Mt. Bute - West Face Free & Coast Range Adventures

'86 Foweraker-Serl 5.10 A2 
 '13 Herrington-Sorkin 5.12-
The Coast Mountains of British Columbia hold many of North America's most spectacular granite walls and peaks, and are often ignored by alpinists heading (farther) north into Southeast or South-Central Alaska. These peaks are hard and expensive to reach, and seldom very glamorous. I first became aware of one of the range's outstanding peaks, Mt. Bute, several years ago, when a team of three climbers from Squamish won a Mugs Stump Grant to travel there, then succeeded in establishing a monstrous ridge climb gaining roughly 6,000 (School of Rock 2009 Martinello-Kay-Sinnes 5.11 A2). The trio describe Bute's West Face in their Mugs Stump report as "certainly one of the finest pure rock features in the Coast Range; it deserves a free ascent."  

The West Face was first climbed in 1986, just a few months after I was born. In a week of high-alpine drama, the BC-based team of Don Serl and Greg Foweraker claimed the FA of the line (2,000' 5.10 A2) while the Washington-based Fred Beckey and Jim Nelson arrived literally the same week to vie for the FA, and settled for the 2nd ascent. In the intervening decades, the line had seen a single repeat, as another Canadian team had tried to free the line, but suffered a big July snow storm on route which left the wall soaking. Nevertheless they described the West Face as better than Half Dome or Lotus Flower Tower.
Madaleine Sorkin and I were inspired by these reports and flew into Mt. Bute in Mid August, landing on a tiny spot in the glacial moraine below the West Face. After scoping the route and deciding to bring ice axes, puffy jackets, but no stove or bivy gear, we set alarms for early the following morning. After a short glacial crossing, Madaleine led the first block of pitches, which featured some runout corners and poorly-protected closed seams, linked by unlikely face traverses that prevented several near dead-ends. I took us up a major corner system in the middle of the route on world-class granite, good protection, and enough wide climbing to keep us warm as the weather began to deteriorate. After climbing three-fourths of the route, we had yet to see pitons or slings from the pendulums used by prior teams. Madaleine took a pitch of steep thin corners, which leaned hard left and we hoped this was the line. Unsure if she should commit to a strenuous sequence above some small pro, she up-and-down climbed several times before shouting that "If I can't commit this time I'm lowering off and we'll try something else." Fortunately for us, she onsighted the pitch (5.12-, maybe .11+ if scrubbed and inserted into your local McCrag or the Index Lower Town Wall). I swung through and lead out more steep 5.11 terrain, finding amazing face holds on an overhung arete between the two corner systems that other teams had pendulumed between. Here I saw and clipped an aid bolt from the '86 ascent, proving that we were indeed on route. As I belayed Madaleine up and realized that only a couple pitches remained, I noticed that the entire valley floor had filled in with a dense cloud layer, and the surrounding peaks were beginning to disappear into clouds as well. The glacier below was 
hidden from view and our hoped-for vies out to the fjord of Bute Inlet were not to be. A couple more pitches got us to the summit up excellent 5.10 terrain and we topped out amid rapidly deteriorating conditions. Despite having ice axes, we opted to forego onsighting the glacial descent in the dark, and in a cloud. We immediately began rappelling the route, and spent the night in a perfect cave bivy which had been employed on the FA by Serl and Foweraker. (Hotel Ser-Aker, room service extra ) We stayed warm for a few hours moving rocks and staying active before eventually settling in for a shiver bivy high on the wall. 

The first rain drops fell on us just seconds after throwing our rappel ropes the following dawn, and it proceeded to rain for the better part of the next week, with the longest breaks being just a few hours at a time. But the remainder of our descent went smoothly with lots of "go-for-it" rappelling employing the full length of our 70m lines and rope-stretching reaches to minimize leaving gear. One of my anchors was described by Madaleine as "the sketchiest-looking thing she had ever rapped off of" which says a lot considering she once fell 50' after her anchor totally failed.

After enduring many tent-bound days, we hiked out following the Galleon Creek drainage to the west, aiming for saltwater at the head of Bute Inlet. Don Serl, who wrote the guidebook to the Waddington Range and knows more abotu these mountains than anyone, described this valley as a "legendary bushwhack" and related spending 7 hours to fight their way through 2 miles.

We used the single big loop to haul on part of this pitch

Following up more excellent corners mid-route

Madaleine crushing

 Our odyssey of escape entailed numerous close encounters of the arboreal kind, a miraculous log jam that allowed us to cross the rain-swollen river, and a miserable night spent huddling in the mud beneath a sil-tarp listening to the rain, retching and dry-heaving of a sick partner. We also walked beneath two separate huge walls, each similar in height and width to the Chief in Squamish or bigger- one of these was in upper Galleon Creek Valley, the other in the Teaquahan River Valley (the second valley encountered on the red line, our route out.)

Chopping a bollard back on the snow

  Late on the second day we stumbled onto a trail which lead us to Homathko Camp (Pop. 2), an outpost at the mouth of the Homathko River. Here we were fed and hosted by Chuck and Sheron Burchhill, the coast-range's anachronistic homesteaders and two of the most welcoming people we'd ever encountered. The next morning Chuck radioed for a float plane, and we were back in Campbell River feeling culture-shocked by noon. After learning that Serl/Foweraker in '86 and the School of Rock team in 2009 both walked out from the range (though probably with enough foresight to bring a map!) I feel our unforgettable experience is poetically complete and it's really valuable to know we have this connection to the two prior teams to write the most significant chapters in Mt. Bute climbing history.
Our escape as we hiked from East-West.
Homathko Camp and estuary (float plane pickup) just left of the map.

In Squamish, Madaleine and I climbed Northern Lights, the Shadow / University Wall, and did some cragging at the newly-developed Quercus Cliff. Our 2-hour stop by the Quercus Cliff (literally as we left town) resulted in a chance encounter and afternoon climbing with Senja Palonen, Kelly Franz, and Katie Holm, the team of 3 who had been snowed on while attempting to free the West Face a few years ago, and who had shared photos and cheered us on. It's a small world, and a good one.
I used my woodsy skills and a jetboil-turned-flamethrower to get a small fire going on the hike out.
I then burned a hole in my pants (was not wearing them at the time) and it began to rain. Again.

The value and rewards of these kinds of experiences are only peripherally encompassed by the stats of a series of technical pitches climbed and rappels made. I find the emotional legacy impossible to describe, but in trying, I can only allude to the reductive nature of such adventures in distilling ourselves to the rawest essentials of what makes us function, and the knowledge of how we will fail and rise with these challenges. Thanks to the Mazamas Club of Portland, Oregon for an Expedition Grant to help fund our trip. And thanks to the prior teams who climbed this route and shared beta and support!


  1. Looks like a good line! Way to get it done. When I was up there dangling around it sure looked like good rock. The line Potter and crew freed looks to be just left of your line and possibly shared some of the starting pitches. I think it also checked in around 11+/12- . Even farther left the climbing looked good and probably a fair bit harder.

  2. Yeah Mikey - we were eyeing stuff left, and then it just stormed and stormed and we only saw the wall for short bits of time. Did Dean and co (climbing for that movie) do a full new route on that wall, or a few pitches for the film? Congrats on the engagement and as always, if you need a spot to park the van in leavenworth, we have a place for you!!

  3. Ya those guys did a full length route. Probably shared a lot of pitches till the big ledge at about 1/3 height. Then they climb more off the left side of it. The lines goes pretty much straight up from there. I could probably draw it on a pic. Jim Martinello or Damien Kelly could probably give you the full fun down.

  4. Awesome to you both! Sounds like a 'fun' hike out.

  5. Hi Blake,
    Congrats on freeing Greg and Dons line on Bute.
    I was part of the team that climbed the face as part of the Nat Geo exped.
    We free climbed a line to the left of Dons at 5.11+.

    The rock was absolutely amazing and the climbing was spicy enough to be pretty exciting at times.

    We had a ride in and out of the peak via heli so missed the true adventure of getting ourselves in and out. Pretty epic place and one that deserves more attention

    Hope your future plans are fueling your imagination.
    Call anytime if you need a squamish couch.


  6. Blake, how do you like the OR Fillament Pullover (your last photo)?

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. The Filament ( http://www.outdoorresearch.com/en/mens-filament-pullover.html) is a layer I will be bringing along on most alpine trips from now on. Its only drawback I can see is that the stuff-into-itself pocket is a touch larger than it needs to be, but I can fit light gloves or a stocking cap in there too and have a "warmth unit" clipped to my harness. The fabric is superlight (10denier) and I think any reputable brand will use the same down-fill quality on the insulation, so there isnt a whole lot of room for variations among brands on an item like this. It's essentially the modern version of the heavy pile/fleece jacket from the early 90s. I like pullovers for mid-layers (for the ladies, OR only makes a womens model in a full-zip, which is heavier). I know Mont Bell also makes an item like this which is really nice. I'm still looking for the synthetic equivalent (mid-layer, pullover) but I know it wouldn't last as long or be as light (for the same warmth). Here's a link worth checking out: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=53254