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|
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!
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|
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|
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.|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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 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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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|
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|
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.