Washington has incredible peaks with great alpine climbing routes. Mt. Stuart stands out as one of the best. When it’s covered with snow it offers incredible skiing, and in the summer it transitions to some of the best alpine rock climbing in the state (if not the country). The North Ridge is uber-classic, and has been on my mind for a while. Last weekend we decided to go for it.
Kirk drove down from Bellingham and we left Seattle just after midnight. Arriving at the trailhead at 4:30 a.m., we immediately set off. The North Ridge is of course on the north side, however the best descent routes are on the south side of the mountain. This makes for a tricky approach. You can either go in on the north side and then have to hike around the mountain to get back to the car, or use the southern approach and half-circumnavigate the peak to the base of the climb. We decided on the southern approach, wanting to get most of the hiking done early.
The hike took longer than anticipated but was quite beautiful. As long as we kept moving the mosquitoes were kept to a bearable level. Getting closer to the climb, we encountered some patches of snow among the boulders. We debated carrying ice axes but luckily decided to throw them in. Tennis shoes have a distinct performance disadvantage compared to ski boots when it comes to snow. Nonetheless, we crawled our way across like basilica pilgrims.
At the base of the route, I found I’d messed up and let our printed route photos slip out of my back pocket sometime during the hike. Luckily the route is for the most part fairly obvious: follow the ridge. We started up an awkward chimney that required me taking my pack off, and clipping it to my harness. I’m not sure that’s the correct technique for an alpine climber, but it worked. Next up was a fun 5.9 layback/hand crack. After that the pitches started to blend together, however I remember they contained marvelous climbing. We ended the day with a few pitches of simul-climbing, settling into our bivy site just before dusk.
We chose to sleep at the point where the standard North Ridge meets the complete North Ridge route. As we clambered up onto the bivy ledges, we found another group of climbers, also hailing from Bellingham. Kirk and I had opted to forego carrying sleeping bags, so we quickly made dinner, melted snow, and crawled into our bivy sacks before it got too cold. I slipped a Mountain House meal full of boiling water inside my jacket and a few minutes later I yelped as molten stroganoff exploded over my chest. The intense heat didn’t last and only served to soak my clothes. Beforehand I was worried about not being warm, and now I was certain as wet beef chunks are not known for their high R value. The sunset from our little ledge was incredible and I soon drifted off to sleep. I woke up a little later shivering. We decided to leave soon after.
The climbing continued to be fun and easy. It’s common to simul-climb these sections. Yet being tired with heavy packs, we decided to pitch most of it out–much safer provided you can swap leads quickly. Efficient transitions enabled us to get a good number of pitches under our belts. We arrived at the base of the infamous “Gendarme” tired, and out of water. I decided to take a break and enjoy the sun-warmed granite. After a bit of hanging out we decided to make our push to the top.
The next 5.9 pitches passed by with minimal struggling. I led the second, a supposed offwidth. Thankfully, the crack didn’t require any offidth technique and had enough fixed pieces to resemble a sport route. Even still, my exhausted, pack-shlepping self struggled. After that, easy pitches got us to the summit.
We hung out on the top for a bit then decided to get the descent over with. Neither of us had been on Stuart before. The challenge was to find the Cascadian Couloir, the proper descent route. After traversing we thought we found the correct one. We were wrong, and ended up having to make one rappel and a mellow east side bushwhack to reach the trail.
At midnight we collapsed in the empty parking lot for a few hours in the sleeping bags.
Stuart North Ridge was the biggest and most serious climb I’ve done and fortunately, the funnest. The splitter granite, magnificent views, and challenging climbing made for an incredible trip. Anyone know of the best detergent for beef stroganoff?
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.