American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North of Monarch

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1954

North of Monarch

JOHN L. DUDRA

THE last unknown area in the Canadian Coast Range which has been largely ignored by mountaineers is situated northwest of Mt. Monarch (11,720 ft.) and south of the headwaters of the small Bella Coola River tributaries. Generally speaking, the whole terrain is a plateau of approximately 7500 feet in average elevation, lying in a northwest— southeast direction, bordered by mountains. The northern half consists of rugged peaks and glaciers, but the southern half is composed of snowfields, a few large glaciers, and an ice cap. Four hundred square miles of mountaineering region is too large an area to be overlooked for long. An intriguing aspect of it is that on the topographical maps it is shown as a dark brown blank with the following notation “Numerous Glaciers—Peaks 9000 to 10,000 ft.”

Henry S. Hall, Jr., and Hans Fuhrer were the first men to see a portion of this remote plateau when they made a successful first ascent of Mt. Monarch in 1936, but aside from the brief description of what they saw and their photographs from the summit, nothing was known about this area or what it contained in mountaineering prospects. In recent years, mountaineers contented themselves with climbing in the less remote terrain of the Coast Range and shunned the plateau with its peaks because of the difficulty of approach which involved very long back packs through brushy north-coast valleys.

Finally, after a lapse of 15 years, two other mountaineers were rewarded by a look at this unknown land, but this time from the northwest. Pete Schoening and I gazed in wonder at this huge plateau of glistening glaciers and snowfields when we made the first ascent of Mt. Saugstad (9700 ft.). Sharp granite mountains of coast range structure rose in glittering splendour captivating our gaze as we perched on the summit scanning the southeast horizon.

One very interesting object which attracted our attention was what appeared to be a body of water dammed up by a glacier. The lake seemed to be in a pass or a very high valley, and so at once speculation began as to whether or not a plane could land on it. If an aircraft landing could be accomplished, it would save many days of relaying supplies up from the deep inlets.

After returning to civilization, we set about locating maps which would show more detail of the area. Our main quest was the location of the lake or some prominent feature, but no maps could be found which had this information. After a lapse of two years, I procured a sizable stack of government aerial photographs of the area and from these compiled a map which seemed reasonably accurate for use, until compass bearings were taken and tied in to rectify any errors made from the airphotos. The next difficult task was to convince the skeptical air-line companies that an aircraft could land and also take off after discharging the climbers at the lake. With this done the open road to the “Promised Land” would be ours.

On the evening of 2 July 1953 at 6 P.M. a Beaver with four climbers, 500 lbs. of supplies and gear aboard took off from Bella Coola bound for the mysterious lake. The weather was unsettled with a 9000-foot ceiling of heavy cloud layer obscuring the summits of the mountains, but the flight went well. As we flew low over the huge glacier in the pass, water came into view, beautiful, green glaciated water, two miles long—ample length for a Stranearer to take off. We banked sharply, dropped, and the pontoons were knifing the surface as the plane settled in the water, bringing two years of scheming, hoping, and planning to a reality.

My three expedition companions were members of the A.C.C. and exceptionally versatile climbers. Fips Broda has had a lot of experience in the Alps and has also climbed Elbruz in the Caucasus. Jack Atkinson, who acted as the official photographer and first-aid man, is also an excellent ice and snow climber and performed remarkably well on rock. Howard Rode has had some experience in the Selkirks, Cariboos, and the local mountains near Vancouver.

After our landing, all the supplies with the exception of the air-drop cans were unloaded on a small sandy beach, where a fresh-water creek flowed into the lake. Jack and Howard began to make camp while Fips and I took off in the aircraft to make an air drop further south. With the drop completed, the pilot brought us back to the lake, wished us luck, and took off as sunset was approaching. By the chilly evening sun we took stock of our surroundings and checked the rough map over and over again. As was earlier surmised, the lake (Ape Lake, 4555 ft.) is situated in a pass and drains into the Talchako River. The Noeick River drains west of the pass while the glacier contributes to both watersheds by spreading to two sides at the snout. The location of the lake is ideal as it affords a centralized camp for climbers in absolutely virgin territory.

The primary object of our expedition was to cover and explore as much of the area as time would allow and climb a few peaks enroute. In order to accomplish the long journeys between distant points skis were included as one of the vital parts of our equipment.

We packed enough food to last us until we picked up the air drops and the rest was cached by the lake for future use. The plan was to reach the air drop and proceed south until a camp could be set up which would put us within striking distance of Monarch.

We followed a large moraine from the lake to the glacier above it, just below an icefall that tumbles from the north flanks of Mt. Jacobsen. From there on, skis and skins were used exclusively as our mode of travel. Climbing slowly with heavy packs we followed the glacier to its névé fields near pass #1 (ca. 8000 ft.). On the south side of the pass, several magnificent peaks could be seen as well as two parallel snowfields leading to the ice cap.

A 2000-foot drop from the pass to the upper Jacobsen Glacier was a pleasant change from the continuous climbing. Crossing the glacier on skis did not present the hazards of breaking through crevasses which normally threaten a party on foot. After reaching the other side, Howard set up camp in a curious wind cirque, near a rocky peak protruding from a glacier, while the three of us went to recover the air-drop supplies.

Next morning with everything divided for the advance and return, we broke camp and moved in a southeast direction towards the ice cap. In the evening, on a high rock outcrop overlooking the big expanse of snow and in full view of Monarch, we decided to set up Camp 3 (8100 ft.). This camp put us within a reasonable distance of Monarch and also of a nice glaciated peak directly south which we named “Princess Mountain."*

Four A.M. dawned cold and clear with our spare water supply outside frozen solid. After a warm breakfast we readied our packs and gear for the coming climb. “Princess Mountain” was the big effort of the day as a preliminary warm-up climb to Monarch. The trip to the base of “Princess” proved longer than expected because of our underestimation of the wide expanse of snow. In this area, to one who is not familiar with large glaciers and snowfields, distances become very deceptive until the scale makes itself known through the long trek that one has to make. Our skis were left at the base of a large rib on the north side. From there a prominent spur ridge leading almost directly to the summit proved to be a good route. No difficulties were encountered although near the top a 30-foot overhanging cornice forced us to make a delicate traverse on the exposed south side. According to two aneroids which were in agreement, a rare occurrence, the elevation reading at the summit was 9450 feet.

Back at Camp 3, over hot soup, food, and tea we concluded that the day’s 20-mile ski trip with the climb was a fair accomplishment. Unfortunately the preceding three days had been so strenuous that the constant pushing and the hard pace began to show on the party. Rode had blistered feet, Atkinson was badly sunburned even though he took all necessary precautions, and Broda’s feet resembled two pieces of raw meat. Luckily, I escaped these annoyances which plague climbing parties. Not knowing how our strength would be by morning, it was decided to wait until then before making definite plans. During the night Atkinson’s lips swelled to unbelievable proportions; to take a risk of further aggravating them seemed foolhardy. Rode also thought that he would be unable to walk for a few days until his feet improved.

Not wishing to sacrifice our chance for Monarch by a delay, in case the weather turned bad, Broda doctored up his feet with salve and yards of tape and insisted he was well enough to go. We made up packs for two days, intending to bivouac, put on our skis, and started out at 10 A.M.

Immediately west of Monarch two parallel glaciers flowing north into Talchako Glacier and separated by a large rocky rib offered a good route to reach the west face of the mountain. Half way up the west glacier a low point on the rib enabled us to cross over to the eastern glacier which flows past the west face of Monarch. We crossed a bergschrund below the ridge on a conveniently located snow bridge which seemed a little shaky but bore our weight. From this point with the help of field glasses we had a close look at the huge west wall which we hoped to climb. Prospects of the different routes were carefully considered and evaluated. On the left of the main face an excessively steep icefall was unanimously rejected, whereas on the far right 3000- foot vertical walls were also out of the question. A route finally selected as practical wound up the center face to a large buttress, above this to a snow filled couloir, and then to a big snow- field on the upper half of the face. The summit ridge would have to be gained at some low point. After making a rough sketch of the route we descended to the névé pass separating “Page Mountain"* from Monarch.

“Page Mountain” is a steep pinnacle, the highest point of the rocky rib we crossed; we so named it because of its proud stance at the foot of Monarch. This bold tower fired our interest at first sight and now that we were in its shadow with time to spare there was no reason why we could not climb it. After eating a good lunch, we left our packs at the pass and, taking only the necessary equipment, set out for the tower. The climb proved very interesting, presenting a combination of rock, both good and bad, with ice and snow. From the summit (ca. 9650 feet) we enjoyed a view of Waddington, Silverthrone, “Princess,” and a host of other unnamed lesser peaks to the south. This viewpoint also offered an excellent angle from which to study the west face of Monarch. There was no doubt in our minds as to the choice of route; the center face looked the only practical way up.

Back at the pass we shouldered our packs and started up, with the summit of Monarch our objective. We intended to climb as high as possible on the base snow slopes, then leave the skis, and proceed on foot until a reasonable bivouac place could be found. With the end of the day drawing closer, Fips finally discovered a small, flat protected rocky perch, large enough to accommodate two prostrate bodies for the night. Two pitons were driven in and some sling rope used to discourage nocturnal wanderings to the steep slopes 50 feet below.

Night passed in reasonable comfort and a cold breakfast was eaten at 4:30 A.M. Soon afterwards, stiff boots, muscles and joints were creaking, bound upward to the sun’s rays near the top. Climbing was comparatively easy up to the buttress; from there verglassed rock became more evident until it resembled a near vertical ice rink. A very sharp ice knife edge connecting the top of the buttress with the side of the great couloir presented a classic example of crampon straddling and belaying until our ankles ached. Not daring to enter the couloir which funnels avalanches from the snowfield above, we remained on its left side, climbing on rock as much as possible. What appeared to be a snowfield below the rock ridge was in reality a huge slab of ice disguised with restless snow upon it, the latter ready to slip off at a moment’s notice. Much time was lost on many belays up this slope until firm rock was reached below the ridge. Traveling along the serrated ridge, we could not detect where our route joined the one used by Henry Hall and Hans Fuhrer on the first ascent, but from photographs it was evident that the two were the same on the last part of the ridge climb to the top. The summit, a very small snow-covered dome, was reached at 1:30 P.M. in ideal weather.

Blessed with luck, we thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the wonderful mountain country around us. In the south, Waddington and its satellites were very clear, as were the sharp Bella Coola mountains to the north. The ice cap stretched out to the northwest, bordered by many imposing mountains which gleamed with the light of a million candles sparked by the sun. It was unpleasant to think of leaving this panoramic view, but with the mid-day heat softening the snow a start down had to be made.

The big snowfield was treacherous, with water running on the surface of the ice. Ideal avalanche conditions prevailed as was quite evident from the booming canonades all around us. Several rappels, one of which was 120 feet, were required to descend to the buttress. The bivouac site was reached at 8:00 P.M. and, gathering up our belongings, we started down to our skis. By this time the snow had hardened, giving us a very fast run to the glacier below. In fading light we reached the site of the bergschrund bridge, below the intervening ridge, only to find it gone. The heat of the day made it collapse and the remains could be seen in the gaping hole below. This situation compelled us to descend part way into the bergschrund and then climb 40 vertical feet of snow to the upper lip. From here, with the help of the climbing rope we pulled up the skis and packs. By the time we were ready to move ahead, the last rays of the sun disappeared below the horizon. Traveling at night proved easier than we had anticipated. Visibility by snow light permitted us to travel without using carbide lamps, but the cold temperature forbade frequent stops. We maintained a furious pace over the frozen snow with only one thought in mind—to reach Camp 3 as soon as possible. As we neared the rocky outcrop on which the camp was situated, Broda began yodelling at intervals to let Atkinson and Rode know that the two weary donkeys were coming home to rest. At 1:45 A.M., weary and cold, we stumbled into the tent after 21 hours of continuous moving. Over cups of hot cocoa prepared by Atkinson, we recited the story of the climbs and crawled into our sleeping bags.

The next morning we decided to move camp back and pick up the remainder of the air-drop supplies. The over-all plan was to climb Mt. Jacobsen on our way back, pick up more supplies at the lake, and make an all-out effort to climb “Snowside Mountain.” As we neared the air-drop site, the weather grew sullen and soon great clouds obscured the mountains. Then the storm broke upon us. We were forced to set the tent up in a crevasse for wind protection and spent a damp night cursing all makers of mountaineering tents. By morning the weather had improved and, while drying wet garments, we contemplated our next move. After breakfast, Rode, who still complained of not feeling well, left for the lake camp while the three of us removed all the supplies from the air-drop tins. After everything was packed, we started back across upper Jacobsen Glacier to the first pass on the flanks of Mt. Jacobsen. In the evening with the weather clear, we studied the walls of Mt. Jacobsen, towering right above our camp. They looked very steep, exposed, and clearly not the sort of thing one wants to climb in the heart of the Coast Range. All the more feasible routes lay on the other side, but we were reluctant to lose altitude, not to mention the time in order to reach them; therefore the west wall it would be.

On the morning of July 11th, thoroughly rested, the three of us started up. The rock was exceedingly steep and the exposure severe on many pitches. In one of the numerous chimneys we had a narrow escape when the rope dislodged a loose rock from a chock stone. A good portion of the climb up to the ridge was a stiff Grade 4. Above this we unroped and scrambled on the summit.

The ascent had consumed a lot of time; so, rather than return the way we had come, we chose to descend via a steep hanging glacier on the south side, traverse around the edge of the wall, and climb back up to camp. As we neared the bottom, a roar of an avalanche filled the air and seconds later tons of ice and snow came into view, hurtling down the slopes of the east peak of Mt. Jacobsen. The hanging glacier was an unhealthy road, but it was considerably faster.

Back in camp we ate a good supper, packed up, and started down in the general direction of the lake. We intended to cache part of the equipment on a rock outcrop, go to the lake for more supplies, and on the return trip the next day, pick up the cache and then proceed on to “Snowside Mountain.”

After running down on skis for ten minutes, one of the party called an abrupt halt and in picturesque, not to mention descriptive, language told us that he had left “Excalibur,” his ice- axe, at the last campsite. Since we were on skis, the ice-axes were carried in the packs and a predicament of this sort was easily understood. Leaving his pack, he set out and it was almost dark before he reappeared with his weapon tucked under his arm. We arrived at the lake camp at 12:30 A.M. and, using all of Rode’s stockpiled firewood, we set up a blaze, filled pots with clear water, and began a feast that lasted until 3:30 A.M.

In the morning a dip in the lake amid small icebergs made some of us feel human again. Water at the snow camps is a scarce item and we took full advantage of this luxury to compensate for the days we went unwashed. After breakfast we packed the supplies, bade Rode goodbye, and started up for the cache.

The weather had been getting worse steadily when two hours after we left the lake, it finally broke. First rain, then wind and sleet mixed with snow drove at us until our packs were covered with ice. It turned bitterly cold while the wind kept rising in velocity. At the cache, in a shrieking gale, a rocky hollow big enough to accommodate the tent was discovered. Here we pitched camp and sat up all night taking turns supporting the tent pole while, outside, guy ropes whipped violently. We did not know the actual wind velocity, but we are convinced that, had it not been for the protection of the hollow, the tent, which is made of good material, would have gone to shreds with the wind. Stormbound for 36 hours, we played chess, sang, blew on a harmonica, and drained the last drop of brandy from our modest jug. This loss of time eliminated any possibility of an attempt on “Snowslide Mountain.” Throughout the whole trip my first and greatest desire had been to climb this captivating peak, but now all I could do was look upon its walls, encrusted in a blanket of fresh snow, and vow to return again to try my luck in some coming year.

On the way down the glacier we cached our skis under a huge boulder for some future use because to carry them out was a prohibitive thought. Rode was waiting for us at the head of Noeick River after he had brought over the remainder of our supplies from the lake.

Next morning in swirling fog we started uphill, bound for the pass at the head of Noosatsum River watershed. Behind us lay a wonderful land, full of enchanted peaks, truly a marvel of nature—while ahead awaited the deep gloomy gorges of the upper Noosatsum. For four days memories of the ice and rock land left behind kept us going through places only people familiar with the Coast Mountains can appreciate, until finally our tricounis bit the road gravel of the Bella Coola valley.

The expedition had been a marvelous experience in new unexplored country where mountains stand second to none in ruggedness and beauty while myriads of glaciers keep one’s memory alive with a pleasant past.

In the future some of us will definitely return to this unforgettable area, to feast our eyes on the beauties of its mountains and to try our luck on “Snowside” and other peaks. One thing is certain, come what may, on the outgoing trip an aircraft will replace for me the waterfalls of a mad mountain river.

Summary of Statistics

Ascents: First ascents in the Canadian Coast Range of “Princess Mountains," 9450 ft., and “Page Mountain”; second ascent of Mt. Monarch by Broda and Dudra; first ascent of Mt. Jacobsen by Atkinson, Broda, and Dudra.

Exploration: Area northwest of Mt. Monarch and south of the headwaters of the small Bella Coola River tributaries in the Canadian Coast Range.

Personnel: John L. Dudra, leader; J. Atkinson, F. Broda, and H. Rode.

*The name “Princess Mountain” is unofficial.

*The name “Page Mountain” is unofficial.

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