First Winter Ascent in the Stuart Range

Colchuck Balanced Rock (8,200') - The West Face route follows the sun/shade line.
Walking across the frozen lake

The West Face of Colchuck Balanced Rock was first climbed in 1980, and saw an FSFA (that's a first "second first" ascent) when Mark Twight and Mark Johnston reported their "New" route in the 1984 American Alpine Journal. They reported 12 pitches up to 5.10 and A2. This route is now considered among the region's premier climbs, free at 5.11+. It lies amid other fabled granite mountains such as Dragontail, Mt. Stuart, and Prusik Peak in the Central Cascades.

With an excellent window of unseasonably calm winter weather, I wanted to get into the mountains and have an adventure. However, winter thus far in the Cascades has been much drier than normal, though quite cold. I had doubts about the cyclical melting needed to turn powder snow into swingable ice on the area's standard winter routes. Instead, my thoughts turned to a different challenge: grovel, freeclimb, and impromptu-aid climb up an ascent of a summer-season alpine rock route. I gave a call to my friend Nate Farr, who had also established a new route on 'CBR' in the last few years. (Nate's & Co.'s route - Ours ). Not surprisingly, Nate was also motivated by the forecast and hoping to try something in the mountains. He was in with the plan and I reshuffled my work schedule to get a couple days free.

The approach was 4 miles of skinning (in climbing boots) to a ski stash and the commencement of slogging. After 4 or 5 miles of tromping through the snow, we skittered our way across the frozen expanse of Colchuck Lake.

Once across the ice, 1,200' or so of step-kicking up firm neve in a couloir led to the small cirque below the peak. As our quasi-functioning jetboil sputtered its way towards another round of hot drinks (30 minutes per brew in these temps),  Nate remarked that "This might be one of the stupider things we've tried".

And that says a lot coming from the guy who pushed 40 pounds of our food out the floor of a moving aircraft, only to have its sil-nylon drybag explode across a bombardment zone of bare ice and jagged rock.

The moon was bright enough to wake us up at 1AM, when (already having been in the darkened tent for 7 hours) we thought perhaps dawn was breaking. Eventually we got up and brewed some coffee and got psyched. The first few pitches were definitely the crux. Snowy sand and turf groveling yielded to delicate swings with one tool each.

 I took a fairly good-sized whipper when an ice-crusted green alien ripped out as I attempted to gingerly aid my way up a sideways slab move. Just before the route's signature dihedral pitch, I threw a little alpine hissy-fit after forgetting my ice tool at the belay and committing to the irreversible snow-and-sod mantles equipped with just my boots and gloves.  The traverse start to my lead and one piece of gear between me and the belay made it impossible for Nate to tag me up an ice tool, so I began excavating snow and frozen dirt with my hands. Note to self: never underestimate a good 'turf stick' in the Cascades.

We basically jugged each pitch as the follower, except for the time when Nate told me his 3-RP anchor wasn't jug-worthy.  If he weren't half-a-rope above me, he'd have witnessed another little fit right about then as well.

Stuart, the North Ridge in the center

Finishing the corner pitch

More Stuart

Nate has hands of fire. I kept my gloves on for all my leads.

Nate nears the summit

Self portrait next to the summit's namesake boulder.

We were both able to do a fair amount of rock-shoe leading, and the well-protected nature of the climbing made it easy to hang on a piece to don gloves or let the circulation recover mid-pitch. We both remarked at one point or another than we were actually enjoying ourselves in the moment. If you're having fun while doing it, rather than as a retroactive impression, I think you are succeeding on any winter alpine objective.

We topped out to an amazing sunset over Dragontail, Stuart, and Rainier. Despite the predicted window of good weather, it never really turned sunny in our part of the range, but a high-cloud ceiling never snowed on us either.

Rapping from the summit

We threw on headlamps, packed up camp, plunged step our way back down the crusty avalanche gully, reversed our frozen lake crossing, hiking deproach, and four-mile ski back to the car in record time.