Bugaboo Provincial Park BC, Canada
August 26-September 2, 2007
Trip report by Adam Greenstreet, photo credits as noted.
Peter picked me up at my house at 5:00 in the morning, and we quickly packed the car and started the long drive towards Spokane where we would start heading north towards Canada. After a stop for coffee, food supplies, and gasoline, we were finally on our way out of Spokane. The border crossing went smoothly, and we continued on our way. The further we got into the Canadian Rockies, the more beautiful they became. Soon we were driving down a highway with jagged peaks rising to the right, and a wide open river valley expanding to the left. We were obviously in for a treat on this trip.
Our plan was to drive to the trailhead, hopefully with enough time to hike up to the hut for the night so we could get an early start in the morning. We wanted to warm up on the west ridge of Pigeon Spire before hitting the bigger classics of the Bugaboos. Time seemed to be fading fast, and after what seemed like forever, we came into Brisco, a town small enough to drive through if you blinked, mostly just a few buildings lining the roadway. We grabbed some water, and a celebratory six pack of Kootanay beer from the general store. Then onto the gravel road up to the Bug’s.
The road was slightly rough in some spots due to the recent logging activity, but still easy to follow. Eventually we realized we weren’t going to get up to the hut before dark, so we opted for a more leisurely drive even though it would require a night in the car. We could just get up a bit earlier and still have time for Pigeon in the morning.
The wildlife seemed to be out this evening, we saw tons of birds, several deer, and even a black bear lumbering down the road in front of us. The bear seemed to be more startled by us than we were by him. I was still able to grab the camera and get a few blurry shots. It seemed a bit funny to be making such a big fuss about the bear, but then again, it’s not that often we see bears around the crowded cascades of Washington.
Eventually we pulled into the gravel parking area at the end of the road. There was still plenty of light out to dump the contents of our bags on the ground and sort through the gear to pack for the next day. It looked as if the back of our car had exploded sending all the contents every which way.
As the light faded to night, we finished sorting through our gear, and cooked up some tasty dehydrated slop for dinner. The stars came out and the moon began to ascend from the horizon. A full lunar eclipse was going to occur tonight, but at the earliest hours of the morning. Peter is an avid astronomer, and pointed out all the constellations and galaxies to me. It was really cool finally learning how all the different stars fit together to form all the constellations.
With a full moon, Hounds Tooth, Snowpatch Spire, and all the glaciers around them were glowing brightly enough so we didn’t need headlamps at all. It was quite inspiring and humbling at the same time to be thinking about climbing these giants over the next few days. Finally we called it a night and packed it all into the car, wedged ourselves into the back and tried to get a good nights rest for the next day.
As usual, the alarm rudely awoke us at far too early an hour for any sane person to get up at. But we were going climbing, not trying to be normal, sane humans. So, like many times before, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and jumped out of the car getting a cold blast of air when I opened the door. The sky was still crystal clear, with the moon setting behind Snowpatch Spire. It looked as if would be a beautiful day for a stroll in the mountains.
After getting a quick bite to eat we shouldered our packs for the hike up to the hut. It’s only 4.5km up to the hut, but with full climbing packs and a week’s worth of provisions, the hiking was more like a crawl. As we hiked up the moraine, we were treated to a full view of Snowpatch Spire, Hounds Tooth and the surrounding glaciers, all bathed in the soft morning sunlight. The more we hiked up the trail, the more excited we became for the fabled climbing we had been reading about for the past month.
The trail led up through forested slopes for a ways, before breaking out onto open slopes with slide alder and bountiful fireweed. The Kain Hut was visible from far off, sitting just below Snowpatch Spire. It seemed so close, yet so painfully far away with our full packs. I just put my head back down and continued the uphill grind toward the hut. We finally broke out onto the last few switchbacks up the moraine with the hut directly overhead. We were greeted by a ranger a few steps from the door, who welcomed us to the Bugaboos, and was happy to let us know they had plenty of space for us to use.
We strolled into the hut to find no other people around, but lots of climbing gear and packs placed up against the wall. Apparently everyone was out enjoying this beautiful day, which we were going to hopefully be doing soon pending a quick changeover at the hut. We dropped the majority of our equipment at the hut, only taking the necessary gear for Pigeon Spire. Since it was only rated at 5.4, we planned on simul-climbing the route in our mountaineering boots; which ended up making our packs fairly lightweight.
We started hiking up the old moraine from the crescent glacier towards the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. At this point, the weather was still looking excellent with clear blue skies and a perfect temperature for hiking in. The trail up to the base of the glacier was in great shape and we made good time not having to do much boulder hopping. At the base of the glacier we stopped to suit up with harnesses and crampons. We didn’t tie in yet as the glacier was VERY steep up to the col, and a fall would almost guarantee pulling the other person down as well. Besides, all the crevasses were melted out and visible on this portion of terrain. At the base of the snow slope, there was a truck sized boulder that had obviously come off of the cliffs above and left a trough in the snow where it had slid down for hundreds of feet. Obviously, this was not an area we wanted to be taking our time in. I had read about the area above on Bugaboo Spire being pretty unstable, but this boulder was a little bigger than I expected!
As we climbed up we hopped a couple of crevasses and made our way up towards the bergshrund and the steeper terrain at the top of the col. As I rounded the side of the gaping berg, the terrain kicked back and became much steeper and icier. I didn’t have any trouble front pointing and quickly but cautiously was able to make my way to the rocks at the top. There I stopped and looked down, Peter was coming up a little slower. As it turned out his aluminum crampons were giving him trouble and not biting into the frozen dirt under all the new snow very well. It looked a little sketchy with the steep slope and crevasses looming below, but he took his time and made it up to the top without incident.
As we pulled to the top of the col, we were greeted with a stunning view. Our objective, Pigeon Spire, sat on the other side of the upper Vowell Glacier, and the Howser Towers loomed off in the distance. Everything was coated in a thick layer of rime ice! “Isn’t this supposed to be August?” I asked Peter. Apparently, this area of the Bugaboos receives the brunt of the weather moving through because everything on the Vowell Glacier side of the col was in full winter conditions while everything on the Crescent Glacier side still appeared to be in perfect summer climbing conditions. Oh well, we figured we would just head up the glacier anyway to check things out. We dispensed with the rope for now, the glacier seemed to be flat and devoid of any gaping holes; and started the hike up to the base of the west ridge route on Pigeon. About three hundred yards in, we noticed a slight depression in the snow, and with a little more looking, a crevasse was visible breaking through in some places.
“Well, maybe we should play it safe and break out the rope.”
Sounded like a good idea to me, so we took a break to get all the gear out. We each took several coils and shortened the rope to an appropriate distance. Once again we were under way. The snow was pretty damp, and I continually had trouble with my crampons balling up, luckily we were just on a flat glacier and I could just knock it off with my ice axe whenever necessary. There was nothing technical about this section of the climb, and we were just walking along when suddenly the snow gave way beneath my right foot, and before I knew what happened, I was sitting on the snow, with my right foot dangling into a deep dark crevasse.
“Hang on!” I yelled to Peter. I needed a second to wallow my way out of the hole.
I pulled myself out and was glad to have the rope on now. After chopping up the hole a bit so other parties would see it before they found it, we continued on our way. The hill up to the west ridge seemed to go on forever. It’s one of those hills that arcs back away from you, so when you’re standing below it, you think you can see the top, but the higher you go, the more the hill continues. The weather seemed to be getting worse, the temperature was dropping, and the wind was picking up. We made it up to the base of the climb in time for the clouds to roll in and start snowing. The wind really picked up and suddenly I felt like I was doing a winter climb! Must be that fabled Bugaboo weather I thought to myself, feeling quite annoyed that we had made it all the way up here for the weather to turn sour. After some food and water and about 45 seconds of standing in the wind, we decided that neither of us was going to stand belaying and freeze to death while the other person climbed. So back down it was.
Once we got off the top of the hill again, the wind died down; but off in the distance we could see some more serious weather rolling in. Almost back to the area where I punched through the crevasse, we ran into a different group made up of a single girl and guy heading up the glacier un-roped. We made the usual chit chat about where we were each going and where we were from. I mentioned the crevasse and politely told them they should be careful without a rope.
“Oh, that was you? Wow” was the response I got. “Yea, and the weather is moving in pretty quick", I added. “Yea, I’m hoping it won’t last long”, said the guy, “well, let’s keep going”.
The girl seemed a little less pleased with the idea of continuing in the bad weather. Probably the smarter of the two, also. “Oh, so we’re going to keep going huh? Well, I guess we can get up to the top and argue about it some more!” was her reply. “Sounds like a fun night out in the weather with ONE sleeping bag!" It was pretty comical at the time, but we wished them well and headed on our way.
I smugly hopped over the hole in the ground I had created earlier, and made a beeline for the col. We had heard about some rap anchors on the Snowpatch Spire side of the col we could use to expedite our descent, so I made my way over that way, and was greeted by a gaping crevasse that forced us back on the same path. Once again, as I was just walking along, minding my own business, the ground opened up I found myself up to my waist in crevasse AGAIN.
“Is that a hole?” I heard Peter ask from behind.
“Umm, yea” I said. He kindly tightened up the rope so I could pull myself onto the surface once again and we were able to make it back to the rocks without another incident.
Peter noticed the anchors on the rocks to our right, and we were happy to use them, as down climbing above the crevasses was not high on our tick list for the Bugaboos. Everything had several inches of new snow, which just added to the winter-esque feel of the area at the moment. We made three single rope rappels down, the last one THROUGH the bergshrund to about mid-slope where I chopped a small ledge to coil the rope and finish the rest on foot.
We could see a team rappelling off the Sunshine Crack route on Snowpatch Spire. By now the wind and snow had really picked up, I was glad we weren’t on the rock dealing with hanging belays and REAL rappels. We were able to make it back to the base of the glacier without incident, were we packed away all the unnecessary gear before heading back to the hut for a warm meal and some cards.
We made it back to the hut about an hour later; everyone had seemed to return safely, just one party had yet to return from the NE ridge on Bugaboo Spire. We cooked up a fine dinner of dehydrated camping meals and broke out the cribbage board. Peter taught me how to play cribbage, which I did a fine job of losing at. The famous pigs game also made an appearance, with all the scorecards labeled with high camps and elevations from around the world. Games from Denali, Aconcagua, Switzerland and others were all in the pile. It was getting late so we packed it in for the night without any firm plans in place because of the current weather conditions. We figured we would just wait for the morning and see what it looked like.
Our second climbing day in the Bugs arrived with a nice lazy morning, we enjoyed sleeping in, eating a nice breakfast and trading stories with our fellow hut dwellers. At the moment, the weather wasn’t looking too bad, so we figured we could get packed up and try to climb something.
The last group that we were waiting on from the NE ridge on Bugaboo spire the previous day was JUST arriving back at the hut. Apparently they fought their way to the summit through snow ice and cold while five other parties retreated back to the hut. They spent a whopping 26 hours round trip, spending most of the night rappelling down the route. While this sounded crazy and unreal at the time, little did we know that our upcoming attempt on the NE ridge would prove to be only slightly less epic.
Several groups were packing it up and heading down to their cars since the weather forecast wasn’t looking to good at the time. While the weather could be an issue, this is the Bugaboos right? The weather here is known for being unpredictable and nasty, also we didn’t drive 13 hours here to just succumb to the will of the weather. So using that as positive reinforcement, Peter and I packed a light rack the rope and other essentials for a day climb and went out to try our hand at some Bugaboo granite!
I had heard about Eastpost Spire, which is a very accessible and close climb to the hut. While the standard route is a fourth class scramble, Peter and I were hoping to actually get some technical climbing in. With a little more research we found the SE ridge, it was supposed to be a long 5.6ish ridge. That sounded perfect! A nice easy climb to get warmed up for the bigger goals of our trip, and even better we could see the entire approach and climb from the window of the hut.
We set off from the hut around mid morning and started back down the trail a little ways. Just after the bridge over the creek we split off the trail and up into the talus above. We could see a ravine from the hut that we wanted to use to access the SE Ridge, but from below it all looked the same. We just picked one and hoped for the best. The scrambling up the gully was very straight forward, just a little loose so we were careful not to be in each other’s fall line.
About halfway up, we noticed a helicopter flying circles around the mountains. It was cruising all over the place hovering around all the faces and ridges before finally heading down and landing next to the hut. After a little while it finally lifted off and headed back down the valley.
“That would be a nice tour!” I mentioned to Peter.
“Yea! Talk about easy route research!”
Later we would find out it was actually operated by the park service and they were looking for the two “missing” climbers on the NE ridge of Bugaboo spire. Apparently Lisa, our hut attendant, had notified the park service the night before that we were still waiting for one last team that had not shown up, but she didn’t call for a rescue. Then as luck would have it, the power and radio died, so she could not update the rescue group on the situation. Assuming the worst, a rescue was put into action and they didn’t know the climbers were down safe until they landed at the hut and found out.
Our climb up the gully was going smoothly and soon after a short fourth class section, we topped out onto the spine of the SE ridge. We dropped the packs to get some food and water. While we were resting, two other climbers that were staying in the hut came up the ridge from further down. Apparently they gained the ridge from further down the trail, but had the same route in mind as us. We let them pass while we were still packing up for the rest of the climb.
The climb up the ridge began with easy second and third class scrambling and we quickly climbed up to a prominent bench below a low fifth chimney/dihedral section that we roped up for. I led up the pitch placing an occasional stopper. At the top of the pitch I set up a belay on the ridge crest and brought Peter up. After surrendering the rack to Peter, he took off on the first of several long running belays. We found that the climbing was considerably easier than 5.6. Even in the book it said that “to gain easier ground, drop down on the right of the ridge”. What it didn’t mention was that you only had to drop down about ten feet. We made a point of staying EXACTLY on the ridge crest to make the climbing slightly harder. We also had to justify bringing the rope and stoppers.
Peter finally ran out of slings so he had to bring me up and give me some time on the sharp end. We quickly sorted out the gear and I took off on the next long running belay. The views from the ridge were spectacular; Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spire were both dominating the immediate skyline with the crescent glacier below. Applebee dome was sitting almost directly below us, the tents looked like tiny dots but it was cool being able to see everything in perspective to each other.
I continued up the ridge walking on it like a tightrope in spots to add a little exposure to the mix. After one slightly harder section where I had to do a bit of a stretchy step across, I came to the end of my gear and brought Peter up to finish off the ridge. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to reach the summit or not on his pitch, but we seemed awfully close to the top. He came up and re-racked quickly before heading up the next section. Before the rope even came tight to me, he was on the sub-summit and brought me up. We hung out there for a while as the true summit was occupied by the party in front of us.
After waiting our turn, I finally belayed Peter across a narrow ridge to the true summit were I got some great pictures of him performing single footed acrobatics on the small pillar that was the true summit. I came across and we started down the fourth class scramble route. We found a summit register which was filled with all kinds of trash that people had scribbled their story on. We simply wrote our names and in big bold print “SPORT CLIMBING KICKS ASS!!” Maybe some alpine hardmen would find that someday and have a nice rant n’ rave about the purest forms of climbing! The scramble down was pretty straight forward, and we made it down around the backside and onto the descent ridge without issue. Here, we decided to pack up the rope and continue solo to the base.
The rest of the route was simple, but be did get off route a bit, and “accidentally” ended up at the glacial lake were I made the mistake of deciding it would be a good idea to go swimming. Besides being the coldest water on the face of the earth, it was quite refreshing. After wasting plenty of time at the lake, we cruised the rest of the way back to the hut. The SE ridge was a great way to start off the week, and an especially nice traverse of Eastpost Spire. The weather was surprisingly nice considering the forecast, which made us decide to plan for the NE ridge of Bugaboo spire the next day. Weather permitting of course.
Our third day of climbing started early at four in the morning with that incredibly annoying alarm we all know so well beeping away, waking us and everyone else up whether they wanted to or not. But, even as much as I didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag, I could see out the window and the weather was perfect without a cloud in the sky. There was even a full moon to top it off, I knew it was going to be a spectacular day on the rock. We heated up some water for the standard breakfast of instant oatmeal with raisins, and quietly got all our last minute items together for a long day.
At 4:45 a.m. we shouldered our packs and were on our way for one of the better known climbs in the Bugaboos, the NE ridge on Bugaboo Spire. The full moon was beyond bright enough to hike without headlamps, which was nice because we could see everything around us. The glaciers were glowing in the moonlight with the spires rising like shadowy monsters out of them. The hike up the rocky moraine was starting to become fairly familiar, and slightly annoying that we had to descend so far every night. We could have stayed on Applebee Dome, thus removing the extra kilometer and who knows how much vertical elevation we hiked every morning. But in the end, being able to stay in a warm lodge with electricity every night won us over for the week.
Soon enough we began crossing the crescent glacier, which was frozen solid, so we made a quick stop to strap the crampons on. I had heard that this glacier was dead flat without any crevasses at all. But that seemed to be a little different at the time we were there. While there were not any major, gaping crevasses, there were a few we had to hop over that could have easily caused injury had they been covered in snow and someone was unfortunate enough to fall in. By now the sun was beginning to rise, bathing all the granite in a nice orange glow. Eastpost spire was silhouetted against the horizon, with the glacial tarn sitting dead still in the foreground, reflecting the morning light. It was a very incredible time to be in our position with no one else around just enjoying the calmness of the morning. But we had bigger plans than to sit and enjoy scenery, so once again we shouldered our packs and continued the approach to the ridge. Now, the beginning of the technical climbing starts a ways up the ridge, requiring several hundred feet of “class 4” scrambling. We hunted around for a while but nothing was looking quite like class 4. “Maybe this is a Beckey class 4,” I mentioned thinking of several other scrambles in the Washington Cascades that have easily gone up in difficulty over time. We found a suitable spot to gain the rock from the glacier and removed our crampons. The start of the scramble was not too bad, but pretty soon we were starting to think a rope would not be a bad idea. We harnessed up and took several coils each to facilitate a running belay, which got us all the way up to the ridge crest. The climbing was not too difficult, and maybe we got off route, but I would have a hard time calling it class 4. We hung a left on the ridge, and continued the scramble to the start of the route. With only a few more spots that we placed some pro, we made pretty good time to our goal. Another party was somewhere up on the route, as we could hear them speaking, but I was never able to see where they were at. The first pitch of the route looked incredible, although a bit strenuous. I think the “pre-climb jitters” were setting in as both Peter and I offered to let the other take the sharp end of the rope. Eventually Peter tied in to take the lead. “I’ll lead this one, but that means that I get to take any pitch higher up, even if it’s yours!” he stated. “What! Why?” I asked curious as to why he suddenly got first pick rights.
“Because those are the rules. And besides, the first pitch is always the hardest. Would you like to lead the first pitch?” “Whatever. No.” I sighed, and threaded my belay device. “Belay on?” asked Peter. “Belay is on” I confirmed, and we were finally climbing. At last, our first pitch of technical rock in the Bugaboos! Isn’t there supposed to be a parade or cheerleaders or at least someone to bid us farewell? Nope, guess not, just the chilly morning air and hundreds of feet of beautiful granite laid out before us. Just like the book said, the first move off the deck was the most strenuous, but Peter pulled through it without incident and worked his way up to the top of the pillar. I followed up, trying to get used to the idea of climbing with a heavy pack on. Since we were planning on climbing up the route and traversing the peak with a different descent route, we were forced to bring everything up and over. This meant stuffing my mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, water, food, clothing, rain gear and other miscellaneous items in my pack and then proceeding to climb steep technical rock with it. Who came up with this crazy idea of alpine climbing anyway?!?!?
The first pitch went smoothly, and I started off on the second pitch which traversed up and to the climbers left. The first move was, once again, the most precarious. I had to step down and out to get over to the good cracks which lead up to the belay ledge. At least I was belayed from above; Peter was going to have to do the move with the rope hanging down below him. The climbing on this pitch was quite interesting with several large flakes peeling away from the mountain, as if the whole thing could slide off at any moment
Peter came up to the belay were he sorted out the rack for his next lead. We were moving at a comfortable pace now, and the sun had been up for a while, so I was warming up nicely and feeling ecstatic from the unreal climbing and beautiful area we were in. I was thinking about how if this area was in the U.S. anywhere, it would be overrun with people. We were lucky enough to only have to share it with a handful of other parties.
The third pitch went smoothly, with a few tough moves on small holds. Now we were getting up into the good crack climbing. I came up to the belay at the top of the third pitch and was greeted by a nice splitter finger crack heading up the ridge. I wasn’t sure if I should be stoked for such a beautiful climb, or nervous since it was obviously more difficult than anything we had just climbed lower on the route. I tried to stay excited, and took the rack from Peter, also trying not to notice the two rusty pitons and fixed hex he was belaying off of. It seemed solid enough. I started working my way up on awesome finger locks and foot smears. All the nervousness suddenly disappeared as I was in the thick of a spectacularly exposed, clean, beautiful climb. I stopped briefly on a small ledge to snap some pictures of Peter belaying, while he did the same of me climbing. I continued up the crack and into a second crack. By now I was climbing smoothly and the whole pitch seemed to blur together, I wanted it to go on forever. But the rope is only so long, and I set up a belay on a nice roomy ledge. Peter came up and seemed to enjoy the pitch just as much as I did.
This ledge was the start of the chimney pitches, but there is a slightly harder hand and finger crack variation off to the left. We discussed both options, and the crack eventually won out. Besides, climbing a perfect crack, or wallowing your way up a dirty chimney shouldn’t be that hard of a choice anyway. It was Peter’s lead, so he stepped up onto the rock and started the pitch. The climbing looked similar to the previous pitch, only slightly steeper. About forty feet up, I heard him start to struggle. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to get through a difficult move of get a piece of pro in, but it didn’t look too easy. Finally he yelled “take!” and grabbed his gear as I cinched up the rope.
“My hands are cramping up!” he called down to me
I didn’t have a reply, but it also didn’t sound too fun. After taking a break, he got back on the climb and finished the pitch without any further problems. The top of the pitch meet up with the chimneys again where he set up a belay on a large chockstone. I climbed up enjoying the crack, and realizing his problem with the strenuous finger locks. I was happy to not have to stop to place any gear.
The next several pitches seem all mixed together to me now. We had a 70 meter rope and it was all in the chimneys, so we ran it out as far as we could bypassing several belay/rappel anchors. There was still plenty of snow left in the chimney from the last snow storm several days ago. It made the climbing slightly more interesting trying to stay off the snow and on the rock. I didn’t want my shoes getting wet, so it kind of felt like I was in grade school again playing “hot lava” where we had to get across the playground without touching the wood chips. With a long rope, we ended up doing two pitches in the chimney, I led the first one and Peter the second. At the belay at the top of my pitch, the party in front of us rapped down, when they pulled their rope it conveniently became stuck. Peter was kind enough to take the time to free it for them while climbing up the pitch. They warned of ice on the slabs that one is supposed to traverse to get to the descent route, which was also the reason for their abnormal descent of the NE ridge. But they had two ropes and were making good time. This new information slightly concerned us as we only had one rope and a descent of the ridge would be a long undertaking. But we bid them farewell and a safe journey down, then proceeded to continue to the top.
Peter’s pitch reached the top of the chimneys where he set up belay on a nice slab. As I pulled onto the slab, he triumphantly announced, “that’s the summit there!” pointing up to the right. I thought we had a couple more pitches, so I wasn’t sure, but we did seem pretty close. Either way, we still had to belay up to whatever it was since the climbing was still fairly difficult and spectacularly exposed.
My next pitch worked its way up a steep ramp with awkward hand holds before stepping out right under an overhang to an off width crack. I reached out, jammed in my trusty #4 camalot and went for it. The next two moves or so were pretty stiff, but completely doable. After that it was just friction up to some slabs, again with the occasional snow dodging. I built a belay off of three solid nuts and called down to Peter to follow up. We obviously had a bit more to go from here, so I was hoping he wouldn’t be too disappointed. He came up and stated, “Man, I was so ready for it to be done down there!” We were both pretty wiped out, but our objective was so close, we couldn’t turn tail here. Peter grabbed the gear and set off on the next section, an exquisite knife edge ridge to the summit. This pitch was by far the most exposed climbing I had ever done, and I was just loving it! You could look down on either side of the mountain to glaciers flowing to the valley floors, and massive granite spires rising all around. It was truly an amazing experience. By the time we got to the summit, it was already 5 p.m., so we spent very little time on top. We took a look at the traverse over to the other summit, and the descent route. Icy slabs with a couple thousand feet of air below wasn’t really on our plan for the day, so we decided to rap our climbing route and hope for the best with one rope. Looking back now, we may have been able to get across with mountaineering boots and crampons, but it really just didn’t seem like a good risk to take at the time.
And so the endless rappelling began. Our first rap was off of a solid, slung block which was not too bad. This brought us down to the first of several hair raising, scary rappels. The next one we left a sling around a horn, but on rappel, we had to stay very low, and not bounce at all to make sure it didn’t pop off the top of the horn. Now we were committed to descending the NE ridge, so we sucked it up, and prayed we had enough slings to set up rap’s as we only had one rope. About a third of the way down it was dark so we broke out the headlamps. Just one more element to add to the mix.
Many of the rappels were off bomber anchors; pinch points, massive blocks and the like. But several of them were of the ‘makes you want to be sick’ scary type. At one point we came to an ‘anchor’ of two very old pitons bashed into a vertical seam in the rock. The top one was tied off to the bottom one as a backup, but not equalized. After inspection, we could not find any cracks in the pitons, they wouldn’t move, and the surrounding rock was solid. We set up a rap off the lower of the two pitons. I eased my weight on the rope as Peter kept a solid eye on the anchor. Everything seemed o.k. so I started slowly down the rope. I made it about six to ten feet down before things got interesting.
“Umm, hang on a sec Adam….” I heard Peter say. “What do you mean ‘hang on a sec’” I asked “Well, the piton is kind of flexing a bit” My heart was racing now, this sounded like one of the stories you read about in Accidents in North American Mountaineering. You read about them all the time and think that you will always be safe and learn from other people’s mistakes. But apparently I was about to become one of those mistakes.
“Holy shit dude! Please tell me you’re kidding!” I managed to sputter as I ever so smoothly eased myself off the rope and onto the rock. “No, we should probably reset this one.” I climbed back up to help get the anchor reset. We originally had the rappel set up off the eye of the piton, our first mistake, so we set it up off the spine, and did a better job of equalizing the two pitons. Now I had to get back on rappel, which was suddenly one of the very last things I wanted to do. But the other option would be waiting for the ice to melt up top so we could get over to the bolted rap line. I eased my weight onto the pitons again and quickly but smoothly began lowering myself down the rope.
As I was going down I asked Peter how the pitons were looking. “They aren’t moving,” he called back, which was reassuring. Then I looked up a second later to see him unclipping his personal anchor from the pitons. “I see you!” I yelled, only half serious as I knew I would probably have done the same thing. Why get both people killed if the anchor pops when you can leave one person sitting up on the rock without a rope or any way down? I guess that’s a bit of a cynical way to look at it, but a little humor can go a long way in keeping everyone calm while in a hairy situation. It seemed to take forever, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach the entire way down. Those next anchors couldn’t have come soon enough and I called up for Peter to come down. I’m not sure if it was scarier while I was on rappel, or being at the bottom and thinking about Peter falling while I had no control over anything in the situation. Luckily we both made it down that rap without incident.
We ended up backing up a different piton rap with a large nut and equalized the whole thing with a sling. That rap put me down about ten feet to the left of the anchors I wanted. Someone else had obviously done the same thing as there were several other slung horns around, but since I couldn’t see more than my headlamp beam I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. So with much effort and very bad climbing style, I wallowed my way over to the correct area and dropped down to the anchors. Our last rappel was the most annoying; I ended up about thirty feet to the right of my anchors, and at the very end of my rope. One again I was forced to improvise for the situation. I had to climb back up the rope a ways and hunt around in the dark for a suitable horn to sling or crack to leave a stopper in. Eventually I was able to get my cordalette around a large block and got my weight off the rope. I was in a hanging position, and was only able to get to it off of rope stretch. When I unclipped from the rope they sprung back up out of reach.
“Hmm, better remember that when Peter gets down,” I thought to myself.
Peter rapped down and I held the rope for him while he unclipped. Finally it was only one more simple rap to the base of the route. We ended up rappelling some of the scramble approach too. Once on the flat part of the ridge, where we were finally able to stand up under our own power without having our weight on a rope or anchor, we dropped our packs for a much needed break and water. Three more rappels off of the ridge brought us back to the glacier. Finally we could let our guard down some as we were just walking back to the hut from this point forward. The rope was stowed away, and we started the hike down. At 2:00 a.m. and 21 hours after we had left, we finally stepped back into the hut, dropped our packs, and promptly fell asleep. I have never been so physically or mentally worn out in my life.
Our 21 hour ordeal from the prior day had really taken a lot out of us, thus prompting a few more hours to sleep in and a nice leisurely morning. We let the sun be our alarm clock for the morning, and figured we would climb whatever we had time for. We spent the majority of the morning lazing about, reading route descriptions and cooking a nice breakfast. It was nice to get some real food in considering we didn’t even bother with dinner the night before.
We had a really nice hut attendant, Lisa, who actually offered to give a free night’s stay in the hut if we helped her with some chores. So with an hour and a half worth of sweeping and mopping, we earned ourselves a free night in the Kain Hut! One of the cool things about the Bugaboos is everyone who is heading out after a trip does not want to carry all their extra food down, so you are constantly being offered anything you could possibly want! One group of two girls came down that day and offered a whole pile of food which included some pasta which we took for dinner that night. Lisa, the hut custodian, even kindly offered to cook up the meal for us when we returned that evening! They also mentioned a route called “Ears Between” on Crescent Tower. We were still undecided on what to try that day, so we figured we would go check out the route. Finally we got to packing and were ready to hit the rocks again.
It was mid morning by the time we headed out, a bit later than recommended, but we figured we would go as far as possible without getting ourselves into trouble. Once again, we trudged up the moraine towards our destination. This time we cut up a bit higher to go across Applebee dome and past the glacial tarns I had so foolishly gone swimming in a few days prior. Just getting to the base of the climb was a challenge as the scree field below that wall was plenty steep and very loose. We were looking for a crack system in the shape of a triangle; this seemed a bit vague for a wall full of cracks splitting off in all directions. But sure enough when we got to the base a large triangle feature was right in front of us! So far, route finding didn’t seem to be an issue, and all we had to do was aim for the prominent chimney at the top of the wall. Since Peter was gracious enough to take the first lead the previous day, I was willing to take this one. Not without offering it to him though, but alas, I was the one to take the first lead this time. The original route actually started higher up on the wall accessed by a prominent ramp arcing up the wall from the left. But we had read about a variation that added two pitches of 5.8 climbing at the start, by beginning the climb from the very bottom of the tower. I started up the first crack, finding excellent hand and foot jams everywhere I needed. With my 70 meter rope we were able to link the first two pitches, thus reaching the base of the original route in one long pitch. The second half was actually a bit more sketchy than I expected, where there was supposed to be three or four cracks leading up, all I found was shallow grooves in the rock. Enough to get my hands and feet on, but the protection was very scarce without any real cracks. After a couple nervous runouts and awkward moves, I finally reached my belay station I was looking for. I brought Peter up, and he set up for the next lead.
The next section was very easy climbing, around 5.4 to 5.5, and Peter was able to link a few more pitches together. We seemed to be moving at a nice pace with plenty of time, the only issue we were encountering was a lack of slings for protection since we left a handful on the NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire while rappelling the route. Making careful decisions with placements, we were able to make do just fine. After Peter set up a belay, I followed up ready to take the next lead. Since we were climbing on a face instead of a ridge, we had to pay a little more attention to the route finding to avoid getting off route. Our objective was clear, we had to get to the squeeze chimney several pitches up, but we were also supposed to traverse a ramp for a ways before that, which was on my next pitch according to the route topo. From our vantage point at the time, we couldn’t see any such feature, but figured it was up there somewhere. I could see a belay station off to the left a bit, along with a bit of a dihedral system. I started by traversing up and over the the dihedral, climbing up that for a ways. The climbing was pretty basic with a few difficult moves thrown in here and there. Just like anything, concentrating on footwork was the best way to work through any section that seemed a bit perplexing. When I got to the top of the dihedral, the ramp I was looking for came into view, and I was in a perfect spot to get onto it! I climbed across the ramp, and set up an anchor at the end.
Peter’s lead was next, so he racked up and started up a nice hand crack. I heard him say something about, “Man, I need to work on my crack climbing!” Guess there’s nothing like a little on site skill building. I can’t talk much though; crack climbing is one of my weaker types of climbing too. Peter sent the pitch in great style, calling down to me when he set up a belay at the base of the squeeze chimney.
The chimney pitch was mine, so I got set up to wedge and wallow my way up the ‘route’. The first little bit was fine, but after about ten feet of climbing, I learned what they meant by ‘squeeze’. After getting my gear stuck several times, I finally wedged my whole body in sideways and groveled my way up the crack. I stuffed my #4 and #3 camalot way back in the crack on the way up, so with good pro I was more worried about getting stuck in the crack than falling out. The squeeze portion gave way to a nice strenuous finger crack layback. With a few more fun moves I topped out in the notch between the two towers. With just a short 3rd class scramble to the summit, I set up a belay, and then brought Peter up to celebrate our third summit in the Bugaboos. We dropped the rope and gear at the notch, and then proceeded to climb up to the summit of the tower. The view from the top was spectacular. While not as tall as the other major summits, it did give an excellent overview of the area with Snowpatch Spire and Bugaboo Spire dominating the view. Pigeon Spire and the Howser Towers were also visible off in the background.
The weather the whole day had been partly overcast, but overall quite enjoyable, not too hot and not too cold. When we arrived at the summit, along with the great view of the surrounding area, we could also see off on the horizon a wall of very dark clouds and the ominous rumble of thunder. The weather seemed to be a long way off, but we didn’t want to mess around with it, so we didn’t stick around too long. When we were at the base of the route a few hours earlier, we had read about the squeeze chimney and thought about the great amounts of fun we would have trying to climb through that feature with packs. Ultimately, the packs were left at the base of the route. This included our rain shells, water, food, boots and headlamps. We saw a few rap slings from the base, so we figured we could leave our boots and just rap the route. Leaving all this gear was a decision we were soon to regret in a big way. Of course hindsight is 20/20, so looking back now, the decision to leave all our gear was a pretty foolish one even though the route was supposed to be a short quick, last day climb. We should have at least brought one pack with the rain gear and other emergency stuff for the second to carry.
In any case, the weather was not bad, but did not look like it was going to improve any time soon, so we began a hasty descent from the notch. Once again we were using a single rope, making for nice short raps, but also providing plenty of them. While pulling the rope from our first rap, it quite securely and inconveniently lodged itself about 80 feet up in the chimney. “Crap” was the best word for the situation. I pulled a little harder, hoping it would come free. Then we both pulled, putting most of our weight into it. That didn’t seem like the best option, as pulling a rock free could be quite disastrous in our current position. “Guess one of us is climbing the chimney again huh?” I said pointing out the obvious. “Yea, go for it!” said Peter. I was anchored a few feet above him, so I was in a better position anyway. Not wanting to mess around on the crux pitch more than I had to, I just aided through the hard layback section. I worked my way up to the stuck rope, and when I got there found that no amount of pulling would have gotten it free. It had tied a nice knot around a very solid horn. I tossed the end down, and then had Peter lower me off a sling around a horn with a leaver biner. I didn’t like leaving more gear than we needed too, but the weather was moving in and this was the quickest option at the moment.
With our rope free, we set off on the next rap. This brought me all the way down to the top of the ramp pitch, the only problem was that there were no more slings to be found, or anything for me to sling with my own gear. I got off the rope, and told Peter that he needed to find something partway down because the ropes wouldn’t reach the next station below the ramp.
This is when everything went to hell in extremely quick order. I was standing on a good ledge looking out from the rock waiting for Peter to come down and set up a rap anchor above me. I glanced to my right to see a wall of clouds closing in at an alarming rate. Within seconds we were socked in and could only see less than about 100 feet. “We need to get down now! The weather is coming in fast!” I heard Peter yell from up above. “Yea, I see it! Do you have an anchor yet?” I asked. “Yea, I’ve got one here. Coming down.”
Then the hail started.
Peter came down to my ledge, and kept going down to the next set of anchors below the ramp. The hail really started coming down with force. Maybe it wasn’t hailing that hard, but it was being funneled directly on top of us through the chimney we had just climbed. I looked over to my left and it looked as if a water fall was flowing down the face of the rock, but it was just a mass of hail. By the time Peter reached the next station, my feet were completely buried under several inches of hail. I could hear it pounding on my helmet and felt it flowing down my neck. Suddenly, our nice day of climbing had become a bit more serious. Some clouds and hail would have just been a bit inconvenient and uncomfortable without our rain shells. But as luck would have it the lightning storm also came with the rest of the weather. I didn’t feel any buzzing or static electricity that I had heard about from other people, but I decided it is safe to say the lightning is close when the flash and thunder arrive at the exact same instant. I started down the rap when Peter called up to me. I was soaked by now and my feet were on the verge of numbness in my rock shoes. I was surprised to find that the rope still provided sufficient friction after being saturated by water. I got down to the belay station, and remembering the note we left in the summit register of Eastpost Spire I mentioned “Sport climbing really does kick ass! This sucks!” I’m not sure if Peter saw the humor in it, but I was trying to keep my mind off the lightning strikes that were hitting around us.
By now it was getting dark again, a side effect of our lazy morning. Unfortunately our headlamps were in our packs at the base of the route. The next several rappels we found the anchors by Braille and memory of climbing up. I rapped off the anchor Peter had set up and tried to find the next slings. I remembered them being down and slightly to the right, we didn’t use them on the way up so I had to figure out where they were off of memory when I climbed past them earlier in the day. When I got to about 15 feet above the end of the rope and still had no slings in sight, I got a little concerned. I didn’t want to reenact the previous night’s antics of rapping to the end of the rope and trying to find an anchor, so I stopped on a ledge and yelled up to Peter to hang on while I searched for a sling or horn or something. Peter didn’t really want to hang out up there by himself, so he rapped down to my position. I don’t blame him, as I wouldn’t want to be any higher than necessary in our current state of natural electricity.
We looked around for a few minutes and considered leaving a stopper. Suddenly I realized where we were and looked up to see the anchors about 15 feet directly overhead. ARRRGGGG!!! I made a stupid mistake of rapping past the anchors!!! Peter belayed me up to them so I could set up the rappel. Climbing in saturated climbing shoes in hail in the dark is not my favorite place to be, and I don’t have any plans to do it again. I set up the rap, and threaded my belay device. I started realizing how cold I was when I was having trouble threading my belay device and was shivering uncontrollably. The entire way down at every station I was triple checking and quadruple checking everything; if I was going to make a mistake, this was definitely the prime condition for it. The lightning was pretty amazing. I know this sounds like an odd thing to think for a potentially deadly situation, but it really was. It would flash and be so bright that everything in the entire valley was illuminated like daylight. But also so bright you couldn’t see anything for the next several seconds after the flash. The thunder would arrive at the same instant with a deafening roar. At one point, a strike hit, and we could hear a large rockslide some down off of Bugaboo Spire. Neither of us mentioned anything, but were both thinking the same thing. I was just praying that the same thing would not happen to our mountain while we were on it. We had two rappels left. I headed down again feeling by Braille and looking for any familiar features so I wouldn’t go past the anchors again. The last rappels went without incident and we set down on solid ground again, in 8 inches of accumulated hail. The hail had let up now, but I was surprised how long it lasted. Most of my experience with hail is that it comes and goes in much less than ten minutes. This time, though, it didn’t let up for most of our time on the rock.
When I got to the ground, I was completely soaked to the bone. I was still shaking uncontrollably, my feet were numb, and I was having a difficult time just getting my harness and shoes off. I had been asking Peter how he was doing on the way down. He said he was cold but o.k. We were lucky to get away from the rock with just a bit of cold. We got all our clothing on, with rain shells and boots, packed up our rock gear and started the hike back to the hut. We actually warmed up pretty quickly after getting everything on, which I attributed to wearing polypro instead of cotton. Within a few minutes, I could feel my feet again. I was still wet but doing 100% better. The hike down was a nice relief from the rappelling we had just completed. We were bummed that we had missed the dinner that Lisa had offered to cook for us. Hopefully they weren’t too worried about us. I’m sure they get climbers out late frequently in the Bugaboos, so I knew they wouldn’t be freaking out just yet. When we got back to the hut, we were greeted by our friends who had climbed the NE Ridge of Bugaboo the day before us, and a great surprise. Lisa had cooked up a meal, and there was an enormous pot of pasta, a bowl of salad, and a plate of brownies waiting for us on the counter! That was the best food I had ever had, we both filled a plate, and opened a can of beer to celebrate our survival! After hanging all our soaked gear, we hit the sack again after another exhausting day. All we had planned for the next day was to hike out to the car and drive home.