Following the path of Don and Phyllis Munday on British Columbia’s Mount Waddington
Sun-baked snow peels from my skis in sheets that leapfrog ahead as my edges snap across the fall line. The wind in my ears can’t mask the distant boom of falling ice boulders, while echoes camouflage the avalanche’s whereabouts. The rumble ripples across the frozen complexity. In the heart of the Coast Mountains, near British Columbia’s 13,186-foot Mount Waddington, I listen to the mountains come unglued in the heat of high noon.
Over 50 miles from a paved road, about 135 miles from Whistler, B.C., the Waddington Range is concealed on three sides by smaller peaks. It wasn’t discovered until 1925. Husband and wife Don and Phyllis Munday were lounging on Vancouver Island’s Mount Arrowsmith 150 miles away when Phyllis spotted a mysterious peak as it broke the overcast. Its appearance was “a marker along the trail of adventure, a torch to set the imagination on fire,” Don later wrote in his 1948 memoir, The Unknown Mountain. The pair set out toward the unmapped peak three months later.
Between 1925 and 1936, the Mundays trekked into British Columbia’s Waddington Range 11 times. Their unique style of low budget suffer-fests entailed sailing up the coast for 100 or 200 miles, then thrashing inland for days until they reached a glacier, then skiing from camp to distant peaks in 30-hour single-push missions. “We had outrun the mapmakers,” mused Don.
The brittle pages of Don and Phyllis’ book tell a love story and a feminist struggle cloaked in a mountain epic. Just as the Mundays were drawn to a distant peak in the clouds, I was pulled first into their saga and then into their mountains.
Zooming onto the flats at the bottom of 9,996-foot Grenelle Mountain, the four of us —husband and wife Seth and Solveig Waterfall, ski mountaineer Tyler Jones, and I—clack ski poles in celebration. We climbed and skied one big line a day for a week. Warming to the terrain, we ratcheted into routes that crept steeper, colder, and more beguiling. We’d just followed a nose down from the summit before sweeping into a couloir that shattered into concentric crevasses at its base.
“Has anybody yet suggested,” Don Munday opined 80 years earlier from a glacier near our camp, “that from the aesthetic viewpoint a line of ski tracks winding down a glacier harmonizes better with the flowing form of a snowfield than a line of footprints?” Midway into their streak of expeditions, the Mundays started using skis. “Faster traveling,” Don observed, “meant extending one’s effective climbing range.”
The wood planks were practical for covering ground on big glaciers, but most climbers viewed them as toys, not tools. In 1930, Don and Phyllis published an article titled, “Ski-Climbs in the Coast Range” in the prestigious Canadian Alpine Journal. It was skiing’s first mention in the C.A.J., and prompted sneering from some of Canada’s mountaineering elite who posted, “a cash reward to the first person to climb on skis the Camel, a rock pinnacle… which is too steep to hold snow.” History sided with the Mundays; skis have become standard gear for springtime trips to British Columbia’s Waddington Range.
Our skis travel in a wire casket attached to one skid of a Bell 407 helicopter as it thwap-thwaps toward the mountains. Dominating the view out my bubble window is Mount Waddington, its summit a slender symmetrical pyramid, just as the Munday’s had described in the C.A.J.
On the Tiedemann Glacier, we click together tents, thankful to not be in the Mundays’ mildewed, floorless canvas models, and eye the neighborhood. To one side, glaciers crumple down 11,010-foot Mount Munday like wadded sheets falling from a mattress. Across the valley, curtains of granite drape a vertical mile from summit to floor, shading couloirs in their folds. At the head of the valley, Mount Waddington towers more than 7,000 feet above us, its summit streaming a mile-long twist of vapor.
The Waddington Range has a reputation for nasty weather, but we’ve serendipitously arrived for one of the strongest May high-pressure spells in years. The downside to the perpetually clear weather is the heat that accompanies it. As mornings turn to afternoons, tottering seracs break loose and rush down to the Tiedemann Glacier. With heat-triggered avalanches in mind, we’re awake at 3:00 a.m. on our second day, hoping to climb and ski Mount Waddington’s 13,041-foot Northwest Peak before lunch.
In blue moonlight, we slide out from camp below peaks so toothy they could have been the inspiration for He-Man’s Castle Grayskull. Tyler weaves a skin track around sharp-edged ice blocks that weren’t there the day before. When I reach the far side of the mile-long run-out zone, my headlamp band is clammy with perspiration. I stop to put on sunglasses when the day’s first big avalanche billows 5,000 feet down Waddington’s north face. We’re far from its reach, but the debris settles a few hundred feet from where we’d skinned.
Rounding the dogleg up from Combatant Col, our route squeezes above grinning crevasses and under a crumbling ice cliff that launches hourly air raids on the slope below. It’s not a long section; it will take just a few minutes to pass. We pause, consider other routes, and wait for the sound of crackling ice that will send us another direction. When it doesn’t come, I buckle my helmet, reconsider my agnosticism, and rando-race into the 1,000-foot wide gun barrel. The snow is bedazzled with embedded ice rhinestones. We hustle into relative safety on the far side and join a route the Mundays’ pioneered to Waddington’s Northwest Peak.
Below a “reddened snowcloud swirling” in the sunset of an August evening in 1927, the Mundays climbed Angel Glacier to an overlook just 400 feet below the Northwest Peak’s summit. Chased down by lightning, they returned to camp 39 hypothermic hours after setting out. For two years, the pair had insisted that Mount Waddington exceeded 13,000 feet, supplanting 12,972-foot Mount Robson as the tallest peak entirely within British Columbia. Geographers and mountaineers dismissed the Mundays’ detailed maps. As the couple voyaged homeward from this latest trip, they ran across a team of government surveyors flush with telemetry measurements. A few months later, in the autumn of 1927, the survey’s data established Mount Waddington at 13,260 feet.
The following summer, the couple tried for the mountain’s Northwest Peak again. Cooking over a kerosene stove instead of campfires, they were able to camp higher than ever before. At 1:15 a.m., they began their march and continued uphill for 18 hours, with their wet gloves frozen to ice axes. They reveled in their first ascent, gushing, “The first pilgrims to invade the immemorial silence of gleaming aisles of guarded sanctuaries… know feeling even they can not recapture.”
Seth, Solveig, Tyler, and I are not pioneering new routes, but we have a good jump on the Mundays’ itinerary (the helicopter helps). Switchbacking up the Angel Glacier, we reach the Mundays’ high point at 10 a.m. Ocean-born wind pulls my ski poles diagonal if I let them dangle from my wrists, and we cringe into the sandblaster of blowing snow grains. Down-climbing to our stashed skis just below, we click-in to tech bindings and begin the 7,000-foot descent by slicing into cakey, scalloped powder.
As the wind slacks, we regroup to scout a route through the snowbridge interconnect before the wind erases our uptrack. One nuance of skiing in the Waddington Range is the yawning, plentiful crevasses. Routes that look fall line on the map turn out to require long mid-run traverses, first in one direction, then back again to catch the next snowbridge. Solveig floats over a trellis bridge, then breaks into swooping turns on the snow below. Seth and Tyler follow and we leapfrog down the Angel Glacier. As we return to the foot of the ice cliff, it releases a clatter of desk-sized blocks that trundle across our route. We don’t speak, but after a minute of anxious listening we point it, one-by-one, back across the ice rubble, leg pistons working overtime to dampen the double-diamond traverse.
Despite my second-gear pace, it’s not yet noon and we’re cruising into camp. I celebrate with a Kokanee yanked with beer commercial panache from the snowbank. The Mundays were partial to flatbread and tinned pineapple.
The next morning, Tyler latches the Bell 407’s ski basket while blades spin overhead. I think of the Mundays’ exits as they wrangled their skis through undergrowth for days. “Were skis worth it?” Don wondered aloud as Phyllis’ pair locked between branches. “‘Every bit of it!’ she retorted without hesitation or reservation.”
General info: Conditions in the Waddington Range are fickle, but late April and early May typically bring the best weather for skiing. Even then, about half of the days tend to be stormy. No permits are required for skiers. A few guidebooks that describe the area include Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis, by John Baldwin and The Waddington Guide: Alpine Climbs in one of the World’s Great Ranges, by Don Serl. Both are valuable resources, but neither is a replacement for prior technical mountaineering experience.
How to get there: Sail to the head of Bute or Knight Inlet and approach via the Franklin or Homathko River
as the Mundays did. Those, and a number of other multi-day foot approaches, are described in The Waddington Guide. Alternately, drive to Tatla Lake, B.C., and catch
a ride from White Saddle Air’s Mike King. Visit WhiteSaddleAir.com for more info.
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