American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Ascent of Mt. Waddington

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  • Publication Year: 1937

The Ascent of Mt. Waddington

William P. House

IT was in the spring of 1935 that a climbing trip into the Coast Range of British Columbia was first discussed bv Elizabeth Woolsey, Alan Willcox and the writer. By the end of May of the year following, Fritz Wiessner had joined our party and Mt. Waddington was made our objective. Accounts of the 1934 and 1935 attempts had left us with the impression that ample time should be allowed at the base of the mountain to give reasonable chances of success. Obviously a difficult proposition under the best of conditions, a few days’ bad weather might well put it out of the question for a week or more—and call for siege tactics considerably more prolonged than previously had been applied to it. With this in view, we planned to allow at least two weeks for reconnoitering and climbing and enough time to get in from Knight Inlet in good condition, not worn out by steady back-packing. Since good weather seemed to be more dependable after the middle of July, we decided to try to establish our base camp as soon after that as possible.

As our plans approached maturity we learned that the British Columbia Mountaineering Club and the Sierra Club of California had joined forces and as a combined party were planning to reach Mt. Waddington about the same time as we. After an exchange of views with the leaders of both groups it was agreed that they should be accorded the first attempt even if we were to get in before them.

Daybreak on July 3rd found the four of us chugging up Knight Inlet in Jim Stanton’s boat anxiously waiting for the fog to lift and disclose the mouth of the Franklin River. It had rained most of the night so we missed the truly grand scenery of this part of the Inlet. The fog cleared just as we rounded a bluff and came within sight of the Franklin River—the beginning of our backpacking into Waddington. It was not a very impressive sight in itself since the mouth is a silt delta but the steep forested slopes rising on either side and the alluring depths of the narrow valley behind drew our eyes higher, where minor glaciers and rock peaks marked the outermost defenses of Mystery Mountain. Our thoughts were soon occupied with the more practical matter of ferrying our 700 pounds food and equipment ashore and transporting it to the edge of the forest. Here we came face to face with the dismal prospect of our goods—not scattered variously in hotel rooms, stores and shipping docks, but massed in one monumental heap. We had engaged Jim Stanton and Jim Varley —hunting guides who lived near the mouth of the river—to help us pack in, but even with them the thought of moving all of it on our backs was discouraging to say the least. And we had but to look at the steep slopes and dense forest to recall the packing difficulties vividly described by all who had been in before us.

Eight miles of dense West Coast timber lay between us and the snout of the Franklin Glacier. It constituted our first and most distressing transport problem. Little of a track existed when we started in, but after a few days of relaying by ourselves and by the advance party of the British Columbia and Sierra Club group quite a tolerable trail was developed. However, there still remained huge down-logs and no amount of angry slashing could defeat the persistence of triple-armed, rightly named Devil’s Club. To add to the initial difficulties of packing in, it rained almost continually for twelve days. During this time we managed to transport nearly everything to a point about ten miles up Franklin Glacier. We had hoped to find Don Munday’s cabin and make that a base, but failing we established a comfortable camp on a somewhat sloping grassy ledge a few hundred feet above the level of the glacier. Travel on the glacier was a relief after thrashing through the woods although the moraines at the snout were tedious and a badly crevassed section a mile or so below our camp caused some trouble.

About this time, we began to realize that we had not brought enough meat. The very mention of this shortage was considered a direct accusation of me, since appalled at the growing weight of our meat purchases as they accumulated in Vancouver, I had stoutly, though with little foundation maintained that we could get game to supplement them. Game there was in the form of grizzly tracks, two mountain goats nibbling high up on the cliffy banks of the glacier, and a fat marmot whose home seemed to be close to our tents. These first were obviously out of the question with the means at our disposal, but it did seem within the realm of possibility that native ingenuity, backed by Vassar, Cornelland Yale degrees, could discover means through which that fat marmot should find his way into our cooking pots. Stanton and Varley, seasoned woodsmen, were called into conference on their arrival, but were able to think of nothing more satisfactory than stoning the creature—a method of inflicting death which we soon declared a distinct failure.

A day of double relaying saw us comfortably established on the 14th of July at Icefall Point. From its top we could see some of the details of the S. face. At that time—as was natural after such a protracted siege of bad weather—-the mountain was far from encouraging. Its S. face was plastered with snow and it was obvious that it would not be in climbing condition until the sun had been able to work on it for several days. Since the hardest part of the packing was now over we sent Stanton and Varley back to the Inlet after arranging to make connections when we came out.

Icefall Point is a spur of heather-covered rock the continuation of which eastward is responsible for the great ice fall which separates the upper from the lower Franklin Glacier. It is the last place where firewood and water can be obtained. That as well as its superb setting above the green ice of the glacier surrounded by snow and rock peaks makes it one of the most charming camping spots imaginable. Below it the glacier is rough ice with many open crevasses ; above, the glacier is smooth and, except for the first part, covered with winter snow which even well on in the summer conceals most of the crevasses. To the north four miles distant lies the Cavalier group behind which is the Dais Glacier lapping the southern side of the Waddington system. Late on the evening of our arrival we were treated through a momentary break in the storm clouds to the sight of the S. face of Waddington. In the uncertain light we could see that it was plastered with snow and ice ; only the steepest rock showing up in ominous contrast to the lighter gray of the snow.

Our next problem was to transport our greatly reduced pile of provisions and our more constant pile of equipment diagonally across the upper Franklin, over the western point of the Cavalier group and thence on to the lower Dais Glacier. Because snow conditions were so bad after 10 o’clock, we generally started out very early in the morning counting on getting over the crevassed portion to the Cavalier group before the sun had a chance to softenthe crust too much. We travelled in two ropes and close enough together to give assistance should it be needed. We all fell in more than once, but bulky packs plus the small size of most of the crevasses kept us from disappearing within them. To those who believe in the dignity of man I suggest watching a companion trying to extricate himself after having sunk, along with a fifty- pound load, to his waist in a crevasse.

Returning to Icefall Point after depositing our first loads on the Dais Glacier we found that once quiet spot teeming with activity. The whole of the combined California-Canadian party had arrived. Surely Mt. Waddington viewing from afar our invasion must take alarm and make its already stout defenses even more impregnable. However, from then on we did not lack company in the evenings, and the hours spent chatting around their campfire will remain as some of the most enjoyable of the whole trip.

Another day of packing, then a day revelling in that exquisite luxury of the mountaineer—a day off—and we were ready to put our last loads at our base camp on the lower Dais. So, on the afternoon of the 18th we found ourselves on the floor of the Dais Glacier with two tents, and food and fuel for ten days. Enough food remained at Icefall Point for five days more which we could carry up if bad weather prevented us from trying the mountain. A visit to the other camp that evening disclosed that three ropes were to try the mountain in a determined attempt the next day. Accordingly, as we had planned previously to put a camp as close to the S. face as possible, and fearing that bad weather might come at any moment, we utilized the next day in moving one tent, food, fuel and complete climbing equipment for Wiessner and myself to a snow shelf on the upper Dais Glacier. Moving camp for the four of us in one day was out of the question with our heavy equipment, so Miss Woolsey and Willcox generously agreed to help us get established and return to the base camp that day. As soon as possible they were to bring equipment and supplies to enable them to stay at the high camp. We would then work on two ropes on the mountain seeking a practical route. We all, however, agreed that the two of us should take advantage of the first opportunity to attack the mountain.

The situation of this camp was magnificent. Below us a tangle of crevasses and steep slopes dropped down to the lower Dais. Beyond we could look over glaciers and rock peaks into the Klina- klini Glacier system—many times larger than that of the Franklin. To the N., almost within a stone’s throw, soared the steep S. face of Waddington culminating in fantastic towers heavily encrusted with billowy coatings of snow and frost. Most of the loose snow had by this time disappeared from the rocks and climbing conditions seemed as good as had ever been reported before. Late that afternoon after watching the three ropes already on the mountain through binoculars it was evident that success was not to be theirs on that day. It was agreed when they reached our camp late that evening that they had had their chance and it was now our turn.

In our earlier discussions, before we had even seen the mountain, the S. face seemed to offer the best possibilities in view of the avalanche danger and other complications on the N. face. Accordingly we had come straight to the S. face reserving the N. for subsequent attempts if the S. proved too difficult. In spite of the extreme steepness of the rocks we thought that the face itself offered greater possibilities than the ridges for one thing because the latter had already turned back several parties ; for another, several snow and ice couloirs gave apparent access to the upper rocks. This would eliminate a great deal of obviously difficult climbing and would enable us to spend much longer on the more critical upper section. With this in view, we had studied closely the large couloir which separates the N. W. summit from the main one. Photographs taken from the N. W. summit by Hall and the Mundays had convinced us that the ridge leading up to the true summit was highly doubtful. Binoculars, however, pointed out several possible ways of getting out of the couloir below the notch and from there traversing toward the base of the final tower. It was our plan to essay this first. If it “went” we would call it a determined attempt on the summit ; if not we would pass it off as a “reconnoitering trip.”

A “reconnoitering trip” it proved to be. Ascending the couloir early the next morning to within three or four hundred feet of its top we found the rocks of the right wall impossibly sheathed in ice. Standing at about 80° they presented a problem which might have been overcome without this added complication. But with it they did not seem justifiable. Another complication which came as quite a jolt was the abundance of loose rock. Frozen as they were, they did not come out easily, but nevertheless constituted an additional hazard.

The S. face of Waddington is broken by three couloirs. The largest—already mentioned—we had tried. To the right of that lies a much smaller one—dubbed the “Fizzle Chute” by the Canadian climbers who had tried it the day before. Still further to the right is a very narrow, deeply-cut couloir, unimposing at first glance, but cutting high up into the upper part of the face. It was this couloir which we planned to try the next day. Two possible routes suggested themselves, being the two branches which divided about six hundred feet above its origin. The right branch led upwards in quite a direct line towards the summit tower. Two long ice chimneys not far above the fork made this choice rather doubtful. The left fork was not altogether visible, but seemed to connect with a series of sloping snow bands which led toward the upper part of the main couloir. They seemed to end at about the point we would have reached had we been able to get out of the couloir that morning. Reserving our decision until we were able to study both possibilities at close range, we prepared everything for an early start and at 8 o’clock crawled into our sleeping bags.

By 2.45 on the morning of the 21st we were on our way. We carried in addition to a small amount of extra clothing and food, eighteen pitons, eight karabiners, hammers, and 300 ft. of light rappel line. Our climbing rope was a thirty-five-meter German one—new but very supple.

We made good progress in crampons on hard snow and by 3.00 had crossed the bergscrund. Shortly afterward we entered the jaws of the couloir where the slope grew more steep and icy. Some rocks embedded in the snow at one point confirmed our fears that the couloir might catch occasional rock from the slopes above. Nor was a polished trough in the center more encouraging. However, we hoped to be above the zone of danger by the time the sun made the couloir dangerous. A short wall of perpendicular ice slowed up our rapid ascent, but before long it had fallen beneath the onslaught of Wiessner’s axe and soon we had reached the fork. The appearance of the right branch justified our doubts as to its practicability, for the two chimneys were exceedingly steep and although they probably could have been climbed they would have taken much more time than we werewilling to spend this early in the climb. The left branch looked more amenable, so hoping that we would find a way out of it soon which would enable us to connect with some good ledges above the chimneys, we cautiously ascended it. Before long it petered out into a rock and snow band which rose on a steep diagonal until it disappeared around a buttress far above our heads. The slope stood at something over 55° and was icy in spots, but in crampons we were able to move at the same time.

At 6.30 we were standing on a small ledge on a corner of the buttress. This incidentally proved to be the last ledge on which we could rest for the next eight hours. Around the corner lay a large triangular snow patch which we had seen from below. Effecting an awkward traverse of loose rock interspersed with ice, we reached its near edge. There we found that there was no practicable way up behind the buttress as we had hoped. So we continued carefully across the snow patch—about 150 yards wide at this point. Continuous cascades of ice particles bombarded us from above, but when these began to alternate with rocks we crossed the danger zone at a speed which in spite of ropes and other impediments we could scarcely have equalled on the level.

Doubtfully we mounted its northern continuation. Still no way up the rocks appeared, but the snow led us on and up. After 300 ft. we struck a sort of comice, the far side of which dropped to the perpendicular wall of the upper part of the main couloir. A cautious advance around a corner disclosed that nothing could be done with the wall of the couloir. It was steep and too smooth. The rocks above us were likewise impossible, but to the right they looked a little better. Of steep polished slabs, they were far from promising, but the only alternative to an enforced retreat. It was obvious at once that we faced some very difficult rock climbing, but since we were so doubtful as to what we would find above we did not dare leave our axes or crampons on the snow. The inevitable shifting of loads followed as a preliminary to Wiessner starting up the rocks with the result that I was left with considerably dampened spirits, two pairs of crampons, two axes, and the rappel cord in addition to the pack. Wiessner made a gallant effort to climb the slabs in boots, but the holds were too small and the angle too steep. Continuing in rope shoes, he worked upward to the right over smooth slabs for almost a fullrope length before he could find a stance from which he could assure me. From then on until we were 100 ft. below the summit a piton was necessary at every stance and often several were used in between. This was in part due to my laden condition since I could not hope to manage without assurance and sometimes help what had taxed Wiessner’s strength and skill to the limit. Ledges were inadequate and natural belays absolutely lacking. Only by the use of pitons could the leader be given the protection which this exacting climbing demanded.

For the first several rope lengths we moved on a steep diagonal to the right ; after that the only possible route lay straight up. This added another difficulty to the already great ones which the leader faced. Rotten rock abounded, especially as we approached the upper part of the face. Since there was generally no protection for me from rocks dislodged above, the normal difficulties on the almost holdless rock were increased by his being forced to pass by loose holds. He could have used many of these had the structure of the rock allowed me to belay him from under an over-hang or off to one side. Wiessner’s leading on several of these pitches was magnificent, not alone in that he was able to get up them at all, but also in his being able to do them without dropping rocks.

Two short snow ridges necessitated a change of lead since I was wearing boots to save weight in the pack. At the top of the second of these a chimney-like depression drew us up short. Examination of the surrounding rock convinced us that it offered the only possibility. Perpendicular with several—fortunately short—overhangs, it stretched its ugly length upwards for 200 ft. Securely ensconced at the end of the snow ridge with a piton in the rock beside me, I paid out the rope as Wiessner advanced. The first part was icy ; after that there was little ice, but rotten rock proved much worse. After he had gone 50 ft. the climbing became so difficult that it was necessary for me to come up closer. The next pitch proved the hardest. Starting from my shoulder to avoid a loose overhanging block he inched his way up the depression, his hands, feet and clothes making every use possible of the friction of the rock. It was a magnificent piece of leading, the more so since no rocks came down on me from above, although there were plenty that were loose. During short pauses for breath, I could look across at the face of the main tower—almost on a level with us and realize that we were only a few hundred feet from our goal. Already many of the snow-encrusted towers were below, insignificant now from our height, but wicked looking nonetheless. The only sound to break the stillness was the high pitch of the wind whistling over the frosted ridge above our heads.

But pauses were of necessity short and the rope rose slowly from around my shoulder, disappearing over an overhang 20 ft. above. More tapping from the other end of the rope and a welcome shout to the effect that the worst was over for the time and that the piton was “good.” Would I like a fixed rope? I certainly would. So after much scraping and pushing and pulling I rose unheroically accompanied by such blasphemy as a second man always finds necessary under those circumstances. Another shorter pitch and we were able to traverse into the bed of the chimney which delimits the lower part of the main tower. From here, a pleasantly easy traverse led us across the face almost to its southeastern arête. Securely roped to stout rock belays we were able to relax for the first time since we had left the snow- field 800 ft. below. The afternoon was advancing so we turned our attention on a sort of chimney which led up almost to the crest of the tower. Sixty feet up it became nasty, but it yielded a route and at 3.40 p.m. we were standing besides the billowy snow mass which capped the mountain. So small and insecure was it that although the two of us did crawl on to it, we promptly got off and belayed each other on singly.

We seemed to have no connection with the white world below us, for on all sides the little summit point dropped off out of sight. After the first wave of exhilaration had worn off we directed our energies towards conveying the good news to our comrades whom we could see from time to time as dots beside the larger dot of our tent. We did not know whether our efforts were successful or not since the wind was now a gale. We learned later that they had been able to follow our progress intermittently through the binoculars all day, but were not certain at the time whether we were on top or not.

It is a hopeless task—as every mountaineer knows—to try to do justice to one’s feelings at the summit of a difficult peak. Probably relief is the most dominant one at the time.

A strong wind was blowing from the N. and the lateness of the day suggested a bivouac. We had thought that a descent might be possible via the N. face, then continuing along the slopes of the N. W. peak and around to the lower Dais Glacier. This would have been very long, but it would have avoided the hazards of a night-time descent of the S. face. The condition of the steep ice-glazed slabs convinced us that even with long rappels the route would be extremely uncertain and certainly nothing to try at that hour. Descent of the ridge to the main couloir was also discussed, but the plan was abandoned as too risky.

After building a small stone man beside the snow cap1 and leaving our names in a waterproof match box we rappelled to the ledge on the S. side of the tower. Here we had something to eat and started a long series of rappels which brought us in twilight to the top of the triangular snow patch we had crossed in the morning. Even with our 300 ft. of line joined to the climbing rope, it was slow work. The rottenness of the rock and constant exposure made the retrieving of the rope a delicate matter, for any rocks dislodged by it would come down on top of us. Consequently much time was spent placing pitons in advantageous places and laying out the rope in such a way as to minimize the danger of loose rock.

The traverse of loose rock out of the snow field was made difficult by our having to feel the holds to see whether they were safe or not. Entering the upper end of the snow and ice band we proceeded cautiously, rappelling down the icy parts, feeling our way down in the almost total darkness. Just above the fork when we were in a particularly exposed part of the couloir we heard rock falling above us. We had been bombarded most of the night by ice particles blown from the ridge and apparently these had dislodged a few pieces of rock. We had barely time to make the futile gesture of crouching against the blank wall when they came by us, whirring and crashing, throwing up showers of ice, but leaving us untouched. Recovering from this, we slowly stamped our way down. The mountain took one last fling at us by refusing to furnish a piton crack above the ice waterfall, but we got down somehow and at 2.00 a.m. trudged into camp.

There we found Willcox and Miss Woolsey with hot drinks waiting in a snow cave they had tunneled during the day. They had not thought we would climb the morning before and so had not reached the high camp until well on in the morning. Disappointment at their not being in on the final climb was somewhat mitigated by the realization that two was probably the maximum number advisable on our route—at least on the first ascent. In view of the extreme difficulty and rotten structure of the rock more than two would have been much slower and infinitely more dangerous. However, we had set out on our attempt with the mountain as a common goal and it had been attained when some of us stood on the summit.

The final ascent of a difficult and oft-attempted mountain like Waddington is of necessity based on knowledge and experience gained in previous attempts.The splendid exploratory work done by the Mundays and Hall, both on the approaches and on the mountain itself, the determined attempts of the Neave and Dalgleish parties in 1934 and of the Sierra Club in 1935—each effort in its own way contributed to the success which it was the fortune of our party to attain.

1 The characteristic snow formations all along the upper part of the ridge and on the summit itself did not seem to be exactly built up from layers of frozen mist. In structure they were composed of a substance very much resembling corn snow—dry, granular and extremely uncohesive. On the crest of the ridge and on the pinnacles they formed rounded mounds and walls with only occasional cornice-like leeward faces. That they were able to stick on perpendicular faces sometimes as much as two feet thick lends credence to Hall’s theory of frozen mist. Probably a combination of wind pressure on snow blown over from the N. face, occasional slight softening on windless days, and the cementing action of not completely frozen clouds accounts for their presence.

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