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Finding Rhythm on a Ridgeline | Complete North Ridge of Mount Stuart w/ Gendarme

The dawn is brewing in the moist, cool, dew-thick air. None of the other dirtbag climbers have yet emerged from their truck bed capsule caves. We go through our morning routine in as much silence as we can muster, save for the closing of a car door and the hum of a stove boiling water. Anticipation bubbles over in step with the liter of water coming to life on the stove. We roll out of the forested pullout at five o’clock sharp; maté blazing hot in our little wooden gourd, dust billowing on the road behind us.

Once on the trail, we walk with purpose. There is no water on the route, so we stop frequently to drink what we have before reaching our last fill-up spot in the creek. Three miles in, we break from the main trail and follow a faint climbers trail into a neighboring drainage. Many fallen trees and overgrown undergrowth interrupt our path, but nonetheless we press onwards. Soon enough, we emerge into a boulder field, which flows from the base of our route to where we stand. Our line of travel is clear, and it is the first time Kane, my partner, has seen the North Ridge from this angle. Within an hour, we are at the base of the climb, getting ready to embark on this odyssey of a rock climb – also known as the Complete North Ridge of Mount Stuart.

This will be my second time on this route, and this time, I am back for redemption. Last time, I was suckered into climbing with a partner who was not adequately prepared for moving quickly in this type of terrain. Instead of cruising it like I had anticipated, I ended up guiding and pitching out the entire ridge – resulting in twenty-eight total pitches of climbing and an enormous lesson in patience, planning, and decision making. But this time, all the variables have aligned and we are ready to crush!

Kane fires up the first pitch. The short chimney step stifles his progress slightly when he gets his head stuck in the crack. A bit of groveling and superb sound effects get him out onto the slab and up to our first belay. For the second pitch, I scrambled the cruisy cracks to the base of the glorious 5.9+ thin hands crack. Kane led this pitch with such grace and power; I was impressed by his composure and ability to make quick work of the steep flaring 0.75” crack.

One thing to note about Kane: He hasn’t always been a beautiful rock climber. His roots are in ice climbing and so his beloved tri-pod position gets him into trouble a decent bit on rock. Countless times, I have watched Kane muscle through moves that would’ve flowed much easier had he looked around for better holds. In three years, I have watched him grow as a rock climber beyond what I thought was possible. He has challenged himself, overcome fears, taken falls, and spent time working on technique – all of which seemed to come together in this pitch to make it one of the smoothest ascents I have watched him lead.

After a few more short steps of exposed fifth class climbing, we shortened the rope between us and began questing up the 1600 ft. of fifth class to 5.6 climbing that stood between the final technical pitches to the summit and us. Simul-climbing (or moving simultaneously over rock with a partner, keeping 2 or more pieces of gear between) is a true test of finding a flow with someone else. The climbing fluctuated from easy fifth class scrambling to harder steps of 5.6 where the exposure was massive.

Moving slowly, purposefully, to a primal rhythm, and communicating often in order to maintain an interval between us was a true test of our partnership. Being connected to someone for 600+ ft. segments, while you craft your gear placements in order to use an entire double rack of cams as sparingly as possible, is something indescribable. It is an unwritten, indescribable language of movement that can only be experienced with the right circumstances and the right partner. It is a bond of ultimate trust.

Simul-climbing can provide protection against catastrophic outcomes, but it is not a system meant to protect either partner from falling (Hence the trust aspect.).

The ridge wound on for hours. Splitter crack after splitter crack, this route does not disappoint. To either side of the serpentine, knife-edge ridge are glaciers rapidly receding. The position is beautiful, the sights and sounds of calving icefall forever scarred in my memory, and the devastation that our warming climate will have on this place, all too soon, causes my mind to etch this image steadfast in my memory to preserve the experience for when it can no longer be basked in again. These moments, of trust, of meditative movement over rock, of climbing alongside glaciers – they are fleeting. But what we soak up from these experiences can last a lifetime, and the stories we share, like this one, will paint a picture of a world that came before us and that will remain long after we are gone.

As that fiery ball of light in the sky descended towards the horizon, our pace quickened as we neared the base of the Gendarme. (A gendarme is a high point on a ridge that stands in the way of continuing along the ridgeline proper. In this case, we decided to go over it.) The final pitches of 5.9 rock climbing stood tall and foreboding in front of us. First, a splitter hand crack in a right facing dihedral, and then a splitter 4” crack up the most exposed section of the gendarme. After hours of climbing, our feet were sore at just the sight of this next obstacle. Toes tingling and arms burning with fatigue, we forged upwards.

The second pitch of the gendarme truly put our stamina to the test. The battle ensued as our hands began to bleed along the ridges of our knuckles, and the weight of our packs partnered with gravity, began to tug at our willpower in the opposite direction of our desired path. The struggle was evident as the wind picked up, and we both began to shiver in the dying light. The sky ablaze with pinks, oranges, and purples with the expansive peaks of the cascades silhouetted against the fading light; only two-hundred more feet to the summit.

Kane in the lead, battled his way through the final wide section of the crack and surmounted the gendarme just enough that we were able to contour around the side into the final notch before the summit. I blazed the way up the final hand crack to the scramble-y summit blocks and just as the last orange hue dissolved into the horizon. We stood on the summit and exhaled as we welcomed the night. Such a feat of movement, of struggle, of triumph – it’s hard to comprehend when at last you stand on the summit of something so massive in reality as it is in the metaphors of your consciousness.