Earlier this year we received an email from a happy customer that had embarked on an adventure with 3 of their friends into the mythical Waddington Range. The email read:
The trip looked incredible, so we decided to dig into the details of the trip and the result was a story that we felt we needed to share.
"Once we landed, and the machine flew off, it was pure euphoria. I realize more and more how incredibly lucky I am to have spent time in such a beautifully isolated place with amazing people. It is one of those memories that is seared into your soul and make you smile each time something reminds you of it."
The experience Robert Pulwicki is describing is one that many who have entered the Waddington Range have felt. The Waddington Range is the highest subrange of the Coast Mountains in southwest British Columbia. Roughly 4,000km in an area known for its aggressive ski terrain and endless amount of lines to be taken.
"Trip planning started spring of 2015. I was turning 40 and Julia was turning 30, so we needed something epic to mark the milestone of a 'tennish' year friendship and a ski/ climbing partnership. (The) biggest challenge was finding four people with the skills, motivation, money and most importantly time to make this happen."
After considering a few different locations, the crew decided on a 4 day trip to the Waddington range where they could push their comfort zone a little in an area they had yet to explore. The plan was to scout the area and make a few tours with a main goal of summiting Grenelle Mountain, a daunting mission with a maximum elevation of 2841m, and total elevation change of 1520m along with a field of obstacles that include ice fields, narrow funnels, and deadly crevasses.
“The trip was meant to push us and be a sort of capstone adventure that would bring together a lot of the mountain skills we’d acquired over the years. I had done trips that involved all the aspects of a Wad trip separately before; high altitude, glacier travel, snow/ice mountaineering, rock climbing, skiing, base-camp style summer mountaineering, but bringing all those together and adding a sh*t ton of objective hazard definitely kicked things up a notch.”
Julia’s brother Robert Pulwicki and friend Paul Barclay also joined the trip with their own ambitions to push their limits and explore the superb location.
“The main reason I ended up on this trip was due to my sister, who introduced me to backcountry skiing and waited patiently as I stumbled up my first skin tracks four seasons ago.This was by far the biggest and most daunting trip I've done to date. Before this, I had never been winter camping, never traversed a glacier, never used crampons or any sort of ice tools, and never dealt with such complex avalanche terrain."
“Waddington has a mythical status in my mind owing to stories of overachieving UBC supermen/ women getting to the area while I was a student trying to do every problem in every book in the university's main library stacks a long time ago. Leading up to committing, I did too much reading and web crawling and borrowing of maps from zone veterans, basically in a desperate effort to convince myself that on a good day the standard route up Waddington's NW summit wasn't too far over the line technically from my past mountain plodding experience. Worst case scenario was that I was going to test my free will in a superb locale.”
On the first day, the goal was to cross the Tiedemann glacier to the base of the Waddington/Combatant Col to ski some of the aspects it presented. With visible avalanches in the area, the crew did some assessing of the snow pack in the area of possible routes before the trek. They skied as a group towards the col but once they made it about 2/3 of the way up the Tiedemann they had a group pow-wow and discussed their options. Given the exposure to seracs at the col, the decision was made by 3 out of 4 of them to turn around. Raya felt comfortable continuing solo.
"(The climb up was) probably one of the more intense things I’ve experienced in my life. While I don’t make a habit of climbing under seracs, it definitely skewed my perception of what happened. If you would have asked me immediately afterwards I would have said that it took me about five or even ten minutes to make it through this section and I climbed horribly with messed up ice axe sticks. So it was a strange surprise to watch the video a couple weeks later back at home and see that I had really only been in the runnel for about a minute and a half and my climbing was actually pretty efficient. Basically, having a perceived gun pointed at one’s head is a mindf**k... it was also exhausting."
After being forced to turn around due to an overhanging serac, Raya skied back down and made the trek back to base camp.
The next day the group headed to the base of what would be their main objective, the climb up Grenelle Mountain. After scouting a number of routes and finding those to be a no-go, they toured to the base of the ice fall leading up to Grenelle to see if they could spot a possible route up. The hike up would provide a 1520m elevation gain and 20km of total distance covered.
"The trickiest part through the ice fall was the first 600m of elevation gain off the Tiedmann Glacier where we threaded the needle through the ice fall to the easier upper glacier."
"I understood the route but no matter how I squinted or turned my head it still freaked me out to look up at the steep ice field. I went on, knowing that it would be a huge challenge and that I had a good support system around me that wouldn't lead me into anything I couldn't handle. It was a narrow funnel that required four kick turns with a crevasse at the bottom where I lost my cool. My skins were completely packed with snow to the point where my ski crampons had zero effect and I kept rotating my heel piece accidentally causing it to lock in, making the exposure feel much worse than it should have. I was trying to balance on one ski while removing the other, rotating the heel and clipping in again. After clearing this short section, I felt utterly defeated and seriously considered turning around. Some calm words from the group, positive self-talk, and a good lunch changed this and we continued the slog up.”
While gaining the upper glacier, they were still exposed to potentially very large ice fall from above. Although the chances were low that something would break, the consequences were very high if something moved. The crew had to motor up half of that 1520m of elevation with minimal breaks just to minimize the hazards. The final portion of the hike up allowed for the quad to breathe a little bit easier as the hazards were not as extreme. After a grueling hike up, the group had finally completed their mission. They experienced some of their best views of the trip and took it all in before they made their descent.
"Given it wasn't pow, the skiing was actually really good spring skiing. The ski down was a lot of fun and it went very efficiently even during the roped up section for the bottom 30ish percent."
The crew then made the trek back across the Tiedemann to their camp to get some rest.
"Combining the psychological stress of facing unknowns in an arena that dwarfed us and a day with a lot of elevation gain/horizontal travel, meant that when we finally made it back down to the more friendly world of the Tiedemann glacier, we experienced the deep content and satisfaction that only a day as full on as one like the Grenelle day can result in."
The next day was spent more as a relaxing one; after hiking around and finding a few more lines with less substantial approaches, they built a jump and ate a lot of candy and relaxed.
It was time to say good bye to the Waddington, and when the helicopter arrived they packed up all their supplies and the crew was headed back to civilization proud of what they had accomplished. The combination of being flown in by helicopter to a completely isolated area for several days and climbing and skiing, with possibly life threatening terrain gave the crew not only a huge sense of accomplishment, but made them hungry for the next trip of an equal or greater scale, and also question why they hadn't made a trip like this one sooner.
"The entire trip pushed me past my existing limits. There were pivotal moments that I will remember for years to come when I find myself struggling in different situations. Ultimately it is not the pain and struggle I remember first, it is the ear-to-ear grin I had at the top of Grenelle due to the sense of accomplishment, then looking back at the mountain and all its obstacles from the bottom before skiing back to camp into a perfect sunset. Aside from learning more about my personal limits, I learned the best recovery day activity is building a booter over top of camp and that ice axes are actually just bad ass toilet paper dispensers. Most importantly, I learned once again that if you get invited to go on a ski trip, say yes every time and don't think twice."
"Heading home the 'what-ifs' were of the life-scale variety. How to chart a path that would have led to Waddington years earlier, because time is limited and I want to go there more than once."
The world around us is an incredible place, and it's easy to take advantage of it given the age we live in where it's so easy to live a comfortable and safe life. Raya, Julia, Robert and Paul's trip into the Waddington show us that, along with a little planning, getting the ambition to make a trip like this can go a long way, and become a very rewarding experience. You don't need to be a pro skier, or even have the skills that this bunch has, to make your own adventure. Just set a goal that puts you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to your own limit and you'll almost always end with an incredibly rewarding, life changing experience even if you don't meet your goal.