Every once in a while, a trip goes so well, you want to thank the entire Universe for not conspiring against you. Such was the Bugaboos. The weather was ideal, the company was nice and the views were spectacular! The rock? Bugaboos rock is perfect!
Much has been written about the Bugaboos, so I won’t go into the logistics and route details, focusing instead on the trip. We hiked in July 22nd and hiked out July 29th.
I flew to Spokane Friday night where Mason picked me up so we could crash at his parents house in Couer d’Alene. On Saturday morning we drove 7 hours to the Bugaboos parking lot, with a requisite “when-in-Canada” Tim Horton’s stop in Cranbrook. This was a longer drive than Calgary, but saved us a lot of money on a car rental. We bought all our food in the US since there is more choice here. After the requisite chicken wire around the car, it was time to hike in. It should be pointed out that nobody has really tested what happens to a car without chicken wire in years. Perhaps it is just a cargo cult. But then, you wouldn’t want to be stuck without a functioning car in the middle of logging roads, some 30 kilometers from civilization.
The drive in was typical Canadian beauty, lakes and rolling valleys with some nice western view of the Canadian Rockies.
To get to Paradise, you’ve to pass through suffering, and prove yourself worthy. Appropriately, the hike in to the Bugaboos is hard. If you are making a trip from far away, you’ll be spending at least a week, so there’s 7 days of food, plus all the climbing gear, and a smattering of luxury items like a larger tent, flip flops, and various changes of clothes. I estimate my pack was 45-50lb.
To get to Applebee camp you gain some 3000ft in ~4mi, traversing dynamite cut ledges up a glacial valley. By the time I got to the Kain hut, about an hour before Applebee, I was having to stop, if not sit, every 10 minutes. The only thing keeping spirits from dying were the spectacular views. The Kain hut itself is set on some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. At least if you are a climber :) For some reason, it felt harder than the Palisades hike in, even though we had less gear and less distance. The humidity lower down didn’t help. By the time we collapsed into Applebee, the only shirt and pants I intended to wear for all the climbs, was completely soaked through. As if to front load general misery, it rained that night and I ended up cooking in the tent.
That was it; we had passed the entry test and we were rewarded with a week of nearly windless and rainless days.
The next day, hips sore and skies cloudy, Mason, Yelly and I scrambled up Eastpost Spire via the easy class 4 route from Applebee. It took about 40 minutes to reach the top and we got to see great views of the Bugs. Ryan and Leo went to McTech Arete for their idea of an easy day.
Back at camp, there is a left leaning, slightly wider than hands, crack about 50ft below and north of the main tent spots. Mason and I toproped these after a failed attempt on lead due to a shortage of #2 and #3 pieces.
On Monday, all of us headed up to the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire (5.4). For 3⁄5 of us, this was the first experience up the col. While it looks pretty imposing from camp, the col isn’t that high, may be 600ft, and Applebee to top of the col takes about 90 minutes for most people. Pretty standard ice axe and crampon technique, and there is a decent boot pack.
As you near the top, pay attention to the left rock buttress as the second from the top rap anchor is hidden in a sort of overhang. At the top of the col, is your first unique restroom experience; should you choose to use it!
The upper Vowell glacier is a remarkable expanse of ice, and is well behaved when compared to the Bugaboo and lower Vowell. It was crevasse free on the Pigeon-Howser straight line, until the very end, where a crevasse was starting to open up right below the base of the west ridge. It was about 3ft wide and easy to jump or circumvent. The 50ft to reach the col where the trickiest part of this whole trip; icy and loose rock. With three parties ahead of us, we took our time at the base. The second green restroom in the park is here, as is a giant marmot.
The West Ridge of Pigeon Spire has been called the best 5.4 on the planet. It is not hyperbole. The solid rock and easy route-finding let you enjoy the ridiculous views. Pigeon’s location lets you see the two major glaciers in the park in all their glory; the Howsers rise in splendor out of the Vowell, while the Hound’s tooth towers over the Bugaboo icefall.
Mason and I were one team, while Ryan, Leo and Yelly would climb as three. We soloed until the first false summit, with only the mantle move left of the chimney squeeze being spicy. The descent down the ramp south of the first summit is a really beautiful space; my favorite feature of the climb. From here we simul-climbed. The terrain keeps changing between easy 5th and wide 3rd class ledges, with great protection throughout. On the final section, the route is north of the ridge and it got extremely cold. When Mason finally put me on belay from the summit, I was glad to start moving on numb feet.
The descent raps require some contortion and drop you to the base of the last “pitch”. From here, reverse the route to camp.
On day 3, Mason and I did the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire.
We ran into a couple from California at the beginning of the route, and we took turns route-finding until we ended up at the 5.4 “chimney” section. Here, we roped up and I led the chimney, and belayed everybody up. There are 3 rap anchors on this lower section of the ridge. The lowest of them avoids a tricky, but really short downclimb, and I’d suggest not using it unless your party is really uncomfortable. The rope tends to get stuck! The top of the “chimney” gets you to the top of the ridge. The scramble to the base of the 5.6 pitch is nice and spicy, with great hero shot potential. The couple soloed this, while we simuled, so we were surprised to see them just sitting at the notch when we arrived. They hadn’t brought rock shoes and didn’t seem too keen to climb the difficult pitch. This seemed like one of those “stupid light” decisions. Adding another pound of weight would’ve meant they didn’t have to do all of this climbing only to turn back 2 pitches from the summit. Oh well!
Mason and I only had a single rack for this ascent, this was about to send my adrenaline response through the roof. Cue “stupid light” above. Haha! The Kain Route’s crux isn’t hard, but it is exposed. I laced up a lot of the crack, and ran out of gear by the time I reached the final slab traverse. Oh oh! A stuck tricam offered one clip, but I was still dealing with a 6ft swing into rock should I mess up. Going from the slab to the chimney requires one committing move, that would go much easier with a piece right above the move. Fortunately I stuck it, scampered up the boulders, used my personal anchor and the carabiner that had the nuts to clip the one old bolt and then the web-o-lette to anchor myself at the belay. Phew! Mason followed and then led the flaky corner to the summit. The views from Bugaboo Spire are gorgeous. Several NE ridge climbers turned up at the same time and we spent some time chatting and relaxing. It was now time to start the descent. Steph Abegg’s annotated guide is really helpful for this. A couple of rappels are in non-obvious locations while others require diagonal traverses. It is also nice to not be the last party on the descent. There is plenty of potential for stuck ropes. Needless to say, our rope got stuck on rap 3 and we spent 30minutes waiting for the party behind us to come free it (We could have climbed up and freed it, but we were in no hurry and the weather was stable, so we just waited). The rest of the descent was uneventful, in fact we soloed the ridge on the descent. The Kain Route descent is best done by sticking to the ridge as much as possible. It is a long way back to camp.
On the day we did the Kain, Leo and Ryan had done Sunshine Crack, a 5.11 crack that goes from bottom to top on Snowpatch. Given that all of us were exhausted, we opted to do Lion’s Way, which is a really short walk from camp. Ryan was going to use the rest day to get more food from the car. We left camp around 10, waited for an hour at the base for another party, climbed occasionally, and eventually reached one of the summits of Crescent Towers. There are a few cool moves on the climb that are worth it. The descent is ugly choss that drops you at the north end of the Crescent glacier. Here we wandered uphill a couple hundred feet to scope out the ascent for the NE ridge of Bugaboo spire before heading back to camp.
Neither Mason nor I felt great about leading pitch 1 of the NE ridge, which is rated 5.8, but has awesome exposure and is just the beginning of a long day. That is, I was confident in my ability to lead the pitch independently, but doubted I had the mental strength to climb another 7 pitches after that. Leo, nice guy that he is, was willing to lead it for us and belay us up. Yes!
Leo, Yelly, Mason and I left camp at 4. Even at this ungodly hour, there was a party ahead of us on the route. Getting to the base of the route requires some sketchy slab climbing, especially if the snow patch at the base is still large. We were waiting at the base by 6, and watched more and more parties scurry up. We would find out later that some 8 parties showed up after us, and eventually several of them just had to turn back. I was happy we woke up early!
The sunrise was amazing!
Leo made short work of the pitch. I definitely felt the hollow flakes at the top were harder than the 5.8 lieback that is considered the crux. We switched into 2 rope teams and I took the lead for the remaining two pitches that put us on the ridge. From here Mason showed that he is great at hand jams and made his way up 3 more pitches, where we got into the wide chimney. We took turns simuling and belaying based on rope drag until I stepped out onto the final part of the ridge. I wish I had a 70m rope, as we had to do an extra pitch for less than 15m to gain the North summit. The exposure and rock quality on the NE ridge are spectacular, no wonder it is one of the 50 Crowded Climbs of North America. The views are unbeatable too!
The traverse to the South (true) summit starts awkwardly, gets obvious and really spicy on a pant-tearing-ly knife edge ridge, before mellowing out at a rappel station below the summit. Since Mason and I had already signed the register, we didn’t go up to the summit, but retraced the descent from 2 days ago. Yelly and Leo were happy to have someone who knew the route guide them. Clouds and rain came in just as we got to B-S col. Fortunately they did not last long.
Our final descent of Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col was also the fastest and smoothest one. Our graduation went something like:
- The first time, we did 2 single rope rappels, then downclimbed steep terrain. This was the slowest. We didn’t know the third rappel station was on the western side of a rock outcrop.
- The second time, we spotted the third rappel station on the way up. We did 2 single rope rappels to the third station, then another party let us use their double rope rappel. This was perfect because it dropped us straight to the gentler part of the col and sped things up.
- The third time, with 4 people and 2 ropes, we put everything together. We did a double rope rap straight to the third anchor. This saved time and avoided the really awkward second rappel stance. Then we did another double rap straight to the gentler part, and glissaded all the way to the bottom of the col. The col had deteriorated significantly in our week there, going from no visible bergschrund to a sizable hole.
Friday was a complete rest day, we literally did nothing but sit around camp and talk and eat. On Saturday, Mason and I took our time hiking out, while Leo and Ryan went for their attempt of the Beckey-Chouinard on South Howser Tower. The hike out is almost as brutal as the hike in as the temperature rises, the insects are back and your knees are hosed. Finally the car! After a quick stop in Radium for lunch, we made it back to the States.
Mason’s parents were gracious enough to host me for another day and a half and I spent some time experiencing non-California America. Lake Couer d’Alene is beautiful and I had three fantastic meals - a great Chicken and Waffle at Crafted, “nutritionally dense” crepes at Le Peep and home-made burgers.
I flew home on Monday with an excellent view of Mt. Shasta on the way.
What a great trip!
- Many of the moderate routes in the Bugaboos don’t require extraordinary fitness. The elevation gain is 2-3k feet and only a short walk from camp. What is required is the ability to deal with exposure and climbing rock for hours. You will also want to be fast on rappels.
- Learning to use, and carrying, half ropes would be a very valuable skill. It would save each climber some weight, none of the classic routes are hard, so they can be led with just one half, and getting down the col would be really fast.
- For base camp trips like this, a larger tent is worth the weight. I carried an ultralight 2p for just me, and it was great to have the extra room to spread out gear, not worry about weather and sleep comfortably.
- Don’t stay at the Kain Hut if you want to climb. It is another 45min and 1000ft of gain for most climbs. Do stay at the hut if you are there just to enjoy the views. This might be the best equipped hut in North America.
- Take the smallest ice axe and lightest crampons you can. I had the Petzl Leopard FL and they were perfect, but I only have a 65cm axe, and that was annoying while climbing. You can leave gear at B-S col for some climbs, for others, it just has to come with you.
- If it’s possible, carry up light mountain boots, approach shoes AND flip flops to Applebee. Whenever I was moving up or down the col, or on the route to Pigeon, I was glad to have mountain boots, the approach shoes will help on non-glacier routes around camp and keep you comfy on the West Ridge of Pigeon. Your feet will thank you for having flip flops around camp.
- I have to get a better alpine rock harness. My gym harness is bulky and doesn’t fit well into packs. I opted to take the BD couloir instead. This worked great for the easier routes, but on the NE ridge, with a full rack, I was fighting it a lot.
- Mason and I each carried a “single rack” - for me this was 2-3 micro cams, C4s from 0.5-#3, DMM wallnuts 1-7 and 6-7 slings. This was more than enough gear for the routes we did.
- We also each carried a 60m single rope. My rope ended up staying in the tent the whole time, and was 8lbs of training on the hike in.
- I drank the water, both from the lake and the tap, untreated for 7 days straight, and have yet to suffer any distress.
- The snow melts really fast in July!
- Chasing Mastery has some great information.
- As usual, Steph Abegg’s two reports are unrivaled for climbing detail.