Curled underneath a white boulder, KG and I huddled as the storm wracked the face of Mt. Stuart. Blackened clouds funneled and churned above the peak and rain shot sideways volleys at the granite. Further north, lightning strobed the morning sky. Yes–it was a wonderful day to attempt the West Ridge of Mt. Stuart.
Our plan was to hike into the Teanaway, enjoy an under-the-stars “camp” near Ingalls’ Lake, and mountaineer-start the West Ridge in order to be up and down in a day. We felt strong, positive–essential for large undertakings. The hike in breezed by, the upward miles to Ingall’s Pass flowing past us till we stood with our first grand cinematic as Stuart reared up to the north. We tried to memorize the features of the Cascadian Couloir, our planned descent–we had heard that route-finding on the jumbled and inconsistent couloir was the crux of the descent. We traced the West Ridge with excited fingers. Tomorrow, the mountain beckoned.
Crossing the idyll Headlight Basin, we stopped to chat with two climbers coiling rope–a mistake. They had epic-ed previously on Stuart, and their warnings of darkness, lost rappels, and trudgery subliminally shook our confidence. Objective difficulty in climbing is near impossible, so we flavor conversation with little cues to try and sort out how strong another climber is, where–in some grand and elusive spectrum–he or she stands. One climber’s frightening hour-long slab epic is another’s run-and-gun. Where one party ended up shivering until dawn on some god-forsaken ledge, another is cracking open beers at camp before sunset. It’s nearly impossible to know–which is what makes adventure fun.
We left the basin and continued to Ingall’s Lake–an alpine blue mirror for the dark hulk of Stuart. While foolishly scrambling the boulders on the wrong side of the lake, my camera slipped from its home in my pack and died a sad death on the orange granite. While hilariously labeled shock-proof, it was found wanting. We overcame this bad omen, pulled water from the lake, and set off to find a suitable site.
The vastness of the Milky Way shone above our tiny stone home for the night. It felt great to be in the sleeping bag, face to the chilled stars, a steady hum of electric excitement for the next day’s climb running through my veins. KG suggested we throw the tarp over our bags to retain a little heat, and, in the most remote of possibilities on this beautiful clear night, in case it rained. A pause here to applaud her foresight.
It was probably 3 or 4am when the first drops hit my face. In a dreaming state, I thought some cruel trickster was pouring water on me, and didn’t quite realize it was actually raining until I woke more fully. KG and I agreed to simply pull the tarp further up to cover our faces and I promptly fell asleep until the alarm, and the slightest silvering to the eastern sky, roused us.
It was still raining as we finished our last prep–though not hard. We picked our way by headlamp off the shoulder of Ingalls and onto the adjacent shoulder of Stuart. We still were unsure of what the weather was doing–it would sputter, break, sputter again, break again; the ceiling seemed at once disturbingly close and comfortably distant. Full light broke as we started up the first bump on the shoulder, revealing a patchwork cloud cover without rhyme or reason. Dark clouds hung over some peaks, others grinned in sunshine–what was happening? We sent positive thoughts to the weather gods and continued up towards the base of the West Ridge.
And, of course, that is when the bottom dropped out. While plodding up the final ridge, the rain began to crack down and sideways at us. Flashes of lightning–at 6am! In the cold and dark!–lit behind the Chiwakum Mountains to the north. The clouds swirled around the top of Stuart, and everything all together pointed to a very bad day in the mountains. We reached a large boulder that had obviously sheltered many a bedraggled climber before, threw the tarp over ourselves, huffed, puffed, and waited.
The storm did not improve. It crashed around us, sheeted rain, howled–we huddled
underneath the boulder for two hours, slowly watching our success window shrivel and dissolve. With time commitments, we only had that day. We had to be back in Seattle too early the next day for a lengthy amount of silliness in the Cascadian Coulior. Those other climbers had epic-ed–what if it happened to us? We watched a mountain goat–those denizens of the crags who cavort during the hurricane–slowly make his way towards us, thinking us an easy target for delicious urine salt. By the time he reached us, the rain has stopped, but the wind still rocketed around us. The clouds looked unsteady and angry, like mean drunks at a trashed-out bar, and another layer seemed poised to belly up behind the current line-up. Time ticked. We made calculation after calculation. In the end, the clock beat us. We simply ran out of time.
The storm had quieted somewhat when we left to rock to return to camp. There was one moment when we looked back…but then it rained again. We committed to our decision. The West Ridge would have to wait.
Back at camp, beyond the point of turning around, the clouds lifted. The day blossomed, every minute better than that before. It was infuriating.
On the way out, we stopped to climb Ingall’s Peak–a much less committing route. From the summit, we could see pretty much all of the Cascades, and the vague shadows of the Olympics as well. The sky was perfect, clear, clean. Stuart held position front and center to our east, a cruel humor. Ingall’s Lake calmly reflected the West Ridge. Mountain goats played on the talus below. It was a beautiful day in the mountains.