On A Recce: Exploring New Terrain in the Waddington Range

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Story and Photos By Ben Kunz

rec·ce: (noun) a slang word for reconnaissance, reconnoitre

Climbing the McNerthney Pillar was the primary objective for our trip to the Waddington Range, but when we returned down the Bravo Glacier route to Sunny Knob, the ensuing days continued to bring excellent weather. During our one and only rest day, we took turns man-handling the guidebook and staring at the walls, piecing together known climbs and potentially unclimbed crack systems on the incredible west faces of the spires of the Stilletto Group. We didn’t settle on any particular formation or climb, we just knew we were psyched to get up there and explore, and if the stars aligned, go for a first ascent.

PhotoRecce1And what better way to seize the opportunity than to head out on a recce!

The next morning, Joe and I headed out of camp by headlamp to investigate the best route through the Stilletto glacier and see what we’d find looking up close at those big walls. We found plenty of tricky routing through the maze of seracs and icefalls of the Stilletto, but eventually found a way through to the base of the walls.


As we passed under Bicuspid Tower, we couldn’t help but notice three prominent dihedral systems. The middle and right system looked very steep and the cracks thin, but the bone white rock looked impeccable! Joe’s excitement to just get up there and give it a go was infectious and our mellow reconnaissance day changed gears and we were soon messing around in the moats between the glacier and the tower, trying to find a way on the rock.

Photo Recce3

I took the first pitch, linking a full 200 feet of beautiful blocks and crack systems through varied terrain from low fifth to 5.9 hand cracks, which took us to the bottom of the thin crack systems we’d spied from the glacier. Some traversing right on ledges allowed us to get a good look at each of the crack systems; the middle crack system seemed to provide the most continuous climbing. Joe organized his rack and started leading up into the steep terrain. Despite the excellent quality of the rock, we still had to do plenty of cleaning to get good locks in the cracks and solid foot placements (mostly smears!) on the rock.


The next pitches were the highlight of the route with varied and exciting climbing: technical face climbing, powerful hand traverses, a tricky and insecure boulder problem, then a stemming corner to ear-to-ear grinning hand jamming!


At the top of our fourth pitch, it looked as if we’d top out on the south ridge crest and scamper up to the top from there, but Bicuspid had another crux for us. The final, long pitch started with a steep, slightly right tilting finger crack followed by a tricky pod that could only be exited using a strong dynamic move to the jug up high—definitely not your average alpine rock move!

Photo Recce6

We had extreme luck with our descent, linking three full double rope raps (60m) to drop us at our boots and bags. It was a miracle we didn’t snag anything on the way down!

Joe put it best when he describes his passion for opening new routes. “I get really excited about spotting a clean, direct line and just giving it a go. If it doesn’t go, you just come back down, but you always have an adventure! And just once in a while you climb an amazing, clean line—this is when all that work pays off! You never forget these experiences!”


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Riding our Thumbs into the North Cascades

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Photos and Story By Ben Kunz

Well you’ve probably never heard of the Toyota MasterAce. It is the original name of the Toyota van distributed worldwide from 1982-1989. These vans have a bit of a cult following , much like Volkswagen vans.  And they are equally infamous for breaking down.

Recently, on a climbing trip to Washington Pass, the North Cascades granite playground, it was my partner’s turn to drive. We planned to take his beloved Tawny, a 1986 Toyota van that has its quirks. So I suppose it wasn’t a huge surprise when we broke down near Rockport, WA. Without cell phone service it took considerable effort to find a phone and get AAA involved.


While we waited I reflected on how comfortable our lives are compared to our forefathers’ when it comes to getting to the mountains. Guidebooks, cell phones, internet forums, paved mountain highways (with dedicated snow removal), access to reliable and inexpensive cars… all of these things make our recreating lives a breeze. In Challenge of the North Cascades, Fred Beckey describes how he used to hitchhike around the state to get to the mountains — which in his day meant hitching all day to get to Twisp. From there, he had to hike for at least another day to get to parts of the North Cascades that are now practically roadside. A trip to Washington Pass was an epic undertaking in those days!

While we waited for the tow truck to arrive, we started considering new options. Maybe we could send good ole Tawny back to Seattle without us and we could try to continue on with our intended adventure. It’d be late. We might get stranded.  But we had food and gear, and it would certainly add to the adventure!  So we thought, ‘Why not?’

A quick discussion with our tow truck driver, Jim from Sedro-Woolley, affirmed our plan — we could send the vehicle all the way back to Seattle without us. It was a slightly emotional goodbye as we parted ways with Tawny, knowing that our fate was in the hands of the few drivers left that evening on the North Cascades Highway.

Hitchhiking is always about location—find that spot where you can be seen early (to give the driver time to decide to pick you up) and where the driver can safely pull over. And in Rockport, WA, hanging out at the Shell station is even better. A quick chat with the locals scored us a short ride with Sheila eight miles down the road to Marblemount. We rode in back of her pickup with piles of laundry while she ran errands on her way. As each of the windy miles ticked by, Tim and I warmed ourselves with a fuzzy, safari-patterned blanket that was sitting on top of the laundry.

Untitled2We sat awhile on the side of the road in Marblemount hoping for a ride. A particularly garrulous local returning from fishing on the Skagit gave us some heavily booze-filled knowledge — according to him, we didn’t have a chance getting a ride at this hour of the evening on a Sunday night!  Then he turned back to his Sunday evening ritual and slugged back some sloshy fluid that was starting to look appealing to us. A few minutes later, a Dodge Dakota pulled over and we met Chris. Over the course of the next 60 or so miles to Washington Pass, Chris enlightened us about rock hounding, and his quest to collect opulent rocks around the North Cascades.

We arrived at our destination as night was falling. As we were about to say our goodbyes, Chris jumped out of the car, opened up his palm and held out a collection of rocks, “These are smoky quartz crystals. Here’s some blue agate.  These creeks have a real wealth of minerals.” We saddled our packs and headed off into the woods to catch a little shut eye before our climb up Juno Tower. Our climb went smoothly and we swapped memories of the rides and characters we’d met the night before and imagined who we’d meet on our way back home!

The way back across the North Cascades was even smoother thanks to a local commuter with a habit of picking up strangers. We’ll call him “Ralph” to protect his identity from his disapproving wife. “Ralph” met us right at Washington Pass and drove us all the way to I-5. My wife, who wanted in on the adventure, met us at the Arlington Tesoro with a car packed full of provisions, and happily escorted us back to Tim’s house. And sure enough, when we got back home, Tawny was parked on the street as promised.



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The Sprinter Experience: Living in a Van Down by the River…er Crag

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“Sarge,” our sprinter van, lures in curious parties wherever we go—Adam Ondra gets pumped checking it out!

Photos and Story By Ben Kunz

When Daimler Benz merged with Chrysler way back in 1998, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar, nothing that I needed to worry or care about! But within a year, I started seeing the Sprinter Van, Mercedes gift to North American mid-sized cargo carriers. When I first saw this hardcore Euro-styled van, I did some research and quickly did the math on these genius homes on wheels. Read More →

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