A 26-Hour Climbing Adventure in the Bugaboos

My wife and I spend 26 hours climbing a spire.

My headlamp light is dimming more and more with every minute. Damn, should've brought those extra batteries I left at the tent. I didn't even think I was going to use this thing today. I can see about 25 feet ahead, but it's hard to tell if I'm looking at a viable down climb or a straight up cliff. Do I need to start looking for a rock to tie some webbing around to make a rappel? 'CAIRN!!!' I yell up to my wife, 'This looks like an easy way down here, babe.'


I set the alarm for 4 am. I of course hit the snooze and get up at 4:10 am. I head over to the poles that everyone in camp hangs their packs on so the mice and other rodents don't chew on them looking for anything that they might be able to digest. I light up the stove and start boiling the water for coffee. My plan is for my wife and I to start our approach to the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire at 5 am. We make quick work, having packed the night before, and set off at 4:57 am. I make a quick little video with my phone, whispering, trying not to wake other campers in the area. Off we go.

Bugaboo Provincial Park is my favorite place in the world. I've travelled to China, New Zealand, Mexico, and Antarctica and I am the happiest in the Bugs, as it's known to friends. 2000 foot sheer walls shoot up from snowy glaciers. It's alpine climbing at its finest. Instead of calling them peaks, they are known as spires. Some of the spires have 3000 foot walls. Howser Massif is one of those and has a route that is one of the 50 classic climbs of North America. The Becky/Chouniard, 22 pitches rated up to 5.10. Many come to test their skills and fortitude here in the Bugs. Many fail, some succeed. 


My wife and I are attempting the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. It is rated up to 5.8 and is 10 pitches long. This will be both of our biggest climb yet to date. The only thing I'm worried about is getting off the mountain. It's not a typical descent. We will have to traverse the entire top of the ridge, which I've heard can take just as long as the climb itself. Then we must descend a completely different route. I've been here to the Bugaboos twice before and have ascended the route we will be descending so I am familiar with the rappel stations and the scramble down to the glacier. But just the approach is daunting to say the least. We must first scramble up low fifth class terrain for about 500 feet in order to reach the start of the actual climbing. 

My Dad taught me to climb when I was 12, so after 25 years of being exposed to this type of terrain, I'm very comfortable. I'm also very aware of the dangers that surround my wife and me. I have her scramble first so that I can spot her in case she slips. We reach the start of the climb a little after 8 am. It was a slow approach, but I'm not concerned just yet. I know I can climb and set up anchor systems efficiently, so I'm confident in getting to the top in a reasonable time. I start climbing and everything is going smoothly. I set up the first anchor at the top of pitch one and yell down to my wife that she is 'on belay'. This means that once she's tied into the end of the rope, I will have her safely anchored as she climbs. The first move is the hardest on the entire climb. A small crack, that's big enough for about half my finger length, runs vertical and starts just over a small roof. This isn't that hard for me, being six foot tall, but my 5'4" wife will have a hard time pulling the move. She steps up to it and places her fingers in the crack and starts to bring her legs up. She puts one foot on the far wall creating an opposing force with her legs, she slowly shifts each hand up the crack one at a time gaining a few inches each time. Finally, swinging her leg up and over the roof, she then..., "AAAAHHH!!" Her scream echoes against all the spires around us. I take up rope just in time and catch her before hits the ground. I ask if she's ok and she says she is bleeding. "Do you want me to come down?" I ask. "No, I think I'll be ok." Of course, I have the first aid kit in the bag that's currently on my back. She decides to keep climbing and makes it up to me the second time. I look at her finger and she tore off a small dime size section of skin. Not the best start to a 1500 vertical foot climb, but she's tough and we move on. From here on out the climbing goes smoothly. There is one party of two guys behind us and after we ascend pitch four we let them pass since they seem to be faster climbers. But the rest of the entire climb we are right on their heels. 

We arrive at the north summit around 3 pm. It's very smoky that day from all the fires in British Columbia so the views aren't very spectacular. We can barely make out the spires that are next to us. Having the two other climbers ahead of me helps me locate the traverse across the mountain very easily. But having to belay each section makes slow work and is eating up our time. We finally reach the south summit just before sundown and start making our rappels. We have one more ridge traverse and then as I remember, only one more rappel. I climbed this route 9 years ago though, so my memory is a little vague on the descent. By the time I get down what I think is the final rappel, it's dark. And from where I'm standing I don't see an 'easy' down climb. I think I missed a rap station. As my wife arrives next to me, I tell her I will anchor in the rope so she can rap to a safer location and I will down climb what looks to be around 5.6 terrain. Not super hard climbing, but in the dark, can feel a lot harder. I get to her and start looking for an easy route only to find more and more cliffed out sections. I find a nice rock that sticks out higher than the others and sling a small cord around it and attach a carabiner so that we can rappel down farther, hoping this will be a final rappel and we can find the trail. It isn't the final rappel. 


We have on enough warm layers but even in the summer, the alpine can get below freezing. We debate whether to bivy for the night and get some sleep, but I decide that as long as we can keep moving on easy terrain, we'll stay warmer. Climbers and hikers like to stack rocks on top of each other to help mark trails or routes. These are called Cairns. As I descend, I find cairns along the way. Yes! I just got to find another one. 

"Hey Jed!" I hear the other climbers that are ahead of us calling to me, but of course it's dark and they are around a corner and I can't see them. "Jason? Charlie? Are you guys going to bivy up here tonight?" I ask. One of them replies, "Yeah, we lost the trail and we have a nice spot here." "Ok, well, I keep finding cairns so we are going to keep going. Have a good night!" I say cheerfully. My wife is keeping our spirits high which is good. It is so easy to let a situation get the better of you and become very negative. Other than the down scramble in the dark, we've stayed on route. We are just moving at a moderate pace which we have now learned is too slow for this route. 


We finally arrive at the top of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, which is the saddle between the two spires. It's starting to get light again. A steep 50 degree snow slope lays beneath our feet. My wife isn't very experienced on these steep slopes and after climbing for 24 hours now, I decide to use a rappel station that is conveniently at the top of the Col. We are able to rappel 3 times but are still only about half way down the slope. Our legs are tired and even with crampons on, descending could be dangerous. I rig up my ice axe as an anchor and lower her an entire rope length. She is now in a safe spot where the slope has eased up a bit and feels good about walking down without a rope back to camp. 

As we walk across the glacier, a red sun rises and bathes the walls and snow around us in a deep red glow. I look up at Snowpatch Spire and eye the Tom Egan Memorial Route. I joke that we should attempt that right now. We laugh and continue on to our tent, where our warm, comfortable beds await our exhausted bodies. 26 hours after starting our journey, we sleep.


Published: July 25, 2017

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Jedediah Hohf

Kalispell

Adventurer at heart. Climbing, Skiing, Fly Fishing, Rafting, Hiking, being in the outdoors is what excites me! I take my camera with me every time!