This is the story of my first big-ish alpine climbing route, which turned into more of an epic than we intended.
Thursday night I was up fairly late preparing because my work situation had gotten out of hand. There were heavy thunderstorms that night, and I didn’t sleep very well or very much. Friday I got up early, went to Seattle by ferry and bus with all of my gear in my backpack and bought an ice tool at the last minute from Jim Nelson’s shop. Two of the others –Chris and Ronnie -- showed up at 11:00 and we drove out over the pass; heavy thunderstorms and rain on this side, and clouds mixed with sun on the other. We hiked up 2000’ over Long’s pass and down the other side, and bivied at 5200’, hoping it didn’t rain. We made a big fire so that Ryan, our fourth, would find us by the smoke – the area was networked with small trails and streams.
Ryan came in around 9 PM and we slept until 2:30 AM, at which point we got up, shivering and semi-miserable, choked down some cold food, packed our gear, and started hiking at 3:00 AM by headlamp. We hiked up the river and then took a climber’s trail that goes over Stuart Pass. Very quickly we felt that we were no longer in Kansas. Steep scree, some scrambling over cliffs, etc. Half way up, Ryan told us that he had grabbed the wrong stuff sack in the dark and didn't have any food with him. He was also lactose-intolerant and couldn’t eat most of the food we had, so we didn’t have much to share. Privately, I think it made each of us wonder if we had enough food. He stuck with us in any case, and we got to the top of the pass, with the enormous, forbidding West Ridge looming above us.
We scrambled down and across snow and scree and up the other side to knife-edged ridge of Goat Pass, where Ryan started having cramps and decided to quit. He turned back alone, leaving us with a 3-man climbing team, which can be slow. We climbed down from Goat Pass and across the two glaciers in our crampons, then up the very steep snow-filled couloir on the North ridge which climbs to the notch where the real rock climbing begins. We made it to the notch around 9:30, already tired from the approach. My pack weighed around 35 lbs. The notch itself is cramped, yet there are a few unlikely bivy spots tramped flat and protected from wind by low stone walls. Above us, the massive ridge rose into the sky, immediately 5th class.
Crossing the glacier
Gaining the ridge
We roped up and simul-climbed a bunch of pitches, getting used to each other and the system and the rock. We had to belay each other up a few short pitches and several times we got out on a dead-end slab that dropped 80 feet or more, and each time had to backtrack and downclimb onto some sketchy ledge system and move ahead until we could climb back up to the ridge. Chris had been up the ridge once before and generally knew where to go, but he didn’t remember every detail and I found the route-finding somewhat unnerving, given the time pressure we were under. The ridge itself is made of gigantic blocks of granite, some hundreds of feet high, stacked at wild angles, often so precariously balanced that it seems impossible they would stay up. Sometimes you’re strolling up a wide path, other times hanging onto a knife edge while struggling to get your feet across a traverse with 500 feet or more of air below you, downclimbing some sketchy section while your pack tries to rip you off the wall, or whatever. It is both spectacular and scary.
Chris looks back at climbers behind us
Looking up the ridge. The gendarme is somewhere above us.
Most of the climbing was not too hard, but the feeling of vulnerability is hard to overrate: by the top, you are 5,000 feet up with near-vertical drop right into the bergschrund on both sides. To each side is the staggeringly huge northern wall of Stuart, sheer cliffs, and below, glaciers lie on both sides of the foot of the ridge. On the rock face itself, snowfields hang on at impossible angles, dropping chunks of ice or avalanching as the snow warms. You feel like an ant; smaller than an ant, surrounded by immense forces.
A very long drop into the bergschrund
The feeling of commitment is real and difficult to explain adequately: even if you could rappel off (which seems difficult in many spots because you’re looking down a nearly-vertical, often wet or icy wall menaced by avalanches), and even if you could get across the bergschrund, you’d still be standing on the steep ice of a glacier, looking forward to the long and arduous descent over two passes. The ridge is very exposed to weather, and was waterless.
By 2:00 PM we had finally gotten to the gendarme, an enormous tower of rock standing directly astride the ridge. We had decided in advance to climb it rather than traverse around it, and I led the first pitch, a layback in 3 sections. I wanted to haul our packs but in the interest of time, Chris was insistent that we climb with them. I foolishly agreed, and by the end of the last section, I was so tapped out that I just barely made it. Ronnie wanted to lead the second pitch, which stepped out above the ledge onto a near-vertical wall with huge exposure and a drop below of something like 800 feet, balanced across to a big offwidth crack, and then went straight up the offwidth. There was about 25 feet of 5.9 climbing to get up the offwidth, which was difficult with a pack, and Ronnie started having trouble. He put a big 4 cam in there, tried standing on a sling and other cheats, dropped a number 3 cam belonging to Chris (which fell something like 800 feet straight down – it passed us, accelerating, with a ripping “ffffffft” sound, and it was gone!), and then took a hard fall on my belay, coming up just short of a ledge that could have broken his ankles. He got a pretty good case of road rash from it. Meanwhile a team of 6 climbers had come up below the gendarme. As it turned out, they were led by a guy from Missouri who we had met the previous week on Total Soul, callously dragging an exhausted and scared novice female climber behind him. He climbed up to the ledge with us and watched Ronnie try, and fail, and try and fall again, and Chris coach him, and me get antsy about the delay as the sun inched another notch or two down in the sky. Eventually, he decided to traverse around us, so he rapped off our anchor, Ronnie descended back down to the ledge and we switched the order of the ropes so that Chris could lead. Chris led up it, I followed (another major struggle with a heavy pack), and Ronnie came up last. Ronnie moved well at first, but then he stopped moving for a long time while still out of our view, and finally shouted up from below, “I’m going to have to leave a piece,” and Chris said under his breath “Oh God, please don’t let it be my number 4 cam.” When Ronnie reached the belay he told us that yes, it was the number 4 he had fallen on – he just couldn’t get it out. I felt bad for both of them; Ronnie’s a lovely guy and a solid climber but he was too tired to retrieve the expensive cam, and we didn't have time for Chris to go back for it. Meanwhile, cold mist descended and began to flow through the teeth far above us and to occlude the peak, alternating cold wind with sun. I was feeling pretty unhappy and nervous; it was my first big alpine route and the one word that described the whole experience for me was ‘intimidating.’
When we finally reached the top of the gendarme it was 6:00 pm and the ridge looked just as big above us as below us. We had many pitches to go, we were hungry and cold, and I felt that we had to get off it. In retrospect, my nervousness was partly just inexperience. We probably would have been fine climbing at night, but we were also low on water and there was none on the ridge; I was mostly just concerned about how slowly we were moving. We roped up again, belayed each other up a short 5.8 pitch and then did a lot more simul-climbing to the top of the ridge – maybe another 6 pitches or so of steep and sometimes dicey scrambling up to about 5.7.
We topped out at 8 pm, 1 hour before sunset. The team from Missouri had rapped off the gendarme and down 100 ft further off the side of the ridge, crossed a sketchy blank section of smooth granite that is unprotectable and sometimes icy, and then climbed up a major series of ledges and cliffs, and they reached the summit about when we did. The 9,415 foot summit itself is a crazy jumble of spires and blocks, all off-angle with nowhere to stand. Fog had come in strong, and it was very cold. We had lost the view that we had enjoyed coming up, and there was lots of shouting back and forth between members of the other team as clouds streamed through the gaps and darkness descended.
We packed as fast as we could, ate some food and water, downclimbed to a snow field, and donned crampons. We plunge-stepped down a steep snowfield and then met up with the other group and did a long traverse to the left, a lot of scrambling over blocky rock, until we hit the top of the Cascadian couloir. The route is completely non-obvious; you probably pass 10 gullies before you hit the correct one. By this time we had all donned headlamps and it was dark.
The couloir is approximately 5,000 feet of extremely steep scree and mud and snow and water, and the other team was going slower than we were because they had to stick together. The couloir is confusing – it splits many times as it descends – and somewhere, we got off route in the darkness. The route got even steeper and more difficult, and perhaps two thousand feet down, we realized that we were between two large ravines. They began to get closer together and finally cliffed out, trapping us. Hanging off a gnarled tree and peering into the dark with our headlamps, it looked like the ravine dropped off another cliff further down, and possibly even another cliff beyond that, so rappelling into it could make our lives much worse since we had no guarantee of being able to get back up if we needed to.
So we decided to traverse. We climbed back up until we could go across-slope, and in this fashion went something like a mile across streams and gullies, brush and slab, repeatedly starting down, discovering a big cliff, and clambering back up to traverse farther. It was very tiring. Finally, I found an animal trail that plunged down into the darkness, and we took it. For a while, it went downslope extremely steeply through heavy brush where our progress was more like falling than hiking. Eventually, the brush yielded to trees, and then we downclimbed into streams; more brush, more slab, more downclimbing, always steep and always unknown terrain below, for more than an hour and something like 2,000 feet vertical.
At about 11 PM I noticed a little-used human trail, and we took it down another thousand feet or so until it reached the river trail in the valley bottom, where we arrived at midnight.
I pulled out my GPS unit because we had no idea where we were relative to the camp, and it showed that the camp was 1 mile away. But the compass first pointed West, then East, and it didn’t respond when rotated. We had been going 21 hours without a break, and in our exhaustion we decided to rest in place. We found a flat spot on the trail and lay down in our sweaty clothes on the ground – no bags, no shelter, and a rope for a pillow, and shivered and occasionally dozed until 4 AM, when the valley was light enough to start to see shapes in some detail.
I figured out as I lay there waiting for daylight that the compass and the GPS are totally separate; that is, the GPS figures out your position and knows how to calculate the direction to another point, but actually pointing in the direction of a bearing is the job of the electronic compass, and I realized that I had seen, and ignored, a page about calibrating the compass in the instructions. As soon as I calibrated it, it took us directly to the camp. We packed up everything and slogged back over Long’s pass (2000 ft up, maybe 3000 ft down to the parking lot). Time for a nap!