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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Into the journey unknown

Ted Rupp, right, and Steve Reynolds plunge from the alpine into the rain forest on the rugged descent from their week of climbing in the northern Selkirk Range of British Columbia. 
 (Photo by Eric Christianson / The Spokesman-Review)
Rich Landers Outdoors editor

The expedition grew, as so many others in history, from the longing gaze of a climber looking up from the lowlands at the challenge and mystery of eye-catching peaks in the distance.

“I was driving up by Radium and Banff with my eyes bulging out and I started wondering what else was around there beyond what I could see from the roads,” said Lee Davis, a Spokane metallurgist and member of the Spokane Mountaineers.

He dredged up some Canadian Selkirk Mountains climbing guidebooks, ranging from new to decades old, and his imagination went wild.

While more than 100 climbers are scaling Mount Everest every year, Davis realized that countless unclimbed routes still wait for adventurers in the sea of peaks a day’s drive north.

Davis had he desire for the challenge, but he lacked two important things to reach the heights to which his imagination had soared: Money and skill.

An experienced climber to a certain level, he knew that making new ascents in an area plied by some of North America’s most savvy alpinists would require lead climbers with another few degrees of expertise.

“One of the reasons I climb is to get away from people, so the concept of putting a group together to share costs and ferry supplies was different to me,” Davis said. “None of the climbers I knew really wanted to do that part, but I got comfortable with it.”

Being the father of three kids and a member of a rock band, Davis said he’s not deep in the social ring of area climbers.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” he said. “There are lots of 5.10 (level) rock climbers, but most of them are sport climbers.”

It’s harder than he expected around this area to find “alpine-style” climbers who can lead steep, difficult pitches and who also have the time and desire to hump the loads and tough out the weather extremes and other variables encountered in the wilderness.

Haunted by the spirit of discovery, he persevered, not only to find the team but also the financial support of $1,000 from Spokane Mountaineers funds earmarked to help members push boundaries into the realm of exploration.

The 2004 Adamants-Gothics Expedition team laid out objectives, such as scaling the unclimbed 2,500-foot southwest face of Post Peak and climbing as many hard alpine rock ascents as possible. With the financial support, they could hire a helicopter shuttle into the mountains to put the unclimbed routes within the time constraints of people with jobs and families.

The wisdom of flying into the alpine country last August didn’t fully strike them until the end of the trip, as they hiked out the Swan Creek Trail, which was overgrown and often clogged with avalanche debris piled high across the valley floor.

“A couple of times we were playing Marco Polo to keep contact because if you got 10 feet away you couldn’t see each other,” Davis recalled.

But the initial prospects got hairy even before the expedition got of the ground.

The week before departure, Josh Rudnick, took a fall climbing Chimney Rock east of Priest Lake and suffered a partial tear of a shoulder rotator cuff. But even at less than full function, he was still the best climber on the team and he was game, Davis said.

Then, while waiting for the helicopter, the other high-level climber, Kevin Klim, who had barely recovered from knee surgery, stumbled off a piece of equipment at the landing area and wrenched his back. But he was still game, too, between surges of pain.

“Right from the start, it was a lesson on how reality intrudes on your dreams,” Davis said.

After driving backroads and getting a helicopter lift, the team, which also included Rich Bennett, Eric Christianson, Steve Reynolds and Ted Rupp, found themselves northwest from Golden, north of Rogers Pass and east of Kinbasket Lake beyond the sight of highway dreamers.

They were left on their own staring at the jaw-dropping hugeness of 11,623-foot Mount Sir Sandford.From the Alpine Club of Canada’s Bill Putnam-Ferry Meadow Hut at 6,800 feet, which is between the Adamant and Gothic groups within the Selkirk Mountains, they carried gear to a high camp at 8,800 feet.

“These are big granite peaks, but Sir Sandford is the like the biggest thing I’d ever seen,” Davis said. “You know how big Rainier looks from Seattle? This is like that only it’s just across the valley. That’s what got me. The scale of the place is just so big.”

Despite daily weather assaults, somebody was out every day and the team collectively reached dozen summits during the week.

“It wasn’t the stuff I’d envisioned, with big faces and bivvies on a wall,” Davis said. “We never got on the big face. Circumstances stopped us. We didn’t have anybody in condition to lead it.

“Our best climber with the torn rotator cuff still climbed more stuff than anybody in the group.

“Our second-best climber could barely walk some days. He spent three days in the hut resting his back yet he still he carried a 55-pound pack to high camp and made some great climbs.”

Despite their research, much of the climbing was different than they expected. Even the new guidebook underestimated the receding glaciers, which have left substantial rock climbing in order to reach documented routes.

Lower parts of routes documented by climbing pioneer Fred Beckey often are many degrees harder now. “There are rock towers to be climbed that don’t even show above the glaciers in the old pictures,” Davis said.

The trip had numerous high points, including Rudnick, defying his shoulder injury and putting up a new 5.9 one-pitch route on a granite finger called the Gargoyle.

Davis was waiting below with Bennett to follow the route with the security of the rope the lead climber was fixing when he heard Rudnick scream.

“That doesn’t sound too good,” Bennett said.

Pain shot through Rudnick’s injured shoulder as he made the last strenuous pull to finish the difficult exit move at the top of the route.

Moments later, Rudnick yelled out again, this time yodeling “Wahhhoooo!” from the summit.

“I guess he’s okay,” Davis said.

Other memorable moments include the afternoon in which all seven climbers were caught in the open on the Gothic and Echo Glaciers in a violent and fast-moving lightning storm.

Among the most impressive climbs of the week involved Christianson and Rudnick making a “wrong way” east-west traverse of Mount Thor and finishing with a long series of rappels in mixed rain and snow showers. The climbers had to cut their expensive glacier rope into shorter lengths when they ran out of webbing for anchors to support more than a dozen rappels down the West Ridge.

“Why did they go the wrong direction, the most difficult way?” Davis said. “Eric thought it looked ‘right’ and Josh thought Eric knew what he was doing! Neither one of these guys read ‘the guidebook’ very much. I like that about them. They’re both very self-sufficient, competent and mentally tough and flexible climbers. You need those qualities in this very remote and huge country up in the Northern Selkirks of Canada.”