Location: Cle Elum/Teanaway
Length: <12 miles RT (from the “new” lower trailhead”)
Elevation: ~8000 feet
Summit: 9415 feet
Five years earlier, the Aarons and I attempted to add Mt. Stuart to our list of accomplishments, but due to weather, we were forced to abort our summit push merely 100 feet from the top. It was a hard choice, but the wise choice, and as I always tell myself in those situations, “The mountain will still be here.”
The mountain was still there and it was high-time I threw myself upon the mercy of Stuart’s granite filled Cascadian Couloir to see if it would allow me to grace its summit with my presence.
Mt. Stuart is the second highest non-volcanic peak in Washington State, beaten only by Bonanza in the North Cascades – yes, that too is on my list. At 9,415 feet, Stuart towers above the surrounding peaks and commands attention as the stately sentinel of the Central Cascades.
July 22, 2017: Day 1
From my previous attempt, I knew I had my work cut out for me, but with my recent summits of Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker, I figured now was as good a time as any. I checked the weather (sunny and clear!) and threw my gear into my new Osprey Kestrel 38 (great pack that’s perfect for overnighters where I don’t need my Aether 70L to carry the big screen, La-z-boy, and kegerator) and hit the road.
I pulled into the “trailhead” around 11 am to a road lined with cars – not surprising in the least since the Esmerelda Trailhead services the overly-popular Lake Ingalls. What was surprising was that the road was closed a mile from the trailhead. I could have sworn the Forest Service website said it was open. Wouldn’t be the last time I swore on this trip!
Anyway, off I went at 11:15am, scurrying up the road and wanting to get onto a proper trail. I’m not exactly sure why the Forest Service has the road closed; it seemed totally passable to me, but I’m not a civil engineer. I strode into the trailhead parking lot (empty!) 20 minutes later and paused to fill out the Alpine Lakes Wilderness permit before heading up the trail.
The Esmerelda Basin trail begins next to a roaring cascade whose rushing waters fill your ears as you climb up the basin. At 0.4 miles, the trail forks and taking a right puts you on the Ingalls Way trail toward Lake Ingalls. The trail climbs steadily through the forest and at 2.5 miles, the Longs Pass trail forks to the right. From here, the fun starts.
As I made my way up the tree-barren ridge – did I mention you’re gonna want a hat? – I once again found myself wondering about the history of Longs Pass. The decaying remnants of an antiquated road can still be seen graded into the ridge made obsolete by a long-dead mining industry. I’d love to know more about the operation that built the road but my internet search has come up empty.
The noon sun was out in full force but the elevation and breeze allowed a bit of a reprieve by way of some cooler air. A butterfly flitted by, pausing at each of the many wildflowers in an effortless tumble up the trail, paying no attention to this sweating hairless ape’s ascent.
I reached Long’s Pass about an hour from the Jeep and paused to gather beta on Stuart and the Cascadian Couloir. Last time we attempted Stuart, we ended up heading too far climber’s right and went up the next couloir to the east – not that it was a big deal, just added some more distance. I snapped some pics and made some mental notes and then scrambled down the serpentine route towards Ingalls Creek.
I made it to the large camp area and checked my watch. Hmmm, it’s still really early. I knew I’d be able to find a couple of sites closer to the couloir base and forged on. At 2:45 pm I sauntered into “U” Camp and dropped my pack. Now I had a choice – do I pitch camp here so early in the afternoon, or do I lug my gear up the couloir and try to find a more picturesque spot for my tent? I decided to leave my pack behind and recon the couloir. After 15 minutes of climbing, I saw no signs of a good bivvy spot with accessible water so I resigned myself to staying in the trees at the bottom with the creek nearby.
With camp set, I still had a LOT of daylight left. I relaxed a bit in my tent as a reprieve from the annoying black flies that kept dancing around my exposed skin and also to just … relax. 5 minutes later, I was restless. I decided to make a list of what to do with so much time before bed; even with an early start, bedtime was a long way off.
“What to do with my time – a list”:
- Make a list
- Reduce the black fly population
- Stare at the trees
- Check out the surrounding area
- Stare at some other trees
- Wonder if I should pack up camp and just head up the mountain
- Take a nap
- Reduce the next generation of the black fly population
- Stare at different trees
I don’t want to say I got bored, but the camp spots in the Ingall’s Creek valley aren’t the most scenic. I explored a little bit and found a huge campsite about 1/4 mile further east with one lonely tent in it. A few minutes later its owner stumbled out of the couloir with a dazed look about him, a hint of what I’d have to fight off the following day. He trudged over to his tent, threw his pack to the ground and climbed in with a thud. I think he was tired.
I finally wandered back to my camp around dinner time and proceeded to prep water and supplies for the morning’s climb. I’d love to say I had an uneventful sleep, but sometime around 10pm, a pair of obnoxious jackasses stumbled through my camp in search of one of their own. Now, I wouldn’t have minded but they could clearly see a tent with no light on at the base of a well-known climbing route so maybe, just maybe, its inhabitant (ME) was planning on an early start, was trying to sleep, and could they please stop shouting to each other and pointing their headlamps at my tent every 10 seconds. I swear, they were powerful enough to signal Batman whom I secretly wished would show up and silently take them out. Helpful tip: DON’T BE THOSE GUYS.
July 23, 2017: Day 2 – Summit Day!
I awoke up before my alarm at 5:25am and began my ascent around 6am. The air was already warm so I was eager to gain elevation.
The Cascade Couloir has a of couple tracks leading into it and they all suck. The lower part is pretty brushy and I fought my way through quickly, despite the slide alder and pines clawing at my pack like they wanted to hitch a ride. Sure flora, why not add a ton more weight to my pack?
I finally got above the brushy lower reaches and entered the open, rocky section that would lead me to the highest reaches under Stuart’s false summit. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! I still had a lot of climbing to do!
The path up the couloir is pretty well marked with both boot tread and cairns guiding the way. Of course, if you lost either, the route just goes up over that rock, and that other rock, and those rocks over there. Really, you can’t go wrong. There are some sections where the scrambling is a bit more scrambled but the couloir is a pretty straightforward climb.
As I exited the top of the couloir, I began to run into other parties who had camped up top and were making their ways down. The consensus seemed to be that it was awesome.
Below the false summit was a lonely, albeit huge, patch of snow so I grabbed my axe from my pack and carefully climbed the slushy melting steps one of the descenders had graciously kicked in.
From the ridge just below the false summit, the true summit is visible like an ancient treasure waiting to be claimed. And just like an ancient treasure, its riches are guarded by a winding and booby-trap riddled path. Although I was tempted to “just go that-away” and head straight for the summit, I took a moment to look for hidden pitfalls or poison darts.
I spotted a cairn and made my way over. “Well, this looks like the route!” I decided that no climber before me was ever infallible in their cairn placement and I would just trust that it was marking the easiest way through.
2 minutes later I was pulling some sketchy Class-IV moves in an attempt to avoid backtracking and ended up literally between a rock and a hard place with no easy way off. I ended up downclimbing a little before dropping onto the steep, loose, dirt-filled channel below me. Of course, as soon as I cleared that trap I glanced over and saw the easy way back marked by a holy-grail-shaped cairn. Dammit.
The rest of the scramble was uneventful and I reached the top of Mt. Stuart at about 9am, 3 hours from camp.
Upon summiting with the clear blue sky above, I thought back to my first attempt and was glad we decided to call it due to low visibility as the last pitches of scrambles can be difficult to locate.
I spent about an hour on the summit relaxing before finally giving in to the need to get back to civilization.
Once I got back to the false summit ridge (using the aforementioned easy way through as opposed to my more “adventurous” route), I ran into a goat. I stopped to watch it for a bit as it pawed… er, hooved at the rocks. I’m always amazed at their agility and confidence whilst bounding around the boulders and can only aspire to have that sort of skill. Perhaps I need to grow some horns.
Heading back down the couloir, I soon came to a realization: this descent was not going to be much faster than the way up. Navigating the boulder field at the top, jumping from mammoth-sized rock to mammoth-sized rock, and squeezing through cracks are all a real blast, but fuuuu… it takes a toll on one’s legs. Follow that with the loose dirt and rock inside the couloir and it was just a mess of slow going. I continued the descent, jackhammering my legs and testing the resolve of my knees with each step.
It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to get back to camp and, once I stopped, my legs had the quivers. Damn … haven’t had those in a while! I gulped down some Nuun-filled water and rested a bit before packing up camp to head out.
By the time I reached the trail heading back up Longs Pass, my legs were pretty bonked. It was hot now and I was sweating out all the waters. Like, all of it. Nevertheless, I pushed on and reached the top of Longs Pass after leaving 14 gallons of water at the bottom. Phew.
I gave a final look back at Stuart, thanked him for allowing me to grace his summit, and took off down the trail. I was moving fast now with gravity and good tread on my side and reached my Jeep 45 minutes later. By the way, that last bit of road march is about three times longer on the way out.