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Ascent of Mount Stuart on 2010-08-14

Climber: Greg Slayden

Date:Saturday, August 14, 2010
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Stuart
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:9415 ft / 2869 m

Ascent Trip Report

Friday, August 13, 2010:

I arrived at the Esmeralda trailhead at 1:00 PM on Friday afternoon. It was hot and there was not a cloud in the sky as I got all my gear organized. The two guys I was scheduled to climb with cancelled due to an injury, so I was trying the peak solo via the standard scramble route, the Cascadian Couloir. I decided to take my tent without its fly, mainly as bug protection only, since rain did not seem likely and I wanted to save weight. The only climbing gear items I brought were an ice axe and helmet.

I left the parking lot at 1:45 PM and hiked the easy, well-graded trails through pleasant pine forest up to Longs Pass, gaining 2000 feet in about one and a half hours. The trails were popular and well-trodden, but it seemed to me that the little signs at junctions could be easily missed. I had to turn right on the Ingalls Way trail 0.3 miles from the trailhead, and, about a mile later, turn right on the Longs Pass trail.

At Longs Pass I crested the ridge and was thunderstruck by the massive hulk of Mount Stuart rearing up in my face suddenly. What a monstrous mountain. I rested in the nice breeze on this sweltering day, studied the couloirs I would be in tomorrow, and then shouldered my pack for the steep descent down the other side. Here I blew it, not figuring out that the trail climbs a little bit to my left before dropping over the cliffs on an angle—I stupidly scrambled down a steep, loose gully, difficult with full pack. However, I soon intersected the obvious and well-trodden “tapeworm” trail in the sand as it twisted down towards the trees.

Once into the forest below, this path became hard to find amidst the jumble of braided dry streambeds, which all looked like trails. I got mildly lost a few times, but eventually always rejoined the main path, which became very distinct and easy to follow as it wound over ledges and sandy areas, approaching closer to the wall of Stuart and the roar of Ingalls Creek below.

At the creek there was a nice big log I tiptoed across, and then the trail wound through a few campsites, crossed a minor tributary creek, and then joined the main Ingalls Creek Trail (although I missed the sign on my way in and didn’t realize I passed the junction). This all happened in very short order, and soon after than the path crossed another brook on a rotten log bridge that my trip report indicated was very close to the turnoff for the Cascadian Couloir. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later there was a cairn to the left of the trail, marking the start of tomorrow’s climb on a boot-track up a steep meadow, and campsites to the right. It was time to camp—it was 4:30 PM, less than 3 hours from the car for me.

It made sense to camp as close to the cairn as possible, so I dropped my pack and scouted the area. A father and son on a backpacking trip had also just arrived, and we both staked out camps on opposite sides of the large, shaded campsite zone. I pitched my fly-less tent, filtered some water in the nearby creek, and spent a lazy evening eating, resting, reading trip reports, and chatting with the father and son nearby as they built a fire. I was asleep by 9 PM or so as it cooled off nicely after the sun set.

Saturday, August 14th, 2010:

My alarm woke me at 4 AM, as scheduled, but that was too early—I could still see stars clearly in the pitch black night sky. I remembered my GPS had an astronomical data function, and sure enough, sunrise was not until 6 AM (and the moon was almost new). So I dozed for another 20 minutes or so, then started eating breakfast and getting my gear together in the dark. I left camp at 5 AM, when there was just enough light to see by.

From the cairn a good boot-path went uphill through the grass, then through some talus (where I almost lost the cairned route in the twilight) and some brushy trees. The route was steep, and after the trees it started ascending a rock gully where the footing was a mixture of loose scree, sand, and occasional solid ribs. Intermittent cairns and switchbacks in the sand made the route easy to follow, especially once it got lighter. Eventually the route entered a well-defined main part of the Cascadian Couloir, with endless junky terrain looming ahead.

As I ascended the couloir I tried to find the most firm rock, but this sometimes led me off-route. It was usually easy to get back on track, but overall it was rather tedious and annoying climbing. There were a couple steep rock steps to negotiate, but easy class 3 routes were always available to surmount them. The walls of the couloir were steep and crested with gendarmes, and the views opened up quite a bit as I climbed.

Finally, after about 2.5 hours or climbing, the route surmounted a final steep section at 7600 feet and emerged out of the couloir and on to a broad, open, sloping talus field. The route next went over giant talus blocks, and then up sandy switchbacks towards the crags above—somewhere in here the full sun hit me for the first time today, and I was happy to have done a good amount of gain in the shade. It was now sometimes hard to follow the route, but I always found my way back to some kind of boot-path or obscure cairn eventually. I could see I was headed towards a large snowfield below the false summit that marked the top of this large talus bowl.

When I reached the bottom of the snowfield I got out my ice axe and started kicking steps uphill, following a faint set of steps left over from yesterday. Since it was still early I needed two or three kicks with every step in the semi-hard snow, but it was a nice break from the miserable talus and sand. Also, the snow was kind of steep, and the rocks at the base of the snow would make for a most unpleasant way to stop, so I had to be careful. The very top of the snowfield, at about 9080 feet, was especially exposed, and I carefully kicked deep steps and plunged my self-belay axe in as deeply as I could. Crampons might have made me feel a bit more secure here, but this entire snow section was only about 400 or 500 vertical feet.

From the top of the snow it was an extremely short scramble leftwards to the crest of the “South Ridge” that divides the talus basin from Ulrichs Couloir (the one west of the Cascadian). Cairns marked a route that descended into the bowl of jumbled blocks and mini-ridges, losing about 100 feet or so. The main obstacle was a sharp buttress, and the best way through is a narrow archway or tunnel so small I had to take my pack off to squeeze through.

Once past the archway I followed cairns, but I think that there were several cairned routes and I didn’t necessarily take the best one. Upon my return I realized that once past the archway, there is no real need to lose elevation any more, and a high route works pretty well. But on my ascent I took a low route and mucked around a bit needlessly.

The summit block was now in view, and I followed cairns past several tiny sandy bivvy sites used by North Ridge climbers doing carry-overs. A snowfield covered the south face of the peak just below the summit block, and the route seemed to get as close to the snow as it could before switching back and gaining the very ridge crest, where some exposed scrambling on the knife-edge led to the summit. I arrived at 9:30, 4.5 hours after leaving camp, right in the middle of the Beckey range of “4-5 hours from Ingalls Creek”.

The summit area was a giant sloping area of granite with huge cracks in it allowing an easy but exposed climb to the very apex, where a sheer drop-off of thousands of feet to the north was very intimidating. Due to my early start I had the summit to myself, and I ate some snacks, took some pictures, signed the register, and scanned the views on this cloudless day. I could see Rainier, Adams, and the flat top of St. Helens to the south, Baker and Shuksan to the north, and the Olympics to the west—I was pretty sure I could see the distinctive snowfield of the Brothers, and behind that a snowy area that could have been Olympus or Anderson.

Although clear, there was a pretty good wind, and I had to put on all my layers to stay warm. At 10 AM another solo climber arrived on top, and we chatted a bit and took each other’s photos before I left at 10:15. I scrambled along the ridge, and, staying high and following cairns, had a pretty easy time getting to the squeeze-through archway. Here I lazily decided to try climbing over the arch instead of taking off my pack, and managed to clumsily mantle over the crest of the buttress and then make the two minute hike to the crest of the “South Ridge” of Stuart.

Here I had to decide if I wanted to plunge-step or glissade down the snowfield. It seemed awfully steep, and to feel safe I felt the need to descend face-in and self-belay every step, so I decided to hike down the rocky/sandy/junky stuff to my right instead. This was a bit sketchy, with the sand providing slippery footing on the slabs, so after a bit of this I tried the snow. After kicking about 10 downhill steps I went back to the rock—it seemed faster and safer, since I didn’t think a fall on the snow would really be arrestable before I smashed into rocks below.

The distance was not far, and after some dicey moves I was near the bottom of the snowfield. Here I saw about three parties of about twelve people total, the main group of summiters from Ingalls Creek for the day. I gave them advice—best to go up the snow and down the rocks—and they seemed to follow my earlier boot steps on the snow. Many in this group had helmets on their packs and not on their heads, which I thought was odd. These were the last people I saw above camp today.

Alone again, I headed down the relatively easy blocks and sandy switchbacks of the lower talus field, following cairns and my upbound GPS track. As I got down towards the upper lip of the Cascadian Couloir, I noticed that the easy sand boot-path I had been following had been leading me a bit further left (east) than my upward route, but that my new path continued down on what looked like more easy terrain. I had trip reports that suggested that this “Variation” couloir was less steep, more sandy, and perhaps faster, so I decided to go for it. I also thought it couldn’t be worse than the “Crapcadian” I has ascended, and it had the allure of newness.

The first 1000 feet of the Variation, from 7600 to 6600 feet, were very pleasant—lots of sandy switchbacks that you could plunge-step down pretty easily. Then the couloir got very steep and narrow for a while, with a few big drop offs requiring class-3 scrambling to descend, then a stretch of canyoneering as the path crossed a small stream several times between sheer rock walls. At about 5800 feet the couloir entered a flat area, and a good trail veered off to the right and pleasantly wandered through meadows, brush, forest, and another nice meadow before arriving at the Ingalls Creek Trail. Coincidentally, the father and son I had camped near last night just happened to be walking along the main trail as I reached it on the Variation boot-path. We chatted briefly before they set off to the east.

Overall, I’d say that the Variation is a superior descent route. Its advantages are that it has more sand for plunge-stepping up high, a nicer lower trail section, and a more interesting canyoneering middle section. The disadvantages are that the middle section is probably steeper and rockier than the Cascadian, and the route in that section is a bit less used and slightly harder to follow. It is probably not a good ascent route, since the sand up high might be tedious if you slip back with every step, but if you do want to try it, the start of the boot-path on the Ingalls Creek trail is at WGS84 47.454463, -120.896743.

From this point it was an easy and flat 0.4 miles to camp, where I arrived at 1:30 PM, only 3.25 hours from the summit—it seemed longer, but I was happy to see I was ahead of my schedule. I rested a camp a bit, then packed up my tent and gear, filtered some water, and ate some food. At 2:15 I was ready to go, and I shouldered my full pack for the grind back over Longs Pass.

Even though it was pretty hot out, and I was tired, the outbound trip went pretty well. I set a slow but steady pace; there was a nice breeze, even down low, which helped cool me off; I was able to follow the trail better in the braided dry stream bed area; I found the right path that goes around the steep crumbly cliffs just below Longs Pass; and the well-maintained trails down from the pass were at a perfect grade for painless and easy elevation loss. I was back at the car by 4:45 PM, and, after a change of clothes and some gear organization, I was on the way home to Seattle by 5.

My recommendation is that Stuart by this route works well as a 2-day (really 1.5 day) climb. Many will do this in one long day, but 8000 feet is a lot even with a light pack, and it is nice to start the main climb early in the morning like I did to beat the crowds, the afternoon haze, and the heat of the day. You can leave the trailhead as late as 3 or 4 PM and still have time to get to camp the first day, and, with an early start, you can get to the summit and back to the car in reasonable time—I am not the fastest hiker and I took lots of breaks. Of course, there is always the option of camping a second night if you are just tired from the summit attempt, too.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:8032 ft / 2446 m
    Elevation Loss:8032 ft / 2446 m
    Distance:12.8 mi / 20.5 km
    Grade/Class:Class 3
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Windy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:6602 ft / 2011 m
    Extra Loss:1430 ft / 435 m
    Distance:6.2 mi / 10 km
    Route:Cascadian Couloir
    Trailhead:Esmeralda TH  4243 ft / 1293 m
    Time Up:4 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:6602 ft / 2011 m
    Extra Gain:1430 ft / 435 m
    Distance:6.5 mi / 10.5 km
    Route:Variation Couloir
    Trailhead:Esmeralda TH  4243 ft / 1293 m
    Time Down:3 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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