The Scottish alpinist Simon Richardson and Canadian alpinist Ian Welsted recently made what is likely the first complete ascent of the West Ridge of Mt. Waddington in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, and possibly the first traverse of the mountain (from Fury Gap to Rainy Knob) as well.
The team flew into Fury Gap (the westernmost point of Waddington) on August 3 in the morning, and began their climb the same day. They took the first two days easy, climbing for only six hours both days, in order to let the snow on the south side of the ridge crest to consolidate, and for the summit tower to clear up as well. On day three, they cast off into unknown terrain, continuing up the unclimbed upper part of the West Ridge (which they dubbed the Epaulette Ridge) where previous climbers had descended south to the Angel Glacier. They climbed through the Epaulette Glacier, which Richardson supposes may have been previously unvisited, and made an unexpectedly difficult exit from this feature “as the west ridge narrowed to knife edge soft snow with large wafer thin cornices,” Richardson told Alpinist in a brief interview. “We traversed under the crest for two scary pitches on very steep snow on the north side until a blind jump into a ‘schrund.”
Welsted described this blind jump in a colorful blog post he wrote about his and Richardson’s climb–“I have never down-dynoed alpine climbing before… I hear that dynoing is all the rage in comp climbing, so logically it is the future as climbing moves into the Olympics. So, is down-dynoing maybe the future of alpinism, and Simon is just way ahead of the curve?”
After the down-dyno, the team continued up the Angel Glacier to a flat area called the Terrace at 3900 meters. “We then climbed the False and NW summits (both around 4000m)” Richardson said, “before making an awkward descent and camping at 3700 meters under the main summit.”
In the morning on the fourth day, Richardson and Welsted climbed the relatively well-travelled Southeast Chimneys up the summit tower, braving bad icefall from collapsing rime. They continued east along the spine of the mountain, made a camp, and, on the fifth day, descended through the Bravo Glacier–which was in nightmarish condition and proved to be unexpectedly difficult–to Rainy Knob, where they were picked up by their helicopter pilot and returned to civilization. All in all, the team had covered around 12 kilometers of terrain, with more than 2000 meters of ups and downs. The new terrain the team covered ran from the top of the Dais Couloir (3350m) to high on the Angel Glacier (3850m) over 1.5 kilometers of horizontal distance.
“I must admit I was very nervous about the trip,” Richardson said. “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 myself.”
Welsted, who was making his first trip to the Waddington since he climbed Skywalk and Kshatrya about 20 years ago, was excited to climb with Richardson. He knew Richardson was solid after a climb they did together on Storm Mountain in the Canadian Rockies back in 2017. “I went to place a nut and dislodged a microwave sized chunk of rock,” he said, recounting that climb. “To my horror I heard an uggh from ten meters below where the rock had hit Simon. My first thought was, I’ve killed Simon Richardson, but you don’t climb that many huge first ascents without being tough, so after a five-minute recovery we continued to the top of the gully.”
The partners alternated leads on most of the technical pitches, while Welsted did most of the trail breaking. “I broke trail for the first two days to a spot that it took Greg Foweraker, Peter Croft, and Don Serl four hours to reach,” he said. “As a professional treeplanter, I bring leg endurance and an ability to suffer, and as a guide I bring a healthy respect for the risks of such an ascent.” Richardson, according to Welsted, “isn’t nearly as off-put by risk as I am after two years of guides’ training. I was drilling v-threads on the traverse to keep the distances reasonable. Simon, when he took over, clearly embraced the age old British strategy (as I believe Leo Houlding once put it) of running it out.”
Richardson, who has established over a dozen new routes in the range over the years, said that this was one of his best. He also noted that, at the time of this interview, their ascent of Waddington appears to be the only successful one thus far this season.
“Global warming is making the standard route up the Bravo Glacier very difficult nowadays, and there are far fewer ascents than 20 years ago,” he said.
Waddington of course has a long and storied history, from Don and Phyllis Munday’s first ascent of the slightly lower northwest summit in 1928, to Bill House and Fritz Weissner’s ascent of the southwest face in 1936, which at the time was considered the hardest climb in North America, according to the American Alpine Insititue’s Coley Gentzel. And Fred Beckey’s epic slog over 20 miles from sea level to summit at the age of 19 with his brother in 1942 is one of the most celebrated climbs of his illustrious career. And in more recent years, there was the famous team up of Greg Foweraker, Don Serl, and Peter Croft to make the first traverse of the entire range in 1985; and Colin Haley’s massive 2012 linkup which included the first solo ascents of Mt. Combatant, Mt. Tiedemann, Mt. Asperity, and probably Waddington itself.
“The crenellated upper west ridge… is such a major structural feature,” Richardson said, “it is difficult for the 21st Century alpinist to believe it was unclimbed, especially on a mountain with the stature of Mt. 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!”