Trip ReportBlue Skies in the Bugaboos: B-C Day for Felix, Jeff and Marty
Day, night, and day, that is, on the Beckey-Chouinard
Bugaboo Provincial Park, BC, Canada (15 pitches, 2000 feet, Grade IV/ED)
Fred Beckey described the first ascent of the west face of the South Howser Tower in two or three short paragraphs in the 1962 Journal of the Alpine Club of Canada, noting it as the last great face in the Bugaboos yet unclimbed. After completing the Northeast Face route a few days before, he and Yvon Chouinard put up this route over two days - without a guidebook and with nothing but 118 pitons and a hammer. A bold route for its day; a long, classic, alpine route today which we all hoped to climb if things worked out just right.
12:00 AM: Wake up at the Conrad Kain Hut, quick coffee and breakfast, last items into the pack, and out the door by 12:50 AM with one liter of water each.
Yesterday had been filled with rest, pre-packing and repacking, reading and re-reading the guidebook, trip reports, and topos, plus talking with other climbers about the route – a great advantage we had over Beckey and Chouinard. Felix and Jeff rounded out the day with a yoga session with Judith and an aid climbing refresher on a crack behind the hut --- which foreshadowed some of the difficulties we would later encounter.
12:50 – 1:30AM: Pre-dawn trek across the Crescent glacier gaining the top of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col 40 minutes later.
This trek had become routine during our stay in the Bugaboos – up and up from the hut, passing under Applebee campground, on to our usual spot to stop and don crampons before marching up the 30, then 40, then +50-degree snow slope to the top of the col. We retrieved our rack, which we stashed two days before, safely cinched inside a borrowed Ursack, well protected from the local snafflehounds who have developed a taste for nylon. We were not so bold as to leave our new, skinny 70m rope unattended. We refilled the Ursack with food and a stove - planning to brew-up before the last leg of the return trip.
1:30 – 3:00AM: From the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, we set out west-ish across the Vowell glacier. With a full moon a few days earlier, headlamps were a convenience, not a necessity. Snowpatch Spire was our companion to the left, giving us good reference points for the crevasses we had seen days prior. We passed under Pigeon Spire, both the subject of our first day’s climb and the first time Felix and Jeff climbed with Marty and Rick (really, is there a better place to find new climbing partners than airport baggage claim?). The West Ridge of Pigeon Spire is a fun and friendly 5.4 whose summit gave us a good view into the East Creek basin which was this day’s next objective.
3:00 – 5:00 AM: Down the west side of the Pigeon-Howser Col, past the East Creek bivy sites, and on to the base of the buttress which leads to the start of the route. The East Creek basin serves as the starting point for many parties intent on climbing the Beckey-Chouinard. Instead, we opted to go hut-to-hut. It meant an earlier start and a longer day, but less drudgery hauling a full pack camping gear up both cols and down into the East Creek basin on day 1, and eliminated a return to East Creek after the climb. More efficient this way, we convinced ourselves - after all, we had heard that sunny days are in short supply in the Bugaboos.
With our initial liter of water consumed, we fished our bottles through the boulders on the end of slings to collect four liters of melt water each. Marty was smart enough to walk a few meters farther downhill and dipped his bottle directly - this would not be the last time he would run a clinic on how to efficiently tackle the challenges we encountered.
5:00 – 6:00 AM: With the sun well in the sky, it was 4th class up the base of the buttress over no-fall cheese-grater slabs looking for the split boulder which marks the start of the route.
6:00 AM - 9:30 PM: We roped up and Jeff set off on the first pitch, finding a large split boulder (which the guidebook details as the start of the route) at the end of a rope-length. Polishing off pitch 0, he continued on through the first couple of pitches before handing the rack off to Marty to have a go at the first of the serious terrain.
We continued on, each taking a block. Felix led through the guide-book-declared ‘stellar corner’ on pitch 7 where a father-son team from Utah passed us and quickly disappeared from sight. They may have placed pro only to make us feel better about our own efforts. Jeff practiced his aid technique on the where-are-the-feet pitch 8, and Marty took the almost-offwidth, not-quite-a-chimney pitch 11 where he held a clinic on wide-crack technique. Barely pausing to catch his breath, Marty pushed on and took the finger crack variation of pitch 12 - 60 full meters if it; likely grinning the entire rope-length. In the evening light, Felix took the sharp end, cruising up the gully that makes up pitches 13 and 14. We shared a bit of food and water with two UBC students on our tail who were travelling light and not particularly enjoying the falling temperatures, their empty water bottles, or depleted rations. Pitch 15: Felix traversed out high, returned, and took a lower route - making the balancy 10+ crux-of-the-route move with android-like precision.
9:30 - 10:00 PM: From the end of Pitch 15 we simul-climbed a few rope lengths, past a number of near-summit bivy sites, and on to the true summit of the South Howser Tower.
High-fives all around, quickly followed by a change of shoes, and the addition of layers - the sun was long gone and it was not getting any warmer. We began the search for the first rings of the NE Shoulder rappel route.
10:30 PM: Giving up on finding the first set of rings, we rapped off of some decent looking slings which looked to go in approximately the right direction. They did not, but it would take us an hour to figure that out. From there, we found more slings and Marty rapped down into the darkness. Although going down felt good, nothing was matching the topo.
11:30 PM: Jeff fixed the line, Marty ascended, and Felix began the search anew for the proper line. With the aid of a 500 lumen spotlight, the rings were found. We clued in the guys behind us and re-started the descent. As we went, we learned that the route setters left good implicit directions - the equalized chains indicated the direction of descent, often traversing right to stay on the ridgeline.
Notwithstanding getting the rope stuck twice, and quite happy to have a party behind us to help, the raps went smoothly. It was worth the effort to find the right stations - others had told of epic rappel adventures, and we had had enough adventure as we eased into the 24th hour of this outing.
2:30 AM: Last of the 11 single rope raps landed us past the bergschrund. A big shout-out to Rick who stomped out a platform for us the day before on his return from a solo venture up Pigeon Spire.
With crampons back on and axes out, we headed back toward to Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, retrieved our stashed food and stove (which none of us were of the mind to stop and eat), and tramped back down the slope for the last time this trip.
With dawn threatening, we marched like living dead back across the glacier, down the trail, and past the hut. Wohaaa.... past the hut. Back up the trail a few dozen yards, and back to the hut.
5:00 - 6:00 AM: The only debate now was whether it was breakfast or dinner time. 28-hours hut-to-hut. 30 solid hours bed-to-bed. A good day in the mountains, new friendships made, mettle tested. I think we passed.
Blue skies prevailed for the duration of our trip. As far as we are concerned, it never rains in the Bugaboos.
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