American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Children of the Homathko

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1949

Children of the Homathko

W. V. Graham Matthews

THE work of the Harvard Mountaineering Club’s 1947 expedition to the Coast Range of British Columbia, extensive though it was, still left enough to challenge the most ambitious mountaineer: Stiletto, the four highest peaks of Serra, and half a dozen peaks above and beyond the Parallel Glacier were unclimbed, while mighty Mount Remote lay in a region as yet untrod by man. To these lures W. V. Graham Matthews and Harry C. King, their imaginations still fired by their experiences on the 1947 expedition, easily succumbed; and they proceeded to organize a new expedition. Convincing arguments and “hairy” pictures persuaded George I. Bell and James C. Maxwell, both of the H.M.C., and William C. Fix, President of the Yale Mountaineering Club, to join the party.

The five-man expedition, after a week end in Vancouver of hectic purchasing and repacking of food for the plane drop, arrived on 14 July 1948 at Tatla Lake to meet Dave Wilson and Alf Brace- well with the pack train of six pack horses and two riding horses. Dave, undaunted by the flood conditions which had sent the Columbia and Fraser Rivers on their rampages, was cautious but optimistic: he thought that with luck we should be able to get to Scimitar Creek in time to meet the plane drop, which was scheduled for July 22nd. The first part of the trip down the Homathko Valley was pleasant enough; with a good trail and sunny skies, we paused long enough to renew friendships with the Butlers, Hamms and Nicholsons. By the time we had reached “Pat” Braid’s, however, we had encountered enough high water to get an unpleasant sample of what lay ahead. Pat was frankly dubious, saying that he had been isolated completely only a short time before and that the high water was the worst he had ever seen. Nevertheless, we hastened on. From now on, until the very end of the summer, we were in a never-ending struggle with the Homathko and its tributaries.

Going through the “meadows” below Pat’s cabin in waist-deep water was miserable; but the fording of the Homathko at the head of Twist Lake was accomplished without difficulty through chest- deep but rather calm water. We pitched camp in a meadow shortly afterwards. Next day brought the usual trouble crossing the rock- slide, and just below it a harrowing incident occurred: a pack horse, at a place where it was necessary to go into the raging waters of the main Homathko, got its halter rope tangled around its feet. The horse went under, and undoubtedly would have drowned, had not Dave, moving like lightning, whipped out a knife and dived in to cut the rope and free the gasping creature. By evening we reached our “wet camp” of last year, a few miles above Crazy Creek. Dave, Maxwell and I went on a reconnaissance of the trail ahead. It was certainly discouraging: with water up to our necks in the usually knee-deep swamps, Dave was convinced that the crossing of the Homathko below Crazy Creek could not be made by the horses. Reluctantly, he announced that the pack train could go no farther.

The only possible solution seemed to be to send Dave and Alf back to Tatla Lake as quickly as possible to wire Queen Charlotte Airlines to postpone the drop until July 25th, while the expedition back-packed in to our Scimitar Creek base camp. With some 700 pounds of food and equipment to be packed, it was not a happy prospect. On July 19th we parted. Later we learned that on the way out Dave lost a horse when it was swept across the river by the current. We were having troubles of our own: chest-deep water in the swamps, fast water in Crazy Creek, and jungle-like underbrush made for tough, slow work relaying loads along the right bank of the Homathko. The children of the Homathko persevered, however, and four days later were at base camp.

The next day the party divided. George Bell and I left for the Bell Glacier to get the drop there, while the others remained at base camp until it was necessary to climb to the Upper Tellot Glacier to receive the other drop. Bell and I reached our campsite in Pocket Valley at 8.00 P.M. The next day, still tired from the long siege of back-packing, we rested, planning to leave at midnight to reach the Bell Glacier in time for the drop which was now scheduled for 5.00 P.M. on July 25th. By midnight, however, the weather was poor, and we decided to wait. A three-day rainy spell justified our decision; while we huddled in a leaky bough shelter or slept in our mountain tent, the surrounding peaks grew white with fresh snow. By midmorning of the 27th, with the storm over, we hiked up the Lower Parallel Glacier, skirted the icefall on the left, and toiled on up the Upper Parallel. After an unpleasant encounter with a crevasse, into which Bell fell, having relied on a step I kicked, we found a fine campsite at about 9600 feet on a small ledge on a ridge northeast of the glacier. Because of its superb view of the snow summit of Mount Waddington, the Tiedemann Group, Threshold and Geddes, we called the site Camp Inspiration. For a high camp it was ideal—dry, sheltered from the westerly winds and with constant running water obtainable by a short delicate traverse. On the way up we saw the effects of the “high Chinook,” which we had been told had removed much of the high snow in May: the route around the Parallel icefall was much worse than the year before; the Upper Parallel had noticeably less snow on it; Threshold, which last year was approachable by a steep but negotiable snow slope, looked virtually unclimbable—the snow had been replaced by a dangerous mass of loose and moving rocks.

July 28th was an anxious day; it dawned clear with a beautiful sunrise. Under the arrangement with Q.C.A. to have the drop on the second good day after a storm, this was the big day. The col to the south of Geddes, guarded by a difficult bergschrund above which small avalanches of fresh snow had left tracks, looked uninviting. Instead, the col to the north and east looked more feasible, and in any event (according to Don Munday’s map) it should take us closer to the designated drop area on the Bell Glacier. We trudged across the Upper Parallel to the lowest and easiest point in the col; it offered more difficulties than anticipated, but Bell skillfully picked a route up a vertical face of good rock. Once on the Geddes Glacier, we hiked across it in search of the Bell Glacier. Blocked by icefalls, we found a route to the northwest and then, cutting back westward, gained an easy ridge overlooking the Bell Glacier. Here an unhappy sight presented itself: the Bell Glacier was much lower and much shorter than we had expected; our proposed drop area was a mass of moraine. Dismayed by this unfortunate situation, we hastened back to Inspiration to move our camp. On the way we paused and stamped out a drop area in the snow with a brief message for Q.C.A—DROP HERE—hoping that the pilot might see it.

Hauling the packs up to the col went more quickly than we had anticipated, but still we were just beyond our drop area when we heard the plane. We unroped. Bell ran to the ridge to watch the

Bell Glacier; I waved frantically at the plane. At precisely the wrong moment clouds blocked the plane from view, and we heard rather than saw it make a run high over the Bell. The pilot had almost certainly not seen us, and it was very doubtful if he had dropped on the Bell. Our minds a welter of doubts, fears and speculations, we pitched camp below the ridge, dubbing it, appropriately enough, Camp Expiration.

The next morning Bell described what might be bundles on the Upper Bell. A long day’s hike over tedious scree and through aggravating scrub dispelled this notion; and we started the long trek back to base camp, taking some comfort in the hope that the pilot might have dropped all the load on the Tellot. The next evening, as we were tramping through the lower part of Pocket Valley, we spied Fix, King and Maxwell across the creek. Separated by the roaring torrent, we exchanged the saddest stories ever told. Fix and Maxwell had climbed to the Tellot drop area and seen the plane make several passes below the area and then disappear over toward Mount Geddes. The only conclusion seemed to be that the pilot had been unable to locate them. Later we learned that he had located the area quite easily, but strong down drafts made him lose 1000 feet when he tried a pass, and he found it impossible to drop the supplies.

With heavy hearts we joined forces on the Scimitar Glacier and packed back to base camp. Would the plane return? It seemed unlikely; and, with food supplies dwindling, the only course seemed to be to leave for Tatla Lake. For a couple of days we debated the matter and loafed. Then on August 1st I heard a plane; I rushed out onto the flat and saw it briefly come over what was apparently the right area and then disappear over a shoulder toward Geddes. It was still doubtful whether the plane had dropped anything; but, since it was our only chance, Bell and Fix started the long drag up to high camp at four the next morning. Unburdened by packs, they made fast time over the 7000-foot climb. When they returned late in the afternoon with the news that they had found all the drop, camp was a bedlam of exultation. Two cans of beer, carefully hoarded, were split among the five of us. We had lost much valuable time, but with good weather could still accomplish most of our objectives.

At 6.00 A.M. King and Maxwell left for Camp Inspiration to search the marked area on Geddes Glacier. The rest of us followed later, arriving at Inspiration the next afternoon in badly deteriorating weather. Maxwell and King reported no signs of a drop. That night it began to snow; but the next morning, despite the snowstorm, which reduced visibility at times to little more than two rope lengths, we left to search the Bell Glacier. King, nursing an injured knee, stayed at Inspiration. Crossing the Geddes bergschrund and col was arduous, but the storm at least made the snow firm and secure. The long, long drag down to the Bell Glacier was rewarded when we found all the drop, except for two bundles, on a snow field. By now, however, it was evening, and we spent the night bivouacked in some sparse timber. Tired from the long day and sleepless night, and burdened with heavy packs, we did not reach Inspiration, where King had almost abandoned hope for us, until evening. On August 7th we packed over to Shortcut Col, having left food for base camp and the return trip there at Inspiration; we left our tents and equipment at Shortcut and went on down to the Bell camp. Here the party divided: Bell and Fix started off for Mount Remote; the rest remained to climb Ribbon, Privation and Hardship.

Bell and Fix continued on down the Bell Glacier and reached a campsite in heavy timber after dark. The next day they packed up the canyon south of Remote, which runs into the Bell Valley just below the glacier snout. Part way up this valley they were surprised to find a glacier, previously unseen, which they promptly named Hidden. They succeeded in skirting its bad icefall and crossed the glacier to the base of a long ridge which leads up to Remote from the east, then forms an elbow and goes more northerly to the summit. By nightfall they had found a good spot to camp on Disintegration Ridge. On August 9th Bell and Fix set out for the summit of Mount Remote, one of the major objectives of the expedition. Disintegration Ridge proved to be a highway for much of the way, but not far from the summit a difficult gendarme blocked the route. Here they turned east and crossed onto the glacier on the east face of Remote. A yawning bergschrund was a formidable obstacle, but even more unpleasant was trying to chop steps above the schrund: instead of snow there was ice of a rubbery consistency, and countless blows with the axe were required. Once over this bad pitch, however, they were able to regain the ridge, whence straightforward climbing took them to the summit at 1.30. From the summit (ca. 11,000 ft.) they had a wonderful view of the unexplored area around them.

A group of spires to the northwest and a fine, massive peak to the southwest were particularly impressive. On the return they tried the gendarme and found it less arduous than they had feared: rappels took them over the more difficult pitches. Then some wonderful glissading on a long snow finger brought them swiftly to the valley floor. After another day’s packing back to the Bell Glacier camp, they rejoined the rest of us at Shortcut Col camp.

In the meantime we had been busy. After packing up food and sleeping bags to the col (ca. 8100 ft.) early in the morning, we left Shortcut Col by 10.30 to climb Ribbon Peak. A long drag over the glacier was complicated by an awkward hidden crevasse which necessitated a weary detour. The main climbing problem on Ribbon was crossing the bergschrund and gaining the long ridge which led to the summit. The snow slopes above the schrund near the peak were covered with fallen rock and looked uninviting. But farther to the northwest the schrund narrowed, appeared bridged, and was much more attractive. We crossed it successfully, had lunch on some rocks, and then climbed over loose rock to a broad ledge. We traversed this highway, at one point blocked by a steep ice slope, across which King cut steps. Continuous climbing was possible most of the way. Only twice were we forced to belay: when the ledge gave out, and when Maxwell led a delicate traverse around an overhanging flake. Thence, straightforward climbing took us to the ridge, and soon we reached the summit (ca. 10,000 ft.), which proved to be at the southwestern extremity of this long, ribbon-like arête. On the descent we traversed the ridge, finding the going easier, crossed the bergschrund at the same point, and hurried down the glacier to set up camp.

On August 9th we made another first ascent: Mount Privation. Maxwell and I left King to rest at camp and toiled up the same glacier to the base of Privation. The climbing proved much easier than we had anticipated, and it soon became apparent that the rope was a formality rather than a necessity. A traverse across a steep face brought us into a shallow gully, which easily took us to the ridge and summit (ca. 10,000 ft.). We had a good view of Mount Cornelia rising above Pocket Valley, and observed that it appeared considerably more impressive from this side. Also impressive was the view down onto the Scimitar Glacier: the ridge dropped off abruptly on this side and plunged down over a mile to the Upper Scimitar. Any thoughts we had ever had of climbing from that side quickly vanished.

The next day King and Maxwell set off for Mount Hardship, which they thought would offer stiff climbing, as its nearly vertical cliffs looked most formidable. Fortunately, the rock, though indeed almost vertical, offered an ample supply of good hand- and footholds. They were much surprised to find they could complete the climb without the use of hardware. On the summit (ca. 10,000 ft.) they built a large cairn, well pleased with a fine first ascent over good rock.

On the morning of August 11th we spied Bell and Fix hiking up to Shortcut Col camp. They brought the glad news of their successful first ascent of Mount Remote, and we all joined forces, packing up to the Geddes Col. Bell was eager to try the second ascent of Mount Geddes. I had had several days to study the mountain and was convinced that the southwest ridge, if one could stay on or near it, would offer easy climbing. Nevertheless it was 2.45 P.M. when Bell and I, carrying just a nylon rope and some lunch, started up the ridge at a furious pace, determined to make at least a thorough reconnaissance. Unroped, we made rapid progress on the ridge, munching our cheese and chocolate on the way. The climbing was easy but delightful; with the rocks completely dry and free from snow, handholds presented themselves whenever they were needed. For most of the lower part, we kept to the west side of the ridge, carefully circumventing several bad cliffs which threatened to block our progress. For the most part the rock was solid, though an occasional bad spot required caution. Shortly before 4.00 P.M. we reached what we hoped might be the summit; but farther to the northwest along the ridge, just emerging from some clouds, was a point definitely higher. The ridge, however, was now almost level, and we romped along, reaching the true summit at 4.10, only some 85 minutes after leaving the col. We were somewhat puzzled to find no cairn; perhaps the corniced snow on the north side of the ridge concealed one. We built a substantial cairn from big flat rocks. The descent was accomplished in slightly longer time but without difficulty, and—despite being tempted to use the rope several times for rappels—we found ways around the more difficult spots and brought it to the col still coiled. Here we gathered our packs and roped up to climb over to Inspiration for the night, the others having preceded us to Pocket Valley with the thought of climbing Cornelia the next day.

In the night, the weather turned bad again, ruling out all climbing; and we all met at base camp on August 13th, Bell and I making a most miserable descent of the slippery Scimitar in a pouring rain. Our base camp food was low, and the need of getting to the supplies at high camp became more pressing. Still the rain continued. By the afternoon of August 16th, however, the weather broke, and in the evening we hiked up to the cache above the lower icefall of the Cataract Glacier. The next day was a long drag up the Cataract, which was becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate: the vital snow bridges were fast disappearing. A tortuous route was forced through the maze of crevasses and high camp reached by midafternoon. This year high camp was located on the shoulder of Dragonback, and the expedition had the happy distinction of spending the entire summer without camping on snow. The next day was fine, after an early morning snowstorm, but we were weary from previous efforts and spent the day consolidating camp and playing bridge, though Maxwell found ambition enough to romp solo up to the summit of Dragonback.

The morning of August 19th dawned clear, and we began our reconnaissance of Stiletto and the Serras. Bell, Fix and I went over to Stiletto Col, where we lunched; we saw that Stiletto was hopelessly unclimbable because of the fresh snow which clung to its precipitous cliffs, and we proceeded to hack our way over the ice slope to Shiverick Col. We climbed to the ridge of Serra I and were astounded to see that the snow had disappeared entirely from the glacier beyond, leaving a depressingly steep blue ice slope of some 700 feet—certainly an unattractive route to Serra II. Serra I looked close and inviting, however, and we made a good climb to its summit, finding there the cairn left by the Sierra Club party of last year. Any hopes of crossing to Serra II via this summit were dashed by snow-plastered rocks and impossible gendarmes. While we were still on the summit, snow began to fall; and, carefully using an old rappel sling and several natural rock rappel points, we descended on the now treacherous and slippery lichen-covered rocks. The results of our reconnaissance were discouraging. King and Maxwell in the meantime had climbed over the Tellot Glacier to the base of Serra III and reported a possible route over some 600 feet of steep ice up Serra III —a route which had the disadvantage of soon becoming exposed to a 4000-foot drop to the Radiant Glacier.

Snow continued for the next two days, keeping us in our mountain tents, though a partial let-up allowed Fix and King to make a quick first ascent of Mount Termination (ca. 10,000 ft.), the most northerly of the Cataract group, and Bell and Maxwell to climb the Tellot peaks. The higher peaks, wreathed in storm clouds, were out of the question.

By noon of August 22nd the weather had cleared briefly. Fix, King and I went over to Serra III to re-examine the possibilities there. The projected route looked dubious; but more hopeful, we thought, was a route involving some 400 feet of 55-degree ice to the col between Serra II and III. Then we again climbed over to Shiverick Col, but after more careful study could still find no solution and returned to camp, impressed with the tremendous difficulty of approaching these peaks. Bell and Maxwell had gone down the Tellot and repeated the previous year’s climb of Claw Peak; they had then rappelled down into the narrow notch between it and Claw II. From there they worked up the truly vertical face of Claw II, succeeding in making a fine first ascent on the latter just as dusk fell. Then they slogged back up to camp, not getting close enough to answer our anxious calls until 9.45 P.M. We spent the evening in discussion, finally deciding, with some reluctance, to attempt to cut steps up the 400-foot ice slope to the col between Serra II and III on the next two days—a route which would certainly entail great rigors, but which at least offered reasonable safety and the opportunity to attack both Serra II and III once the col was reached.

By morning the storm again set in, this time in full strength. The next three days were miserable. The violence of the wind was almost incredible: no fewer than twelve tent poles were broken by its fury, and we spent much of the time holding onto the tents for dear life. Maxwell was blown clean off his feet when a sudden gust caught him outside. By the afternoon of August 26th, with the snow still coming down, we had had enough and reluctantly broke camp, descending through the snow with heavy loads to the cache, where we spent a miserable wet night. The next day we went on to base camp, expecting to leave the following day. The weather was so bad, however, that we decided to wait a day or two. Scimitar Creek was raging, and our old footlog went out during the night. We felled five trees in an attempt to put a log across the torrent, but succeeded only in getting one part way across, to some rocks in midstream. On the afternoon of August 30th, after a final offering to RUJAU AR, God of the Homathko, we made a hazardous crossing which brought some of the most anxious moments of the trip, the icy waters of the Scimitar almost claiming me as a victim. With the weather still poor, we hiked on out. The water was still high, and the children of the Homathko had plenty of waist-deep wading. Not until the afternoon of September 3rd did the weather clear. After enjoying the hospitality once more of Pat Braid, the Nicholsons, the Hamms and the Butlers, we finally reached Tatla Lake on September 4th.

A summary of the climbing shows six first ascents and the same number of seconds—a considerable achievement in view of the fact that there were only ten days in August on which we did not have some precipitation. We left the Coast Range with a feeling of accomplishment and also a determination to return some day to climb the mighty Stiletto and Serras, for which we had found renewed respect and admiration.

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