Alpine climbing in the Manatee Group (Aug 1st – 9th)

Somewhere above the Lillooet valley a great tower of rock rises out of the glacier below, imposing itself upon the surrounding landscape. The group to which it belongs, the Manatees, is a remote place. It sees just a few visits a year, but those who make the trip leave with memories impressed – the NE buttress of the Wahoo Tower is not an image easily forgotten. Two of those visitors were VOCers Nick Matwyuk and Lena Rowat, having passed through the group on skis in a previous winter. Naturally, the idea of a summer return to climb the tower began to germinate.

When Nick proposed the trip, I had reservations. I’d never climbed with Nick or Lena before, nor with Olek Splawinski who was to be my partner, though I knew them to be pleasant, competent and fast by reputation. Alpine climbing was a relatively new endeavor for me, and I had little experience on glaciers, steep snow, or ice. I had no idea where the Manatee group was or what the terrain was like, and the trip was to be longer and more isolated than anything I had previously done. The poor access to the area meant information was scarce. The tower itself was 14 pitches long at 5.10a, doable in Squamish but potentially tough with the challenges of the alpine. In short, a whole lot of warning bells. But I was confident in my fitness and a strong climbing season in Squamish stoked my ambition. I agreed to join the group. If nothing else, I thought a challenge in the mountains would be a pleasant, if temporary, respite from unemployment in the city.

We packed for 8 days. From a logging road up the Lillooet valley we would bushwhack into the alpine and hike into the Manatee group, most likely consuming two or three days. The weather forecast looked excellent, so our objective on Wahoo would come first, and then we would have a few days to rest and climb whichever of the less technical surrounding peaks caught our interest before hiking out.

We lazily left Vancouver around 10 a.m. and drove until the road ran out. Throwing on the packs and reminding ourselves they would only get lighter, we began a dense and nasty bushwhack.   Only three or four kilometers of separated us from our creek side campsite for the evening, but we had braced for a slog. A trip report from two years previous suggested the bush was passable, but growing fast. They were correct. After side hilling through an overgrown cut block where I spent as much time on my ass as on my feet, we swam through alders at the valley bottom. Toiling at 1 km/h or less was quickly neutralizing our stoke. Miraculously, the alders relented and gave way to an inexplicable 500m patch of open gravel. Deliverance! Spirits buoyed, we zoomed across the gravel, punched through the remaining bush and camped at Job creek.

Slow going through dense bush.

Slow going through dense bush

The next day began with the physical crux of the trip: getting into the alpine. After crossing a couple of creeks we pointed it straight up, climbing through steep bush up an unnamed ridge one valley east of Polychrome. 4 hours later and 1000m higher we emerged in the alpine and celebrated with a face plant in the first snow patch we saw.

We needed this.

We needed this.

Skating on scree led us down from the ridge and on to the Mosaic glacier, which we followed up to a col where the surrounding mountain groups finally revealed themselves. Spectacular. Open fields of heather and grass, streams trickling down hillsides, tarns warming in the sun, and mountains all around. Nick and Lena quickly began identifying the surrounding peaks from their previous trips: the Meager group, the Harrison Hut area, the Manatees themselves, Athelstan across the valley. For me, the feeling was different. Foreign mountains stretched in all directions with no signs of human life. I had been dropped into an invented landscape, infinite in expanse, mine to explore.

First views from the alpine

First views from the alpine

After spending the night high on hillside we dropped down into the Manatee creek drainage to begin our final approach to Wahoo. There were three creeks to cross, each one stronger than the last. We went from ‘rats, my boots got wet,’ to side-shuffling through shin deep flow, and finally to a hip-deep torrent from which we retreated after Nick and I balked halfway across. The strong creek was fed by the Manatee glacier, so we followed up the riverbank hoping to cross on the ice above.   As Nick and Lena hemmed and hawed about crossing the steep and nasty glacier toe, Olek veered hard right and ploughed straight through the lake at the glacier’s edge. A creative solution! After draining our boots some easy travel through scree and forest brought us back into the alpine, close to the heart of the Manatee group.

Well that's one way to get across.  Chilly!

Well that’s one way to get across. Chilly!

At the toe of the Sirenia Glacier the group was keen to get out the crampons and enjoy some fast and unobstructed travel. We intended to follow the glacier around the north side of Dolphin and Oluk mountains, camp at the base of Wahoo tower, and climb its NE buttress the next day. I took a breath and prepared to launch out of my comfort zone. The glacier ahead was steeper and more complex than anything I had been on. But as the rest of the group took off, hopping over the gaping crevasses without an apparent second thought, I resolved to do the same. Eventually the angle of the glacier and the prevalence of crevasses eased off. Approaching a shallow pass north of Dolphin, new snow began to cover the glacier. Conditions looked benign and we agreed to continue unroped.

Shortly after the snow began I punched both feet through a snow bridge. I don’t remember the feeling of falling through. I remember finding myself shoulder deep in a crevasse, hanging from my armpits in the snow. I remember muttering ‘fuck,’ more confused than afraid. Most of all, I remember my legs dangling in space, the reality of the situation setting in. Lena turned around and told me not to move. With care, I stretched a leg out in front of me and a leg behind, finding I could just barely stem across to support some weight. Locating the crevasse walls in this way allowed Lena to drop to her stomach, approach the edge, and offer me a hand, while Olek removed my pack from behind.   Once the pack was off Lena pulled me out of the hole and on to solid ground. No one had panicked; communication was curt and clear. The rescue was over less than a minute after it began. The hole I created had no visible bottom.

We roped up and attempted to proceed, but Nick put his foot through another snow bridge almost immediately. The terrain ahead showed no signs of changing, so we turned around. After retreating onto bare ice the danger was gone and it was safe for me to unravel. I thought of the phone call I would have to make to my parents and cried behind my sunglasses.

A rough sketch of our approach route, loosely following our SPOT track

A rough sketch of our approach route, loosely following our SPOT track

So, what to do now? We were two days from civilization and reliant on each other for safe travel. I decided to swallow my fear and proceed with the trip. I would forget the accident for the time being, make deliberate and conservative decisions, and accept the inevitable exposure to further hazard for the remainder of the trip. At my request, the next day was safe and unambitious. We climbed the lovely Obelia Peak, hiking up to the southern false summit immediately from camp then scrambling through a kilometer of class 3 and 4 ridgeline to gain the main summit in the north. Obelia is set back from the rest of the Manatee group and provided a view of the glacier path we had attempted the previous day. The snowfield where we turned around seemed featureless, but the remainder of the approach to Wahoo was littered with sagging snowbridges. Certainly that route was too treacherous to attempt again.

The Manatee group as seen from Obelia.  The snowfield in front of Oluk was the site of the previous day's accident.

The Manatee group as seen from Obelia. The snowfield in front of Oluk was the site of the previous day’s accident.

The day after Obelia we tore down camp and went to investigate the approach to Wahoo from the south. Our map indicated that reaching the base of the tower from this route would require a steep descent from the Wahoo-Mermaid col, but lacking a better option we just had to hope for the best. We made our way from the Sirenia glacier onto the Manatee glacier and wrapped around the south side of Dolphin and Mermaid. This left us at the base of the standard route up snow on Wahoo’s south side. We hiked up to camp on a flat glacier bench just 300m below Wahoo’s summit and immediately adjacent to the col. With time remaining in the day, we decided to climb the standard route on Wahoo to better view the col and to familiarize ourselves with the descent. Foreshortening made the snow seem steeper than it actually was, and the climb to the summit went easily. Atop Wahoo we found a summit register (one of maybe three signs of prior human visits seen all trip) with only a dozen entries from three decades of climbers. From the summit we could see that the approach to the base of the route would require rappelling past a short section of steep ice from the Wahoo-Mermaid col, but the glacier below that looked manageable. We walked off of Wahoo, grabbed water for the following day and then rigged a rappel anchor before returning to camp for an early bedtime. If the weather looked promising the following morning we would make our attempt.

Crossing the Manatee glacier en route to Wahoo

Crossing the Manatee glacier en route to Wahoo

The NE buttress of Wahoo tower was first climbed in 1985 by a Bruce Fairely party. Bruce was then a law student, worn down by a summer of articling work and in need of an adventure. The party flew into the Manatee group, breaking the landing ski on their plane in a rough landing. After mending the ski and seeing their pilot off, they climbed the route (one member descending 500m of snow and glacier in their climbing shoes after dropping their runners off the tower!), then had to slog out to the logging roads in a monstrous push so that Bruce could be half-asleep at his desk at work that Monday morning. Some adventure! They named their route the Articling Blues Buttress, describing it as ‘a great mountaineering workout.’ After days of anticipation we were anxious to begin.

Early morning glow on the Wahoo Tower.  Our route roughly follows the skyline.

Early morning glow on the Wahoo Tower. Our route roughly follows the right-hand ridgeline.

The fifth morning dawned and we were moving. Climbing 14 pitches of seldom traveled rock with a nebulous route description takes time, and while we carried two sleeping bags and pads between the four of us we hoped not to use them. The high camp and pre-rigged rappel were instrumental in getting a quick start to the day. We rappelled down the col and negotiated a short section of snow and crevasses to arrive at the base of the route. The final obstacle remaining was the moat separating the glacier from the wall. We had two options to begin the climb, the original start and a different variation established a decade later. Our intention was to examine the moat next to the two possible starts and choose whichever looked easier, but both were surprisingly tame so Nick and Lena began on the original route while Olek and I tackled the direct start. The two paths climb six pitches in parallel up opposing sides of a massive chimney before merging, allowing us to begin simultaneously, avoid endangering each other with rock fall, and stay within chatting distance. Not bad! While Olek and I enjoyed splendid climbing over the first three pitches of our variation, Nick and Lena had good rock and the pleasure of finding the shoes that were dropped off the tower from the first ascensionists in 1985, still looking good 29 years later.

Olek launches into the difficult third pitch of Blues Buttress Direct.  Nick and Lena can just be seen across the chimney.

Olek launches into the difficult third pitch of Blues Buttress Direct. Nick and Lena can just be seen across the chimney.

Climbing on the tower was a pleasant departure from the Squamish style I’d grown used to. The rock on Wahoo is a fascinating speckle of white and grey, with glassy black feathers interspersed that shine like they’ve been polished. Continuous crack systems were rare, but the rock was nicely featured, allowing a kind of gear protected sport climbing. Over 14 pitches I jammed maybe once. Roomy ledges at perfect 30-40m intervals separated surprisingly steep sections of climbing. While the ledges made for wonderful belay stances, they also made finding the correct start of the next pitch quite challenging. I’m quite sure we climbed several variations to the original route, including two of Olek’s pitches at 5.10 R/X that are, to put it mildly, not recommended. Progress was generally smooth, and we were on our target pace until I made a series of blunders just a few pitches from the top. First, a major routefinding error from a ledge cost the group a precious hour and frayed Nick’s nerves after I sent him up a dangerous dihedral to nowhere. Then it became apparent that the clock on my camera hadn’t been adjusted for daylight savings time, and that we were in fact an hour slower than we had thought. I had taken us from comfortably on pace to racing the sun almost instantly. As the group began to grow tetchy at the prospect of a night on the wall, I went up another possible pitch to look for promising rock above, mercifully finding a piton in the wall at a small ledge. This was the only piece of fixed gear we saw all day, and it let us know we were on the right track. Shortly thereafter we were on top, finishing just as the sun dipped behind the skyline. A quick summit photo, an easy descent in twilight, a gigantic meal of cheesy potatoes, and our 16 hour day was done.

Success!  A tired gang atop the tower

Success! A tired gang atop the tower

With Wahoo in the bag and food supplies running low, we took the next day to scramble a few nearby peaks then begin our trek back to the car. A short and pleasant scramble up the SE ridge of Mermaid Peak took us to the summit, and we had just enough time to follow the ridge north on snow and rock to summit Oluk Peak as well. Looking out on the previous day’s route up Wahoo was satisfying; it’s hard to believe that a line so imposing from far away can be so manageable from close. We returned to camp four hours after we’d left, packed up, and began our walk out on the Manatee Glacier. Another night in a stunning alpine campsite, more wet and muddy creek crossings, a final tricky trip up the Mosaic glacier, and it was time to say goodbye to the mountains and re-enter the bush. With light packs and gravity on our side the bushwhack out was more civilized than the trip in, and soon enough we were back at the car, tired from eight long days in a row but otherwise happy and unscathed.

Nick and Lena atop Oluk Peak.  Wahoo Tower in the background

Nick and Lena atop Oluk Peak. Wahoo Tower in the background

I want to give thanks to Nick and Lena for leading the trip and to all group members for my rescue.

Our last night in the alpine, at yet another fabulous campsites.  Obelia in the background.

Our last night in the alpine, at yet another fabulous campsite. Obelia in the background.

I’m home now, and I’m not sure how to feel about this trip. It featured the best route I’ve ever climbed in the most beautiful area I’ve visited. But still, can I be happy with how it went? Can I be proud of my accomplishments on a trip that almost killed me? Just how bad of a decision was it to go unroped on the new snow? To tackle a trip with so much glacier travel in the first place? To enter terrain where inexperience forces me to rely on the judgment of others? To join an ambitious trip with new partners? I’m still badly shaken by my fall – how will that affect me when I return to the mountains? The answers are not so clear.

Our approximate routes up Wahoo Tower.  Green - Articling Blues Buttress, 5.10a TD.  Red - Blues Buttress Direct, 5.10a TD+.  The upper deviation of the red route is run out and scary, not recommended.

Our approximate routes up Wahoo Tower. Green – Articling Blues Buttress, 5.10a TD. Red – Blues Buttress Direct, 5.10a TD+. The upper deviation of the red route is run out and scary, not recommended.

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2 Responses to Alpine climbing in the Manatee Group (Aug 1st – 9th)

  1. Veronika Schmitt says:

    Thanks Will for sharing report and thoughts! I think you can be proud of this accomplishment! I wonder how often we get in situations like yours without being even aware of it

  2. Gili Rosenberg says:

    Wow, what a beautiful place! Thanks for the well written trip report and introduction to an area. Too bad about your fall, but perhaps you can learn the necessary lessons (be they what they be) and move on…

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