After much discussion and research on Friday evening with Goran after work, we decided to change our focus from Mount Hood's North Face to Mount Stuart in hopes of reducing the avalanche danger as well as guaranteeing the conditions to climb some ice. Despite spending a bunch of time up around Colchuck Lake, I'd never had to skin the road and I'd also never approached Stuart from the North before, so the whole adventure was pretty novel.
We left Seattle around 8am, made some necessary stops for caffeine and fat-laden salami, and hit the trailhead around 11am to start the skin. It was about an hour and a quarter up the road and the sun was beating down on us, so we sweated our way up with pant legs unzipped and rolled up. The trail was a welcome relief as we continued at a fast pace through the shady woods, eventually breaking off from the main trail and heading for Stuart Lake.
Not long after that point, we'd successfully gained most of our elevation and continued skinning across some meadows and low-angle forest toward and past Mountaineers Ridge. Another pair had set a skin track for us, so we followed their path as it meandered circuitously across streams and over downed trees. We eventually cut across the final steep section to gain a wide-open area where we set up camp while staring up at the impressive North Ridge and our objective: The Ice Cliff Glacier.
After a chicken-supplemented, freeze-dried meal, we conked out with an alarm for 3:45am.
The beginning of the climb was a rude awakening when we started moving before 5am under a starry sky. New snow had fallen over the night and we were climbing in our AT boots, which really don't do well on terrain that isn't very steep. We gained the moraine and rode it up to the base of the North Ridge where we cut hard left and traversed under the ice cliff. From there, we roped up and skirted the left side on steep snow until hitting the cliff itself.
The ice was steep, but short lived—probably something around AI 3 for 30 feet or so, before traversing right on steep snow and over the lip of the cliff. Once we were over the lip, we could see that there was still quite a bit of climbing to be done. We traversed to the right side of the gully and began the wallowing.
To this point, the snow had been reasonably firm and relatively easy to boot up, but it was here where the snow changed to unconsolidated and knee to hip deep. We took turns cursing and throwing ourselves at the slope until across a number of crevasses and the bergschrund, at which point things moved to only knee deep and we started moving much more quickly, hugging the left side of the gully until a fork, taking the right fork, and cruising up to the cornice.
As Goran said later when reflecting on the route, the cornice was the steepest snow he'd ever climbed before. It was a bit loose and pretty tricky, involving some serious ice tool maneuvering and beached-whale moves. Great success! We pulled over the lip into a different world, with the spring sun washing over us and a beautiful view towards Rainier and Adams.
Fortunately, we found the boot pack from the descent of a pair we'd met the day before who had climbed the Stuart Glacier Couloir. Unfortunately, their steps didn't help our post holing much and we struggled our way up to the false summit, feeling pretty beat and with cramping legs. The false summit was plastered in rime ice reminiscent of Patagonia and we followed the boot track as it wove past rime-covered spires to the summit ridge. We finally gained the summit at about 12:30am.
Knowing the magnitude of the descent, we quickly snapped some pictures, rested up, and then began the descent, which wove back around the false summit, past our exit point, and down to the Sherpa Glacier. The Sherpa was a super fast descent despite more deep snow and we were down to camp from the summit in no time. With aching legs, we broke camp and donned our packs, ready to slide out as quickly and safely as we could. The ski was as challenging as I expected and involved a good amount of profanity as my tired body tried to pizza wedge down steep, tight sections of the trail, but we were successful in the end.
With feet feeling like hamburger and every major muscle group aching, we easily made the decision to eat brats and drink some celebratory beers in Leavenworth. It was an awesome way to start up the new season with an awesome partner.