Some rad organizations supporting adventures in Canada made this trip possible: Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) in coordination with Arc’teryx, and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) in coordination with Canadian Geographic. Check out the grant offerings on their websites.
As the moon rose from behind a jagged ridgeline, the world exploded beyond the fading beam of my headlamp. I struggled to comprehend the scale of the mountains in front of me. Perhaps it was the early morning brain fog that settles into the space that sleep should occupy. It felt like these mountains didn’t belong here. From down on the Tiedemann Glacier, the monolith of Mt. Waddington (4,019m) rose 2,000 meters above. The moon reflected brightly off the glacial seracs cascading down shattered black rock. On the other side of the valley innumerous sharp granite spires protruded from broken icefalls, like nails hammered through wood. The days spent swirling in the clouds above felt like a dream. The wind whipping crystals of snow into my squinted eyes. The thick blue ice and frozen rock. A stone’s throw from the tepid August waters of the gulf islands of British Columbia.
In the silent trance of the pre-dawn night, we hopped a hundred small crevasses down the glacier, and as dawn cracked like a yolk on the horizon we made our way back up 800 meters of talus and bare ice to the Plummer Hut. We had left our previous camp at 6pm, perched on a high col between Serra 5 (3,579m) and Mt. Asperity (3,716m). We reached the hut at 6am. By the early afternoon we were at a beach bar in Campbell River. “Looks like you guys have been out hiking,” the waitress said. I suppose you could say that.
A couple weeks earlier, in mid July, bad weather finally took hold after an exceptionally dry spring. Although Matteo Agnoloni, Sebastian Pelletti and I were poised to launch into the range, we had to wait patiently to see if our opportunity would come. We committed to what looked to be a good window of clear weather starting on July 31st, which unfortunately (and not all that surprisingly) didn’t quite pan out. In addition to low visibility and light flurries, the conditions were far from ideal, which led to many small and tedious decision points about how to proceed. Instead of mostly dry rock, we found the Serra Spires in full mixed conditions (in August!) which made for really fun climbing, albeit much slower than anticipated. We managed to make the first traverse of the five Serra Spires in order, over two days of bad weather, and two days of good weather (they have been traversed twice in reverse during the full range traverse).
Highlights included a new route on the northeast aspect of Serra 2 which we called Nor’easter (230m, M5) which involved a five star iced up mixed chimney pitch leading directly to the summit. Further along the traverse, we faced the emotional stress of visiting the scene of last year’s rappelling accident.. In 2022, Matteo and I triggered some rockfall while pulling the ropes on a rappel down the north side of Serra 5. Matteo was hit in the thigh and suffered a deep laceration resulting in a partially severed quad muscle and tendon, leading to an extrication by Bella Coola SAR. Thankfully, this year we rappelled smoothly down the north side of Serra 5, opening a route up a hidden couloir full of blue ice and another stellar mixed pitch Duck n’ Cover Couloir (400m, M6 AI3 (200m of new terrain at AI3 M5)) that connected us to the already existing routes on the upper north face, which were caked in wet snow.
Given the snowy and insecure nature of the climbing on Serra 5, we likely chose a line that was much harder than it needed to be, opting for steep terrain with better protection than low angle slab. It was cool to make the first ascent of Serra 5 from the east, a puzzle that confounded climbers since the 1950’s and 60’s. The east face is unappealing, consisting of vertical and loose basalt. I surmise that the idea of rappelling down the north side and climbing ice back up was not a feasible option given equipment and techniques of the time. It is a simple solution with v-threads and modern ice climbing gear.
After an unexpectedly long 20-hour day to climb Serra 4 and Serra 5 in tough conditions, we found ourselves at the Serra 5-Asperity Col around midnight on the third day. The forecast was for two additional days of seemingly good weather before another big storm system arrived. After a full day of lounging in the sun (on an alpine climb…) we started our descent in the evening to mitigate our exposure to overhead hazards as much as possible. The most accessible escape route was down Carl’s Couloir, which in good conditions consists of downclimbing snow slopes for 1,400 meters. I was nervous to commit to a mystery south-facing descent given the late season conditions on the lower mountain, but the alternative option was to reverse the traverse, which was also not appealing. My skepticism about the descent was well founded as we spent 12 hours rappelling chossy cliffs recently exposed from snowmelt, huge broken bergschrunds, and a 40-degree glacial tongue littered in debris, which destroyed our carabiners and belay devices in only two rappels. Although the upper parts of the mountains seemed to be holding their snow and ice coverage, the lower parts had completely melted out and the glaciers were degrading rapidly.
As with other ranges around the world, it may be time to rethink the “climbing season”. High pressure systems in the traditional season of late July and August now bring warmer temperatures that exacerbate the hazards while moving through these mountains. Many of the snow, ice and glacier routes in the guidebook as well as approaches to the rock spires are becoming inaccessible and descent options are deteriorating. Steve Swenson wasn’t far off when he told me that the Waddington Range is “as hazardous as the Canadian Rockies.” Yet with the right partners, motivation, and mentality, the experience and solitude of climbing in the range is hard to beat, especially in this part of the world.