American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

First Ascents in the Coast Range of British Columbia

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  • Publication Year: 1948

First Ascents in the Coast Range of British Columbia

William L. Putnam

IN ORDER to meet a great demand in the Harvard Mountaineer ing Club for a summer expedition, I announced in March 1947 that I would lead a trip to the Coast Range of British Columbia. The demand proved even greater than I had anticipated; and, being convinced that I could not handle a large number of relative novices without assistance, I persuaded Fred Beckey, of Seattle, to come along. A committee composed of Frank Magoun and Larry Miner planned and purchased the food. Charlie Shiverick made arrangements with various persons in British Columbia to have guides with horses ready to take us down the Homathko Valley upon our arrival at Tatlayoko Lake. Other members of the expedition who performed various tasks in preparation were Harry King, Graham Matthews, David Michael (alias “Georgia”), Leonard Winchester and—most important—my big malemute, Skagway.

On 21 June 1947 Beckey, Miner and I, the advance guard, finished crating our food and gear at Williams Lake. Alastair Mackenzie’s kindness in putting all the facilities of his store at our disposal greatly aided us, and the next morning we loaded some 1400 pounds of assorted food and gear into a plane that we had chartered from the Cascade Air Service of Chilliwack. Our pilot, Ronald Wells, did very well by us: we were able to drop our bundles at the head of the Tellot Glacier, just south of Mount McCormick, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Such an aerial drop, a trick we had used to good effect the summer before on Mount St. Elias, is well worth using on a trip of any size.

That night we arrived at Tatla Lake and enjoyed the meagre hospitality grudgingly offered at Alec Graham’s ranch. In the morning, having taken our gear from my tired Plymouth and loaded it on our horses, we sallied forth down the Homathko Valley and pitched our first camp at the lower end of Bluff Lake. The next day, without incident, we proceeded farther down the valley and pitched our second camp about three miles below Middle Lake. The third day we ran into trouble: Twist Lake was easily forded, but below it we came upon the Dead Lake and its network of fallen trees. After struggling through Dead Lake, we looked below it and saw the fresh rockslide that had dammed the river and pressed it hard against the west bank, where we were, making it impossible to cross. We had to find a way along the edge. As a great talus slope offered the only route, all five of us (including Batice Dester and Dave Wilson, our guide and packer) pitched into this quarter-mile of rock. At the end of the day on June 26th, Batice announced that horses could cross. They did. Accordingly we pitched our fourth camp, known as Wet Camp, about a mile beyond this talus slope in the dense timber.

All hands spent the next day in clearing the trail below Wet Camp. Batice and Beckey crossed the Homathko on horses at the braided ford, while the rest of us worked on the windfalls between camp and Crazy Creek. On June 28th we loaded up again, crossed both Crazy Creek and the main river, and proceeded down through the lowlands on the east bank to a large grove of cedar, where we camped. The next day we moved on to the spot where previous parties had built rafts to recross the main river to the west side. At two o’clock that afternoon we crossed with all our gear and horses, and started up the valley of Goat Creek. That evening we reached Halfway Camp, near which, at about three o’clock the next day, we were joined by the rest of the party. Crossing Goat Creek and then Cataract Creek, we situated Base Camp in a grove of trees near the junction of these two streams, a place that had evidently been used by an earlier party, probably McNeil and McCown.

Next morning, Beckey and Miner started early on a long jaunt toward Frontier Mountain (10,000 ft.); and, after making arrangements to meet us here with the rest of the expedition on July 9th, Batice and Dave Wilson took off down the valley, leaving Skag and me alone at Base Camp. With packboard and gun we started up Cataract Valley to see what we could see. An hour’s slow walk put us on the lower part of the Cataract Glacier, where Skag felt quite at home after the long trip across the hot, dry continent. Suddenly I heard the sound of falling rocks and skidding feet. There, some three hundred yards above us, I saw a grizzly bear chasing a mountain goat over the rocks. The bear didn’t stand a chance of catching the goat, but still it seemed to me that the goat looked relieved when I dropped the bear. His joy was short-lived, however, because my second shot brought him down. That night, with a heavily loaded packboard, I stumbled into camp to find that the others had not yet returned. As I vaguely remember, about three in the morning Beckey and Miner, two very tired, wet and unhappy people, appeared out of the night. I learned later that they had been turned back from the summit of Frontier Mountain by darkness, and that they had had a few dunkings in Goat Creek on the night trip home.

The next day I cleaned the bear hide and then set up a “bear-pole” on which to hang our gear when we left camp. We planned to leave Base Camp about 6.00 P.M., hit the snow when it was frozen, and go up along the Cataract Glacier to the col between Heartstone Peak and Mount Shand, thence along the south side of Shand to the drop area near Mount Tellot. We set out. At sunset, near the junction of the East Cataract and main Cataract Glaciers, Skag fell into a crevasse. Thereupon we hauled him out and tied him on the rope also. With our malemute guide leading us through the crevassed slopes, we climbed slowly toward the col, and shortly before midnight felt the cold south wind blowing off the Tellot névé. Later, with Beckey doing a masterful job of finding the route, we reached a point a few yards short of Mount Tellot and camped.

A mountain tent I consider to be a useless article under any circumstances, but the three of us crawled in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We were almost asleep when Skag (the sissy!) decided that it was nicer inside than out. We were so tired, however, that Skag, stretched out across us, made no difference. Skag worked in very well on this trip. He consumed no special amounts of food and cleaned our pots very well, so that he was at times a welcome addition. He fell in only one crevasse and thereafter could spot covered crevasses even better than I.

The hiss of snow blowing against the tent woke us in the morning. Right away I knew we had to work fast in order to locate the loads dropped from the air before they were covered. In short order we were out of our sacks and up on the high ground to the south, where our gear had been dropped. Searching through the cold, blowing snow, we located bundle after bundle, and stacked them in piles of two or three. A few we took with us to our selected campsite on the leeward side of this area, where by mid-afternoon we had two tents set up together on a platform and well-stocked with food. Beckey and Miner were together, while Skag and I did the cooking in the other tent. At five o’clock on the afternoon of July 3rd, we had our first meal of the day. Despite my cooking, it was delicious.

On Thursday and Friday we were pinned down. I have been in worse storms before in the mountains, but have never been so unhappy about things in general. On Saturday, frustrated by the storm, which had already piled up two feet of snow, we decided to evacuate the high area. We tied up our tents and set out in the direction which we hoped would lead us along our route. All went well. We broke out of the clouds near the junction of the Cataract Glaciers and had sunshine for our last two hours of descent.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were spent in making an emporium of our Base Camp. On Wednesday, July 9th, the bad weather still continuing up above, Beckey and I, rock climbing near Base Camp, spied the main group coming up the valley. Calling to Larry, who was down below, we prepared to receive them. Upon their arrival, we learned that everything had gone according to plan; all the remaining gear had been brought in, and much food as well.

On Friday we bade farewell to Batice and the packers, after agreeing to meet them on August 10th at the raft crossing of the Homathko. With them went Larry Miner, who was forced to go out because of illness. As the weather continued bad for several days more, we were restricted to local operations. Four of the troops made valiant attempts to scale the huge monolith near the snout of the Scimitar Glacier, but each time they returned unsuccessful, with grandiose plans for the next time.

Finally, on the bright, clear morning of July 16th, we began to move out. Sending Beckey in charge of all the others, I stayed behind with Charlie Shiverick to make Base Camp bearproof. The main party was to go up to the High Camp and set it up, then start climbing from that point. Meanwhile, Shiverick and I planned to go up the Isolation Glacier to the divide along its northern edge, and pitch a camp there.

All our plans went well. As we reached the top of the moraine on the south side of Isolation Glacier, the other party was just reaching the top of the col. Descending from the moraine, Shiverick and I crossed Isolation Glacier and climbed along its northern edge to the divide. The next day, July 17th, we set out for the prominent isolated peak which Beckey and I had both observed from different vantage points. We had noted that it was situated to the north of the Cataract Group and that it appeared to dominate the region for some distance around. Our route was around the peak to the north and then up the glacier to the northeast ridge, which offered no serious obstacles other than moderately difficult snow-covered rocks. At two o’clock we were on the north summit, and shortly thereafter we had climbed the higher south summit. The view from here was excellent and afforded me a first-class opportunity to work on my map. We spent the better part of an hour on the summit, and after constructing one colossal cairn we started down. After throwing rocks to make one saturated slope avalanche, we descended easily.

The next day we loaded up our gear and started across the divide between Isolation Glacier and Malemute Glacier.* We traversed the western edge of the latter, and then started up beneath the sheer east wall of Mount Schultz. When Shiverick, Skag and I reached the top of the col between Mounts Schultz and Despair, we looked for a campsite. Tired of sleeping in a mountain tent, we commenced the construction of a snow house. That night we cooked and ate in splendor. Above our heads was the most weatherproof dwelling we had been in since leaving Williams Lake.

The morning of July 19th was not encouraging; but, with the sun shining brightly between clouds, we roped together and started up the long snow slope on the south side of Mount Schultz. The slope became very steep near its top, and then left us facing a 20-foot drop-off. Skag had followed closely up to now, but here he sat down and waited impatiently for our return. As the summit was not difficult to reach, we climbed onto the ridge and very soon were building our usual summit cairn.

This was the day we were to be at the High Camp. Since I planned to return later and climb the other near-by peaks, we left much of our gear in the house, and started for the upper Tellot Glacier. At five o’clock, when we were very close to High Camp, Beckey came down and told us the sad news. The storm from which we had retreated had covered every trace of our previous camp; probing had been of no avail. However, all was not lost. Bundles which we had stacked near the top of the rise had not been covered, and so there was a livable camp set up. Stoves were lacking, but otherwise life at High Camp was fine.

We also learned some good news. During the three days Shiverick and I had been gone, the High Camp crew had made the first ascents of several peaks. Mount Shand had been a fairly easy climb up the southwest ridge. Mount Tellot’s west peak also had been easy, up the southeast ridge; but the east peak had been tough. Mount McCormick had been slightly difficult, but ascents had been made of both the peak and the needle. Mount Dentiform, by way of the north face and some dangerous slabs at the summit, had proved a hard climb. An attempt had been made on the first Claw Peak, but lack of sufficient ironware had sent the party home unsuccessful.

Taking stock of the situation at High Camp that night, we decided to split the expedition into two groups. The question was put to the assembled multitude: to stay with Beckey, or to go down to Camp Sunrise with me. I did not want to climb among the higher peaks because I did not want to run into a repetition of what had happened to me on St. Elias the summer before, but Beckey was most anxious to try them. The final arrangement was that Shiverick, King and Winchester should stay at High Camp with Beckey, and that Magoun, Matthews and Michael should go back to Camp Sunrise (9200 ft.) with me. It was agreed that the whole party would be reunited at Base Camp on the 24th, at the latest.

The next morning the four of us, with Skag setting the pace, started back to Camp Sunrise and the stove. At eleven o’clock we deposited our loads on the knob where Shiverick and I had lunched the day before. From here it looked as if Heartstone Peak would be a relatively easy climb, so we decided to give it a try. Our route went straight up the south ridge, until it came to a cleft. Here we had to descend more than 100 feet and then traverse around to the north ridge, all on steep snow, from which easy rock led to the summit. After building a cairn, we began the long trek to Camp Sunrise, where we arrived just before eight.

On the 21st, Michael and I, with our “guide,” set out on the long trip to the east end of the range and Mount Mercator. We told the others that we hoped to be back at seven that evening, but that they should not worry about us until eight. It was good that we allowed the extra hour, for Mercator was a long way off and a rough climb. The route rose straight up a frozen gully in the middle of the west face. Skag stuck with us even after we cut out of the gully along the summit ridge, but one last overhang proved too much for him. From this summit I completed my map of the region in an hour’s calculating, and then we started down.

On July 22nd, Michael and I left camp early for Mount Despair (10,500 ft.). The day before, I had picked out a route which looked easy; but things did not work out according to plan near the top. After a rappel, we saw our original planned route, and within half an hour were on top. The descent took some time because of the danger of disturbing large quantities of loose rock; but, once on the flat, we really moved fast, for we had become imbued with a desire to make first ascents in great abundance. Mount McCown fell quickly under our assault on its western snow slope, which led all the way to the summit, 1100 feet above the Sunrise Glacier. Peak 5S (10,000 ft.) and Peak 5N (10,200 ft.: later named Mount Hall) were next. Late that evening as we ate our supper, Michael and I looked with pride at the six summits around us. On top of each a cairn was visible, for we had made five first ascents that day and the other party had climbed Mount Williams. They found the latter a long snow climb, climaxed by several hundred yards of slow, tricky travel along the summit ridge.

As the morning of the 23rd was cloudy and windy, we suspected a new storm, and made haste to go down to Base Camp while we still could. Our route went along the side of Mount

Schultz to the divide between the East Cataract and Malemute Glaciers, whence we struck out down the East Cataract Glacier to its junction with the main glacier. When Michael and I reached the cache, we noticed three figures coming down from the central Cataract Col. Immediately I sensed that something had gone wrong.

[The tragic death of Charles Shiverick and the expedition’s other first ascents are recounted by Fred Beckey in a sequel which we hope to publish in a later number.—Ed.]

* Geographical place names used in this article are not necessarily official.—Ed.

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