Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ellingwood Ledges to the Crestone Traverse

Downclimbing off Crestone Needle on "no fall" terrain


Derek has been close to finishing the Colorado 14ers for a couple of years. With Sheri and I both done, he’s had to look to other partners a bit. He traveled down to the Wilson group a month ago with his friend Greg (his cousin’s boyfriend) and got those three over two days. He only had two to go: San Luis and Crestone Peak.

He didn’t just want Crestone Peak. He wanted to do the classic traverse between Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. But even that wasn’t enough. He wanted to climb the Needle via the 5.7 “50 Classic Climb” of Ellingwood Ledges. This combination raises the minimum qualifications for prospective partners. Greg didn’t have the skills. I did.

I’d done this exact outing before, with Homie. Only then we descended into the Bear’s Lair and did the complete Prow to the summit of Kit Carson, bagging Challenger Peak along the way. It was a massive 15-hour day, but we got four 14ers. Thankfully, Derek didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I can do that any longer.

We drove down Saturday night because the forecast called for calmer weather on Sunday. If it was calmer on Sunday, I’m sure glad we didn’t go on Saturday. We slept at the 2WD parking and neither of us got much rest. We just slept in the back of our Grand Cherokee and it was a bit slanted. We lolly gagged in the morning, but our late start didn’t hurt us and might of helped us, as it was cold. After some breakfast (french fries for Derek), we drove up the 4WD road. It was the first test of our new vehicle and it handled it nicely. A high clearance vehicle is mandatory on this road now and there were a number of crux sections. Nothing too concerning for the experienced 4WD driver. I’ve driven a few 4WD roads, but I am decidedly not a 4-wheeler.

We didn’t start hiking until 7:40 a.m. It took us a little over 50 minutes to get to the end of the road and start up the single-track trail. We were hearing the wind the entire way and knew what awaited us. Once above treeline, it was cold but our movement kept us from pulling on our shells. Derek led the way up to the Upper Colony Lake and then across and up the lower part of the east buttress on Crestone Needle.

We zigzagged back and forth up the grassy ledges and climbing the conglomerate rock bands. The exposure increases continually until you are acutely aware that a fall or a slip would be a very bad mistake. Some of these rock bands were certainly 4th class and maybe a move or two of 5th class. We continued unroped in our scrambling shoes. Before hitting the final rock buttress we took a short break to eat and drink. I wasn’t able to keep up with Derek, but I was feeling fine. I just can’t go that fast uphill these days.

At around 13,600 feet, the buttress gets quite steep. The grassy ledges are gone and we decided to rope up here. Roach’s guide book talks about climbing a 200-foot chimney around to the north. In fact, he implies there are at least three chimneys. I can assure you there are none. Gerry’s guidebooks are great. They are so well done and I love his prose. But they are not mistake free.

You might wonder why I even looked at the guidebook, having climbed this route before. I didn’t need it. I remembered where to go, though it really just seems like the obvious route. I pointed Derek in the right direction and he led the entire route. We’d brought a single rack and a 30-meter rope with two Microtraxions for simul-climbing. Derek led a 250-foot section using both Micros and I followed with frozen hands. At the belay, my hands weren’t very functional, but Derek wanted to lead the whole route, so I had time to thaw them.

Above was the crux and Derek cruised up it nicely. Previously I had stayed in the small corner and climbed the crack there. Derek wisely broke out to the left at a key point. Watching from below, I was nervous for him. The crack offered protection opportunities. I called up to him to make sure he was making the right choice and just as I did, he clipped a pin. There were a couple of pins out on the arete to the left. Sweet.

Derek led clear to the summit, using the Micros again and I followed. We were both feeling the altitude a bit, but Derek was excited to have led the entire route. The grade (5.7) is easy for him, but it was quite cold (some snow on the route) and he climbed some of it in gloves. We hit the summit about 4.5 hours after leaving the car.

We didn’t linger long and started for the traverse. I edged out along the ridge to find the rappel anchors and didn’t find them. I guess I didn’t go far enough. Instead, I headed down a steep groove and a ways down from some slings attached to a single piton. I threaded the rope here and put myself on rappel, but ended up down climbing it. Derek didn’t even bother with the rappel line and I pulled it down.

We followed cairns for most of the way across the traverse, though they were occasionally hard to find. The terrain is mostly 3rd class or easier, but there are some steep, exposed 4th class down climbing that had our full attention (mostly at the start of the traverse).

We hit the summit of Crestone Peak tired, but satisfied that things were going well. It had taken us two hours for the traverse. I was concerned about the descent, as I know it had been an area of stress for Homie and I. Before descending we scrambled to the top of Crestone Peak’s East Summit. Homie would be so proud of us.

The descent across the face and then up to the summit of the 14,200-foot gendarme went well, though very exposed and serious. The rock was solid and we moved very cautiously. But we still had to descend further and Derek found some rappel slings. We figured a quick rappel was the best choice and elected to use our Escaper. Derek set it up and apparently did it wrong. I looked at it and it seemed fine to me and, of course it held me as I rappelled last (Derek went down off a clove hitch to the anchor). But we couldn’t get it to release. I scrambled up higher to get a better angle and I could see that I was not making any progress. Derek found a way to climb back up to the anchor and then did a normal rappel, which just made it down with about six inches to spare (knotted ends, of course).

We continued down on mostly 3rd class terrain from there, but it was loose. Derek slipped and fell back on his butt. I slipped and hurt my shoulder and my right knee. Further down I stepped on a rock and it flipped up and bashed my foot so hard that I thought I might have broken something. It would hurt me the rest of the way down and all the way home. Thankfully, the next morning it felt a lot better.

Once down the steep section, we had to traverse the horrible ridge back to the Humboldt Trail. This ridge had at least ten micro-summits. We went up and down, up and down, up and down, on rocky terrain that had me moving slower and slower. I was bonking hard and falling well behind Derek. We stopped before the final descent and I got to eat and drink something. Once down to the trail, I ate and drank again and was feeling better the further we went.

When we got back to the road, it looked like we could break 11 hours for the trip and we pushed the pace. Derek’s stride is so long and his cadence so high, that I’d continually fall behind and have to trot/shuffle a bit to close the gap. We didn’t make it. We could have run, but it wasn’t worth it. I figured I’d just injure myself further. We finished in 11:01, though.

We just were able to reverse the 4WD in the light. Derek handled the long drive home and we got there just after 10:30 p.m. This adventure turned out to be a lot harder than I expected, mainly because of the long, dangerous descent. It is a lot of work to get from the summit of Crestone Peak back to your vehicle.

One to go for Derek…


Derek’s Report:

Long and tough day out there! We got a pretty lazy start to the day, before driving up the 3mi of 4WD road and starting hiking by 7:40. It took us around 2 hours to the base of the steep stuff, where we scrambled to about 13,600. The area was quite windy and cold but we began to be sheltered from it the closer to the wall we got. We also stayed left (south) as much as possible for wind shielding. In the sun and away from the wind, conditions were very pleasant.
Here we roped up and simul'd Ellingwood Ledges as two pitches (we had two micros). It was quite cold in the shade still, and I climbed most of the route in light gloves. The crux section I took my gloves off since I needed the extra feel. The route was great and deposited us directly on the summit of the Needle.

The traverse turned out to be very involved, loose, and long. The ridge is much too jagged to stay on, unlike the Blanca-Little Bear, of Wilson-El Diente traverses, and we ended up dropping 800ft to the low point of the traverse - ouch! I fell once here too: my foot slipped, I immediately dropped to my butt, and then flipped over because of the steepness of the slope, sliding head first downwards. I came to a stop with some help from Pops, who was below me at the time, and really only suffered a sore bum, a bruised knee, and a couple rips in my gloves. That was a bummer.

The climb up to the Peak went well enough, though we were both feeling the altitude. We even tagged the East summit because it looked like practically the same height. What really got to us was the descent. It was heinous.

We first needed to do some very exposed 4th class traversing, then scrambled up a little tower in the hopes of finding 3rd class descending - no luck. We had to descend into another notch, but downclimbing prospects looked sketchy, so we rapped, using the Escaper. I set it up, and I'm sure I messed something up, because when we tried to pull the rope down, it wasn't loosening. I had to scramble back up to the anchor (easier going up; I wouldn't want to downclimb this), and set up a normal rappel. This 15m rappel bareely reached where we needed to go, so it worked out, but that was annoying.

From here, we climbed up the tower we should've traversed around to in the first place, and then over the other side was still pretty loose, steep, and unpleasant. I even yelled up to Pops at one point: "We must be off route!" It wasn't until we descended a trough and passed through yet another notch that the going got easier, and we knew we were going the right way. Mind you, the going was not easy at all. It was still very loose and steep, but 2nd class and walking now.

This deposited us on the longgg ridge that leads back to the Humboldt saddle. We had to walk over an interminably rolling ridge, going up and down constantly. Eventually we got down to the Humboldt trail and rejoiced a bit. I finally took my shell off here, but kept my gloves on for the rest of the day.

We trudged down, pretty beaten down. Pops had squashed his foot with a piece of talus, and was moving in pain, but still pretty quick. We calculated we'd be close to the 11-hour mark at the end, but we had no desire to run it in under that mark. So 11:01:21 was the total time. We got down in time to get down the 4WD road in the light, and then it only took us like 3 hours to get all the way home, which was cool.

Quite the adventure! Interestingly, this took almost the exact same amount of time as the LPD last weekend. On both occasions, I was too wasted to break 11 hours.

Overall, the 50 Classic Climb was the highlight, and the Crestone Ridge Traverse can hardly be called such. You spend very close to 0% of the traverse on the ridge. The terrain here is so awesome though, so jagged. Makes for some great photos in some great positions. Of the peaks in this area, the Peak is by far the loosest/crappiest. Need to go back to KC and Challenger for the Prow. Looked pretty cool from our vantage point.

Also, this was my 57th (as I count) 14er! I only have one left, and it's the best of all: San Luis Peak!! I assume most people save this one for last, so it should be a great time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Tour de Flatirons, Stage 2



There's a phrase: "As much fun as you can have with your clothes on." Since my son is now a Minion, that isn't appropriate, but maybe even more apt is: "As much fun as you can have while enduring such intense pain." If you nod your head at that description and a smile creeps across your face, you get it. This was the stage like that.

It started at the Gregory Canyon Trailhead and headed up the Amphitheater Trail for just a minute or two before breaking off-trail to something I named the Gregory Ridge. This is a fin of questionable rock that sticks up out of ridge like blades on a Stegosaurus' back. The idea is to start scrambling as soon as possible and limit the running and hiking. It isn't great, but it serves that purpose and leads directly to The Spy. A bit of hiking after the Spy leads to the start of the North Ridge of the First Flatiron. From the top scramblers could down-climb the Southwest Face or rappel one of four fixed lines. Once on the ground, we ran over to the East Bench of the Third Flatiron for its classic East Face. Then took the 200-foot rappel back to the ground and over to the South Sneak on the Second Flatiron. From the top of that rock we down-climbed the West Face and then ran uphill (oof!) to the back side of the First Flatiron and then down the old trail to the Saddle Rock/Amphitheater Trail and back to the start.

This was only 2.5 miles, but involved 2400 vertical feet and over 20 pitches of traditional roped climbing, up to 5.4 in difficulty. It's plenty of room for the ebb and flow of race dynamics to play out in interesting ways. At least for me.

The last two years my main rival has been the reigning Female Tour de Flatirons Champion Sonia "Beet Red" Buckley. Each year my tenuous hold on besting her has gotten weaker. I edged her out in the first stage only because she couldn't race in the field and had to go solo. Without me to chase, she was slower, as I would be without her. I soon as I saw her walk up for this stage, my palms started to sweat. Pain was in my future. And not just pain, but fear. It's sort of like a horror movie where you know the monster is going to jump out, but you don't know when. I know she is going to be beat me, but I don't know when. The longer I stay ahead, the more the tension rises, as my margins get cut with each stage. It's almost to the point where I want to just give up and follow her in, to reduce the stress. Alas, I can't. No Minion can do it. That's why racing can be quite dangerous if you are harnessing an injury, telling yourself you'll just go easy and make things worse. As appealing as that sounds, it's nearly impossible.

Since the start is singletrack, we self-seeded for the start. I was nearly last, where I should be for the start. Tony was right in front of me and I knew I'd end up beating him, but I also knew he starts fast, so that was no problem. In fact, he gapped me early on. I took the low cut over to the talus even though I think the high cut is faster. I was just following the people in front of me. I passed Tony on the talus and when I got the ridge, there was a queue. I should have expected this. Climbing this ridge is slower than power hiking, so it is a natural bottleneck at the start. Sonia was right behind me and there was five or six of us before I was able to leave the ground. It was a nice rest, but a bit early in the stage for resting.

Above me was Max and at first we were both being held up a bit, but as soon as the group above us hit one of the hiking sections the space between us expanded and he gapped him. Sonia was on me like stink on a warthog (credit to Lion King). She was so tight that by the time we got to the Spy, I stepped aside and let her go in front. She immediately gapped me. By the time we got to the top of the Spy, she had ten seconds on me and once on the ground and hiking up to the North Ridge, she put scramblers between us. It would be awhile before I'd see her again.

Just before getting on the First, I let Corn Muffin by and gave me a boost up a steep section. I followed him for the most part, getting slightly gapped on the easier sections, but closing up and waiting on him on the more technical parts. Near the top I asked to pass and he let me by. I hit the rappel lines just behind David Alexander and Max, with Corn Muffin right behind me. I rapped quickly, but so did Corn Muffin. In no time he was back in front and he and David gapped Max and I. I did a better job traversing over to the Third and caught those guys just at the normal approach trail. David had so much downward momentum that he went right across this trail and continued down! I yelled to him to get him back on track, but now I was ahead of him.

On the Third I was one again on Muffin's heels. He offered to let me by and I declined, as I was redlining. But after a bit I felt better and passed him on the right. I was flowing and moving well and left him far behind as well as David and Max. I could see I was fast closing on climbers above and excited about that until I realized it was a roped party. It must have been quite a show for this team. I'm sure they got passed by thirty Minions before they finished one pitch.

Above I saw David Glennon and was closing, albeit slowly. Since DG is the fastest runner in the Minions, I only catch him, if at all, on more technical climbs. I wouldn't normally catch him on the Third, but he was out of practice and taking things slow and solid. Every Minion racing needs to be solid all the time and David always is. At the crossover, David beat me there by maybe a second, but graciously let me play through. I zipped up the last piece and passed another roped party and Sir Crimps-alot, just below the top.

These passes were key, as I was now just two scramblers behind Sonia, who was still on top when I arrived. The other was Full Gaynor, a young, fit guy who I beat in the last stage and was hungry for payback. As soon as he saw me he exclaimed, "Dammit, Bill!"

Sonia rapped first, then Full, then me. I thought I was unlucky getting the 60-meter line (as opposed to the 70-meter line), but it turned out great, as my line was untangled until just the last twenty feet or so. I zipped down past Full and was able to scramble down and off the end of the rope. With Sonia in sight, I gave chase. I could tell she didn't know the best way to get to the Second and I saw her pause to look around a second. She then cut left too early. I stayed on the path that Kyle had shown me in the preview and got in front of her by about 10-15 seconds.

Full Gaynor arrived at the base and zipped up the lower part of the South Sneak, closing on me fast. I was hurting big time and trying to pace my effort up the Second. I knew it was a long way to the top. Apparently Full Gaynor went too fast and blew up a bit. He stepped aside and let Sonia pass and soon she was nipping at my heels and we were both gapping FG.

I zipped down the West Face. Bill Hanson was walking by, completely unrelated to the Minions I'm sure, and he cheered me on. I wanted to say something clever about holding up Sonia, but I'm not too clever even when I'm full oxygenated and just nodded at him. I ran the first switchback because it was mostly flat and then power hiked the rest of the them to the north behind the First. Sonia ran more of it and was less than ten seconds behind at the top, maybe five.

She closed further and we stumbled, ran, shuffled, but stayed vertical on the loose, rocky descent down to the Saddlerock Trail. I was feeling tremendous pressure. I wasn't sure I could hold her off, so I called back, "We have to at least hold off our chasers." In the last stage Muffin and Sometimes Great came flying by on the talus. This was easier terrain, but I still feared their young legs. Below us I could hear loud cheering and encouragement. It was Kyle's posse cheering on the rest of the field. Cool.

We went by the posse about the time we hit the Saddlerock Trail. I ran as quick as I dared. Catching a toe here would have resulted in a very damaging fall. Sonia would yo-yo between two and four seconds behind me. It was nearly impossible to pass here. I asked myself if I should give track and decided no. She wasn't close enough. Yet. I couldn't look back. I decided not to yield unless asked. She would have to decide if I was holding her up.

Sheri was at the Amphitheater junction and cheered me on, but, dammit, she also encouraged Sonia! I knew it was four minutes to the finish. I focused and pushed hard. There were people on the trail below, but they moved to the side and I never looked up. Even a glance upwards for momentary eye contact could have resulted in bruised and battered body. We stayed locked in that combat clear to the finish. Sonia might have backed off a tiny bit at the end, knowing she wasn't getting by. Officially the gap was six seconds on our respective watches, but it seemed more like three seconds to me. What a battle!

Kyle won, going away. He's the King now and there are no solid challengers on the horizon right now. He's basically a pro. He works these rocks every day. He's young, thin, strong, agile, experienced, and highly motivated. A challenger will emerge, they always do, but it won't be this year. He will likely become the fourth Minion to win the Tour at least twice.

The battle for second sounded epic. Ryan Hans-and-Franz is ultrafit this year and seems to have a lock on second place, but two-time champion Mattias Messner was in field and had never finished a stage lower than second place. He didn't break his streak here either. Ryan knew he had to gap the fleet-footed Tyrolean before the final descent and couldn't get it. They finished seconds apart, but with Ryan in third.

Stefan, 6-time champion, was comfortably in fourth, if you can be comfortable while in so much pain. Logan was fifth, also with a margin, and then there was another great battle between Biceps, Diesel (aka Satan's Spawn), Kissing Cousins, and the Modern Major General. Here's Derek's report on that action:

Some good ol’ fashioned Minion scramblin’ fun out there today! More heavy hitters were in the race this time, so I settled into a more reasonable place at 7th. 1:03:53.
Started off with Greg (duh) and Danny ahead. Dylan passed all of us trying to go get Franz. With Greg pretty much all the way up to the First. No delay with ropes here (thanks riggers!) and the DGD party of 3 were all together heading down the Sunset trail together. Greg got in the lead and pretty soon Danny told me to go by, to which I obliged. Near the bottom of the steepest stuff we both passed Jeff, being a bit careful because of his ankles.
I was trying to stick with Greg and he led me perfectly to the Third, but not without a nice little slip-n-stuff of my face into some talus.
On the Third Dylan was back in sight (he might’ve had trouble on the link), Greg was gapping me a bit, and Danny and Jeff were hot on my heels. I originally followed Greg to the left side of the Third, but, worried Danny would sneak by me on the right, I cut back over in order to motivate me a bit extra and keep him on my radar.
The rap down the Third was a tangle, and I spent some time getting it sorted so I could go all the way down. Thinking we might need a “spotter/rope handler” to compliment the excellent riggers. They’d manage the ropes and make sure they go smoothly.
Greg had a gap now and Danny was even closer, breathing down my neck. I was totally gassed getting over to the Second, but did a good job on the link and started up. I was sure Danny was gonna pass me and he even mentioned afterwards that he was tasting blood in the water.
A bit higher up though, Dylan had to backtrack due to more route finding woes. This put me in front and this extra motivation had me moving faster. Near the top I got a gap on Dylan and I nailed the Second downclimb.
My only objective hiking back up to the notch was to get as high as possible before Dylan/Danny could see me. A really nice cheering section up there and I even ran a bit at the top! I ended up keeping my lead and finished 7th, behind Kyle, Matthias, Ryan, Stefan, Logan, Greg. Not bad people to follow, and about 20 more excellent people behind me. The Tour is SO. FUN.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Tour de Flatirons, Stage 1


Photos (eventually I hope)

It's back. The Tour. For the 16th year in a row. Is there anything else like this? Perhaps not. It's strange because to the people that do this, it's among the most fun their ever had racing. Yet, it's very small. It's definitely a fringe event and one that can only be held in Boulder due to the unique nature of the Flatirons. A Minion asked me if I ever seeing this growing to 100 participants. I don't think so, despite having more than 100 Minions in the club. Even with the high density of climbers and runners that exist in Boulder, I don't think the area is big enough (and we draw from Golden and Denver) to support a larger group. The mix of climbing, running, and the ability to have fun racing at such a thing is apparently pretty rare. Even in the Minions, frankly, as only about a quarter of the members compete. But that doesn't matter, because we have critical mass.

Critical mass is when everyone across the field feels like they are in the midst of the battle, when the energy is high and the distance between each Minion is close enough to trigger a chain reaction that yields a megaton of thermonuclear fun.

This one is such a continuous sufferfest. Unlike other stages that mix in descents between rocks, this stage had next to zero rest before starting the next one. It was up, up, up, and then down, down, down. We climb the Regency to the Royal Arch to the Fifth Flatiron to the Hippo Head (aka The Fist). We'd done this stage once before, in 2017. It was the only stage in which I'd ever beaten Derek. It was his first stage ever and had some route-finding trouble on the way out. At least I did it once, because I'm sure that was a one-and-done achievement.

Sonia couldn't make it. I wondered who my new rivals would be, if any. These days I live in fear of being the caboose. It's obviously my future, if I keep doing this. And I think I will. I think I'll keep it up until I'm well into last. Then I'll retire. Maybe I'll learn how to fly a drone. I have to something in retirement.

At gun I'm not far enough back and I'm a bit of a bottleneck on the singletrack start. Once on the wide trail, Minions move by. After I bit I look behind me to see if I am last and there are two trailers. Not last yet. Maury and Brian and jogged along next to me chatting. Chatting! I can't spare oxygen for such prattle. They soon move ahead, but once the trail goes up, I reel them in. I pass Maury first, then Max, then, surprisingly, Muffin Top. I know he's injured, but I'll take any advantage I can get. Eventually, I get Brian and go by him. He's lean, wearing a heart-rate monitor and I feel out of place waddling on by.

I catch up to Sometimes Great at the Regency and we battle all the way up it. He gaps me on the descent, which is surprising, as that is frequently my only advantage. He sneaks through the slot efficiently and I take some time, as worried of bashing myself in that tight fissure. I close on the easy Royal Arch and he gaps me again on the tricky, steep downclimb. I pass him going up the Fifth Flatiron. I rapped off quickly and closed on rookie Jacob "I'm Not" Winey. I closed up right behind me at the hand crack, but there is no way to pass there. He summited with me right on his heels and then he hesitated. I asked what was going on and he said, "I just figured you'd be faster on the descent." Well, okay then. I downclimbed to the knotted lines and hand-over-handed down them.

Once on the ground, I was faced my biggest fear for this stage: the descent. It is so steep, so loose, so rocky. Almost immediately I slipped on my lichen and jacked my injured left shoulder. Ouch. I'm just not agile enough any longer and too easily injured and too slow to heal to descend very fast. Yet, when coming down, I felt I was moving well. I didn't hear anyone behind me. I thought Winey might run me down, but it seemed like I had a huge lead for Sometimes.

I crashed down as fast I could, slipping onto my butt maybe five times during the descent, but without injuries. Descending below the Regency, I heard people coming for me. Dang! I got to the talus before they pounced. The first person by was Corn Muffin!? Where the heck did he come from, I wondered. I hadn't seen him since early on the approach to the Regency. I asked him, "Did you do all four rocks?", thinking he may have forgot about the Hippo Head. No such luck. Turns out that even when I thought I was descending well, I was still ridiculously slow.

Corn Muffin flew by with Sometimes Great right behind him. I got down to the trail before Winey went by. I gave chase, but was now concerned about beating Sir Crimps-alot's earlier time of 1:09:40. I looked at my watch and found that I had just six minutes to make it. It seemed impossibly, but I wasn't going to give up yet. Sonia's time was 1:16, so even if I failed on Brian's time, I'd shoot for Sonia's time. With these times as a goal I stayed close to the three in front of me. For a moment or two I thought I might be gaining on them, but it was just a switchback illusion. Still, we all finished within a minute of each other and I ran 1:09:30.

Kyle won, but was pushed by Ryan clear to the summit of the last rock. He was so shocked to see Ryan so close that he blasted the descent a bit recklessly. It wasn't until the next day that noticed he couldn't walk very well due to a bang on his ankle. But he did put four minutes on Ryan.

Four stages to go...


Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Bugaboos With Tom



Introduction

While in the Bugaboos this past week one of the most common questions I was asked was: “Is this your first time here.” A simple question, sure, but somehow for me it wasn’t.

I had been to the Bugs before, twenty years ago with the venerable, redoubtable Loobster. We’d climbed the “Fifty Classic” Northeast Ridge on Bugaboo Spire. So, what’s the problem with answering a simple “No”? Well, we did the route two days after ten inches of snow fell. We were the only party out climbing that day. We managed the climb up to the base of the ridge okay and then the first few pitches, the really classic ones, were relatively snow-free, as they face east into the morning sun. But the upper, chimney pitches were a different story.

When the snow depth was above my knee, we switched back to mountain boots. A low-angle ramp high on the ridge was a sheet of ice and I was forced to aid the corner. I wanted to turn around, but the Loobster was convinced we couldn’t descend, as we had only one rope and the route had no fixed rappel anchors. He took over the lead for one pitch and we continued on to the end of the route, which I know now was not the summit of Bugaboo Spire. There we saw a horrific site. The entire complicated traverse was buried in snow. We didn’t think it was feasible to even find places for gear under so much snow. Despair set upon us, resting most heavily on the Loobster:

Loobster: Oh, we’ve really done it this time, Bill.
me: Yup, it’s a tough spot.
Loobster: It’s more than that.
me: We’ll be okay. We just have to rap the route.
Loobster: We can’t. There aren’t any anchors.
me: We have an entire rack of gear. We might not have much left when we get down, but it’s just money.
Loobster: I just bought all these Technical Friends. (long pause). I won’t replace them. (long pause). I’ll never climb again.

Now it was clearly a very tense, very stressful situation, but when he said, “I’ll never climb again,” I burst out laughing. That was ridiculous. Then I said, “Loobster, we only brought three of your Technical Friends. The rest of the rack is all mine.” When I finally convinced him of the only possible plan, he reverted to his usual, unflappable self. Secure in the knowledge that at least he would have a climbing rack when we got down, he went last on each rappel and always off a single piece of gear (after I tested it with back-up pieces). In the end, we didn’t leave a single cam behind. We left slings, biners, and stoppers and found fixed pitons and bail slings on our 24-rappel descent to the glacier. Yes, that’s a lot but we took advantage of every fixed piece we could along the way. We touched down just as it got dark.
Protecting our rental car from porcupines
So, I felt like a first-timer down there. I’d never been up the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col that is used to access many of the classic routes. I’d rappelled a route that is never rappelled, at least in its entirety. Plus it was so long ago that I don’t remember many details. Except, of course: “I’ll never climb again.” I’ve got a lot of mileage out of that line over the last twenty years. The Loobster is still climbing, with no end in sight. And I think he still has most of those precious Technical Friends.

Bucket List

The older I get the more focused I’ve become about getting things either check-off my bucket list or removing them altogether. There is no point in keeping items on the bucket list if you aren’t going to work towards them. So, one of my annual goals now is to do a “50 Classic Climb”. Last year I did Mount Sir Donald, with the Loobster, who was 75 years old at the time. I used to say that Loobster was such an inspiration for me in that my climbing career could also extend that long, but now his achievements have become almost terrifying. I don’t see myself doing that stuff for twenty more years. I don’t think I’ll have the energy. But, I digress.

When it came to selecting a 50CC for this year, I had two routes in mind, with the Becky-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos at they very top of the list. The reason for this was another item on my bucket list: Fitz Roy. Both the Bugaboos and the Fitz Roy area are characterized by granite spires rising above glaciers. I likened the Bugaboos to the Minor Leagues to Fitz Roy’s Major Leagues. If we could do well in the Minors, we might be invited to The Show.

Derek was supposed to be my partner, but he had used up his time off work with a 10-day trip to Europe and a week-long trip to San Diego for a Robotic Submarine Competition (his team got 7th out of 54 international teams!) I turned to Tom “Hardly Manson” Karpeichik. I’ve done a big majority of my longest, toughest climbs with him including the Moonlight Buttress, Prodigal Sun, Levitation 29, Steck-Salathé, Half Dome, and the Nose — all one day each. And a 5-day ascent of the Salathé Wall and a 10-day ascent of Denali. Suffice to say, he’s solid. Also, he’s a much stronger climber than me.

When I asked Tom if he was interested in a trip to the Bugs, the response came back so fast that I wondered if he had had time to read the text. After a short discussion on the timing, he booked tickets for us. Well, that was easy. Now I just needed to pack my gear. I got us three nights in the Conrad Kain Hut, but couldn’t get any others, so we were forced to carry in a tent, pad, stove, and heavier sleeping bag. We ended up staying the hut the entire time (slots opened up, apparently because the perfect weather scared people off), so the extra weight was just good training. In solidarity to my extra load, Tom carried in an extra 70-meter line that we wouldn’t use either. Teamwork!

Getting There

Travel to Calgary wasn’t smooth. Our flight was delayed multiple times and we had to walk about a half-mile through the Calgary airport to the rental car desk. My arms were pumped from dragging my 50-pound duffel. Once in the car I came to grips with how bad my night vision is and how dependent I am on Google maps. My failure to set up my phone to get data in Canada would be ratified the next day, but I’d have never found the hotel on my own. Thankfully Tom was an able navigator. Tom then got to stand in line to checkin to the hotel for 45 minutes. It was a rough start. We didn’t get into our room until 1 a.m.
The awesome Conrad Kain hut
The next morning, Friday, after a lame hotel breakfast, we headed west. Listening to the radio we found out it was the start of a 3-day

Reconnoitering

In order to get the lay of the land, we decided our first day would be spent reconnoitering the descent from Bugaboo Spire (which is the Kain Route - 5.7) and climbing the West Ridge (5.4) of Pigeon Spire so that we could check out part of the approach to South Howser Tower.

We were hiking at 5:45, which was first light up there. We were the only ones up at the hut, which I thought was strange. We hiked alone up to the glacier below the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col (SBC), which is a key passage up here. It seems most of the climbs require either going up or down from this col and frequently both. It’s condition is crucial to the climbing access. While we were there it significantly deteriorated. Actually, it seemed just the current route deteriorated, as there seemed to be other mini-couloirs to ascend to this col, like the one with rappel anchors at the top. Those only get you down the steepest part of the couloir and then you’d have to downclimb the rest. There is a complete rappel route on the climber’s far left, and we talked to a couple of women who came down it, but never used it ourselves. The snow in the morning was pretty firm, but great steps are in situ and going was easy, though a fall would be very serious. In the afternoon it was softer and it seemed that a self-arrest would be possible, in case of a fall. The issue was that the top of the couloir had melted out and existed of just rock, dirt, and ice. This was a short section, but we took extra care here.
Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires
At the top of the couloir it was windy and cold, with lots of clouds. We stopped to pull off our crampons and stash our axes, so that we could head up the Kain Route. We met a couple here. They were headed to climb All Along The Watchtower (12a, 20+ pitches) on the west face of North Howser Tower. They were hesitant, though. Clouds engulfed the Howsers. Their plan was to do the entire approach (very long, very complicated and involved)  and climb up six pitches or so to a bivy ledge. As we scrambled up the lower portion of the Kain Route we watched hike halfway across the Upper Vowell Glacier and then turn around. Later, they would turn around again and hike clear over to Pigeon Spire, solo the West Ridge, and cache their gear for tomorrow.

Tom and I continued in our mountain boots for hundreds of vertical feet. Clear until we ran across the first bolt anchor. We were both wearing La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX boots. I bought them on the spur of the moment when I was at the Sportiva store buying some new TC Pros for the trip. They seemed just the ticket: light, comfortable, waterproof, and took a pneumatic or strap-on crampon. The boots climbed rock surprisingly well and were the absolute bomb for talus hopping. I sent Tom and photo of them and when we got to the airport, I saw that he had the same boots (he had to carry them on the plane because his bag was overweight - only because he carried all the heavy stuff). We used Kahtoola K-10 steel crampons on these and the setup worked great. Tom carried an ultralight CAMP ice axe and I carried a heavier, more technical tool. I now own one of the CAMP axes.
Heading for the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col.
We switched into rock shoes, but carried all our gear with us, not sure we come by this spot on the way down. Tom led upwards for a pitch and I followed and led and easy ridge traverse, pausing only long enough to get a #0.4 Camalot stuck. Embarrassed, I struggled to remove it before Tom could see and only made it worse. Without a nut tool, I moved on, leaving the problem to Tom. I ran out the rope, belayed, and then watched Tom struggle with the mess I left behind. He got it, though.

Tom then led the steep, crux pitch, which looks much harder than it is (5.7). That pitch ended just below the South Summit. We scrambled over to the summit, found the metal tube that contained a wad of water-damaged paper. We looked at the tricky traverse over to the North Summit, where the Northeast Ridge would end and wondered how that would go. It looked complicated and far from trivial.

We didn’t linger, though. We had another summit to nab and the cold winds made it uncomfortable on top. Despite just ascending the route, we still found the descent complicated. It was mostly reversing the route, but rapping past the Big Gendarme put us skier’s left of the route. We missed a key anchor behind a flake and had to do an exposed, but easy, scramble and downclimb back to the next anchor. Once off the rappels, we had to negotiate the myriad cairns on the lower slopes. A guide would later tell us that the beta for the descent is to ignore all cairns and stay skier’s right, on the ridge, until the last final section.
Tom leading the crux headwall of the Kain Route
Back at the col, I talked about leaving some of the weight there. Tom wouldn’t have it. We put the crampons back on, though we didn’t really need them - the well worn track across the glacier was soft enough for bare boots.

We trudged over to Pigeon, taking maybe 45 minutes. There we found a few parties. Some just getting back down and some gearing to go up. I talked Tom into soloing the route, which was the right choice. It was only rated 5.4 and mostly much easier than that. We changed into our climbing shoes, donned our shells due to the wind. We pass a couple of parties and in less than 30 minutes (maybe 15?) we are on the summit. We meet a couple of guys on the summit. They have soloed up as well. One says, “What a great day.”

I respond, “Yes, but a little windy and cold for me.”

“Welcome to the Bugs,” he says.

This grates on me. It harkens back to when I was nearly killed by rockfall below the North Chimney on Longs and a climber above just yells down, “Welcome to the alpine.” While this wasn’t nearly as egregious, it still bothered me. Like he was implying I’d never been alpine climbing before. Or that the Bugs were unique where a windy and cold day is as nice as it gets in the Bugs. Neither was true, of course, as the rest of our trip would prove.
On the South Summit of Bugaboo Spire with the Howsers in the background
This guy and his partner followed us down to the base of the route where another party was gearing up for the glacier travel. They asked our plans and when we said the Becky-Chouinard (BC) the next day, they both replied that they had the same plan. “It’s going to be crowded up there,” one of the climbers says.

Tom quiet and I wonder what he’s thinking. We both want the route, but who wants to climb in a conga line? I suspected he dislikes it even more than I do. I offer up caching our gear at the Pigeon-Howser Col, but we don’t. At least that gives us options. If we had cached the gear, we’d have to do the BC the next day. We reverse our path across the glacier and carefully climb down the SBC, facing in for the first few hundred feet.

We got back to the hut after an 11-hour day. Worried that the expected crowds was putting Tom off, I offered up Bugaboo Spire for the next day instead. Truth be told, I was nervous about the BC. It is so long and so committing. The descent is down the other side and it an 11-rappel descent down a huge wall. Most everything in the Bugs seems to be a “carry over”, where you don’t descend the route you climb, despite the fact that our two routes on this first day, did descend the same way. Tom just acknowledges the statement and mulls on it.
En route to the summit on the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire
Later Tom says, “Let’s do it”. “BC?” I ask. Yup. I offered up 3 a.m. as a start time and he countered with 5 a.m., worried that it would be too cold to rock climb if we got there too early. It was a valid point and getting up at 2:30 a.m. hurts, so I relented. We packed our one 70-meter rope and a generous rack and tried to get some sleep.

Beckey-Chouinard South Howser Tower

Unfortunately, we were in for a terrible night with non-stop snoring from super loud couple. Three times I got up and walked over to him and shook his leg to get him to stop snoring. On one occasion he woke up and asked me what I was doing. I said they were snoring and he shook his partner awake to stop her. Each time it would start up again. Tom finally had enough. He got up at 3:45 and told me he was getting. I should have popped up, but I didn’t. I was fearful of the big day on little rest, but 30 minutes more of not sleeping wasn’t going to help. I got up at 4 a.m.

Sunrise behind us as we head towards South Howser Tower
We brewed up coffee, ate, some last-minute packing, a bathroom visit, and we were moving at 4:50. Gearing up below the SBC, two parties caught us. One was the couple headed for the All Along the Watchtower. They moved past us, carrying little weight because of their gear stash. The other two looked young and strong and also passed us. I was sure they were headed towards BC. Why else would they be up so early and headed this direction. Alas, I was wrong. Above the col, they broke hard left to climb something on the West Face of Snowpatch Spire. This spire is very impressive. Steep on all sides, it looks like a giant dorsal fin. But the West Face routes would be in shade for a long time and probably quite cold. Maybe they were going for a big linkup…

The couple paused to use the facilities. There in-house here. I don’t call it an outhouse because there are no walls around it. This is common in alpine climbing environments. The Grand Teton has an awesome one at the Lower Saddle. Even Longs Peak has one below Chasm Lake. So, just like that, we were alone, walking across the Vowell Glacier. At the Pigeon-Howser col, we descended steep talus to steep snow to steeper, looser talus, and then back to snow and the glacier on the other side.
Weather  is looking good...
We descended down into the East Creek area and found four or five tents. I feared they were all up on the BC. We could see the profile of the route now and indeed saw a party high on the skyline.

We stripped off crampons at one point and then put them back on. We ascended a tongue of snow up to the ridge below our route. Here we put the crampons away for the day. We scrambled up tricky boulders and slabs for a thousand feet, all in our mountain boots. Finally we got to the base of the route. We could see multiple parties above us on the route, but no one was directly in front of us. I hoped everyone would move well and we wouldn’t catch them. I was wrong about this.

I led a long, 70+ meter pitch around to the right, into the sun, and then back up to the ridge proper. There was a short 5.8 section here with some committing moves well above gear, but it went fine and soon I was on a big ledge with bolted rappel anchor. This gave me a false sense of the coming belays, for this was the only fixed belay.

Looking up at the Becky-Chouinard route from atop the first pitch


Tom followed and climbed a low-angle, but awkward and physical wide crack, which pinched down deeper into the crack. He caught the party in front of at the next belay (we’d combined the first three pitches into two pitches somehow). We’d get to know this party very well and they were super nice. They were newlyweds on their honeymoon, which was poignant for me, as Sheri and I had honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies as well and even went back for our 10th anniversary. Katie was a pretty, petite woman and a solid climber, who would take some of the easier leads on the route. She was just about to enter medical school. Ben was physics major doing post-doc work on quantum computing at Yale. They lived back east, though in different states currently.

The fourth pitch was our first 5.10 pitch and it was really just one short section. We watched Katie follow it and she loved it. I followed a respectful distance well below her. We were right on the ridge for this pitch. I jammed up 5.9 cracks to the crux bulge and placed some good gear. Reaching high above me, I grabbed a flake and liebacked upwards. The crack directly above wasn’t that good and I balked. I then readjusted my grip on the flake to an undercling and was able to reach entirely past the difficult crack to a jug. I then hauled myself up and stood on it. The rest of the pitch was solid and fun and easier. I was soon at the belay with Katie, as I’d so often be. This is how it would be for most of the climb.

Tom followed and then led a long, moderate pitch up to a belay ledge in the sun. When I arrived, it was clear why Tom stopped here. Katie and Ben were out of sight, around on the right side of the ridge and we were all waiting on the party above. Actually, parties. Right above them was a group of five Slovenians, climbing as a party of three and a party of two. They were on a 4-week trip to North America and this was their goal climb and they really wanted to do it together. That’s cool. We’d get to know them too, much later, and they were all super friendly. But they weren’t very fast climbers. They weren’t too slow, though. The party of three had the seconds simul-seconding and the seconds moved reasonable fast. It was the leaders that were a bit slow. But above us lurked an even slower party.
Tom leading the second of the long, burly 5.8 pitches in the middle of the route.
We lounged at out belay for awhile, watching the progress above. When I could saw Ben get to the top of the next pitch, I got moving. At first, we just moved our belay around the ridge to where Katie was. Then, after an appropriate gap, I started leading the first of two, burly 5.8 pitches up a big, long, left-facing dihedral. The climbing here was mostly nice crack climbing, but a 20-foot offwidth section proved quite the sting-in-the-tail near the top of the pitch. We carried one #4 Camalot with us and it came in handy on this pitch and would be used many times before the route was completed.

The next pitch was also pretty challenging. These were full-on pitches, despite the 5.8 rating. A tricky steep section gave Tom pause near the top and me as well. It was also a long pitch. I followed and then led up a 3rd class pitch to join Ben. Katie was leading her first pitch - a steep 5.8. Since 3rd class wasn’t much of a pitch, I led the next pitch as well, following well below Ben. It went smoothly, but the crack at the end of the pitch was quite steep.

At the next belay, I found Ben again and watched Katie wrestle with the difficult 5.9 pitch above. I remember being pretty desperate at one point following this pitch, but Tom made it look easy. This pitch put us at the base of the Great White Headwall and things got a lot steeper. There is also a great bivy spot here and I took advantage of it for the next two hours. Yes, two hours.

Katie and Ben were here as well and so was one of the Slovenians. I watched his partner slowly lead the next pitch. The big problem was that the Slovenians had caught up to a party that had ivied on the route. Tom found out later (not sure how) that his party had started up this route two days ago, hit bad weather, and bailed back to the base. They then started back up the route the next day, when we were doing our recon routes. They either slept at the base of the headwall, where I was now, or three moderate pitches lower. They also must have slept in until past noon. This sucked. Why they took so long to start moving, I don’t know, but they had to know that the masses were on the way. They caused every party behind them, which was five, since we now had a party behind us, to rappel in the dark.

This brings up the biggest drawback to this route: crowds. I expect that, somewhat, because of its inclusion in “Fifty Classic Climbs”, but this route is much more of an issue than the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire because it is much harder to pass and much longer. Because of the length, there is frequently a party doing this with a bivy. This means that no matter how early you start, you will not be the first on the route. Ideally, of course, they were be so far up the route that you couldn’t possibly catch them. That wasn’t the case of us. Secondly, even if you catch a party, it is quite difficult to pass. There are really no alternatives (except for the second headwall pitch). So, the leading party needs to let the trailing party pass. This is tough because everyone is racing the light and don’t want to waste any time. Usually in this case, the best thing to do is to simul-climb by on a short (30-meter rope). It would be quite difficult for me to simul-climb much of this route because nearly all the pitches involve real climbing that is challenging and needs to be protected. Hence, to simul-climb multiple pitches, I’d need a very large rack, which is heavy to carry and you might not need it. Some of the belays are cramped, too, and this was the issue I was watching above.

The bivy party was on the second headwall pitch — a recommended variation up finger cracks left of the corner, which we had heard had ice in it (and housed a 5.9 squeeze). Slovenian 3 were all queued at the tiny belay stance. Eventually the bivy party’s second started climbing and a bit after that Slovenian 3’s leader started up. A little bit after the leader of Slovenian 2 arrived at the belay. I was lounging down at the super comfy bivy spot, eating lunch, and trying to rest. I’d have taken a nap if I was more relaxed, but I was a bit stressed at how slow things were going. Fortunately, the weather was absolutely perfect.
The summit of South Howser Tower, just before sunset.
Once the second of Slovenian 2 was halfway up the pitch, Ben started up. He’s a strong climber and cruised up to the belay, only to hang out for at least twenty minutes just below the belay, waiting for some space. That sucked, but Ben is so friendly and nice, he just chilled. There was nothing anyone could do about it unless the Slovenians let them pass. They weren’t inclined to do that at this point because they were being held us as well. The bivy party wouldn’t be seen again, though, and the Slovenians were again the roadblock.

I got a little frustrated watching Slovenian 2’s leader on the finger crack pitch. He took forever to lead this pitch. Granted it is a long one, but at one point, high on the pitch, I watched him dip into his chalk bag 14 times (I counted) before moving an inch. He chalked each hand seven times. I don’t climb with chalk and I never make an issue of it, but here I lamented how much time is wasted chalking. This alpine climber could be twice as fast if he’s stop chalking his hands. Twice as fast! You’re an alpinist for gosh sakes, not a sport climber.

Eventually, I could start up. Twenty feet of easy climbing led to a ledge below a wide crack in a right-facing corner. It was fist width into a wide pod, which then leads to a physical flare. Before leaving the ledge, I stretched high and clipped a fixed sling around a chockstone. Then, committed to liebacking the start before fully thinking it through. I climbed up until my feet were even with the chockstone and nearly fell off when I transitioned back into the crack to stand on the chockstone. Once here, chicken wings inched me higher until I could get my feet into the pod. The flare, made more difficult by my pack and ice axe, had me quite winded by the time I topped the pillar. The remaining climbing was easier, 5.9 at most, and I zigzagged up behind Katie and was able to climb above their belay and set up my own belay.

Tom followed but had a devil of a time retrieving the 0.4 Camalot I placed. In fact, after much effort, he couldn’t get it out. He didn’t have the nut tool with him. I mistakenly had it on my harness. This was the second time on the trip that I had got that piece stuck. For the rest of the trip I was reluctant to even place for fear that I’d screw up again. Tom left it and continued up to the belay. I promised to replace it (we climbed with Tom’s rack), but he wasn’t concerned about that, only if we needed it for the rest of our climbs.
One of our Slovenian friends, happy to be back on the glacier.
We waited at the belay for Ben to finish the next lead and then waited to give Katie some space. Then Tom started up and the party that was behind us, finally caught up to us. They were two super friendly guys and their second got our 0.4 cam out and returned it to me at this belay. Sweet! He got it out by removing a small chockstone that was preventing extraction. Slick.

Tom methodically climbed the pitch above and he also paused up high where the Slovenian had, though not nearly as long. I figured that was the crux, but following I didn’t think so. I thought the initial thirty feet of off-fingers with marginal feet was the toughest section of the pitch. Above, I didn’t have any trouble by reaching to the right whenever direct upwards progress was difficult. There was another crack over there that provided a nice side pull whenever I seem to need it.

When I got to the belay, Ben and Katie were long gone. I quickly transitioned into leading and blasted off. I wanted to remain in contact, but I really wanted to get to the top before darkness. I probably still harbored hope of doing the rappels in the light, but that chance was already gone. I turned a tricky roof and ran up easy ground, climbing up a wide, low-angle V-corner. I found Ben at a stance up on the left wall and started up a hand crack that led to an offwidth below the belay. I didn’t see another alternative, but halfway up it Ben mentioned that Katie had climbed a hidden crack to my right. Oh well. I grunted up the offwidth, placed my #4 Camalot and got to the belay stance, just after Ben left it. Tom followed and was none too pleased about the offwidth. I think he had more trouble with five feet of this crack than he did anywhere else on the route.

He then led a long 5.8 pitch up the V-corner to a belay at a notch. The next pitch was the technical crux of the route — a delicate traverse rated 10+. This section can also be solved with a tension traverse. While belaying Tom a pitch below, I heard Katie’s victory yell, as she climbed it free. Once again, there was no sign of Ben and Katie, so I blasted off with speed my main concern and free climbing a distant second. I figured to give it a quick go and if I came off, would revert to the tension traverse. I was a little concerned about the pendulum fall back into the wall, but I had to move, so assumed it wouldn’t be that bad. At first I started to high, but quickly reset four feet lower and crimped and smeared my way leftwards. At the rounded edge I was able to reach around the corner and stretch all the way to a crack, where I got a hand jam and then pulled myself over. It went so quickly and so easily that I thought it more like 5.8 than 10+. As it turned out, it seems I just got extremely lucky.

I raced up the long 5.6 corner to a notch, where there was a rappel anchor. Below me I could see the Slovenians and Katie and Ben going by them. Lucky two. Below Tom was a bit flummoxed on what to do. He had trouble finding the sequence that I had used. I impatiently waited for Tom to arrive, all the while watching the Slovenians, one by one, disappear up the final few pitches to the summit.
Tom coiling our rope at 1 a.m.
When Tom arrived I belayed him down to the rappel anchors and then followed suit. We rapped down to the easier ground and pulled the rope. Tom led a pitch and then I took over and caught the Slovenians and followed them to a notch just below the top. Tom followed and led the last fifty feet to the summit. We hastily snapped a summit photo and immediately switched out of our climbing shoes and into our boots, mainly for warmth. Darkness followed soon after. I pulled on my down jacket, over the shell I already wore.

The Slovenians had already started down, after the last two left, Tom and I did the first two, very short rappels and caught them at the first lengthy rappel. It was completely dark now and we all had our headlamps on. The first guy down couldn’t find the next anchors and had to climb all the way back up, belaying himself with his rappel line. Frustrated with the lack of movement, we offered to go down and find the anchors. Tom went, since my night vision sucks. He also struck out and couldn’t find it. He was down there, climbing up a bit, swinging around, searching in vain. Finally another Slovenian went down on double ropes, so that he’d have lots of rope safety to find the anchor. We had been rappelling on a single line because we knew the descent could be done with a single 70-meter rope, or even a 60-meter rope, which is what the Slovenians had. This third guy found the anchors and we continued the descent.

We ended up teaming up with these five, since we were already intertwined and had another rope, four amongst the seven of us. In retrospect, this was a mistake. It was a complete cluster with, at times, four of us at a hanging belay in the darkness with another climber hanging on rappel above us. We leapfrogged ropes down the route. At one point a rope wouldn’t pull. Our stress wasn’t super high because there were those two guys behind us, but the rope came down. I was out of my comfort range, rappelling with a rope draped over my neck and falling off. On one rappel, the ropes made it by a single foot. Thankfully the ropes were knotted, but it was still pretty terrifying.

On the last rappel, the first guy down, on a single rope, didn’t have enough rope to get over the bergshrund. We set up a double rope rappel for him and he got back on and finished it. He called up the need to get out ice axes out and at the ready before heading down, as the icy slope was steep and quite hard.

I was very thankful to touch down on the glacier. We high-fives with all the Slovenians. While they weren’t very fast climbers, they were very solid climbers and handled the tricky descent with aplomb. They were always super friendly. They were extremely excited to complete the biggest goal of their trip. It was our biggest goal as well and I was so pleased. After our celebration, Tom and I strapped on our crampons, coiled our rope and headed down the glacier. We followed steps in the snow to weave around crevasses, first back to the Pigeon-Howser col and then across the upper Vowell Glacier to the dreaded Snowpatch-Bugaboo col. This went reasonably well and we were happy to finally pull off our crampons.

We got a bit lost, losing the trail for a bit, but we re-found it. We didn’t get back to the hut until 3 a.m. for a 22-hour day. It was a lot longer than we had hoped, but there was nothing we could do about the crowds and then everything is slower in the darkness. I didn’t bother unpacking anything. Five minutes after I arrived, I was horizontal on my pad.

Eastpost Spire Scramble

More horrible snoring turned what should have been deep sleep into intermittent bursts. After four hours, the sunlight streaming through the window and general activity drove me from my sleeping bag. We moved slow that morning and lingered in the hut until noon. The glow of our successful ascent was still bright. I searched the guidebook for something we could do with little effort. I still wanted a summit and I found the perfect objective: Eastpost Spire.
What a rest day looks like at the Kain hut. We needed it, but what a shame to waste this weather.
Eastpost Spire looks very impressive from the hut. Before heading off, I’d guessed it was a 3000-foot climb to the summit. It turned out to around 1500 feet. I was amazed. In Alaska they say that everything is way bigger than it seems (and I found that to be true). Apparently, in the Bugs, things are way smaller than they appear.

It was another perfect day. I didn’t feel bad “wasting” it on Eastpost. After our 22 hours the day before, there wasn’t really anything larger that I wanted to tackle. We did the familiar hike up from the hut, but for the first time hiked all the way to Applebees campsite. Every time I hear that name, I can’t help of think of the restaurant chain. I’d start salivating just thinking about that campsite.
Walking into Applebees
Applebees was really a sight to see. There are so many tents up here. The density seems almost like in the hut. I wondered if snoring was an issue here as well. All the tents are erected on rocks and there are many different levels. Two big metal structures were covered with hanging packs such that it looked like a tree of packs. At this camp there is even a bathroom and spigots for water. It’s quite nice, if you can handle the crowds. Probably a great place to meet other climbers. In fact, we ran into Ben and Katie here and chatted with them for a bit. We heard about their descent, which was half in the dark. They were taking a rest day as well and hadn’t left Applebees.

Above camp we followed a trail up to the saddle between Eastpost Spire and the Crescent Towers. From here a well cairned and very neat trail leads up to the airy 4th class finishing pitch. This summit is guided and there is a nice rappel anchor on the summit. Here we met a 19-year-old from German who is traveling through North America for five months, by himself. I noticed him when he got to the hut earlier that day because he carried snowshoes with him. When I mentioned that to him he immediately responded with, “Yeah, that was dumb.”
The summit of Eastpost Spire
We snapped some photos and descended back to hut. The guides were planning on the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire the next day. All five of them, I thought. Then another team, Mitch and Dave, were also going for it. As were we. We told the guides about our plan and that we hoped to be ahead of them. The main guide, Patrick, was fine with that. We had some bona fides after our BC ascent. We packed our sacks and set our alarms for 3 a.m., determined not to be fifth in line for this route.

Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire

The next morning, after coffee and breakfast, and a bathroom stop, we were the first team headed up the trail. We wondered how many parties were coming from Applebees. Mitch and Dave were right behind us and was already telling myself that I’d be okay with them passing us. Though I had climbed the route before, it was so long ago that I couldn’t be sure of finding the right passage up the lower wall. Mitch had done the route before as well, so I figured it might even be best to follow them.

I had scoped out the approach from the SBC and thought we could head for the col and then curve around, staying on relatively easy and smooth glacier terrain instead of boulder hopping up the moraine. This was the right strategy, as the guides would follow a similar path, but in the darkness, I didn’t take the most direct or best path. In fact, we wandered a bit high and later in the day a huge rockfall would come down nearly to our tracks. Mitch and Dave continued up towards Applebees before ascending the moraine and hence we were alone for this bit.

Once at the wall, I was surprised that we couldn’t find a well-defined track of kicked steps up to the start. We searched along the wall a bit and then Tom decided to just sit and wait for the other teams. I kept looking though. I headed up the glacier towards where I’d go if I was making a first ascent. Just below the granite wall I found faint suncups, probably of past footsteps. I kicked steps up here to the wall and called out to Tom to follow. He did so and then we saw headlamps approaching from the glacier. It was Patrick and his clients. I asked Patrick if I was in the right spot and he confirmed it. I scampered up to a ledge, but found the going steep and tricky. I asked Patrick if he roped up for this wall and he said, “Absolutely.”

Tom and I hastily pulled on our harnesses and got out the rack. I asked Tom if he wanted to lead and he urged me forward. This was the right call. If I have any speciality at all in the climbing world, it is climbing moderate terrain quickly. I’m also a pretty decent route finder, though in the dark, this was a bit tougher on me. I scanned carefully with my headlamp and took a bit of time to deliberate before making each choice and then move swiftly up the rock. I ran out two third of our rope and belayed. Tom followed and suggested I stay in the lead. Patrick was close on our tail. I went again up to a ledge and brought Tom up. One more short pitch and I was on the ridge. We stayed roped here because we had it out and I stayed in the lead. We went along the ridge until I thought we were at the rope-up spot, but we weren’t. We saw Mitch and Dave approaching. They had soloed the wall to the ridge and were moving quickly. Tom led off and I followed, managing the rope. We got to the base of the route first and quickly started to gear up, feeling the pressure of the two teams behind us.

Mitch told me that the crack to the left was a 5.10 variation and that he climbed up the pillar on the right and then traversed left to the first belay. Patrick adamantly disagreed with this path, saying the pillar was dangerous and that he’d done the route almost 30 times. He did admit that the crack felt very hard for 5.8 and was a stiff warm-up. I followed the advice of Patrick and led the 5.8/10 crack. It seemed a bit challenging, but I didn’t think it was 5.10. 5.9 at most and maybe just 5.8+. I set up a belay and Tom was soon up and leading above me.

Mitch, also feeling some pressure followed and asked to go by belay to belay from two fixed pins, which I hadn’t seen, just fifteen feet above me. Once Tom had me on belay, though, I was quickly by him and would never see him again. I followed the 5.7 pitch and led the super cool and circuitous third pitch up to a ledge below a 5.7/8 crack. Tom followed and strung the next two pitches together and before we knew it we were done with the hardest climbing.

While not particularly in a hurry, we were fully engaged in “efficiency mode,” and moved far ahead of our trailing teams. So far ahead, I elected to climb the super clean, optional 5.8 hand crack left of the regular chimney. Above, I crossed over into the chimney and ran out 210 feet of rope to belay on a nice ledge in the sun. Tom followed and took over, climbing, as he would say, “from sun to sun”. He led out all our rope (230 feet) and I followed and then did about 250 feet before finding the next sunny ledge. Just below this ledge I recognized the sloping ramp that I had aided up on my previous attempt, as the ramp was covered in ice. Dry, the climbing was maybe 5.6.

I thought I was just below the summit and expected Tom to be off belay in a few moments, but, no. He ran out 150 feet of rope to bolt. We thought this was the bolt where Patrick said if you stood in a sling, you could go up from there at only 5.10-. I didn’t stand in any sling and went up easily at 5.6. Unfortunately, I was atop a gendarme and not the summit. The other side of the gendarme was unprotected and much harder. It was probably twenty feet back down to the ridge. This would be no big deal for me, as I had a toprope going down, but Tom would have fifty feet of slack while doing this. I told him the situation and asked him what he thought. I could have reversed back to him and we could have rappelled, which is what every other team does. But he was okay with me staying on the ridge and I ran out the rope to the very summit.

Tom followed but not without some hesitation and a lot of consideration of the consequences of a fall. The down climbing was palm smearing on a rounded arete and tricky, insecure feet, but he pulled it off. On the summit, we found another unreadable and unsignable wad of paper stuffed into a metal tube. I realized that on my previous ascent of this route, I had never made the summit. We turned around at the bolt and the rappel, as we thought that was the start of the traverse to the Kain Route. In essence it is, though still below the North Summit. We didn’t think we could climb back up if we had rappelled and descended. So this was my first time on the North Summit of Bugaboo Spire.

We now had to complete to the South Summit in order to gain the familiar Kain Route descent. We started with a steep downclimb and then I led down and along an exposed ridge. The going was generally easy, but quite exposed and I placed a couple of pieces so that we had some security. I led all the way over to the base of the South Summit block. Here I found the bolt that Patrick was talking about. The wall above this bolt was dead vertical without any usable features. But, as he said, if you stood in a sling, you’d be able to reach the horizontal crack above and place some gear and complete the climb to the summit at 5.10-.

It was Tom’s lead and he did just that. Once he had the crack, it was tricky, hard climbing to move left, as the crack went left, because there still wasn’t any footholds below. He made awkward moves left and after six or seven feet he could finally move upwards and it was over. With the benefit of a toprope, I was able to free the entire pitch. I could just barely get my tips into the crack on the far right. I did a pull-up on these holds and then dead pointed for a hold higher up. From there I followed Tom’s climbing to the summit. Sweet.

The descent was long and complex, but we remembered it and it went okay, though we made the same mistake at the Gendarme Rappel. Just below there we ran into the friends of Mitch and Dave. They were at their limit coming up the Kain Route, but would meet their friends on the summit. Tom and I continued down without any trouble, back to the SBC. Descending the col sucked. The path we’d been using had melted out in one section and I had to do some very dicey down climbing on dirt, ice, and rock. It was dangerous and when Tom got there, he refused to do it. From below I could see there was another path up and climber’s left of a rock rib. Tom climbed up and over the rib and descended carefully down to me. Further down we noticed some climbers on this spectacular route called Sunshine on the north prow of Snowpatch Spire. After looking at them for awhile I thought it might be Ben and Katie. I called out to them and sure enough it was them. They had to borrow a #5 Camalot for that route, but found it amongst all the climbers at Applebees.

We got back to the hut around 3 p.m. doing the roundtrip in 11 hours. I felt we moved quite efficiently and was quite pleased with our effort. Mitch and Dave would be more than 3 hours behind us and Patrick another hour after them. It is so much nicer to be able to climb at one’s own pace and not be at the mercy of another team’s speed or lack there of.

Rest, Recovery and Return

We were down so early that I figured we’d be up for one final climb up Snowpatch Spire. It was the most prominent remaining spire that we hadn’t climbed. There are a number of routes on this spire, but the longest climbed it from the east side — the side facing the hut. It was rated just 5.8, but was 19 pitches long and had a reputation for difficult route finding. I was milking the guides for information and was quite successful, but then Tom told me, “I don’t think I’m going to be up for 19 pitches.” It was one of the only times where I had more ambition than Tom.

We settled on the extremely popular McTech Arete on Crescent Spire before turning in, but the next morning Tom slept in a bit and I could tell he was done with the Bugaboos. He was already thinking of the Colorado Trail mountain bike, which he’d start a couple of days after returning from this trip. I wasn’t disappointed. We’d had a great trip and bagged the two main objectives. We ended up just hiking around, after a failed attempt to scramble up Crescent Spire. We mistakenly were heading up Crescent Towers, which was 5th class climbing. After getting ourselves into only a little bit of trouble, we descended and had some lunch by the upper tarn. We ran into Ben and Katie again and exchanged some contact information.

Back at the hut, we packed up, hiked out, and drove to Calgary. We got a cheap hotel room and showered and slept. The next day we flew home. What a great trip. I will be back. I have to come back. Snowpatch is calling me.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Sundial Dihedral with Mark

Mark on the small ledge at the base of the fifth pitch.

Mark has been learning how to jug this year. He was preparing to go up the Nose with Derek and I, but due to variety of factors, including my shoulder problems and weather issues in the Valley, we didn't make our planned trip to Yosemite. As a consolation, we picked a location equidistant from his house in Provo and mine in Superior, which was Colorado National Monument. The weather forecast called for a high of 85 degrees, which was a bit of a concern, but didn't stop us.

The most prominent tower in CNM is Independence Monument. It is 500 feet tall and has a unique, chiseled route up it called Otto's Route, after the first ascensionist. Even with the chiseled holds, the routes overhanging finish is 5.9+. I'd done that route a number of times and it's super fun, but we wanted something more suited to Mark's new skills. We chose the Sundial Dihedral on the southeast face. This is a six-pitch route with a mix of free and aid climbing. Done as free as can be, the only aid is the final-pitch bolt ladder. Done as free as Bill can be, the second pitch (11+/12-) was aid as well. The fourth pitch is rated 11a/b and would be the crux free climbing for me.

We met at the trailhead a bit before 7 a.m. which is a bit later than ideal, but allowed Mark to sleep at his house the night before, though it wasn't a very long night, since he was up at 2:30 a.m. that morning. That was too radical for me so I drove out the night before and had a nice bivy at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
My bivy below a shelter at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
We saw a number of hikers on the approach and would all day long, but we were the only party on any route on the tower that day. This was surprising to me, since Otto's Route is in the shade and is a very popular route. We geared up at the base and were climbing probably around 8:30 a.m.

The first pitch is a 5.8 chimney/corner. I found just getting off the ground to be a crank, but things go easier and went nicely up to what I thought was the crux - a powerful lieback move at the very top of the pitch. Following, Mark had more trouble down below where is lack of crack/chimney experience made things difficult, but he worked out a beautiful stemming solution to the final move.

I'd climbed this route once before, long ago, with my buddy English Bob. He had done most of the leading and all the hard pitches, including the second pitch. Bob had tried to free it, but resorted to aid. A commenter on mountainproject.com thought this pitch was 11+/12-, which is definitely too much for me. At first I thought I could maybe french-free some of it, but it's so steep. I got in my aiders and plugged away. The gear is solid and pretty easy to place. I did place two RPs, but the rock is surprisingly hard.
Mark deciphering the final moves on the first pitch
In this 100-foot I placed most of my substantial rack, but it allowed me to move a bit quicker since I didn't backclean anything except one of the RPs. I even placed my old-style #4.5 Camalot (roughly equivalent to the modern #5) near the top of this pitch. I did free climb the last 15-20 feet, which would have been more difficult to aid.

I wasn't able to self-belay up the third pitch because my rack was so depleted, but Mark jugged quickly so I didn't have to wait long. I was leading with a trail line and hauled up the pack after each pitch. In the pack we had 2.5 liters of water, which proved a bit light. Though we were in the sun almost the entire time it didn't feel nearly as hot as I expected. I didn't feel my climbing performance was limited by it. We also carried extra gear in the pack. I stowed the aiders in there and we had some extra cams in there as well.
Aiding the second pitch.
Third pitch started with a chimney which led to an easier stairstep arete and finally some burly laybacking up a couple of flakes. Both Mark and I cruised up this pitch. The belays at the top of the first three pitches consisted of a single bolt. Atop the second pitch I had nothing that would fit the crack to backup the bolt, but I called down to Mark to pull the cam (0.5 Camalot) from the first belay and send it up with the pack.

The fourth pitch is the crux free climbing, for me at least. MP.com recommended bringing four #2 Camalots and we pulled the two extra pieces out of the pack. I avoided looking up at this pitch for too long, as it is intimidating. It overhangs for the first half. In the starting crack were two blocks stacked on top of each other. Both looked very precarious and the top one was completely loose. I put in a piece against the lower block, hoping a fall would just wedge the block tighter. To even get started I had to stretch for a tiny edge, match on it and do a pull-up on it in order to get high enough to swing into the wide crack.
Mark about ready to start liebacking the finish to pitch three.
Once in the wide crack I stretched for a handjam formed by a flake on the left wall. I put in a #1 Camalot here and could then barely reach a handjam in the main crack, just as it closed down enough. I in a #2 and a bit higher a #3. I had good jams for this but the crack was overhanging and I was getting pumped. I didn't have good feet as the crack below me was mostly too wide. The main crack opened again to form an overhanging pod/chimney and the crux moves were getting into this. I was able to place a #4 Camalot at the base of the pod, bu then struggled. My left foot was in the crack, but not high enough. My right foot was useless. I gastoned the lip of the crack with my right hand and tried to set a chicken wing with my left arm. I thrutched upwards by an inch or two and then tried to kick my right foot up on a small 2-inch dihedral, but I couldn't quite get it up there. I needed that to help push me into the pod. I sapped all my strength and slumped onto the cam.
I'm in the chimney/pod above the crux, but below the awesome handcrack above on the fourth pitch.
After resting, I tried again. This time I got my left foot higher. I dynamically bumped up my right hand on the arete and was then able to get my right foot in the small corner and grunted my way into the pod. I rested for quite a while in this pod before making difficult, overhanging moves out of it and stretching around the corner to reach a handjam. The rest of the pitch was perfect hands, but very steep and burly. I barely got this section clean, but there appeared footholds that allowed placing gear nicely. The crack ended at a big roof and the pitch required an ten-foot traverse leftwards to get around it. I put in a bomber #2 Camalot in the corner and then crimped positive edges with just smearing for feet until around the roof and up to the belay. I knew Mark was going to have to free this traverse because there was nothing to lower-out from.

Mark approaching the traverse at the top of the fourth pitch.
Mark jugged the overhanging pitch with some difficulty removing the gear because of the tension on the rope. When he got to the roof he was glad I was nearby to talk him through it. I instructed him to clip into the Camalot and another piece to be safe. He'd then have to get off his jugs and I'll pull in the slack and put him on belay so that he could free climb over to the belay. But he balked at this plan. The Camalot in the roof was his and twenty years old. He decided to leave it and lower out on it. He wanted to learn how to lower out anyway. He did this expertly and was soon at the belay. I offered to climb back across the traverse to get the cam, but Mark wanted to leave it for future parties.

Mark after lowering out from the Camalot he left behind (go get your booty!)
The fifth pitch started with a very committing lieback of a thin crack. At the start I could barely get my tips in the crack and had to smear against a smooth wall. I barely made the reach up to a better hold. I climbed up a bit further and blindly placed another cam just before my feet slipped. I didn't come off, but it gave me scare. Higher up the climbing is cryptic as the crack closes down to just a quarter of an inch wide -- not useable. I gastoned holds out to my left and used opposing pressure with my right hand and barely made a reach to a higher hold. I could then reach right and place a cam. Some tricky stemming put another a block. Some easy liebacking led to a final burly lieback, protected by my trusty #4.5 Camalot.

This pitch ended on a huge pedestal on the eastern end of the tower. Three drilled pitons served as the anchor. Mark elected to jug the pitch and soon joined m on the big ledge. The last pitch loomed above us.  Protected by 13 bolts, the route followed the east buttress as it steepened from lower angle to slightly overhanging. I could barely reach the first bolt. Once I clipped it, I just grabbed the draw, pulled over as the start of the pitch is separate from the pedestal by a gap, and climbed up to step atop the pin. From there I could barely reach the next bolt and above it the angle eased and I had to free climb up low angle, but sandy slabs for 20-30 feet. Two more bolts and more easy free climbing let to the final bolt ladder which necessitated top-stepping to reach each successive bolt, though angle allowed this without too much difficulty.
Looking down the fourth pitch from near the top of it.
Once on top of the tower I looked in vain for the final anchors. There were none. I had brought with me just a few small pieces to possible protect the free climbing sections. I couldn't pull up the pack as Mark had decided to carry it on this pitch and I clipped the haulline into one of the bolts to prevent it from being blown around the tower. It was exceptionally windy. I managed to find a placement for my one cam: a #0.5 in a shallow, flared crack. I put in a couple of large stoppers that just barely fit. It probably would have held. At least a 90% chance. Probably 95%. Would I bet Mark's life on that? I pulled up the entire haulline and walked 100 feet across the tower to the far end, where Otto's Route topped out and secured the hauline to that anchor. I then ran it all the way across the top of the tower back to my anchor and clipped it into that. Next time I'll bring more gear on the final pitch.

Mark topping out on the fifth pitch.
Mark encountered new problems jugging the last pitch. The free climbing sections had to be freed by him as well, otherwise he'd have swung way to the right, risking a nasty pendulum. He had to climb and move up his jugs at the same time. Also, the start was so low-angle that it made it awkward to jug. And the top had free-hanging sections which were quite physical. Once both of us were on top, we didn't waste much time heading down. We were out of water and too parched to enjoy the food we brought. Plus the wind was brutal.

Looking up the final pitch.
We belayed each other over the edge to the Otto's Route rappel anchors and then I rapped first on our fixed lead line, while pulling our haulline down with me. The idea was to avoid the wind whipping the ropes around to the opposite side of the tower. I didn't take all the lead rope with me, though and Mark eventually had to let the free end go. By then I was a hundred feet down and the rope came down fine. It's three rappels to the ground and after I got up the first rappel and yelled up "Off rappel" I was surprised to hear Mark yell, "Rope!" and drop the end of the haulline. Oops! At first I thought we'd just have to climb back up Otto's route to fix this problem, but, doh, Mark could just haul up the haulline with the lead rope. He'd have to risk the blowing rope on this rappel, but it went fine. We did two more raps and were soon on the ground.
Mark jugging the last pitch.
Originally we thought we might also climb Otto's Route, but Mark's ankle was hurting him and we decided not to push. We packed up the gear and walked around to the other side of the tower, to where we started, and had a late lunch. We reclined there and chatted for a long time, enjoying the views of the desert. On the hike out, just like on the hike in, we spotted a desert bighorn. These are raw sights and it was a great end to our adventure.

On the summit!