A Bugaboo No Longer
We were camped at last timber, just a stone’s throw from a massive spire. Breakfast was over. Sitting under the fiery August sun, we were contemplating another attack on the bugaboo of the Bugaboos, Snowpatch Spire. All was not well, however. Questions were raised as to why we should again attempt to climb the E. face when we had been there only a few days before. “The overhangs will be too much to get over,” said one of the climbers lazily. Another chirped up, “Why not try the W. face ? After all, a possible route goes three-quarters of the way up.” “No, we saw the top section of that route from Bugaboo Spire yesterday; it didn’t look very promising,” said the third man. Finally the fourth spoke, “I don’t think we have investigated all of the possibilities on the E. face. Of course, we were up just above the overhang where the last party was stopped. We studied the face above the snowpatch, but did we go farther and ‘rub our noses’ on the overhangs ?” “No.”
Thus you find us, four Sierra Club members, Jack Arnold, Fritz Lippmann, Edward Koskinen, and I, camped in the Purcell Range of British Columbia, discussing the potentialities of the Snowpatch Spire. Beginning with Conrad Kain and culminating in the gallant attempt of Fritz Wiessner, nine attempts over a period of twenty-four years had put Snowpatch in the “unclimb- able” class. All had admitted that here was a tough one to crack. “To climb this spire would be foolhardy, reckless, an unnecessary risk of life.” “It would take no brains, only brawn, to engineer a safe and sane route.” “If they put Snowpatch in Yosemite Valley it still would be many years before someone climbed it.” These conclusions, and others, too, had increased our desire to try our engineering technique on North America’s number one climbing problem.
Three days of fair weather had passed, but all we had accomplished was the ascent of Bugaboo Spire and a thorough reconnaissance of Snowpatch. We were well aware that the weather was unreliable; it could break within an hour. If anything more were to be climbed we had to start moving quickly. Two of the party said they were not interested in attempting the E. face the second time, merely to be absolutely positive that the route wouldn’t “go.” The other two, however, had different ideas concerning this route.
Jack Arnold, originally from the junior section of the Colorado Mountain Club, was one of the optimists who had hopes the E. face could be turned. Before coming to California, Jack had done all of his climbing among the 14,000-ft. peaks of Colorado. Upon joining the Sierra Club he immediately became an enthusiastic member of the climbing group. Eighteen months of climbing had proved to us that he was reliable and steady in ascending extremely difficult problems.
Having made numerous first ascents in British Columbia, the Cascades, New Mexico (Shiprock), and in Yosemite Valley, I felt better prepared than I had been on the unsuccessful 1936 Mt. Waddington expedition of the Sierra Club. I couldn’t resist this opportunity, so I went too.
Time was short. Quickly we began to gather equipment for the climb: carabiners, pitons, rope, hammers, food, camera, various personal desires and, last but not least, first aid. Anticipating that a bivouac would gain time in the event the route proved too “interesting,” we added extra food and a primus stove with a dural kettle to the already overburdened knapsacks. Finally as an afterthought a waterproof “B-sheet” (Zeltsack) was tossed in, just in case the weather proved to be unkind.
Having firsthand knowledge concerning the route on the spire as far as the traverse in Wiessner’s “overhanging zone,” we planned to scout the upper regions of this particular pitch the afternoon we left camp. Arnold and I pushed up to the S. E. side of the Snow- patch notch quickly. Leaving our nailed boots and ice-axes at the base of the notch and changing to crepe-soled shoes, we climbed to the N. E. side of the notch, found a good site for a bivouac, and cached our overnight equipment. Jack offered to lead up to the overhanging traverse. I was glad to have someone else try his hand, for I had already led this particular part of the climb two days before. Our route began 75 ft. S. of the notch. Using a sequence of two large gullies and various cracks which led for 280 ft. on moderately difficult climbing, we arrived at a small sharp ridge which terminated at the base of the overhanging traverse. Noticing pitons already placed, we assumed that this had been done during the summer of 1938. We had been taught to remove and replace all unknown pitons found on climbs. We did exactly that to those we placed, as well as the magazine of hardware we found on this pitch, for we knew that expansion and contraction of the rock, plus the oxidation of the metal, might soon render all pitons unsafe. My belaying position was not quite what might be termed “bomb-proof,” so I hurried up this pitch—an 80-ft. lead with a vertical rise of 30 ft.—as soon as Arnold had an adequate belay for me. We were now at the highest point reached by the 1938 party.
Wishing to conserve our energies, I took the lead. Tiptoeing on high-angle friction slabs, we reached the base of the snowpatch in a few minutes, soon to enjoy a long, cool drink from the small stream emerging from the five-acre snowfield. Having satisfied our desire for water, we began a systematic study of the face above the snowfield. It was very obvious why so many climbers had been discouraged from attempting an ascent. Foreshortening was such that it had baffled all persons searching for possible routes. Every rock on the huge face seemed to overhang. In our extremely difficult climbing in Yosemite Valley, we learned to appreciate the trees that pushed themselves up here and there on sheer faces. They were one of the best friends a climber could want. Here we had none. We knew we had a “rock-engineering” problem on our hands. This didn’t mean we had to cut steps in the rock, hang by pitons or use other artificial aids. We would, however, want to place pitons, use adequate belays, anchors, and double rope technique—a few of the methods involved in engineering a climb.
Climbing along boulevards of lichen for 400 ft. we concluded that further exploration would leave us on the mountain in darkness. A hasty retreat was advisable. After a few additional minutes of concentration on the network of overhangs above, we built a cairn, pulled out the anchor piton, then left for our bivouac. Climbing down the overhanging traverse was no easy job, since semi-darkness had obliterated most of the handholds. A cold wind had come up and was doing its utmost to chill us before we got to leeward of it. The two rappels before crossing into the notch were most welcome, since the mechanical energy from friction kept our jeans at the correct temperature.
At the bivouac shelf we smoothed out the rocks as best we could, had dinner of raisins, cheese, nuts and water, pulling the B-sheet over our heads, settled down for a long cold night. During the course of the night I found my ears between my knees, trying to keep warm. Suddenly an image of a face, a kind face of an elderly lady, was looking at me, questioningly. She was a friend who had been concerned with my vacation plans. “I thought you were going on a vacation to get some rest.” “That’s right.” “Well, what are you doing here?” “Resting.” The image vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving me colder than a snowbank. What was I to tell her if we were fortunate enough to make the summit ? My troubled thoughts came to counting the pitons we might yet have to use. Then, fitful slumber.
Two hours after dawn we were putting the finishing touches on a modicum of cheese and chocolate. We noticed our food bag had been broken into during the night, a large hole in one corner giving ample evidence. Checking to see what was gone, we missed the tablets brought along to furnish the necessary vitamins absent in the concentrated food. Further investigation indicated that a “snafflehound” (our name for a rodent of undetermined species) had done this to us. Gathering what equipment we thought advisable for the attack, we began a slow trek to our previous high point, Arnold again leading, driving in the pitons for safety, while I followed later to retrieve the hardware. The sun was hot and we weren’t, so we stopped at the cairn for food and a short siesta.
An hour later I took the lead and advanced toward the huge overhanging face on the mountain’s left flank. We attempted a number of different combinations designed to crack the overhangs above us, but they still said “no” after an hour of hard work. Dropping back from the lead, I walked along a large ledge towards the middle of the spire. We now were directly above the snow- field. The face appeared to be well broken into well-rounded slabs and shelves of hard granite, just right for pitons. Jamming in a leg here and an arm there brought me over two short vertical chimneys. Zigzagging around an overhanging nose and a ledge, I arrived on a large sloping shelf with no apparent upward outlet. Jack followed, anchored to a piton, and I began a search for a route up or around this massive overhang.
Placing pitons on this shelf, devoid as it was of proper cracks, was no easy trick. A piton would go in two inches, start to fold over. Finally I sank in two pitons for “moral support.” These wouldn’t take a direct fall, so I had to be careful. I had been studying an overhanging nose with a six-inch split on one side, but now, on closer examination, the split looked very bad, since the handholds were wrongside out. The sudden inspiration to attempt this nose died after I had got just two feet off the shelf. I looked for something simpler. Placing another “moral support” piton, I gave a high-angle face to the left the once-over. It had possibilities. Maybe it could be done with friction. But the protruding discolorations weren’t sufficient to humor my touch-and-go instincts. Removing my moral support I returned to the center of the shelf. Here, if anywhere, we must find the solution to this perplexing problem.
A nearly vertical vein of quartz, protruding from an offset 70° slab of granite, extended up to the base of an overhang, 20 ft. above. The quartz itself was broken well enough to provide the necessary steps. On both sides of this vein, however, handholds were microscopic, the support for the feet still less convincing. So it had to be the quartz vein all the way. Checking with Arnold to see if the rope ran freely, I began placing pitons in the vein. The high- pitched ring of the first piton told me it was good enough to take a direct fall. Snapping in my rope I climbed up a few feet and put in another piton, advanced to the next protruding nob of quartz, reached to my side for another piton. I was halfway up the pitch—but had none left. Arnold being unable to send any up on the belay rope, I had to climb down to replenish my supply. Back I climbed to the highest piton, inserted another to protect my advance, then looked desperately for a “bucket” handhold, which didn’t exist. There was, however, a small patch of some minute plant about a foot higher than I could reach from my present stance. Moving up a little on the vein I was able to dig out this small garden with my right hand, uncovering a small depression, large enough to maintain a balance with two fingers, a linger- but-don’t-stop handhold. Suddenly on my left I caught sight of a moving object, a small brown animal, scampering on the friction pitch that I had given up. To my chagrin I recognized the critter. It was undoubtedly the “snafflehound,” romping around full of our vitamins. I needed them now.
Soon I was able to hammer in another piton. Three steps brought me underneath the overhang. A scree-covered mantel-shelf large enough to permit a finger traverse, continued on a horizontal plane. Driving in a “bomb-proof” piton I began traversing. There wasn’t much of anything to rest the feet on while doing this little piece, and it seemed best to do it quickly. Eight feet and a few seconds later I was circumnavigating a huge chockstone at the edge of this traverse and the lichen-covered granite slab. Standing on the chockstone I gave vent to my feelings, a hoarse yodel. Arnold came up a few minutes later to see what was wrong.
Increasing my stock of hardware, and again anchoring Arnold, I ascended a small high-angle gully, traversed to the right and found myself under a chimney blocked with two chockstones. Placing a piton at the base of this chimney and covering two points of the compass at once I was able to surmount these two obstacles. Another piton just above the chimney was an excellent safeguard, since the next shelf didn’t have a suitable crack. Above was a three-inch crack with a blank left wall, and a right side that didn’t possess anything which might be termed useful—it simply dropped off to the glacier below. Twelve feet of this three-inch crack and I was able to stand on a foot square pedestal. Not having enough rope to continue I anchored myself, and gave Arnold the come ahead signal. As he arrived we were sure both of us couldn’t stand on the pedestal at the same time, but somehow we did.
Continuing up the crack, I noticed it terminated in another overhang. The wall on the left seemed to continue with no breaks, while the right side still dropped to the glacier. Our fond hopes were about to be dashed, then, for there was no other way to ascend this pitch safely. I thought I might as well see the worst face-to- face, however, since it was only 20 ft. away.
I hadn’t gone 15 ft. when I saw that the wall on the left broke away into the main face. I immediately crossed over to a good stance and belayed Arnold up to me. Things were looking a great deal better. Proceeding once more, I noticed a pencil of light on the loose granite blocks, and crossed over to check its source. I was amazed when I saw the summit, and so was Jack, who came up quickly. We hadn’t expected the summit so soon.
Climbing the dome to our left we found it somewhat lower than the N. tower. Back to the N. we hurried, ascending the tower by a spiral route, meanwhile looking down the W. face on which so many optimists had worked from the ground. We were glad we had climbed the E. side instead. Even our snafflehound would find the W. face uncomfortable. Seven hours after leaving our bivouac shelf we reached the summit. Arnold and I built a large cairn, leaving a register beneath it. We were both concentrating on the surrounding terrain, when a shout punctuated the silence. Far below on the glacier two tiny figures were waving their arms violently. Koskinen and Lippmann, returning from a reconnaissance in the Howser group, had seen us against the late afternoon sun. We returned their salutation with unharmonious but very satisfying yodels. An hour having slipped by, we made hasty preparations to leave. We stowed all of the hardware in the knapsack since our descent would require no more. Four long rappels, interspersed with some descent on foot, and we were in the bivouac recess, three hours from the top. Picking up the rest of our equipment we climbed down to our boots, only to find that, not content with vitamins, the snafflehound had eaten away the boot tops and tongues. But we conceded this sacrifice, willingly and happily.