It was on a container of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that I read the label: "Before eating, briefly remove from freezer in order to temper the flavor and consistency of the ice cream." Climbing tales are similar, after the experience a story develops, undergoing a process of tempering and hopefully, with time, a flavorful story emerges.
This story begins in June of 1999 when a group of us attempted the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. The second highest non-volcanic peak in Washington State, at 9415 feet, Mt. Stuart is also the largest section of exposed granite in the continental US. After hiking many miles and climbing over 4000-vertical feet we discovered that the technical portion of our chosen route, a 1000 foot exposed ridge, was impassable due to hazardous conditions. The winter snowpack had left an abundant slab of unstable snow which covered the cracks and features on which we had hoped to climb. In disappointment, we turned around, descended and traversed part way around the mountain so that we could ascend the moderate West Ridge instead. Our alternate route served its purpose as the four of us safely reached the summit on a beautiful sunny day. Still, our primary objective had escaped us and the trip was left incomplete.
After nearly two months of schedule conflicts and unsuitable weather we reassembled in mid-September for another attempt. In accordance with the climbing "order of operations," our trip began at an Issaquah grocery store on a Friday afternoon. The team included Mike Glavin, Mark Ryman, Chris Brixey and myself, Joe Yelverton. Immediately, Glavin made it known that no one was allowed to purchase better or tastier food than him. Following us around the store, he slyly observed our choices to measure if he was being outdone. Like any other leisure activity that employs high risk, having the right food is extremely important. However, this group traded the usual gorp and energy bars for "comfort food," delicacies like turkey pepperoni, European sugar cookies, and aged cheeses. In fact, the higher the risks the more decadent the food. We shopped as if we were preparing for a Himalayan big wall. In perusing the aisles I surprisingly discovered that Glavin had never tried Nutella. Feeling like I had the upper hand, I added the calorie laden chocolate hazelnut spread to my selection of dense exotic foods. As we left the store Chris nodded his head smugly and remarked, "This is gonna be a great climb. I can feel it."
Chris's words served to catalyze our endeavor; we had become the quintessential climbing fellowship. We were off to the heart of the Cascades on an awesome climbing endeavor.
Early the next morning our cozy trailhead slumber was terminated abruptly as we rose into the cold autumn air. In full winter gear, we brewed coffee, jostled life into our bodies, loaded our packs, and then marched up the first of many switchbacks leading to Ingalls Lake. By midmorning it was obvious that a high-pressure system had displaced normal, brisk fall weather. Under completely blue skies, we stripped to shorts and T-shirts and hiked in unusual summer-like temperatures.
After traversing around Ingalls Lake and over Stuart Pass, the route abruptly rises to Goat Pass. During this part of the climb one must navigate 2000, leg searing vertical feet. It feels like a formidable wall consisting of precarious boulders, some the size of automobiles. They are carefully negotiated, pulled on, and scrupulously climbed over. As I jumped from a teetering boulder, in mid-flight, I considered the odd question: what was preventing this steeply inclined field of boulders from sliding down the mountain? Landing with blind faith, I chose to ignore the mystery of physics. Soon, the boulders gave way to level ground and our next resting point, Goat Pass. For nearly an hour we sat motionless and enjoyed the reprieve from anaerobic hell.
After refueling, we crossed the magnificent Stuart Glacier and climbed the first technical section of our route. Carved into the side of the North Ridge is a huge jagged slice, a sharply defined gully that is capped with a lofty apex. Following the dramatic natural feature to its end, we discovered four perfect bivy ledges. It was like a sanctuary perched in rarefied air.
While we consumed baguette sandwiches and Nutella coated Danish biscuits, the sky turned red and night slowly fell on us. We even had entertainment, as Mark climbed atop a precarious minaret and posed for a touching moment etched in Kodachrome. Personal reflection eventually gave way to complete darkness. The moonless sky eventually filled with stars. Later, laying face up in my bag, I saw the subtle flicker from the northern lights.
The next day began early, headlamps were donned, and our racks of gear were arranged. The sun rose just before we finished roping up. We knew that many beautiful pitches of climbing were ahead of us.
Immediately I found myself pulling on a jutting fin of thick solid granite. It felt as if I was pulling on the very earth itself. In the mountains it is that magnificent feeling of solidity that produces confidence. In contrast, there are times when confidence is replaced by doubt and overwhelming fear.
After climbing innumerable pitches of solid rock we met a disillusioning sight. Suspended on the face above and to our right was a precarious mixture of melting ice and loose chunks of rock. Appropriately, I referred to it as a "shooting gallery." For the moment, however, we were "out of range" by climbing left of the potential danger. Despite our protected position we knew that our safety was transient. By necessity our chosen route led us directly below what would later prove to be the most frightening part of our climb.
Rock climbing by nature is incredibly graceful, yet as I sorted the rack for the next pitch I consciously knew that poise would be abandoned for sheer speed. Prior to beginning the next lead, Glavin looked at me anxiously and said, "be careful."
I accepted the reminder and wasted no time in dispatching the long section of terrifying rock. Knowing we weren't out of danger, though, Glavin was still waiting to make the same traverse. He was still a full rope length below me and under potential besiege. I set up my belay and within seconds after he began to climb my worst fears came true.
From above me I heard a nauseating sound generated by a barrage of falling rocks. Jolted into an intense state of sobriety, I yelled above the clatter and rushing air, "Get out of there, climb fast!"
Though I was virtually safe, the rocks were hurtling past me, falling straight towards Glavin. What was even more sickening was the fact that I could not see him, the rope simply trailed off below me. Still, I knew that Glavin was in the direct path of rockfall. It seemed like minutes before the rope went slack and he started climbing again. Suddenly, he appeared from the crest of the ledge I was sitting on. It appeared as if all the blood had drained from his face. White as a ghost but unharmed, he stood next to me, expressing an abundance of expletives. It was Glavin’s unique style of expressing gratitude for his salvation.
While we were completing the final summit pitches, Mark and Chris were midway through the crux of the Great Gendarme. Their alternate route, a more demanding variation of the North ridge, surmounts a vertical pillar that rises sharply from the ridge proper. Its airy position exemplifies what alpine rock climbing is all about: all out vertical exposure. From the summit, Glavin and I were able to watch our friends climbing the bold line.
Several hours passed until the four of us reunited on the descent. Waiting for us was a long arduous hike back to the trailhead. On the way we were treated to a cold beer, an offering from a camper who had stashed some "cold ones" in a nearby creek. The trip had a great finish. Actually, it was Chris's mindful words that summed up the experience: "I'm real happy to be here with you guys doing this."
Too often, I thought, that sentiment is left unsaid.