Sunday, August 10, 2014

Waddington Range Adventures

So once again I find myself sitting here attempting to write a blog post musing to myself about how it has been nearly a year since I last updated this darned thing. The problem is that I find it excruciatingly difficult to write a blog I would consider worth your time as a reader to sit through without a half decent story to grab your attention. I could have written several posts about various events in these past few months but unfortunately those stories would read something like this:

"So I went to Yosemite and soloed Half Dome, it was sick. I didn't take any pictures, it was sick, the end".

Or like, "I went to Indian Creek to learn to climb desert splitters. At first it was really hard but eventually I figured it out, it was sick, the end".

Unable to justify such posts my blog has sit dormant, however I just returned from two weeks in B.C's epic Waddington Range and a couple of readable stories materialized along the way so here is my attempt to share these tales with you... It was sick, the end.

Just kidding...

Last minute trips often have a tendency to be some of the most enjoyable, for me at least. Perhaps it just suits my spontaneous and ADHD like personality, just taking off on a whim with little to no detailed planning involved. Such was the case when my friends Andrew and Hannah asked if my girlfriend Brette and I would like to share a helicopter shuttle in and out of the Waddington Range of B.C's Coast Mountains. It was an irresistibly appealing idea, a romantic couples retreat deep into the land of alpine gnar, how could I say no?

Just like that we were off driving north to the tiny community of Tatla Lake high on the beautiful chilcoltin plateau between Williams Lake and Bella Coola and after the obligatory burger stop at Graham's Inn we were whisked away by the legendary helicopter pilot Mike King and deposited at Sunny Knob, our new home for the next two weeks. Located on a knoll just above the sprawling Tiedemann glacier with alpine walls rising 1,600 vertical meters to the steep rocky summits above, sunny knob seemed an ideal base camp from which to launch our alpine exploits.

One thing I am particularly bad at in the alpine is taking it easy, and so I immediately set my alarm for 5am the next morning so that Brette and I could have a go on the 1500m south ridge of Serra 2, located directly above our camp at a Sunny Knob. We brought with us a single set of cams to #1, a selection of stoppers and a half rope and left camp around 6am after munching some oatmeal and peanut butter. After a short amount of hiking we found ourselves scrambling the first section of low 5th class ridge on excellent rock. This brought us to a snow patch above which the rock steepened and for a moment we thought we may even need to break out the rope. However as the rock steepened the holds got bigger and we scrambled and scrambled ever upwards.

Hundreds of meters of wonderful scrambling was followed by a few gendarmes and hundreds more meters of wonderful scrambling. The climbing was never harder than 5.7 or so and soon we were at the notch behind 'Phantom Tower' staring up at the final pillar of the South Ridge. Here the standard route deeks right on 45 degree snow ramps to reach 5.9 territory that gains the summit ridge. We were feeling good though and all the climbing had been easier than it had appeared to that point so we decided to tackle the upper pillar head on. We pulled out the rope and I racked up and started up an immaculate finger crack, although a handcrack dihedral to the left did appear easier.

Above the finger crack was an athletic 5.12 mantle that I could not free with my backpack on, so I executed a bouldery 'pendulum to toe hook' around a sloping arête to the right and slithered my way around the corner onto a runout slab like an oversized salamander. Above the slab a two tired roof barred the way to an incredible overhanging hand crack above and I could see a bail anchor at the top of the easy looking dihedral below me and to the left. A couple steep moves on wet jugs in the roof allowed me to fire in a piece and make a couple A1 moves to reach the splitter above. The moves in the roof would certainly go free at 5.12, but again.... the backpack.

As we had only brought cams to one inch I would have no protection for the slightly overhanging butt crack feature I was about to climb, but I could get hand jams in the back and deemed it easy enough to run out to what appeared to be a belay ledge at the top about 25 feet above. I fired my way up the four star splitter and was blown away by the quality of the climbing, but right as I neared the end the crack it began to narrow to ring locks and I had already placed my .75# cam in the roof below. Hanging from a ring lock and beginning to feel the pump clock ticking I began to question my decision to attempt this line with only a single set of cams, but some tenacity and a few grunts allowed me to find a decent placement for my largest nut. Slightly relieved but pumped I took on the rope to shake out my forearms and relax for a moment, and after one more classic 'Chris Sharma power scream' I lurched my way onto the belay ledge feeling psyched. This pitch was undoubtedly the crux of the route clocking in at solid 5.11 A1 and we nicknamed it "the incredible butt crack".

Above this several easier but extremely high quality pitches, with one more finger crack of 5.11 led to what we thought would be the summit of Serra 2, but lo and behold it was not. We had reached the final summit ridge above the snow slopes of the south east face, which would be our chosen descent route. Although the true summit lay at most a 15 minute scramble beyond I shuddered at the thought of navigating the badly broken Stiletto Icefall in the dark and decided suggested to Brette that we begin our descent immediately. A rappel brought us to the steep snow slope which was followed by seemingly endless down climbing accompanied by a case or two of lovely screaming barfies, hooray!

As we neared more moderate terrain I sent Brette down first to navigate the initial schrund and shortly thereafter took over the lead to navigate the complex icefall that followed. If one can forget about the fear inducing possibilities of falling in crevasses or being crushed by toppling seracs, icefalls so can actually be rather fun, simply working one's way through an enormous puzzling maze of ice.

One rappel over a tortured schrund, countless leaps over deep crevasses and a quick scurry beneath some intimidating seracs brought us back to a point low on the south ridge below all of the 5th class climbing. A half hour later we were back at our camp on Sunny Knob just before dark, a fantastic first day in the range!

The fact that there was a bail anchor on our first pitch on the upper pillar, located immediately before the climbing became difficult, leads me to believe that this was probably a new route. However if you have climbed this line already or know someone who has, please let me know. If this is indeed a new route we decided to call it 'Straight No Chaser' TD+, 5.11 A1, 1500m. It would go all free at 5.12 something but I recommend not leading the crux with a backpack on in order to send. Oh and bring a double set of cams, or at least a #2 and #3 as fiddling around with large nuts is never ideal when facing a giant ledge fall.

So on day two our team decided to move camp to the Upper Tellot Glacier to session down on some righteous looking rock stone and around 1pm we shouldered our packs and did the ol' slog. We arrived at the hut a few hours later and had time left to scramble up and down the ultra fun west ridge of Claw Peak, complete with a group hug on the summit!

The next morning Brette and I left at 5:30am with our sights set on free climbing the SW pillar of Stiletto Peak. We cramponed our way across the Upper Tellot in excellent morning conditions and crossed a vertical schrund before arriving at the Stiletto/Serra 1 col. We could hear the wind ripping through the col from the south and as we began down climbing 50 degree bullet ice down towards the base of the pillar we began to feel quite chilly indeed. Our plan to open bivy on the route was started to seem rather unpleasant and the frequent rockfall pouring down the couloir to our left was not helping things feel any more inviting. We decided to bail.

As a consolation prize we figured we could still bag the spectacular looking 'Stiletto Needle' and from our location halfway between the col and the SW pillar a few pitches of scrambling followed by some excellent 5.10 hand cracks allowed us to join the west face route. We took the direct 5.11 variation on the final pitch and took turns taking photos on the tiny summit of the wild spire which reminded me of a desert tower high in the alpine!

We made a handful of rappells back to the col but the steep slope below had deteriorated badly in the sun and was now a horrendous pile of knee deep slush over ice. I decided to give Brette all the gear and the pack and lowered her down to a safe point below the schrund on our 80m rope, I then tossed the rope down, took both tools and began soloing down the slope as carefully as I could. I safely made it to a point just above the schrund, traversing right to purposefully orient myself above a point with the safest run out zone, where the schrund was filled over and more of a series of two small ice cliffs rather than a true crevasse. As I traversed further right in hopes of gaining bare ice and the security of good sticks I kicked a step and heard a distinct hollowness beneath my feet, I froze. I was just out of reach of the good ice and all I needed to do was kick a step for my left foot and I would be able to reach over and place a solid tool. I gingerly tapped my left foot into the snow and 'WHOOOOOOOSH' everything gave way underfoot and I slid over the edge of the ice cliffs with a loud yell.

I thank luck and my background in aerial gymnastics for what happened next. As I hit the slope between the ice cliffs I quickly planted my feet and sprung outwards, throwing a well timed flip over the second ice cliff. I lifted my feet up to avoid my crampon points catching and slid on my butt facing outwards as I made contact with the steep slope below the second cliff. As I felt myself begin to slow down I popped back onto my feet and ran to the side to avoid being covered by the sluff that inevitably followed. I had fallen a total of about 50 feet over two small ice cliffs and a schrund and was completely unscathed. I yelled to an alarmed Brette who had watched the entire event to let her know that I was fine, and after a few good laughs we merrily strolled back to the Plummer hut feeling tired but happy.

That night was quite windy, and we thought of our friends Andrew and Hannah who were bivouacked at the exposed dragons back camp high on the glacier below Stiletto Peak. In the morning, as we lay in our tent avoiding the wind we heard them return to the hut, having decided not to climb that morning due to the wind and cold. We all hiked back down to the warmer and less windy Sunny Knob and drank whiskey, smoked a funny cigarette and lay in the sun watching the clouds drift about in the sky above.

The next day was inevitably destined to be a rest day, however Brette and I set out with delusions of climbing the enormous south east ridge of Asperity Mountain. We made it about a pitch off the ground, one pitch of 65 that is, before realizing that we did indeed need rest, badly. We spent the rest of the day laying about in base camp scheming and came up with some fine plans for the next day. Brette, Hannah and Andrew would attempt a traverse of the entire south ridge of a Stiletto, climbing the Gnats Tooth, Dentiform and various other sub peaks in the process, and I would attempt a solo ascent of Serra 5.

We all awoke at the lovely hour of 3am and while the others made oatmeal and prepared their equipment I guzzled a liter of V8 and took off by headlamp towards the base of Asperity Mountain. Things didn't go so well initially as I navigated the moraine in the dark. I went too low and when I realized my mistake and tried to clamber up a short steep section of loose blocks I pulled a large rock down trapping my leg beneath it. I struggled to remove the rock from on top of my leg and when I pulled up my pant leg I could see my shin was bleeding badly, but my scrape was not overly threatening. With the huge amount of climbing that lay ahead I almost considered bailing but decided to carry on.

I reached a sheltered ledge at the base of Asperity's south east ridge and could see fresh rockfall on my planned route that had not been there the day before,  a great sign. I put on my crampons and pulled out my tools and started up the icy, rockfall strewn glacial slope that led towards the base of 'Carl's Couloir', my planned approach to the Serra 5/Asperity col. As the glacial ice eased off in angle and the rockfall hazard from the ridge to the left decreased I found myself in a wild maze of partially obscured crevasses, always a wonderful place to be alone in the dark. I tried to stick to the bare ice to avoid dangerously thin snow bridges and eventually found myself on the tamer slopes below 'Carl's Couloir'. There was plenty of rockfall debris below the couloir and I feared that as the day came on and temperatures warmed that the line would become a death trap due to increased rockfall hazard.

I decided to attempt to climb the steep rock buttress to the right of the couloir to avoid this danger and found myself swapping boots and crampons for rock shoes and a chalk bag. I began climbing in a loose chimney like fault then moved left onto pleasant slant ramps. I followed continuous ramps up and right for what would have been several rope lengths generally avoiding the steeper rock to my left. As I gained height the angle began to increase and the climbing gradually became more difficult and sustained. The weight of my boots, tools, crampons, my light rack and rope on my back became more and more of a hindrance as climbing became steeper and more technical. As I deeked out a large roof to its left via a series of near vertical thin dihedrals I repeatedly considered making an anchor and self belaying from clove hitches, or at least taking off my backpack and tagging it up behind me as I free soloed. But whenever I considered these options I would take a look around the arête and find a series of crimps and smears that would lead me away from, and then back                             into the dihedral I was climbing at a moderate enough grade to free solo with my pack on.

After several hundred meters of climbing to about 5.10- on excellent stone I topped out onto a small summit overlooking 'Carl's Couloir' and followed a ramp down and right towards the Serra Cirque to reach the base of a snow arête about 100m below 'Carl's Camp'. I switched back to boots and crampons and climbed up past Carl's Camp and traversed right into the back of the wild Cirque with Serra 5 towering high above. I climbed up the the gaping schrund near it's left hand edge and found a way to tunnel beneath a hanging arch of ice and then climb vertical ice on the upper wall of the schrund emerging onto rock well left of the dangerous couloir leading to the Serra 5/Asperity col.

As I sat on a relatively sheltered ledge to stop and refuel I accidentally dropped my sunglasses back down into the schrund, a major bummer, but I continued on climbing several pitches of 4th and 5th class rock of varying quality staying left of the snow couloir as it was repeatedly pummeled by stonefall. As I reached a height nearly level with the col I moved back right, now above the source of the rockfall, and kicked steps to reach the col shortly thereafter.

At the col I ditched my backpack with my food and water and everything I would not need for the technical climbing above on the north west face of Serra 5. A knife edged snow arête gave way to superb stone and a series of icy ramps and chimneys. I would frequently find myself stemming on rock in my mountain boots while swinging my tools into water ice in the back of the corner, dry tooling on secure flakes or dancing up icy slabs balancing on my tip toes on perfect waves of granite. Near the top I had to balance on a small ledge, hanging onto a flake with one hand while delicately securing my crampons to my boots with the other so that I could transition onto a grade 3 ice smear that led to a secure chimney flake and easy ground.

I reached the summit shortly thereafter and spent a moment enjoying the views and reading the legendary summit register entries although I had no pen to make an entry of my own unfortunately. I started down and luckily had only made my first rappel when I realized I had dropped my ice screw while mantling the summit block. A brief return to the summit to retrieve the dropped screw and four rappels, mainly from V-threads brought me back to easier ground and the col where I sat down and had a few snacks.

The couloir below was still cooking in the sun and I would have to spend some time waiting around before it would become reasonably safe to descend, so I decided that I may as well climb Asperity as well rather than sit around doing nothing. The steepest section of the East face route of Asperity was still baking in the sun as well so I decided to climb a more direct and shady route beginning directly beneath an imposing 200ft tall serac. After climbing 50 degree ice beneath the left end of the large serac I traversed left into a superb 75 degree ice chimney that climbed extremely well via a combination of stemming, hand jamming, mega jugs and grade 3 water ice. I topped out the chimney after about 60 meters of excellent climbing and then followed snows slopes with occasional sections of alpine ice to eventually join the easy summit ridge.

The view of Waddington from the summit of Asperity was tremendous, but I knew that I had a long hazardous descent ahead of my so my stay was short lived. I reversed my ascent route with much down climbing and two rappels from threads to get down the ice chimney and by the time I reached my backpack at the col it was 4pm and the couloir was in the shade. The snow conditions were still not ideal in the couloir and the sound of rocks wizzing by was still a frighteningly regular occurrence so I hugged the edge of the couloir and eventually transferred back onto the rock to its (climber's) left and down climbed that instead. One rappel from a pin brought me over the schrund and after traversing back to where I had crossed it during my ascent I quickly located my dropped sunglasses, score!

Much traversing on steep alpine ice brought me back to Carl's Camp where I did my best to take a break and relax before dropping in to the long threatened couloir below. I tried to listen to calming happy music and eat a bar but just found myself pacing back and forth contemplating all the hazards that awaited me below. Luckily only two large rocks came down the couloir as I descended, neither coming too close to me. Eventually, after what felt like eons of kicking steps, I pounded a #3 knife blade to the hilt and rapped over the gaping schrund and onto the glacier below.

Navigating the maze of crevasses below was more challenging on the descent due to the structure of the glacier steepening beneath me making it difficult to see far ahead. But soon I was down climbing the steep lower section of the glacier, the occasional rock wizzing by to my left and I found myself back on my sheltered ledge below Asperity's south east ridge where I removed my harness, packed up my tools and pons and was essentially home free.

I put a pair of headphones in my ears and blasted 'Renegades of Funk', by Rage Against the Machine into my ears as I sprinted back to Sunny Knob feeling absolutely elated. I arrived at base camp at 9pm about 18 hours after setting out, but the others weren't back yet from their mission. Feeling a bit jittery I downed about 6 shots of whiskey and made dinner before crawling into my tent listening to heavy drum and bass in my headphones.

I bolted awake at 5am thinking the others were returning to camp and I was suddenly ashamed of the mess of dirty dishes next to the half downed bottle of whiskey I had left outside my tent. I stumbled outside and promptly fell down and rolled a short distance down the heather slope below. Not my most elegant moment, although not my worst either by any means. I realized that I was still the only one in base camp, and that I was out of mind and in a total daze and crawled back into my tent for a few more hours of sleep.

The others returned early in the afternoon after sending the south ridge of the Stiletto group as far as climbing both summits of Dentiform and then had crashed at the Plummer Hut before returning to base camp. We congratulated each other on our sends and spent the next few days generally taking it easy around camp.

We had plans to go back to Serra 5 as a group and climb the phenomenal looking 'Thunderbird' ridge but shortly after leaving camp Brette, who had not been feeling well for the last couple days, realized that she was getting sick and needed to rest. I had already climbed Serra 5 and decided to accompany her back to Sunny Knob where we spent the next two days resting in hopes that Brette would begin to feel better. To be honest I was happy to rest psychologically after my solo link up as well, and to let my psyche for big days rebuild itself for another mission.

On the morning of August 6th we awoke to my alarm at 3am and headed back up the long south ridge of Serra 2, this time to attempt the 'Grand Cappuccino' tower which we had seen during our initial ascent of Straight No Chaser. We made good time to the notch behind Phantom tower, where one is greeted with an intimidating view of the Grand Cappuccino, but the ice couloir we had hoped to start our route in was completely melted out.

We decided to attempt the intimidating wall left of the couloir and after crossing a steep ice field we were putting on rock shoes and chalk bags beneath a beautiful vertical finger crack dihedral reminiscent of a pitch one would find in Indian Creek. I fired up the four star corner finding good gear and rests before it thinned to a desperate purple TCU tips layback before the belay ledge. I sent the pitch on sight at 5.12-and Brette followed cleanly before leading off right and then climbing a fantastic off width flake followed by steep jugs to a belay in an alcove. I navigated loose blocks above her belay and then climbed an incredible thumb stacking flare before stepping right to belay from a black alien and an RP on a steep slab. The next pitch traversed right across the slab in a wild position before climbing steep cracks and a poorly protected layback followed by two pitches of moderate terrain leading to a steep head wall.

The next pitch was reminiscent of something one would climb on a Yosemite classic like 'Astroman', a steep rattly fingers splitter followed by four point stemming up an overhanging flare capped by wild back and foot chimneying over nothing but empty space!  We were now very close to the summit of the Grand Cappuccino and Brette was leading when I began to get peppered at my belay by hundreds of flakes exfoliating from the off width above. The sun had left the face leaving the air frigid and we were both shaking from the cold. The crack above Brette only continued to get wider and we had no cams to protect it and the rock was deteriorating badly, leaving Brette thrashing about knocking rocks on me at the belay. As badly as we wanted to
send the tower, it was time to go down.

We made several rappels leaving nuts and a couple cams before reversing the ice field and down scrambling much of Serra 2's south ridge arriving back at camp just before dark. Although we didn't send we still had one of the best days of hard alpine rock climbing of our lives! And we would both like to go back with the proper gear to send the final off width that completes our line, although if you feel inclined to get there first have at 'er!

As night fell we could see Andrew and Hannah's headlamps coming down over the schrund of Carl's Couloir and in the morning then told us that after three days away from base camp they had successfully made the first free ascent of 'Thunderbird'! They narrowly avoided being taken out by a large rockfall on their descent, confirming the seriousness of hanging out in the Serra Cirque.

We spent a final day resting and packing up camp and the next morning were picked up by the chopper after spending 13 days in the range. This adventure was something really special, visiting a truly spectacular place with such wonderful people. We lucked out with the weather and essentially had 13 days of straight sun' with the odd windy day in the mix. All the routes that we climbed were of superb quality and my solo day on Serra 5 and Asperity was one of the wildest solos I've done yet.

I'd really like to thank Brette, Andrew and Hannah for providing the companionships that made this trip what it was!

So there it is, another blog post. Hope it didn't bore you to tears although it did turn out to be a bit long. But make sure to read it twice for good measure because knowing me it might be a while before the next one.

It was sick, the end.



  1. This post was sick! Actually I prefer healthy. I think we me briefly in the valley, wish we could have climbed together. Stay stoked!

  2. Very well written and informative article, thank you :-)

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