An update from MEC Envoy Sarah Hart, who visited the Waddington Range in BC’s Coast Mountains.
Success in the mountains is a relative thing. In the grand scheme of mountain adventure, just returning home safely is success enough. So, by all accounts, when Jasmin Caton, Kinley Aitken, and I returned home after 11 days in the Waddington Range, we had succeeded. But our success was multiplied because we’d climbed three different mountains and we had got along like a house on fire. For three women who’d never climbed together in the mountains, let alone at the crags surrounding our home in Squamish, this was miraculous.
We flew into the range on July 23, after being delayed for a day due to torrential rain in Bluff Lake. We watched the rain fall and became increasingly fearful that we’d be denied entry. But at 7:00pm, we got a radio call from our helicopter pilot who said skies were clearing and he wanted to get us into the mountains stat. We scrambled to repack our gear, drive to the hanger, and get loaded into the helicopter. Thirty minutes later, we were staring wide-eyed at the evening light filtering through the craggy ridgelines of Mount Combatant, Tiedemann, and Asperity.
It’s hard to grasp the size of these rock faces from images and numbers alone. Landing at the base and looking up brings a whole new perspective, and it was difficult to reconcile that we were only 200km as the crow flies from the metropolis of Vancouver.
It’s a curious thing to travel to a place in the mountains that you’ve never visited before. The first few hours and days, you feel so tentative, like every step could cause some cataclysmic disaster. Over time, you slowly begin to familiarize yourself with the surroundings, the ebb and flow, the noises, and the movement. Waddington was no different. I felt compelled to be still for those first few hours and simply watch the activity around us.
All the rain before our arrival meant the mountains had accumulated considerable snow, and the north faces of Waddington and Munday were running wild with serac and avalanche fall. With every cracking sound, I would stop whatever I was doing and stare at the house-sized pieces of ice falling from the mountains.
Despite this, we could not let Waddington intimidate us too much or we’d never get anything accomplished. So, 12 hours after arriving, we set out to reconnaissance the Tiedemann Glacier and observe our objectives more closely. It didn’t take long for us to settle on our “warm-up” route: Tiedemann Tower, a 600-m line on the south buttress. It was a perfect opportunity for us to sample the rock, dial our systems, and watch the Waddington-Combatant Col a little closer.
We awoke at 3:15am to a cloudless night sky, and began our slog up the glacier. We moved quickly up the rambling terrain on the east side of the buttress, and even enjoyed a couple 5.10+ pitches on the upper headwall. The situation was incredible, with Waddington peering on in the background, and the gaping crevasses of the Tiedemann Glacier far below. We were climbing in tank tops and rolled-up pants. It was magical, and none of us could believe that Mount Tiedemann had allowed us such smooth passage.
The weather continued to hold, and a day later we headed to the Upper Tellot Glacier to climb an area classic: the West Ridge of Claw Peak. This little endeavor also allowed an opportunity to scope our primary objective, the unclimbed 300-m East Face of the Grand Cappuccino.
After scoping, we decided to climb Serra Two’s South Ridge to the base of the East Face on Grand Cappuccino and bivy there. We would attempt the face the following day, return to our bivy, and then complete the South Ridge and descend to the Upper Tellot Glacier. All-in-all it would be a three-day effort, as long as things went as planned.
After a full day of rest, we began the climb. The route was incredible, the rock was perfect, and the situation was remarkable. We were all feeling giddy with how lucky we were to be enjoying our third day of awesome rock climbing in such a pure alpine environment. During the day, though, we began to notice signs of deteriorating weather. Choosing to ignore these omens, we forged ahead, hoping to arrive at our planned bivy before nightfall.
That night, as I roused myself to switch positions on my tiny 1 x 2m sleeping platform, I felt wet drops on the exposed parts of my face. It was snowing! When we woke from our sardine-can bivies the next morning, we looked out at the snow and clouds swirling around our tiny perch, and our stomachs were in our throats. Reversing what we had climbed the day before would be horrendous. Down-climbing fifth-class terrain covered in snow wasn’t an option, at least not a reasonable one. So, with few words spoken, we decided. Going up was our only means of escape. We would climb the remaining 800m of the South Ridge in cold, snowy, icy, windy, conditions.
We used all the tricks we knew, and learned some new ones along the way. We pressed on throughout the day and made slow progress. Finally, in the fading light, we rounded the last gendarme of the South Ridge and began rappelling. At 1:00am – 44 hours after we had left camp – we dragged our tired bodies onto the floor of the Plummer Hut and fell asleep in our wet sleeping bags.
We woke to beaming sun at the Plummer Hut and sat basking in its warmth (and eating for a full four hours) before we roused ourselves to make our way back to our camp. After another glorious sleep in our warm, dry, down bags we talked through our options. Weather reports were beginning to sound less optimistic. We decided that perhaps we had worn out our welcome, and it was time to bow out gracefully.
I left the range with a deep sense of satisfaction. I want to go back to Waddington. It’s gotten under my skin like no other mountain range before, and I’m already hatching plans for next summer’s adventure.
Interested in reading more of Sarah Hart’s climbing adventures? Check out her earlier blog post, “True Challenges.”