Ross and I made plans to go on a Wine Spires bender, but Mt Stuart's Direct Northwest Face really caught my eye at the last minute. Forget this Wine Spire stuff; it's almost like cragging. Give me a longer approach and a glacier crossing for the full alpine experience. Plus a stiff finger crack and the beautiful pitches of the dihedral high on the route promise too much fun.
A forest fire on Teanaway River Road sends us approaching via Stuart Lake. We perform poorly enough on official trails, so we opt for Stuart Lake instead of the climber's path up Mountaineer Creek. We smoke the trail to Stuart Lake in an hour and a half. I try my best to misdirect us toward Horseshoe Lake, but Ross is on point. A small bushwhack (at least my misdirect accomplished something) puts us below the gully that leads to the Stuart Glacier.
My tennis-shoes-and-ice-ax combo leads to some interesting steps near the top of the Stuart Glacier. More than once, only the self-belay technique keeps me from turning my treadmill impression into a dangerous slide. I convince Ross to neglect his proposed gymnastics and find an easy way onto the rock. The easier way takes us to climber's left, so we have an interesting traverse to get to the tasty finger crack of the first pitch.
Ross leads the traverse so I can throw myself at the finger crack. He starts up a corner with some stemming that makes him think. Luckily my height makes this easy for me. Next he traverses some really blank stuff, places a cam, makes a crazy layback downclimb on a flake, and progresses about 30 feet more before he finds another good gear placement. Following this portion, looking at a serious pendulum fall into the moat, I am totally freaked about a layback downclimb until I see that once again I can use my longer legs and stem my way to easy street by traversing high. Phew!
Sunrise on Mt Stuart from Stuart Lake. Photo by Ross Peritore
I'm not quite in the zone for the finger crack. I get to the bulge that seems to be the crux, where the jams are right between fingers and hands. A layback would probably do the trick. Instead I 'get my grip on' and try to place a superfluous piece of gear as opposed to just blasting through it, which results in a nice peel. The fall startles me into a more proper headspace, from which I proceed to dispatch the pitch in good form.
Next Ross leads a corner that gives a deceptively dirty and loose appearance, but in reality is quite fun and mostly solid. Then we simulclimb almost all the way to the base of the long, perfect corner; we avoid the chimney Kearney describes by heading more left and get to climb a fun, long mid-fifth groove instead. The corner looks absolutely, stunningly gorgeous.
Ross gets in the zone and zooms up the corner. Too far, in fact, and it is quite entertaining to watch him carefully downclimb fifty feet after the corner's crack disappears and leaves no more options for gear. He regroups, heads left, and makes a belay after a little more climbing in a left-facing corner.
I get the last spicy pitch. I inspect several directions; it's not too clear where to go and I'm a bit hesitant since Kearney's guide mentioned thin gear. Weaving between crack systems until I settle on stemming up a gravy groove between two inward-facing corners, the upper part of the pitch reveals inevitable thinness. I find a good cam placement and take a healthy runout on some fun face moves before the slab eases into the ledges where the rappel off the North Ridge ends. Ross has to pull the anchor and follow a bit for me to get to a good belay.
In retrospect it would definitely be better to do this last interesting bit in three pitches as per Kearney, instead of two pitches like we did. Not only would this approach avoid the belay-pulling shenanigans, it would also allow a belay with a great view of the perfect corner for pictures. Just look at the picture in Kearney's book and you'll understand.
We simulclimb to the summit. Ross adds several spicy boulder moves to our running-belayed climbing just for kicks. The descent takes much longer than anticipated. For those of you who don't know, here are a few recommendations. Stay below the West Ridge on the south side until you pass all the towers and the ridge becomes somewhat flat. Drop over the ridge to the north. Direct rappels lead to the buttress between the main Stuart Glacier and the more stagnant western portion. Either that or scramble down and west until you find yourself dropping between Goat Pass and Stuart Pass, so that a small climb will put you at Goat Pass ready to descend to Stuart Lake, haul ass to the car, and drink some beer. We took the latter option since I was nervous about finding myself descending the icy glacier with no crampons.