Mt. Sir Donald, West Ridge

By: Larry Sverdrup | Climbers: Larry Sverdrup, Robert Lang |Trip Dates: July 25, 2003

Photo: Gary Clark

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Sir Donald is rated as easy climbing, but don't be fooled. The vertical gain on the arête is 2500 feet. By comparison, the Northwest Face of Half Dome is a mere 1800 vertical feet. The climb is long enough that if the weather turns sour, which it does quite often, you may not be able to retreat fast enough to beat it. To make matters worse, when the rock is wet, the lichen becomes as slippery as grease. Since the route lies on an arête, there is a lightning hazard the entire way. One thing in your favor is that they have now installed a series of bolted rappels down the West Face starting from about half way up the NW arête.

I finally climbed Sir Donald in 2003 on my fourth attempt. On my first attempt I hiked in with my wife. We planned to climb during the night with headlamps to avoid bad weather in the afternoon. We were pulling on our climbing shoes at the Uto - Sir Donald Col in the evening when the first peals of thunder rang out. Very bad weather ensued, which lasted several days. Our trip was a success, however, because we stumbled upon the Hillside Lodge & Chalets near Golden, B.C.

The second time, I ran up to do it with my brother from my parent's home in Montana, 6 hours away. My brother had climbed the Mexican Volcanoes and Rainier, but he wasn't really a rock climber. A rope length or so above the col, the exposure began to wear on him, and I let him off easy.

Third attempt, August 25-26 2002:

Robert Lang and I flew into Spokane, rented a car and headed to my parent's home in Libby, Montana. Checking the weather on a dial-up connection was painfully slow, but the result was that Tuesday the 27th was supposed to be clear and sunny. We decided to drive up early Sunday morning the 25th.

The Canadian customs officer tried to trick us into admitting that we were carrying a gun, even though we weren't. At the Rodgers Pass ranger station the weather report indicated possible thundershowers Sunday evening and possible showers Monday morning, then clearing late Monday morning, with a good forecast for Tuesday once again. We thought that Monday might be a good day. We signed up in the climbing register to be out by 8pm on Tuesday. In retrospect, we should have given ourselves till Wednesday morning.

A ranger relayed one very interesting tidbit to us. The last time there was a big El Nino, there were 9 weeks without rain during the summer in the Canadian Rockies. El Ninos are good for climbing in Canada. Unfortunately this wasn't an El Nino year.

At the trailhead a couple hiking back form a glacial area talked about a rip-roaring lightning storm and spectacular northern lights complete with colors. I gave them my last two cherry turnovers, which we planned to ditch, anyway, to avoid a bear attack on the car. Another couple of old folks warned us about lightning. They had witnessed Sir Donald take an uncountable number of lightning strikes one evening long ago. We decided not to bring ice axes and crampons, figuring that we could always hike below the snow patches.

The hike in went fairly painlessly, probably because the cloud cover kept the hot sun off of us. We met a party who had tried to climb Uto but had turned back a pitch and a half from the top when it started to rain. The guy remarked that the lichen was slick as ice when wet. He also mentioned that runoff from a snow patch near the Uto-Sir Donald notch was a water source. We had enough time to make it to the notch, but because we were worried about thundershowers we decided to bivy lower down below the Vaux glacier. It never did rain significantly. While attempting to fill our water bottles, Robert's Sweetwater filter immediately broke, with no apparent way to fix or jury-rig the unit. We reasoned that the water coming out of the bottom of the Vaux glacier must be fairly safe. Giardia wasn't a big problem 50 years ago, and the ice is much older than that.

Monday morning we got going fairly early (but it had been light for hours by then) and we hiked to the notch, which took perhaps an hour and a half. There was no rain to be seen. No other parties were encountered, either today or the next. At the four snow patches we each used one of Robert's ski poles for added balance and as a crude ice axe if needed. The Uto we met the previous day had not brought ice axes either.

I started the first lead in good weather, and stopped at the first big notch due to rope drag. We basically simul-climbed after the leader was a full rope length out (200 feet) on all but one pitch. Robert was still warming up, so I led the second "throw" as well. Insignificant clouds rose out of all of the valleys as the sun drove the moisture from the ground. Robert led the 3rd throw, and then I led the 4th, and Robert the 5th. By now we were quite high on the mountain, not far from what appeared to be a major step on the ridge. We both figured that we were well over half way up.

By now, the clouds were definitely threatening in places. Huge thunderstorms were visible to the north. A rope length below us on the North Face there were big ledges where one could hide in a lightning situation. Above us there did not appear to be an easy option in that regard. Hence I was hesitant to continue, figuring that we would be badly exposed to lightning on the ridge with nowhere to hide. Robert was not as worried about the weather as I was, but I convinced him to wait for the weather to show its hand before we continued. The clouds seemed to be diverted by Uto, going either to the north or south of us. In a way I thought that Uto might be our protector. We spent a lot of time watching the weather instead of climbing. The clouds became more and more threatening and we made first one rap, then reluctantly another and another as the threat increased. By now we had erased Robert's 5th "pitch". I mentioned that we were not going to die by falling off of the mountain, or because of cold weather. We might, however, die if struck by lightning.

When the sun fell low enough in the sky, I expected the clouds to stop building and to start to dissipate, which after another hour and a half appeared to be happening. I suggested that we could summit in the night if necessary and get a spectacular view of the stars and the northern lights. Robert thought that there might be a good-sized moon to help us as well. He was raring to go and tired of waiting. My only problem was one stubborn cloud to our north, hiding behind Uto. It hadn't quite dissipated as most of the other clouds were doing.

Robert re-led his pitch for the second time, and I was about to follow him when I turned around to see that the cloud hiding behind Uto was now moving east and dropping a pretty good rain as it went. I told Robert that I was going to wait for the rain to stop before I came up. I am sure that Robert was not pleased at my delay. I took a photo of a large rainbow silhouetted against the rainfall from the cloud. Having nothing better to do than look around, I spent a considerable time looking over Uto, at the top of which is a large "V" in which a sinister face seemed to be etched. Emperor Uto was perhaps not a benign protector after all. The rain seemed to move east past us and I was going to follow the pitch and tied in to do so. However a glance to the north showed me that a second wave of rain was following the first, and it was twice as bad. It had moved out from hiding behind Uto. Things were getting more serious. I untied so that Robert could have the rope should he need it to come down. Although I was on a very wide ledge, if lightning stuck nearby, theoretically a jolt to the muscles could send an unroped climber off of the edge. I felt pretty safe, however. I put on all of my rain gear.

Above me Robert was stewing about my reluctance to come up and continue the climb. Dissipating clouds streaming over us from the west joined forces with the brewing thunderhead now brushing close to the North Face. Robert meanwhile was cussing me under his breath for delaying our climb because of "a few raindrops." As he was stewing, he suddenly had to pause to ask himself if that was really a buzzing sound that he heard. Soon there was no doubt about it, the entire ridge he was sitting on started buzzing and humming quite audibly. He had never had the pleasure of such an experience before. Down below I heard him yell for the rope. I wondered if he had decided to bag the climb, or if he had come to his senses. Then it occurred to me that if he was worried then he must know something that I didn't, and things might be worse than I thought. Then I heard thunder. Soon a large rumble of inter-cloud thunder rolled across the sky, starting from way to my left (west) and ending way to my right (east). You had to physically crane your neck from west to east to follow it. It was suddenly all too clear that there was an immense thunderhead above us and to the north. Sometimes a person is so very small. The thunderhead exploded out of virtually nothing in a few minutes. Emperor Uto was no doubt smiling. Soon a crack of thunder indicated that lightning had hit the ridge above us. Had we continued on, we would have been in the vicinity of the strike. Soon Robert came into view, rapping and cleaning the gear. He had to make three raps to get down to the ledge I was on, and initially I couldn't see him and had no idea of his condition. By now the rock was dripping wet. Robert remarked that the lichen on the rock turned literally into grease when wet.

We waited out the rain, and the thunderhead dissipated. The rock was slick, the upper portion of the mountain was shrouded in clouds, the sun was setting, and we decided to retreat.

Darkness set in during our descent. The moon rose late on the opposite side of the mountain and was useless. We did numerous raps and a few traverses to get back to the notch. It took us a considerable amount of time to get back. We were still quite high on the mountain, it was dark, and the lichen made footing extremely slippery. We had to be careful to avoid over rapping and ending up with a huge traverse to regain the ridge. Since we had left our bivy gear down by the Vaux glacier, we were forced to go back down there. In addition, since we didn't have a water filter, we had no other water source anyway. We got back to camp shortly after midnight. As I watched from my sleeping bag, the summit of Sir Donald was still enveloped in billowing, freshly condensing clouds, illuminated by the rising moon.

The next morning we reasoned that we had to be out by 8pm to avoid risking a search and rescue effort. We didn't have the time or energy to complete the climb and hike out by then. Also, we could only complete the climb if the weather was better than the previous day. Otherwise we would simply repeat the previous day's shenanigans. Hence we hiked out.

The way to do the climb is to camp at the notch, and start before daybreak with headlamps. That way one can be up and back down off of the summit before the weather turns bad in the afternoon. Even on a good day of weather, an afternoon thunderstorm is a possibility.

We hoped to take a rest day and head right back up, but the weather window was Wednesday, the very next day. We were too spent to do that, and resigned ourselves to coming back next year. Driving back to Montana we enjoyed a significant delay at US customs, the agents dreaming of catching a terrorist. I wondered if they had an egg timer. They appeared to have a policy of holding everyone for five minutes while they snooped around, rummaged through their luggage and asked questions.

Sir Donald 2003:

This time we did it right. It didn't hurt that there was a mild El Nino this year, suggesting a decrease in summer precipitation. Robert and I flew into Spokane airport late Thursday afternoon July 24th. We rented a car, drove into Canada and crashed at a hotel in Cranbrook. The next morning we drove to Rodger's pass and registered for the climb. When we asked about the weather, the lady at the desk said "sun, sun, sun." Soon we were hiking in.

Below the Vaux glacier we filled all of the water bottles, including extra capacity, as we could not depend upon finding a higher source of water. At the snowfields I didn't bother to put on crampons, but I did have an ice axe. Robert put his crampons on for one of the snowfields, but he didn't have an ice axe. We met a party of two descending who claimed to have summitted that day, climbing unroped. At the col, the best camping spots were taken. There were three parties on the route, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. A faster party of two returned to the col just before sunset, but we watched the other two parties descend with headlamps well after sunset. During the night some creature tried to raid our food. We later heard them referred to as "snaffle hounds."

We arose before sunrise and began climbing. We simul-climbed on a 200-foot rope until rope drag became an issue, or the leader ran out of pro. Then we would belay the second up and hand the rack to the other. According to Robert's accounting, we did 11 of these "leads" to reach the summit over the next 6 hours. Unlike the previous cloudless day, a front was moving through and the sky became filled with wild clouds, and it was not at all clear that we were going to avoid weather. This gave me a degree of apprehension, but nothing ever materialized. There was a pretty good breeze on the West Face, but on the North face the air was calm.

The view from the summit was pretty grand. The Illecillewaet Glacier to the south is immense. The view on the previous cloudless day must have been even better. No other parties summited that day. Fearing bad weather, we didn't stay long, and soon began down-climbing and rappelling. Not far below the summit we traversed onto the West Face on a large bench. We descended on this bench and traversed back to the NW Arête on fairly easy terrain. At one point we took a rappel down the West Face that I regretted. I initially thought that I could stay near the ridge, but in doing so I wandered from the fall line, my foot slipped and I went spinning out into the air over the face. The rappel was overhanging, and the buffeting wind didn't help matters. I wished that I had tied a knot in the ends of the rope. I went with the rappel after that and found the next rap station at a precarious stance. I was thankful to have a 200-foot rope so that there was a comfortable margin. Another rap took us to a bench on which we could traverse back to the arête. When we reached the 10 bolted rap stations down the West Face, we elected not to go that way. (Only a 150-foot rope is needed for these rappels by the way.) Our stuff was at the col, and the West Face raps go to one of the early snowfields. We would have had to cross the snowfields in climbing shoes to return to the col. In retrospect, the West Face raps get one off of the mountain so fast, that they are probably worth doing. One simply has to carry boots in the pack.

Down-climbing and rappelling the arête to return directly to the col was a long process. It took us roughly 11 hours to descend, and we got back at dusk. I had the stupidity to wear tight fitting climbing shoes without socks, and late on the descent my toes began to suffer. I basically crawled back into camp. There were two parties camped at the col, looking forward to climbing the following day. They must have wondered how I could have climbed anything.

That night I awoke and saw a beam of light in the sky oriented from east to west over the summit of Sir Donald. I realized that I was looking at the northern lights. The next day we hiked out, and of course there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

The US customs agents at the border expect to see either a passport or a birth certificate. A driver's license doesn't cut it anymore. I forgot my passport, but they let me through anyway. They seemed to have misplaced their egg timer.

Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.