Jasmin Caton’s expedition to the Waddington Range
[Sunrise on Mt. Waddington]
"Hey Jas, are you going to drop your prunes here?" I did a double take... how did Chris know I had been counting down the steps until we were off the glacier so I could untie from the rope and dash away to the broken talus to relieve myself. And the more important question: why should he care? Did he want to take an alpine shitting lifestyle shot? Come on, I thought grumpily, this is taking the pose-down thing WAY too far! I took a deep breath and explained that I was going to head behind some rocks before his quizzical expression prompted my realization that he was asking where I was going to leave my POONS! AKA crampons.
Chris Christie, adventure photographer and Vancouver fireman extraordinaire had abandoned the comforts of Squamish with its cheap and delicious sushi, flat surfaces to sleep on and cool lakes to dip in for two weeks of lumpy tent sites, crevasse dodging on a treacherous glacier and so much estrogen that I wouldn't be surprised if Tiedemann Creek was running red by the time we left the range. Chris had opted to join Squamish climbers Sarah Hart, Kinley Aitken and myself, Jasmin Caton on our trip to the Waddington Range as team photographer. By the end of the trip Chris had seen a lot. The things he might have expected—laughter, sunbathing, reading Vogue Magazine, boulder-top dance parties, and some other things he might not have—tears, farting, shitting in close quarters at a tight bivi spot, verbal promises to quit alpine climbing forever in favor of returning home to have babies. Let's just say Chris may never be the same.
[Probably the fullest heli I've ever been in.]
[Bikini season wasn't waiting until we got home to Squamish—Kinley had to stay on top of her tan.]
The first tears of the trip were mine. I admit it freely. We had flown in late in the evening, set up camp at Sunny Knob, a rocky ridge like feature a few hundred meters above the Tiedemann Glacier sandwiched between two active serac fall zones. The unsettling crashing at intervals throughout the night kept my dreams full of landslides and avalanches. On our first morning, Sarah, Kinley and I went on a glacier walk reconnaissance up the Tiedemann Glacier, feeling smaller and more squishable with each step as Waddington, Combatant, Tiedemann and Asperity towered above us. A huge and somewhat fresh looking avalanche deposit had covered most of the upper reaches of the glacier and the roars of repeated serac falls off Waddington kept my heart in my throat as we wandered upwards, trying to get a look at some of our possible objectives. Suddenly, a huge roar came from the direction of Waddington and a massive powdercloud raced down the face. I was terrified and began backing away from the mountain, even as logic told me that we were likely safe where we were, and if we weren't, running wouldn't do me much good. As the dust settled, tears ran down my face as I wondered why the hell I left the relatively safe and fun playground of Squamish for this scary and intimidating venue. I didn't necessarily feel like I was in over my head, just that my head wasn't into these kinds of hazards.
[Climbing on Tiedemann Tower with Mt. Waddington in the background.]
After a few warm-up routes on Tiedemann Tower and Claw peak, we were ready for our main objective. We hoped to climb a new route on The Grand Cappuccino. Naturally, being coffee fiends, we were drawn to the name of this 3300m spire, but the lack of serac fall threatening its vicinity, and the fine-looking steep headwall comprising the east face made this objective even more tempting than an expertly poured, extra foamy, dark-chocolate sprinkled, biscotti accompanied beverage.The intent was to climb Serra Two (3605m) via it's 1500m South Ridge (TD 5.9 45°) but to travel with enough gear to stop partway up and attempt a new route on the Grand Cappuccino, which branches off of the south ridge of Serra Two just over half way up. We convinced Chris to join us, thinking he could chill at our bivi and possibly even take photos while we climbed the Grand Cappuccino.
On our first day we covered 1000m of ground on rock and snow, with some tricky sections of loose rock and deep snow wallowing interspersed with sections of beautiful rock climbing. As we climbed evidence of a "dirty high" was mounting. Before you get too excited, I should explain there were no impure drugs or sexual behavior involved. "Dirty high" is a legitimate meteorological term for "a high pressure that has clouds and/or precipitation within its domain." Optimists that we are, we kept climbing up despite the lenticulars, mares tails and other ominous cloud forms building in the sky. We bivied in an unsavory jumble of blocks, with the Grand Cappuccino towering above us, and awoke to a nightmarish sight of fresh snow coating everything, and no sign of improving weather.
[Sarah looking thrilled at the snowy state of things.]
So began a truly epic day in the mountains. At least to my Squamish softie, wimpy girl standards. I am sure that all you real alpinists out there who plunge your bare hands into snow before ice climbing and deprive yourself of water and food so your body gets used to starving on multiday sufferfests would not even put this into the mini-epic category. It's true, I didn't lose any limbs, not even the tiniest tip of my nose succumbed to frostbite, I didn't run out of oxygen and become drunkenly disoriented, and I didn't have to drag my broken carcass out of a crevasse and down the mountain alone. But there was some thigh deep snow wallowing up a 45 degree slope, slippery wet-lichen encrusted rock climbing up to 5.9, and frozen fingers and toes as the snow continued to fall. My personal low point of the day was when I led up a steep and burly crack that dead-ended. I slung a horn and lowered down, but the rope wouldn't pull. Rookie move! I jumared up, reset the anchor to a better position, rapped down, pulled the rope easily but it fell into a crack and got stuck. I climbed up for a third time, freed the stuck rope and began down climbing but the rope I was getting belayed on jammed in a crack and I had to solo down to free it. Cursing a blue streak and frustrated that my hour of effort had progressed us exactly nowhere, I was bumped to the back of the bus so Kinley and Sarah could have their fun on the sharp end.
[Kinley loving life on the snowy, licheny rock, with Phantom Tower behind.]
The final portion of the climb was a never-ending super exposed and esthetic knife-edge, made slightly more complicated by intermittent snow sections. We simulclimbed as quickly as we could, barely even pausing to take in the extreme beauty of where we were as occasional shafts of sun penetrated the thick clouds around us, highlighting the stark shapes and contrasts in the rock and snow on the ridge. The day was flying by as false summits and tricky buttresses of low fifth-class climbing, sometimes on very loose blocks, continued to present themselves. The fact that we were all carrying bivi gear and extra stuff for our planned ascent of the Grand Cappuccino, including a bolt kit, pins, a hammer and a sizeable rack, did not help our speed.
Finally, as night was falling, we gained the top of the south ridge and were able to begin rapping down the Hidden Couloir onto the Tellot Glacier. Our fourth rap took us over the bergrschrund just as dark was truly upon us. We roped up and began descending the broken glacier with icy mist collecting on our clothes and hair, silently wondering how the hell we were going to navigate several kilometers down the glacier to the warmth and shelter of the Plumber Hut. Just as we began to need our headlamps to see, the clouds dissipated for the first time all day and the full moon illuminated the glacier. My whoop of relief echoed across the surreal landscape of spires, snow and ice, and as if in response, a bright meteor flashed overhead. As we stumbled in a sinuous path over the unpredictable breakable crust of the glacier, I marveled in the beauty around us and felt overwhelmed by gratitude that this amazing adventure had concluded safely.
[Trying to hustle on the snow rock snow rock of the final ridge section of Serra Two.]
The next morning, we spent several indescribably pleasant hours lounging about in the sun outside the hut, drinking instant coffee, eating the last of our food and reminiscing about the crazy climb it had been. I could hardly believe my eyes when Kinley pulled out a pink compact mirror and tweezers from her pack and began preening. I love these seemingly incongruous moments when strong, competent women do very stereotypically girly things in the mountains. Personally, I had no desire to look in a mirror when I could feel my sunburned and chapped lips flaking off in leprous chunks. Eventually we marched back to our Sunny Knob basecamp and de-rigged from our Serra Two epic. A small infection in Kinley's elbow had producing a kiwi-fruit sized lump during the climb, and a sat phone call to a nurse confirmed that she needed to get to an ER. As we packed up, my disappointment at leaving without even getting a sip of the Grand Cappuccino was dwarfed by my satisfaction of completing three safe and classic ascents in this stunning range. I am certain I don't have the necessary cajones to pursue most of the big-mountain objectives the Waddington Range is full of, but my caffeine and granite spire addiction is giving me a craving for a second round of Grand Cappuccino next summer...
[The team. Alive, well and extra bonded after our long climb.]