Words by Harriet Ridley. Images by Uisdean Hawthorn.
Rock climbing in the Bugaboos
In a pool of headtorch light we kicked our way up the steep col, fine sprays of snow coupling with the soft crunch of a well-placed boot or axe. Below, the lights of several other parties floated across the cirque, twisting and flicking in the dark. Halfway up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, we were less than an hour into our approach to the Bugaboo’s famous Beckey-Chouinard on the South Howser Tower. Confined on either side by imposing alpine walls, we continued up the ever-narrowing chute of snow and rock, aware that no time was to be wasted. The day ahead was long, and behind us, against a horizon jagged with mountain peaks, the eastern sky was already tinged with red.
My partner, Kris, and I had talked of visiting the Bugaboos for several years. Part of British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains, within the traditional territories of the Ktunaxa, Shuswap, and Sinixt Nations, the defiant granite peaks and spires of the Bugaboos emerge from a cradle of high mountain glaciers: a crown within the wider mountain range and a testament to the erosive power of ice and water. Remote, beautiful and objectively challenging, the area hosts hundreds of stunning routes and is one of the world’s greatest alpine climbing destinations.
Five days prior, we had turned off highway 95 and slowly driven the 48km of unpaved logging road to the small forest clearing designated for parking. On the advice of the Park, we secured the undercarriage of our van, encircling it with a makeshift fence of sticks, rocks and rolls of chicken wire to protect against the resident porcupines and rodents that have developed a taste for salt-laden brake lines, among other chewable car parts. Then, swatting mosquitos, we shouldered 30-kilo packs and started the long steep climb into the park proper: first through gently winding coniferous forest, then steep rocky slopes and patches of alpine meadow, to a final shoulder of bouldery moraine and the bare slabs of Applebee Dome campground some four hours later.
Sitting high on the open side of the Crescent Glacier cirque, Applebee Dome is the main campground for those visiting the Bugaboos. Across the glacier, the towering forms of Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires loom large, while the slightly smaller Crescent Spire, Crescent Towers and Eastpost Spire flank it to the north. Looking back down the trail, the Conrad Kain hut stands tiny before the giant blocky tongue of Bugaboo Glacier. The arch-roofed hut, which sleeps up to forty people, is named after the pioneering Austrian guide who made more than 50 first ascents in Canada in the early 20th century, many in the Bugaboos. His ascent of Bugaboo Spire in 1916, made while guiding two clients and without any modern climbing equipment, is certainly one the most significant ascents in Canadian climbing history.
Against this spectacular backdrop, we chose a spot for our tent among the boulders, gear hangers and other campers. We had two weeks to spend here, enough time we hoped—even with the notoriously changeable weather—to climb a good number of the starred classics. Among others, the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire (D-, 5.8, 12 pitches), Surf’s Up (D, 5.9, 9 pitches) on the southeast face of Snowpatch, the appealing Roof McTech (5.10+, 5 pitches) on Crescent Spire and a world-class scramble up the West Ridge of Pidgeon Spire all came highly recommended. With a clear weather forecast, we started with the justly popular Sunshine Crack (5.11-, 9 pitches) on Snowpatch Spire before venturing deeper into the group the following day to try Solitary Confinement (5.11+), a crack that, over five pitches, widens from fingers all the way through to splitter offwidth. Within a few days we were joined by Uisdean and with good weather continuing, we made plans for the Beckey-Chouinard.
Of all the world-class routes in the Bugs, for Kris and I, theBeckey-Chouinardwas the crowning jewel. First climbed by the legendary Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard over two days in August 1961, the 20-pitch route soars elegantly up the full height of the South Howser Tower, following a proud buttress until gaining a crack system on the Great White Headwall at two-thirds height. At the time of the first ascent, the western side of the Howser Towers were largely unknown and uncharted, described by Chouinard as “terror incognito” to climbers of the day. Today, there are certainly harder and more committing routes in the Bugs, but few are held in quite such high regard as theB-C, which is among the most significant routes in Canadian alpinism and one of the top fifty classic climbs in North America.
Having left our tents at 4.00am that morning, Kris, Uisdean and I had wound our way across the sleeping glacier and steeply up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. Reaching the saddle, we crossed the Upper Vowell Glacier to the base of Pidgeon Tower before descending into the remote East Creek Basin. As the sun rose, a final traverse took us to the base of the South Howser Tower.
In The Master’s Apprentice, Chouinard says that upon scoping the route he was reminded of Italian alpinist Emilio Comici’s dream to find a climb “by spilling a drop of water from the top and following the line it made.” Chouinard believed the west face of the South Howser could offer such a natural and unforced line. Indeed, after initially gaining the buttress, flowing crack pitches follow an aesthetic and undisputed line up the tower, only faltering to steep broken ground a hundred meters or so before the summit.
On the route, sustained pitches of 5.8 and 5.9 climbing stack one atop the other—with a few pitches of 5.10 thrown in for good measure—comprising of plug-and-chug hand jams, small roof pulls, fist cracks, finger cracks, large dihedrals and a short-lived section of tricky face climbing. For many, including us, the stand-out pitch came close to the summit, where a series of finger and hand cracks extended for a full fifty meters on the exposed headwall, beneath which the rock drops precipitously away some 600 meters to the boulder-strewn glacier below.
Having worked efficiently as a three, Kris, Uisdean and I were standing atop the South Howser by mid-afternoon, the sheer vastness of the region laid out before us. Endless mountain peaks extended into the horizon and the wind blew cold. Six bolted rappels down the east side of the tower saw us jumping the bergschrund back onto the Upper Vowell before we began retracing our steps across the glacier, over the col and down to Applebee Campground, roughly 13 hours after leaving that morning.
Days like this set the tone for climbing in the Bugaboos. While shorter climbs on the Eastern Spires, such as Roof McTech (5.10+, 5 pitches), Energy Crisis (5.11, 2 pitches) and McTech Arete (5.10-, 6 pitches) offer multi-pitch cragging that is more easily accessible from the campground, those on the Central and Western Spires are longer alpine journeys that call for big days and early starts. Rockfall and crevasses are also a consideration, with travel up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col and across the park’s glaciers best done in the frozen early hours. But the demanding access only adds to the challenge and appeal of the routes in the area, fatigue and satisfaction swallowing you whole at the end of every day. And whether seeking out epic ED2 excursions and highly technical multipitch routes, or long rock classics and world-class ridgeline scrambles, there is something for every alpine climber.
According to park history, it was late 19th century prospectors who named the area the Bugaboos. Venturing up the isolated valley in search of gold they found only the fool’s equivalent, pyrite, and galena. Bugaboo, which was already believed to be in common parlance to denote something of concern, a real or imagined obstacle that cannot be overcome, is said to have also been the miner’s slang for the prospecting dead end. It seems somehow appropriate then that the Bugaboos became a paradise for climbers: we who are drawn to difficulty and challenge, the impossible or unknown, and so often beset by real or imagined fears. And perhaps there’s a touch of irony here too, for what did climbers find among those crowning towers if not a mother lode of alpine gold?
About the Author
Harriet’s enduring attempts to stay under climbing the radar were undermined by her ascents of legendary North Wales test pieces the Quarryman and Strawberries last year. Crack climbing skills developed during a period living in the US, allied to sport fitness, have made her just as capable on a range of rock types. Climbing with her equally strong partner Kris, they make a formidable team whether at home in Wales or on bigger objectives.
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