Team: Mark Synnott, Rick Armstrong, Kasha Rigby, Hilaree Nelson, Spencer Wheatley, Chris Figenshau, John Teaford, Peter Mattson, Beat Steiner
When: June 2001
Where: Coast Range Mountains, British Columbia
Other Media: An article on the expedition was published in the Winter 2001/2002 issue of SnoWorld Magazine, a television program on the trip will air on The Outdoor life Network, air date TBA, the trip was also featured in the Warren Miller feature film entitled “Cold Fusion”
Sponsor: The North Face/Warren Miller Films
Ten days before the Mt. Waddington Expedition is scheduled to begin, I’m sitting in Anchorage, having just returned from the Alaska Range. The phone rings and it’s a friend from The North Face who asks: “How’d you like to climb and ski Mt. Waddington for a Warren Miller ski film?” Who would turn down such an offer? Certainly not me. Besides myself, the group of skiers includes Kasha Rigby, Hilaree Nelson, Rick Armstrong and Spencer Wheatley. This trip is a film project so in addition to the athletes we’ll also be accompanied by the producer John Teaford, cinematographer Beat Steiner, guide Pete “the Swede” Mattson, and still photographer Chris Figenshau.
We rent two huge vans and drive from Seattle to Whistler, BC and then on to the town of Williams Lake where we buy a ridiculous amount of food for basecamp. All told it takes us a day and a half and 10+ hours of driving to reach Bluff Lake and the home of the King Family and White Saddle Helicopter Service. Our plan is to have Mike King fly us the 40 miles into Waddington as soon as the weather permits.
Unfortunately, the weather is unsettled during our first couple days at the ranch, but there are worse places to be stranded. We find many ways to pass the time. Rick and Spencer ride mini bikes, Kasha and Hilaree go trail running, and Chris and I paddle the sketchy Moseley Creek. The creek is small and choked with log jams. The Kings clearly thought we were a little nuts to try and paddle it, but what they didn’t realize is that Moseley is my middle name — no joke. I had to do it. Chris and I made a good run of it, covering several miles before we capsized and almost drowned in a huge log jam.
On our third day at the ranch the weather finally clears. In four trips with his C-206 chopper, Mike moves all eight of us and our food, fuel and equipment into basecamp. The flight is truly awe-inspiring affording us bird’s eye views of pristine, uninhabited valleys the size of Colorado’s Front Range. Mt. Waddington lies directly in the center of the most densely mountainous area in the Coast Range, and indeed the peaks become almost Himalayan in stature as we approach our objective. Mike drops us off at 10,000 feet on a massive flat ice shelf that separates Mt. Waddington from its neighbors, Mt. Combatant and Mt. Tiedeman. Mt. Waddington is only 13,177 feet tall, but I dare say it may be the most difficult 13,000 foot peak in the world. Located more than 40 miles from the nearest road, without a helicopter it is a full blown multi-week devil’s club bushwhacking epic just to get to its base.
Although the weather is nice, Swede warns us that the location of our basecamp is prone to hurricane force winds, so we immediately begin construction of a massive snow wall to enclose our compound. When all the tents are up, we load our skis onto our backs and head for the nearby Combatant couloir, a 2500 foot gully between Mt. Combatant and Mt. Tiedemann. This gully is supposed to be one of the main objectives of the trip, so we stop halfway up so as to not completely cover it with tracks. The snow conditions on the ski down are less than ideal but we’re all excited to be cutting turns in this wild alpine paradise.
Bluebird days are rare in the Coast Range, so when we wake up the next morning at 6am and see blue sky, we immediately begin packing up for our climb to the summit. Mt. Waddington is an intimidating and complex peak with two main summits. Most climbers only make it to the top of the northwest summit – the climb up the Angel Glacier is long, prone to avalanches and serac fall, but predominantly non-technical. Our plan is to climb and ski from the northwest summit, then possibly Rick and I will bivi and try for the main summit. The actual summit of Mt. Waddington is only 200 feet higher than the northwest summit, but getting to it involves first crossing a long exposed ice slope and then 15 pitches of steep ice and mixed climbing. It is long way to go for an extra 200 feet.
Fifteen minutes out of camp, we skin into the debris zone of a 400 foot overhanging creaking monster of a serac. Some of the chunks are the size of refrigerators and small cars. There is nothing we can do but move fast and hope that it doesn’t calve while we’re under it. No one discusses it, but skiing under this serac is hands down one of the most dangerous things any of us have ever done. We stop for lunch just on the other side of another smaller debris path. The serac feeding it is only about 150 feet high, but it’s very active, spitting out basketball-sized-chunks every few minutes. We all realize that we’ve stopped a bit too close, but no one feels like moving again once the packs are off. Rick points at a huge crack in the serac and says: “Check out that one, it’s ready to go.” As if on cue, a house-sized chunk blows out of the center, sending a 15 foot high wall of ice directly at us. I am already untied and so begin sprinting out of the way. Several people who are still tied into the rope get tangled up in knots trying to run in different directions. The ice flow misses them by about 40 feet.
Hilaree and Spencer get all the credit for breaking trail to the summit. Hilaree especially was out in front for most of the day. Rick and I were the only people carrying bivi gear, although everyone had helped us split up the weight. Still, our packs are close to fifty pounds each. It takes us eight hours to skin up to a small shoulder 400 feet below the icy pyramid shaped northwest summit. Spencer, Hilaree and Rick ski off of it. It’s a steep (52-55) slope of rock hard snow above a bergshrund. A lot of it has to be side slipped, but they do manage to get in a couple good turns. I switch into my Koflachs and climb up without my skis to watch. Kasha climbs up with her skis but decides that it’s too icy for tele gear.
When the rest of the crew leaves us at our camp on the col, Rick and I feel lucky to be the chosen two who will bivi and try to make the main summit. By midnight, though, we’re sitting in a full blown blizzard and any hopes of reaching the top are gone. In fact, we now don’t even know how we’re going to get down the crevassed, avalanche and serac prone Angel Glacier in a whiteout. What if the storm lasts longer than our supplies?
These grim subjects are best avoided, but when you have endless hours, let alone days, to do nothing but stare at the patterns of yellow ripstop nylon, it’s sometimes hard to stop your mind from wandering down dark alleyways. A human mind needs stimulation and with nothing but the banter of dirty jokes, it’s inevitable that eventually Rick and I will lose the ability to entertain each other. Could I last a week of sitting in this tent? I’m just not sure.
One of my greatest sources of entertainment is Rick’s sleeping pad. He somehow forgot his Thermarest back at the ranch. Instead he is sporting a cardboard box, more or less exactly the set up used by bums who live under overpasses. He claims it is “the shit,” but I think mainly he’s just too afraid to admit that his pad has the insulating value of an old pair of cotton briefs. We’ve been cooking in the tent for the past two days, and by now Rick’s “pad” is the consistency of wet Wonder bread.
Our third night below the northwest summit is the grimmest yet. The wind is hammering the tent so hard that I keep waking from this nightmare in which Rick and I are buried alive. When I hear the tent door zip open, I burrow deeper into my bag, hoping to avoid the wave of spindrift that will inevitably follow. “It’s clearing,” Rick says. “There’s a window of blue sky right above us.” We exit the tent into a winter wonderland of virgin snow. Any tracks have long since vanished and only one small panel of yellow fabric is showing of the tent. Our skis and bindings are coated in a thick crust of rime ice which we have to scrape off the bases before they’ll even slide in the snow. It takes us a couple hours to pack up everything and heft our 50-pound packs onto our backs.
We ski fast and unroped, rationalizing that the less time we spend in this danger zone, the safer we’ll be. The clouds could sock back in any second, stranding us in an area where you don’t want to be hanging out. 30 minutes after pushing off, we bomb out from under a massive icefall and out across the flat expanse of the Combatant Col. By the time we skin up and return to camp, the storm is already closing back in for the day.
The next day after returning to basecamp, we make the second descent of the Combatant Couloir. The top section of the gully, which in places is only a little wider than the length of a pair of skis, is bullet hard 55 degree ice. Rick, Hilaree, myself, Spencer and Chris all ski it from the top, but Kasha downclimbs a short ways before dropping in. Although she is clearly capable of skiing it from the top, we all agree it is wise for her to act conservatively with her tele gear. The Combatant Couloir is one of the all time best ski descents of my life, and when we got back to camp it’s still only early afternoon. There is another gully further to the north on Mt. Combatant and it doesn’t take long for me to convince everyone to go for another run. This 1500 foot shot has better snow and Swede claims it may be a first descent.
The next day our new heli pilot, Richard from Bella Coola, picks us up in his beautiful A-star. We shuttle back to White Saddle and have ourselves a crazy party that culminates in a giant bonfire, fire walking and then late-night rally races in the Nissan X-terra. In the morning we move our base of operations to a different lodge way back in the wilderness above Tatla Lake. Teaford wants to finish up the trip with some footage of us heli skiing in the Coast Range. We’re scheduled for two or three days but we end up only getting in one because of the weather. Our one day is sick though – we end up skiing off half a dozen amazing peaks. The highlight of the day is a wipeout taken by Rick when he tries to air onto a steep slope of particularly funky snow. He somersaults down the entire face, then launches upside down over 15 foot bergshrund. I’m guessing he’s either dead or paralyzed, but amazingly he stands up and walks away. They don’t call him “Sick Rick” for nothing.
Simply put, Mt. Waddington expedition was one of the all time best trips I’ve ever done.