When a climbing expedition on Mt Stuart in Washington state took a turn for the worse, Corey McCarthy was forced to dig deep to survive the mountain’s demands.
The sound of rapid breathing filled my ears while my body quivered with fear and exertion. I had two feet, one hand, and all of my hopes crammed as far as I could get them into a granite crack that seemed to stretch the entire 914.4m (3000ft) wall of the North Ridge of Mt Stuart. Fear occupied a larger portion of my mind then normal, too much for me to climb well. I shoved a #1 Camalot into the crack and continued trying to convince my hands to become smaller and give me better purchase. Desperately, I switched from climbing the crack straight into pulling on it sideways, a technique called laybacking. I vaguely realised I’ve never laybacked to the left, only the right. A part of me felt woefully unprepared for the giant day ahead of us, while another part trusted I had the skills to pull this off.
My foot slipped from the wall and took my whole body with it. It was the first fall I took in the alpine. With it fell the shackles of my anxiety. I let out an excited yell as a vast weight of fear left my stomach, I donned the smile of a child and finished climbing the pitch. Now, it was time to get moving.
Mt Stuart is an incredible deposit of granite that is hidden from sight in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in central Washington state. The North Ridge is one of the 50 Classic American Climbs and it stretches, nearly unbroken and flawless for 914.4m (3000ft) from the talus field to the summit. Standing at the base, looking up, I couldn’t believe we were about to try and onsight a route as tall as El Capitan. In a day.
We were totally committed, leaving the bivvy gear in my van, along with my dog Stella. We figured 16 hours was a conservative estimate to accomplish the goal. We’d be back in town for burgers and beer by sunset. Perfect.
As my friend Ethan began climbing towards me, to the top of the third pitch, excitement finally took the place of fear. I began to appreciate where we were, the adventure that we had set ourselves up for, and the certainty of success.
REWIND TO SUMMER 2015
I was 10.6m (35ft) off of the ground without any more gear that would fit the wide crack above me. Columbian Crack is a beautiful 5.7, in the City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho. It showed me just how much I had to learn about traditional climbing and my severe lack of skills necessary for climbing in the alpine.
Ethan and I had set off eastward with a rush of excitement. Summertime road tripping and climbing were our only responsibilities. It was my first summer not working in five years, and we had a recently acquired a double rack of cams, a new 9.2mm climbing rope, and a tick list of climbs we hoped to plug gear on.
We pushed ourselves and our gear for the rest of our stay in the City, but trad climbing was hard. And scary. We had reached our threshold of fear and wanted to do something fun. So, we went sport climbing. Then we met some friends in Wyoming, and did some more sport climbing. I put my crack climbing ambitions on the back burner for a bit and enjoyed fun times with friends.
Fast forward to the following summer at Smith Rock in Oregon. I decided to continue my learning with new fervor. This was especially after meeting a beautiful young alpinist who was keen on teaching me to trad climb, as well as savour lazy weekday mornings enjoying coffee, sunshine, and love.
After a couple of months of pushing my limits under her tutelage, I was confidently climbing 5.10 on gear. I was stoked with my progress and newfound confidence while moving over alpine granite. It was time to plan a trip.
FACING MT STUART
Ethan has always had more confidence than experience, but for him, one has always led to the other. His desire for raw, unaltered experience should be the needle for our universal compass. As he climbed towards me about to begin the first round of unbelayed, simul-climbing, I knew that there was no other person that I’d rather be with.
Smiling, he greeted me at the belay and we began getting ready. He took all of the various widgets (cams, stoppers, and slings), and we both coiled some rope around our shoulders to reduce the length to around 30m. The goal would be to always have one to two pieces of gear between us, and to try to climb at roughly the same speed. That way the leader would have a sort of moving belay, but the follower cannot fall or he will rip the leader off the wall. It’s a much faster and less committing way to move in easy terrain while still maintaining the safety of a rope.
Ethan took one last look around the valley. Stuart Lake shimmered down below and the North Cascades stretched into the distance, snow capped peaks tantalising us with future adventure. He started climbing and I belayed until the end of the 30m. When the rope became taut, I too started climbing.
We climbed for the next seven hours, meeting each other on ledges to switch gear and leaders three more times before the summit. After nearly 900m of climbing, we found ourselves on top of the Enchantment Massif looking out upon a setting sun and gentle Cascade giants in the distance.
We sat and pondered the beauty of the moment and the day, before we were joined by a couple of women who had just completed the Upper North Ridge in a day from the south side approach. After hearing that we had planned on a car-to-car from Stuart Lake Trailhead (long descent), they offered us a ride back to our cars if we wanted to hike out with them. It was a sweet offer. We didn’t realise that we should have taken it until 45 minutes later, as we topped out the wrong, loose, sketchy gully just in time for the sun to go down, and us to realise we were f***ed. Or, at the least, we were committed to a long, unplanned evening outside.
A feeling of dread sunk into my stomach as I stared down one of the steepest couloirs I’ve even seen. I realised we were not where I thought we were and, in fact, were still quite far from where I wanted to be. And we had exhausted our daylight.
“Lets just lay down here, it’s a nice flat spot, and we can wait for morning,” Ethan said.
The last thing I wanted to do was spend the entire night shivering on that spot of earth, and I said something similar.
“This is really unsafe terrain to be moving around in the dark,” Ethan said.
“And we don’t know where we are.”
This was true. I argued that if we moved carefully and slowly we would at least stay warm and maybe even find our intended path up and over the mountain. We were out of water, but still had a few bars each. If I was going to run out of something, it better not be food. Ethan agreed that we should keep moving for a bit.
We descended the gully via one short rappel off someone else’s bail anchors, and lots of loose down-climbing. At least we weren’t the first to think this gully went somewhere. The darkness became complete and our thirst became great. We navigated with a topo, a compass, and the few stars along the horizon to judge the shape of the terrain above us. It was questionable at best (the first thing I did upon arrival to civilisation was to download an offline navigator). But, somehow after several hours of bumbling we found Sherpa Pass. Ethan’s headlight had died hours ago, so mine was pulling double duty. We down climbed between the Sherpa Glacier and the cliff, one hand on snow the other on terrible rock. It was by far the most dangerous thing we did that day, but the snow was much too hard to walk on as planned. Back on the talus field and the right side of the mountain, the sound of glacier melt water below the rocks we were walking on intensified our thirst. After far too many minutes, we found a small opening. Down on our knees, we filled our bellies with the stuff. I know that we both felt an amazing relief at that moment. Up until then our circumstance was somewhat unknown, but now we could hope for burgers again.
We talked at moments, joked at others, but mostly, the air was filled with perseverance and determination. It was also saturated with stress and moodiness. At one point, Ethan said something to me that struck me as rude. I said so, and he didn’t respond. We walked hours in silence. When we couldn’t find our stashed backpacks, we decided we would come back “in the morning”. It was nearly 24 hours after we had left my van. We didn’t care about much besides sleep in that moment.
When we finally hit the trail, Ethan lay upon the dirt and fell asleep. I was worried about Stella, locked in the van, and I switched into power walk mode. I made it back to my van 26 hours after I left it. I took note of the fact that I’d never watched two sunrises in the same day, but had energy to remember little else of the walk. Stella was cuddled in the bed, tucked beneath the blankets with a smile pulled on her lips. I let her out, fed her, and collapsed upon my mattress. I stared at the ceiling for a moment, amazed she’d held her bowels for that long.
A few hours later, I heard Ethan approaching. He opened the door and I was shocked to see he had found our packs. He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry for what I said last night. I was tired and grumpy and I didn’t mean it. I love you brother Corey!” Smiling, I told him I knew all those things, but I was happy to hear him say them. I threw my arms around him and laughed.
“What’s for breakfast?”
The mountains have the ability to shape us. Through experiences that we have around them and on them, they whittle words of wisdom upon our souls. The greater your goals in them become, the more they demand from us, but also, the more they can give. That day on Mt Stuart will live on in my memory as a day that I dug as deep as I could into my reserves of patience, hope, and stamina, and found that there was no bottom. There is no limit to what our bodies and minds can do if we give ourselves the gift of digging.
Get out there and feed your passion for life. Water the soil of your soul.
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
- Swap Washington State for a warmer climate and climb Nevada's best canyons.
- Head to New Zealand's South Island for some of the best ice climbing in NZ.
- Find even more outdoor adventure in Switzerland's Jungfrau region.
Get the latest adventures sent straight to your inbox by signing up below.