STORY & FILM : THE MYSTERY MOUNTAIN PROJECT
“You’re not that far from civilisation and yet at times you feel like you could be the only person in the world.”
Film and story by
It’s an overcast day in early July. We’re sailing on a two-masted schooner up Bute Inlet, BC, a long fjord framed by rugged hills and cliffs. Our destination is the mouth of the Homathko River, deep in the coastal region. That’s where we’ll begin our trek on foot to Mt Waddington, the highest peak in the province – and climb it, if weather permits.
Mt Waddington was once considered the most difficult climb in North America. It repulsed 16 attempts before it was finally summited in 1936 by two of America’s best climbers, Fritz Wiessner and Bill House. Even today, few climbers ever attempt it. “It is an incredibly inaccessible, remote, difficult mountain awash in unpredictable weather,” is how one climbing guide describes it. Or as one author put it: “A nightmare carved in rock.”
You would think that would be enough of a challenge for even the most ambitious climber. But not Bryan Thompson. A Toronto history buff, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of the first-ever expedition to set its sights on Waddington: the legendary husband-and-wife mountaineers Don and Phyllis Munday. In 1926, they set out into uncharted territory 350 km north of Vancouver in search of an undiscovered peak – which they nicknamed Mystery Mountain – that experts believed could not possibly exist in this area of the province.
“It is an incredibly inaccessible, remote, difficult mountain awash in unpredictable weather.”
Bryan’s plan is to recreate the Mundays’ journey to Mystery Mountain, now called Mt Waddington. And he wants to do it using vintage 1920s gear. No Goretex jackets, no modern tents, no freeze-dried lasagna. The expedition will use homemade wooden frame packs and cotton tents, just like the Mundays did, as well as alpenstocks, hemp rope and hobnail boots. He has even brought along an antique carbide lamp – ancestor of the flashlight. The climbing party is literally equipped with museum pieces.
There is something slightly alarming about this. Without helmets, the climbers will have no protection against rockfall. With only a piece of rope tied around their waists instead of a modern harness, a fall will mean almost certain injury, as the rope will slide up and break the wearer’s lower ribs. But no one is talking about these dangers – least of all me, a filmmaker who is along for the ride.
There are six people on the expedition, just like the original Munday party. Ron Ireland, Joe Vanasco, Stuart Rickard, Susanna Oreskovic and Paddy McGuire. Bryan has charmed and cajoled each one of them to join the trip with the promise that they’ll be experiencing a slice of Canadian mountaineering history.
As we sail up Bute Inlet, Stuart and I set out in a dinghy to shoot some drone footage for the film. We’re getting some great aerial shots of the schooner under sail. Stuart says to me, “Why don’t we do one more shot? I’ll have the drone circle the boat.”
I consider Stuart’s idea. The shot will take up at least 30 seconds of screen time – an eternity in film terms. I already know the schooner ride will only be a short sequence and I don’t want to make it any longer than necessary. And the shot itself doesn’t appeal to me. It strikes me as glitzy and ostentatious – something you might see on a reality show. I want to say, “No, I’m good,” but instead I say, “Sure, let’s do it.” Stuart launches the drone. It plunges straight into the water and disappears from view. I’m not sure who to feel worse for – Stuart, because it’s his drone; or me, because not having drone footage significantly hurts my chances of getting the film into a decent festival.
We spend our first night in the wilderness at the Homathko logging camp, a collection of rusting equipment sheds and pre-fab dormitories just upstream from the mouth of the Homathko River.
We have an enormous quantity of supplies for the expedition – enough to fill the bed of a pickup truck. A lot of it is 1920s-style food. Bryan, who obtained the Mundays’ shopping lists as part of his research for the trip, wants us to eat the same diet as Don and Phyllis the better to immerse us in the experience. It’s not until we disembark that the implications of this become clear.
Instead of the freeze-dried foods most expeditions carry to minimize weight, the group is going to be lugging hundreds of pounds of heavy 1920s-style provisions. Cans of baked beans and corned beef, 60 pounds of flour, 3 litres of maple syrup, a year’s supply of table salt in a metal tin, a mason jar full of homemade jam, metal pots and pans and kettles, a wooden cutting board, potatoes, carrots, onions and dry sausages. All in all, it weighs in excess of 800 pounds.
The next day we begin our trek. The plan is to bushwack up through the Homathko Valley, about 50 km, to the foot of the mountains. Then it’s another 30 km of glacier travel to Mt Waddington. We have almost a month in which to do this, which seems like a lot of time, but actually isn’t. We just don’t know it yet.
We have barely left the logging camp when we face our first serious setback. One of the straps on Bryan’s 1920s-style frame pack snaps under the weight. Then the same thing happens to Joe’s pack. We have two broken packs and have yet to even set foot in the rainforest.
As Bryan is trying to figure out what to do, it starts raining. I had foreseen this possibility and brought along a piece of equipment that would allow me to continue filming: an umbrella that you wear like a hat, leaving your arms free. What I hadn’t foreseen was (a) it’s incredibly uncomfortable; (b) you can’t wear it in the forest, as tree branches will rip it off, and (c) the sound of raindrops hitting it tends to drown out the voices of the people I’m trying to film.
We spend the night camping on an old logging road. It’s raining and muddy, and water is seeping into the 1920s-style canvas tents and cotton sleeping bags. To add to the misery, everyone’s getting eaten alive – the tents aren’t equipped with mosquito netting. This is by design. When Bryan was researching the Mundays, the photos of the original 1926 expedition didn’t seem to show mosquito nets in the tents – even though bug netting was widely available at the time. Bryan figured that the re-enactors would just have to tough it out.
As for me, I have my own comfortable modern tent, which I retreat to for the night. I’m keenly aware of how uncomfortable everyone else is and how little sleep they’re getting. I’m selfishly relieved to be dry and bug-free. It probably doesn’t help my popularity when I announce that on no account should I be woken up before 8am, because as the official expedition filmmaker it’s vital that I get adequate rest.
Still, despite my relatively luxurious circumstances compared to the rest of the group – I’m wearing a modern waterproof jacket and quick-dry pants – I’m finding the whole situation quite dismal. It seems possible, even likely, that our whole trip will be like this – wet, miserable, muddy. I pull Bryan aside and tell him I’m turning back. “This really isn’t fun. I think I’m just going to go home,” I tell him. He pleads with me to stay another day or two and see if things improve.
The following day we set up a new campsite further down the logging road, this time with a beautiful waterfall nearby and a crystal clear stream with a pool deep enough to swim in. It’s sandy, almost like a beach. The weather improves and it stops raining.
It’s taken a herculean effort to move all the supplies to our new campsite. It’s dawning on Bryan that the cumbersome 1920s-style food will make our progress through the valley painfully slow, as each advance will require multiple trips to bring up supplies. That’s what the Mundays did, but they had more time than we do.
Sitting around the fire, there’s a debate over what we can jettison to lighten the load. The heaviest items are the cans of baked beans and corned beef. Bryan wants to leave them behind, but Joe objects that they’re the only food source that won’t spoil in the heat. In the end, Bryan realises we have no choice but to lug everything with us, cans and all.
It’s only the third day of the expedition, and we’re facing a new setback. Two people have decided to throw in the towel. Ron has been getting increasingly ill in the past 48 hours. It looks like he has the flu, and it’s too risky for him to continue. The other is Paddy. His feet have developed severe blisters from the old-style hobnail boots. His attempts to treat them – applying duct tape directly to the damaged skin – have only made things worse. He’s also convinced the expedition is doomed to failure.
Paddy and Ron walk back to the logging camp that day and catch a flight out with a couple of bush pilots.
The night before we left on the expedition, we had a visit at our Quadra Island hotel from Rob Wood, a retired British mountaineer who has climbed in the area and knows it as well as anyone. He told us flat out that we wouldn’t get anywhere near Mt Waddington. “If you make it to the top of Scar Mountain” – the hill that guards the route out of the Homathko Valley and into the range – “You’ll be laughing. But I doubt you’ll even get that far.”
At the time, I wasn’t really sure what to think. Hiking through a valley… how hard could it be?
In the days that follow, I learn the truth of Rob’s words. We’ve been following the overgrown logging road through the valley. But the further we go, the less reliable the road becomes. Parts of it have been washed away by the Homathko River. Other sections of it simply peter out, or lead to dead ends in the hills.
Once we’ve left the road behind, the terrain gets a lot more difficult. We bushwack through undergrowth so thick that at one point, we have to take off our packs and squeeze our bodies through the trees sideways. We pick our way along slopes littered with boulders and massive fallen trees, piled haphazardly like a giant game of pick-up sticks, knowing that one false step could lead to serious injury.
During one such slog, Bryan and I are crossing a steep wooded ridge overlooking the river. There’s barely any solid ground amidst the moss and rotting tree trunks. I struggle to find my footing. Bryan is just behind me, and I hear him say to no one in particular, “I feel like Don Munday.” He has a goofy smile on his face and is clearly enjoying himself. In my misery, I feel sudden anger, which doesn’t subside for days.
Every time I think the terrain can’t get any worse, it does. We find ourselves ferrying supplies back and forth through an area of swamp and bog that stretches for miles. With every step, we trail clouds of biting insects. The sun is unrelenting, and we run low on water. Joe becomes delirious from heat exhaustion, pulls off his clothes and nearly passes out. We had assumed we would always be within reach of the Homathko River and other sources of fresh water – but no. Luckily, I’m carrying a small filter with me, and when we come across some brackish swamp water, we’re finally able to replenish our canteens.
We have a map of the valley with us, but the scale is too small to be helpful. Even landmarks that should be easy to read – like Homathko River – are frustratingly hard to interpret. Are we looking at the river itself, or just one of its myriad, shifting side channels? Is it turning east, or just meandering? We get a reminder of the elemental forces at play when Stuart comes across a boulder embedded in an old tree – apparently lodged there by the Homathko on one of its wilder days.
Then there’s the wildlife. The valley is overrun with grizzlies. Their faeces are everywhere, and the knowledge that they’re often nearby keeps me on edge – especially when we hike through fields of wild raspberries, their seasonal food. We know we have to talk or make noise to keep them at bay. Bryan sings the entire songbook from Les Misérables, a musical I loathe – but I’m more afraid of the bears, so I keep asking for encores.
The strain is starting to show on the group. Joe grows impatient with our slow progress and looks for shortcuts through the densest areas of bush. He took an orienteering course just before the trip and is confident in his ability to read the landscape.
One afternoon, we’re trekking back to our camp along a sidehill. Joe is walking downslope from us, in the same direction but out of our sight. It’s an awkward situation because Joe is consciously separating himself from the group. Suddenly, we hear what sounds like a body rolling downhill, crashing through branches and dry leaves before coming to rest. Bryan calls out to him: “Joe, are you ok?”
A surreal scene unfolds. “It doesn’t matter if I die out here.” Joe’s voice comes to us from somewhere in the trees. Stuart answers: “It matters to me.” Stuart has been Joe’s trekking partner since the beginning; they’ve spent hours together talking about everything under the sun. “It matters to your wife.” Bryan tries to convince him to rejoin the group, without success. Finally, we make our way back to camp without him, wondering if we’re going to need to call for help to search for Joe.
To our relief, he shows up at his tent later that evening. Over dinner, he pours out his unhappiness with the expedition – the poor planning, the constant pressure to push forward, the lack of free time to explore. He tells us that after we left him he made his way down to the nearby Jawakwa River, where he sated his thirst. Sitting on a small strip of sand in the middle of the current, he took in the austere beauty of the valley at twilight and had a feeling of pure joy.
After that day, Joe comes up with a new name for the expedition: the Misery Mountain Project.
We’re supposed to get through the Homathko Valley and up into the alpine in 10 days, but it’s been three weeks and we aren’t anywhere near the foot of the mountains.
Even worse, we have two friends waiting for us on top of Scar Mountain. Mark Hurst and Ron Rusk make up the expedition’s advance party. They’ve helicoptered into the alpine to rendezvous with us there, on our way to climb Mt Waddington. But we haven’t shown up, because we’re still struggling through the valley below. They have so much time on their hands that Mark is able to read Crime and Punishment cover to cover.
We communicate with them by satellite text. Every day Bryan tells them we’re about a day’s hike from their position. But we don’t actually know where we are. We could be 5km away, or 15km.
It’s becoming painfully clear that Rob Wood was right: we’re not going to make it to Mt Waddington. It’s doubtful we’ll even make it out of the valley and up above the treeline. This presents a dilemma for me as the expedition filmmaker. I had pictured capturing the moment of triumph as we summited Mt Waddington amid awe-inspiring peaks and breathtaking views. Instead, I have hours of footage of bushwacking through swampy rainforest. I eventually come to realize that the film that will come out of this experience, The Mystery Mountain Project, is a comedy of errors, rather than a conventional mountaineering story.
In 1926, the Mundays didn’t make it to Mt Waddington either. They ran out of food and had to hike back out of the valley half-starving. But they didn’t give up.
“They kept going back for the next ten years, exploring the mountain from different sides, making these incredibly precise maps and naming the peaks and glaciers with these wonderful romantic names,” says Rob Wood. “They built a legacy of exploration that in itself was a huge legacy for British Columbia and especially the mountaineering community. The Mundays’ maps are wonderful and still in use today.”
“It is an incredibly inaccessible, remote, difficult mountain awash in unpredictable weather,” is how one climbing guide describes it. Or as one author put it: “A nightmare carved in rock.”
Watch the full film here:
Vimeo on Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/themysterymountain
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Greg Gransden is a writer and filmmaker based in Montreal. When he’s not climbing, trail running or practising martial arts, he’s dreaming of his next film project. It could be a feature film set in Afghanistan, a madcap comedy short or an outdoor adventure documentary. He also helps run a non-profit for wilderness canoe tripping.