Exactly How Good Is The Climbing In The Bugaboos?
It may have been the finest display of alpine skullduggery I’ve ever witnessed, what happened at the base of Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos that day. We’d been digging deep to commit to an adventure over to the mega-classic Beckey-Chouinard on the backside of the Bugs after waiting out rainstorms. But after more than three hours of glacier trekking to the Howser-Pigeon col, and what we—lamely—deemed unpromising skies, Blake and I tossed that idea for a sidle up the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire (450m 5.4), an enjoyable jaunt to a splendid summit.
Lounging at the base of the Pigeon, I realized Blake had wandered off. Upon his return he held in his hand a seemingly brand-new skinny purple cord, a full 70 meters long. He had somehow talked a party, also just down from Pigeon Spire, into letting us use one of their ropes so we, who had just bailed from a much more ambitious plan, could continue our day by climbing the west face of Snowpatch Spire and rappelling—a dozen times—down its sheer east face. I know.
But the Bugs are just that good, we didn’t want to stop once we got going. If you go there yourself, you’ll understand. If you’re a lover of long, clean, granite splitters and you know how to build a solid gear belay, you should fly, drive or otherwise find a way to Applebee Camp in Bugaboo Provincial Park, NOW! Or, maybe this summer. The Bugaboos have something to suit anyone’s fancy, from aesthetic 5.4 ridge scrambles to straight-up desperate 5.14 tips jamming.
I’d been climbing for over twenty years before I found my way there, when a good friend requested that we go try our hands at a beautiful line called Sendero Norte. First freed by Will Stanhope—author of the latest desperate testpiece of the Bugs, the Tom Eagan Memorial—Sendero Norte slices its way up the stunning east face of Snowpatch Spire. With two amazing 5.12+ pitches that refused to dry out during our stay, we were unable to see our #dawnwall through to completion (based on how long that project took, I guess we have a few more years, though). Alas, that little snafu didn’t get us down. And herein lies the reason YOU should go there.
In consolation, Blake and I climbed close to a mile of immaculate granite and found our way to the acmes of three major Bugaboo spires: Snowpatch, Bugaboo and Pigeon.
I’d be lying if I said it never rains in the Bugs. In fact, it rains a lot. But with a bit of foresight, rain days are easily passed. The hike in, while continuously steep, is short—so don’t skimp on the barley pops. Or, if you’re good at making friends, or your friends are good at making friends, you can probably barter a few shots of some elixir from one of your equally bored neighbors. Beware, though, of trying to spend rainy days in the nearby Kain Hut. Blake and I were accused of “takin’ a piss” by the Scottish ex-pat hut keeper. We decoded this as kilt-speak for: “You dirtbags can’t come in here and play cards and make coffee all day without paying.” Consider yourself warned.
Our two days of consolation climbing took place first on the fun and steep McTech Arete, Crescent Spire (155m 5.10-), with copious hand jams. We both wore hand-jammies, purpose-built sticky rubber crack climbing gloves that render technique meaningless and allow you to stuff your hands into any crack with nary a hint of pain. These oft-ridiculed crack gloves are truly the “Savior of the Alpine Realm,” easily exchanged for soft, warm gloves as the temps drop, whereas tape gloves are a royal PITA.
From the top of the McTech, we traipsed over to the base of one of the “50 Classic Climbs of North America,” the N.E. Ridge of Bugaboo Spire (460m 5.7). Here we opted to simul-climb for speed, but abundant ledges would make for easy and convenient changeovers. I enjoyed the security of the rope for the hyper-exposed ridge traverse over to the south summit for the descent and watched in sheer terror as seemingly less experienced mountaineers slithered their way around on the still-snowy summit scramble. I like to refer to routes like this as “twofers,” since you essentially down climb the easy “standard route” for your descent, so you can put two “checks” in the guidebook. Depending on the time of year and the snow conditions, the romp back to Applebee from the base can be a half-hour glissading dream, a two-hour scenic glacial walk or a heinous rock-fall nightmare down the aptly named B-S Col. We opted for a mixture of choice A and C, a 45-minute game of Russian roulette.
It was after that that I found myself at the base of Pigeon Spire, Blake walking back to me with the borrowed purple rope. The strangers had agreed and we were on our way before they could say, “Hey, wait just a minute.” We sprinted across the glacier and were soon roping up at the base of the Super Direct on Snowpatch Spire (300m 5.10+). The route looked better than it climbed, but we summited and, in essence, salvaged our day. One word of advice here: While we returned the borrowed rope in excellent condition, I urge you to never let strangers borrow your ropes, especially if they just need it to make “twelve rappels.” That’s akin to asking to borrow a stranger’s car “just to drag race your ex-girlfriends new man.”
We spent our last day alpine cragging back on Sendero Norte, and it was still wet. We tried to cement in our memory all the beta for the delicate tips layback that makes up the crux and in what order to rack the red C3’s. Here’s to hoping the tick-marks last through the winter, because I’ll be returning to the Bugs all fired up next summer, and I encourage you do the same.