After climbing the Ice Cliff Glacier and the Stuart Glacier Couloir last spring, an experienced climber posted a suggestion that I check out the NW Face Couloir to complete the Stuart winter route trifecta. After doing some research, the route moved up my list and became the focus of a first outing with Will this spring, hoping that the magical conditions of early March would continue.
We left Seattle on Saturday morning and left the car at noon. The approach to the Colchuck Lake cutoff was quick and straightforward. From there, we made an ill-fated trek across the marsh and followed Mountaineer's Creek on the East side, which was an unfortunate choice. 5 hours and 15 minutes after leaving the car, we made it to camp in the flat area below the Sherpa Glacier. A couple of guys from Vancouver were there and made reference to terrible booting conditions which had stymied their plans of reaching the West Ridge notch that afternoon. With low expectations, we made dinner and crawled into bed before dark with alarms set for 2:30am, expecting tough going up to the route.
Thankfully, after a handful of painful post holes when we began moving at 3am, we were able to stay on top of the snow for the most part, and ascended relatively quickly toward our objective. It took 3 hours on the dot to get to the base of the route and it was still pitch black at this point. Especially in the dark, the first pitch looked intimidating—a thin coating of ice and rime was plastered on a steep granite slab. There was no protection to speak of. I decided to head up a little ways to get a closer look and, as the sun began to brighten the sky, I climbed up about 20 feet of the route, with one pin near the base. The ice was decently secure for being so thin, but it still felt pretty tenuous and I couldn't see any cracks for protection, so I down-climbed and we decided to head for the Stuart Glacier Couloir as a consolation prize. Thankfully, the routes start only about 200 feet apart.
Having climbed the route before, I knew the couloir was straightforward and not technically challenging, so we simul-soloed it, climbing two fun ice bulges and then a lot of steep snow with a good amount of sinking in to our knees. There was a lot of spindrift coming down the constriction and climbing the ice was a full-on snow shower. It was only a little over an hour to ascend the couloir to the West Ridge notch. During that time, the skies had gone from relatively clear to completely socked in. The wind on the South side of the ridge was a different environment completely and it felt more like we were on a mountain in Patagonia than Mount Stuart.
It was very helpful to have done the route before and have also done the West Ridge in summer. Route finding was a little tricky, but we could see far enough in front of us to stay on track. I took the traverse, down-climb, ledges, and North Face section. Will then brought us up to the ridge crest. We rapped off a horn and then I led a section of M5 before Will finished it up on some more M5 climbing straight to the summit. We briefly celebrated, but had no view to speak of, so we quickly packed up and began heading down.
With little-to-no visibility, it was a bit tricky to find our way down and around the false summit, but we found some cairns eventually and then made ample use of our GPS to navigate to the entrance of the Sherpa Glacier. From there, it was a lot of moderate snow back to the tent. We had one incident in the steepest, tightest part of the Sherpa Glacier with some snow sloughing and carrying me down the slope a little ways, but thankfully the Sherpa Glacier is relatively low-angle and the general risk was low. Nevertheless, we kept a keen eye out and stayed on the lowest-angle terrain we could from there. We made it to camp at about 2pm.
After packing up all of our wet gear and slamming a bunch of coffee, we began the slog out. Thankfully, we found a boot pack on the West side of the creek which brought us to the Stuart Lake Trail without having to go through the swamp. We were back at the car at 7:30pm. It was a big weekend and a long ways to get back there, but the sense of accomplishment was high, given the conditions and the weather we'd experienced. I'll take it.