I've been wanting to do North Ridge on Stuart since I first heard about the route, and saw the upper part from Colchuck peak in 2001. When Richard Denker mentioned he wanted to try the direct North Ridge route from the toe, I tremblingly but enthusiastically signed on. What he failed to mention was that I was going to be the hired rope gun...
Our team was Richard, Dana Gardner, Rhonda Ramirez and myself - pretty strong, old and experienced - apparently I'm the youngest of the lot! Dana was finishing recovery from foot surgery, but decided she was well enough to make it. More on that later...
We elected to do a car shuttle, take the direct approach up Mountaineer Creek from the north, and exit south to Esmeralda. The lengthy shuttle took us past one still-smoldering burn and views of the hillside flames of the season's big fire NE of Leavenworth. After a night at the trailhead, we started at 7AM under perfect skies and temps. Our hopes of getting up the lower toe to the first bivvy sites that night quickly faded into the jungle of Mountaineer Creek. We found the right exit off the Lake Stuart trail, just as it starts up the hill. But many route guesses later, and one face-plant off a log by yours-truly, resulting in a bloody forehead, we arrived at the base of the route at 2pm. The beta I found on the web was right - when in doubt, stay low - descend slightly to the creek as you round the base of the ridge, and follow the faint, intermittent trail along the right side of the creek. At the junction with the creek from Ice Cliff and Sherpa glaciers, the trail is non-existent, but again staying right of the creek you will pick it up again in a few hundred yards. The view from the rubble basin below the glaciers is truly spectacular - even the insignificant granite ridge to the north looks stupendous.
The bivvies at the toe were great, with water available, and we figured on being benighted less than 6 pitches up if we tried to proceed, so we camped and scoped the base, trying to decide where the route starts. There is a whole series of ledges and ramps up to about 100 feet above the bivvy. I scrambled over them, and thought I could see where the route began on a traverse left from the highest and leftmost ledge, but wasn't 100% sure. We settled in for a relaxing evening watching the firestorm thunder head beyond Leavenworth and listening to periodic rock and icefalls off the Ice Cliff Glacier, glad to be next to the glacier rather than below it.
At 4AM the next morning we awakened, to start climbing at the first full light at 5AM. Richard asked me to start off on lead on the first rope with Dana. I traversed left a few moves, then as the moves got harder, tried going up, and rapidly started doubting the route and said so. Rhonda looked back around the corner and decided that some features looked promising, so I backed off and we finally decided it looked right.
The initial crack went well, definitely 5.7 but doable with a pack, but the "offwidth" which was more like a slanting roof over an outward-slanting face just didn't work with pack. I hung from a solid big cam for a while, tried several approaches, then surrendered and hung the pack and found that back to foot opposition solved the problem. I offered Dana the next lead which looked easier then 5.7, but her foot was bothering her and she declined.
And so it went, one hard lead after another... Third pitch is a long, very sustained crack, as I cranked through the crux liebacks and jams the pack was just too much. I blew off once, rested, then tried and backed off again before surrendering and hanging the pack. I only discovered the large rip in my shorts much later. After several minutes of rest I French-freed, walking two pieces up through three placements in the crux before I could free the remainder and collapse exhausted at the belay. Definitely NOT 5.9! Thank God for good pro and the ability to place it! Though I wasn't willing to give it more than 5.10a, the consensus among the others after topping out was 10b. I sure hoped the rest of the route was easier then this pitch AND Beckey's ratings...
After belaying up the others through several strenuous tension moves, plus hauling 3.5 packs with Dana's assistance, I weakly said "the rest is yours" and sent Richard and Rhonda off on lead.
And was glad I did - the next pitch was a simple gully/ramp, until a tricky 5.8 finger crack above a big ankle-breaking ledge. I've rarely been so glad to get a first piece in - or to know that someone else had just lead the pitch!
From here the pitches got a lot easier per the route description, but still not always simulclimbing territory. And my efforts on the first three pitches had burned the whole morning! So much for summiting in one day...
Between Dana's increasingly sore foot, rope drag on one pitch, and my tiredness and unwillingness to simulclimb everything and place as little pro as Richard, 7 PM found Richard and Rhonda well ahead and nearing the bivvies at the top of the standard route entrance gully, while Dana and I were arriving at the small lower bivvies at the top of pitch 10. We started up pitch 11, then got hit by a few raindrops, and decided we could maybe take dark easy climbing, but not dark and wet, so we radioed Richard our situation and rapped back down to the bivvies. A beautiful sunset was now beginning, the rain subsided, and we took stock - one nice level semi-protected site, and a sloping ledge. Almost no water, almost all of Dana's food in Richard's pack, part of one stove, and - the saving grace - a full bottle of grapes. We shared some of my trail food and the grapes, then I took the sloping ledge, placed a piece and set some rocks to keep from rolling, and actually got a very restful nght.
The next day dawned beautifully, and we quickly packed up and started at 5:40AM, scrambling up the next 6 pitches, arriving to a greeting from Richard, water, and a short traverse to the nitch bivvies at 9AM. Richard had made one rap down to a small snowbank for water - thankfully not all the way to the glacier, and now graciously made another trip while Dana and I cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner and we debated whether to proceed or bail.
We finally decided we could still make the summit before dark and avoid the long traverse around the West Ridge, so Richard started off at noon. First pitch is easy low-5th-class to and up the ridge, then options - drop over to a ledge on the east side of the ridge, do a tricky 3-move traverse to a higher ledge, or stay right on the ridgetop (as another party we met later said they did). We chose the middle option after Richard initially dropped to the lower ledge, then liked where I was better. Richard lead up from the ledge, looked over the other side and said we would have to rap and it didn't look right. So he lowered off, we voted again, and this time the clear concensus wes we had done enough for one trip.
We downclimbed back to the bivvies, ate and drank some more, than rapped and downclimbed the standard route entrance gully to the Stuart Glacier. It looked pretty reasonable, just one worisome bridge over the moat, but we only had my one full set of crampons, two insteps, three sets of poles and one ice ax for almost a mile of traversing over an up to 20 degree slope.
With crampons and poles (on my low trail running shoes!) I was elected to lead off and kick steps. Rope gun again, but this time, no rope! I took one basket off for self-arrest, and proceeded. The snow conditions were good, only occasionally icy. But there were some worrisome ice patches above, which clearly had avalanched before and actually sloughed off a bit as we were crossing, so we went as fast as possible. Due to exhaustion and desire for speed I didn't always kick perfect steps, and got some complaints later, especially after Dana took a short slide and had some difficulty regaining the path. The instep crampons were marginal at best. After her slide I put my soaked shoes back on and returned to improve the last steps. In hindsight I should have traded one pole with Dana so she would also have had a usable arrest tool.
We dropped down the rock ridge that now splits the Stuart Glacier in two, back up the west lateral moraine, and arrived at the expansive campsites at Goat Pass at 6PM, definitely ready for a break for the night. Soon a climber wandered up from the valley to the North with neither pack nor shirt - he and his partner had done the standard route that day, having left their larger pack at camp. He grabbed his pack and dashed back across to Stuart Pass - a seriously young, strong trail animal!
The next day we traversed the boulder field below the west face, then a leisurely traverse of the high climber's path to a saddle on the West Ridge, where we encountered a very unafraid goat, then down the ridge to Stuart Pass, Ingalls lake, and out. We watched and smelled as the smoke from the fire crept up Ingall's Creek.
Here is a summary of the pitches, with our take on modern grades. I've tried to split the upper section into 160-foot pitches, but it's rough since much of it is simulclimbed. Beckey's times for the toe are completely unrealistic for most climbers, due to the necessity of hauling packs on two pitches and some upper pitches being too steep to simulclimb safely.
Pitch 1 - Beckey's topo is not correct - the pitch begins about 15 feet right of the left end of the highest ledge, just left of the prow of the toe. (If you follow the topo you will try traversing on 5.6 exposed moves to another crack on the far left.) The key is the tie-off tree is a tree and not a bush. The upper part of the correct route is the obvious roof slanting right and up. The moves under this roof cannot be done with a pack on - hauling is required. The belay is more hanging than niche, and we didn't find any fixed pro, just some slings. 5.7 lieback, then a short off-width 5.9 section below the small slanting roof.
Pitch 2. 5.6 As described. take the right crack, then face climb to the ledge.
Pitch 3. 5.9-5.10a sustained, possibly 5.10b crux and 5.10b overall. This is a very sustained lieback, very difficult with a pack.
Pitch 4. 5.3 gully right, to a large ledge, then 5.7-8-finger/hand jam crack. The lower part of the crack is strenuous to protect, be careful. This pitch ends on a large ledge with two big trees.
Pitch 5. 5.5 various and fun. The easiest path goes through the trees, then drifting right, traversing a small airy ledge. Rope drag can be very bad; simulclimbing on a short rope may be best. Belay from a small ledge in a corner about 140 feet up, 20 feet up and 10 feet right of the airy ledge.
Pitch 6. 5.6 start, 5.4 continuing up the corner, continue upwards to the ridgetop. Highlight of this pitch is a hand traverse on a small 45-degree face below a big left overhang, to an anchor (if I recall correctly), then up an arete.
Pitch 7-10. 3rd/4th class, simulclimb. Walk an obvious ledge on the east (left) side of the ridge. A tree makes a corner in the ledge as it continues. Traverse the ledge for another 150 feet to a broad easy gully, then up about 50 feet to a large right-sloping 200 foot sandy ramp that ends at two bivvy sites on the ridge top. Another 100 feet up the ridge is a small, exposed bivvy site, where the ridge steepens again. You can also go directly up, bypassing the ramp and two bivvy sites on slighly harder (5.1?) ground, directly to the small bivvy site.
Pitches 11-16 start on a ramp below the ridgetop on the west (right) side of the ridge. There are many easy variations that follow up and along the ridge to the top of the entrance gully. Climbing ranges from 3rd class to a 5.6/7 move or two, mostly 5.0-2. The last 100 feet before the entrance gully and the bivy sites is best done about 10 to 20 feet below and on the west side of the ridge crest. Look for paths on ledges along the way.
Glenn and Dana's specific route, not what Richard and Rhonda did:
Pitch 11. 5.5 Simulclimb the ramp right of the ridge for 80 feet. As the ramp widens, generally stay right for another 100 feet to an airy belay on a large block exposed on 3 sides. Belay here.
Pitch 12 5.7 initial 4 moves, 5.5 afterwards:
Jam the top of the corner to pull over, then fun simulclimbing on lichen-plastered rock with big jugs and horns - I slung no less than 5 of them. Use a tieblock in the first rope length if you simulclimb to belay the second on the first moves (if you like that technique). Go up about 60 feet to the ridgetop, which is actually a large broken triangular north face with a small, solid triangular face at the top. Stay right, cross a 20 foot ledge under a sloped face toward a notch. Climb upwards left of the notch on the right arete, watching for a ledge system in about 30 feet that you can traverse right to the top of the standard route entrance gully and the bivvy sites.