AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

New Routes on Mount Waddington

New Routes on Mount Waddington

Richard C. Houston

CLOSER and closer we came, until at last the sturdy Norseman’s pontoons scraped the water and then, with a billowy splash, came to rest on Ghost Lake, deep in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. Three hours before, Al Steck and I had breakfasted together in Vancouver. Now we were here at last, near Mount Waddington, the highest peak in British Columbia. The date was 14 July 1950. For the next six weeks, with our six friends who were awaiting us, we were to be very much on our own. As the plane lifted gently from the quiet waters, we wondered what these weeks would bring. We knew that all of us had worked intensively on plans for the trip; we had checked, so far as we could tell, every last detail. Despite our knowledge that we should certainly encounter climatic and logistic problems, we were not without confidence. Still, there were questions on our minds. Had our air drop been a success? Would the equipment prove satisfactory? Would our food be adequate? Finally, would Waddington yield to our assault?

But let me go back to the beginning, and introduce the characters of the piece. Oscar Cook: veteran of the Sierra Club’s 1947 trip to the Coast Range, always the thinker and generally ready with a new name for a col or a peak. Allen Steck: recently returned from the mountains of Europe, and prepared for this trip by his five days on the north wall of Sentinel Rock, in Yosemite Valley.* Bill Long: our youngest and strongest, always willing to carry that extra pound or two. Bill Dunmire: newcomer to ice and snow, but ever eager and ready. Jim Wilson: our calmest—one who takes everything in stride, even a fall into a crevasse. Phil Bettler: bearer of our largest and heaviest camera. Ray de Saussure: without a camera, but never without a pocket slide rule. Myself, Dick Houston: another picture- taker and participant in the Sierra Club trip of 1947. All hands are members of the Sierra Club, and five are members of the American Alpine Club.

We gathered in Vancouver on July 10th and spent two frenzied days, with headquarters in a hangar of the Queen Charlotte Airline, completing our arrangements. Our plan was simple. On July 12th six men, with their packs, would fly in to Ghost Lake, near the junction of the Tellot and Homathko Canyons. Two days later, a second flight would drop about 1000 pounds of supplies on the Tiedemann Glacier and then land the other two members of the party on Ghost Lake. By Tuesday, July 11th, with the aid of Mr. S. T. V. Jeffery, of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, we had completed arrangements. The weather had been perfect; but few stations near Waddington give reports, and little can be judged from ordinary reports. At dinner time we checked with the airline. Things seemed almost too good: it was not like Waddington to offer such line conditions. We hoped that they would hold for at least two more days.

Wednesday morning arrived. Yes, the weather had turned, but the ceiling was still high, and the visibility good. This was in Vancouver, to be sure, and not 180 miles to the north. But Johnny Hatch, our Q.C.A. pilot, seemed none too worried. As we dragged the six packs aboard at 6.00 A.M., he merely observed that, since only five ice-axes had been loaded, we must have forgotten one. The axe was found; the Waddington-bound crew clambered into the small, neat cabin; the Norseman lifted itself from the water and winged its way toward Ghost Lake. Al Steck and I were left on the dock, but we knew that our turn would come two days later.

Al and I returned to the big Kelly Douglas wholesale house, made ready the last boxes for the air drop, moved them to the airport—and settled down to await the return of Johnny Hatch. About 8.00 P.M., having made a second flight to the north after the landing on Ghost Lake, he came in to the dock. Al and I, besetting him with questions, must have sounded like two schoolboys. “No trouble, except a little rain. Overcast much of the time, but clear enough to see the main peaks. No, we never saw the top of Waddington. Yes, we looked over the dropsite on the Tiedemann Glacier, and it seemed O.K. Yes, the lake was plenty big enough.” The main thing was that the six members of our party had landed on the shore of Ghost Lake. Four of them—Bettler, Cook, Long and Ray de Saussure—would now climb out of the basin and proceed to the snout of the Tellot Glacier. Thence they would go over a low pass, visible in pictures taken in 1947, to the Tiedemann Glacier and the dropsite.

This, we estimated, would take two days if all went well. Dunmire and Wilson would wait for Steck and me at Ghost Lake.

Friday the 14th finally arrived. We stowed 31 bundles inside the cabin of the plane and at 9.55 A.M., with Len Frazier, chief pilot of Q.C.A., took off for the dropsite and Ghost Lake. We climbed steadily to 9000 feet and, riding above a patchy cloud layer, flew up the coast to Bute Inlet. Here the immense mass of Mount Waddington burst into view. Still 50 miles away, the peak looked like a great beacon in the sky. From the inlet we passed to the main canyon of the Homathko. Peaks were visible in every direction. Just at noon we turned up the Tiedemann Canyon, and quickly we were over the 15-mile-long glacier. The three of us strained our eyes to see human figures on the vast expanse of snow below us. We flew to within a mile of Waddington and made a lazy 180- degree turn. No welcoming party. Had they not succeeded in reaching the glacier? Another turn at the snout of the glacier. We were about to decide on a dropsite by hand signals in the plane when the four dots were sighted. They spread out somewhat as we made four runs down the glacier at about 200 feet. I pushed and pushed, and finally achieved a record of nine boxes out of the plane on one run. The air drop was over. We soared over the pass into the Tellot Canyon and sighted Ghost Lake—a small, oblong affair, a mile and a quarter by half a mile. With little wind, we landed to the southeast and taxied to the west end to find our friends. They greeted us heartily. So did several thousand mosquitoes. The plane disappeared into the southern sky.

We left Ghost Lake at 12.20 P.M., to push our way up to the ridge, 500 feet above the lake. We were alone now, with only ten days’ food, which each party carried for emergency. We had our first shocks when we discovered that the Canadian forest is indeed dense and that an 80-pound pack really weighs 80 pounds. When we attained the ridge, we could look down into the Tellot Canyon. Staying high above the canyon’s floor, we located a campsite at dark about a mile from the snout of the Tellot Glacier. Night was welcome, for the mosquitoes then quieted down somewhat. From this 3300-foot camp we walked across our first ice of this trip, then left it for the brushy northern slopes leading to the 5000-foot pass into the Tiedemann Canyon. We were on this beautiful wooded pass (which we named “Nabob Pass”) at noon. For the first time we could see a few of the peaks on the south rim of the Tiedemann Canyon—Merlon, Fascination, Marcus Smith, spread before us in their alpine glory. We crossed the partly snow-covered pass and started the steep, quick descent to the glacier. Having hit the lateral moraines and proceeded onto the snow and ice of the glacier, we soon made our next discovery: distances become exceedingly long on this ice river, and minutes drag into hours, and still there is no sign of the base camp near the dropsite. Finally, at 8.00 P.M., we heard a yodel and sighted a flare—and pulled ourselves into camp.

During a leisurely dinner we heard the story of the advance party. They had left Ghost Lake and proceeded to Nabob Pass; and by the second day they had been camped here, awaiting a break in the weather, which was very poor and made the air drop seem unlikely. But on the day of the drop the sun had broken through; and the four had rushed down to the Tiedemann and pushed up, with as much speed as 75 pounds would allow, to a suitable dropsite. Here we had spotted them at noon on Friday. The packages had survived remarkably well, and none had been lost. Only the margarine had suffered: it had oozed through the cardboard, but quickly been recovered with a large spoon. Even the five-pound milk cans had remained intact through the 200-foot drop.

This night we held a conference and decided, because of the extraordinary weather, to attempt Waddington immediately. This meant organizing camps and food. After much deliberation we split into two groups of four for the push to a high camp on the mountain. Steck, Long, de Saussure and Wilson would go tomorrow, and the rest a day later. This plan would allow the second group some time to organize the base camp. We pitched our nylon tents on the snow, but had an excellent rocky area for food storage and cooking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, and preparations began. Each party was to take ten days’ food and supplies. At 9.00 A.M., the first group left for the peak, planning to cross the snow of the upper Tiedemann to the steep snow slopes south of Bravo Peak. The distance was three or four miles. We watched as they moved across the glacier, at what seemed a snail’s pace. At lunch time they had just started up the snow leading to Bravo Peak. Laboriously, they weaved and turned through the multitude of séracs and crevasses. Though slow, their progress was continuous; and by 6.00 P.M. they had reached a severe headwall below and south of the col between Spearman Peak and Bravo Peak. Here the advance slowed perceptibly. The leader crossed the bergschrund and then kicked about 400 feet of steps in the high-angle snow. This direct attack on the headwall enabled the entire group to reach the brink of the wall at 10.00 P.M. In dwindling light camp was made on the snow at 9500 feet, just below the Bravo-Spearman col.

At dawn on July 17th our group of four made ready to follow. The weather was still perfect, with hardly a cloud in the brilliant sky. Our progress across the upper reaches of the Tiedemann Glacier was slow but constant. The snow was no longer frozen, and each step broke beneath the leader’s foot. In an hour and a half we had covered the distance to the main slopes of the mountain directly beneath Bravo Peak. Now the work really began. The snow was soft, and the slope was steep. We turned a small outcrop and surmounted a 500-foot rise to a saddle overlooking the entire Tiedemann Glacier. Here we rested and ate our meager lunch of nuts, cheese, candy and fruit. As the afternoon sun shone relentlessly down, the going became slower and more exhausting. Our route followed a zigzag course, upward toward the big headwall to the left of Bravo. Once below the headwall, we could see the troubles encountered by the first party. We, as they had done, chose the direct attack on the 50-degree snow slope. Even though avalanche danger was apparent, this appeared to be the only route upward. I led on and over the schrund and moved upward toward the top of the headwall. Oscar Cook followed on the rope as we exchanged leads on this ticklish portion of the slope. Even normally secure ice-axe belays seemed totally inadequate on this section. Time dragged on, and at 7.00 P.M. we had finally surmounted the headwall and looked forward to camp. We found the first party’s campsite below Bravo Col at 9500 feet. Here, tucked in by Bravo and Spearman, we pitched our cold but welcome tents. So far we had not seen the others and hoped they had reached a satisfactory high camp far above us. The stillness was interrupted only by the occasional avalanche, sometimes close at hand and sometimes in the far distance. Only late at night did the rumbles stop entirely.

It was Oscar who first spoke again. For several minutes I, too, had been listening to the soft patter of snowflakes on the tent. Was this to be the turning point? Would we have to fight the weather from here on in? There was a little gloom while we cooked and made up our packs. The mist was all about us, but as little snow was falling we decided to push higher. At 11.00 A.M. we moved on and presently confronted one of the largest crevasses on the mountain. In the gray gloom the route was neither enticing nor even apparent as it led along a small snow arête beneath the lip of the schrund. The leader, Bettler, moved out of sight. Finally, he and Bill Dunmire came into view above the schrund. Cook and I followed and found the key to the crossing was a step from our snow arête across a thin snow bridge. It was lucky for us that the bridge existed, for the crevasse dropped off toward the Tiedemann Glacier just a few feet from the bridge. We dumped our loads at Bravo Col (10,000 ft.), and decided to camp after gaining only 500 feet. In the mist and clouds the summit of Waddington was hidden. We hoped that our friends were safe high up in the storm. In a slight snow, we pushed up the 500 feet to the summit of Bravo, an easy snow walk. The view did not exist. A small remainder indicated that our other party had also made the summit. We returned to our tents and awaited better weather.

The winds finally subsided, as did the snow, during the night. The weather was again in our favor. Waddington stood out in all its glory, with a cover of fresh snow and a snow banner trailing to the south. Suddenly a cry from above. There they stood: three— no, four—tiny dots against the peak, on the last bit of snow before the rock. The next six hours we spent in a big struggle with snow, both steep and soft. At 7.00 P.M. we crossed the final bergschrund below high camp and were greeted by the others with warm soup and rice. The camp was excellently situated at some 12,200 feet. Only a short upward trudge remained to the final 1000-foot rock summit of the mountain. Our site was almost handmade, it would seem. Two large level spots provided adequate space for every activity. Close at hand was the snow cave that Steck and Wilson had dug out during the height of the previous day’s storm. They had found the cave much snugger and warmer than a zelt-sack during the poor weather.

Today had been reconnaissance day for the first party. With clear but windy weather, the four had traversed to the notch between the main summit and the unclimbed southeast rock tower (12,900 ft.) of Waddington. This notch, only a few hundred feet below the true summit, opened to a high-angle chimney on the southeast face of the final tower. Steck made a short lead into the chimney and then retreated because of difficulty and the lateness of the hour. This route seemed possible, but looked difficult: it might involve many pitons and some 700 feet of rock and ice climbing. It was considered that the north and east faces should be examined for a more practical route to the top of the mountain. Tomorrow was voted a full reconnaissance day for everyone. The weather calmed down, and we were hopeful of another perfect day.

A slight breeze greeted us when we awoke and emerged from our tents and ice cave. The sun was up, and the great rime ice on the summit tower shone in the morning light. The group split into three parties. The first was to turn the southeast rock tower on the south and attempt to gain the western side of the main summit. This enterprise proved futile: the western face of the rock tower seems indeed impossible. About noon we returned to the large snow bench running the full length of the east side of the peak about 1000 feet below the summit. There the others had already arrived, and a suggestion of defeat was apparent in everyone. The north face looked little better, even in this perfect weather, than the southeast chimney. The main problem seemed to be how to overcome high-angle ice and rock with few belay positions. This did offer some promise, however, and after much discussion we picked out a feasible route—of sorts. Possibly we were reluctant to admit that this route would not go: it was almost exactly the route attempted by Roger and Ferris Neave and Campbell Secord in June 1933. On this attempt they had proceeded from the Tiedemann Glacier and camped at Bravo Col (10,000 ft.). It was from here, in very poor weather, that the trio had attempted the northeast face. Despite the storm, they reached a point about 800 feet from the summit, only to be turned back by ice and foul weather. With this in mind, we decided that one group should take this same north face route. On investigation the notch between the main summit and the northwestern snow summit proved also very unfriendly and offered little chance of success. Only two routes seemed open: the southeast chimney, and the once-attempted north face. Returning to camp that night, we felt much new respect for this, the highest mountain in British Columbia. About 9.00 P.M. Bettler and Steck returned from a short reconnaissance on the north face. They had cut many steps up and over the bergschrund to the rock. Everything was in readiness for the big push tomorrow if the weather cooperated. We thought of the 16 unsuccessful tries before the first ascent from the west in 1936, and wondered whether the northeast face was to prove as elusive.

The night passed quickly. At 4.30 A.M. on July 21st, we climbed out onto the frozen snow with the temperature near 22°. A cold breakfast seemed even colder with frozen chocolate and dried fruit. We split into our two climbing parties: Oscar Cook, Ray de Saussure, Bill Long and I decided to have a try at the southeast chimney; and Phil Bettler, Bill Dunmire, Jim Wilson and Al Steck would take to the north face. Each party carried two nylon ropes, ten to 15 pitons, and five or six karabiners. The weather was ideal, with few clouds and not a breath of wind. The gods were indeed smiling. The eight of us left camp at 5.15 A.M. and split a few minutes later, with our party crossing the schrund and following the old snow steps to the rocks directly below the southeast rock tower. We looked down as the others disappeared around the corner to the sheer north face. We turned our attention to the problems before us.

From our position directly below the rock tower, we traversed directly upward and northward to the notch between the main summit and the rock tower. The climbing was all roped, with three pitons for anchors and one for safety. At 9.30 A.M. we arrived at the notch. A brilliant sun warmed both the rock and our hands. We had roped into two two-man parties: Bill and Oscar, Ray and me. The traverse involved some six pitches, each of about 70 to 100 feet in length, over alternate rock and hard snow. From the notch a great, cold, ice-filled chimney curved downward out of sight to the west, indicating that there would be little chance of access to this point from the western side. We were glad to avoid this nightmare.

Directly above us rose the final 600 feet of rock and ice. The route was unusually apparent and not very encouraging. The chimney was ice-filled at spots, and three large chockstones blocked upward progress at intervals. Bill led off and came to grips with probably the most crucial pitch on this route: a large slab with a small series of cracks offered a way around the first and largest overhang. Bill tried once, twice—and finally, after much encouragement, succeeded in pulling up a long step on minute holds to more secure cracks. Two pitons were used at this point for safety. The ascent seemed infinitely more possible after we had passed this portion of it. The second stone was also turned to the right, but required several pitons for protection. A slight amount of ice tumbled down from above, but four pairs of alert eyes kept constant watch for the sake of those below. The third overhanging chock- stone loomed above, but again an alternative route existed: a difficult pull-up, followed by a delicate traverse, brought us to a very rotten rock-and-snow ledge at the top of the 300-foot chimney. The climb seemed ours. The angle decreased perceptibly. The exposure lessened also, but loose rock and soft snow indicated that pitons were still necessary for anchors and protection. We moved into a wide, shallow, snow-covered gully only a few feet from the sheer northeast face of the mountain. With rock-anchored belays, the leader kicked steps upward. We now were slightly above the southeast rock tower, which loomed in the sky like a giant rock finger. The summit must be close at hand. Two 100-foot leads placed everyone on a broad snow face. Rime ice jutted everywhere, shining brilliantly in the bright sunlight. The snow had hardened and covered the rocks only inches deep. Bill Long led on as everyone donned crampons. Once again the ice-axes proved valuable; the disadvantages of carrying them during a rock climb were forgotten.

As Bill paused on the skyline, we suddenly realized before he spoke that this indeed was the summit we had sought so long. We had completed a new route on Waddington and made the third ascent of the peak from any side. Long belayed from just below the summit, and each in turn came to the very top. It was 2.30 P.M., bright, clear, little or no wind. Even the customary clouds had dispersed on this grandest of all days. All of British Columbia was below us. Base camp could be spotted 8000 feet below, a dot on the Tiedemann Glacier, which stretched out to the east. The Franklin Glacier’s great sweep to the west could be seen, and peak after peak in every direction. Lunch was produced, and food once again became important. The summit cairn was strangely missing. A thick coating of snow on the summit probably hid the tube register (Wiessner’s) and cairn. We signed a small paper and placed it in a plastic container of our own. This we placed in a group of loose rocks exposed from the snow just to the north of the actual summit and a few feet below it. This was probably very near the first cairn.

As we made haste for the difficult descent, a series of yodels and shouts attracted us. Turning northward, we saw a wonderful sight. Our other four were on the north arête, only a hundred feet below the summit. We exchanged a few words and decided against waiting for them on the summit, because of the lateness of the hour. We left with the feeling that they would easily reach the summit in short order. We roped together again: Oscar and I, Ray and Bill. When we reached the chimney, the sun was hidden behind the lower southeast rock tower, and ice once again took over the sides of this high-angle chimney. In three long rappels, we easily reached the cold, icy notch. The chimney above again looked unfriendly. With the ice now replacing the water, we wondered whether this route could be completed in cold or cloudy weather.

We finished the traverse to the snow above high camp in the cold dusk and at 10.00 A.M. threw down our equipment and turned for another look at the peak. We listened for a sign of the other group, but none was forthcoming. At 11.00 P.M. we cooked dinner and relaxed for the first time in 17 hours. It was hard to remember when a meal had been so satisfying and enjoyable. The temperature dropped to 26°; and we hoped the others would have a fairly warm night on the mountain, as we had given up hope of their arrival that night at high camp. We all slept well and soundly, but at 5.00 A.M. a great commotion awakened us. The others had returned after an all-night descent from the summit, which they reached shortly after we had started down!

Phil Bettler tells their story:

“After the trudge from high camp we stopped just below the bergschrund to rest and to tie into our ropes. Looking back, we saw that the other party had already left camp and were on their way. The sun was just rising over the peaks to the east. The sky was clear and calm. We thought to ourselves that this was our day. Surely one of our parties should reach the top if it was at all feasible from this side.

“Taking the lead, Jim and I retraced the reconnaissance route of the afternoon before; up over the lip of the bergschrund, along a wide rock ledge to our right, and around the corner onto a snow field on the northeast face. After cutting and kicking steps a few feet up the snow patch, I placed an ice piton; and Jim led on past, cutting steps diagonally up to the right for better than 30 feet. Then he gained the rock again; and, alternating the lead, we traversed to the right for another 300 to 350 feet, sloping gradually upward all the time. The rock was solid and the handholds were good, making the climbing along this stretch rapid and enjoyable.

“At the end of the traverse we encountered more snow and ice. This was to be our lot for the rest of the climb: alternate patches of snow and ice and then solid rock, sometimes not so solid. With the high angle prevailing, we had to use our utmost skill and care. Those below were often showered by the chips falling from the busy ice-axe of the leader.

“A little farther on we cut back slightly to the left, up a rather open but nearly vertical chute or chimney. Jim took the lead. Just a few feet up, the rock became very loose and treacherous. Not liking the exposed position of my belay, he anchored himself to a piton and called for me to come up and join him. I took over the lead and started up. Jim’s fears had been well-founded, for almost every rock that I tested for a handhold seemed to be loose. Once I reached out to test a large block; and, though no force at all had been applied, it tried to come out. I held my breath, gently pushed it back in place, and tried another. I went on, sometimes depending on the direction of the pressure on a rock to hold it in position as I used it for a handhold or foothold. Somehow I reached the top of the chimney without annihilating those below.

“Shortly after this, Bill and Al, who had been following close behind, took over the lead. It was now a little past noon, and we were a little better than halfway toward the ridge. The climbing, although exacting and somewhat arduous, was enjoyable, for the day had remained almost perfect. There were a few clouds in the distance, but overhead the sky was clear and blue. There was almost no wind.

"We continued up. When the rock was bare, the climbing was rapid. The patches of ice and snow slowed us a bit, but they were quite solid and did not present any great difficulties and dangers.

“We reached the ridge about 3.30 P.M. There before us was the summit, about 200 feet away and 50 feet above. The final pitch was a snow-filled chimney which chilled our hearts, for it did not look any too easy. It was getting late, and we should have to hurry if we hoped to get back to camp before dark. Al and I were determined to go on. Bill and Jim elected to remain on the ridge, giving the two of us a chance to make the top in good time.

“I tied into Al’s rope, and we quickly traversed along the ridge to the base of the chimney. Our hearts sank. Before us was a six-foot gap better than 30 feet deep. It seemed that we could not possibly span it without consuming too much time and effort. But Al placed a fixed rope and, with the help of a tension belay and with much straining and struggling, managed to step across to a small knob on the far wall. The final chimney proved easier than expected, and we were on the summit at 4.20 P.M.

“We paused to look around and to take pictures. The sense of achievement and the magnificent view elated us. But we could not tarry long. The trip down was still before us, and the hour was late. Hurrying back to the others on the ridge, we set up a rappel and started down, the flush of victory still on us, but looking forward now to the well-earned comfort of our sleeping bags.

“The day was still perfect. On the ridge the breeze fanned us gently; but, as we dropped below, all was calm again. The light began to fail as we reached the long traverse. Here we had to leave off rappelling and climb down the rest of the way. The darkest part of the short night we spent negotiating the snow patch at the end of the traverse. The light began to come back into the sky as we reached the bergschrund. We were back in our bags at 5.00 A.M., just 24 hours after we had left them.”

Thus had our most ambitious dream come true: our entire party had stood on the summit of Mount Waddington, having accomplished two new routes on the final tower.

*See pp. 168-70 below.—Ed.