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“I’m in awe” – Legendary B.C. Climber Talks About Waddington Range

Don Serl talks about impressive Waddington area climbs, about keeping the area wild and gives three tips for young climbers

Photo by: John Scurlock

Legendary B.C. climber Don Serl has more experience in Canada’s Coast Mountains than most climbers. He talks to us about the area’s history, some exceptional routes and gives his advice to the younger generation. Serl wrote the most in-depth guidebook to the area called The Waddington Guide in 2003. In 2017, he received the Summit of Excellence Award from the Banff Mountain Festival for his many contributions to mountaineering.

In 2021, several climbers expressed that protecting peaks and glaciers around Mount Waddington with a provincial or national park would be a benefit to current and future generation. However, Serl believes that a park wouldn’t be good for backcountry enthusiasts hoping to continue to access the area. We touched base with him at the end of the year to hear about why he thinks the area should stay wild. We’ve also reached out to the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations for their thoughts on any land or park development and will hopefully have another story about this issue soon. The Indigenous name for Waddington in Comox (Éy7á7juuthem), a Coast Salish language, is xʷoʔoxʷ .

Waddington is the highest peak entirely within B.C.’s borders at 4,019 metres, although the taller Mounts Fairweather and Quincy Adams share the border of B.C. and Alaska. The Waddington Range stands at the heart of the Pacific Ranges, a remote and extremely rugged set of mountains and valleys. Access is difficult and finding good skiing and climbing conditions can be challenging.

Why is the Waddington Range so important to climbers? The Waddington Range is unique in North America for having a tight cluster of big, high, challenging peaks in a mid-latitude but very heavily glaciated region. The main peaks are in the 3,500 m to 4,000 m range, with route lengths on the ‘big’ peaks of up to 2000m. This is not the North Cascades, or the Tetons, or the Sierras, or the Rockies; nor it is Alaska or the Yukon. The closest parallel would be to the Mont Blanc Range, but without the people, huts, and telepheriques – despite the advent of helicopters and radio communications, the Waddington Range remains total wilderness.

What is one of the most impressive climbs ever accomplished in that area? Historically, the 1936 Weissner-House and 1942 Beckey brothers’ ascents of the southwest face of Waddington reached a level not seen before, or for decades thereafter. More recently, probably the climb that tops the charts for me was The Smoke Show on Mount Combatant by John Furneaux and Matt Maddaloni: 950m ED2 5.12d A0 (2004). I’m in awe. On the alpine/ice side, the Uber Groove is a 700-metre WI5 done in 2005 on the south face of Waddington, below the Epaulette Glacier, climbed by Craig McGee and Sean Easton, applied full-on waterfall ice skills to an outstanding line. Visionary.

Are there a lot of difficult unclimbed objectives? And what are they? There are plenty of big hits remaining, although the biggest unclimbed major feature in the range, the south face of Asperity (950m ED1 5.10+) got ticked by Nick Elson and Tony McLane in 2010. Grab a guidebook; spend time reading the CAJ, AAJ, Alpinist, and Gripped; and surf the web for photos. John Scurlock’s amazing aerial photos on pbase.com are a rich resource. Choose a line and go do it.

Did you ever have any close calls when climbing there? Of course. But those are tales for beer talk.

What is one of your fondest memories of Waddington? In the evening light, slogging down the deep isothermal snow on the Upper Tellot Glacier towards the Plummer Hut with Greg Foweraker and Peter Croft after spending the previous five days on the Waddington Range Traverse in 1985 brought remarkable contentment. And gliding effortlessly on our skis for many kilometers down the Franklin Glacier with Joe Bajan after our unsuccessful attempt to climb the Weissner-House in February 1983 provided a delicious, light-hearted counterbalance to the most intense mountaineering experience of my life.

Why shouldn’t Waddington be included in a park? Land managers manage land. They do so consider a variety of ‘outside’ inputs, but they make decisions based on their own priorities, political and social pressures, and budgetary constraints. Those decisions affect all users and are never based solely on what is best for only mountaineers and/or backcountry skiers. And those regulations are never permanent; what is acceptable today might be verboten tomorrow. Now, the Waddington Range is remarkable free of restrictions. Almost everyone helicopters in, and – mostly – out too (although I’ve walked out three times and skied out once, and highly recommend the experience to put into proper perspective just where you’ve been, and how wild and remote this country is). You go where you want, when you want, with whom you want. Those are precious qualities, which – once gone – will not be restored. The rules which best serve the needs of backcountry skiers and mountaineers in the Waddington Range are no rules at all.

Are there any threats? There is no threat from logging. There is minimal mineralization, not currently commercializable, halfway down the Franklin. The only ‘threat’ is from other recreationists, primarily heli-skiers. They are noisy, and they track out slopes, so they do not make good neighbours for ski-mountaineers. However, potential conflicts can be easily avoided simply with some sort of ‘registration’ process that would allow backcountry skiers to make the heli-ski company aware of their presence in a certain location, at certain times. Bella Coola and Pantheon Heli-sports, who have very extensive tenures in the mid Coast Mountains, already go to great lengths to avoid such parties, if they are aware of them. Kudos to them. A current application from a new company could include stipulations for such procedures during heli-skiing season, say from Dec. 1 until the end of May. Aside from that, no restrictions are necessary, and all are undesirable.

What access would a park cut off? Nothing is certain, but here is a list of current restrictions on the already existing parks in the region, provide by Mike King, the chief pilot at Whitesaddle Air Services, who does most of the access flying in the range. The condensed version is that in Tweedsmuir; Itacha-Ilgachuz; Homathko; Big Creek; Nunsti Lake; and Tsylos Parks, no helicopter landings are allowed, except with special permits. These cost hundreds of dollars, and a liability policy must be added. These costs are added to the helicopter bill. Processing time can reach a year. None of this is necessary or desired in the Waddington Range.

What other areas on the west coast should remain wild? A surprisingly large proportion of the interior (eastern) side of the Coast Mountains is accessible on foot from old mining exploration roads and studded with ‘ten-thousand-footers’. Sometimes, for some parties, it is preferable to fly in, and easy then to walk out, thereby adding to the adventure and saving money. This includes: Beece Creek, east of Taseko Lake; the Falls River valley and Tchaikazan, both between Taseko and Chilko Lakes; and portions of the Niut and Pantheon Ranges. We need to preserve current freedom of access into all these areas, and we need to work to reduce impediments to helicopter access into parts of Tsylos Park, surrounding Chilko Lake, and Tweesdsmuir Park, home to Mount Monarch, Ape Lake, and the Monarch Icefields.

As the regulations currently stand, it is not permissible to land at the traditional base camp for Mount Monarch, the rognon on the Horseshoe Glacier. Ironically, it is also not permissible to set out food caches of the sort that John Clarke and John Baldwin relied on during their amazing Coast Range ski traverses. The Niut Range was long a favourite of mine for spring mountaineering. It’s close to Whitesaddle, so flights are relatively cheap; it’s home to about a dozen 10,000ers; camping is often at or near treeline; weather is drier and more stable than in the more coastal mountains; and with the right freeze-thaw conditions, you can climb just about anything with perfect cramponning. But this requires a ‘land anywhere, any time’ protocol.

What are three tips you have for the young generation of alpinists? Explore!  Go to new places and have fresh adventures. Climb until you can’t. And refuse to fall off!  Most times, there is a way to overcome even the most daunting obstacle. But: Know when to call it a day. The mountain cannot go away, and you can always come back. And – of course – keep Waddington free.

Don Serl

This interview first appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Gripped.

Lead photo: John Scurlock