Finding an “off the beaten track” adventure in the Stuart Mountains can be a challenging experience. The popularity and history of this small range have worked to make for an accessible, well known group of mountains. There are, however, a few areas that receive little attention and fewer people then the well known basins and crags of this classic alpine paradise. The drainage of the east fork of mountaineer creek, between Argonaut and Sherpa peaks is one of these places. Combine this with the challenge of a completely human powered approach and you’ve got yourself a weekend. Liz and i set out with a few scraps of route info and headed into this lesser known corner of our backyard.
After numerous searches for route information online we found little other than the similarly cryptic descriptions found in Becky’s guide. Actually, most of the accounts we found were just attempts, resulting in turning around somewhere near or on these mountains.
Excited for an adventure, getting off the beaten track and following a line of our own aesthetic, we filled up our small packs full of gear to spend a few nights in the mountains. Climbing gear consisted of one 8mm 60m rope, set of nuts, camelots .4-#2, 8 alpine draws, harness, shoes, and helmet. Not really knowing if we’d be doing some rope-soloing, ridge walking, or class 5 climbing we were prepared for it all.
After waiting for the day to heat up sufficiently we began our ride up to the 8-mile road and Stuart Lake trailhead. Just kidding, but it was hot as we sweated our way up the last dusty 4 miles of dirt road to the TH. That said, we absolutely killed it and reached the parking lot in less time, and with more energy then we could have imagined.
Stoked with the positive feedback from our bodies, we made short work of the Stuart lake trail with beautiful views of Stuart, Sherpa, and Argonaut along the way.
After leaving the maintained trail we followed a patchwork of climbers paths that lead up to the upper valley portion of the west branch of Mountaineer Creek below Sherpa Peak and the starting point for many climbers of the North Ridge of Stuart. It was here the real adventure began. Leaving the seldom trodden paths of climbers and mountaineers we began to ascend towards the valley between Argonaut and Sherpa. Another mile or two and many mouthfuls of alder later we arrived in the narrow canyon between the two beautiful peaks. A stream for water and a big flat rock welcomed our arrival to an advanced camp.
With no clear objective we walked around a bit, taking a peek at the east and north sides of Sherpa, trying to decide what to go for the next day. With only a few glimpses on our way up, and a limited view from camp, Argonaut remained a mysteriously large mountain. We decided on the closer Northeast face of Sherpa Peak. It seemed an easier objective with a relatively short approach and moderate climbing, also offering us views of Argonaut for some future ideas.
The next day dawned and we made a relaxed start to the approach of the northeast face. About 45 minutes of snow and talus felt more like 2 hours but we quickly made our way to the base of the climb.
We roped up and simul-soloed for a thousand feet or so, covering the mostly moderate ridge with a few 4th and 5th class moves. The climbing was beautiful transitioning from pink white granite to dark, lichen covered stone and intermixed with some sandy ledges and loose blocks. The adventure was on. About 1/3 of the way up the face we encountered our first sign of a previous party, a weathered and sun bleached two-nut anchor with the date 6/97 inked on the webbing. Some one’s rap station? Anchors from a winter ascent? Not knowing is part of the fun.
We approached the upper headwall and unroped to scrambled the last bit. An easy ramp offered a pathway to the East ridge, another moderate looking gulley-ridge system lead a more direct line to the summit, and in between lay a 2-300 foot headwall. We agreed on the numerous possibilities that existed on the face and settled on a general area that appeared climbable with some interesting crack and face features. As the pitch got steeper and we reached the base of the headwall, we stopped on a large ledge to rope up and pitch out the 5th class sections that lay ahead. A short boulder move began the climb, followed by 3 pitches of moderate cracks, corners, and face moves ranging from 5.6-5.8. The final pitch led up a challenging lichen-filled hand crack that brought us to the 2nd set of rap anchors coming off the East ridge from the summit.
Excited from our success at choosing and following a line of our own up the impressive face, as well as the numerous possibilities and quality climbing we encountered on the upper headwall, we celebrated and relaxed on the summit.
A quick trip to the top of the standing rock, complete with the shoulder stand aid move, and we were ready to start going down. Satisfied and stoked.
With even less info about the descents of either of these mountains, we began to pick our down the East ridge and back to camp. A few rappels and bunch of scrambling brought us to a broad couloir that appeared to lead quickly back to the basin where we were camped. After referencing some of the pictures we took from below, we agreed to give it a try and a-trundlin’ we went. The couloir went smoothly with the main hazard being a bunch of loose rock and sand.
Back at camp we made dinner and poured over the many pictures of Argonaut thinking about possible lines and routes up its North ridge and NW face. Contemplating a summit attempt for the next day, we agreed to enjoy the night and return for Argonaut and this beautiful spot another time.