This trip report is one I have put off writing for a while. Our bid for the Stuart summit was easily the most intense experience of my life to date. Even several weeks out, I find myself struggling to put words to our journey – so please bear with me.
We epic’ed. That is to say, things did not go according to plan and we ended up in way over our heads.
Mount Stuart is the second-highest non-volcanic peak in Washington State. It sits apart of the Stuart Range in the Enchantments Wilderness and is best known for its Direct North Ridge Route which is one of the 50 Classic Climbs. And no, the Mountain Project description does not do the route justice. The Direct North Ridge with the Gendarme is over 30 pitches of Grade V – throw in the Sherpa Glacier descent and you get one gnarly climb.
Our group of eight was lucky enough to secure permits for the Stuart Zone of the Enchantments area. We trekked in, set up base camp, and went to bed early. The plan was for four members of our group to remain at base camp and complete some of the phenomenal day hikes in the area while the remaining four: Dylan, Rachel, Tyler, and myself would attempt to summit Stuart in 1.5 days.
In the wee morning hours of June 21st (which also happened to be the summer solstice, the longest day of the year), we began our headlamp approach. The Mountaineer’s Creek approach took us through dense woods, over boulder fields, into swamps, and across snow fields until we reached the lower spine that brought us to the base of Stuart.
Our goal for the first day was to pitch out the lower 5.7 terrain and simul-climb the 4th/5th class to the first bivouac ledge. We didn’t make it. Despite climbing from 10am until 7pm, we quickly realized that the ‘simul-worthy’ territory was anything but. Okay, where did that leave us? We were only one-third of the way up Stuart, we still had two-thirds of the pitches ahead, the crux Gendarme pitches, the entire Sherpa Glacier descent, and the descent back to base-camp. In … one day?
The next morning, now June 21st, we woke up with the sun and were climbing by 7am. Time to rally. And boy did we. That day we climbed the remaining two-thirds Mt Stuart to the summit. But we were not unscathed. First, we only had food for 1.5 days. We were all subsisting off approximately 500 calories per day and fading fast. We ended up having to chip our water from the snow plagued the route. Second, we also had to complete the crux Gendarme pitches which included a lie-back to an off-width. Third, we had to reach the summit in order to find a bivy.
That is not to say the climbing wasn’t spectacular. It certainly was. And it wasn’t that we hadn’t adequately researched the route. We had. We simply got out butts handed to us.
Early morning turned into afternoon. Afternoon turned into evening. We were losing light and we still hadn’t reached the Gendarme. And then we came across this …
The ‘Slab with a Crack’ pitch serves as the gateway to the Gendarme pitches. With no way around it, Dylan fearlessly geared up with two ice axes and his rock shoes to lead. He crushed it. Now for the exposed traverse to the Gendarme …
These pitches were certainly one of the many highlights. The exposure. The rock-quality. As we climbed, we watched huge chunks of snow break from the mountain and tumble down the Ice Cliff Glacier. It served as a reminder of the power of the peak we were on and how insignificant we were. And then for the Gendarme …
Dylan absolutely crushed the Gendarme pitches, at the top of which, we lost our last bit of light. But we were not done yet. We still needed to reach the summit. And so we switched on our headlamps and pressed on through the bitter cold and wind. The only way out of our situation was up. And the only way we were going to get there was by climbing.
Adrenaline is a funny thing. It certainly fueled us, but our bodies were so depleted from lack of food, water, and having already climbed more than 21 hours in the last two days that adrenaline started to hollow us out. At one stage, Rachel brought up a point, “We could be at home right now, in a warm blanket, drinking tea and reading a book. Instead we are here”. We made condolences to ourselves. We kept saying if we could just get to the summit.
But Stuart did not let up. We encountered still more ice and snow-covered pitches of the route. The route-finding was a constant challenge. But thanks to Dylan and Tyler, at 2am, we finally summited. We settled in for another forced bivy. We were now one night overdue and had the glacier descent to greet us in the morning.
Mercifully, we had good weather for our descent. We started down to the Sherpa Glacier.
In the early afternoon we reached the first of the Sherpa Glacier rappels. After three sling rappels, the fixed gear dried up. We were going to have to get creative. Wouldn’t you know it, Dylan found an abandoned picket. Buried it. And off we went to our next ‘rappel’. Which turned out to also not exist. With no suitable placements, our next rappel ended up being a single nut with a very specific direction of pull. Off to our next ‘rappel’. This time, a single cordelette.
We had one final (and massive) obstacle between us and our descent. The Sherpa Glacier Bergschrund. Tyler fearlessly rappelled down to check out what we were up against. It soon became clear we were going to have to do some tricky business to get around our foe.
Our efforts to avoid the Bergschrund cost us even more precious light. We still had so far to go, but at least now we could switch to roped glacier travel.
We were all completely spent. We just kept plodding. We had to get off the glacier before dark. Just as we were getting close, we encountered a rocky section. All of us, in crampons strapped to our approach shoes, were not prepared for the delicate technical butt-sliding that was required. One member took a fall. We arrested. Onward.
Finally, finally we reached the boulder-field at the edge of the glacier just as we lost the last of our light. We were off the snow. But we still had to make it back to camp. We kept going. We stumbled. We fell. We hopped across endless boulders and countless fallen trees. We swallowed bugs. We lost the trail.
In the end, Dylan’s topographic map and compass saved the day. We were at our wit’s end. But when Dylan ran into the trail – we knew we had done it. Altogether, our team took 50 hours to complete the approach, climb, descent, and return to camp. We were more than 1.5 days overdue.
When we stumbled into camp, we realized our adventure was not yet over. While we were away, the four remaining members at camp had very appropriately called Search and Rescue. Thankfully, the team was in Eastern Washington which had delayed their rescue and we were able to call it off. We also discovered that the group had come down with some nasty food poisoning. Three of the four had been terribly ill for the last two days – four miles away from the trailhead and too many miles from bathrooms or running water. Turns out they had their own epic.
The group decided we had enough of the Enchantments and hiked out the next day. As a final gesture, the one remaining base-camp member also got food poisoning and my three climbing partners ended up getting violently sick also.
We all agreed, this was the most intense experience of our lives. Personally, I feel so grateful to have shared it with such a capable group. Though, I am looking forward to some time on my couch, drinking tea, and reading a book.