Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Wadd!!!!


I’ve been procrastinating again. I returned from my Waddington adventure almost five weeks ago now, and haven’t yet sat down to give it much thought, let alone write about it. The only Waddington relating thinking I’ve been doing is a few text messages back and forth with my team to brainstorm ideas for next summer’s mountain adventure!

The Waddington-Combatant Col with Mt. Tiedemann and Mt. Asperity in the foreground.

Ultimately though, I guess this is a good sign of my recent trips success. No need to ponder the intricacies of climbing partnership dynamics, or stress about strained relationships from residual trip tensions. The trip went off without a hitch. Jasmin Caton, Kinley Aitken and I got along like a house on fire. For three women who’d never climbed together in the mountains, let alone at the crags surrounding our home in Squamish, BC, this was miraculous! 

On-route to Bluff Lake. Chris Christie photo.
After a few false starts as we watched the forecast fluctuate, Jasmin, Kinley, and I left for Bluff Lake, accompanied by Squamish-based photographer, Chris Christie. We left Squamish on what appeared to be a good forecast in the range, but not surprisingly, we arrived at Bluff Lake in torrential rains and opted to stay the night in the cozy guest house run by Lori and Jim King. It rained all through the night and into the morning.  We watched from the breakfast table as Lori prepared pancakes and assured us that, “It never rains this hard in July.” Oh dear. As the day progressed we became increasingly fearful that we were going to be denied entry, as clouds rolled low around Bluff Lake and the rain continued to fall.

Miraculously, at about 7:00 pm on July 23rd we received a radio call from helicopter pilot Mike King, that skies were clearing and he wanted to get us into the mountains stat! With helicopter travel it is imperative that you act quickly. Unlike large jets, helicopters fly by site alone, and if the weather turns and visibility decreases, landing immediately is sometimes the only option.

We scrambled to repack our gear, threw it in the truck, and headed to Mike’s hanger two kilometres from our guest house. And just like that, we were loaded in the helicopter and taking off on what we hoped would be a fantastical voyage. 

Thirty minutes later, the four of us stared in wide-eyed amazement as evening light filtered through the craggy ridgelines of Combatant, Tiedemann, and Asperity. I was feeling a little short of breath, and maybe a little bit like I had just been dropped in the Himalaya. It’s hard to grasp the size of these rock faces from images and numbers alone. Landing at their base and looking up, brings a whole new perspective and my brain couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was only a mere two hundred kilometres as the crow flies from the metropolis of Vancouver.

It is a curious thing to travel into the mountains, to a place you’ve never visited before. Those first few hours and days, you feel so out of place, so tentative, like every step could cause some cataclysmic disaster. Slowly, over time, you begin to familiarize yourself with the surroundings, with the ebb and flow, the noises, and the movement. Waddington was no different; I felt compelled to be still for those first few hours and simply watch the activity around us.

With the precipitation in the days leading up to our arrival, the mountains had accumulated considerable snow and the North faces of Mt. Munday and Mt. Waddington were running wild with serac and avalanche fall. With every cracking sound I would all stop whatever I was preoccupied with and stare, mouth agape, at the house-sized pieces of ice falling from the mountain.

Despite this, we could not let Waddington intimidate us too much, or we’d never get anything accomplished. And so, twelve hours after arriving we set out to reconnaissance the Tiedemann Glacier and observe our proposed objectives from a closer perspective.

On July 24th we woke to perfect weather. After a leisurely start, we gathered ourselves and our gear for an afternoon walk west up the Tiedemann Glacier to where the glacier rises to the Waddington-Combatant Col. It didn’t take long for us to settle on our “warm-up” route, Tiedemann Tower, a 600 metre high tower on the ridgeline of Mt. Tiedemann's South Buttress. This would be a perfect opportunity to sample the rock, dial our systems, and watch the Waddington-Combatant Col a little closer.

Our home at Sunny Knob. Chris Christie photo.
We awoke our second morning in the range to a cloudless night sky -- it was 3:15 am after-all -- and began our slog up the glacier to the base of Mt. Tiedemann. As we had hoped, getting ourselves situated above the bergshrund and onto the lowest toe of rock was rather easy. As night turned to day we switched to rock shoes and began simul-climbing up the east side of the South Buttress, until reaching a snow slope separating us from the next buttress of rock. After crossing the snow we began to pitch out the climbing and generally following the crest of the South Buttress, before hitting a roughly 120 metre high headwall of granite split by several delicious-looking cracks.  We climbed this headwall in three pitches up to 5.10+. The rock was grainy and exfoliating, but the situation was absolutely incredible with Waddington peering on in the background, and the gaping crevasses of the Tiedemann Glacier far below.

Until this point, we had been climbing in tank tops and rolled-up pants. It was magical, and none of us could believe that Mt. Tiedemann was allowing us such smooth passage. It was after-all only our third day in the range, and we were certainly NOT mountaineers.

After Jasmin brought us again to moderate terrain above the headwall, we caught glimpse of some looming clouds. Our immediate response was to bail, remembering that we were still in some of the biggest mountains on the North American continent, and that trouble was always just around the corner. But after a brief regroup, we pressed on hoping to make the summit of our little Tiedemann Tower before the weather truly turned. At the same time, I was beginning to sense that we were a great team, our decision making process was efficient, and we each seemed to approach our time in the mountains with the same amount of respect. 

After another hundred metres of simul-climbing we rounded a small gendearme to again see the clouds looming closer, and darker. It was time to go down, perhaps fifty or so metres from the summit. We began our raps, setting stations the full length of our line of ascent.  

After getting the rope stuck as I crossed the bergshrund -- I think I've mentioned before that there is nothing I dislike more than large snowy holes -- we were again on the low angle glacier below, just as darkness fell. We walked the length of the Tiedemann Glacier back to our camp at Sunny Knob in the dark, and stumbled into our tents. Awaking the following morning we were dehydrated and starving, but elated to have already accomplished a successful climb.

On our fourth day in the mountains we rested, regrouped, and decided to make an exploratory trip to the Upper Tellot Glacier the next day. The West Ridge of Claw Peak, an area classic we were told, would be our objective. With limited commitment and moderate 5.6 climbing, it was the perfect chance to decompress from Mt. Tiedemann.

Another pre-dawn start on our fifth day, July 27th, and I was beginning to feel pretty tired. The little blue sleeping pill that I took as my night cap the previous night, didn’t seem to work all that well. Regardless, we were all in good spirits and excited to explore a new, less committing, zone of the range.

Editors note: For someone who considers herself a “rock climber”, the Waddington Range was certainly the most extreme mountain terrain I had ever been exposed to, and the mental game was taxing my mind a little. A perfect example: during our reconnaissance of the Tiedemann Glacier, after a particularly large serac fall, I practically started to run the opposite direction afraid that the avalanche debris might sweep me off the glacier! Turns out, the debris was still a kilometre away, but with my limited experience in such terrain, my fight or flight response was pronounced. A seasoned veteran would certainly have been able to read the situation accurately enough to determine that we were in no danger. No matter though, a good laugh was had, after a good cry, and yet another lesson learned.

And so, we left camp in early morning light, as we were now becoming accustomed to, but this time with our token male, Chris, and all his camera gear -- turns out Chris was a great sport, and didn’t seemed too ruffled when we had our obligatory “female” moments; tears, chats about boys, long talks about our favorite clothes, discussions of quiting climbing to return to Squamish and have babies. You name it, we forced Chris to be a party to our girlie moments.

Yes, we are women, and we are mountain climbers! Chris Christie photo.
We made our way up the 1,000 metre gain to the Plummer Hut, and the base of our West Ridge route on Claw Peak. In warm sun we climbed the aesthetic ridge and basked in the beauty of Waddington from the summit.

This little trip also gave us the perfect opportunity to spy our next objective, a climb of Serra Two’s South Ridge, and an attempt on the 300 metre, unclimbed east face of the Grand Cappuccino. We snapped a few photos of the route, tried to devise our best plan of attack and trekked back to camp. It was decided we would climb Serra Two’s South Ridge to the base of the east face of the Grand Cappuccino and bivy there. We would make an attempt on the east face the following day, return to our bivy, and on the third day complete the South Ridge, and descend to the Upper Tellot Glacier. All-in-all a three day effort, as long as things went as planned. Chris was also keen to join and capture the action on film.  

On July 29th, after another day of rest, we departed our camp at Sunny Knob to climb to our proposed bivy halfway up the South Ridge of Serra Two. We soloed the first fourth-class buttress and forty-degree snow above, to the base of the next buttress of rock and what appeared to be the start of the fifth-class climbing. We climbed as two parties of two: Jasmin and myself, and Kinley and Chris. The climbing was incredible, the rock perfect, the situation remarkable, and we were all feeling giddy with how lucky we were to be enjoying our third day of awesome rock climbing in such a pure alpine environment.

As we arrived at the base of the last buttress of rock before reaching our planned bivy spot, I began to notice a growing number of clouds, many of them of the tell-tale lenticular variety. Jasmin and I both took a few moments to observe the alien-ship-like clouds sweeping the peaks around us, but assured each other that our most recent weather report predicted perfect conditions.

Editors note: Never ignore obvious weather signs simply because you’ve been assured of good weather by an Environment Canada weather report!

Once Chris and Kinley arrived at our belay we simul-climbed the last technical snow/rock steps to the Col at the base of the East side of the Grand Cappuccino, and began the search for, what we were certain would be, a perfectly flat, and comfortable bivy site.

Editors note: Never assume you will find a wonderful bivy site. Be prepared for the worst, then you’ll be happily surprised by what you find.

Turns out our bivy was a few one-by-two metre rocky platforms hanging precariously over the West face of Phantom Tower. Weather was beginning to deteriorate at this point, and we fell asleep to little blue pill induced slumber, unsure of what tomorrow would bring.

Our bivy sucked. After the little blue pill wore off, I woke every half hour to adjust which part of my body was crocked by the large boulder that made up part of my mattress, and which part of my body was spooned against Jasmin, who shared my one-by-two space.

As I roused myself to switch positions sometime into the night, I felt wet drops on the exposed parts of my face. It was raining, no, it was snowing. I couldn’t see the stars, the wind was howling. For your seasoned alpinist, this scenario would simply increase the excitement factor - a new challenge, a chance to use one’s ice tools, maybe throw out a few mixed moves on some iced up rock. For us "rock climbers" this meant we were in trouble. As we roused ourselves from our sardine can bivies and looked out at the snow and clouds swirling around our tiny perch, I think everyone’s stomach was in their throats. What were we going to do? Reversing what we had climbed the day before would be horrendous. Down-climbing fifth class terrain covered in snow wasn’t an option, at least not a reasonable one. With few words it was decided that going up was our only means of escape. And so, just like that, we were real alpinists. We were going to climb the remaining 800 metres of the South Ridge in cold, snowy, icy, windy, conditions. I guess the tank top I had stuffed into my already bursting backpack was going to come to no good use!

We used all the tricks we had up our sleeves, and learned some new tricks along the way. We pressed on throughout the day making slow progress, and finally in the fading light we rounded the last gendarme to the minor col that we supposed was to be our descent colouir. As we began our raps to the glacier below, I had to hold my breath a few times as all four of us lowered onto each rap anchor that, in my tired/delirious state, I was certain was completely sketchy. In fact, I left one of my shiny new red camalots at one of the anchors to appease my frazzled mind as Chris and Kinley reefed up and down on a stuck rope weighting and un-weighting the two nuts lodged in the crappy rock wall.

Finally our ropes made it over the bergshrund, and as darkness fell, we all landed “safely” on the flat glacier below. I say “safely” because we still had to navigate in the dark and falling snow, the Upper Tellot Glacier back to the Plummer Hut. Route finding through crevassed terrain is more difficult when one's visibility is restricted to twenty metres or so ahead! Perhaps we would simply walk in circles on the glacier all night to stay warm and wait out the day-light so we could safely navigate a route through the crevasses?

However, Waddington threw us another bone, and twenty minutes into our walk of shame the skies cleared and the stars and moon appeared, allowing us a clear view of our line to the Hut. Thank you Waddington. At 1:00 am, we dragged our tired bodies onto the floor of the Plummer Hut, fourty-four hours after leaving our camp, and fell asleep in our wet sleeping bags.

The best thing about surviving an epic, is that you get to eat a lot of food afterwards! We woke to glorious sun at the Plummer Hut and sat basking in its warmth and eating for a full four hours before rousing ourselves to make our way back to Sunny Knob.

Waking on the morning of August 1st after a glorious sleep in our warm, and dry, down bags we talked through our options. Kinley’s elbow was infected and getting worse - the result of a fall while climbing back in Squamish. Weather reports were beginning to sound less optimistic too. Perhaps we had worn out our welcome, and it was time to bow out gracefully.

I left the mountains feeling satisfied with what we had accomplished -- to travel safely and by our own accounts successfully. Not only had I made new friends, plans are already being hatched for next summer's adventure, but I also want to return to the Waddington Range and develop my newfound mountain skills a little further.

As you’ve probably gathered I didn’t pay for this trip out of my own pocket - I am an unemployed dirt-bag after-all. MEC’s Expedition Support played a huge part in covering some of our team's expenses. Sterling Ropes hooked us up with some colourful cord, and Black Diamond passed off some of those radical new Vector helmets plus a few other things! Thanks everyone!

Planning our adventure at home in Squamish while the rains still fell. Chris Christie photo.

Climbing in the mountains is dang gear intensive! Sorting our kit our in Squamish. Chris Christie photo. 
The crew: Chris, Sarah, Jasmin, and Kinley. Kinley Aitken photo.
There's no hiding it - we brought a photographer. Kinley Aitken photo.
Jasmin enjoying the garden view from the guest house at Bluff Lake while we waited for Mike to give word that he was ready to fly us into the Range. Kinley Aitken photo.
That's our stuff, and that needs to get into our helicopter! Jasmin Caton photo.
OK, maybe we did bring a lot of stuff. Fitting into the helicopter was pretty cruxy. Jasmin Caton photo.
As it happens! Sarah and Chris get dropped by Mike on the glacier while he shuttles a load up to our Sunny Knob camp. Jasmin Caton photo.
Not a bad spot to hang out for a few weeks. Chris Christie photo. 
Basecamp was pretty plush. Chris Christie photo. 
We rally for a reconnaissance walk up the Tiedemann Glacier. Jasmin Caton photo.
Approaching Mt. Tiedemann, with Tiedemann Tower the highest visible in the image. Jasmin Caton photo.
This is what an alpine start looks like. Jasmin Caton photo.
Kinley navigating the bergshrund as we approach Mt. Tiedemann. Sarah Hart photo.
It's pretty cold still! Kinley Aitken photo.
Sarah following on the lower pitches of Tidemann Tower. Jasmin Caton photo.
Sarah and Kinley psyched! Mt. Waddington in the distance. Jasmin Caton photo.
Jasmin. Sarah Hart photo.
Kinley leads out on the upper headwall of Tiedemann Tower. Sarah Hart photo.
Jasmin leads out on the second splitter pitch of the headwall. 
Kinely on the pitches above the headwall. Sarah Hart photo.
The obligatory summit (our summit) shot. Jasmin Caton photo.
And as we began our raps, the clouds swirled around Mt. Waddington. Jasmin Caton photo.
That's a 60 metre rope-stretching, totally vertical rappel. Inching our way over the edge to start this rap was kind of heart stopping! Jasmin Caton photo.
Jasmin starting another rappel. Kinley Aitken photo.
Sarah, Kinley, and Jasmin take in the scenery around Claw Peak with the broken Bravo Glacier behind. Chris Christie photo.
Jasmin and Kinley heading up the West Ridge of Claw Peak. The Plumber Hut is visible far below. Sarah Hart photo.
Kinley on the summit. Sarah Hart photo.
We weren't completely alone in the Range. From our perch on Tiedemann Tower, 4 climbers are visible crossing the upper slopes of the Bravo Glacier route to the summit of Mt. Waddington. Kinely Aitken photo.
Did I mention basecamp life was pretty deluxe. Kinely Aitken photo.

The Vogue magazine really got around. Kinely Aitken photo.
Those are lenticular clouds in the distance! Jasmin rounding the corner on Day 1 of Serra Two. Sarah Hart photo. 
We found the coolest chimney/dike feature, which we followed for two pitches, on the lower rock buttress of Serra Two. Jasmin Caton photo.
Sarah watching as clouds gather on Day 1 of Serra Two. Jasmin Caton photo.
Yes, there is definitely weather coming! Sarah Hart photo.
Climbing steep snow on Day 1 of Serra Two. Jasmin Caton photo. 
There she is, the rock pillar on the left is the East face of the Grand Cappuccino. Jasmin Caton photo.
This was as uncomfortable as it looks. Sarah, not ready to admit that we were kind of in trouble. Jasmin Caton photo.

Definitely some forced smiles as we pack up our bivy and prepare to climb the remainder of the South Ridge. Jasmin Caton photo.
Day 2 on Serra Two. If you look really hard you can see Claw Peak. This short break in the weather certainly lifted our spirits if only for a moment! Sarah Hart photo.
Who doesn't love climbing rimed up 5.9 cracks with gloves and boots on in the snow? Jasmin Caton photo. 
What most of Day 2 on Serra Two looked like. Jasmin Caton photo.
Look fast! Another break in the weather, long enough for us to catch a glimpse of our descent onto the Upper Tellot Glacier, and the bergshrund we needed to cross. Jasmin Caton photo.
It was getting dark, and we were cold. Jasmin Caton photo.
And onto the glacier, in the dark, something we were getting used to. Jasmin Caton photo.

Our view from the Plumber Hut the next morning. Chris Christie photo.
Chillin' in the sun after our Serra Two adventure. Kinley Aitken photo.
Sarah and Kinley back in the overstuffed helicopter. Kinley Aitken photo.
Bye Waddington, until next year! Kinley Aitken photo.
Mike and Chris of White Saddle Air having a few last words with us before we headed home. Sarah Hart photo.