South of the west coast town of Gold River, Matchlee Mountain dominates the southern skyline as a large massif, rising abruptly on its eastern flanks and sloping gradually to the west. On certain days when the lighting is hitting the mountain from the right angle and the mountain is still draped with its winter mantle of snow, Matchlee Mountain almost looks as if it is of Himalayan proportions, however, on island ranking it is not even in the highest fifty.
Matchlee Mountain was presumably first climbed in 1938 by Norman Stewart and his survey crew as part of their on-going topographical survey of Vancouver Island. Stewart measured the height of Matchlee Mountain at 1,838m but in 1946 when the surveyor Alfred Slocomb visited the mountain he found the cairn and brass bolt gone due to the recent earthquake. Upon re-measuring the mountain he found that its height had been reduced by four metres to 1,834m. Today on current 1:20,000 trim maps the height is recorded as 1,822m.
After the 1946 ascent there are no records of anyone climbing the mountain until 1974. Bill Coyne was born in Bolton in Lancashire, England, and immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1973. In 1974 he saw an advertisement for a job in the Pulp Mill in Gold River. Missing the ocean and the mountains he took the job and moved to the west coast where it wasn't long before he was looking at access to Matchlee Mountain. In the summer of that year the logging company punched a road up the Ucona Valley to the base of the mountain and in the fall, Coyne and Dietrich Jordan made a reconnaissance trip onto the mountain but didn't reach the summit. Over the next month Coyne's family and Jordan's family along with a number of others worked on slashing a trail from the end of the road into the meadows at the bottom of the face. It was an unusually dry fall and in November with Slavo Lehockey, Dietrich Jordan, Natalie McFarlane and Paul Zimmerman, Coyne made his first of many ascents of the mountain. Coyne loved the variety of terrain on the mountain and returned almost annually until 2004 with a number of different people to climb the mountain and brush out the trail.
When the Put Brothers, John and Fred, moved to Gold River in the early 1980's they saw Matchlee Mountain every day on their way to work. As they also worked at the mill they met Bill Coyne and he told them about the trail into the base of the mountain. In the summer of 1983 they hiked the trail and climbed the 350 metre East Ridge of the North Peak. They too became intrigued with the mountain, realizing there was the potential for many new routes. Then in early August, a party of eight that included Don Newman and John Gresham from the Vancouver Island section of the Alpine Club of Canada, made an ascent of the mountain with Newman vowing to return one day to the spectacular area.
Two years later (1985) on June 29, John and Fred Put were back again and they climbed the Northwest Ridge of the North Peak. This ridge is considered a classic on the island and the Put's wrote: "Rising 1300' from the toe of the glacier to the summit, we encountered a "fun" climb, seldom more difficult than class 4, exposed to the north side, with easy escape off the south and good rock throughout. The most difficult section was traversing onto ledges from the glacier snout which was low 5th class. Class 2/3 rock followed until a fifty foot down climb or rappel into a large notch. The route then continued along the crest of the ridge on 3rd/4th class rock with the occasional airy drop-off." From the summit the descent was made down the South Gully for three hundred feet to where the glacier is once again reached. A week later the Put Brothers were back again putting up a new route on the North Face of Matchlee Mountain's North Peak.
A year after later, Don Newman made his return with Rick Johnson. Newman and Johnson were already making a name for themselves on the island as innovators as they had attempted to make the first winter ascent of Victoria Peak in January 1986 as well as other cutting-edge climbs. On July 13, 1986, the two drove up island to Gold River and then followed the Ucona Main to the base of the mountain. After hiking in on a "delightful" summer day, they set up a hasty bivy near the base of the route they intended to climb. At this time of the year the days are long as it can be light out until after 10 p.m.. Johnson wrote: "As it was still early (I seem to recall around 5-6ish), we decided to have a quick bite and get on with it. It really was mostly of 4th and easy 5th class climbing with one section that would go around 5.7. We topped out for the sunset and headed back to the bivy." The two had found the climbing not only enjoyable but the mountain seemed to have a relaxed feeling about it. They both vowed to return again as there appeared to be many challenges on the mountain.
In January 1987, with a high pressure system offering stable weather conditions over the island, Rick Johnson and Don Newman decided to return to Matchlee Mountain with John Gresham to attempt a winter ascent. Newman and Gresham were regular climbing partners and four years previous the two, along with Jim Sanford, put up a route on the South Face of The Golden Hinde. Rick Johnson had done some checking around and could find no account of a previous winter ascent and wrote:
Matchlee Mountain appears to hold a unique attraction for mountaineers because of its size and diversity, and climbers seem to return a number of times to its ridges and snowslopes. Over the years the mountain has been used for mountaineering training courses by various guiding companies and is well suited for that purpose because of its easy access. Although access is via logging roads, a short hike from the end of the road puts climbers in a cirque where the climbs onto the rock and snow routes begin. This cirque is also the home to one of the largest Roosevelt Elk populations on the island and over the years they have helped keep the trail open. However, the mountain can have its dark side! Because of its location on the west coast, terrific winter storms originating in the Pacific Northwest can deposit huge amounts of snow over a short period on the mountain creating very unstable conditions: a mélange that has the potential for devastating effects on climbing parties.