Trials and Tribulations
I will preface this by saying this is not a “normal” trip report for me. Three weeks ago, my life turned upside down. Since then, I have questioned almost everything in my life, including my relationship with the mountains. Throw in the tragic death of Hans Auer, David Lama, and Jess Roskelly, who some of my friends personally knew and climbed with, and I knew a trip of this magnitude was going to be a journey not just physically, but emotionally. Here, I try to be honest and vulnerable, because expressing myself openly can help me to leave some of that darkness behind.
The Ice Cliff Glacier. What did Jacob and I know about it? Not much, except that it was terrifying, a spilling mass of glacial ice underneath the massive, intimidating North Face of Mt. Stuart, with a freaky cornice guarding the top. Also, it was a long, lonngggg way in to the climb itself. Lately, we have found ourselves drawn more and more not to routes of technical difficulty, but of aesthetics and remoteness. I knew I had to get back in the mountains, someplace wild, someplace free. So we agreed on the pilgrimage to Stuart.
We met up at the trailhead the night before, slept for a few hours, and then left our cars around 3 am. We started hiking up the Eightmile Road, talking about life, the future, the past, and the things we cannot change. After about 2.5 miles, we were able to put on skis and skin the road. Soon we were skinning up the Stuart Lake trail in the dark. As we passed the Colchuck Lake junction and continued towards Stuart Lake, we were entering new territory for the two of us. Minutes later, we got our first glimpse of Stuart! Oh, it was so far away!
The skinning on this section was generally pretty easy, as it was open and flat, but there were many open creeks and marshes to go around. When it was time to leave the trail and head up the valley towards Sherpa and Argonaut, we found a decent creek crossing and dove into the brush. It was a pretty dense through here, but not too awful. As we left this valley and climbed towards the broad basin to the north of Stuart, the snowcover was pretty thin, but we managed to keep our skis on the entire time with just a little skinning acrobatics. Jacob was super impressive considering he just started skinning about a month or two ago!
As entered the open in the broad basin at 5400 ft, we got our first clean view of Stuart and it was mesmerizing! The North Ridge rose 4000 ft above the valley and the Ice Cliff Glacier spilled out of the upper cirque like a dresser overflowing with clothes. It was already 5 hours into our day, but we felt new excitement and motivation.
We kept skinning in the warm morning sun towards the base of the Ice Cliff Glacier. We entered a deep terminal moraine where we had a clear view of the tumbling glaciers before us, all the way up to the tiny exit notch and an imposing cornice. The mountain felt huge and intimidating.
At the base of the route, we put away the skis and donned crampons and ice tools. As we got closer, the hanging seracs only seemed steeper and larger. This was going to be awesome!
We picked the line on the very left since it appeared to be least difficult and with the least objective hazard. We soloed some steep snow and snice (snow-ice) towards the first notch until the angle kicked back to close to 70 degrees. We felt significantly exposed, and so we put in a few screws for a belay.
We broke out the rope and I led a 60 m pitch, through the notch with a few AI2 moves, placing one screw along the way before building another screw anchor above.
Jacob took the next pitch, climbing over some small cracks and onto some solid glacial ice. The terrain started to open up and we could see up onto the Northeast face of Stuart, which was full of massive hanging ice daggers. The enormity of the cirque around us was intoxicating. Clouds swirled in and out, obscuring the summit, making the whole mountain seem infinite. The setting was unlike any climb we had done before!
Looking around the corner, I saw an awesome looking ice notch. It appeared this would lead me to the upper part of the glacier and through the final ice cliffs!
A few moves of AI2 in beautiful, bomber ice led me to the upper plateau! It was pure type 1 fun, with perfect sticks and feet. I made a bucket seat belay with a picket in the snow and brought Jacob up.
We found a protected alcove and took a lunch break. We were already 9 hours in and barely halfway up the route! We took a look at the rest of the route. It appeared that the right hand exit was not blocked by a cornice! This was super important, because retreating on this route was becoming increasingly difficulty. We were pretty committed.
We circled around wide to the right to avoid the major crevasses on the glacier.
Here we were, staring 1000 ft straight up a 50-60 degree couloir, a gun barrel, a chuting gallery. Above loomed the massive cornice. We knew it was time to move fast. I took the lead and began climbing up the steep, bomber snice. The slope angle was relentless. It seemed to go on and on, offering little rest from the exposure.
As we reached the first constriction, we encountered some true 60-70 degree blue ice. I placed a picket and we each climbed the section one by one. I went first, placing bomber sticks and focusing on the balance of my feet. And slowly yet surely, the world around me faded away. I forgot about everything else going on in my life and instead only focused on the magical terrain around me. Every swing felt meditative, almost therapeutic. And inside, I felt an uprising of joy. These are the moments of clarity alpine climbers live for. And for the first time in what seems like forever, I felt fully comfortable within myself.
Above, the couloir did not relax. I kept picking away. Swing, swing, kick, kick. The higher we got, the more comfortable I felt. There is something satisfying about committing yourself and moving past that fear. When you have no option to turn back, you force yourself to reach new heights. I have never struggled with commitment. The people around me know I commit myself 100% to everything that I do, including the relationships I build. And when you go all in, you leave yourself vulnerable to losing everything. But I would rather say I gave it my all and failed than to have never tried at all.
I trended right and amazingly found an easy passage by a small cornice. After over an hour straight of steep no-fall terrain, I crested the ridge at the top of the route. Now I could only wait for Jacob to finish the last few steps and join me.
Jacob looked me in the eye, tears almost forming, and gave me the biggest hug. We had just finished one of the longest, most committing alpine routes we had ever attempted together. We were 12 hours in. It was purely through the strength and belief we had in each other that we were able to push through the fatigue and exposure to this point.
The summit was cloudy and distant, so we decided to save it for another day. Still, a little bump provided all the summit views we needed. I have been to the tops of these Stuart Range peaks many times, but somehow it felt even more special this time.
Life is full of ups and downs. Alpine climbing and ski mountaineering is about finding fulfillment in the up and in the down. From the bottom to the top, the cradle to the grave, we know there will moments of both intense joy and suffering, but we have to embrace the entire experience to make it truly meaningful. And there are these fleeting moments when the clouds do finally part, and all we are left with is raw beauty.
We put on our skis and descended to the top of the couloir that led down to the Sherpa Glacier. Jacob made some nice turns on the south face, looking very impressive for someone who just learned to downhill ski this year!
The couloir looked pretty steep and intimidating. I took the first few turns. The snow was hard and chattery but also strangely grabby on your rear edges. It was really challenging.
As we descended slowly, turn by turn, Jacob was holding in there, although struggling. There’s no warming up in ski mountaineering – you just get thrown in, exhausted, into difficult descents. As we got lower, the couloir only got steeper and icier. Jacob dug in on his whippet, visibly distressed. I actually couldn’t really turn in control anymore, and side slipping was not sustainable. I reached him and, after some flexibility and acrobatics, grabbed a picket off his pack and threw it in. With an anchor, we were able to take off our skis and face-in downclimb the rest of the couloir, which was slow and exhausting but at least safe.
I channeled some more of that focus and zoomed down the couloir, reaching the flatter section of the upper Sherpa Glacier well ahead of Jacob. I took a break, sitting on a perfect ice chunk. And for the first time all day, I stopped moving and was alone with myself. As I looked down the valley to the distance Icicle Canyon where our cars remained, I started crying uncontrollably. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to stay here, didn’t want to be anywhere but away from these emotions that I couldn’t control and didn’t understand. Looking back, I realized that the first 12 hours of the day were the first time in so long that I had felt truly happy. And just like that, I had come down from the high and remembered that I don’t get to feel that same intense happiness on a daily basis like I used to. At least, for now, but sometimes these things feel so damn permanent. It is like the song:
Happiness feels a lot like sorrow
Let it be, you can’t make it come or go.
But you are gone, not for good but for now
And gone for now feels a lot like gone for good.Happiness by The Fray
So often, we go to the mountains because they make us feel raw and powerful. When climbing up the Ice Cliff, the mountains around me felt raw and I felt powerful. But at this moment, I only felt raw and powerless.
Jacob eventually made it down and joined me. I cried into his arms. That’s what friends are for. I lead him through forests and mountains, but he is there for me as I navigate the darkness of my own mind.
The middle section of the Sherpa Glacier was lower angle hardpack and actually made for some decent skiing. However, the lower section back down to the valley was awful, awful breakable crust. Jacob really struggled and made his way down slowly. All in all, the “ski” descent of the Sherpa Glacier took us nearly 3 hours! We have some serious work to do…
The race was on to cover as much difficult forested terrain before the sun went down. On the way out, we passed a pretty big slide that came over and covered our tracks through the forest on the way in. It wasn’t deep enough to bury anyone, but still had destroyed some little trees. It was surprising since the debris ran through the trees and it started on a NW aspect.
We left our skins on as we descended into the next valley. Our control was getting worse and worse. We kept the pace up and managed to almost reach the Stuart Lake Trail before headlamps were needed. I was still feeling quite emotional, but the constant task of picking our way through trees and thrashing in brush kept me occupied.
When we finally reached the Colchuck Lake junction, we were able to relax some, although we knew we still had 3 hours left! The next section was pretty hilarious, speeding down slopes in walk mode, trying to avoid hitting trees and boulders with our headlamps on. But there were no bad crashes and we eventually emerged at the trailhead. Some more skinning and walking and talking led us back to our cars around 12:45 am, nearly 22 hours after we left! It was the longest day by far in the mountains for both of us, and we were glad to be done.
All in all, we totaled about 24 miles, 8000-9000 ft gain, and way too many wipe outs to count. There was a lot of suffering, but that is true in life also, and the highs were totally worth it. The Ice Cliff Glacier is a unique route, appealing to the parts of our soul that are not fully tame. These wild places have a way of helping us discover more about ourselves. Jacob learned he is damn tough and all the skiing has paid off. I’m still processing what I learned about myself.
People keeping talking about moving on, moving forward. Honestly, I’m not sure how to move forward and I’m not sure if I am ready to. So in a way, this trip felt like moving backwards: returning to the mountains I love with a friend who understands and accepts me. There are parts of me that will never be the same. But there are also parts of me that are fundamental, even axiomatic. It is important that we never lose grasp of what makes us individuals, what makes us complete.
Given proper conditions in the mountains, you can achieve almost any goal you want if you simply want it badly enough and put in the work. Unfortunately, the rest of life is not this way and sometimes the things you love most are stolen away. For me, this trip was largely about reminding myself that these things that are so important to me – the mountains, my friendships, our experiences together – can never be taken from me, even if they are radically altered. The mountains are ambivalent, yet unconditional. Friends are forever.
This trip was a true journey in more ways than one and definitely a memorable adventure. I think it was big step towards recovery, but still just one of many. However, as I gaze up at the lofty heights of Mt. Stuart, I know that when we are faced with trials and tribulations, we must continue to climb.
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights. The only way is up.
- We used 2 pickets and 5 screws. Bring more pickets if you aren’t comfortable soloing 60 degree snice. Although this might not be a good route to do if you aren’t comfortable with that. Later in the season, you might want more screws.
- The right side of the Ice Cliff looked fun, but it gets more sun and we saw lots of small avalanches come down on it. Left side seemed relatively easy and safe.
- The crux of the approach is definitely the section between the Stuart Lake Trail and the broad basin around 5400 ft.
- I might recommend bringing binoculars or a high zoom camera to evaluate the cornice from the bottom of the route. We couldn’t really tell and just decided to go for it. We got lucky, obviously.
- With all the snice, one hybrid tool might have been valuable so you could plunge the shaft.
- Don’t underestimate downclimbing the couloir to the Sherpa Glacier! It’s steep and tiring!
- While this route is not as technical as Triple Couloirs, it felt more committing, exposed, and intimidating.