Monday, 21 August, 2017 - The Bugaboos
Fresh off our ascent of the glorious Northeast buttress of Mount Slesse, Erik, Toba, Jamie (another good friend from NL), and I (Nick) beelined it straight to Brisco, BC where we were eager to make the most of an auspicious alpine forecast at Bugaboo Provincial Park. For myself and Toba this was a return trip to the Bugaboos and we were ecstatic to get back to Applebee Dome campground during the best conditions of the year.
As luck would have it, we happened to time our arrival with a special astronomical event: a solar eclipse. We took it as a sign that the stars were aligning for our stint in the mountains.
Our ascent to Applebee dome coincided with the August 21 solar eclipse. At our latitude, the maximum coverage of the sun was around 85%.
Our first order of business was to choose a sweet campsite. Last year a storm system arrived uninvited, sending Daniel's tent 15 ft down a rocky bluff, tearing open the fly and spilling our gear over the rocks like fish guts. Not wanting to repeat this experience, we made sure to lay claim to the most sheltered campsite in the Bugaboos. Behold:
Since we were unsure when we would have to leave the park (Erik and I had a rideshare lined up but we hadn't spoken to her in over two weeks), we decided to make the most of our potentially short stint in the Bugs with a late-afternoon ascent of Pigeon Spire. Around 1:30pm we headed for the Bugaboo-Snowpatch (B-S) Col., and met Andrew and Jamie arriving at camp.
As we advanced toward the col, Erik voiced some apprehensions that I shared but had been suppressing. With possibly only three days in the Bugaboos, and an uncertain forecast later in the week, it looked like our only window for our main objective, The Beckey-Chouinard (B-C), would be the very next day. Could we really pull off back-to-back ascents of Pigeon Spire and South Howser Tower?
I reasoned that we needed to scout the descent into East Creek anyway before attempting to climb the B-C, so we should at least head to the toe of the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire to get a good look. With this more moderate objective in mind, we plodded up to col to reach the upper Vowell Glacier with renewed gusto.
By the time we scrambled to the toe of the West Ridge at 3:00pm, we knew climbing to the summit of Pigeon Spire would leave us too tired for the B-C. Instead we watched for a few minutes as a tempest grazed the summits of the Howser Towers, then headed back to camp to make supper and rest.
Tuesday, 22 August, 2017 - Applebee Dome Campground
I opened my eyes at 4:15 am feeling inexplicably rested despite our previous day's exertions. I was further buoyed by Erik's optimistic self-assessment; he, too, felt miraculously good despite reporting exhaustion and a nagging muscle spasm in his lower back just the evening before.
Applebee Campground is usually a busy place in the early morning. Although there were only six or eight other parties awake, the quiet bustle imbued us with a sense of urgency. After a quick breakfast of reheated oatmeal and coffee, Erik and I pulled on our pre-racked harnesses and carefully packed bags, eager to get moving. By 5am, we were marching toward the col having exchanged no more than a few jittery words.
At the base of the col, we passed a quartet heading to the Kain route on Bugaboo Spire. Erik and I couldn't help but pass a few smug comments about how slowly they were moving as we efficiently climbed the snow slope. At the lip of the col, I took one last look down: no headlamps on the snow slope; they hadn't even begun the climb before we finished!
Unsurprisingly, our ego trip didn't last long. Ten minutes after reaching the top of the col I was sitting on a boulder looking out at the Howser Towers while Erik availed of the pit toilet. An unmistakable sound of tinkling aluminum caught my attention and I glanced left to see two climbers descending the short scree slope from the lip of the col onto the glacier. I was baffled by their sudden appearance; just 10 minutes prior, I had seen no one in the col. My amazement continued as they motored along the glacier at an incredible pace.
When Erik returned I was already geared up and pushing to get moving. "What's the rush?" he asked? I pointed to the now distant figures of these two climbers, and urged that we keep moving. If their speed was an indication of what's needed to do the B-C in a day, I worried that Erik and I were in for an epic if we didn't keep up.
I did my best to push our pace on the glacier. Much to my surprise, we caught the two climbers at Pigeon Howser Col. They were a friendly couple from Utah who reported being well accustomed to climbing above 3000 m. "You aren't doing too bad for a couple guys from sea level," the man remarked as we panted to catch our breath. His comment gave me hope. Maybe we weren't too green for the route after all.
The four of us ditched our crampons and ice axes (except Erik who kept his axe) at the intersection of the approach and descent routes for the B-C, and we headed down to East Creek together.
The couple from Utah showed their prowess again as they outstripped us on the 300 m scramble at the beginning of the route. They lept over boulders like elk and scrambled up slabs like mountain goats while Erik and I stubbornly dragged our feet behind. Here we could really see the benefit of training at altitude.
When we finally caught the Utah party at the base of the pitched-climbing, they were already beginning a simul-climb. That was the last we saw of them. We later heard that they returned to Appleebee before 5 PM.
As the Utah party moved gracefully out of sight, Erik racked up for the first lead. He would simul-climb the first two pitches (5.7 and 5.8 OW) before turning over the sharp end to me for the first 5.10a pitch.
Above we could see four other parties on the route, some already finishing pitch 7. Suddenly feeling out-paced in a foot race, I was jolted into a frenetic speed. I took pitch 3/4 (linked) at a blistering pace and found myself needlessly run out as I pulled through the strenuous 5.10 moves at the bulge. With my heart pounding at the belay, I resolved that I would exercise patience from here on. Better to get off the mountain late than attempt to retreat with a broken ankle (or worse).
As I relaxed, I began to reflect on the joyful moves of the previous pitch. A quick glance up at the rest of the route and I was suddenly overcome by giddiness. So much high quality climbing to follow... It would be an incredible day. "On belay, Erik!" I shouted down.
Oh, was the climbing ever good! Pitch after pitch of phenomenal white granite fell away below our feet as we danced up the sun-baked rock. The splitter cracks were Yosemite quality and style, but the alpine setting and exposure instilled us with a sense of true adventure. I can't imagine a better day of climbing.
Erik and I swapped leads up to the crux pitch, where I continued on through a varied and challenging system of fist and offwidth cracks leading to a chilly belay in the shadow of a great dihedral.
The following pitch (13) tested Erik's tenacity through a tricky 5.9 squeeze chimney. I was prattling on with another climber at the belay when Erik suddenly began grunting. I looked up 30 m to see Erik's legs swinging wildly outside of a wide crack. Below, his pack dangled on a tether from his harness to facilitate his entry to the squeeze chimney. I tried to be helpful by calling up that his pack had likely become stuck below him... but to no avail.
Erik continued to wrestle for another exhausting 10 minutes before discovering that his #3 camalot had stubbornly hooked itself underneath a flake. Its release was like a cork from a champagne bottle as Erik's body suddenly shot all the way into the chimney, allowing his progress to continue unimpeded. He captured a great picture of me struggling through this move from above.
From here we climbed intricate corner systems where I had trouble route-finding, but eventually ended up at an anchor marking the tension traverse. I led the final pitch through an easy gully to the top of the buttress.
The next challenge was to find the scramble to the summit. As we rappelled through a small notch, a sharp gust of wind hit us and fatigue began to set in. We would still have to scramble three-quarters of the circumference of the summit tower before standing on top. Erik and I could really feel the effect of altitude at 3000 m. Our scramble was sluggish until the final 40 m when we saw the summit, and discovered reserve strength for a near-sprint to the top.
Miraculously, I still had almost a liter of water - Erik had run out two hours before thanks in part to a leaky water bladder hose nozzle. We feasted like kings with our sweet fruits, rich nuts, and delicious water all the while safely protected from an onslaught of wind behind the crenelations of our magnificent tower.
These moments are fleeting in the mountains; not soon after our summit celebration we decided it was in our best interest to negotiate the 10 rappels ASAP. Following excellent descent beta posted on the message board at Applebee Campground, we had no trouble finding all the fixed anchors and crossing the final bergschrund.
We ran out of water on the rappels, but shortly after starting the walk back, the snow field spurted up a tiny stream of teal water. Perfect.
It was somewhere on pitch 8 that I really began needing to use the washroom, but without a wag-bag I had to hold it. So on the snowfield, I sprinted ahead knowing there was a pit toilet at the base of Pigeon Spire. I ditched my pack, harness, and camera, grabbed my ice axe, and ran to the base of the West Ridge. I scrambled the bonus 200 m for the most phenomenally relieving experience of my life.
The final 1.5 hours back to Applebee were uneventful (as they should be). We even managed to descend the col with the last fading hue of daylight. My exhaustion was profound, but Erik found an inexplicable second-wind and sprinted back to camp 30 minutes ahead of me, bounding over rocks like some deranged animal. I wagered it had something to do with the three pairs of socks he packed for the climb. He merrily donned the third and final dry pair during the descent, while I plodded behind with socks thoroughly saturated.
The final icing on the cake was returning to our tent, starving, and finding that Toba and Jamie had left us a serving of their couscous supper, lovingly stashed by our tent with a big rock on top to discourage small furry intruders. I filled my belly and I was fast asleep less than an hour after returning to camp.
Wednesday, 23 August, 2017 - Applebee Dome Campground
In the morning we learned that our rideshare would be leaving that very afternoon, so Erik and I opted to spend the day resting at camp and get a ride back to Castlegar with Toba and Jamie the following day. Our trip could have ended then and I would have felt entirely fulfilled. But Erik didn't fly out for another five days, and settled on the thought that fate had more climbing in store for us.
Stay tuned for Erik's account of our Mt. Gimli ascent.
We are Daniel, David, Nick & Erik.
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