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“Have you heard of Mt. Stuart,” my friend Tim Bemrich asked, “the complete North Ridge? You should look it up—car to-car!” A seed was planted; the soil fertilized by my active internal mind. I promptly researched this mountain, and was introduced to a 2,700 foot ridge of pure rugged beauty in the Washington Cascades. I read deeper about ascents ranging from 6 hours to 2-3 day epics. There is a moment for every climber where she stands on the edge of trust in her skills, judgment, and capacity for mental and physical challenge. This was my moment. I sent a text to Timmy, “I’m in.”
We made a plan—train hard, travel light and fast, and pack safe enough to survive an unplanned bivy . My body’s cold avoidant propensity hovered over my decisions—memories of my battle with frost-nipped toes and a shivering core on alpine climbs.
Fast-forward to mid-august; fire season was in full bloom. Large open blister wounds had formed on my heels after a recent Glacier Peak adventure. I knew this would add an element of mental challenge—but still felt in my stretch zone. I knew if I could harness my mind in this area, I could also in other areas of life.
We met at the Lake Ingalls trailhead near Cle-Elum, Washington as darkness set in. We organized our gear and agreed to meet at 2am, ready to set foot on the trail. Timmy graciously shared a recent account of his climbing partner losing his leg on the West Ridge of Mt. Stuart after getting it pinned under a boulder. We sat for a moment with the reality of risk that surrounds us when we are in the mountains, and the added risk that comes with a car-to-car push. I quickly put this information in the foggy backdrop of my mind.
We needed clear minds to complete this objective, yet humble reverence for the rugged landscape. Returning to our logistical preparation—I would carry the rope, he would carry the single rack, we would simul-climb, set an anchor when needed, and move as quickly as possible for however long the journey took. If all went as planned we would be back in our cars sound asleep within 24 hours.
We set out with a fast clip on the headlamp lit trail that turned to ever shifting fields of scree. Quick stops allowed us to force down a few bites of food and refill water. My blisters felt raw and my stomach churned from an hour of sleep and inhaling copious amounts of fire smoke.
I love climbing, but never have I loved early mornings; while Tim’s energy was stoked by coffee brewing amidst an alpine start. For every climber there is a love and a hate, a comfort and discomfort zone, a strength and weakness. We balance each other through the ever-changing landscape of our internal experiences as partners. Accepting our discomfort and pushing beyond it are familiar territory.
A climbing partner; what’s their risk tolerance, physical ability, commitment to endure mental and physical pressure--juxtaposed with a willingness to retreat in times of danger; level of ego or humility; trust in and just plain enjoyment of each other’s company. At times a decision as weighty as the person you marry.
As dawn approached, a glow of light hit the jagged mountains around us. By 7am Tim scrambled to the base of the towering ridgeline. With little conversation and efficient exchange of gear, we set out onto the expanse of vertical territory.
By pitch 3, my mental and physical energy had moved into a steady clip of free-flowing motion. We felt the familiar rock on our hands informing our muscle memory. My blisters reached a numb state, light surrounded us and energy increased by knowing that we were on track in our mission.
We approached the Gendarme several hours later—a prominent structure on the ridge—a sign that we were only several hundred feet from being on top of the world. I took the first pitch, Tim cruised up a wide off-width second pitch; and we continued to the summit. In agreement to make it to the valley floor by dark, we snapped a quick photo and headed down, spirits high.
Almost at the peak.
Halfway down the endless scree field termed the Cascadian Couloir , our stomach’s dropped; we had veered into the wrong gully! Climbers master the rollercoaster ride of the highest euphoria’s and the deepest drops in the gut when one realizes an accident has happened, could happen, almost happened…
In that moment, gratefully we had all we needed to continue on safely—although we were acutely aware that our fast and light objective sacrificed a warm night if a scenario happened such as this one. Climbers also have an abnormal pull toward suffer-fests—and we were acutely aware of the possibility of one such night ahead. Two more times in our journey our spirits rode these highs and lows—writing a storybook of adventure to share—this one with a happy ending as we rediscovered our bearings.
A slow trudge took us up and over our last peak. Tim in machine-mode could have ran up the hillside—but stayed with me as my heels screamed with each step of the incline. We turned our gaze back over our shoulder; our eyes rested on Stuart hovering over us in the moonlit night; a beast to be reckoned with, a beauty to be admired, a friend that we now knew intimately.
We paused and stood in awe of the experience, our partnership, and the fact that our bodies and minds can do so much more than we think they can. Nineteen hours, 2,700 feet of climbing, and endless miles of hiking later, we rolled into our warm cars to sleep; a deep sense of expansion filled my mind, body and spirit.
Bevie and Tim at the peak.
Tim broke the silence on our hike out. Have you heard of Mt. Slesse, he asked? You should look it up! And so it goes…a climber’s dialogue.