Mt. Stuart, Gorillas in the Mist.
By Blake Herrington, Bellingham, WA
We left the car at 5 a.m., and after a few hours of hiking, moderate ’schwacking, and easy snow, we were lost in a fog under Goat Pass. We hoped. The West Stuart Wall rises maybe 900′ from the snow in this vicinity…but where the hell was it?
With me were Jens Holsten, who insisted it would be 90°F on the summit and we didn’t need backpacks, and Sol Wertkin, a longtime partner who adeptly handles his climbing, work, and spouse-related commitments. Sol had instructed us that the next day would be his two-year wedding anniversary, so this had to be a one-day mission.
The intended face had seen various activity in the past, and we found two bolted anchors (stamped “1993”) as well as runners low on the route. We figured this was a rappel route, someone’s project, or had anonymously been sent in its entirety. We didn’t know and didn’t really care. The first-ascent experience, genuine or perceived, would be ours.
Jens led off, following an obvious, steep hand crack, mantel, and chimney. It was the technical crux of the route at 5.11-, steep with solid rock and great gear. It set the perfect tone for the wall.
The next pitch headed up and left across two bottomless corners and hanging arêtes, 5.9 with positions to keep the adrenaline going. Jens’ final lead went up and left past a 4-inch crack and into the unknown. Sol and I, unable to see the traverse, suddenly saw something rip from the wall. We thought it was Jens until a granite block crashed down below and we heard the simian sounds of grunting and vomiting as Jens continued styling across the “Monkey Traverse.”
“Did you throw up?” we yelled to Jens.
“No way, man… just a little dry heaving.”
We cleaned out the diagonal hand crack, and future parties should find no shortage of solid gear all along this 5.10+ pitch.
Sol then took over, leading a Yosemite V-slot and an immaculate finger crack and stem box to another perfectly flat ledge (5.10-). Pitch 5 headed up and right, with a cryptic boulder move, finishing at the wall’s first significant ledge system.
We looked to be within a short pitch of the West Ridge route, so it seemed a convenient time for me to volunteer for the sharp end. But more of the wall remained hidden in mist.
From a belay in a clean V-slot, I climbed a long, immaculate, right-facing hand- and fist-crack corner through a small roof, and finger cracks up a slab to a hanging belay—our first belay spot that wasn’t on a comfy, flat ledge. Finally, a short and steep hand crack led straight up to the West Ridge, and I manteled over the top with a monkey shout.
We started up the West Ridge in a blustery fog, winding around towers amid increasing wind and rime ice. Soon our ropes and cams were iced up as well, and as darkness fell we knew it was time to quit fighting the conditions.
We settled in for a memorable bivy of uncontrolled shivering without sleeping bags, stove, or puffy jackets. We did have two 30-liter packs in which to stuff our six wet feet. Jens’ water bottle froze, and we joked about getting lost on a mountain that we had all previously climbed.
Our platonic spooning subsided at 4 a.m. and the clouds lifted. Sol thawed our semi-functional cams with his mouth, re-establishing the value in being full of hot air. After a quick summit stop, we hit the Sherpa Glacier, where soft snow allowed us to descend a few thousand feet back to the valley.
As it was Sol’s anniversary, he knew his wife would be especially nervous about our delayed return, and extra jealous of all the spooning. We hustled back to the car and enjoyed our breakfast: the creek-stashed beers we’d left 30 hours before.