Photos & Story by Joe Sambataro
“Rock!” The warning echoes along the northern flanks of Mt. Waddington, yet the three of us are alone in the entire range. We just retraced our ground, traversing snow and ice horizontally below the second buttress of McNerthney Pillar (ED 1/2, 5.10 mixed). Discontinuous cracks and loose flakes make upward progress painfully slow, yet we charge ahead fully committed. Hanging off the belay, I switch from boots and crampons to rock shoes for the umpteenth time and stuff my gloves in the jacket. I stem across a rock band, pausing to place a screw in a perfect runnel of ice…“Mixed” climbing was gaining a whole new meaning.
Just one day earlier, we were crawling out of the van and loading up the helicopter. Before we knew it, we were scurrying to unload all of our basecamp gear at Sunny Knob and jumping back in the chopper. Within minutes, we were crouching down at the Waddington-Combatant Col, hooting and hollering as Mike King lifted the Bell 407 effortlessly in the windless sky. We each had 30-lb packs with gear and food to last four days while we navigated up the north face and back down the Bravo Glacier to base camp. This additional stop saved an entire day’s approach navigating the Tiedemann icefall, leaving nothing but an expansive football field of snow between us and the start of the route. Score.
With my partners Ben Kunz and Tim Halder, we donned our tools and took off for the bergschrund. While only 700 meters, “providing far and away the most powerful climbing line of this face” (Serl 2003), we were beginning to understand why the McNerthney brothers were the only ones to have climbed this spectacular line nearly 27 years before us. Longer 20-something pitch climbs can often be climbed within a day, yet the Pillar offered climbing more similar to the Alaskan Range with all the complexities of an aged Bordeaux. While the first ascentionists only procured one high bivy on route, our slow but steady pace meant we required an extra night. Fortunately, we found two bivies with just enough daylight to chip away ice and rock for a flat ledge to partially lay flat on. The extensive three-hour sunsets and star-filled night skies made up for any periods of interrupted sleep, and we awoke each morning to warm sun rays. Topping out above the hanging seracs and perching on top Waddington’s Northwest summit, we developed an utmost respect for the first ascentionists and only hope that others will tackle the pillar and create their own stories to share. It’s a given that each party will have to weave their own route up the tiers of buttresses, encountering challenges of their own.
After a much-celebrated rest day, Ben and I went on a reconnaissance trip to scout out the Stilletto Glacier approach and potential new lines on Dentiform Peak. With Bicuspid Tower as a secondary objective for the day, we hoped to leave a rope and rack at the base for a full attempt the following morning. After all, we still had a few more days of high pressure overhead. Yet, bone-white granite and clean continuous cracks caught my eye on the steepest face of Bicuspid, and I soon lured Ben into my increasing frenzy to attempt a new route ground up and onsight. Each climber seeks his or her vision while climbing, and I could not turn away without giving this range everything I had to offer.
We took the most direct line we could find – a thin crack that pinched down to a seam before opening back up again into splitter hands. Navigating the first crux involved a tricky sequence of slopers and crimps, yet a narrow stance below offered me the time to suss everything out. A V-slot led back into 5.10 and 5.11 corner cracks before arcing around to the top of the east peak. After 17 hours, we were back in camp enjoying a hot meal and taking in the stark contrast yet unreal fortune of adding this spectacular new route to our second ascent of McNerthney.
The three of us wrapped up the trip with antics on top of Serra 1, a short trip up the Tellot Glacier from Plummer Hut. We flew out on the eighth day before any clouds of the upcoming storm could mask the expansive 360 degree views of Mt. Waddington, the Combatant-Tiedemann massif, Serra-Stilletto towers, and Munday group.
Let’s jump into the disclaimers. First, the true ultimate guide to the Waddington Range is Don Serl’s The Waddington Guide – this is just a teaser. Second, this was the author’s first trip to the Waddingtons and the weather was absolutely perfect. Many other climbers who ventured into the British Columbia Coast Range will likely beg to differ with my claim of bluebird skies. That said, if you have never ventured into the range, here are a few things to note for your first trip:
- Mike King of White Saddle Air Services is the pilot of choice when flying into the range. We could not have pulled off our combined Sunny Knob-Col drop and run without his superior knowledge of the range and mad flying skills.
- If you have a similar hair-brained idea to climb McNerthney Pillar or the classic Skywalk on Combatant (often compared to the Bugaboos’ Becky-Chouinard route), drop your base camp gear at Sunny Knob and continue on to the col. Remember to shout WILDLY because the extra 0.2-hours of flight time saved you an entire day’s approach.
- Remember to remove your headset when leaving the chopper and properly latch the back hatch. Mike will remind you to move slowly and stay relaxed, but unless you fly in choppers on a regular basis, the excitement is so much that you can forget these simple instructions.
- That stubby pillar of rock separating the Tiedemann icefall and Tellot icefall is called a “rognon,” which is my future name for a dog (and will nicely complement our cat, whose name is “neve”).
- On rest days, conduct dance parties and photo shoots on the heli pad. Chocolate bunnies and wigs are a plus.
- Don’t be alarmed by the hovering Coast Guard chopper. They are conducting training exercises. Consider radioing White Saddle to invite them down for a cold beer tucked away in the snow.
- We were fortunate to climb during a giant high pressure system, but if weather windows are short, employ the “smash and grab” technique mastered by many of our local alpinist heroes. When combined with the “shock and awe” of the helicopter ride in, you will be utterly unstoppable.
I owe special thanks to the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream grant program for helping make this trip a reality; to the Alpine Training Center for getting me physically fit and mentally ready for the trip; and to Mountain Gear for graciously lending their demo satellite phone. Without it, we couldn’t have checked in with our loved ones in Seattle and Boulder. Big thanks to Ben for being the catalyst of this trip, and to Graham Zimmerman, Blake Herrington, and Scott Bennett for providing further beta and inspiration from their 2012 expedition, including their suggestion of checking out McNerthney Pillar.
Joe cut his teeth climbing in the Cascades as a teenager growing up in Washington. Over the last 13 years, he has been fortunate to climb throughout the United States at crags big and small, as well as mountain endeavors in the New Zealand Alps, limestone peaks of Oman, and Ruth Gorge. When not climbing in his personal time, Joe works as Access Director at the Access Fund, where he has worked on conservation projects supported by the Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign in partnership with local climbing organizations around the country since 2009.