Howser Towers, Spinstone Gully and Perma Grin
Until recently The Big Hose (1,000', D+ 5.8 WI3, Jon Krakauer, solo, 1978) on the northeast face of South Howser Tower was the only ice route in the Bugaboos—a range renowned for its alpine rock climbing. After climbing this stellar shaft of ice in September 2001 with Guy Edwards, I was convinced that the potential for more ice and mixed climbing existed in the off-season.
When Brian Webster and I climbed the west face of Central Howser Tower in August 1999, we witnessed constant avalanches and rocks spewing from the gash separating Central Howser from South Howser. However, I wondered if this deep gully might hold some secret icy passage during colder months. In September I decided to explore the possibility, and recruited Scott Semple for the five-hour slog from the Kain Hut, over two passes, to the base of the route-to-be.
We climbed “The Ditch” in eight time-consuming pitches, most of which offered scrappy alpine mixed (i.e., trolling for pick placements in snow-caked rock). There were a total of eight large chockstones wedged in the tight gully-cum-chimney system, separated by easier sections of ice. We climbed over six of these and avoided two, by deking right up a groove/crack on the right wall on pitch three, then making a short rappel back into the main gully. Pitches six and seven proved to be the hardest, with roof-like chockstones and sparse gear placements. The technical difficulty was sustained throughout, with two pitches of M6, one of M6+, and two of M7. The second-to-last pitch was the crux and almost sent us rapping back down. Scott fired the runout overhang after I backed off (bad place to break a leg), thus saving us an epic retreat. We named this new mixed line Spinstone Gully (1,200', TD+ M7R), because of the constant in-your-face spindrift and the numerous chockstone cruxes. As far as we know, this is the first route to be established in a day up and over the remote west faces of the Howser Towers. We topped out in the narrow notch between the Central and South Howsers just before dark. Two straightforward rappels landed us on the glacier, thus beginning the epic hike and drive back home. We arrived in Canmore at 8 a.m. the next morning, making for a 28-hour day.
In late October conditions and weather stabilized again. Scott Semple and I returned, joined by Brian Webster, to try the often-looked-at ice runnels on the northeast face of South Howser Tower, just left of The Big Hose. Our new line followed a shallow gully system slightly left of the standard rappel route from the top of South Howser. It consisted of six long pitches of thin ice and beautiful granite mixed. The third pitch was the ice crux, up a foamy smear of stubby thickness, while the mixed crux was on pitch five, which involved secure pick locks and bomber protection in a 30' corner linking discontinuous ice gullies. At times the two seconds, who followed together, could be heard giggling like kids because the climbing was so good. Since the three of us smiled all day, we named the route Perma Grin (1,000', TD- M5 WI4). The best part of the experience was having the Bugaboos to ourselves, which would never happen in summer.
Sean Isaac, Canada