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.

What had we just overcome? At that moment, we had yet to realize the full magnitude of it all – the fluidity of movement and decision-making we experienced, the majestic landscape we were immersed in; all of it felt like a dream. The only thing bringing me back to reality was the growing hunger in my stomach and the numbing pain in the tips of my big toes.

We scrambled east down the summit ridge until we found a nice sandy bivy ledge that suited our needs. Before attempting to lie down and sleep, we feasted on tomato basil chicken sausages roasted over an open flame, with creamy rehydrated gluten free mushroom risotto. The glorious and warm dinner of champions that was definitely worth the weight.

The night was brisk with a blustery wind out of the southwest. In and out of sleep, we continued to fight through the dark hours. At times when sleeping was too difficult due to shivering, the stars provided a welcomed source of endless entertainment. The Milky Way so distinctly overhead and the star clusters of far off galaxies so clear from up here, so far from anything manmade.

Morning brought renewed warmth and the promise of another day in this ‘enchanted’ dreamland. We sat atop the eastern ridge of Mount Stuart eating muesli and sharing a pot of instant Trader Joe’s coffee. With only two liters of water remaining, the easy part of our objective was done; now for the descent.

Rainier in the distance.

Mount Stuart is known for its’ difficulty of descent. There are many options, but few prove to be straightforward or low in objective hazards. Having done a more ‘adventurous’ descent last time, I decided to play it safer and go out to the Sherpa Col this time around. The total loop of our climb, including the descent, ended up being around 30 miles – mostly off trail. The descent involved walking the eastern ridgeline, complete with down-climbing, summiting Sherpa Peak via the West Ridge route, rappelling twice, and contouring for miles over loose scree and bushwhack filled drainages. The heat of the day was in full force as we traversed in the direct sun along the south side of the ridgeline. Eventually, after hours of side hilling, we arrived at the Sherpa Col. As we peered over the ridge we were elated to see a moderate slope with sandy scree that ended in a perfect glissade slope (Glissading is a term used to describe technical butt sliding on snow.). By the time we reached the base of the gully, we knew we were going to make it! We filled our depleted [water] dromedaries at the source of an underground spring high on the skier’s right of the drainage and rejoiced as the cool water calmed all our instinctual worries that had been building in the relentless heat of the sun.

Approaching Sherpa Peak along the east ridge of Stuart.

Our descent gully on the left with the snow patches.

Days like these are one in a million. To have everything go as planned rarely makes the adventure as memorable as if it hadn’t, but these moments of fluidity and success are things to be treasured. The learning that comes from the culmination of so many objectives gone awry, obstacles stumbled over, injuries endured, and hours spent bailing, or reconfiguring your navigation route can really add up to something beautiful and profound. Kane and I have been through those adventures—the ones where everything goes wrong; when we couldn’t see the writing on the wall; or we did not plan for the obvious obstacle that barricaded our ascent. Those days taught us patience, the importance of planning, the joy of the struggle, and the Zen of suffering. And those stories are great because they each outline a lesson to be learned. And this story is so special to me because it seems that for once, on an objective larger than we had ever attempted together, we were able to pull it all together and make it happen. And that—that is when you wake up and realize that your reality is finally surpassing your dreams.

About Me.

Lover of mountains, rocks, deserts, trees, ice waterfalls, glaciers, steep snow chutes, facing my fears, long days on foot, aerial arts, acro yoga, corny jokes, musical freestyling, gluten free meals, and having an all around good time.

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