Summer mountaineering season is here and whispers of far off peaks can be heard amongst the VOCers. It’s THE time to get outside and do those iconic lines you’ve been drooling over all winter.
One way to get inspired on what to do is to pull up some back-issues of the VOC Journal and read about past adventures. As of last week and for the next year, all back-issues of the VOC Journal are publicly available to read. This is in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the VOC in 2017. So if you find a great story, shoot it my way and I’ll feature it in the next TBT.
This week’s TBT is one of the most iconic epics I’ve read in the archive, Jason M.’s Bugaboo Epic is the story of biting off more then you can chew and rising to the occasion. Quintessentially VOC, it’s a long read so pull out your smart phones, drop trous’ and get lost in the ‘Bugs’.
Bugaboo Epic — A Climber’s Story
By Jason M. (1995, VOCJ38)
It started out in the usual way weekend trips do:
“Hey J.” Friend #1 said to me one day. “What would you think about going to the Bugaboos next weekend?” “I don’t know,” I said, a bit of hesitation present in my voice. “I was sort of hoping to go to Canmore that weekend.”
On July 1 my girlfriend and my old roommate came up from Vancouver and we headed out to some of the awesome sport climbing areas of the Rockies. To make a boring story short, it pissed on us and we ended up only getting three climbs in. I was pretty anxious to get back to Cougar Creek Canyon because I really liked what I saw there: climbing in the ‘Bugs’ stirred something inside me.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I said to Friend #1. He had caught me on my way into the bike shop and at the time my mind was primarily concerned with my absent and long overdue shipment of parts and the manner of interrogation I was going to employ on the clerk’s lame ass. The next night a group of us were at my house watching a movie and no sooner had the first lines left Christian Slater’s lips than Friend #1 starts talking Bugaboos. “Jesus man, can we just watch the show first?!” Not to be slagging the guy, but sometimes Friend #1 doesn’t seem to know what’s going on at this end of the universe. Before the screen could even turn completely black the Bugaboos conversation had resumed.
“You are obsessed!”
“Friend #2 wants to go too,” said Friend #1. I look over at Friend #2 sitting on the couch. “You know, we really should go seeing as it is so close,” adds Friend #2. Friend #2 is from Vancouver so I can see how a mere three hour drive to get there from here would make the Bugaboos even more enticing to him.
“The Bugaboos are kinda serious.” I said looking at the both of them. Part of my indecision stemmed from wanting to go to Canmore that weekend but also it resulted from the fact that what I said was true.
Climbing in the Bugaboos is pretty serious and I wasn’t sure these two had a firm grasp of this fact.
“Friend #3 also wants to go,” said Friend #1. Friend #3 wasn’t there at the time so it became obvious to me that the three of them had been talking about this and were pretty anxious to go. Things began to pile up on me: the pressure from my friends, the stigma surrounding the ‘Bugs’ and most of all my own underlying desire to climb the Bugaboos finally caused me to fold.
“Ok, I’ll go,” I said, a little hesitant. I looked at Friend #4 and Friend #5 also siting on the couch. “You two in?” I asked.
“Man, that’s 3 days…. I can’t take that long off training”, was Friend #4′s response. Same thing from #5. Friend #4 and Friend #5 are both hardcore mountain/road bike racers and for the three of us it’s our first year off racing so we don’t hassle them. Besides, both of them are doing really well so they probably shouldn’t mess around with things.
“How about we meet on Wednesday at the coffee shop and hammer out the details: rides, equipment, climbs and what not,” I said. It was agreed and everybody left for the night. After everyone left I called my girlfriend T. in Vancouver and asked her to come. Not only is T. my girl-friend but also my favourite climbing partner. Even at the time I knew that this was going to be one of the most memorable trips of my life.
I guess now’s the time I should tell you that none of us had ever been to the Bugaboos before. Sure, I had hiked the mountains and glaciers around the Bugaboos, read the guidebook, and heard stories – but I had never actually been there so I had no firsthand knowledge of the place and I had the suspicion that my friends knew even less.
The next day I purchased my own copy of the Bugaboo rock handbook and planned out the trip for myself and T. and decided on which climbs we would do. Our agenda for Friday went something like this:
- get home from work at 5:00 pm- pick T. up at the airport
- leave for Bugaboos at 6:00 pm
- reach parking lot at 9:00 pm
- hike to Kain Hut (5 km, 2133 ft. elevation gain)
- arrive at Kain Hut at 12:00 midnight
- wake up at 5:00 am Saturday and climb
This was pretty fucking ambitious.
I figured that on Saturday T. and I would climb the west side of Snowpatch Spire via the Krause Macarthy route: 8 pitches rated at 5.8+ topping out at the summit at an elevation of 10,050 ft. I figured on it taking us 2 hours to get to the base of the climb, 6 to 7 hours to complete it and approximately 4 hours to rappel the route and get back to camp: 13 hours total, meaning we would get back at 7:00 pm. On Sunday I figured we would climb the NE ridge of Bugaboo Spire, 11 pitches rated at 5.7 (with a 5.11 holy shit factor due to exposure) topping out at 10,450 ft at the summit. We would descend this via the Kain route. Total time: approximately 16-18 hours.
This plan was really fucking ambitious.
Wednesday night rolled around and I was stoked. I met the guys at the coffee shop, not a hint of my old hesitation remaining. It was now that I found out how much my three friends knew about where we were going. It quickly became evident that to some extent all of them had their heads half way to completely up their asses. All they knew about the Bugaboos was where the park was located on the map and what the cover of the guide book looked like. My first indication of how little they knew came when Friend #3 tried to tell me that the Bugaboos was mostly a mountaineering area. I humoured him and politely told him to get real.
“It’s a rock climbing area.”
“Well sure, there’s always some climbing on mountaineering routes.”
“Oh man,” was all I could say as I stared blankly at him.
“What?” Now here is what it states in the intro of the guidebook:
“There is very little alpine-style mixed climbing here. This is rock climbing in an alpine setting with snow and ice merely for ambience.”
I could have shown this to him but instead I showed him the picture of the west side of Snowpatch Spire. I did this for two reasons. One, it showed the route that T. and I were to climb. Two, at the base of the spire on the glacier there was a small circle drawn. Inside this circle there was a speck of what looked to be fly excrement. This was in reality a person. It was this picture that allowed me to drive the key point home to him. In the Bugaboos you are surrounded by glaciers and vertical to near vertical granite. In the Bugaboos you are fly shit.
“Oh,” said Friend #3.
The more we talked the more the wind left their sails. They were the ones who were hesitant now. I sort of expected this. All too often with most people things are all Preparation and no H. In the end they figured they would go up and do some of the easier routes that were mainly class 4 and low 5th class climbing.
“I guess it will be a learning experience,” said Friend #3.
“It’s really not the place to learn,” I said in as upbeat a way as I could.
A little info about my friends now. What Friend #3 meant about learning experience was not “Big route” learning experience but “basic climbing” learning experience such as climbing cracks, placing gear, building belay stations, etc. Friend #3 was at about a 10b climbing level then, this on t.r. He claimed to have lead once on natural gear but had just gotten back from tree planting so wasn’t in the best climbing shape. Friend #1 had never led and had never climbed granite and at best can do a 10a face climb on t.r.
Friend #2 didn’t know a lot about. He was about a letter grade below me on t.r. but didn’t have too much leading experience and had never built a belay station from natural gear. This may sound like I was slagging them but I’m not – this was just the plain truth.
Friday we ended up getting out of town at 7:00 pm. Oh well, we would make up time on the hike. We got to the parking lot at about 10:00 pm, wrapped our vehicles in chicken wire** and started off at about 10:45 pm. I had to borrow a friend’s pack and as soon as I lifted it onto my back I realized that not only had I overpacked as usual, but also that it didn’t fit me worth a damn. It was dark, the hike was tough and the way my friend’s pack was cutting off the blood to my head and abrading the skin off my hips was getting to be like a grain of sand under my foreskin.
We arrived at Kain Hut at 1:00 am. So much for the plan. Oh well, we’ll just sleep less. Four hours later T. and I woke up, and at 5:00 am Saturday headed out across Crescent Glacier and up the col onto Vowell Glacier on the west side of Snowpatch Spire. Before leaving, T. asked a dude if we would need crampons. The reply was “No, but you’ll want gaiters.”
The west side of Snowpatch doesn’t get sun until about 2:00 pm. We didn’t need gaiters, we needed, you guessed it, crampons. A word from the wise and intensely bitter: if you want info, ask somebody you know or know of through good reputation. If one of these people is not around and you still feel the pressing need to ask advice from a complete stranger, do this, then base your actions on the exact opposite of what said stranger tells you. You do this because said stranger is a yin-yang – the one person in an area filled with knowledgeable hardcores who still cannot distinguish shit from shinola.
We got the base of the climb at 8:00 am. To describe to you what the spire looked like is impossible. To describe the Bugaboos at all is impossible. You must go there to get anything but the faintest conception of what it is like. The granite here is not like the black and white highly eroded granite of Squamish. It is black and white, cream and even orange in colour and as featured as an old derelict bum’s face after 80 years of hard living. Our route followed what is best described as a gully formation or a huge dyke. After about 100m of scrambling, the real climb started. It was pretty cold (about 4 degrees C) but the rock still retained some of the heat from the previous day. The first three pitches were easy. The 4th was hard, very hard. The guidebook said:
“Climb – easy flake/ramp that slants right”
There were four ramps. I followed a layback furthest to the right, all the while thinking “Man, if this is 5.8 they sure rate climbs hard here!” “I think that’s the wrong way,” T. said when I first started the pitch. “Looks right to me – the pro looks about the best on this line,” I shouted down to her.
Well, T. kept to her story and I kept to mine till the crack started to get thinner and thinner. A little piece of info about myself: I’m stubborn. This is good in that I’m also very determined and just never give up. This is bad in that if I think you’re wrong, I will continue to think you are wrong until I am presented with some convincing evidence otherwise. Struggling up a crack that felt like 10d when it was supposed to be 5.8 and then seeing it start to end after about 30m was pretty convincing evidence. I rappelled down off of two nuts that I had to leave. Oh well, could have been worse, but still this little setback not only cost us 2 nuts, but by the time we were on route and ready to start pitch 5 it had cost us 2.5 hours. Before I continue, I have to say that the 3rd pitch was super cool. It was only about 5.7 but it followed the left side of the gully. This left side most closely resembles about 8 granite worms 1 -2 ft. in diameter and 24m long crawling up the rock. Pitch 5 went well. But on the 6th I went off route again and had to do a scary traverse to get back on route. Again time was lost. It was now about 8:30 pm and we still had 3 pitches to go.
By Bugaboo Epic this time, people were starting to rap down our route as it is the main path of descent for most of the routes on Snowpatch Spire. On pitch 6, after placing a piece, I clipped my ‘biner of wires onto it thinking it was a quickdraw. When I took it off 2 large nuts dropped off. I shouted down to T.: “Did you see 2 nuts fall?” “Yep,” she shouted back. “Did they stop?” “Nope.” Two more pieces gone. Ah, gravity is a harsh mistress.
Pitch 7 was the best. A huge humajumma with a scary section of unpredictable slab and a series of vertical 5.7 moves with minimal pro. When I got to the top I turned around and looked at what was at my back while I was climbing. The vast white of Vowel and Bugaboo Glacier, the impressive pointed peak of Pigeon Spire, and the 3 giant peaks of Howser Massif, still over 100m above my current position of about 9,900 ft. To top it all off the sun was casting a warm orangeish glow over everything, as it always does at 45 minutes prior to sunset. It was then that it struck me. “Hey, the sun is casting that warm orangeish glow that it usually does right before sunset.” My stomach felt like it was sliding down my leg. “This is not good.”
Some info now about the gear we brought along with us in a daypack that I modified into a haul sack with the aid of some duct tape. Like I said it was pretty cold so we brought along our Goretex shells and polypro. We left the fleece behind because it was a clear morning and it was bound to warm up. We wore shorts but brought our rad pants along ’cause they’re pretty light and hey, you gotta have some cold weather gear. T. brought her mitts as well. I left mine behind – 90 grams of wool is just too much to pack. As for food and H20, we had a litre of water to share and two PowerBars each. After all, it was only a 6-7 hour climb to the top and even an extremely trim athlete has enough calories stored on him to run a marathon and a half. We brought along a head- lamp as well but left this at the bottom along with our ice axe and hiking boots. Like I said, it’s only a 7 hour climb. Yeah, right.
Okay, so now the sun was setting and I was starting to get gripped. I started building the belay station. Even though there were a couple of fixed pins there (necessary for the rap down), I always back them up with a few pieces. As I clipped a ‘biner onto the second pin I noticed it was kinda loose – actually, very loose. I began to do some math. Would we be able to bypass this manky rap station or not? Oh well, guess we’ll find out.
“On belay”, I shouted down to T.
“Ok”, she shouted back.
“Bring up a rock with you!”
When T. got to the top she tied in and handed me the rock which I smashed into pea gravel trying to bang the piton in. No matter, ’cause she’d been thinking and was sure that we could bypass this station with two ropes.
The next and final pitch was described in the guidebook as a “chimney” which lead into and offwidth or an optional traverse and “hand crack”. I looked up at the “chimney”. One could con- sider it a chimney if one were able to use a condom as a bivi sack. No time to ponder. The earth was rotating, the sun was setting, the light was dwindling and I was off on the grunt of my life.
I reached the “chimney” and started up it, wedging myself in tighter than a nun’s fart. To move upward, I fully exhaled and squirmed my way up inch by inch. To rest or place a piece, I inhaled expanding my chest against the walls and allowing my arms to freely flail around in a vain attempt to first find, then place a piece which I grabbed off my harness. All the while, the only sound I could hear was the crunch-scrunch of my helmet scraping against the rock. Eight metres and 15 minutes later I exited the chimney, took a look at the offwidth which looked to be exactly the same size as the chimney, then made my traverse over to the “hand crack”. I’ve seen wider hand cracks in a plumber’s butt. This was a finger crack. Maybe it was elevation, or maybe I was off route again, but it sure didn’t feel like a 5.8+. After flailing up the last 4m I reached the top of the 8th and final pitch. It was only about 8 ft. below the top, so after building the belay station I heaved myself onto the top and did a quick 360 and hopped back down. In that short 360 I saw a lot – too much to describe, but what I remember most was my gaze fixing on the west. The sun was fully down, twilight was coming, we were in for 6 double rope rappels in the dark, and I was totally gripped. I belayed T. as she climbed the last pitch. It was taking too long.
“T., you gotta hurry.”
“I know! But these pieces are hard to get out!” I had hung all over them and even stood on one.
“Just leave the fuck’n’ pieces!” I could hear the fear in my own voice. “We’re in big trouble.”
She reached the top. Only a thin strip of orange remained in the west and the sky had turned a deeper hue of blue. Surprisingly she was super cool and this helped me mellow out a bit. She explained later that she had done all her wigging out while she was belaying me and was fine now. We were both still scared, though. It was probably about 10:30 and we still had 6 rappels (40-50 m) to do, a glacier traverse and a descent down the col before we would be back at the hut. But still, even though I had dreaded watching it, seeing the sun sink down into the Purcell Mountains from my vantage point on the top of Snowpatch Spire was one of the most breathtaking scenes I have ever seen.
Now it was time to go, and still I had some naive delusion that if we could just hurry we would be at the glacier before it was totally dark and at least we could then use the headlamp we left at the bottom. The mind tries its best to give you some courage when you need it.
The first rappel went super smooth. The second went well also. I began pulling the rope so we could do the next. It came about 5 ft. then stopped. No problem, I’ll just pull harder. Still no go. No problem, I’ll just hang all my weight from it, bounce and heave until I die from an aneurysm. That rope was going nowhere.
It was about midnight now and a strange calm had come over me. Something inside me just said “Hey, it’s dark and it’s gonna be dark for another 5 hours so quit being such a friggin’ wimp!” “Well, I guess I better jug up the rope and fix it”, I said.
“No, please don’t! Wait ’till tomorrow. We can sleep on this ledge. It’s too dangerous. Don’t go!”, T. said.
She sounded kinda worried and maybe it wasn’t the best idea to go up at night. A night on that “ledge” didn’t look like it was going to be too much fun either. It was more of a ramp and was only 1-1.5 m across. I looked up at the sky: a clear starry night with no hint of a storm moving in. This was good. It was about 0-1 degrees and if we were to get soaked by a cloudburst we might die of exposure before getting to the hut on time. Fear of dying of hypothermia in the middle of july may seem unreasonable but let me remind you we were at 9,000 ft. and surrounded by snow and ice. Even in the initial stages of hypothermia there is marked mental and motor impairment and this would become a factor while crossing the glacier where at one point a single slip could mean a 300m slide into the crevasses and seracs at the base of Pigeon Spire.
After trying various things to stay warm, T. and I decided to zip our coats together and hold each other to share body heat. This was better, but still damn cold. For a while, I lay there on my back with T. on top of me admiring the stars and the white granite around us. Everything was so clear, colour was absent but edges and contours were honed to a razor’s edge by the adrenaline coursing through me. Of all the nights of my life, I can remember none so vividly. After about 7 minutes, I began to relax and my eyelids grew heavy and even closed for about 30 seconds. Then I heard T.’s panic stricken voice.
“I’m…gonna be sick!”
“I gotta get out! I think I’m going to throw up!”
As I frantically tried to unzip the coats, T. started to retch and dry heave. A stupid, petty voice inside me said “Man, this is going to get disgusting!” Then another more compassionate voice drowned this out and said “Hey! This is your girlfriend you jerk! And besides, a little warm puke might feel good right now.” Well, nothing came out. I guess the power bar she ate 15 hours ago had burned up on the climb and that half liter of H20 probably poured out as fear sweat on the way down. After a couple more minutes of dry heaving she started to feel better.
“You gotta get that checked out!” I said.
“I already have,” she replied, her voice hoarse and raspy.
“You’ve probably got an ulcer. Did they check for that?”
She said no and that she didn’t really want to have the test done ’cause it wasn’t exactly a ride at the carnival. Something about shooting blue dye up her butt or some crazy ass stuff like that. I decided to drop it.
Our coats no longer zipped together, we started to get cold.
“Fuck this!” I said. “This sucks! I’m going up the rope.” I got no argument from T. this time. Probably because her throat hurt too much to say anything. I made a prussik around the two ropes with one of my cordelettes. I then put the rope through my ATC. This probably wasn’t the most efficient method but is was the best and safest I could think of at the time. I was off. I jugged up the rope, pulled the grapevine knot from the crack it had wedged in and rapped back down. It was a pump but now at least I was warm and we could rappel the next pitch – or maybe not. To make a long story short, let’s just say I got pretty efficient at this technique of ascending ropes. I did it two more times on this pitch and then again on the 5th rappel. It was getting pretty light now and we had only two more raps to go. The second to last ended on a large ledge where I could relax without clipping into the rap station there. While I was waiting for T. for finish the rappel a packrat scurried up on a rock and sat there watching me with its big, nocturnal eyes. It couldn’t have been more than 5 ft. away. As it sat there, flicking its furry grey tail, I thought to myself “I like this pack-rat.”
When T. was down we threaded the rope through the rappel station one last time. I made the rap down to where our boots, ice axe and headlamp were neatly wrapped on the rope bag. I painfully unpacked my feet from the climbing shoes in which they had spent the last 20 hours and slid them into luxuriant damp socks and cold hiking boots. As T. made her rap I noticed that the strap of my rope bag had been gnawed almost clean through. T’s boots also showed signs of teeth marks and her sock looked like Swiss cheese.
“I hate that packrat.”
It was a beautiful sunny morning by now, and safe at last, the majesty of the place started to overwhelm me once again. Our traverse across the glacier and down the col was slow but uneventful. At the bottom of the col we met Friend #1 and Friend #3 who gave us some food and water. It may as well have been ambrosia and the nectar of the Gods.
“You guys check’n’ things out?” asked Friend #3.
“Nope, coming down. Spent the night on this rock. Made it to the top though!” This is all I could choke out. My throat felt like it was packed with sand.
“Whoah! We’re just going up to do the Kain route on Bugaboo spire.” he said.
“Time?” I asked, gesturing to my wrist.
We left our friends and headed to the hut. When we got there we sat around in a stupor for a bit. Fatigue had set in and my body felt dead. I wouldn’t have known a woman’s caress from a police issue stun gun at that point. After a bit more of this, I hauled my ass up, made some pasta then shot the shit with some of the other climbers in the hut.
At about 11:00 a.m. we headed upstairs for a nap. I crashed as soon as my body was in the bag.
Once I woke up. I looked over at T. sleeping beside me and for a moment I didn’t recognize her. I wondered what I had done to have such a beautiful creature sleeping here next to me. That was some crazy ass shit and it still left me feeling weird even when I realized who she was.
At 2:00 we woke up and headed down to the parking lot. This time we got to see what we missed on the way up and I was even starting to get used to the pack of hell on my back.
We got to the lot, unwrapped the car and were out of there. In the rear-view mirror I could see Snowpatch Spire and still the night before didn’t seem real, like one of those spirit dreams that natives talk about, the ones that are more real than what we call life. We stopped at Radium and picked up a couple of subs. They would have been good too if the bread wasn’t as dry, tasteless and absorbent as an Always Maxi with dry weave.
We got home at 9:30 p.m. I ate some real food. Put on my work clothes, grabbed my hard hat and headed off to my graveyard shift at the mill with lead for legs, scraped up hands and a head full of memories. I’m there as I speak.