British alpinist Simon Richardson and Canadian Ian Welsted have made what is thought to be the first complete ascent of Mt Waddington's West Ridge (4019m) in Canada's Coast Mountains, in addition to making what is likely the first traverse of the mountain, from Fury Gap to Rainy Knob. The pair also nabbed the first ascent of the North Face of Mount Phillips in the Canadian Rockies.
Mount Waddington - the highest peak in the Coast Mountains - is invisible from almost all valleys and inlets, but in 1925 Don and Phylis Munday noticed the mountain when climbing on Vancouver Island. They made four attempts over the next three summers before finally climbing the 5km-long and 1500m-high West Ridge to the North-West Summit in July 1928. The main summit was not climbed until July 1936 when Bill House and Fritz Weissner climbed the south west face. Although shorter, this route has similar difficulty and objective danger to the North Face of the Eiger, and was the hardest climb in North America at the time.
Simon first met Ian during the International Winter Meet in Scotland in 2016, and then in autumn 2017, they climbed together in the Rockies after the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. They got along well and arranged to climb together in the Coast Mountains in 2019. Simon commented:
'I must admit I was very nervous about the trip. Ian is far stronger, fitter and faster than I, and I wondered what on earth I was doing teaming up with a Piolets d'Or winner 12 years younger than I who was training to be a mountain guide.'
Conditions in Canada were unsettled this summer and the pair had to put their plans for the Coast Mountains on hold initially. A first opportunity to try anything challenging took place in late July, when they made the first ascent of the North Face of Mount Phillips (3246m), which lies north of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies. Simon explained:
'We had to wait another two weeks before the weather was good enough for the Coast Mountains. Our plan was to traverse Mount Waddington (4019m) via the unclimbed Epaulette Ridge (Upper West Ridge). Waddington is the highest mountain within British Columbia and I was lucky to reach its elusive summit with Dave Hesleden in 1997.'
The pair flew to Fury Gap (the west defining point on Waddington) on the morning of 3rd August immediately after a week of heavy snowfall. They set off immediately up the Lower West Ridge. Simon told UKC:
'It was tough going in deep unconsolidated snow and we spent two days getting to the col below the Epaulette Ridge. The Munday's route up the West Ridge followed the undulating crest for 3.5km over a series of subsidiary summits to 3350m. Here the ridge rears up into the sharp pinnacled Epaulette Ridge, but instead the Munday's made a 100m descent to the hanging snow slopes of the Angel Glacier. This is the logical line of least resistance and has been followed by those who have repeated the route ever since.'
Simon and Ian's work paid off as it allowed the snow on the upper part of the ridge to consolidate and the summit tower to clear. On day 3 they continued up the Epaulette Ridge to gain the previously unvisited Epaulette Glacier that sits astride the middle section of the ridge crest. Simon explained:
'The exit from the Epaulette Glacier was unexpectedly difficult as the ridge narrowed to a knife edge with large wafer-thin cornices. We traversed under the crest for two scary pitches on very steep snow on the north side until a blind jump into a bergschrund led to a flat area known as the Terrace at 3900m. We then climbed the False and North-West summits (4000m) before making an awkward descent and camping at 3700m under the main summit.'
On day 4, the pair climbed the classic South-East Chimneys route on the summit tower (4019m), although they considered turning back due to danger from collapsing rime ice. On 7th August (day 5) they descended the Bravo Glacier to Rainy Knob (the easterly point of the mountain). Simon continued:
'Overall, our route was 12km long, and is likely the first complete west-to-east traverse of the spine of the mountain, from Fury Gap to Rainy Knob. Our new terrain (the Epaulette Ridge) ran from the top of the Dais Couloir (3350m) to high on the Angel Glacier (3850m) over 1.5km horizontal distance.'
This ascent of Waddington is the only one so far this season. Global warming is making the standard route up the Bravo Glacier very difficult, and there are far fewer ascents than 20 years ago - typically only one or two teams per season are successful. Simon concluded:
'For those looking for new ground, the crenellated upper west ridge was an obvious challenge. It is such a major structural feature it is difficult for the 21st Century alpinist to believe it was unclimbed, especially on a mountain with the stature of Mount Waddington. But in today's world, where technical difficulty is often paramount, there are still major lines that have been overlooked. Quite simply, the complete West Ridge of Waddington should have been climbed decades ago!'