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Rock Climbing in the Bugaboos

Bugaboo Provincial Park is an alpine rock climbers dream come true.

The first time I saw photos of the Bugaboos I was dazzled.  Where were these perfect looking granite peaks surrounded by beautiful snowfields and glaciers?  I knew that someday I wanted to experience this magical playground for myself…

These dreamy peaks are located in southeast British Columbia and are part of the Columbia Mountain Range, just west of the Rocky Mountains.  In late summer 2017 the time was finally right for me to embark on the journey from Custer, South Dakota to “the Bugs”.

Testing out our heavy packs at our friends house in Missoula.
Testing out our heavy packs at our friends house in Missoula.

When my 1996 Toyota station wagon, aka “the white whale”, finally rolled into Missoula the air was hot and thick with smoky haze.  The death orb (aka the sun) glowed big and orange on the western horizon and the smell of fire was in the air.  Since the air conditioning in the white whale had long since gasped out its last cool air, I opened the windows and collided with the smoky mess I breathed.   Sweating, I listened to Hidden Brain and Radiolab podcasts to pass the miles and anticipated the adventures to come grew as I got closer.

My long time friend and climbing partner Jennifer awaited my arrival in Missoula.  She was taking the next year off from her teaching job and was psyched to join me for a late summer climbing foray to the Bugs.  We spent the better part of the next day sorting through piles of gear and food and getting it all organized and packed up.  We were happy to have good friends in town who were gracious hosts, letting us yard-sale our stuff across their house and lawn.  They gave us route suggestions and enticed us with their own tales of climbing in the Bugaboos “back in the day”.  They also laughed at us as we helped each other heft our gargantuan packs to test out our loads.

Driving into Bugaboo Provincial Park - first view of the rocks!
Driving into Bugaboo Provincial Park – first view of the rocks!

On the final stretch of the rocky drive in to Bugaboo Provincial Park, we caught our first view of the snow covered slopes and granite peaks we travelled so far to touch.  Eeeek!  Were we really going to climb those summits jutting way up into the clouds?  Impressive indeed!

At the Bugaboos trailhead parking lot we followed the example of others and constructed a cocoon of chicken wire, rocks and sticks around the white whale.  (I was hopeful that she would emerge from her cocoon in 7 days as a new 4WD Sprinter.)  In theory the wire is supposed to protect those tasty belts and hoses from hungry porcupines and rodents.  However, we were convinced that the whole thing was a joke made up by the locals many years ago to see if they could get a bunch of out of towners to scratch up their SUVs with the wire barricades.  I mean, any self-respecting rodent should be able to figure out how to get underneath a bit of jinky chicken wire, right?

up the ladder on the trail
Jen on the steep part of the trail.

The hike in is not too far, but it is seriously STEEP.  Steep to the point of metal ladders and chain handrails.  We survived and checked in with the host at the Conrad Kain Hut.   Then continued hiking up another 800 vertical feet to our destination.  Relieved to finally arrive at Applebee Camp and drop our beastly loads, we managed to set up camp and cook dinner just before dark.  Ahhh…in the words of our good friend Jan Conn “looks like home!”

A sunny rest day at Applebee Camp.
A sunny rest day at Applebee Camp.

Applebee Camp is located in an amazing picturesque alpine setting with Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch Spire towering above.  Tents are perched on about three tiers of rock ledges below Crescent Glacier. The drinking water source is a small glacial lake above camp and is actually piped down and fetched from a spigot.

 There are two outhouses nestled on a rocky ledge

facing the spires –

quite the view!  Poop is collected in 55 gallon drums and is helicoptered out at the end of the season.  Rather deluxe when you consider where you are on the globe.

The privy.
The privy.

The next day we took it pretty easy, stretched our tired legs and got familiar with the surroundings.  A short scramble from camp up Eastpost Spire offered

view of spires from outhouse
Pooper with a view!

a great overview of the landscape.

The two prominent peaks closest to camp are Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch Spire.  Between the two peaks is the dreaded Bugaboo/Snowpatch col, a highly traveled corridor for access to many of the routes in the area.  The col has an infamous reputation for rockfall with the potential to disintegrate to a rubble death trap later in the season (around the time when we were there…).  We were fortunate that the previous winter had plentiful snow and the snowpack was still adequate despite the lateness of the season and uncommonly warm and stable summer conditions.

We decided the next day we would attempt the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire (IV 5.8-).  This is one of the classics of the area for good reason.  It is a breathtaking peak in an amazing setting, aesthetic, yet moderate climbing up the prominent ridge with a somewhat involved descent.  What more could you ask for?  The route heads up the beautiful northeast ridge.  Then to descend you scramble over the top and do the long traverse (with a few rappels) back down the south ridge (the Kain Route).  Conrad Kain was a burly Austrian mountain guide who lead the first party to the summit of Bugaboo Spire in 1916.  Check out this film to get a taste of what the first ascent was like!

Morning glow on our way up to the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire.
Morning glow on our way up to the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire.

We awoke to clear skies and when we finally arrived at the start of the climb, the entire northeast ridge was aglow in the morning sun.  By stroke of luck, we had the route to ourselves – hooray!  The climbing was quite enjoyable with some airy positions and amazing views.  While climbing, we definitely noticed the weight and bulk of our packs loaded up with boots, crampons and ice axes.  Alpine rock climbing is a very different animal than sport climbing.  The traverse over and down the south ridge involved a lot of careful exposed scrambling and a few short rappels. (It would have been a totally different game had it been wet or stormy.  The weather we enjoyed there was amazing!)  After we made it safely to the base of the south ridge we still had to descend the B/S Col to get back to camp.  It was early evening – the time of day when everyone else is also making their way back to camp from their own adventures. Hence, the col can be a busy cluster-@$#*.  We teamed up and shared ropes with another party for the two long rappels.  [We learned: rappelling with wet skinny ropes covered in glacier grit can wear out a carabiner quickly!]  After the raps, we traversed our way down the glacier while dodging occasional chunks of ricocheting rubble dislodged by parties above.  Then just a bit of talus hopping back to camp…ahhh. A stellar day!

Our luck continued and the weather forecast was great into the foreseeable future.  So we decided to rest our legs the following day and plan our next climb.  The Bugaboos have a reputation for rainy/stormy summer weather with short windows of good climbing conditions. The advice I got from people who had been there before was to bring a good gortex jacket and a 4-season tent.  However the summer of 2017 had an incredible stretch of sunny, dry, perfect weather all season, at least for climbing.  2017 also turned out to be British Columbia’s biggest wildfire season on record.  Our first couple days up high were nice and clear, but after that a smoky haze settled in.

Jen climbing past the snowpatch on Snowpatch Spire.
Jen climbing past the snowpatch on Snowpatch Spire.

For our next climb we chose the Snowpatch Route on Snowpatch Spire (IV 5.8).  The approach involved a bit of glacier travel with some steep scree and loose dirt slopes to get up to the notch between Snowpatch and Son of Snowpatch.  The climb ascends the southeast corner of Snowpatch Spire just left of its namesake snowpatch.  Being up there right next to the melting snowpatch at the end of summer was pretty cool.  I could imagine someone ski-base jumping off it!  The climbing was quite enjoyable and fairly straight forward despite a few wandery sections.  We lingered on top in the sun and then headed down the west face Kraus-McCarthy raps (complete with super nice chain anchors).  Another successful trip down the B/S death col and back to camp for soup and much needed sleep.

We opted for a leisurely late afternoon start on the McTech Arete (III 5.10-), a 6 pitch climb on Crescent Spire.  Compared to the last 2 routes, this felt more like cragging in the Sierras.  There was another very enthusiastic, talkative party starting up right after us, and there were a couple other parties climbing various adjacent routes on the wall.  The climb and rock were of high quality with several nice crack pitches from 5.8 to 5.10.  On this climb, we were happy to only need one small summit pack with water and a few extra clothes for the both of us.

Flowers along the hike.
Flowers along the hike.

A couple weeks prior to leaving SD, I caught a branch in the eye while negotiating through a thicket.  I thought it was all healed, but after being up in the bright sun and smokey haze, it flared up and became red, teary and painful at night.  After crying my way up McTech, we decided that the next day we would hike out and drive in to the town of Golden to see if I could get it checked out. We were about ready for a resupply hike down to the car for more bars and food anyway.  We just weren’t planning on the extra drive to town. 

I wasn’t sure where to go, so we stopped in at the ER to ask around.  They were really nice and told me how to get to the optometrist and even called them to see if they could squeeze me in.  The folks at the optometrist’s office were AMAZING and zipped me in right away.  They found a scratch on my cornea and prescribed some magic drops that improved my eye really quickly.  After a hardy lunch of eggs benedict, taters and fixins we bought more cookies and made the long journey back up to our little perch on the rocks. It turned out to be a long day, but the relief was well worth it!

Approaching the Becky-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower.
Approaching the Becky-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower.

The following day we slept in and prepared for a bigger objective.  We were both really psyched but also tentative to try the Becky/Chouinard Route on South Howser Tower (IV, 5.10).  This is a famous and popular route, one of the “50 classic climbs” of North America.  It is longer, harder, farther from camp and overall a step up in burliness from anything we had done so far.  There were a couple options.  We could either move camp to the East Creek bivy site to be closer to the start of the route, or we could start at Zero dark 30 and do a really HUGE day out and all the way back to our established camp at Applebee.  We decided on the latter since hiking our camping gear over the B/S Col and down the steep descent to East Creek seemed like a horrible option.

As we clawed our way up the B/S Col we heard the eerie thunder of distant snow and talus slides.  Yikes!  We decided that after we made it back from this climb we would probably not venture up the col again on this trip!

The descent into East Creek basin was steep and loose with scree.  We were sure glad to only have our climbing gear and not big heavy loads of camping supplies and food.  The first views of the long sweeping west buttress of South Howser Tower were impressive!  We could see another party already 2 or 3 pitches up, but weren’t too worried since we still had a little way to go before we got to the roped climbing.  The weather was clear but windier and colder than it had been the past week.  I guess it was time for us to face a wee bit of adversity, we were in the mountains after all.

Jen approaching the belay with the heavy pack. South Howser Tower.
Jen approaching the belay with the heavy pack. South Howser Tower.

We loaded the packs so that the “follower” climbed with a heavy pack full of boots, crampons and ice axes, and the leader had a smaller lighter pack.  The second was always a bit worked when arriving at the belay with the large load, but it seemed to work out ok for us.  I can’t remember all the details, but the rock was lovely and there was a lot of good ‘blue collar’ crack climbing that we grunted our way up.  Mixed in was a smattering of steeper finger cracks.  When we got to the summit the shadows

Rappelling down the north ridge of South Howser Tower.
Rappelling down the north ridge of South Howser Tower.

were starting to get long and we still had 11 single rope rappels down the north ridge.  Once we found the first rap, the rappels went fairly smoothly, but some of them were rope stretchers.  It would definitely have been nicer with a 70 meter rope instead of a 60!  On the last rappel our rope made it past the Bergschrund but we still had a bit of steep snow/ice to climb down to get to flatter ground. This took a little time and was exciting in the dark!  Hard to imagine doing all this without all the modern light weight gear to keep us warm and light our way.

The faint glow of green auroras lit up the sky as tired legs carried us back across the glacier toward camp.  Soup and sleep would soon be welcome, but at that moment I smiled and savored the feeling of content.

We survived the raps down the B/S col and when we finally arrived back at camp, around midnight, the following evacuation sign had been posted on the board:

Mandatory evacuation sign.

Ah…this was bittersweet indeed.  We were still riding the high from our success on South Houser and felt fortunate that we were able to climb such a classic route before the park closed.  (The guys who just flew in from Alabama the

flowers, spires, glacier
Amazing views and flower displays along the way.

day before were not nearly so fortunate.)  Still, empathy for others was mixed with a bit of self pity, as we had just resupplied with food and extra big cams and were stoked to spend a few more days up there taking in the views and throwing ourselves into some wide cracks of the big mountains.  At any rate, we were sure that we would be a little later than the rangers wanted us to be in getting out of camp the next day.

We took our time on the hike out enjoying the spectacular flower displays and grand

car, packs
A rest back at the trusty white whale. Jen is smaller than her pack!

views one last time.  Despite my hopes, the trusty old Toyota station wagon had not morphed into a new sprinter van and was one of the last rigs left in the parking lot.  We loaded our huge packs and with a turn of the key we began “Plan B”. 

As part of “Plan B” we ended up exploring the quartzite sport climbing around Lake Louise.  A fun 6 pitch limestone bolted route on the East End of Mount Rundle above Canmore was a highlight for sure.  It was fun to check out some new areas, but the ‘sport-clipping’ was a bit anticlimactic after the big dreamy Bugaboo alpine climbs.  Lake Louise was lovely but bustling with tourists from all around the world – reminded me of July at Mount Rushmore times 10!  

We broke up the long drive back to SD with one more quick climbing stop at Blackleaf Canyon, an interesting remote north-central Montana sport crag.  This turned out to be a super fun stop featuring big slightly over vertical limestone walls with lots of edges and chert chunks.  The best part was, we had the place to ourselves.  The final push across the Northern plains went by in a blur and before we knew it we were back in South Dakota sitting on the porch talking about plans of adventures to come…

View of Snowpatch Spire and Bugaboo Spire from the summit of Eastpost Spire.