American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Bugaboo Adventure

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1949

A Bugaboo Adventure

Fred Beckey

AS RALPH Widrig, Joe Hieb and I trudged to camp at timberline with heavy packs, the solid granite of the Bugaboo Spires looked inviting, for the poor rock we had encountered in the Rockies, excepting only on Mount Louis, had caused our interest to wane. Hours of road-building on the previous day had tired us; but, as July 17th dawned clear, and frisky mosquitoes displayed unusual interest in our arrival, we decided to investigate our Number One Project—the north face of Pigeon Spire. Other climbers had all told us that most of the Bugaboos, especially Bugaboo, Pigeon and Snowpatch, are peaks offering only one summit route; but a careful study of photographs had convinced us that our plan had some merit.

The Pigeon-Snowpatch col was gained only after some difficult and treacherous ice climbing, the many tilted séracs forcing us to follow a very tortuous route. I recall chopping steps up and down several crazily tilted ridges, and clambering once up a wall of rotten, grainy ice. In the slanting sunshine we plodded to the foot of the bergschrund below the great north couloir. The nearer we came to our proposed ascent, the more skeptical we grew of success. But we realized that mere conjecture would lead us nowhere; and, remembering that difficulties can not always be properly estimated from below, we prepared for what would obviously be a struggle. To save weight, yet maximize efficiency, we decided to take two axes, two pairs of crêpe-soled shoes and one pair of nailed boots. I would use only Bramani boots.

Kicking and cutting steps up the 50-degree ice slope, after crawling across a very rotten bergschrund fill, I climbed to a rock snag at the rope’s end for an anchor, to spare the use of an ice piton. On the next lead I chopped a few steps on steep, grainy ice, and worked 40 feet up a glazed chimney, finding a tiny belay platform to my left. Above, the couloir showed its mettle: grey, vertically soaring walls capped by an icicle-adorned overhang. Hieb, on the ensuing lead, donned sneakers to traverse a rib, after an unsuccessful excursion to the left. A crack led down to the couloir center again, allowing us neatly to by-pass a forbidding overhang.

In pessimistic moods, we belayed Hieb as he struck out again. He slowly inched his way up a narrow jam-crack in a truly vertical wall, once hanging onto practically nothing while he placed a piton. As he worked his way upward with difficulty, we quietly wondered how good the piton would be in an emergency. He varied the pattern by clambering up a smooth face to the left and, when out of holds, climbed a 15-foot overhang with the aid of two pitons for tension. The last 30 feet took him to a slanted, snowy ledge, during which the still acute difficulties were more fully counteracted by safety pitons. Taking a tension belay to save energy and time, Widrig moved to the poor belay spot, taking over the lead. Pitons pounded with a high ring mitigated our worries as he zigzagged up a series of high-angle slabs well thatched with loose snow. Trying several possibilities that looked weird from below, Widrig gave up the dry right side of the couloir when piton cracks gave out. With a semi-tension belay from a piton, he then traversed left to an awkward corner and somehow found a high clutch hold that enabled him to squirm breathlessly onto a minute ledge beneath the iced, dripping overhang mentioned before. Almost 200 feet vertically below, I ducked to avoid hissing ice and rock particles as he began removing verglas on the overhang, for my position was exposed to falling missiles.

His efforts on the black overhang looked absolutely fantastic, but after an exchange of shouts he assured me that it was the last possibility. This was followed by considerable cursing, which I surmised resulted from a continuous spray of water and the generally miserable position he was in. The depths of the gully kept us in the shadow, and a brisk wind abetted the chill. Widrig worked up to a point where he placed an angle piton, inserted a sling, and repeated the process. Dangling high over the void, he worked some time with the hammer to remove loose snow and ice on the wall above. Finally he uncovered a side-cling hold for his left hand, after almost giving up because of the absence of either holds or cracks. Pulling himself to an awkardly balanced position, he quickly pounded a piton, carried between his teeth, and, leaning far to the right, made a tension traverse around a glazed, bulging overhang to reach a belay ledge with one foot of the 120-foot nylon to spare.

Hieb and I, in turn, moved up, using tension from above.

Removing the iron helped my circulation to revive. Hieb took the relief shift, beginning his efforts by chinning up an overhang. He struggled up a series of grooved, barely possible cracks, placing a few pitons for protection. The dangling rope proved his lead was as vertical as the others. Finally he came to the big ice patch in mid-face. When I came to the wet overhang to remove the pitons, after being thoroughly doused, I found that the task of retrieving the iron and hoisting myself up the glazed walls with upper tension proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Hieb’s last lead, I thought, was about the extreme of fifth-class climbing. Every pitch required not only delicate balance, but extreme muscular effort.

A glance at the lengthening shadow of Pigeon to the east reminded us that we could afford to lose no time. I hacked steps a rope length up the glare ice, wondering if the added weight of crampons would not have been justifiable. I placed a piton at the edge of the ice, belaying as Hieb tried to save time by a near-by friction slab. But the angle became too critical, so I had to resort to slower step-cutting again. At times a thin layer of superficial snow allowed a little scrambling on the steep ice between steps. I cut across the gully to a rock ledge, belayed Widrig up and, after trying another useless rock exit, worked along the edge of the ice 60 feet on treacherous ground before I managed to navigate a series of tiny ledges to a paralleling rock rib.

For the first time on the ascent we could move simultaneously, but only for 100 feet. A scrutiny of the walls above showed only one route that offered hope of completion before sundown. To our right rose a 140-foot slab, far too steep for friction, but cleft by a deep two-foot crack. Belayed through a piton, Hieb began its ascent by using layback technique, later stemming by muscular contraction and expansion. A tiny ledge once offered a resting point from which he could place a piton. The slab ended in a narrow crest, where Widrig gave Hieb a shoulder to struggle over a tilted slab above the chimney—a trick that called for perfect coordination.

Joyous yells announced that it was a “sure thing” now, for the remaining route to the summit was in full view. The entire angle of the peak here greatly decreased. I spent most of two leads cutting steps on glare ice, usually only for the alternate foot, to save time, and avoiding traverses because Hieb still wore sneakers, Widrig having changed shoes for the fourth time. Beyond the ice, we literally raced up the broken rock to the summit, following the regular route for the last 100 feet. We deemed a short rest next on the program, for we had climbed continually hard and fast on the 1500-foot face since leaving the bergschrund seven and a half hours before.

Evening shadows deepened the tones of the valleys. A reddish alpine glow illumined the sky beyond Howser and its terrific south tower. We looked with interest at the west walls of Snow- patch and Bugaboo. Behind the Bobbie Burns Group, we spied Sir Donald, and in other directions we saw the Goodsirs, Ethelbert and the line of high Purcell summits to the south. Though prejudiced, perhaps, by their nearness, I felt that the Bugaboos were the most spectacular peaks I had seen in Canada outside of the Coast Range. Our reveries had to be brief, however, as time was running short. We hurried down the regular route to the Warren névé and loped to our cache, with Hieb not even complaining of cold feet in his sneakers. In the dusk we took the longer but easier way to camp via the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col.

In the morning we headed for Snowpatch Spire; but, when we were a little above the last notch, we saw that the red sunrise had been a true warning, and we came back to camp, having no desire to risk a storm high on the peak. On the 20th the clouds had vanished. Spending considerable time “de-ironing” the route, we made the ascent in five and half hours from the notch, each of us leading a third of the climb. Except for wet rock on the two trickiest pitches, conditions were ideal, and the warm sun lured us into taking a lengthy summit siesta.

We moved camp to nearly the top of Crescent, climbing all six of its spires. Joe and Ralph, in fact, scaled a short but difficult southeast tower that had been previously untouched—the seventh east of the western and highest point. The north face of Bugaboo also came under consideration. After I returned from a reconnaissance to the 8500-foot sill, we decided that any climb of that face, if at all possible, would be too lengthy for our remaining stay, so we had to be content with Kain’s original way. The final day found us getting Marmolata between rain squalls, and returning to the road in an evening downpour. As we dried out beside a roaring fire, we agreed that the Bugaboos were worthy of a future visit because of the fine scenery and excellent rock, and hoped that in the hazy interim the now famous “road” would be improved.

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