West Ridge; 5.4-5.6
July 4-6, 2003
text: Andrew Toyota
photos: Nate Riensche and Andrew Toyota
For the 4th of July weekend, Murray, Andrew G, Nate, and I decide to try the West Ridge of Stuart. A seemingly impenetrable granite mountain that left me mystified, humbled and sleep deprived 3 days prior. As much fun as it was to play the where-did-I-go-wrong game in my head, I am determined to try again. And like Stacy conveyed, I too am struck by the power of the mountain but still made a silent vow to Stuart that … “I’ll be back.”
So we begin devising a plan that allows us the best chance to summit. We deliberate on the route and what to bring. I setup a teleconference. We send over 50 e-mails. Andrew G. buys approach shoes from REI the night before. Murray and Nate cut down their spoon handles. In short, we are nuts. Since our plan involves a carryover for three days, we want to go light … it’s a fascinating game of “how heavy is your pack?” We all agree that Murray has the lightest pack. We vacillate between conservative preparation and blissful optimism. Nate and I even make copies of Ingalls and Sherpa, in case we have extra time. When Murray asks how we’re going to tag Sherpa from the summit, Nate replies “prepare to be amazed.”
Friday, July 4, 2003
Waking up at 5am on a perfectly good holiday weekend, I suddenly realize just how stupid my Terminator quote is. By 8:30am, we arrive at Esmeralda Basin Trailhead (4240’). No small feat as I’ve somehow managed to get us turned around just driving down Teanaway Road. Not a good sign … Nate tries not to wince. I make a mental note to pay closer attention next time Randy E. drives instead of daydreaming about ultralite gear. By 9am, we’re almost sprinting up the trail. By 10am, we reach Long’s Pass (6300’). Why, look at us! We’re quite proud of how far we’ve come in an hour. But Stuart’s complex network of gullies and ribs promise even more to come. Dropping 1500’ down to the Ingall Creek trail is a major bummer. Plodding up the first continuous gully, our three day packs seem a tad heavier.
By 1pm, we reach the blocky boulder start and fill up on water from the snow melt. Scrambling up the exquisite granite boulders is sheer heaven. I’m a kid again!
The valley drops far away as we kick steps up the steep snow. But our packs are definitely beginning to feel heavier. By 4pm, we reach the head of the gulley and our first decision. Do we veer right to the crack that Stacy and I climbed or left towards a blank looking slab? We decide left. As I lead out, I remind myself that Fred Beckey characterizes this route as “5.4, grade II, 6 hours from meadows.” By the end of my lead, I’ve cursed this Beckey fellow several times over. It seems like one can simply add “… my ass!” to any of his route descriptions. Around 7pm, we arrive at protected ledges near Long John’s Tower (8400’) and setup camp. After 7,000’ of elevation gain for the day, everyone is wiped. Seeing fireworks in the distance is an unexpected treat but we’re all soon fast asleep.
Saturday, July 5, 2003
Around 2am, a mouse nestles on my head for warmth. Not accustomed to rodents resting on my person, I remain awake to see if the lil’ fella returns. Lyrics from a Black Eyed Peas song filters through my head (say this is what Maria was talking about!) But thankfully, sleep returns and by 7am I awake to see thick, white clouds swirling above us. Oh no, not again. We patiently wait out the conditions and eat breakfast. Although we still can’t see the summit, we’re ready to venture into the clouds, if necessary.
Murray breaks our revelry by announcing that he has to go #2. We wait. Murray returns with a broad grin and proclaims success. I realize that my morning movement is also upon me. The guys wait. I return greatly relieved. Nate and Andrew G. look at each other and decide that well, maybe they should try too. It’s not till later that we realize that we’re taking turns as if there’s only one bathroom. By 9am, we’re heading for the scissor like formation on the skyline. Upon reaching a slightly exposed traverse, we rope up and pass through without a hitch. Our teamwork is really starting to gel.
Less than 3 hours later, our teamwork has gone straight to hell. Upon reaching the West Ridge Notch (9000’), our team of four proceeds to scramble up four separate routes. Each confident that his path is the fastest to reach the all-too-familiar bivy spot that Stacy, Randy, Maria and myself christened the prior weekend. While I’m busy patting myself on the back for getting everyone to this spot, I suddenly realize that I still don’t know exactly where I am. We burn an hour looking for the South Side Bypass variation and leading up crappy black-lichened rock. We’re running out of options. It’s like one of those frustrating Nintendo games where you’ve got to figure out how to escape the maze to save the magical kingdom. Only thing is you really are in a maze and there’s nothing magical about sleeping in exactly the same bivy site in less than 5 days. Andrew G. looks back and spots the slightly rising traverse that we’ve been searching for - marked by two stacked boulders. We decree it “God’s cairn”, hoping that in doing so the Big Guy will help us out. Our other big guy, Nate, suddenly gets a bright idea that maybe we should try the exposed 4th class traverse to the north side. So, he leads out with Murray following. Murray thinks the exposure is so enjoyable that he stops often to take it all in.
And just like that we spot the downward bearing ledge before the summit pyramid. But truthfully, there are so many downward bearing ledges that we’re simply searching for footprints by other lost climbers.
Nate and I are switching leads now with increasing proficiency. We had planned to climb at as two teams of two, with everyone swinging leads, but as the day drew on and we got more and more anxious about getting to the summit and down to the bivy site at a decent time we decided to just climb as one team of four, with the thirds and fourths simul-climbing at times. Because of this, it was essential for everyone to climb very efficiently and very well and to work together smoothly, which we all did. Andrew G., wanting to contribute more upon reaching a belay, asks if there’s anything that he can do. Then as the sunshine begins to warm him, he subsequently states “you know, I think I’m just going to relax.”
I lead up more “easy rock” swearing like a sailor. Murray cruises the crux and innocently inquires what move I was so concerned about. The bastard has changed into his rock shoes. In fact, they all have. I curse my go-light fanaticism.
Nate leads past a wobbly boulder and several strenuous 5th class moves. I lead next and get a pair of exquisite hand cracks that leads us right to the summit. By 4:30pm, we’re all joyfully yodeling from the top of Mt. Stuart. It’s taken over 18 hours. Our obvious pride and relief are temporarily shattered while chatting with the climber who summits after us. We learn that he’s soloed Stuart before and considers the West Ridge to be a good beginner climb. While we’re chewing on that statement, he belays his girlfriend up and casually mentions that this is her first alpine climb … ever. Our celebration becomes a little more subdued. By 6pm, we descend down the Cascadian Couloir in search for our next bivy. As we’re hiking down, I can’t keep myself from grinning. In fact, we all are. The euphoria is contagious. We marvel at our good fortune of remarkable weather. More than that, I know that without Randy, Stacy and Maria’s efforts, we could still be looking for the route up.
After Murray leads us to a great bivy area nestled amongst the ridgeline, we settle down to consume the last of our provisions. A scintillating game of that pot-isn’t-on-straight ensues. Nate wins as his fuel canister catches aflame first. Murray contemplates how to cook ramen and ponders the meaning of the aluminum packet – evidently his Caribbean upbringing didn’t tolerate ramen. Nate suffers the trip’s worst injury when his hand slips while pulling up his sock and he jams his thumb into a rock. Oooweeeee, he exclaims and cries for his Kirsten. This causes Andrew G.’s baby blues to well up and he starts rattling off his newfound priorities: 1) Jen 2) Climbing 3) Med school. A list that we later learn undergoes minor revisions whenever Jen mentions the word “camping” rather than “climbing.”
Sunday, July 6, 2003
By 8am, we break camp and jaunt down the Cascadian Couloir towards Long’s Pass. Taking a few breaks along the way, we’re back at the car by 1pm. On the drive home, I again marvel at my good fortune. I am still floating above the clouds and consider how Mt. Stuart has influenced my perspective on life once again. Never have I entrusted my welfare so completely in another person. Never have I experienced nature on such an elemental level. I am in awe of the deeds by my climbing partners from both weekends that were accomplished with apparent ease, selflessness and determination. I am humbled and exhilarated by this discovery of newfound strength in myself and in my friends. I just love being alive.
"Short is the little time which remains to you of life. Live as on a mountain." Marcus Aurelius (121-180)