Brianna Hartzell and three teammates used an AAC McNeill-Nott Award and a Mountain Fellowship grant to attempt a new route in British Columbia's Coast Mountains in July 2009. Here's a report on the successful trip from team member Matt Van Biene.
On July 17, with the support of the American Alpine Club and a McNeill-Nott Award, Brianna Hartzell, Eric Dalzell, Mike Pond, and I began our journey north to the Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia. After 17 hours of scenic driving, we finally descended into the valley. Craning our necks up and out the windows, we were awestruck at the beauty and potential. But this was not why we were here. The alpine playground of the Coast Mountains dwarfs the potential in the valley. Our objective: the unclimbed east ridge of Mt. Desire.
Our grant funds allowed us to hire a flight from West Coast Helicopters to drop us off and pick us up. With weight not really a concern, we opted to stock base camp on the glacier below Desire with an exorbitant amount of food, supplies, and gear. We were ready to hunker down and wait for good weather if need be. But, when we departed in the chopper, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and it was 80°F in the valley. The helicopter turned what would otherwise be days of bushwhacking into a six-minute pleasure cruise. Thank you, AAC!
We had little information on the area. The physical data consisted of a few John Scurlock photos of the mountain in winter and a 1:250,000 topo map from 1978. We also knew Desire had been climbed by its mellow west side. That's it. It was not hard to spot the east ridge from afar. The line rose in three distinct steps, and the relief looked tremendous. We flew by for one close look at the line before finding an LZ. That one look was crucial in determining whether we would encounter much snow en route or not. The climb looked to be mostly rock, its quality to be determined.
The helicopter peeled away behind a ridge, leaving us among the remote landscape. It took no time to establish our Cadillac-style camp. With the forecast looking stellar, we agreed to climb the next day.
With half a day to kill and anxious to explore, we opted to scope the way to gain the ridge from the glacier. We descended to the beginning of our climb (somewhat of an oddity), navigating crevasses for about 20 minutes. A 50-degree snow slope appeared to lead to a small band of rock and then a ledge system gaining the ridge. We climbed this ramp to confirm our hunch and returned to camp ready for the day ahead.
While walking back to camp, we realized that, as is usually the case in the mountains, the scale here was hard to grasp. The Scurlock photos had made the route look larger than life, maybe due to the wintry mantle. We had been planning on bivying, but seeing the route first-hand made us feel confident about the rock and our ability to simul-climb good chunks of the terrain.
With the long days of summer in British Columbia, the sun was up and beaming when we left camp in the morning. Quickly dispatching the glacier and ramp, we found ourselves on the ridge. We roped up into two teams: Eric and I would lead the way, while Mike and Brianna followed. We began simul-climbing up fourth-class terrain with short steps of low to mid fifth class. The exposure grew, looming on either side. Moving at a steady pace, I felt confident with the rock, which reminded me of my native Cascades.
We continued simul-climbing until we came to a 100-foot section that we decided to pitch out. Being deliberate about each spot I touched, I gingerly led the 5.7 pitch to a nice belay. Above this, we simul-climbed again to the first of a series of platforms, where we skirted an imposing gendarme via its north side, finding 5.7 moves. This inserted us into a shallow moat between a cliff and a very steep and exposed snowfield. With Mike and Brianna right behind us, Eric led up a beautiful knife-edge snow arete with amazing exposure.
A few hundred feet of simul-climbing brought us to another plateau, presenting a view of the final headwall. The terrain covered until now had been fun, enjoyable, and moderate. At first glance, the headwall looked like five or six pitches of solid climbing on not-so-solid rock. Getting to the base would require rappelling into a deep notch with loose rocks all around us.
When Brianna and Mike joined Eric and me, there was a collective sense of â€œholy shit!â€ As Mike and I studied at the rock, however, we began to see weaknesses and became enthusiastic. Brianna and Eric, on the other hand, were less optimistic. Itâ€™s vital there is open and honest communication among a team when in the mountains. After talking it over, Mike and I roped up to continue while Eric and Brianna prepared to descend. We bade a temporary farewell and wished each other luck.
Mike and I slung the best block we could find and began our descent into the notch. Three rappels brought us to an amazing rock bridgeâ€”a conglomeration of boulders forming a chockstoneâ€”at the base of the headwall. Mike took the lead for a rope-stretcher pitch, beginning with quality blocky granite and then somewhat worse rock, with some 5.8 climbing. Next I headed up and climber's right, traversing along steps and rock bands. We found our rhythm and began to simul-climb. The climbing stayed engaging, the rock quality increased, and the position kept getting better. From the top of a small false summit, we pushed on together, moving fast and making great time. Traversing right on tricky terrain brought us to a rib that appeared to lead to the summit. This final section felt spectacular, a 30-foot chimney feature with nice stemming, followed by a mantel onto the final snow mushroom. For both of us, this was our introduction to first ascents, which made it a special moment, though the feeling on top was a little bittersweet with the hindsight knowledge that Eric and Brianna would have enjoyed the rest of the climb as we had. We found a cairn on top that we presume was left by climbers on the west side, which would be our descent route.
Scrambling down to a small col and rappelling a steep snowfield and bergschrund deposited us within a hundred yards of our well-placed base camp. The descent took only about an hour and a half, and it would be another five hours before Bri and Eric retuned to camp after being forced to descend the entire east ridge. We welcomed them back as the northern lights danced through the midnight sky, illuminating the end to a fantastic day.