| The Serra Towers
Photo by Mike Long
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Our strategy was simple in theory: Ascend Bravo Glacier to below Bravo Headwall, then fix ropes and haul loads to the plateau above where we would establish high camp. The route beyond the plateau was hidden from our view, but we had a pretty good idea of what to expect from previous reports: Moderate snow slopes leading up to Bravo Col, then steep climbing up to Spearman Col near the base of the summit pyramid. The terrain beyond that point was anybody's guess, as changeable as the weather.
Reaching a safe location for the gear cache by noon, Chris and Dave emptied their packs and immediately turned back towards base camp for another carry while Brian and I set out to establish the route above. By this time the snow conditions had become less than optimal, even dangerous, but Brian was eager to move forward on the headwall regardless of the frequent rumble of avalanches: Having reached this same point on a previous expedition before being turned back, he was determined to continue, my rather half-hearted objections falling on deaf ears. As is often the case when something bad happens, in retrospect I should have spoken a little more loudly.
After climbing the first pitch on the lower headwall we found a small crevasse to belay from. Brian led the next pitch, placing a couple pickets along the way for prosperity while I belayed, imagining how sweet this would be on hard snow or ice. Nearly at the end of the pitch and a short distance from placing something a lot more dependable in solid rock, the soft snow at the top of the headwall suddenly broke away from the crest. It didn't look like much at first, just a harmless pile of slush creeping down slope, but it rapidly gained momentum, transforming almost instantaneously into a bona fide slide as I screamed "AVALANCHE!"
Brian had a brief opportunity to see what was coming before it knocked him backwards, sending him cartwheeling down the fifty-degree slope, a blur of red fabric, yellow boots and swirling snow. The dubious protection he'd placed never stood a chance, and standing at the belay I was helpless to do much more than watch while he tumbled past, bouncing off some rocks on his way to the glacier basin below. I feared for the worst.
"I let the remaining meter of rope slide through my hands: What good could come from my being pulled off as well?"
As tension came onto the belay, I let the remaining meter of rope slide through my hands: What good could come from my being pulled off as well? Brian had come to rest at the bottom of the face, spilled out onto the slopes of the upper Bravo Glacier after a 400-foot fall. Miraculously, he was alive, though firmly cemented in the wet snow, and his screams told me that he wasn't too happy about his current situation, trapped in the middle of a major debris zone. By the time I untied from the belay and rappelled down to the basin he had nearly extricated himself, but was in obvious pain and in shock. Chris and Dave joined us thirty minutes later, having heard our yelling from below, and upon assessing Brian's condition we decided to retreat immediately to base camp. Surprisingly, he had sustained no life-threatening injuries and was capable of descending unassisted. We arrived back in base camp a few hours later, and although no one actually came out and said it I suspect we all understood that exercising some degree of patience for twelve hours would have greatly improved our chances.
With high pressure still holding the following morning, Chris and I departed base camp for a final attempt on Mount Waddington while Brian and Dave opted for a trip to the Plummer Hut on the opposite side of the valley. After re-climbing Bravo Glacier during the morning hours we spent the afternoon trying to escape the heat while melting snow, eating and resting at our previous cache. The weather looked like it would hold for our summit attempt the next day as we watched alpenglow paint the summits of Mount Arabesque and Munday Peak before crawling into our bags for a short night.
Starting out before dawn we made fast work of the headwall on perfect neve, then continued up towards Bravo Col at sunrise, surrounded by a pristine panorama of Coast Range peaks: Across the valley towered the magnificent rock ramparts defending the south faces of Mount Tiedemann and Mount Combatant.
A steep arete provided airy climbing while leading up to Spearman Col, where we had our first accurate view of the summit tower. The lower pitches appeared reasonable enough with just minimal snow covering the mostly fourth class rock, but the summit ridge-ever so tantalizingly close-was coated in enormous rhime ice cornices, large pieces of the which were shearing off and plunging down our intended line of ascent. Additionally, clouds had now formed at the base of the mountain and were steadily moving up towards our position on the col. Considering these factors we made the difficult decision to descend: The weather had been stable far too long, and was now rapidly changing in typical Coast Range fashion. In five hours we completed our descent to the Tiedemann Glacier, arriving in camp just as the weather broke.
The storm lasted several days and dumped more than a meter of new snow. As I listened to the sound of new avalanches falling around us, I knew that our decision to descend had been a good one: Traversing the slopes on the upper mountain in these conditions would have been lethal. Brian and Dave returned from the Plummer Hut after the weather cleared, and our helicopter transport arrived the following day to return us to civilization. We'd had a good look at the Coast Range, climbed as far as we reasonably could have on British Columbia's highest mountain, avoided a near tragedy, and gained valuable experience for the next time. The area had lived up to its reputation for bad weather, unpredictable snow, rugged isolation and beautiful scenery. The elusive summit of Mount Waddington would, however, have to wait for another attempt.
By Mike Long
Editor's Note: Check out more of Mike Long's photos at Mike Long Photography.