Journey to Waddington

Words by: Forrest Coots and Steve Ogle

Photos by: Steve Ogle

Waddington, or “The Wad” as it is known among climbers and skiers, carries with it a reputation of intrigue and danger. Just hearing the name can cause a mix of fear and excitement, as it is a mountain of both mystery and fame tucked away in a remote corner of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. Poor weather often turns back aspiring ski parties. B.C. born Arc’teryx athlete Chad Sayers, had always dreamed of standing atop Waddington — the highest peak entirely within his home province —and overlooking both Bute and Knight Inlets far beyond a vastness of glaciers. In the spring of 2019, Sayers made those dreams a reality and organized a trip into the Waddington range, inviting fellow teammate Forrest Coots and long-time adventure partner Steve Ogle to help document a ski descent of Waddington’s ultra-classic Northwest summit.

Unlike early explorers who set off from sea level, or those who have subsequently followed in that grand style via days or weeks of soul-crushing (or character building) bushwhacking just to reach the toe of the Franklin Glacier, our crew takes the prudent approach and flies in by helicopter. Bogged down with uncertainty about preferred climbing routes and camping spots, we seek out and receive some excellent advice from friends and veteran guides David Lussier and Jia Condon, who both point us to the west side of the massif, a preferred position where skiing is concerned. Other less-probable objectives such as the coveted Combatant Couloir sadly become less accessible from the west, but stacking the odds in favour of Waddington’s summit is our plan.

Information is key, and with this we load down Chad’s little Subaru with everything from skis to whisky on a commute from Whistler to Bluff Lake, the default starting point for most modern climbing parties entering the range. Indeed, now that logging roads are choked with alder and the lower glaciers that much farther from the fiords, it is not  a stretch to say that Mike King and his crew at White Saddle Helicopters are the de facto modern gate keepers to Waddington.

After an unforgettable one-hour flight to the upper Dais Glacier we establish our camp in a crevasse-free zone. Like a life boat, our base camp for the next nine days is a refuge from the sea of glaciers that surrounds us in every direction. 

Get them while they’re hot! Everything revolves around eating, and our tent set-up is no exception. On a rest day— or in this case, our first day at camp when we spend monitoring the glaciers and avalanche situation— breakfast is followed by a hearty second breakfast. Big days in the mountains require big meals!

One quickly adjusts to the pace of life on the glacier. Free from the distractions of the modern world, we soon find the rhythm of rising before the light and crawling into cozy sleeping bags as the surrounding peaks bathe in alpenglow. We’re lucky to have a stretch of fine weather.

The early bird gets the worm: Rising before the sun, we scarf down a quick breakfast, load up the packs, click into our bindings and start walking. In springtime it’s all about timing: ski too early and you get teeth-rattling ice; ski to late and it’s sticky mush. We default to Forrest for the scoop on corn snow since his home base in California is the epicentre of corn. He assures us that if we time it right we can enjoy some of the “best creamy corn turns” of the season. For his B.C.-based partners, corn season usually means it’s time to bust out the mountain bikes. Nevertheless, as we all climb with ski crampons up the Dais Glacier everyone is anticipating a spectacular corn run down Waddington’s northwest summit later in the day.

Once we surmount an icy couloir that, on this route, short-cuts to the lofty Angel Glacier, we soon realize our corn-skiing dreams will be dashed. Although we do have an intense early-May sun, the temps are decidedly wintry and the wind is howling. It reaches into the negative double digits. Still, we steadily navigate our way up the Angel after encountering and leaving behind some old tracks—ones we’ll later learn were from the only other ski touring group to visit the range that entire spring. For whatever reason, that group did not continue to the summit from this midway point so we infer the route is not a “gimme.” We confirm this after several more hours of trepidatious plodding and weaving when we finally near the famed northwest summit.

The true summit of Wad is a craggy mountaineering objective requiring very serious commitment, mixed climbing for several pitches and perfect conditions. It is rarely climbed even in summer. As skiers, we aim our tips for the highest skiable point, still at 4000 metres elevation— just nineteen metres below the true summit. Even this lower point proves elusive to us, with a traversing pitch of blue ice between us and the rounded top, over a gaping maw. Happy to be within reach, we peel off our skins and descend through chalky, wind-blown snow down the Angel Glacier. Part of this descent involves going back across a large wall-to-wall crevasse typifying what separates Waddington from other popular skiing summits in the Coast Range.

After summiting on day three, we are elated and it’s time to sample that whiskey. Some parties come in for weeks and go home without even seeing the mountain. Therefore, amid an unreal but increasingly too-hot weather window, we intend to reward ourselves further with some proper corn runs and lots of time browsing the map for more options.

An idea is hatched to ski Mount Munday, at 3356 metres, named after Don and Phyllis Munday, the Canadian climbers and geographers who first spied Waddington from 250 kilometres away on Vancouver Island. In 1928 after multiple expeditions, the pair succeeded in reaching the northwest summit. Wad’s true summit, however, remained unclimbed and quickly entered the consciousness of elite alpinists throughout B.C. and the world. We get to appreciate this massive spire on the way to the highly-touted Mount Munday. From our camp, Munday turns out to be an even bigger day than our Waddington ski, but the views of Wad’s true summit, neighbouring Mount Tiedemann and hundreds of other impressive peaks makes the effort worth it.

Racing back from Munday’s lofty summit, this time there is a corn cycle. Unfortunately, we are too late to enjoy it because it is such a long day. The slopes heat up and, like the last beers we have tucked away at camp, are too warm but better than nothing. En route we come across the remnants of that other party’s camp, including a helicopter landing stake and some other garbage sticking out of the snow. We’ve heard rumours of the local heli-skiing operation’s newfound tenure acquisition of the Mount Waddington area and the fact that they can now heli-ski the northwest summit and the rest of this playground of peaks that had, until this year, been the exclusive terrain of mountaineers.

As we settle yet again into basecamp, the high pressure system does not relent but neither do above-average temperatures. Eventually it is not freezing at night and the skiing conditions become dangerous in the big terrain and, at best, an isothermal mush on the smaller peaks. After skiing one last close-by summit in leg-breaking schmoo, the call is made to pull the plug and fly out early. It’s time to trade in the ski boots and Gore-tex shells for flip flops and shorts.

We leave impressed and inspired for a return to this land of giants.

Seasonal confusions.  And social distancing — before that was even a thing.