Mt. Stuart, Ice Cliff Glacier
June 23, 2001
<Damn. The pictures turned out terribly. Oh-well, better than
I’d been enjoying a life of sloth and lethargy since the Orvex outing in May. An eight day trip to Michigan to visit family was literally the icing on the cake. And it had been over a month since I had been out climbing with Jens. Far too long.
So we made plans to go climbing on Saturday and, as usual, left the details to the last minute. Friday was a good day for me. I closed a nice project for my company and scored some great deals at a sale at Marmot (BD Express screws for $36, WC Tech Friends for the same!). The only thing working
against me was the weather. It was deteriorating with forecasts of drizzle and clouds for the weekend.
So when Jens called we decided that east of the crest was the best choice. Then he suggest the Ice Cliff glacier on Mt. Stuart. “But we only have a day, Jens.
Ohhhhh, are you suggesting that we go car to car?”
“I know, it is a long day, but we know the way in now. I think we can do it.”
Jens and I had made the miserable approach up Mountaineer creek two years earlier, with the same objective. After schwacking and scambling for hours we camped high on the moraine in site of the ice cliff itself. We spent the evening watching an almost continuous stream on debris crash into the upper cirque. At our planned departure time of 3:00 AM, the outside temperature was 68 degrees and the rockfall hadn’t abated a bit. We went back to sleep and walked out at midday.
But I digress. Jens had also been on the Sherpa glacier recently, and discovered a higher route into the hanging valley, one that avoided much of the brush, deadfall, and death boulders in the valley bottom. Flush with enthusiasm from my business and gear deals, I said, “Sure. Let’s do it. What time do you think we need to leave?”
“Uh. Hmmmm. Midnight? I’ll drive and all.”
I’m usually the one trying for a later start. But with my family still in Michigan, and the dearth of climbing in my life in recent weeks, I was ready to go. “Okay. Pick me up at my place.”
And so it was. I went home, packed, and called my wife to let her know what I was up to. Around 10:00 PM I laid down on the sofa and let my eyes close. I drifted in and out for a couple hours, and then I heard Jens’ car in the driveway.
I rolled off the sofa and loaded my stuff in his car (except my cell phone, which I accidentally left on the charger. Oh well). And we were off toward Leavenworth.
The drive was uneventful, we talked, listened to the radio, and self-administered caffeine. We arrived at the rather full trailhead at 2:15 AM. We changed clothes and finished packing by headlamp. At 2:45 AM we walked away from the car under starlight, knowing that it would also be dark when we returned.
The walk up the trail went quickly for me. My mind was in a haze and my body was letting me know that I was mistreating it. I just wasn’t quite operating at top speed. I never even noticed the signs where the trail splits left toward
Colchuck lake. “Aren’t we almost to the lake turnoff Jens?”
“Uh, we passed that a long time ago, Loren.”
“Oh. I guess I’m half asleep.”
Shortly after we arrived at the first switchback and the end of our fast walk on a trail. It was 4:00 AM. I took a deep breath, knowing what the next few hours would entail, and followed Jens off into the woods. Where we could, we followed the meandering, intermittent surveyor’s tape through the woods to one of several possible places to cross the creek. After that it was a mixture of tape, cairns, and a faint trail that led us on a rising traverse toward the dreaded boulder fields. Soon enough it started, boulder scrambling in the dark. Jens, having been this way just weeks earlier, led on. I was glad to follow, not having to worry much about route finding. Really, it was beautiful, scrambling amongst the boulders, from the size of a football to the size of a house, lit by the stars and our headlamps. It was quiet and peaceful.
And long. It went on and on and on. In my tennis shoes, my right arch began to ache, then hurt. I pressed on, slowing as I managed the pain and carefully picked my way through the rocks. About halfway through the sky grew light enough that we could dispense with our headlamps. It was nice to be able to see better, but at the same time I could also see that we weren’t close to being done yet. On and on.
“There Loren, below. I brought us in a little too high.”
Sure enough, below us was the flat treed area the leads to the open meadow/swamp just below the morainal confluence of the Sherpa and Ice Cliff glaciers. We dropped down and into the woods. At 6:00 AM we walked out of the rocks. It had taken us two hours to cross the boulders. It felt good to be walking on dirt again.
A few minutes of traipsing through the trees led us to their end, and then we could see up the upper moraine, where we’d camped two years earlier. Unfortunately for me, where I had been expecting a snowfield (as there had been on my earlier visit) there was just another boulder field. “More boulders, Jens. Yippee.”
It was not the last time I would complain about them that day.
We climbed through the boulders and onto the snow, which we found to be nice, crisp neve. “Wow. Nice snow Jens. Much better than last time, huh?”
“Yeah, this is great for cramponing. There is water up in the moraine. Let’s stop there to eat, drink, rest and change into our boots.”
Sounds good to me. As we ascended the snow, we looked up at the Sherpa glacier. Jens pointed out the line he’d climbed a few weeks earlier. We also scoped out the descent line (climber’s right couloir), which Jens had also descended. The bergschrund that he and his partner has easily jumped was much bigger, but passable at both ends. “It looks good Jens. If it softens up we’ll be able to glissade a lot of it.”
At the base of the moraine, near where our decent would end, we left our poles and continued up onto the left side of the moraine. Accessing the hard snow from the crumbly moraine was tricky. Equally difficult was crossing the icy slope in tennis shoes. On a normal day I would have stopped to put on my boots and crampons, but we want to minimize delays, especially below the ice cliff. So we cut steps instead.
We scrambled as quickly as possible (in tennis shoes) though the ice and rock rubble marking the shooting gallery of the ice cliff to the far side of the moraine, 6200 feet, where water was cascading down the glacier-polished granite. There we changed into our climbing regalia:
capilene, Goretex, harnesses, boots, and crampons. We also drank as much water as we could and choked down some energy bars. At 6:55 AM we started up toward the menacing cliff above us.
Jens departs from our water stop, heading into the shooting
Fueled by our break and the excitement of getting the “business” of the climb, we climbed up quickly, hugging the east side of the cirque where possible. 750 feet above, but still below the cliff, the glacier began to break up. We climbed through a jumble, unroped but cautious, still trying to stay toward the east side, where we planned to pass the cliff. A short, steep section followed by an AI2 traverse over bizarre fins and hollows of ice led us to the base of the cliff. Above us was a beautiful thirty foot step of AI3.
Jens out of harm's way, heading toward the ice cliff.
Jens approaching the first section of the ice cliff, our route in
We talked about whether to rope up, eventually deciding that Jens would start up unroped with
his Black Prophet and a walking axe. Ten feet up, frustrated by the performance of the walking axe, Jens asked me to toss up the rope. I flaked it out and tossed and end to him (he was standing on a small ledge). He tied in, clipped and screw, and continued up. He put in one more screw eight feet below the lip, and then pulled over. At his call I took him off belay and packed up my gear. When he called out that I was on belay, I started climbing.
Jens leading the short AI3 section. This is, unfortunately, the
best of two pictures that I took.
What a joy it was to be on steep ice again. I had an easier go with two technical tools and was all smiles when I pulled over the lip. Jens was belaying from the moat between the glacier and the eastern rock wall of the cirque. Above us was a spectacular scene: A beautiful undulating, crevassed glacier surrounded on three sides by 1000 foot granite walls. Only a steep couloir to the south challenged the sovereignty of the guardian walls. To the west, across the glacier, we could see climbers on the north ridge of Mt. Stuart. Jens yodeled to them. I called out my usual “Baaaooooo”. It wasn’t 8:30 yet.
Jens below the schrund. Our route on the upper glacier is in
Jens stepping over a small crevasse above the schrund.
An objective for 2002. Do you know what it is?
We followed footprints for a while, but where the cut west toward the middle of the glacier, we stayed east. We were snuggled up against the granite, sometimes using one hand on the rock for support. A crevasse stretching from the east wall to the middle of the glacier finally forced us to the west. Once past it we could see that the
bergschrund, which frequently forces climbers to climb mid-fifth rock, was easily passable just below the couloir. I led toward the couloir, and past one last crevasse. 1000 feet above us we could see the where the
couloir split into two branches, just 200 feet below the east ridge of Stuart. The cornice on the right had already dropped, good news for us.
Up we went. Not very quickly, but steadily. The couloir is steep, solid 50 degrees and continuous. As I looked up I kept thinking it would lay back soon, but it didn’t. In some places the snow was very firm, in others there was a thin patina of recent snow over neve. I used
modified piolet ramasse, front pointing with one foot and French with the other. I alternated feet to try to stay fresh. Still, I was slowing. I noticed that I was inventing reasons to make short stops:
gloves off, change direction, unzip, etc. At Jen’s urging, I resisted the temptation to take a break on some rocks. Finally the slope did ease back some and I was able to go back to piolet canne. Then we were at the spot where the couloir splits in two.
Finally, pressure breathing for the last 100 vertical feet, I pulled over the onto the col. Jens joined me in the sunshine. I looked at my watch and was stunned to see that it was only 10:05 AM. “Damn, brother! We just climbed that route in three hours, ten minutes.
Jens high in the couloir, near the split.
Now on the south face of Mt. Stuart, it felt like we had suddenly entered another world. The sun shone on us. 100 feet below a pair of climbers were resting while on their way of Cascadian couloir. Another party was 500 feet below. Other than the specks on the North Ridge, we hadn’t seen any other people since we left the car. An unfortunate rarity in the Cascades these days.
Jens on the snow slope below the false summit.
Jens and the summit. It wasn't as far away as it looks.
After a thirty minute rest, we departed for the summit, leaving our technical gear at the col. We crossed the steep snowfield below the false summit to the beautiful granite summit scramble. The dry, warm 3rd class granite was a joy on the windless day. At 11:10 AM we arrived on the summit, just ahead of the pair that we’d seen from the col.
On the summit (No, really!!)
Okay, is this better?
It was my first visit to the top of Stuart, so I enjoyed looking down all the sides of the steep summit. The West Ridge, the North Ridge, Ulrich’s Couloir. Across to Ingalls Lake, Ingalls Pass, and Long’s Pass. Mt. Daniels, Rainier, Adams, and Glacier Peak. Past the north ridge I could see the Ice Cliff glacier in its cirque.
The North Ridge on the left and the Ice Cliff Glacier in the
We wrote in the register and had one of the other climbers take a picture of us. At 11:40 AM we packed and headed back to the col. We took a higher route back to take advantage of a glissade. It was steep, but the snow was soft, and it was a nice warmup for what was to come.
Jens descending toward the col access to the Sherpa Glacier, with
Sherpa Peak in the background. We went around the mini-tower and dropped onto
the glacier on its far side.
We packed our gear at the col and traversed to the entrance to the Sherpa Glacier couloir. It helped us a lot that Jens had descended this way just weeks before. He knew where to leave the ridge and how steep the slope was. On the rock just below the entrance we put crampons back on. Then we did something I almost never do: We glissaded down the soft, steep slope with crampons on. Keeping the glissade under control was a lot of work, almost as much as walking. But it was a lot faster, so we kept going until we reached the bergschrund. Jens got there first. “Wow, this is a lot bigger than when I was here before. But I think we can jump it.”
Before I got there he launched over the lip and landed hard on the slope below, bouncing off his haunches and sliding twenty feet down the slope before arresting. As I downclimbed he called up, “Loren, do me a favor and just don’t look down.”
Of course I had to. The landing was about ten feet below the lip, and about six feet away: It was bigger than anything I’d ever jumped before. I stood there thinking about it for a while, pondering the fear that rose up in me. Then I looked back down into the
'schrund: It was fifty feet deep. I thought some more. Then Jens turned into a motivational psychologist, “Loren, don’t do it. Just climb around to the bridge.”
That was all it took. “One…..two…….threeeeeeee!”
The landing was near the arrow: Behind the fractured bridge fragment in the
foreground, and a good six feet lower.
I landed hard too, bouncing off my haunches and sliding down the slope until I arrested, just like Jens had. I had to walk back up and look at what I’d done. It was probably a foolish risk, but it was an exciting end to the technical challenges of the day. Besides, this year has been all about taking calculated risks that I usually avoid.
Another glissade led us to water again, which we wolfed down as fast as we could fill bottles. Two more butt-slides left us just 100 feet from our poles. We grabbed them and bombed down the snow slope. Where it ended (back in the small boulder field) we stopped to change clothes. After a nice rest, we departed, Jens back in tennis shoes, and me in my Makalus. It was about 2:45 PM. We were both happy that we wouldn’t have to make the boulder field traverse in the dark.
Me with the Sherpa Glacier to my right and the ice cliff of the
Ice Cliff Glacier above my head.
We stayed on the faint trail in the woods longer than on the way in. I was glad to avoid the boulders for as long as possible. Eventually though, we did start rock-hopping. After a day of having to pay attention, the boulders were tedious. And they went on and on again. It was a game of trying to spot the next cairn, move carefully and move fast enough to outrun the marauding swarms of
Eventually we made it back to the woods and the surveyor’s tape. We followed it to the creek and the log crossing. We took a short break, as long as we could stand the bugs, then launched down the trail. We passed the split in the trail after thirty minutes. Feeling fatigued, but excited we arrived at the car at 5:40 PM. “Jens, that is 14 hours, forty minutes car-to-car. We still have time to get dinner at…at…”
“Yeah, that place. I guess I’m a little tired.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Dinner was good. Of course, I think I could have eaten my boots and found them good, too. Jens drove all the way
back into a blinding sunset. At 9:15 PM I was home.
I was still riding a high from the climb, so I put in a movie. Then my eyelids got heavy and I went to bed. Goodnight.