01 May 2004

Stuart Glacier Couloir

  • May 1-2, 2004

We engaged in a whirlwind of planning for the weekend, first wondering about climbing Mt. Shuksan via the North Face, then thinking about rock climbing as the weather forecast got more pessimistic. We wanted it all: a visit to high mountains, with exciting exposed vistas too!

Theron and I arrived at the Mountaineer Creek trailhead on Saturday at about 4:00 pm. My internal clock was all messed-up, as I usually start a climbing weekend early Saturday morning. So I got up at 6:00 am anyway, thrumming with excitement, and never got back to sleep. So Kris and I looked at bonsai trees for a while.

Theron had a mountaineering axe and an ice tool. I had an ice tool and a compact “3rd tool,” meant for those occasions when you drop an ice tool. But it seemed perfectly adequate for a few mixed moves over rock, ice and snow. It also had a hammer head. For the rack, I brought 3 pitons, 2 ice screws, 10 nuts, 4 cams, and 3 hexes. For the rope, we took an 8.5mm 60m rope, which we doubled for the rock climbing. Bivy sacks, sleeping bags and a stove were our sleeping gear.

This poster advertises the Stuart Glacier Couloir movie we made

The north face of Mt. Stuart

Theron in the upper couloir

Theron on the Stuart Glacier

Theron climbing near a constriction in the couloir

We made the familiar hike up Mountaineer’s Creek, occasionally filming with Theron’s video camera. I listened to some songs by Tom Waits, that was fun. We turned left off the trail as it made it’s first switchback up to Stuart Lake. We crashed through some brush and fallen timber to reach a scary log crossing. Unaware that we were too high, and there was an easier crossing below, we inched forward on a scary log above the raging stream. Theron’s backpack nearly knocked him off-balance as he tried to climb off the log! He had thrown the video camera across the river to me. I told him I’m a bad catcher, but got lucky this time. So I filmed the exciting near-debacle.

Later we wandered down to the river from a tedious boulderfield traverse when we heard my name being called. Dan Smith and friends were on a faint path in the snow, having just finished a climb of Argonaut Peak. Another surprise meeting with Dan! We followed their tracks, grateful to be near the river rather than on the traverse above which features many ups and downs, and tricky collapsing snowbridge crossings between large boulders. I had been that way in 2002 to climb the Ice Cliff Glacier.

As it grew dark, we continued up more steeply to reach the upper basin. We emerged into a snow-covered meadow at dusk, happily dropping our gear for the night. I went back 1/4 mile to fill our water bottles. This saved us stove fuel and time spent melting snow. Theron and I weren’t impressed with our dinners tonight, possibly because we had a big Dairy Queen burger just 5 hours before. The peak was beautiful in the moonlight, with twinkling stars and clear sky.

In the night clouds moved in.

We woke up at 5:30 am the next morning, missing a planned 4:00 am wake up because I didn’t hear my watch alarm. We stepped into cold boots and munched on pop tarts, wondering what the gray weather would bring. Starting off eagerly, we both felt strangely worn out, and resolved to just keep plodding upward until something big stopped us! There were about 2500 feet of snow slopes to climb before reaching the couloir, and they seemed to go on forever. We took long turns breaking trail, each leading for about 800 feet of vertical gain then drafting in the kicked steps. Theron punctuated his conversation with “ugh…yuck…echh” to indicate his feelings about the lowering clouds and strong wind. We both worked pretty hard to stay motivated!

Finally we climbed past ice blocks on the Stuart Glacier to the base of the couloir. A ramp led up to the bergschrund where I planted my tools across a gap above a huge cavern in the snow. I kicked a step and stood up on the upper wall. My step collapsed but I was able to land on the lower lip of the schrund. This time, I kicked more carefully, and it held. Theron took over the lead, and brought us to an exciting section where the couloir walls narrowed to just a few feet across. The snow became harder and icier in here too. I stayed in the gully on the left while Theron followed shallow snow slopes on the right, eventually joining my line and leading us over some rotten ice and mixed moves to the upper snowfield. As I climbed the ice, much of it rotted away, water everywhere.

At this point the exposure gets pretty intense - it is a long ways down! Luckily, the clouds had been lifting and breaking up. We expected some sun at the West Ridge Notch, 1000 feet above. But we also worried about the wind. We’d already encountered some strong gusts, and had some trepidation about teetering around on the ridge crest in such wind. No matter, we weren’t going down now! I started kicking steps, but pretty soon my crampons were balling up on every step. It was especially bad, and after a few nerve-wracking occasions of a balled-up foot slicing through the snow I had to stomp out a platform to remove my crampons. Theron came up and did the same. It was an awesome perch, looking down on Stuart Lake and across to the craggy North Ridge. The climb to the notch felt especially long, I remember counting the last 27 steps!

Instantly in a world of wind but also sun, I set about getting my harness on. Theron came up and got the rope out of his pack. I tried to decide what gloves to wear, having brought 3 pairs to be ready for anything. I settled for lightweight black North Face WindStopper gloves that seemed like a good compromise for mixed snow and rock climbing. Theron and I were both a little worried about this portion of the climb. Our previous “snowed up rock climb” trips had ended poorly. The North Buttress of Argonaut in falling snow quickly turned into a sketchy aid climb and subsequent rout. The Tooth in strong wind and snow scared us away on the first pitch. With these less-than-stellar credentials behind us, perhaps we would somehow be shut down. So it felt kind of committing and scary to set out around the corner for the first lead.

Climbing without crampons was a good idea, as I found either bare rock or snow traversing the south side of the ridge. Eventually an icy downclimb prompted me to hammer a knifeblade piton into a shallow crack. I belayed Theron over from a snow belay below a notch. It was his first time to remove a piton, so I wanted to be close enough to describe the method. Theron put me on belay from a sling around a horn, and I climbed blocky 4th class rock for 30 meters to another notch with outrageous wind. Now it was time to traverse on the north side to avoid steep walls on the ridge crest. Some tracks in the snow enticed me out onto the north face, where solid rock handholds and snowy steps led around and up. This was some of the best climbing: a really neat mix of grand exposure, solid chunky handholds, and enough snow to require creative counterpressure moves or the occasional handjam in a snowy crack. I built a belay anchor in a cramped corner, and enjoyed the view while Theron came around.

“So far so good!” “I hope we are on the right track!” We were cautiously optimistic at this point, with blue sky overhead and plenty of daylight left. For the next pitch, I made a strenuous move around a corner on the left, and climbed above Theron and his tiny perch on the face. Climbing a steep snow gully with an ice hammer in one hand and the other hand on rock, I made steady progress towards the ridge crest. A knifeblade piton provided security. I ran out of rope exactly at the crest, building a nut belay even as Theron was climbing the strenuous move. A fall there might have been interesting, with me scrabbling to clip in to the belay with a lot of weight on my legs! Luckily, he found it easier than I did!

At the windy West Ridge Notch

Looking down from the notch.

Theron is just visible on the North Face.

Climbing to a high ridge notch.

Sun and wind 3 pitches below the summit.

Climbing on the last pitch.

Looking back at the summit from near the false summit.

It was fun sitting on the ridge crest in the sun watching Theron make his way up the shallow gully. We’d done so much climbing today, it already seemed a day packed with many different experiences. I was down to my last sips of water, getting really thirsty. We climbed slightly up then down 20 feet to a long ledge. Another traversing pitch led further right, then I started climbing up at what looked like the likely spot. If we kept going further, the walls became steep and foreboding. We were having a good time. The next pitch was an easy 5th class chimney, mostly snow free, then easy ground to a tricky rightward traversing move. I brought Theron up from a solid angle piton and nut belay.

The last full pitch had the most pure rock climbing. A clean 5.6 crack above us to the right proved very interesting in heavy mountain boots. It was well protected and fun. I think I took my gloves off for better jamming. I belayed after some blocky climbing at a spot near the summit. Very tired, but pleased, I waited for Theron to start climbing. He never did, so I tugged on the rope kind of rudely. In the screaming wind we could barely hear a scream. “Why me?” I thought. I realized there was some kind of rope drag, and finally resorted to hauling the rope with incredible effort. By the time Theron arrived I was in a foul mood because I should have down-climbed to find the constriction that had the rope - it would have saved plenty of time and energy. As it was, that last pitch took a long time due to the error, and Theron had to deal with one rope being completely slack on the crux, with only one strand belaying him. “Grrrr!” I said, as Theron took off for the summit. Again the rope got caught in something, so I emerged on the summit with coils looped around me every which way. Kind of hard to remove them in the walloping wind!

We took a few minutes to marvel at the views, which are amazing from this peak. We had really worked for the summit, and felt kind of tired. After some food, photographs, video, and putting gear away, we started down towards the false summit. Soon out of the wind, we descended an extremely rotten snow slope over boulders. Now I was dripping sweat and dealing with entire walls of snow that would collapse into water the moment you depend on it with an ice axe. I followed some old tracks, yelping my way into one big hole after another, buried hip-deep in watery snow. Finally we learned to stay on the rocks and avoid the snow completely. Rounding the false summit, we were surprised at the time and effort it took to get here. Now on snow back in the shade, we stomped easily down past the Ice Cliff Glacier exit to the Sherpa Glacier. I was so thirsty, I had to eat some ice. We easily stomped down, trying a few bumpy glissades, soon crossing the snow-covered bergschrund of the Sherpa Glacier.

Here the snow became our enemy. I still have bruises on my shins from the crusty surface that scrapes your leg as you remove each foot from it’s deep hole above. We wallowed slowly down, praying for a slope we could glissade. After a long time, we found some good terrain and snow to match, enjoying over 500 feet of glissading to the flat basin with our camp. “Thanks for that!” we told the snow.

We realized how busy we’d been all day, I was looking forward to thinking back on the great climbing, the creative belay stations, the airy views. There was so little time while doing it! On such climbs, you are storing up memories for a few hours later!

We packed up and set a fast pace down the valley, really keen on making it to the river before dark, as the thin log crossing was scary enough in the light. We hoped to follow Dan’s tracks on a better route, but it’s so easy to lose tracks in a mixed snow/dirt forest at dusk. Stomping along, we made it down to the long river walk, and did find the diverging tracks. Theron took the lead and set a more blistering pace, keen to avoid some kind of uncomfortable bivy on a hillside. We had just wrung a quart of water out of our socks, so we were full of the “creature discomforts” that make one press for home! In the race for the dusk river crossing, we crossed a minor stream on a log and bramble patch. To my horror, I lost my balance and fell into the shallow stream! Somehow I only managed to soak the right side of my body and quickly get up cursing like a whale. My right boot sloshed with another quart of water.

Theron led us over some flat rocky slabs with occasional cairns. He had a new-found energy and was enjoying keeping a tricky trail at dusk. Lo and behold, we were soon at a absolutely luxurious river crossing on low broad logs. Wow, was that easy or what? Some more fooling around in the brambles, and we landed on the Stuart Lake Trail at full dark.

Now I’d been dreaming of water for hours, but was too busy to stop at all the flowing streams around us. We stopped. I drank a full quart, shivered uncontrollably, and got walking again. I was not looking forward to yet another forced march out of this country (how many times have I done it?). I persuaded Theron that I would be as slow as molasses, so he took off with the car keys, dreaming of dry feet. I got my MP3 player out, and focused on the music, the moon and stars, and an occasional stop to look up at them. After a few miles, I was actually enjoying myself. Somebody said “99% of enjoyment is just slowing up,” and I found truth in that. As it was, I emerged at the car only 10 minutes behind, but with a lot less of the usual “deathmarch” mentality for coming out so late.

Theron and I undertook a Quest for Food, making due with half-cooked microwave burritos on the way home. The next day I ate a vast acreage of Mexican Food. I forgot to mention how hungry I’d been on Sunday, drastically underestimating my food desires! Thanks tons to Theron for a great trip!