Nature Is Unstoppable
by Chris de Serres
I had a great plan. We woke up early and were hiking down trail by 3am. We would reach the creek, and follow it until it climbed to Stuart Pass. From there, cross a boulder field up to the higher Goat Pass, then descend onto Stuart Glacier to an access point on the North Ridge. If we were running on time we would be starting the climb up the ridge by 8am. We would reach the most difficult part of the ridge, the Great Gendarme, by 2pm. If we reached the summit of Mt. Stuart by 5pm we would be golden. This would give us plenty of daylight for the 3-4 hour descent back down to the creek.
Every climb who has stood atop Mt. Stuart has their own story of suffering and pain. There is no easy way to climb it. There’s no easy way of getting off of it. Our adversity started right away.
Early on one of our members realized they didn’t bring their headlamp, so it was slower going in the morning darkness. We found that the Stuart Glacier had deteriorated in many places. The crossing took longer, but the transition from glacier to ridge was uneventful.
Once on the ridge we started to simulclimb.
Our first thunderstorm hit us an hour into climbing. The temperature dropped and the rain soaked us thoroughly. Becca yelled up to me that her trekking pole was buzzing. Shortly after so was mine. So we sheltered in place. We gathered every piece of metal on our persons and stowed them a short distance from us. Thunder boomed. Lightning bolts came down around us. This first storm travelled adjacent to Stuart, so we were hit with the outer edges.
Soon it passed. We were cold and shivering, but we got moving. Fortunately the sun broke through the clouds and dried us off. As I ascended a large slab with a crack in the middle, the second storm came through directly over the top of us. My trekking pole and ice axe began buzzing ominously. I was out in the open as it started raining. A little hail came down. I elected to attach all my metal parts onto my backpack, attached the pack to my climbing rope, and slid it down the rope.
Flashes of lightning were very close. I had no excess rope to move to a sheltered position. Frankly all I could do is get down as low as possible on the low angle slab. A deep profound sense of vulnerability came over me as I laid low and waited for Mother Nature to cross over. Eventually she did and she decided to leave us be.
So we climbed on. We got to the base of the Great Gendarme and a pungent waft of urine greeted us. Maybe it’s the anxiety of the Gendarme and it’s offwidth crack that urges climbers to first relieve themselves thoroughly on the base. If anything, the stink urged us forward.
I led the first hard pitch. Three progressively harder laybacks with some features for feet and some good handjams in the layback crack. As I topped out I looked down at my harness to see if I had enough gear to make a solid anchor. My last two pieces of protection were a perfect fit.
We were all tired. Sean and Alastair elected to have us drag their rope up to expedite the Gendarme. I began leading the dreaded offwidth crack. I felt better when Sean handed me some extra protection so I could sew it up. That’s what I did.
In short order I was belaying Becca up. The offwidth pitch can be tough. The extra weight of our daypacks made it just a little tougher. I was familiar with the pitch and I knew how to finesse it. The rest of the team had the first time greeting. We all got through it just fine.
As I led off the third thunderstorm came in. Right above us. The vertical wall above me started thrumming. It started off as a low buzz and gradually became louder. It was emanating from the granite itself and it travelled downward to just above my head.
This was it. I removed all my metal gear and stowed it around the corner. My mates yelled up to me that they were experiencing the same noise. It got louder and louder and emitted this resounding thunderclap (whoosh!!). I literally jumped sideways.
All was quiet. Then the buzz began again. We waited a few minutes. At one point I decided that we could shelter in place or we could get off this mountain and get ourselves out of harms way.
So I yelled down that I was moving. It was tentative but purposeful the rest of the way to the summit.
We summitted at 8:30pm. A climber greeted us with his bloody hand, indicating that the electricity off the rock had somehow caused it.
It was getting dark and we had a choice to make. We were one headlamp down. We had to scramble to the false summit, descend the steep snowfield below and locate the entry point to the Cascadian Coulour. Then scramble down it’s chossy awesomeness for 3 hours. Tough with a headlamp. Dangerous without.
So we decided to bivy. We had to at least descend from the summit. The potential for electrical strikes was too great. We found some sheltered bivy spots below the summit to spend the night.
It was cold. No more lightning or rain thankfully. I slipped into my enclosed emergency blanket. Throughout the night I had to get out and let the condensation air dry.
For a while we watched the dancing headlamps of a party below us trying to descend in darkness. There was much yelling as they attempted to get down. The headlamps disappeared. Then they reappeared. Probably to bivy down below us.
At 5:40am Alastair roused us with desires to “get off this damn mountain.” Which we did. We encountered an uneventful snowfield below us. We found the elusive Cascadian coulour, scampered down and long hike back out to the cars.
Alastair characterized this climb as the kind you enjoy more after it’s over. Despite all the setbacks, this team held it together. We knew what we had to do. We made safe decisions. We didn’t unravel. These unexpected challenges are in the very nature of alpine climbing. A good team accepts and overcomes, while maintaining the integrity of the group in the process. So good job to Becca, Sean, and Alastair for their resilience and persistence on the journey. It was a pleasure…now that it’s over.