Mt. Waddington, Southwest Face (attempt)

By: Michael Anderson | Climbers: Michael Anderson, Mark Anderson, Bobby Gomez |Trip Dates: June 15-24, 2000

Photo: Michael Anderson

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Editor's note: This climb is listed as the "South Face" in many references. However, the face clearly points to the Southwest.

From the start, Mark and I had this crazy travel scheme for how we were going to get there. We were each going to fly to Vancouver, then take a small plane to the 'middle of nowhere' - Anahim Lake, where Bobby was supposed to drive up to in his Volvo and drive us to Tatla Lake where we would helicopter into the mountains. Well right off the bat, Mark and I both forgot our birth certificates, so we were sweatin' it quite a bit. I mean it's CANADA! You don't need a birth certificate for that right? Well anyway they kept asking us at the airport and then at customs, so I was pretty worried, but then I pulled out the ole' military ID and they let me into their country. I was still a bit nervous about getting into the states, but I figured I'd be good.

Mark and I met up in the Vancouver airport as planned and we hopped aboard a shuttle to this other "airline" which was going to fly us North. Well after taking the complete tour of the Vancouver airport (really nice) we began to realize why the airline had warned to allow plenty of time to get to their "terminal." We were now worried that we would miss the next flight. We made it to the terminal about 30 minutes before scheduled departure and figured we were good.

Then we were presented with the next crux. This small plane only allows 75lbs per passenger of luggage. We knew about this ahead of time, but also knew we would be close. I was pretty sure I was 5 pounds over and so was Mark. I was ready to throw one of my 10lbs ropes in the trash if I had to, though. The girl weighed my bags and they were 77, so she said she'd weigh Mark's and if they were under we'd be all right. Mark strategically placed his bag on the scale in such a way that it was sitting on top of mine (which was on the floor). His bag ended up reading 50-something and we were good to go.

As we were boarding the plane we saw a young gentlemen whom we assumed was a baggage handler and asked him which side of the plane we should sit on to see the coast mountains. We were a bit shocked when we discovered this was our co-pilot, as I'm sure he was younger than I was. The flight went pretty well and we got awesome views of Mt. Waddington as we flew by, probably 30-40 miles to the east. It was obviously the monarch of the coast range sticking well above the other peaks. As we came in to land the plane was swaying and shaking all over the place, which made for an interesting approach. We were pretty sure we would have to use the emergency exits to get off the plane, when suddenly, right before touch down, the plane smoothed out and gently landed. The airstrip was a decrepit old runway with a simple barb-wired fence to keep the moose out of the way. The plane taxied up to the gravel parking lot where the pilots jumped off and began to unload our luggage. Then we were faced with the final crux in our voyage - Bobby making it up to Anahim Lake in his Volvo. Sure enough, he was there and he had all the food ready to go for our trip. We drove south towards Tatla Lake sharing stories of our travels.

After a little bit of excitement finding the place, we located the chopper pilot, Mike King, and hopped on board. The ride to the glacier was spectacular and uneventful. We flew by numerous unclimbed and unnamed peaks and hundreds of miles of roadless wilderness - probably the wildest area in North America. As we flew around the massive flanks of the notorious Mt Combatant, the North Slope of Waddington emerged behind. Its craggy summit looked challenging and we were excited. We had to fly around to the south side to get to the route we wanted to do (the Southwest Face) and when we turned the corner, the entire south side of the mountain was socked in with clouds. Mike the pilot, was able to drop us at only 7,000 feet. We would have to hike the rest of the way. So much for traveling in lazy luxury!

We landed on the Dais Glacier at about 5:00pm, hurriedly sorted our gear, and prepared to hike up to a high camp. We had planned on being dropped at 10,500', the base of the Southwest Face, so that we wouldn't have to hike anywhere, but it wasn't in the cards. We left basecamp by 7:00 and headed into the clouds, unsure of where we really need to go since the summit and entire Southwest Face were obscured.

By about 9:00 it began to clear and we got our first glimpse of the massive steep Southwest Face of Mt. Waddington. The near vertical 3,000' high rock escarpment stretches over a mile wide, with craggy summits along the ridge top. The actual summit tower, where our route lay, was the farthest away from us. In our clouded judgement we had chose the WPR (worst possible route) up the glacier to the base of the climb. Oops! Fortunately we would be able to get to the base; it would just take much longer than expected. After post-holing for five hours (Bobby and I didn't bring snowshoes, we were supposed to be dropped at 10,000 feet!) we reached our high camp at midnight and crawled in our sleeping bags. After making dinner we attempted to get some sleep at about 1:00 and dreaded our early morning wake up. We wanted to start at 3 or 4 in the morning, but ended up waking at about 6:00. We were on the trail at 7:00 even though we probably should have just given up with a start that late. We didn't get much sleep and were still tired from the long approach the previous night.

We climbed in earnest up the snow couloir notorious for rock fall. The rock fall actually wasn't bad at all, but there was a constant flow of powder snow down the gully which had even carved it's own channel in the snow. By 10am we reached the beginning of the scary "snow traverse" where the couloir runs out and progress is made by traversing along a narrow, sloping, snow-covered ledge sitting about 1000 feet up a sheer rock wall. The angle is probably between 70 and 85 degrees and the snow somehow clings to the "ledge". Mark volunteered to lead this section, and as he reluctantly ventured out onto it, he discovered that it was easier than it looked. It was possible to climb on the various rocks that poke out from the snow, and he was also able to find decent protection. Nevertheless this snow traverse took three hours for all of us to get through.

We all reached the top of the "triangular snowfield" at 1:00pm and we were freezing our arses off. The next obstacle presented itself and it was my turn to lead. The route calls for exiting the triangular snowfield by climbing the left of two rock chimneys at its left margin. We didn't find any rock chimneys, only two ice-filled gullies. The ice turned out to be exquisite and my picks sank in with every throw. I placed two ice screws on the 80-foot pitch, more for show than anything, as I felt totally secure in the plastic ice.

Above the ice we had another snow gully before some mixed rock and ice. I had to climb the rock with crampons on and gloved hands. This ended up freaking me out and psychologically ended the climb for me. The rock was probably 5.6 or 5.7 but it was too cold to climb bare handed, and I couldn't get any decent protection. Eventually I made it to the snow where I thought I would be safe, but to my horror, the snow was only a few inches deep and hid rock underneath. I gingerly climbed upward until I was able to find a crappy stance with two TCU's placed behind the same loose-looking block about the size of a football. I called for Mark and Bobby to follow and made sure they knew not to fall.

Bobby and Mark had much less trouble with the pitch and were ready to continue on. By now it was already 3:30 and I couldn't believe we were still going up! I knew that if I said anything we would turn around, so I kept my mouth shut. I hoped we'd be able to find a spot to build a snow cave to spend the night in, but so far we hadn't found deep enough snow. We had heard that the second ascent team had bivied in a spot right above us, so we figured they must have built a cave up there. Mark decided to take over the leading and headed up a snow slope to the next rock pitch. About 20 feet up the next rock section Mark down to Bobby and me:

"How much are you guys into this right now?"

I answered:

"Not at all. Let's get out of here and come back and do it Wednesday or Thursday!"

"Right on!" was the reply and at about 5:00 we began to descend from about 500' below the summit. We were able to reach the triangular snowfield with two rappels, then had to reverse the scary snow traverse. We did a lot better the second time; it only took us two hours to reverse. We eventually reached our camp at 10:00 and crawled in our sacks for an exposed, hungry night's sleep. The next morning (Tuesday) we arose late and headed down to basecamp, a tent, and food! We had slept too long and by now the glacier was slushy so it made for a laborious descent. We reached camp three hours later and crashed in the tent to kippered snacks and Ritz crackers.

Shortly after our initial failure we were already discussing how easy the climb was and how it really wasn't that scary. It's amazing how soon we forget! We made plans for our next attempt on Thursday...

Wednesday morning we arose at 6:00 to hit the glacier while it was still frozen. Armed with the tent and three day's food, we headed for high camp again. This time we knew the shortest trail and with the confidence of cold temperatures holding the seracs in place, we were able to weave a path through the crevasses and seracs. We booked and made it up 3,500' in a blistering 2 hours. For the rest of the day we relaxed, ate well, read books, played cards and did almost anything to keep our minds off of what lay ahead of us tomorrow. Bobby decided that he wasn't much into making another attempt and thought he was just slowing us down, so he wouldn't be coming with us. Later we learned that it was actually the climb through the crevasses and seracs that had freaked him out. He had never seen anything like that before and decided he was in a little over his head. It was understandable. The first time I saw a glacier like that I almost threw up, and I sure as hell didn't set foot on it. It takes a while to get used to that, and he wasn't as conditioned as Mark and me.

Thursday morning we arose at 3am and donned our light gear. Based on our previous attempt we decided to wear more warm clothes and bring more pitons for the rock, as we found it almost impossible to protect the first time. Nevertheless, we were still travelling extremely light. We were tied into an 8.4mm x 60m rope that we would simul-climb on and we carried an additional 7mm x 230' line to rap with. For gear we carried a measly set of stoppers, #1 and #2 TCU's, doubles of the Camalot Juniors, a #1 and #2 Camalot, 3 ice screws and a handful of pitons. Hopefully it would be enough for the nearly 3,000 feet of rock and ice that lay ahead.

We left the tent around 4am and we were cruising. We climbed much faster, deciding to simul-climb through the scary snow traverse and up the water-ice pitch at the top of the triangular snowfield, which we reached by 7am. On our previous attempt we hadn't started until 7, and we didn't reach this point until 1:00pm. We knew we would need the extra time on the summit rock towers above.

About a third of the way up the ice pitch I decided to place a screw since we didn't have any reliable gear in between us. As I began to turn the screw it broke out of the ice and I watched as it plummeted 500 feet or so down the triangular snowfield and into oblivion. Now we had two ice screws. Stupidly, I had racked the longest ice screw next, which I could absolutely not drop, as I knew we might need it to make V-threads for the descent. I wasn't going to risk dropping it, so I decided to press on, unprotected. The ice was solid, though and although it was probably WI 4+, I seemed to be flowing well on it. About 3/4 the way up I got a crappy piton in, clipped into it with a screamer, and pressed on.

I reached the top of the ice, made my way partly up the snowfield above, and established a belay. At this point Mark and I had simul-climbed the entire way, close to 2000 feet up the 2500-foot face. Now we would switch leads and belay as we got into the steep summit towers. We made our transition without a word and Mark was on the move by 8:00am. He worked his way across the previously scary rock traverse that had freaked me out; I followed with much less trouble than the first time, but I was still amazed at Mark's skill on that medium.

Further up we wasted a lot of time trying to find the right route. We knew we needed to go to the Amphitheater, but we couldn't figure out how to get there. There seemed to be a lot of residual snow on the peak that wasn't there during previous attempts and this was foiling our efforts. The ice pitch, already below us, was further testament to the fact that we were facing unusually hard conditions. I suggested that Mark try a snow traverse down and around a small rock outcrop to gain the Amphitheater. He opted to try to climb directly over the rock. After trying two different routes to no avail, he eventually decided to try my suggested route, despite the terrifying exposure and lack of protection. The tenuous traverse worked and we were into the Amphitheater by 10:00am with 400 feet of rock to go. Up until this point we had been moving as fast as possible to stem the tide of frostbite and hypothermia. However, now the increased difficulty made it impossible to travel fast enough to stay warm. Fortunately, the sun finally crept around the corner after we had watched it bathe nearby walls for hours. We reveled in the newfound warmth for a few minutes before realizing we still had a lot of work to do, and continued on.

We next found ourselves at the base of an obvious chimney, which we assumed was the famous "Beckey Chimney". Of course it contained a lot of snow and ice, but it wasn't too bad. Furthermore, the sun allowed us to climb barehanded, which made it much easier. Mark set off with his crampons on and managed to scare the shit out of himself as he faced a factor 2 fall onto the belay and our 8.4mm rope with many sharp objects hanging from himself. He climbed back down and removed the crampons before trying again. This time he found it much easier and he was soon out of my view. I kept feeding him rope, so I knew things were good. With about 150' of rope out he stopped and made another tenuous belay in the piece-meal rock. I quickly climbed up to him and found the climbing extremely enjoyable with great incut holds and fun chimney moves. The rock turned out to be much warmer than the ice tools I had been death-gripping all morning.

At this point it was time to begin a rising, right-trending traverse under the summit to the Southeast ridge. We couldn't figure out where to go, because all of the horizontal surfaces were covered with snow. I made a reconnaissance out to the right to try to find the route and wound up at a dead end. I thought I saw a big ledge above, so I headed up for it. It this point, we hadn't found a single ledge on which we could sit on the entire route, so such a ledge would have been very welcome. When I reached it, I found it was just like all the other @#$%ing ledges, it was covered with a ramp of snow. No rest for the weary.

I belayed Mark up and we decided that we would try to go the North side of the mountain, or just be satisfied with any one of the summit pinnacles, not necessarily the highest one. I led off again, this time tunneling through a rime-ice cornice trying to reach the North Face. I ended at a dead-end at a large chasm that looked too difficult to downclimb without protection. I retreated and tried another promising route to the left. I was able to see the North side, but it was even more hopelessly snow-covered than the Southwest side, so I scrambled up a small pinnacle just north of the summit tower. I belayed Mark up and we decided we had satisfactorily climbed the Southwest face of Mt. Waddington. The tower we were on was less than fifty feet from the true summit and probably 15 vertical feet lower, but the extra snow on the mountain made it unreasonably risky to try to make it to the true summit.

We took our summit photos and began to descend around 3:00pm. The rappels off the rocky summit towers took forever, as we had to construct rap anchors out of the crumbling rock. On more than one occasion we rapped off of much less than "Freedom of the Hills"-quality anchors. We reached the top of the triangular snowfield by 7pm, cruised the scary traverse, and were down in camp by 9pm, just in time to watch the sunset as we ate dinner.

Post-trip postscript: In retrospect and after considerable further research and study of photographs, we are now sure we did not climb the Beckey chimney, which we think is further to the right of the chimney we climbed. Route finding in the upper section is the crux of the entire adventure. Communications to the author or web site editor are welcome in unraveling the mystery of the final pitches to the true summit.

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