Culmination on Mt Stuart – North Ridge Direct (5.9+)

The North Ridge of Mount Stuart is one of the classic alpine objectives in the North Cascades. Renowned for its clean granite and aesthetic climbing, the route ascends 2,800 vertical feet from the toe of the North Ridge to the slab summit of Mount Stuart.

Mt. Stuart from Ingalls Lake.


This was our major goal for Summer 2019. It was our first major multi-day alpine climb — in terms of complexity this was easily the most difficult route we’ve faced so far — and something which took many trips to properly prepare.

We both wanted this trip to be one of the best times we’ve ever had in the mountains, therefore we needed solid preparation. We picked alpine trips over the summer which aligned with our goals to pick up the skills needed:

  • Paisano Pinnacle – Route finding, chossy approaches (also reinforced on every other climb..), bivy gear strategy.
  • East Face of Lexington Tower – All day alpine climbing, larger objectives, terrible bail options.
  • NW Corner of North Early Winter Spire – 5.9 backcountry offwidth and liebacking.
  • Stanley-Burgner on Prusik Peak C2C – Endurance, nutrition, and uncertain cruxes.
  • East Ridge Direct of Forbidden Peak – Exposed ridge and simul-climbing.
  • 50k run around Mt. St. Helens – nutrition, loose rock, and relaxation before the main event.

We had been watching the weather for a 2-3 day window with relatively moderate wind speed and the auspicious weekend finally arrived. We drove from Portland on Thursday at midnight and reached the Esmerelda Trailhead for the south approach via Ingalls Lake at 5:30 am. After a couple hours of snoring in the car, we started hiking shortly after 7 am. We made good time up to Ingalls Lake, each only carrying 750 ml of water and refilling at each water source.

Rick while the path was still pleasant.
Sandy on the lake shore.

Past Ingalls Lake, we made our first route-finding snafu, following our GPX track (and Cascades Rock‘s topo) across the Stuart Pass and down towards the bottom of a boulder field, which we had to then laboriously ascend after spending an hour-plus slowly traversing over loose sandy heath slopes. Looking back after climbing the final boulder field to Goat’s Pass, we helpfully found a path directly behind us which would of avoided all this unpleasantness, something to look forward to for next time.

The rough path we took.
Loose fields of choss and heather.

Note: has GPS tracks with the proper path that avoids the mistake we made here.

About Goat Pass, the only thing to say is at least it is better than Asgard Pass, for in all but the upper section you can trust your foot placements and move fairly quickly.

Goat’s pass.

After reaching the bivy spots on top of Goat’s Pass, we stopped and had lunch with the resident snafflehounds. From here the North Ridge looked deceptively close, and after our break, we started skirting the glacial moraine below the Stuart Glacier.

Bivy sites on Goat’s Pass.

We went down the crest of the moraine, and then, once this reached a low point, side-hilled across the loose slope towards the Stuart Glacier ice fall. In retrospect this was a mistake, as the path we took ended up being unstable and dangerous, and we could of probably found a much quicker way by ascending to the next section of moraine and sticking to the crest.

Looking down on the Stuart Glacial Moraine.

After crossing multiple streams of fresh snow-melt and filling up our empty soft-flasks, we navigated around a few snow-filled gullies on exposed rock bands. Coming up to the last snow gully from above, we could see an exposed water crossing between the upper and lower snow field, but the only way down to this involved down-climbing a sand-covered smooth slab. Neither of us was willing to take our chances with the slab, so we spent some time trying a higher up crossing where a large rockfall had come down and partially covered the snow field. Finding this also to be too risky, we floundered around trying to figure out other options for crossing this last obstacle without snow gear.

The last ice field.
Glaring at it didn’t work, unfortunately.

Close to despair and beginning to backtrack, we happened upon two other Portland climbers we knew, Pushkar and Ashish. Without knowing each other’s plans, we had somehow all decided to come climb the North Ridge on the same weekday. Filled with renewed stoke, we decided to go check out the snow gully again with them, and Pushkar quickly found a bypass which avoided the sandy slabs by backtracking and going beneath the rock buttress we had been on and climbing upwards to the stream crossing between the snow fields.

Pushkar and Ashish descending towards the toe of the North Ridge.

Continuing on with them, we scrambled on to the lower toe of the magnificent North Ridge, and stood together picking out the line of the first three pitches up the ridge line. While we had plenty of daylight to climb the belayed pitches, we did not know where the first bivy sites were and therefore were reluctant to begin climbing late in the afternoon.

Route in yellow. The squeeze chimney is in red, and the j-tree is circled in purple.

Instead we settled in for an early night in the most luxurious bivy site we’ve ever come across in the alpine — a sandy platform under a massive boulder with walls built around it — perfect for two to camp in opulence.

Sandy overheating in the most luxurious bivy site ever.

In the morning we were slow to rise until after the sun was shining. Filling up our water bottles near the start of the climbing and racking up outside our cave, we walked over to the beginning of the route and soloed up the first opening section of fourth class terrain to a large ledge with a rappel anchor, where we roped up.

The plan had been for me to lead all the belayed pitches, while Sandy led the simul-climbing sections. However, upon seeing the start of the route, Sandy quickly decided this was her jam (pun alert) and decided to lead the first pitch. She liebacked and jammed up the initial j-tree slab, and entered the awkward squeeze chimney. From here, she could not move up the chimney with her pack on, so she built an anchor and brought me up.

Sandy leading past the mythical j-tree.

Arriving at the belay, I hung my pack from my belay loop with a sling and thrutched up the squeeze, wiggling and jamming the left side of my body into the slot while smearing with my right foot. I connected this with the confusingly-graded 5.8 pitch after it, and ended up at the belay ledge below pitch 3. Pushkar had asked us to leave a few cams in the chimney, so we let the team behind us pass on this wide ledge and hung out for awhile until they joined us. By this point the route was getting downright crowded, in total five teams were on the lower section of the ridge, but everything was laid-back and things went fairly smoothly.

No one told me about that hood.

Pitch 3 was a brilliant sustained steep 5.9+ hand crack for nearly 30 meters, with a short bearhug interlude near the top. I had originally been planning to haul this pitch, as I had never led anything with an overnight pack on before, but seeing how crowded the route was getting I decided to just go for it. I was glad I did, as except for a few moves of tenuous liebacking and gear where the crack flares outwards, this was a very straightforward and fun pitch.

When Sandy followed this she mentioned she hadn’t liebacked anything and that there was a hand crack on the right wall during that section, but apparently my tunnel vision was too engaged to notice. The last few moves are on a low angle sandy ledge which the rope runs over while you belay, and generously showers loose rocks and sand on the people below. Special care should be taken here as the belayer on the team ahead of us caught a rock in the face as his climber topped out, and it seemed every team released at least one rock while belaying.

The team ahead starting up pitch 3.

After a short belay up the ~5.7 section above pitch 3, Sandy started leading out simul-climbing. The lower section of the ridge was fairly easy to follow along the right side of the crest, but compared to the East Ridge of Forbidden made for some less than aesthetic climbing. The movement, however, was consistently interesting, varying frequently between slabs, jugs, short cracks, and — later on — exposed ridge lines.

Sandy on her first simul-block.

Sandy continued leading, alternating between simuling and short sections of pitched climbing as the terrain dictated. After finally reaching a section of unprotected third class with bivy ledges, we entered a nasty looser section of the route I’ve seen described on a few reports. This section ascends black, licheny rock up easy terrain to the right of steep walls and continues for a few pitches before you arrive at the Notch and the beginning of the Upper Ridge.

My belay partner.
Bringing Sandy up just before the Notch.
Sandy leading through blocky terrain.

From the notch Sandy led quickly out and to the left of the crest for two blocks to a slabby corner with a shallow crack, which we pitched out. From here I ascended to the crest of the ridge which we followed for a few more pitches of until I arrived at a rap station above the slab with a crack.

Sandy about to downclimb and traverse the left side of the ridge.

We could see some excellent flat bivy sites on the west side of the ridge below the slab and the wind was picking up, so we decided to descend down to the bivy site for an early night. One rap landed us directly on the sandy ledge, where we were able to both stretch out and take off our harnesses to sleep. We relished delicious wheat tortilla wraps smeared with hummus, granular nut powder, sugar, olives and pickled jalapenos before settling down to the most beautiful bivy site we’ve ever had.

As the sun went down, the wind picked up to gusts around 30 mph, and whenever it died down you could still hear what sounded like a freight train going over the peak above. Luckily our bivy bag, despite whipping around half the night, made for a cozy sleep, and around 1 am the wind finally died down.

The second bivy at sunset.

We awoke to a perfect red sunrise, perched on the side of the ridge with a thousand feet of air below us. The lines of mountains sprawled out before us as far as the eye could see. We had been able to spot the Great Gendarme before rappelling the night before and knew there wasn’t too much left, so we had a lazy morning and waited for the sun to come up properly. Around 7 am we rose and geared up, and Sandy led up a granite corner and around a late-season patch of snow to the base of the slab with a crack.

Harnesses off!
Good morning!

Hearing hooting above me about how awesome the slab was, she brought me up and then took off across the exposed ridge line. A few pitches more of following the ridge, and I was belaying Sandy up the final slab to the base of the gendarme.

Sandy above the slab with a crack.
Sandy au cheval on the upper ridge line.
Sandy following up to the base of the gendarme.

After a quick snack, I shot up the easy opening to the Great Gendarme. This pitch had a few steps of liebacking before one final vertical section of liebacking to the top of the column and the end of the first pitch. This was definitely the hardest pitch of the route for me. While this pitch receives 5.8+ in Cascades Rock and is less sustained than other pitches, pulling liebacking moves with an overnight pack felt much more strenuous for me than climbing 5.9 cracks where I could hang on my jams whenever I needed.

Pitch 1 of the Great Gendarme.
Rick belaying pitch 1 of the Great Gendarme.

The next pitch, the feared “off-width”, was much easier. After a few easy traversing moves off good holds and hand jams (plus a fixed #1), you have an easy entrance to a fist crack, which can be protected by a #3 cam. Moving up a few moves and getting a knee lock, you can bump the #3 up and then it is just a few fist jams and an arm bar to the fixed #4 and easy terrain which traverses to the right.

Bringing Sandy up and aiming for the notch as I’d read online, I climbed up to a rappel station where we made a short (~30 foot) rappel back down to a gully which brought us to a second notch and the base of the 5.7/5.8 hand cracks. I haven’t seen this rappel mentioned but there was an established station, so I can only assume the guidebook meant the second notch and you can normally traverse there if you don’t go too high like I did.

At the base of the hand cracks we roped up again and chose the right hand crack to ascend, and then ran the rope out for 60 meters to some easy third class terrain. From here acrobatic but easy simul-climbing led to the final slab and the summit.

One of these is the 5.7/5.8 hand crack.
On the summit slab.
With the summit box.

At the summit we took an hour off to eat and take some pictures, and I read an excellent book about crying in the outdoors which I had found in the summit register. The stories of pain in the Stanley-Burgner chimney and uncertainty on the icy slopes of Hood from when I was just beginning really resonated with me and I wish I knew more about where this weird little book came from.

As we began our descent two climbers came up the Cascadian Couloir to the summit, and quickly joined us for the trip back down. Finding the Cascadian was easier than we’d been led to believe based on all the trip reports; there was a well-cairned path that led across the rock ribs and fresh foot prints assuring us that we were on route. Once below the false summit, the next gully is the Cascadian. From here we bid the other team farewell and let them go first, as the gully was extremely loose and rock fall was a given. A few hours of descent later, during which I gained a new-found respect for those who’d willingly go up that thing, we were back to the tree line and meadows.. and WATER!!

Looking back towards the summit block.

After guzzling a liter each, we took off for the car and the oil-soaked dolmas awaiting us. Long’s Pass was easier than I’d heard — the closer we got the less steep it appeared — it made for a fairly casual hike up, and once above the tree-line it was only 3 AC/DC songs to the top of the pass. From here we jogged back down to the car in record time and were quickly driving back to Portland, alternating between sleeping and driving. A few hours later we woke up for the day and happily ticked off another climb from our whiteboard. One more goal down!

Lessons Learned

  • Most significantly, the fact we could pull off such a complex route and never feel out of control during it has been a tremendous boost to our confidence for future objectives.
  • We had initially planned to haul the crux pitches, but due to the number of parties starting Saturday I just led the crux pitches with my overnight pack on. The fact I could lead near my limit with a pack says a lot about my limits being mental rather than physical, and opens up other interesting options for multi-day climbs.
  • This was only our second time simul-climbing, and while we sped up considerably compared to our first time, we could easily cut hours off our climbing time with more practice.
  • Our bivy setup was spot-on for this route. 2 short pads, 1 sleeping bag, and 1 2-person bivy sack weighed in at 60 ounces, which when split two ways was hardly noticeable and made for some very comfortable nights. The short pads were a perfect pairing when we used the rope for insulation for our feet, and we had additional foam back pads in our packs which were not needed.
  • Going back and doing this in 1.5 days next year is going to be a blast!

Gear Notes

  • SR .2 – 3, Doubles .5-2. Offset nuts. The .2 and the nuts were only used once.
  • 7 single slings, 4 double, 1 quad.
  • 1 microtraxion, 1 ATC, 1 grigri
  • 1 32-degree down bag, a 2-person bivy bag/tarp, and 2 short z-lite pads.
  • 1 2-liter soft-flask, 3 750 ml soft-flasks, 1 600 ml filter bottle.
  • No stove, just wraps and bars.

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