Our original objective for the weekend was the Mt Baker North ridge. However, the weather was really bad and it didn't seem feasible to go. So we sat in KAF adventures' office and discussed our options with the founder and head guide Mick. We eventually settled to try a local rock climbing crag on Saturday and go for Mt Stuart on Sunday. Stuart is on the East side of the cascade range which enjoys drier weather.
The poetically named "Exit 32" crag is well bolted and easily accessible by a short half hour hike. The first wall we tried was all wet and slimy, making the climbing all that much harder. So we went a bit further along the trail to a wall that is overhanging enough to stay mostly dry even in rain and climbed a few pitches there. Overall a pretty enjoyable experience and a good getting to know one another excercise. After all, Mick will be trusting us as his belayers later on the mountain. We found us a nice spot to pitch our tents along the Lake Ingalls trail and went to sleep early. Mick had to sleep on the rope and backpacks because he forgot to bring a mat ;-)
We headed up the trail around 4 in the morning. Mt Stuart is quite inaccessible, so we'd have to cross two passes in order to even reach the mountain. This is why Mick kept calling this "A Big Day!" and had never before climbed the mountain in a single push. This would become a recurring meme between the three of us: Mick told us that he'd typically set up a bivy about three hours short of the summit, camp there, and then climb the mountain. So Pawel and me kept exclaiming "bivy!" for every good bivy spot we found (and there were many). To which Mick would always respond: "Not even close yet". Long day indeed. In the end the car to car round trip time would turn out to be around 21 hours after which we'd drive back to Seattle and go to the office the next morning.
The mountain is huge and the route complex and convoluted. Says the guidebook:
"Without a rival as the crown peak in the central Cascades of Washington, Mount Stuart has been pronounced the single greatest mass of exposed granite in the United States...its northern and eastern faces are the alpine climax of the Wenatchee Mountains. They make a powerful impact on first sight...The mountaineering problems are magnified by the mountain's massive dimensions and its complexity." -- "Cascade Alpine Guide - Climbing and High Routes - Columbia River to Stevens Pass, Second Edition" by Fred Beckey.
"the route is long and complicated with many opportunities to get off route onto more difficult terrain. While a strong experienced party can complete the route in one day car to car from the Teanaway Trailhead, it is not uncommon for parties to have route finding problems and bivouac on the route or descent" -- summitpost.org
Visibility was shit most of the day because we were climbing in a cloud. Thus even Mick's navigational skills were tested and I'm pretty sure we deviated from the easiest line occasionally. The West ridge we were climbing is supposedly graded 5.4 climbing which translates to a 4a in the French system more commonly used in the alps. This is a grade I've climbed barefoot and hands-free before, thus it shouldn't pose any difficulty whatsoever. Not so here. The rock was wet and the crux section so difficult that Mick had to aid it by pulling on gear while leading it.
At one point Pawel got completely stuck in a tricky sequence of moves. He's an endurance monster, but his most recent climbing experience before this weekend was 7 years in the past. We fumbled around for nearly an hour, trying to find a solution with stepping on slings and such. Pawel was about to give up and call it quits before I eventually managed to place a small cam in a crack that enabled me to hang off the wall and offer my shoulder as a foothold. This unblocked us and the rest of the route turned out much easier. Booked as a team building exercise ;-)
Spirits were high and we went a little insane along the way (altitude? jet-lag? ;-)). After I related the story of Boaty McBoatface we took to naming everything after this scheme and we had Chilly McChillface and Slimy McSlimeface and so on. Mick was also really easy to get started chanting made up songs. You'd throw some random sentence fragments at him and he'd pick them up and turn them into a spontaneous nonsensical limerick. Good fun.
When we finally made it to the summit I got a good laugh out of the others when I proudly proclaimed that we had climbed "Mount... What is it called again?". The descent was long, but much easier than the ascent. We had to negotiate steep snow of about 40 degrees and a lot of scree and sandy slopes. Around 7pm the clouds finally cleared up enough for us to enjoy a view. From that point on it was still an endless slog over two passes back to the car. We did a lot of that in the pale moonlight, using our headtorches only once we were in the shade of the trees.
All in all a fantastic outing. Thank you Mick for turning a rained out weekend into a truly remarkable experience and for trusting us with "A Big Day" like this.
~2774m up and down, ~30km