgrim takes in their promised land: Boston Basin and Glacier Peak stood out against the blue sky to the west-northwest; Rainier and the summit cone of Adams stood mightily in the distance to the south, surprisingly void of the cloud islands such massive mountains are known to create.
I pressed play on my phone again. Macklemore’s “And We Danced” once again streamed out, this time in celebration.
We wrote our names—along with a mini essay—in the summit log and enjoyed what little rations we had left in our packs. Negative calorie count by far. After about 20 minutes, we donned comfortable shoes and began heading for the sub-summit and the hidden entrance to the Cascadian (“Crapcadian”) Couloir. Along the way, we ran into the first people we had seen in nearly three days, as we crossed paths on the summit ridge.
“You guys come up the couloir?” Ryan asks.
“Yeah,” the leader replies, as his surfboard shorts-wearing partner pulled up behind him. “It isn’t too hideous, but you have to make sure you hit the chimney right below the sub-summit to access it.”
After some brief conversation, we parted ways and eventually came to the entrance to the couloir. Hideous? Yes. Perhaps it was not too miserable ascending it, but descending it was an entirely different story. Complete with loose blocks, sand, and the notorious Cascades “kittylitter”—choss that behaves like ball bearings underfoot--the couloir disappeared out of sight, over 3000 feet back down into the valley without any breaks.
It took us hours of slogging through terrain that was, at best, severely questionable and at worst downright terrifying. But this is par for the course in the Cascades. With our shoes feeling like recreations of a desert, we finally swatted through shrubs and greenery and ended up in the valley beneath the couloir. We stopped to empty our shoes of sand and refill water, surprised to find a small army of weekend campers settling in for the evening in the shadow of Stuart's south face; the journey was not yet over. We charged up the Long’s Pass Trail, our broken bodies powered by the opportunity for a burger and beer in Cle Elum.
Long after the sun had disappeared beneath the horizon, we returned to the Teanaway Trailhead, gawking at a sight of an entirely different variety: the parking lot, which had been empty when we departed on Wednesday morning, was overflowing with weekenders' cars: people going to Ingall’s Lake, over Long’s Pass, to Mount Stuart. Some were even sleeping in their cars, able to get some shuteye even with hordes of climbers and hikers milling around the parking lot.
Ryan and I eagerly and haphazardly hurled our gear into the back of his truck and escaped the crush of cars, which extended further down the road. After perusing Cle Elum’s main drag, we feared all of the kitchens in the local restaurants had closed, but we found one bar, The Caboose Bar and Grill (shameless recommendation because their burgers are a great post-climb feast), whose chef was still at the bar and agreed to cook us a meal.
The two of us ravenously consumed burgers and beer, watching some of the drunk local Cle Elum bros hit on the bartender. Ryan turned to me and raised his glass.
“To Mount Stuart.” He was happy. Even his mountain beard looked joyfully relieved.