Trip Participants: Harlin Brandvold, Nick Hindley, Duncan Pawson
A journey into the remote, unexplored big walls of BC’s rugged Coast Range.
We left Vancouver in the not-so-early morning on August 10th, Harlin’s truck loaded up with climbing gear, a haul bag, portaledge, and other poorly packed necessities. En route to Terrace, BC, we took an hour detour to drive through Squamish and pick up a copy of Supertopo’s ‘How to Big Wall Climb’ – some much needed educational material before we embarked on a two week trip with the intent on tackling some remote unclimbed big walls. After about 15 hours and an obligatory repacking stop in the Walmart parking lot in Prince George, we arrived in Terrace just after 4am.
We took a 1-hour recharge at Tim Hortons, before driving to the airport for our heli out. We had hoped to take the smaller, cheaper heli – and had rationed our food as such – but when we met our pilot, Rob, and asked whether all our gear would fit, we were met with a laugh and a shake of his head. So the larger bird it is, meaning that our heavy rationing of food was all for naught. At 7:20am we loaded up the helicopter and took off.
Our doubt and nervousness was replaced with stoke as we travelled west; the scenery changes rapidly from loose, rocky foothills to glacier clad granite. Blue tinted, glacial lakes were abundant. Numerous glaciers lined the cliffs and valley bottoms. We were impressed by how many of the glaciers had survived all these years at such low elevation – seemingly untouched since the last ice age. It truly felt like we were travelling back in time.
Stoke overtook us as we crested the sharp meander into the valley that would later be known as Pangea. The granite walls were endless! After a few laps searching for a landing zone, Rob set the heli down on the only clear, flat slab of granite to be found. We unloaded gear and watched the helicopter peel away, the loud buffeting of it’s blades was quickly replaced by our shouts and cheers for the valley we had just touched down in. Overcome with stoke, we left our gear where it lay and set out to explore the valley.
We were surprised to see the size of the glacier at valley bottom. We knew of its existence, but it was much larger than expected (foreshadowing for what was to come). It terminated in a large lake filled with chunks of broken glacial ice. Entry was not possible on this side of the valley except by helicopter. Many of the peaks in the area, were capped with gnarly glaciers of their own. We later learned that the valley glacier was quite active with some serious crevasses. Moreover, day after day we’d hear the rumbling sounds of ice cracking and rocks releasing from the behemoths above. We didn’t bring crampons and only had one ice axe which we later offered up to the glacier in an attempt to satiate its hunger for all things shiny and expensive. The valley gave a foreboding feeling with the ‘Nautilus Wall’ ( the massive north facing wall to the south) asserting its dominance over the valley. As measured from Google Earth, the thing measured 1000 meters of vertical gain. We hiked up to the col to get a glance at the valleys beyond. More granite and heavily guarded by some serious icefalls. We saw a black bear on the hike up,it had likely never seen humans before.
At 4:30pm we toyed with the idea of climbing one of the “small” features in the valley. We opted out – in hindsight an excellent choice. We hung our food in dry bags over a cliff, off a knifeblade hammered into a thin crack, then and setup camp. The haul bag and extra gear was placed under a decent overhang to protect from rain. After eating dinner, we retired to the tents for some boggle and cribbage.
We organized everything to climb on what we dubbed the ‘Cambrian Wall’. We left camp around 10am and were climbing by 11am. Saw two mountain goats traversing steeply across slab next to our climb. The first two pitches were a combination of scrambling and simuling across low 5th terrain to get to the start of the good climbing (these starting pitches can be avoided by walking around but we wanted to climb).
From here, Harlin led the first challenging pitch, involving a tricky, scary move off the deck. After that, a few uninteresting chimneys followed (the mosquito chimneys). Nick led the next pitch which climbed cool features next to a stream and culminated in a rad hand traverse. Duncan led the pitch after; starting up a low angle fist/layback crack before transferring right to a more difficult thin finger crack. After that, blocky climbing up mossy terrain led to a small ledge. Harlin led a stellar pitch with super cool chimney, stemming, and face climbing to a large, grassy ledge.
It was around 5:30pm and we were less than halfway to the top – we clearly underestimated the scale of these walls. It should be noted, however, that the route did involve some cleaning, and as a party of three we were also pretty slow. We would later come to question this decision, but the stoke was high so we chose to gun it to the top. Nick led an interesting and runout pitch which traversed a face of chicken heads to a small ledge. Duncan continued up the ramp on chicken heads and traversed across the face to another small ledge – it was scary climbing with scarce pro; mostly brass offsets and ballnuts. Harlin led another rad pitch at dusk up to a blueberry filled ledge. It was now completely dark, sometime after 11pm.
Tantalizingly close to the top (though we did not know this) we decided to sling a horn and bail. Tired and not sure if we had enough bolts to make it to the down, we decided to bolt in 70m intervals. This would leave the rap unusable by anybody without 70m doubles, but at the time we were desperate to get back to camp as soon as possible. After the first couple rappels, while waiting for Nick to join us at our freshly bolted anchor, Duncan turned to Harlin and asked “Guess what time it is?”. Harlins reply: “Probably around 11:30?”. Harlin’s optimism proved to be folly, as it was in fact 2:30am by this time and we were not even halfway down the wall. After a total of 6 long rappels, a stuck rope, and a sullen walk back to camp, we returned to our tents at around 7am, having watched both sunset and sunrise during our epic. In honour of our glorious attempt up the big “small wall”, we named the route ‘Flight of the Dodo’.
This day blended with the previous day due to our overnight epic. We ate our “dinner” and went to bed around 7:30am – a shame since it was a bluebird day (the first we had). However, we woke up at 11am due to it being too hot in the tents. Since it was nice, we figured we’d climb. Having spied a “splitter hand crack” on the wall immediately to our south (Extinction Wall), we set off with the goal of putting up 100m and fixing one of the static lines. Knowing the true scale of these walls now, we broke our goals down to manageable pieces.
Duncan led the first pitch up a corner, onto a slabby face, and to a good ledge – making sure not to surpass 60m so that we could bolt a proper rap line this time. Nick led the second runout slab pitch up a dyke. We fixed our 100m line and rapped to the ground, having accomplished our goal.
We jugged up the static lines to our high point. Harlin backed out of the lead, as it was pretty heady. Nick took up the reigns and led up unprotected 10a slab to a big ledge and the start of the “crack”. Turns out the crack was actually a dyke which served as the meltwater drainage path for the glacier above. It was easy enough to climb dry features on either side of the dyke with the occasional step on wet rock, using the dyke for pro (which worked surprisingly well). We decided to continue to the roof above. Harlin, followed by Duncan, and then Nick led up the dyke to just below the big roof. The climbing was actually fun and we stayed mostly dry – not the ropes though. We fixed both 70m lead lines and the other 100m static line and rapped to the ground. Tomorrow was going to be interesting as the pitches above were considerably more wet with an active waterfall running over the roof (Komodo Roof). It was at this moment we decided an apt name for the route – Lizard King.
During the climb we heard a larger than normal crackling sound from the glacier below. We turned around to see a new crevasse had opened – a testament to the seriousness of the landscape. Day after day we watched as this hole grew bigger.
Time to big wall! Our goal was to climb to the 2nd smaller roof and setup the portaledge underneath. This way we would be out of the wet terrain and would be protected from potential icefall. We jugged our lines and hauled the bag every 100m. Our 1 to 1 hauling system was pretty efficient but hauling in general, is cumbersome. Because there was so much water on route, there was no need to add the weight of water to the haul bag, so it was relatively light.
We arrived at Komodo Roof and discussed who would lead it. Duncan opted out and it was technically Harlin’s turn to lead anyway. Unfortunately, today was cooler with overcast skies. In addition, we had only eaten a single bar and apple for breakfast and accidently packed away our two bar lunch into the haul bag. Needless to say, we were pretty hungry. It was a little later in the day than we would have liked since we slept in an extra hour (6am vs 5am) due to the morning being so windy.
After we suited up in our best rain gear, Harlin racked up for a brutal lead. Duncan belayed while Nick blasted inspiring, classic rock tunes and took photos. Five minutes in, after placing his 2nd piece, Harlin slipped on the slick rock, pulled his piece and a took a decent whip on a .4 C4. Battling through a ~1hr aid lead in a waterfall over a roof, he eventually conquered the Komodo Roof. Due to being cold, he didn’t climb much higher before stopping to bolt an anchor. We passed the drill up to him on the static line he was trailing.
Next it was Duncan’s turn to jug the static line and clean the gear. He tried to go as fast as he could so as not to get too wet, but jugging and cleaning a roof is difficult, even if jugging a separate line. After jugging up and hanging out in the waterfall, Duncan had cleaned all the gear and arrived at Harlin. Although wet, his double raincoat system proved quite effective. Other than his arms, Duncan’s body was mostly dry. Harlin was soaked. We took off our wet jackets and put on dry ones, albeit not raincoats. Nick jugged up, remaining mostly dry since he could avoid the water easier, not having to place or clean gear.
The next pitch looked wet but seemed as if you could avoid most of the water by climbing the arete and only using the dyke for pro. It was Duncan’s lead. The arete climbing was fun but soon ended and Duncan was fully entrenched in the dyke. At one point the dyke turned to a mossy, soaking squeeze chimney. Duncan hesitated but eventually went for it, having to aid off a #2 C4 cam to get through. He got soaked.. Duncan made it as far as he could before building an interesting gear anchor in the dyke. Duncan shivered while Nick jugged up through the wetness trailing both the static lines, the unused lead line, and on lead on the other lead line (since the anchor was not bomber) – no easy feat. He arrived, tired in all rights, and gave Duncan dry clothes and the drill so that Duncan could continue to the roof while bolting the dry slab on lead. The moves were fun, but bolting on lead is hard and awkward. Duncan eventually bolted the anchor for the ledge and haul bag. Harlin jugged up to join while Nick hauled and Duncan finished off the anchor (4 bolts, 2 separate master points on 2 pieces of cordallete). We were all pretty defeated and sure we’d not want to continue tomorrow due to the risk of an impending storm and our apprehension of what may lay above. Harlin left most of the gear on route from the last pitch to clean on rappel the next day.
Once we were all at the anchor, Nick and Harlin setup the ledge. Unfortunately, Duncan was above the ledge and couldn’t do much without his headlamp which was currently MIA (later to be found in Harlin’s backpack). Setting up the ledge took surprisingly quick ~20-30 mins. Soon we were all chilling on the ledge and were able to put the fly on quite easily. Nick went to grab water from the dyke while Harlin and Duncan unpacked the haul bag. We finally ate our lunch (only one bar) around 1:30am. Once Nick returned, we cooked dinner (it was good!) and passed around the whiskey. We passed out around 3am and slept decently well given how cramped it was. Three people in a two person ledge is cozy!
Woke up around 9am to a bluebird day over the valley. Ate breakfast and chilled on the ledge for a bit, then started de-rigging everything. Harlin rapped on one of the static lines to clean the gear from Duncan’s pitch that he had left the day prior. Unfortunately, we’d later realize that an older #1 C4 got left behind (RIP). Nick and Duncan (mostly Nick) de-rigged everything on the anchor and then simul-tandem rapped with all the gear. Nick took the haul bag and Duncan took the ledge, poop tube, and extra lead line (Harlin took the other lead line). The rest of the day was spent repeating this process for a total of four 100m rappels. On descent, we fed the glacier a few times;Harlin dropped a biner, and Duncan dropped one his hand ascenders. All were swallowed up by the gaping glacier below. These in addition to the ice axe and piton that had fallen in a few days earlier.
Once on the ground, we chilled in the sun, dried our clothes, and discussed plans for the next few days. Knowing it was going to rain, we hoped we could at least sneak in a climb in the morning before the rain started. We couldn’t.
The rain started early (at least by 7am when we awoke). It lasted the whole day, through the night, and seemed to just keep getting worse. Practically the entire day was spent in the “big tent” – Duncan’s two man tent. We played a number of games from boggle to chicken to poker (with climbing gear acting as our chips). During a calmish period, Nick and Duncan hiked to the base of one of the walls to check it out while Harlin read “Into Thin Air” in the tent. We couldn’t get directly to the base of the wall without treading over slippery slabs, but we eyed some potential lines from our vantage point.
Back at the tent, we chilled for the remainder of the day as the rain kept on coming. Walls were filled with new waterfalls, our typical cooking area was under a raging river, and new puddles were plentiful. As the wind hammered the tent fly against the walls of the tent, water would seep through along the edges. We had to keep everything within the center of the tent and avoid touching the walls. To prevent seepage through the bottom, we lined area with raincoats and the two towels that Harlin had brought. As day turned to night the storm only got worse. It was difficult to keep things perfectly dry but we managed for the most part. The durability of the tent was impressive. Being a fairly average backpacking tent (MSR Elixir 2), it’s not designed to withstand such weather, but it did it. The storm continued to rage through the night and into the next day.
The night was rough, as the storm kicked it up a notch. Several times we (Harlin and Duncan) awoke to wind hammering the tent. We worried that the tent would slide off the sloped ledge on our right flank with us in it. Every time we woke, we could feel our position shift ever closer to the edge. We did nothing but hope that would not be our fate – it would’ve sucked.
When morning came, the strong winds and rain were still very much active. Nick came over during the worse possible window and was soaked head to toe during the 10m walk. Duncan checked weather, paying for a premium InReach forecast and comparing that with SpotWx – received via our weather contact Steve. Our situation was not forecasted to improve until after our scheduled departure date, save one convenient window the very next day. In fact, the storm was to restart significantly harder than it currently was only one day after this weather window. We were dismayed but reasoned that leaving during this window was our only option. It would mean no more climbing and we couldn’t finish Flight of the Dodo as we had intended. We were stoked to have this moment of good weather to escape though, as otherwise we may have been trapped or had to pay some serious coin to get out. It was all good. Duncan messaged with Rob and Ian and coordinated a pickup for 9am the next day. We played games in the tent until the onset of nice weather came and we stepped outside.
We woke up at 7:30am and began packing. Perfectly on time, Ian arrived exactly at 9am. We heard the sound of the heli before spotting its tiny shape against the endless sea of granite. We loaded our gear and were off in a matter of minutes. As we turned the corner out of the valley we looked back on the walls, to the area we had taken refuge for a week. Much was left to be done. Despite the feeling of forlorn, we were stoked. We were quite possibly the first humans ever in that valley, let alone to scale the granite walls. Exploration is at the heart of human curiosity. To explore an unknown region of the earth, so close to home, is a privilege not afforded by many, and may one day being an extinct concept all together. The edges of the globe have been filled in, but have its creases? Pangea awaits our return.