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The West Face of Snowpatch

West Face of Snowpatch

james p. McCarthy

HIGH above was Snowpatch, a great, black shape looming over us in the evening sky. Once more Hans Kraus, John Rupley, and I had been drawn back to the Bugaboos. Supper over, we sat quietly among the rocks which served as our kitchen. Hans, gazing at the mountain above us, was smiling quietly. John, busying himself with some camp chores, seemed to be in a contemplative mood. I found my own thoughts slipping inevitably back to the first time I had seen this sight. It was two years before, and we three were together then as now, although then members of a larger party. At that time we had come to the Bugaboos with respect and awe, humbly expecting merely to repeat the established routes. This we did on several of the peaks, increasing our knowledge of the rock and absorbing that elusive, instinctive knowledge of the mountains, called “feel.” When, finally, we had acquired enough condition and confidence, we attempted Snowpatch, by its regular route. Success bolstered our confidence in our ability to handle the rock and turned our minds toward more ambitious schemes. We were informed that the previous year, 1953, Gary Driggs had attempted the West Face unsuccessfully. One look at the projected route was more than enough to convince us that we should attempt it. However, the weather closed in and ended all thoughts of such a climb that season.

The next summer, 1955, John and I were again at the Bugaboos. This time we had come prepared to try the West Face. Much time had been spent in climbing on severe rock, and we felt more experienced and capable of handling a big climb. Furthermore, we had proved our teamwork and condition on a new route on Devils Tower. We felt certain that we were climbing at the highest level of our careers and felt reasonably confident of success. This confidence was short-lived as we began to feel the extremity of our position. The sense of isolation and lack of support faced by two climbers attempting a new route on one of the most formidable mountains in Canada, eventually forced a decision not to attempt the climb.

So we waited another year—a year spent in more practice on the most severe rock we could find; polishing the technique of sixth-class climbing until it became more or less second nature. Finally we were back again, ready to attempt a long, sixth-class route in the big mountains. We fully expected to face extended difficulty of a more severe degree than previously had been attempted in this hemisphere. But we also felt we were as well prepared as possible. In the past three years we had acquired the feel of the mountains, gained much valuable experience, and learned to work as a team. Feeling at home among these towering peaks was an important factor in our assurance of preparedness. Another consideration on a climb of this sort is the feeling of being “backed up” or supported. In the Alps this support is provided in part by the hut systems, which give fairly easy access to the climbs. Also, there is the comforting knowledge that others have attempted and have been successful on difficult routes in the same area. Finally, there are relatively large numbers of climbers in the vicinity in case of accident.

One finds none of these important factors present in the Bugaboos. We decided to try to solve the problem of support in several ways. First, we planned to use a party of three rather than a smaller but weaker party of two. Then, instead of relying upon a timberline camp, we placed a camp very close to the base of climb. Finally, we were fortunate enough to have Bob Larsen and Oskar Dorfmann, two fine mountaineers, as a support party.

Preparations completed, we stood below the climb. We watched the setting sun brush the vast panorama of mountains with a reddish glow and agreed that the view alone was worth the effort of packing to the high camp.

The next morning our good weather was holding. We started out on the short walk to the base of the climb, which was in a fall line 150 feet south of the summit block. When we reached the base of the climb we lost no time in readying our gear. To others we might have seemed unduly anxious to start. Actually, we had been getting ourselves “up” for a big effort, and once “up” we felt compelled to move. John started off the first pitch and moved quickly and smoothly over the easy rock. Hans and I followed, and the serious effort began. The next pitch was mine and still fairly easy. The only difficulty was stepping from a crack into a corner. But it involved only a moderate stretch, and presently Hans joined me on a ledge I had chosen as a belay point. This was the highest point John and I had reached the year before. Barely stopping to catch his breath, Hans took the lead and moved confidently and smoothly up a long crack and soon reached an overhang. A stirrup, a fine hold, and he was standing on a small ledge above the overhang.

While Hans was leading this pitch, John and I belayed his ropes and were plagued with the anxiety which never leaves a climber who belays a leader on a difficult pitch. We both found it heartening to see Hans climbing without difficulty and felt even better when he said it looked good from where he was. When I reached Hans, he pointed to a short crack that I had to climb to get out of the way. Three stirrups quickly solved the problem, and I found a good belay stance 15 feet above Hans as he brought John up. Reaching my ledge, John took over and moved carefully and easily up a crack to the right. The pitch offered little difficulty to John, and soon he was ready to take us up. When I reached John, I surveyed the situation as Hans came up.

The next lead was mine, and I had to pick the right route from the possibilities that opened up. At this level the face eases back to a more comfortable angle, and a choice is offered of two or three routes. I finally decided to go left to reach the top of a rib which seemed promising. Then I started out. By this time we were far enough above the scree to have a feeling of space underneath. I always find this exhilarating. My muscles were beginning to loosen up, and I moved easily and lightly. Retracing my footsteps along the slanting edge, I began to traverse the ribs. One stirrup allowed me to cross the first rib. I found myself faced with a rib which I had to climb to reach a belay stance. By placing two stirrups, I reached the top of the rib. One very delicate step and I was on a belay edge. When I looked back, Hans appeared quite relieved as he started to join me.

Hans took the gear and began to work on what was to be the key pitch. Climbing with great precision and economy, he moved slowly and carefully over two ribs, heading for a corner. Here the rock had again become steep, making friction difficult. The climbing was delicate indeed. With about 80 feet of rope out, Hans was faced with the problem of doing a stirrup traverse under a ledge and then climbing over a bulging overhang. Carefully manipulating his stirrup and ropes to provide maximum protection and minimum drag, he started across. Working deftly, and seemingly unaware of the steepness of the rock, he moved across the traverse and over the bulge in a triumph of sixth-class technique. Here indeed was the finished product: the ability to move easily and confidently over rock which will not accommodate a climber without direct aid. Many people, exposed to the complication of artificial technique, with all its pitons and stirrups and ropes, immediately jump to the conclusion that the climber is tied down and encumbered. This is far from true. All the hammers, the pitons, the carabiners, the ropes, and the stirrups are tools. With sufficient practice and experience they become easily manipulated. Once this proficiency has been reached, the climber is free to pursue his bounding imagination and desire. He is free to seek out the high, steep faces, free to seek the feeling of height and space, free from the necessity of a route that must open up for his hands and feet. With this freedom, Hans moved over the crucial pitch, sure and unhurried.

John moved up to the belay stance and stepped across a rib to his left. Taking full advantage of his unusual reach, he began placing pitons in a vertical crack and was soon on a secure stance. When I arrived and took the next pitch, I could see that it was difficult for perhaps 25 feet and then eased off. The pitch began with a slab. A thin layback allowed me to reach a crack for a piton. A step to the ledge, an easy traverse to the left, and it was easy climbing as far as my rope permitted.

We knew we were near the summit, and tension was high as Hans moved up on the next pitch. There was a wide crack which would not take good pitons. Hans skillfully placed his pitons, and another difficulty was overcome. At the next belay point we could see the summit itself. Everyone was elated. Ahead was a narrow, slightly overhanging chimney. When I reached it, I found it pressed in so much that I could hardly move. I freed myself, placed a stirrup piton and was soon on a large ledge. Then we climbed continuously up easy ledges on the next pitch. This was the first pitch that was not demanding since we had left the ground.

We arrived at the summit and did all the traditional things: shook hands, signed in, ate lunch, and admired the view. Resting on top, we were soon launched on a discussion of our climb. My own reaction was one of surprise. In a period of eight and one-half hours three of us had climbed a new and difficult route. Each pitch required a high order of climbing and therefore a great deal of effort. Still, we had not been subjected to great strain. The comparatively easy climb was the result of teamwork reached through long, continued practice.

John and I had the good fortune to meet Hans Kraus while we were in college. We had been climbing together on difficult rock for at least three years before this climb. Those three years of practice accounted for our success. In the hundreds of practice climbs we had increased our efficiency in dealing with the myriad details of modern sixth-class technique, so that little time was lost in performing small but important details. Despite their importance they remain details, part of a technique. What I have said about technique cannot be overstated. A new generation of climbers is coming of age, faced with the realization that the previous generation has done most of the work in exploration and in climbing the important peaks. Is it any wonder that our hopes and desires should find expression in the steep faces and soaring ridges? This search for more difficult routes is a swiftly growing movement. And when the rock does not open up for our hands and feet, we must use the sixth-class technique. But it is just a technique. The pounding of pitons and star drills and the snapping of carabiners is not the “be-all” and “end-all” of this sort of climbing, as some would have you believe. It is a means by which we may seek out space and air on sheer walls and sweeping ridges.

In the ensuing years we may expect to see more and more climbers of ambition equipped with this technique. Their accomplishments will far overshadow anything we have done on Snowpatch. We hope we have helped to show the way.

Summary of Statistics

Ascent: West Face of Snowpatch, Purcell Range, British Columbia.

First ascent of this face, 1956.

Personnel: Hans Kraus, James P. McCarthy, John Rupley.