The Bugaboos, 1938
Percy T. Olton, Jr.
FILLED with the contentment which conies from a day of good rock climbing and an excellent supper, a number of us were sprawled around on the chairs of Marguerite Schnellbacher’s apartment when somebody mentioned the Bugaboos. “Who are ‘The Bugaboos’?” was the prompt inquiry. “The Bugaboos,” it appeared, were not persons but peaks and furthermore, good, rock peaks in the Purcell Range in eastern British Columbia. It appeared, too, that some of the best ones were unclimbed. (They still are!) “But it can’t be done on a two-weeks vacation,” we protested. “Yes, it can,” they said. “You can drive almost to the foot of the peaks.” So in three wags of a mountain sheep’s tail, the trip was started and Polly Prescott, Sterling Hendricks, Lawrence Coveney, Marguerite Schnellbacher and I enrolled as expeditioners.
The trip started under auspicious circumstances as the train pulled into Golden on time after it had been late consistently for the two past days. We drove down to Spillamacheen and set out from there in the truck over what somebody in a moment of exaggeration called a road. Four hours and forty minutes later we completed the 25-mile trip to the miners’ cabins, somewhat the worse from wear as a result of dodging branches and trying to keep the kerosene can right side up as the truck lurched and bounced.
From the cabins we got our first view of the Bugaboos, partly hidden in clouds but even at that quite breath-taking. The next day we started out to establish our camp at the base of the peaks. We found that the campsite used by previous parties was already occupied by mosquitoes and so pushed on through the tangled alders to the foot of the big moraine on the N. side of the valley. From there we set out the next morning to tackle Marmolata. As we approached the peak across the snow field we regretted that we had not read Cromwell’s account1 of his first ascent more carefully as nobody could remember which ridge he had used. The W. ridge was guarded by a nasty looking bergschrund while the snow slope which gave access to the E. ridge looked as though it might avalanche. The leader thought we might get across the bergschrund but, at the suggestion of the misleader (the author), we compromised and headed for what appeared to be a minor ridge in the middle of the N. face. The snow slope leading up to it proved to be steeper than we expected and the rock, after we reached it, was by no means easy. However, we made our way slowly but steadily upward with Hendricks out ahead doing a fine job of leading. However, the afternoon was passing rapidly, the weather was threatening and the misleader on the tail of the rope moaned that he didn’t want to bivouac the very first night. Unfortunately his complaint was heard and the vote was for retreat. As it later turned out we were only two or three rope-lengths below the summit and could undoubtedly have reached it if we had continued.
On our way to Marmolata we had picked a campsite at treeline above the moraine. This location had the double advantage of saving a daily trek up the moraine and of a much-reduced mosquito population. It commands a beautiful view of the valley, has plenty of firewood and clear water, and we recommend it to any party that tackles those peaks. The next day was spent in packing up to the new campsite and establishing Ike, the cook, there. Ike really deserves a little introduction. Down in the valley Ike was the undertaker, but business was slow so he came with us as cook and keeper-of-the-camp. I’m sure Ike thought we were all somewhat light in the upper story, but he never grumbled when we wanted breakfast at 3 a.m., and suggested he might bring up some more grub from below while we were off climbing. One day when we were sitting out a shower under some boulders on the moraine, Ike remarked, “By gorra, those would make fine tombstones! Cost you $25 down in the vallley!”
By the time we were moved into the upper camp, everybody’s feet were dragging a bit so we were just as glad when dirty weather the next day precluded any climbing. The following day was almost too clear and we set out for Howser Spire in high spirits. The bergschrund looked formidable from a distance and worse close up. There seemed to be two possible crossings, the more accessible of which was a place where a piece of the upper lip had broken away near the line of Conrad Kain’s first ascent.2 The other was over near the E. ridge but the route to it crossed a series of avalanche tracks of recent date, so we decided to try the broken place until we had a chance to observe the avalanche conditions more closely. It proved easy to get into the broken place in the bergschrund but not so easy to get out. For nearly an hour, Hendricks hacked away at the rotten ice of the upper lip but couldn’t find anything solid enough to make steps that would hold. So it looked like no Howser that day and we set off for Pigeon Spire as a consolation prize. With perfect weather, the view from the summit was consolation enough and the good solid rock whetted our appetites for more.
The next day we set out to repeat Conrad Kain’s climb up Bugaboo Spire, and repeat it we did almost to the last detail. We followed up the easy rock on the S. ridge to a point just below the first tower where we changed to rope-soled shoes. We then worked our way up the cracks in the face of the tower, finding a piton near the top to prove we were exactly on the route used before. When we came to the Bugaboo gendarme we pulled up short, as Kain had done, and looked for the easy way around which doesn’t exist. According to the book,3 Kain then climbed the face of the gendarme to a small stance on the ridge ; so Hendricks did. Next he started across the face beyond and then returned to the edge; so again did Hendricks. Kain repeated this several times and then called for an iceaxe ; all of which Hendricks imitated, but then he departed from the classic method. He jammed the iceaxe in a crack in the face to serve as a rather doubtful belay, made the delicate traverse of the steeply sloping ledge on the S. W. face, established himself in the crack beyond and called for Coveney to join him with a piton. The piton was then used to support a rope traverse to an easier crack some 8 or 10 ft. further out on the face. To restore the classic tradition—and retrieve the Karabiner—the last man came straight up the first crack ; presumably the original Kain route. From that point we followed the obvious route to the top and visited the cairns on both the S. and N. summits. On the return trip we avoided the gendarme by roping down the S. E. face exactly as the first party had done.
A mountain is always easier the second time but the big Bugaboo is still a real climb for anybody. There is a lot of nice climbing over good rock with the turning of the gendarme as the pièce de résistance. However, it can all be done quite safely with reasonable care and it is unquestionably an interesting and spectacular route.
On the flimsiest of pretexts—a few drops of dew which we called rain—the next day was declared a rest day. The fact was that we were tired and wanted a day off to take cold showers in the little waterfalls near camp and lounge in the sun. In the afternoon, the men went down the moraine to welcome our friends Wiessner and Cranmer who had just arrived from the States.
The following day our combined forces set out for the second attempt on Howser Spire. This time the brain-trust of the snow-crafters decided that avalanche danger was negligible, since we had observed no new slides, so the main rope consisting of Hendricks, Miss Schnellbacher, Miss Prescott and Cranmer set out for the bridge across the bergschrund near the E. ridge. Finding it feasible, they kicked steps up the steep snow above and then went up a shallow couloir filled with loose rock to the main ridge. The traverse of the ridge S. to the main summit provided some interesting rock work and was quite a bit of fun despite a high wind.
In the meantime, Wiessner and Coveney elected to tackle the South Tower, a formidable spire requiring some tricky ice-work at the bottom and probably equally difficult rock work above. They did a lot of hacking away at the ice but Wiessner found it too hard work for his first day in the mountains. Attempts to avoid the ice-work by some fancy rock climbing were also fruitless. They believe, however, that later in the summer when the ice is out of the chimney near the center of the spire, a practical route up it can be found.
One of the conspicuous features of the view from any of the higher Bugaboos is the Bobbie Burns Group in the north. They are a fine group of granite peaks and only one of the main summits, No. 7, had been climbed.4 The lure of this comparatively unexplored group proved too great so the next morning we set out early over the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col and out on the vast expanses of the Warren Glacier. We hurried that part of the trip because we knew from the numerous ponds which could be seen that it would be very wet a little later in the day. Algae made the snow and water at this point a bright orange so we called the region the “Red Sea” and dubbed the leader of the moment “Moses.” “Aaron” might have been more appropriate because each time he struck his staff into the surface, water gushed forth!
When we had crossed the main Warren Glacier, we veered to the right up a small tributary glacier which seemed to lead to the E. peaks of the Bobbie Burns. Here we saw a big bear gallumping off across the snow toward the N. W. What he was doing so far above timber-line is hard to imagine. In the direction from which he had come, we saw ahead of us a small pass. As he reached the crest of the pass, warily looking for a possible cornice, the leader let out an exclamation of amazement for there at the very crest of the pass under a 25-ft. ice-cliff nestled a beautiful little glacial pond damned by rock slides from the rock walls on the flanks of the pass. The ice crystals from the night were still intact, making a lacework on the surface of the calm blue water.
From the pass a glacier dropped steeply along the foot of the Bobbie Burns peaks paralleling the Warren Glacier. What to do? Should we go down the glacier in front of us and try one of the peaks in sight ahead? Or should we back track and follow the bear’s path toward the higher snowfields of the range? Counsel was divided but the final vote was forward to Bobbie Burns Peak No. 1 which stood out ahead. Of course it turned out to be much farther down than it looked from above. In addition the day was hot and noon found us pushing profanely up the torrid southern side of a ridge of No. 1. When we reached the crest of the ridge, we found that there was a much easier gully on the far side of the ridge. It was something of a problem to get from the ridge to the gully so that it was late in the afternoon before we found our way across the gully into the easy going on the other side. All seemed well but when we reached the head of the gully, a quite impossible gendarmerie showed up on the ridge that led from there to the summit spire. Sheer walls of rock with truly nasty ice below put any thought of turning the ridge out of the question. Unless there is an easier approach to Bobbie Burns No. 1 from the other side, it will be a difficult peak.
Thwarted in our attempt to reach a major Bobbie Burns summit, we decided to get the bump on the ridge to the E. of us as a consolation prize so we turned our backs on No. 1. and set out up the ridge. The rock was good and the climbing was surprisingly interesting up the remaining couple of hundred feet. Since our little peak was unnamed and unnumbered, our scientific leadersuggested that “Bobbie Burns Sub-one” might be appropriate. In the summit cairn we left an inspiring message to the general effect that “Whoever reads this is as crazy as we were!” The view from the summit was absorbingly interesting as we could see a rugged side of the Bobbie Burns Group which had seldom, if ever, been seen before. Below the meanders of the Bobbie Burns Creek stood out against the fresh green of the willows. But most interesting to us was an inviting little alp on the end of the ridge between the unnamed glacier down which we came and the Warren Glacier ; for it was already six in the evening and we were a long way from camp. And so some three hours later, there we were on the alp preparing for the night.
Out route-finding that day may not have been particularly brilliant but there is no doubt that we were in top form when it came to picking a bivouac site. The little alp provided deep, soft moss to sleep on and enough wood for an all-night fire. Supper was cooked in a couple of small cans, hobo style and then we built up the fire and turned in. The catalog had stated that Coveney’s Zdarsky sack would hold “two, eventually three.” With a little crowding, we made it hold “eventually” four! Toward morning, however, the chill breezes attacked on the flanks and the outside two crept out to be closer to the fire so that before daybreak, the population of the sack was reduced to two and “eventually” one. At dawn we started back across the Warren Glacier. To avoid making a circle around Bugaboo Spire, we decided to try going between Crescent and Bugaboo Spires. The ascent to the pass proved easy but the other side presented a sheer drop of about 100 ft. to the glacier. However, we found a chimney down which we roped part way and climbed the rest. We do not, however, recommend this route. From there we slid down to camp through soft wet snow, getting in about ten.
That same day Wiessner and Cranmer made an attempt on Snowpatch Spire from the little col in the S. E. shoulder under the snowpatch. They found the going pretty stiff at the best and finally came up under an overhang. To get around this, Wiessner put in a lot of pitons and finally, after some strenuous work, got out and up to a point where he could see his way clear to the snowpatch. However, it was late by that time and he was uncertain as to whether he could find a way up the rocks above the snow, sohe gave it up and returned to camp leaving behind considerable iron-mongery to mark the scene of his efforts.
The weather for days had been crystal clear but, surprisingly, very warm so that the glaciers were getting quite soupy. The next day was to be our last and rather than try anything hard, we decided that something new and nearby was our meat. On this basis we set out for Brenta Spire. It proved to be a very pleasant day with nothing more technical than high-grade scrambling. We crossed a series of snowfields to the low saddle in the E. spur, then diagonally up the spur and across the E. face on a broad ledge to the S. ridge by which we easily obtained the summit. Since it was decidedly cooler up there than down below, we stayed as long as possible, amusing ourselves by devising various means of melting snow while Hendricks tried vainly to lure us into a scientific discussion of the principles of the “solar boiler.” Reluctantly we finally moved downward, descended directly from the saddle between Crescent and Brenta and made our way toward home.
In conclusion, we can but repeat the advice of previous parties : if you want some good climbing on real granite with some interesting ice and snow work thrown in, try climbing in the Bugaboos. If you don’t mind following in somebody else’s footsteps, the climbs which have been done are still well worth doing. If you want something new, there is Northpost5 for an easy climb and Snowpatch or the South Tower of Howser for a super-climb. On the basis of what we saw from the summit of “Sub-one,” the approach to the Bobbie Burns Group up Bobbie Burns Creek is probably much more difficult than via Bugaboo Creek and the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col. In order to make a serious attempt on the Bobbie Burns area, a fly-camp should be established at Pond Pass or further N., as otherwise a bivouac is almost inevitable. The central peaks of the group can probably be reached most easily by circling them to the W. and approaching over the high west-sloping snowfields. It is possible that Bobbie Burns No. 1 can be reached by this route but, if not, then the only possibility seems to be a long rock climb up the S. face using our bivouac alp as a starting point. However, we hope to take another try at the Bobbie Burns summits some day before too long and then maybe we will be able to tell you more about them.
1 A. A. J, i, 298.
2 C. A. J., viii, 20.
3 C. A. J., viii, 25.
4 A.A. J., ii, 190; A.J., 46, 403.
5 The first ascent was made later in the season by Mr. and Mrs. I. A. Richards. (See note, p. 369.)