10 Aug 2003

The Bugaboos

  • Robert Meshew, Mark Pratt, Michael Stanton

This was an amazingly fun trip. The page takes a while to load, because the whole trip is here with pictures. I made a little flash movie with some pictures here.

You can jump from day to day using the table below, or just read in order.

  • Friday - travel afternoon
  • Saturday - we reach the Kain Hut
  • Sunday - climb of Snowpatch Spire
  • Monday - attempt on Bugaboo Spire, scramble of Eastpost Spire
  • Tuesday - climb of Bugaboo Spire and Pigeon Spire
  • Wednesday - climb of Crescent Spire via McTech Arete
  • Thursday - hike out

Friday (To page top)

I was finally going to the Bugaboos! Since I started alpine climbing it seemed like the coolest place on the planet. I’d been scared away for a long time due to insufficient abilities and fear of bad weather. But it was time to confront that fear, and go anyway. A plan to stay in the hut at least made sure we would be dry and toasty if it did rain for a week!

I had two amazing partners for the trip: Robert Meshew and his longtime climbing companion Mark Pratt. Before I knew it, we were loading up Mark’s Subaru with all our gear and saying goodbye. It was Friday evening in Issaquah, and Kris dropped me off in our brand new car (purchased that very day…I had to live without it!).

The drive to the Bugs was really easy. We chattered away for hours, going through Spokane and then the town where Robert grew up. He explained that everyone in the town, including him and his parents believed that a Volkswagen Bus was the greatest vehicle in the world. Entire neighborhoods collected and customized hundreds of these after school and work. I learned many details about them, but what I especially liked were the two flat pane windows some models had on the front.

We fell asleep on a patch of dirt near the Canadian border. A huge rainstorm occurred in the night, and I tried to keep my jeans stuffed under my bivy sack. End of Day One.

Saturday (To page top)

Day Two began with some breakfast in a Canadian town, then a cheerful extra hour of driving past our turn off for the Bugaboos. We stocked up at a supermarket. Robert and I were trying to keep the weight down by bringing dehydrated food and various chemical bars. Mark was intent on bringing only the freshest melons and cuts of beef. As his kart piled high with
flour, dough, rice and other staples I realized it was going to be a tough hike up to the hut.

Robert breaking out of the trees.

Anyway, so with a car full of food and gear we missed our turn, then came back. The long dirt road wasn’t too bad. We read aloud from “Breakfast of Champions,” a pretty funny book that Mark had read before. (Josh recommended it to me for the trip).

We parked at the very hot trailhead, and spent the next hour or two sorting gear, wrapping the car with chicken wire, talking to people about the weather. Finally we were underway.

At least Mark and Robert were. With a sinking feeling, I realized I’d be trailing behind them on the entire trip! Of course, my pack was filled with all kinds of fresh foods. I frantically tried to lighten my load, tossing aside a gallon of milk and 24-pack of fruit-roll-ups. “Why don’t I take some of your stuff, I’m feeling great” chirped Mark. The next 2.5 hours were an exercise in pain management as I tried to keep up, grinning insanely while my knee caps were being compressed under the weight. That which doesn’t kill us…

Almost immediately, we had great views of the Bugaboo Glacier and Marmolada Spire. Wow! It really looked like the cover of a fantasy novel set in a land called “Beringia” or something else -gia. As we climbed a ladder into a scenic basin I could see that the hut was pretty close. We rested at a bridge across a raging river. Robert and Mark cavorted while I wiped
off the bone powder from the skin near joints.

Via ferrata!

We went into the hut, amazed by the accommodations. We got some window bunks with a great glacier view. We filled our cupboards and had our first of many sips of Tequila blanco. What a great comfort to provide warmth and sleepiness!

Sunday (To page top)

In the morning we were raring to climb. We got up at 3 am and shared the kitchen with one other stumbling party. They wanted to climb the same thing! It was the Snowpatch Route on Snowpatch Spire. 15 pitches, mostly 5.6 and easier. We hurried out the door after some coffee and pasties.

Snowpatch Spire, our route on the left skyline.

We had a vague idea of the way, following a rocky slope up on the left side of the mountain, then wandering onto increasingly loose terrain to circle back and up to the ridge on the opposite side. We started climbing parallel to each other (but Mark far in front, always in front) up the sandy scree slopes. Eventually things levelled out.

Mark got the nickname “Silent Sentinel” for his habit of getting so far ahead, then just when you think “where the hell is he?” you see him staring at you expressionlessly from a nearby perch. Before you can catch your breath - he is gone again!

With a dim glow in the sky, we climbed a 4th class gully for a few hundred feet to the base of the route. We were at a notch in the ridge, with a great view of the hut below. Warm yellow light spilled into a cold blue vastness. We roped up.

We had 2 8.5 mm 50 meter ropes. Some people would give us grief for climbing on such short ropes, but 50 meters ought to be enough for mountain rock climbs. We didn’t buy the argument that you would naturally go to 60 meters for all applications because of the weight savings given by a thinner rope. During the trip some rappel routes were being established, and there was always confusion over what you might need (“30 meter raps? 50 meter raps? 60 meter raps?”), with a contingent of folks saying 50 meter raps are outdated. In our experience, it seemed like stations had either A) 30 meter raps, intended to get you down with a single rope. Of course you need a 60 meter rope for that.

Or B) 50 meter raps, in which case you need double 50s or 60s to get down. Technocratia aside, these rap stations we used were brand new and really good. I appreciated them, and according to the hut warden (who assists in rescues), they are already obviating the need for rescue, as a party can zip down even in darkness pretty quickly. Before, people were
leaving slings and gear all over the peaks in harrowing, unique descents.

But I digress. We roped up on a 25 meter doubled rope; Mark, me then Robert. Mark led us up easy terrain in the dawn. Then Robert took over at a nice looking 5.8 hand and finger crack that we knew was “off route,” but just too fun to pass up. Robert started up it because he was afraid Mark and I would jeer at him if he didn’t chose the “obvious line.”

No such luck! Mark made bitter comments about losing the flow because of such a technical pitch. “Yeah!” I said, with emphasis. Presumably rolling his eyes, Robert continued on a fine lead. Soon we reached “the Wiessner Overhang,” which is avoided on the right. Mark looked wistfully at the overhang, obviously wanting to climb it. I was in the middle again, and got some good pictures of Robert in the sunrise.

Robert on the route.

An exciting traverse.

Long, relatively low angle slabs took us past the famous Snowpatch on the left. Another party passed us, roped but never placing pro. Mark was leading us on 5.10 variations which I had to follow to retrieve the pro, while Robert walked serenely to the left. I pictured an amused smile on the Sentinel’s face.

I led us off the slabs and onto a ramp going up and right on a large broken face. Climbing into some chimneys, I managed to wedge my foot so well in a crack that it took me over a minute to extract it! I climbed a bit higher and set a belay. Mark took off, then Robert. I had dropped my headlamp, but it stopped on the edge of the cliff. When my turn came, I tried to grab it, but it suddenly flew off the edge! I’d been betrayed by a clumsy,
shuffling foot. Okay, adventure increased! No more headlamp for at least a week!

This was a great pitch, featuring some off-balance moves with great exposure. Next, an awkward finger traverse led to easier ground. I made the mistake of avoiding the finger traverse via an equally awkward lieback and mantle. I’ll never live it down. “But you yourself admitted you avoided the crux move. You did a variation, not the Snowpatch Route. When are you going back to do the Snowpatch Route? It’s a great route, you really owe it to yourself.”

So for the rest of the trip, we chided each other with this kind of talk in a special voice that provoked much hilarity.

Pleased to be here and climbing!

On the summit, we had the views we’d dreamed of. We were surrounded by Eastpost, Bugaboo, Howser and Pigeon spires. There were enticing glimpses of mountains further away. We took pictures and ate, lazily watching a party come up our rappel route. Their leader reached the summit - they were the party that passed us earlier! “Goin’ for two more climbs too!”
he said. Now we felt embarrassed for lazing about, and got to work rappelling.

Now, here, Robert and Mark introduced me to something they do all the time, but I’d never done - simul-rapping. With Mark on one strand, and me on the other, we zipped down together. You have to understand that if Mark unweights his rope, I’ll plummet downward and lift him up. Vice-versa too. I was a little nervous, plus, rapping on a single 8.5 mm rope is scary anyway. By the time I reached the bottom, I’d wrapped it around my waist twice for more friction. Boy, don’t know when I’ll get used to that, I thought. And I never did, but we kept doing it. Finally, late in the trip I said “can we take a break from simul-rapping?” because it mentally cooked me just a little too long!

You know, I’m a fast rappeller, a really fast rappeller actually. So it’s hard for me to buy into simul-rapping because I know we are going slower than I normally go by myself. But I have friends who are really slow rappellers. Now they should simul-rap.

Rappelling from Snowpatch Spire

Okay back to the story. So we make 5-6 rappels, I forgot exactly how many. Then we scramble down and make our way to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col over rock and glacial snow. On a nice flat stretch of ice I perform a comical pratfall, BAM! Increasing the hilarity is the blood coming from my palm. You see, I borrowed Josh’s lightweight ice axe for the trip, and failed
to notice that he’d FILED THE ADZE LIKE A MEAT CLEAVER! We were all concerned - how can you climb with a slashed hand? I applied some climbing tape to the wounds and dogmatically put on my crampons. I hate flat ice rink style ice - I’m short of the natural balance required to walk on it.

We started down the infamous Col on loose rocks, but soon had to transition to a steep snow field. After some crampon adjustments, I followed Robert and Mark. Happily, I put on my wool gloves, so the hand that touched the snow could be warm for the long facing in downclimb. We went down and diagonally across, making for a snow bridge across the gaping bergschrund (that should be one word: gapingbergschrund, because they are so often together). I’d gotten ahead of Robert by glove power, but then fell behind on the snow bridge crossing. Kind of scary, glad to have it down with. Whew.

A long walk on snow led to a boulderfield where we could hang out looking up at Bugaboo Spire. It was still early - only 1 pm or so? I forgot. We were thinking of climbing another route, but then it started to rain. We took shelter under a large rock. After an hour, it seemed like we should go back to the hut.

We did this, eventually finding a good trail down moraines to the hut. We saw the turn-off for Appleby Kampground, and started to feel like we knew our way around these parts. By the time we reached the hut, the sun was back out. Oh well, we could read and rest for the next day.

I went upstairs and read Shadowland, by Peter Straub. It’s a pretty good book about a powerful and corrupting magician and his young students who he intends to crush. Very “shadowy.” Later we had a great meal. Maybe pasta with a side of soup and dehydrated meal? Somebody gave us some rice. We had a huge stockpile of food!

It was either today or the day before that we met Alpine Dave and Emily in the hut! What a cool chance meeting. He gave us some beta about stuff, and we talked about climbs. Emily was interested in the trip Kris took to the Galapagos Islands in May. Nice to run into good folk from back home.

I managed to buy a new headlamp from two Canadian guys who were going down. I gave them a lot of money. Mark was like “you got screwed, man.” But I felt I got a square deal, didn’t have to bargain, and they get some profit for making a trip to the store to buy a new one.

Monday (To page top)

The next day we got up early again and hiked up to the base of Bugaboo Spire to climb the NE Arete. On an icy snow field we stopped to put on crampons. The moon rose between Snowpatch and Bugaboo spires; the light was beautiful. We wandered around trying to choose the right place to go up. After finding it, we awkwardly removed crampons where the snow met the rock
and started up. Sandy, steep, uncertain terrain in the dark can be scary. Rob led the way, always searching out the cleanest rock.

We reached a steep ledge about 150 feet up, with 5th class climbing above. I asked to rope up, as we were uncertain of the rest of the way, but feeling committed to the steep line above, and we had a good belay ledge here. I also wanted to change into rock shoes as it might get a lot harder. In the dark I imagine all kinds of scenarios, and want to begin moving securely.

We did this, and simulclimbed past a fixed cam for 150 feet to the ridge crest. There was one really difficult move I was really happy to have a rope for! Mark found an easier way to make the move but still…

On the crest we happily drank and ate, getting ready to climb. We were so ahead of schedule, that it was still pitch black except for the beautiful moon! But as we stood there, and the dawn slowly came, all was not well. Heavy clouds came in on either side of the mountain. It stayed mostly clear above Bugaboo, but eventually we could tell it was raining in the clouds on either side, a few miles away. We hemmed and hawed for well over an hour, really torn about what to do, proposing all kinds of theories. Another party came up, and two of the four decided to turn back, and the other two soloed up the route.

A brooding sunrise on Snowpatch Spire.

Deciding not to risk it, we made a few rappels and downclimbed back to the small glacier at the base. I had a hard time getting down the steep hard snow, and finally put on crampons for the final steps. Robert lobbied to scramble up Eastpost Spire, so we hiked over there for that. It was a great idea, as the views were great, and it provided an interesting view of the rest of the range. Folks milled around their tents at Appleby Kampground.

On the way down, a fellow told us that the hut may be evacuated due to a fire in the valley. By the time we arrived, the danger had apparently passed, but the smell of burning was in the air. Later, as you may know, much of the wild areas of B.C. were closed to travel, with stiff fines and jail time for anyone trying to sneak around. It really was the summer of fire this year. I mean, a fire on Johannesburg Mountain, that tower of ice? Jeez…

Robert on the summit of Eastpost Spire.

Meal times were great. We’d have some soup, a bit of whiskey. A freeze-dried meal to round things out, and maybe some bread and Nutella. At some point, we broke into the pancake mix, opening up a real slice of heaven. Butter AND Nutella AND syrup! A real caloric boost! We all compulsively read the new guidebook, and talked with our fellow hut-mates about conditions.

Tuesday (To page top)

Again, the 3 am alarm. The morning coffee, and the walk up to Bugaboo Spire. This time we scrambled easily, knowing the way well even in the dark. We waited a few minutes for light, and didn’t care much about the clouds. Mark took off ahead, planning to solo the route and wait for us on the summit. I led the first technical pitch, rated 5.7 or 5.8, depending on the guidebook. There were really nice flakes - it reminded me of Bear Creek Spire’s first pitch from earlier in the summer. Some final lieback moves brought me to a leftward traverse with a fixed rope. After some exciting moves, I reached a good alcove with a stance, and belayed Robert up. He continued up big flakes to the left, and soon called for me to continue. He suggested I stop on a ledge below him, and he’d continue on the next pitch to the ridge crest. I may have handed some gear up to him. This pitch was exciting, as it traverses up and right on a feature visible from far below. A few tricky moves took Robert to a nice ledge. The sun was pleasant as I pinched flakes and stemmed my way up a short dihedral.

Our route on Bugaboo Spire.

Looking down to the col.

High on the ridgecrest.

From the ledge, I led up a spectacular easy crack with great views all around. I called for Robert to simul-climb, and eventually reached a ledge to serve as a belay. Robert took off for a very long simul-climbing pitch (3 regular pitches in length). It was a long chimney, well protected by chockstones that allowed him to use slings and conserve the rest of the gear. After what seemed like a really long time of climbing, I reached him and traded gear. Continuing easily, I reached the ridge crest and was faced with a really tough looking downclimb, now on the long up-and-down portion of the climb before the true summit. I went around another way, and set a belay in a notch. Robert took us from there to just below the summit, mostly downclimbing and working around towers. We could see Mark sitting on the summit. We could also see clouds in the sky building!

At the summit, Mark tossed down a top-rope, and that gave us the chance to climb a 5.10+ variation finish that required us to make a committing (it would be committing if it weren’t for the top rope!) leap and scrabble our feet for purchase. Eventually, reaching good hand jams allowed us to each gain the summit. Yes! On top of Bugaboo Spire!

We gazed around happily, then as it started to snow, turned towards the descent. Pretty soon we reached a rappel station, and started down. The 2nd rappel took us down the Great Gendarme, a really dramatic feature. Robert had a scare when an insignificant piece of his harness ripped, somehow caught in something else. Between that and the snow, our casual summertime attitude was harder to maintain! But we finished with the rappels, and began scrambling down easy rock. We ran into many parties coming up the Kain Route. Also, the weather improved, and we could remove gloves and warm sweaters. We were down on the glacier by noon, or was it 2? I forgot, it was early though.

Robert rappelling on Bugaboo Spire.

Another view of Bugaboo Spire, our route on the right skyline.

So we decided to hike over to Pigeon Spire, and solo the regular route. It’s a “must do”, and the time we had there confirms that! I stumbled along on the glacier somewhere behind Mark and Robert as usual. There were a few crevasses to step over, but it just barely resembled a real “glacier.” Some parties with ropes expressed dismay at our casual attitude.

After a final icy slope, we prepared for the rock climb. There were a few other parties, all friendly folk. I wore rock shoes, and maybe Robert did. Amazingly solid rock was a joy to climb - very grippy, cream-colored, and festooned with features like knobs and cracks. At a false summit, we walked down a steep slab, then continued up the other side. An optical illusion made it look like we were walking on 5.8-5.9 terrain! Near the summit, the terrain was kind of confusing. Robert and I followed our noses, getting to the recognizable “5.4” move on the climb. I thought it was a little awkward, especially with 800 feet of air below me! After this, slab walking reached the summit, which we enjoyed with a few other parties. It’s impossible not to look at the Howser Spires, so evil yet beautiful! A nice fellow from N.Y.C. told us about his summit ritual which involved a camera, a bowel movement, and an illegal substance. This depressed me a little bit. Robert and I simul-rappelled on a long double-rope rappel with another party, while Mark downclimbed. We scrambled down the rest of the way, really satisfied with this amazing “must do” climb.

Walking to Pigeon Spire.

Robert on Pigeon Spire.

A small crowd of folks on the route.

Now, how to get back to the hut. We were curious about an alternate descent down the Snowpatch-Pigeon Col. It makes rappels down steep rock next to an icefall, then continues naturally back to the hut, essentially reversing the approach to the “Snowpatch Route.” We crossed the glacier, then found the rappel anchors. This seemed like a good alternative, because it avoided crowds, rockfall, and various potential epics on the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. We didn’t find it difficult on Sunday, but had since heard several chilling tales of near-disaster from the area. I believe we started making single-rope rappels, and the terrain was very steep. It was a little bit stressful for some reason, possibly the big exposure below (a mess of icefalls and smooth granite walls - looked like aid climbing territory), and wondering where the next anchor was. I “led” one of the stranger rappels, Mark and Robert seemed to appreciate it. That made me feel good, so I took the next one too, then Robert did the final rappel into a large moat, then easily climbed snow out the opposite side.

Alternate route back to the hut.

Easy travel led us around a corner alternately on a glacier or on loose moraine to the left. We split up here, Mark and Robert moving on ahead. I wouldn’t see them again for a while, as I didn’t like either route, so tried to make a new one. I gave up on that (think slabs covered with ball-bearings, oh, and ice patches). I followed Robert’s way, but couldn’t duplicate his amazing abilities crampon-less on steep icy ground. So I put on crampons, and continued down on glacier, hopping over muddy crevasses. Finally I got near my companions and they took off again. I think they had to wait once more when another steep slab took me a few extra minutes. I was continually torn between trying to keep up, and trying to achieve a reasonable level of security - I guess I need a lot of security on 3rd-4th class crappy terrain!

The terrain became familiar, and soon we were looking down on the hut. I stayed behind to savor the day, looking back at what we’d done. The afternoon light was beautiful on all the peaks, and water from a roaring stream tasted delicious! Back at the hut, another great dinner, some reading and a good night’s sleep followed.

Wednesday (To page top)

Today would be our last climbing day. That couldn’t prevent us from sleeping in and enjoying a late breakfast of pancakes. Finally we got motivated, and made the now very familiar hike up to the glacier below Bugaboo Spire. We took a full rack and double ropes, eager to climb McTech Arete, a great 5.10a multipitch climb on Crescent Spire. We were in luck - a party had just finished the climb and was packing up to hike away. A previous try at this justly popular climb had been thwarted by many and/or slow parties.

Looking down on pitch one.

I got the first lead, climbing easy blocky ground to a hand crack in a corner. It got really exciting when I reached a roof. I locked off and placed some gear. No wait, there is a perfectly good cam already here! I think I backed it up anyway, kind of suspicious of it. I launched over the overhang, glad for my many climbing trips to Index over the summer. I reached an uncomfortable hanging belay, and called for Mark and Robert to follow. Especially on this climb, the “Petzl Reverso” was really nice to have. I could belay both followers at once very easily. They enjoyed the overhang, and solid hand jams.

Mark leading pitch two.

Robert on the spectacular line.

Mark set off for the next pitch, the crux at 5.10a. It climbs an improbable vertical thin crack for at least 50 feet, then goes out of sight at a lower angle. Very dramatic! Robert and I climbed it together, me about 15 feet above him, which allowed me to get a great pitch of him near the crux. It was an amazing pitch! There are actually good stances to get in gear, and the crack varies in size: sometimes fingerlocks, sometimes jams, and feet usually have a ledge to stand on, which makes it a little easier than it looks. The 5.10a move is identifiable, kind of an off-balance lieback move at a bend in the crack. At the belay, we were really psyched about what a great climb this was turning out to be!

Robert took us up blockier terrain for a pitch. It didn’t have the stellar jamming of other pitches, but he was in “I’ll lead the loose, grungy stuff” mode. A valuable guy to have along!

I set off on the next pitch which was probably my favorite pitch of the whole trip. A long, sustained 5.8 hand crack, complete (repleat?) with two roofs! Mark and Robert doled out advice as I reached the first roof. We only had 2 cams of the size for this, so I needed to conserve them. I placed a green Metolius cam 10 feet below the first roof. “No no no!” they said. I ignored them. “Poseurs…” I thought. But at the roof I had to agree with their assessment: by losing that cam now I’d have a loong ways to go, and may have no protection for the upper roof. So I protected at the roof and downclimbed to retrieve the cam. I hoped I wouldn’t get too tired with all this! The first roof required a short lieback move. At this moment Mark said in a strained voice: “DON’T LOSE IT!” Well that scared me! When queried later, he said I looked so cool as a cucumber, that he didn’t think that would break my stride. So watch out for him! Anyway, due to a lack of gear, I continued for a long ways above, feeling the maw of empty space pulling at me. Hand, hand, foot, foot. I had to use the crack for my feet the whole way, but it was pretty comfortable. I placed a hex, then continued to the upper overhang and sunk the green Metolius cam. It was passed on the right, a bit easier than it looked. From here, some more enjoyable climbing led past short walls to a fantastic ledge spanning the arete.

Me on pitch four.

Me on pitch five.

Robert and Mark appeared with gear, and Mark led us up a really enjoyable 5.7 - 5.8 hand crack with great exposure. Robert and I were grinning our heads away - dang this climb is amazing! When I go back to the Bugaboos, I will gladly do this route again (and again!).

Robert led the loose and grungy final pitch. It seemed kind of dangerous for people far below, as it traversed a crumbly ledge. But we didn’t knock anything big off. Climbing the final loose (shifting?) blocks was pretty exciting. Here we were exposed to the cold wind, I wished I had more than a t-shirt! Robert hiked on to the summit of Crescent Spire, but Mark and I were happy to wait out of the wind for him to return. He is a relentless peak bagger! I would be too, but the sweet, sweet pitches below had mesmerized me, and all I could do was replay them in my head.

This dreamy attitude continued for the 6 rappels to the base. Still deeply satisfied, I looked around at the peaks in evening light, knowing it would be at least a year before seeing them again. We ate our final dinner at the hut in mournful silence…

Not really! We were happy with our trip, maybe feeling a little smug. The only disturbance was that a party had climbed the Beckey/Chouinard route on S. Howser Tower. We had wanted to, but decided the weather and a party of three made it too risky. But now, we had so quickly climbed McTech Arete, that we felt guilty for not trying it! And this returning party, visibly satisfied by the route (eww, I’ve got to cut this “visibly satisfied” and “deeply satisfied” and “sweet, sweet” stuff out. I’m sorry), reminded us of how little we’d done. We will certainly be back to attempt that climb next year. I’m going to dream about it all winter… so…swee-KNOCK IT OFF!

Mark trying to decide what to do with our afternoon.

My supreme triumph on Eastpost Spire.

Thursday (To page top)

Another sunny day, and we were packing to go. It didn’t take long to reach the car, down in the boiling hot valley. We drove to a hot springs for a shower (the lady let me in fer free!), and a slice of pizza. We still had one more climb for our trip, and headed off into the sunset for it. But that is another story…

To the Bugs, boy...to the Bugs...