WADDINGTON, MUNDAY STYLE

In May 2016, a crew set out on a mission to climb Mt Waddington, located in the very remote reaches of the Coast Mountain Range. In the group: Justin Sweeny, Arc’teryx North American Athlete Manager; Eric Hjorleifson (Hoji) and Christina Lustenberger (Lusti), Arc’teryx Athletes; Jimmy Martinello, freelance photographer and Captain Bradford McArthur, mariner and Videographer. By sailboat, they negotiated toward Bute Inlet and Homathko Camp, where the expedition continued on foot.

They had three weeks. It was hot and late in the season.

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Dreams are ideas without a plan. Without structure, they occupy the ether of our minds, tugging at our soul until they form subconscious constellations that begin to direct our navigation. For three years, Justin Sweeny held onto his intense wish to retrace the route of intrepid adventurers and bonafide BC explorers, Phyllis and Don Munday, in seeking a ski descent of the elusive and prized Mt. Waddington.

On each of their twelve attempts, the Mundays had six week windows and zero success. When Sweeny, Hoji and Lusti set out, they had half that time and temperatures had soared. They returned early, disgruntled. This is a three part series on what happened on their expedition, from different points of view.

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PART ONE: SWEENY

Justin Sweeny is one of those guys. Wiry, passionate, driven. Out on missions most weekends, he charges routes that would take most people twice the time and possibly half the effort – because they would never attempt so much at once. If he’s anything, he might be overambitious.

 


“The Mundays truly set the bar 80 years ago; I’m not even sure that can be matched today.”

His voice carries, filling the open office space with his idealism. “To respect and pay homage to those who inspire us and paved the way of exploration is important.” He really means it. Sweeny had studied their journals, read books, interviewed people and scouted the area. “It’s such a rad zone. It’s like the quintessential Coast Range adventure; people still don’t realize how huge and complex the terrain is. It is a mission for sure.”

In the early 1920s, few Canadian land surveyors or mountaineers would believe that the mountains along British Columbia’s coast were just as big, rugged, and spectacular as the more renowned Rockies or Selkirks. Ridiculous. But when the Mundays first glimpsed the Waddington Range in June of 1925, they were captivated. For them, as for Sweeny almost 100 years later, the far-off finger of destiny beckoned.

As the 2016 ski-mountaineering season advanced, temperatures soared all over BC, reaching above 20◦C and raining to the top of the alpine. Every nerve ending in Sweeny’s mind and body recognized that the window on his three year quest to realize a dream was about to shut. After months of indecision, late in April the green light came through; budget was in place and time off arranged —Waddington was on. Two-thirds chaos, one third pump.

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Passion is exhausting. It consumes our every thought and can cloud decision making. Despite the late battle cry, Sweeny’s buddies and filmers Bradford McArthur and Jimmy Martinello, in addition to athletes Eric Hjorleifson (Hoji) and Christina Lustenberger (Lusti), answered the call to adventure. It was a unique opportunity and a rite of passage.

The plan was to travel by sailboat up Bute Inlet to Scar Creek, then bushwack to the alpine, where skis and glacier travel would take them into the foot of Mt Waddington. Carrying heavy packs and gear, the approach would be physically punishing and technical. In the Munday’s era this level of effort and time was normal; their lives revolved around mountains and they did not have to meet deadlines. But the truth for Sweeny and group was that time was short, and the weather accelerated urgency.

Expeditions of this scale don’t just happen. Planning is critical. It’s arduous, time consuming, and labour intensive, but it is the key to smoothing out potentially fatal wrinkles and inviting as much good outcome and karma as possible. Although Sweeny had done a lot of preliminary research, the team needed to rally, quickly and efficiently. There was no time to develop a sense of each other or their dynamic; they had to assemble group gear, food and personal equipment, for each leg of the journey.

As time ticked past, the opportunity to sit and reflect on their upcoming mountain challenges slipped away. What were the key turning points? How would they handle changing conditions, alternate route plans, exits, and be comfortable with a variety of possible outcomes before setting out? Faced with a large effort just to get going, everyone put their heads down, pitched in and did their thing, more or less independently. Meanwhile, temperatures remained high and deadlines marched on. For some members of the crew, before they even started the journey uneasy red flags were up and wavering.

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LUSTI

You always outwork your teammates.” Most winter days at 6am you can find Christina (Lusti) at either the Modern or La Baguette coffee shop in Revelstoke, BC. This is where she meets her ski buddies for early morning starts up to Rogers Pass. Many people know her by name and she feeds off the social energy. Tall, lean, she emanates experience, poised confidence and strength. Except for constantly twirling her long hair, Lusti shows no outward signs of vulnerability. She is what she appears: intent, determined and happy.

Disciplined – this is just how she is. Always up early checking weather, snow stations, making coffee and cooking breakfast for everyone. She breaks trail, cracks jokes, problem solves and offers encouragement. Essentially she is willing to do more than her share of the heavy lifting that goes into any trip —just don’t ask her to stay up late or sleep in.

Wind burnt and dark with a late spring snow tan, Lusti was uncharacteristically serious. Waddington happened at the tail end of a long, busy season. “The mountains were putting pressure on, there was some panic about getting it done, and our organization was last minute.” The hair twirling started in earnest. “I was really looking forward to this trip. The history of the place was outside of my career, it was a new zone and it challenged my skill set.”

She stared at her tea, looked out the window. Revelstoke traipsed through the coffee shop, a mix of ambitious mountain people and tourists. What people don’t say can reveal a great deal of emotion. Lusti stayed quiet. When the room had filled and emptied out yet again, she finally said, “Not everyone had the same abilities. The climbing was beyond what I would have been comfortable doing on my own, so I wouldn’t expect anyone on the team to have to get me there… There were just too many assumptions.”

Group dynamics on trips are infamous; close quarters and high powered personalities can be a volatile mix. Lusti is an ACMG Ski Guide and Olympic athlete. Well versed in discipline, organization and overcoming setbacks. A person who raced her love of skiing into the ground and was only able to revive that passion through being in the backcountry, pushing herself toward a ski mountaineering career. At this stage in her life she cannot get enough time out there, clocking miles and experience, being the horsepower, learning from her mentors and peers. “You rely on each other in the mountains. You’re a team. You have to say and hear everything, and go through the ups and downs together.”

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HOJI

“I often find myself in the middle.” Tightly coiled and loose at the same time, Eric Hjorleifson (Hoji) is a lesson in how to be both dialed and mellow. Sharp, funny and active, it is nearly impossible for him to sit still. Puttering around his home and shop in Whistler a few weeks after the Waddington expedition, he was quite cheerful. “On April 1, (of the 2016 season) the mountains disappeared. There wasn’t a big enough difference in our location to overcome that, but the spirit of our mountain culture comes from the Mundays. They were Canadian trail blazers.” He was totally keen on the trip, as an idea. “Eighty years ago, Waddington was a grey zone. To this day, the general public doesn’t know that area, or how these people lived, in order to do what they did. Just to be there was a rare privilege.”

Part of being a professional ski athlete is knowing full well that many, if not most, trips end up abbreviated, often with very little skiing and lots of time stuck in a tent. It’s just how it goes. Hoji anticipated that the chances of reaching the summit or even much good skiing was going to be difficult at best.

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“What the Mundays had was time and patience. Being in the mountains was their life – and I’m not saying it isn’t mine or Lusti’s, or anyone else’s either – but we are distracted by technology and results.” When he’s animated, Hoji’s passion infuses his body movements and amplifies his small stature. “Some of us more than others.”

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PART TWO

Three days of sailing began with spectacular choreography; a pod of nine orcas cut a black and white dance around the sailboat, La Montaña. By the time they reached Homathko camp three days later, Sweeny was amped on a growing list of links to the Mundays. They had sailed the same passage, shared history with veteran climber and inspiration Rob Wood, and landed at the foot of adventure with salty hair and legs antsy for action. He jittered with emotion, reliving the moment. “Homathko Camp is this wild, off-the-grid, really dialed wilderness logging camp that is the launch point.” The crew piled on shore and immediately, the newly formed filaments began to unravel.

 

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In the morning, packs ready, the team was assembled and they set out. Staggering under huge weight, they groveled and clawed their way through heinous coastal underbrush and groves of snappy alder whips. As she did for most of the trip, Lusti lead the charge, a human powerhouse. Hoji was the drummer, letting out Tarzan yells that debilitated the others with much needed laughter.

Beaten up, exhausted, seventy-four hard hours later they broke free of treeline. They had battled through another leg of the Munday’s approach route. Burdened with camera gear, McArthur teetered on skis, his lower back a huge patch of raw skin. They were low on food, with a minimum of two day’s travel still to go. Waddington glittered in the distance, the jewel encased by massive icefields baking in the sun, exhaling enough moisture to generate storms. But they were out of the bush. Time to celebrate.

While the boys revelled in the vision and being part of a legacy of people to experience ‘The Wad,’ Lusti evaluated the route ahead. From where they were to their base camp location was very technical with no food or time for delays. The group held varied competence, and a weather change was forecast. Their best option was to piggyback on the helicopter drop and take a ride in with their gear.

Group dynamics in the mountains are infamous. Big blowouts happen over food, route decisions, techniques or any number of things, large and small. “For me, reaching base camp by foot was important to the mission. We could see the path ahead. We were there.” Sweeny’s voice cracked, capturing the fracture he felt as his dream circled the toilet bowl, about to get the big flush.

Waddington is a serious place. It’s a Norse god, a force that can turn on you like a wolverine. There was no low consequence option. Hoji:“We (Lusti and I) have had several shouting matches. For sure. But if you take a bunch of strong willed people into the mountains, that’s bound to happen.” He grinned. Experience had taught him that arguments were just part of the deal. “The truth is, without Christina, I would not have left Squamish. She has a huge skill set.” And he admitted, “Our scene was not tight. We needed more time to properly package our drops and to establish our base camp.”

Emotions were charged. Like high voltage wires, exploding on contact. The boys build a raging campfire and kept it burning long into the night; Lusti retired to her tent.

No decision was taken.

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PART THREE

4:30am, Scar Mountain summit. Lusti: “Respect means being ready, agreeing on risk tolerance, your conduct on the trip and urgency when we’re moving.” She was packed and making breakfast for everyone. “You need at least one person you trust in the mountains; Eric being there gave me confidence.” While the others rumbled about, she repeated her proposal that they call the helicopter to pick them up. “We have lots of challenges and days ahead.”

Skies were clear, no immediate trouble on the horizon. To depart from the Munday-based story at that point was disappointing, but not debilitating. Hoji tended to agree. “We had done the hard part. Now it was about conditions and weather. And time.” Keeping in mind the greater objective, which was to spend more time in the mountains.

The horrible wrench of letting go. Despite knowing that those original intrepid adventurers had tried and failed twelve times, Sweeny did not want to call it. His dream was to link the route on foot; departing from the Munday’s method severed that artery.

 

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A group of high powered personalities on an ambitious program without spending any time together beforehand – things were bound to get weird. Sweeny reluctantly agreed to the plan. They loaded into the helicopter and touched down safely at base camp. Another leg completed, “but the moment was empty.” Without closure between him and Lusti, the decision remained an open wound. Meanwhile, the high pressure system continued.

Something that gets under Hoji’s skin is cell phones and social media. In his generation of dedicated digital junkies, this is rare. “I hate, hate, hate weather forecasts. Just look around you, observe and learn what the mountains are telling you. And leave your stupid phone behind.” Don’t get him started. They made a push for Waddington.

Hoji: “It’s a rude realization when skiing a glacier and your pole basket comes up with a Slurpee of snow. Not the time to be navigating crevasse fields.” Summiting was not to be; Munday history repeated itself.

 

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Waddington is a beast. Shimmering in the soaring temperatures, it was a furnace, imploding hundreds of years of accumulated ice and compressed snow. Two days later a storm front moved in, pelting their tents with sleet, rain and snow. When they re-merged, it was hot. This was to be the conditions for the rest of their time. It was unsafe to make an attempt, they all agreed.

The team did summit Mt Munday and had some great turns. They explored, chattered, took photos and worked what they could out of the terrain and the weather. As Hoji noted, that was: “Something that only a handful of people ever get to try and we made it with no blown knees and no injuries. That’s pretty fortunate.”

A dream is fuel for a plan. Without sufficient method and some luck, that fuel cannot convert itself into reality.

“Logistically, we overlooked some things and with the way the season had gone, there was no room for that.” Any one of the members of the group could be credited with this quote. The Mundays did eventually reach the northwest summit of Waddington, after twelve attempts, and even so, they deemed the true summit “unclimable.” It’s best not to have any expectations.

Group dynamics are life in a nutshell. Although the mountains amplify everything, the bottom line is that we are never who we think we are—we are only how we are interpreted by others.

Sweeny: “I am unbelievably humbled by this experience, but yet left so unsatisfied with a keen desire to return with a new plan.”

Lusti: “My lesson was getting involved in a trip where I wasn’t invested enough. The hike in was neat because it was hard and challenging and we had to keep going. It was super fun.”

Hoji: “In terms of adventure, that was one of the most memorable trips I’ve been on. Physically punishing and mentally tough.”

FOOTNOTE: One year later, Sweeny still thinks about this trip. “It can be hard to turn back, particularly when you’re so invested, but learning from our mistakes allows us to approach our goals through a new lens and a heightened desire to try again.”

Waddington was the prize, but the reward was the whole trip and experience. Messy, exhilarating, pure.

 

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Jill Macdonald

Jill Macdonald grew up in rural BC. Intrigued by people, geography and words, working at Arc’teryx keeps her in touch with great stories, inspiring people and the personal challenge to always improve her craft.

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