Willingdon, Mount

Summit Elevation (m): 3376
Trip Date: August 31, 2013
Elevation Gain (m): 2400 
Total Trip Distance (km): 40 
Related Trips: Devon, Crown and South Tower, Dip Slope, Clearwater, Deluc, Harris
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: We ascended the south ridge with snow / ice sections and one steep rock step around 10 feet high.
Technical Rating: MN8; RE4
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

After scrambling Devon Mountain we contoured the north side and headed towards the winding trail leading to the largest of the Devon Lakes beneath Mount Willingdon. The air was warm and humid and I thought we’d probably get some storms coming through (as forecast) in the evening so we wanted to get to our bivy before any ‘weather action’ started.

Mount Willingdon Route Map

Our plan was to summit not only Willingdon, but also Crown Peak and Southeast Tower – two outliers of the main summit and impressive peaks on their own. Crown Peak is known to be very close to another 11,000er and I wanted to check my altimeter to see how close it could be. Because we were planning on the two additional summits, it made strategic sense to ascend the south ridge route on Willingdon, rather than the normal west ridge route.

Interesting Facts on Mount Willingdon 

Named in 1927. Freeman-Thomas, Freeman , First Marquis of Willingdon (The Marquis of Willingdon was Governor General of Canada from 1926 until 1931.) Official name. First ascended in 1919 by Topographical Survey.

There isn’t a lot of beta on the south ridge other than a few brief mentions of it being an “easy scree” descent or similar comments. We did have some hints from people like Sonny Bou, that it wasn’t quite as simple as advertised but we left our rope at the car and hoped that we wouldn’t need it. We did have steel crampons and axes along in case of snow or ice on the route (these items make the pack much heavier, which is why we give them such careful thought before bringing extra gear along). We didn’t want to bivy too far from the south ridge so we worked our way up the pristine alpine / karst valley between the normal route and the south ridge and set up camp under a small cliff, which would offer some shelter from strong west winds.

I was relieved to have my tarp (a tent footprint) along again on this trip, as we got pummeled by thunderstorms, hail and rain that evening and overnight. One lightning strike in particular was close enough to give us a bit of a scare! Ben had a pool of water at the foot of his bivy sack and Eric actually drank water out of some pools that formed near his head to keep his sleeping bag from getting wet. Talk about hard core! The rain and cool weather made me realize how critical good gear is though. Things can quickly get dangerous if you’re not prepared properly on backcountry trips in the middle of nowhere.

We woke up early on Friday morning to clouds and fresh snow on the mountain. This was disappointing but there wasn’t much we could do so we reluctantly decided to give it a “go” and see what happened. The summit was buried in clouds and none of us were very motivated as we made our way slowly up valley and then around cliff bands on climber’s left and began the scree slog to the south ridge / Crown Peak col. After about 300 meters of elevation gain we had to make another call. Very dark, ominous clouds were building in the south and west and the entire cloud cover was lowering, not clearing as we’d hoped when we set out from camp.

A dramatic sunrise over the Devon Lakes area.

Eric really didn’t want another 11,000er in clouds (like Recondite a few weeks previous), Ben and I weren’t too motivated to continue either and Steven was gung ho to bag the peak no matter what. We went up another 100 meters or so but when rain started falling in the areas around us it was time to hold a vote. This is where a good team is essential. The last thing you want as a team is for things to get nasty or people to split off the team and we all decided that it was most prudent to turn around and head back to camp. We could always head up later in the day if things improved, or even the next day before heading back.

All the way back to camp we tried not to second guess our decision (none of us turn around very easily) but it was tough – especially when the summit briefly went out of the clouds and the sun came out! As soon as we arrived back at camp our decision was justified in the form of an intense rain shower. Thank goodness we weren’t stuck high on the summit in that weather! For the rest of Friday we were sent scurrying into our bivy sacks by wave after wave of rain / sleet / snow showers coming in from the west. At least 5 or 6 waves came through and the temperature dropped a bit more with each one! By the evening Willingdon, Crown and Tower all had fresh snow well below their summits (what little we could see of their summits) and we were feeling very bummed out and bored. I’m extremely pleased that on my next extended overnight trip I’ll have a single tent and am planning on getting a small e-reader for boring, rainy days at camp. I entertained myself by eating M+M’s by their color and one-by-one just to make them last longer.

We were very fortunate that Ben had a two-way satellite communications device and managed to get a weather forecast for Saturday which predicted mostly clear and sunny with the possibility of fog in the early morning. I mentioned how cool it would be to get above the clouds if there was fog but we didn’t expect that to happen. This boosted our spirits a bit but we were cautious not to trust the forecast too much either. The clouds slowly started to lift around 19:00 but when we turned in for the night it was still very cloudy and cool. I set my alarm for 04:00 since we had a long day ahead of us if we were going to bag 3 peaks and hike all the way out in one day.

At 03:00 I awoke to Ben and Steven chatting. I asked what time it was and Ben said he thought around 04:00 unless his GPS was an hour out. I checked my watch and assured him he was an hour early! We all had so much sleep / rest from Friday that I think we were chomping at the bit on Saturday. Best of all? The STARS WERE OUT! The bad part? Ben noticed on his night photos that clouds were starting to roll in from the north / east. We got up and left camp in pitch darkness around 04:20 – nervously noting the clouds that were starting to block the millions of stars shining above. Initially we went a bit too close to the upper cliff bands under the west ridge before angling up to climber’s right on loose scree which meant some early morning (i.e. pitch dark) traversing on concrete-hard scree gullies, which sucked.

By 06:30 we were topping out high on the south ridge, above the col to Crown Peak and with the sun just trying to rise in the east. I write “trying” because of a low, thick band of cloud that had built up all around us, hiding the summits from view and potentially ruining our summit views. There was nothing we could do however, so after taking some interesting shots of the sun rising under the cloud bank and the surprisingly big tarn nestled between Willingdon and Crown, we continued up the south ridge into the mist and clouds leading to the summit. The first part of the south ridge above the col was fairly straight forward even though we couldn’t see much. Frozen scree was our main concern and then we arrived at some huge snow scoops which seemed to abut a very steep and broken glacier on the north side of the mountain. After donning the crampons for a somewhat narrow and exposed traverse on a rock-hard snow / ice arete we started to wonder if this was the same “easy scree” that we’d heard about.

Steven and I were a bit ahead of Ben and Eric and eventually we came to a very exposed and steep arete. Steven began a careful traverse, planting his ax and feet carefully in the slope, front pointing the hard snow / ice and inching to a steep rock cliff band on the opposite side. I didn’t say anything at first but I wondered what the heck we were gonna do once across the arete? The rock looked vertical and was full of snow and possibly ice and the terrain around it was pretty exposed for a ‘simple scree hike’. I mentioned this to Steven and he paused – I don’t think he’d looked too carefully at the other side either. He said he’d give it a look and I said I’d try to find the rumored ‘hike’ and backtracked to Ben and Eric who were waiting a bit lower down on the ridge.

While Steve checked out the crux, Ben, Eric and I tried to find a safe, simple way around it. We failed, and ended up climbing a steep, icy rock couloir to the crux rock step. I knew we could get UP the step, it was coming back down that concerned me. Eventually we all scrambled up the step (crampons helped on the snowy rock) and started up a final easy scree slope to the summit where Steven was waiting for us. While we were looking for a way around the crux a miracle happened. We realized that the clouds were getting thinner as we climbed and by the time we were above the crux we were above them. We realized then, that our views off the summit were going to be mind-blowing, with a sea of clouds hiding everything but 11,000 peaks in every direction.

Probably one of my best summit panoramas includes the Lake Louise giants at left, Wapta at center and Forbes and the Lyells at right. Not to forget the brocken spectre!
Crown Peak at left with the ascent ridge at lower left and views over the Clearwater and Siffleur valleys to the right.
Incredible scenes of Recondite and the double summit of Mount Harris just peeking over the clouds.

After enjoying the summit it was time to keep going. We still had two more peaks to bag and a long trek back to the parking lot. The descent through the crux and snow aretes on the south ridge was not simple scree hiking – we took our time on the crux and balanced delicately across some terrain that reminded me of the sickle on Mount Victoria.

Once at the tarn between Murchison and Crown Peak we took a short break before continuing up to our second peak for the day towards Crown Peak and Willingdon South Tower.

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