For me, climbing the West Buttress of the South Howser Tower (also called the Beckey/Chouinard) in the Bugaboos started off with a beer festival in Creston BC. This festival is an annual event put on by the Kokanee Brewing Company for its employees (and lucky invitees). My good friend and climbing partner, Mirek Hladik, owns a portable climbing wall – he had been hired by the beer festival organizers to work at the event. Picture very drunk men and women between the ages of 19 and 25 trying to climb – it bordered on the ridiculous. Most of Mirek and his staff’s time were spent coaxing people to come down or trying to ensure they didn’t climb over the top of the wall (which every drunk male seemed to want to do). After a few more hours of this, we were finally able to break away and head off to the Bugs. We actually only made it as far as Radium Hot Springs and opted to soak in the hot springs and get an early start the next day.
After a short night in the back of the van, we hit the road and arrived at the Bugaboos parking lot shortly after 9 a.m. After the mandatory fixing of chicken wire around the vehicle (to stop the pesky porcupines from eating your engine hoses) and the packing of gear, we were off on the steep approach. Our plan was to hike all the way into the Pigeon/Howser col, and save ourselves some approach time in the morning. The weather for the hike in was a bit sketchy and the weather forecast for the next day also wasn’t perfect (40% chance of showers).
The hike into the Bugs, while not particularly long, is pretty gruelling with large packs, as the trail more or less switchbacks all the way up with no reprieves. We stopped off at the Kain Hut (a huge hut that can sleep 50) for a short break then continued on and up over the Snowpatch/Bugaboo col. While bent over our packs half way up the col, we ran into a friend of ours from Nelson (small world), who had just climbed Sunshine Crack. We chatted with him for awhile and headed up again. After cresting the Snowpatch/Bugaboo col, we roped up for the Vowel Glacier and followed the well worn path to the Pigeon/Howser col. We arrived around 6 p.m. – tired and happy to be there. We set about pitching our tent, cooking, and sorting our gear for the climb tomorrow. Mirek checked the weather forecast via a two –way radio with the folks at Canadian Mountain Holidays (their Bugaboo lodge) – the forecast was still mixed.
The Beckey/Chouinard is a long route – it gains over 2000 feet of elevation, is quite sustained, and contains 18 pitches of climbing. The route is rated 5.10. It is a sought after classic in the Bugaboos, but thwarts a lot of parties, due to its length, difficulty, and weather. One of the first decisions a party has to make is whether to climb the route in two days with a bivouac half way up, or in one long day. We had decided that we would climb the route in a day – we were confident that we were fast enough to easily complete the route and rappel back to our tent in a day.
The next morning we got up at 3:30 a.m., ate a little, and then head off down the col to the base of the buttress. We wore approach shoes with small in-step crampons. We had one ice axe between us. The descent down the col wasn’t too bad; a bit sketchy in spots due to ice. We then climbed over and onto to the buttress via some exposed scrambling. Once on the buttress we ascended another 500 feet or so to the beginning of the route, which was pretty obvious. It was about 6:30 a.m. when we roped up and started climbing.
Pitch 3 - rated 5.9
The first two pitches were straightforward, and low angle. I led the 3rd pitch and ended up taking the crack to the right instead of the left. I then had to down-climb and remove gear until I could get re-established in the left cracks. A small route-finding error that only cost us about 10 minutes. The next pitch; the fourth, contains a small roof and is rated 5.9 – it’s a tough little move. From the top of this pitch, we just continued up the obvious features heading for the Big Dihedral. Once on the Big Dihedral, there are really no route finding decisions to make – just keep climbing. We tried to make each pitch at least 50 metres long. The last pitch before the Bivy Ledge (pitch 10) we simu-climbed a portion of to avoid setting up a short pitch.
Climbing on the Great Dihedral
We had made good time and were at the bivy ledge by about 11:30 – we hung out there for a while and ate a little. Unfortunately for me, my stomach started acting up. Having diarrhea half way up an 18-pitch climb truly sucked; the lesson here, always carry Imodium – it’s a wonder drug. Anyway, things settled down after about ½ hour and we were off again.
I led the first pitch off the bivy ledge (Pitch 11 on the topo). We had heard that some people had route finding issues here, but again it seemed pretty straightforward. There is an obvious off-width on the left side of the bivy ledge. For us, this was probably the hardest pitch on the climb. I wrestled up it for a while, but then started to feel a little too sketched out, and decided a few tugs on gear were what I needed to keep me going up. After passing the one awkward section, the climbing eased up.
Pitch 12 - on the Great White Headwall
The next pitch (pitch 12 on the topo - see adjancent photo) contained a route finding decision – one could either go left (5.10?) or continue more or less straight. We opted to stay on the route (go straight). It was a fun, sustained 5.8 pitch. The next pitch was rather comical (in a dark humour sort of way). It’s rated 5.6; but it’s a single 6-8” wide crack that goes straight up. We had one piece of gear that would fit in it – a #4 camalot. So off I went continually moving up my one piece of gear. It’s rather disconcerting ever time you take the piece out to move it up and realize at that time, you’re effectively soloing. After about 20 metres of this, you could start to get other gear in. It was one of those pitches that wasn’t hard physically but was a little mentally trying. Mirek thought it was the worst pitch to lead on the entire climb. I actually combined this pitch with the next one (pitch 14 on the topo) to make one long pitch (we were using a 60 metre rope).
This is Pitch 16 - note the flaring section that Mirek is heading toward; this is the crux.
The next pitch (pitch 16 on the topo) has a difficult flaring section in it. There are two ways to climb it; either by staying in the flaring slot and grunting though it, or by stemming outside the flaring crack. Mirek, who lead this pitch, opted to stay in the crack. When I followed it (with a bigger pack), I pretty much had to stem it. To me, it felt pretty solid and seemed a lot easier stemming it than doing what Mirek did (some mixture of grovelling, chimneying and jamming).
The next pitch (pitch 17) is supposed to be the crux of the climb. It involves some delicate face climbing horizontally to the left for about 15 metres (until you reach an easy crack system). I led this pitch and found it was not too bad at all. The crux is a bunch of crimpy face moves, but all the moves are there. You do want to feel solid on this pitch, as one wouldn’t want to fall. Once I reached the crack, I then needed to climb quite high up it before putting any gear in, or the rope drag would be horrendous. While I was running this out, I dislodged a large rock (with my foot). Luckily, I was so far to the left of Mirek, that it didn’t come close to him.
From the top of this pitch we climbed an easy pitch to the top of the buttress. From here you make a 20 metre rappel out onto the right side of the West Buttress. From this rappel, you simply start heading up to the top via the easiest line you can find. We kept roped up and were glad we did. There are some sections with 5.6 to 5.7 moves – it takes you longer than you think to hit the summit.
It was a little after 5 p.m. when we got to the summit (actually the first rappel station is slightly lower than the true summit). We had no problem finding the first rappel anchors. We hung out on the summit, admired the views, and took some photos. The weather had held for us all day, and had actually started to clear off in the afternoon; we had been lucky. Our luck was about to change.
The (epic) descent
This is pitch 17 - the crux traverse. I'm climbing away from the camera.
Mirek took the first rappel. We had decided to haul a small 7 millimetre line to use to rappel with (in conjunction with our 11 mill rope) – this was a bad idea; more on that later. The guidebook talked about 5 to 7 diagonal rappels down the Northeast side of the South Summit (to avoid being under the cornice – more on that later). So off Mirek went rappelling diagonally – after about 40 metres he came to one lonely sling rapped around a rock. Figuring that one sling wasn’t going to be the rappel station on a route that sees the traffic this one does, he kept rappelling. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another station. So at the end of his ropes, he built a station, tied off and got me to rappel. I rappelled to the lonely sling, tied off, pulled the ropes and set up another rappel. I then rappelled down to Mirek (who clipped one of the ropes) and continued on to the next rappel station (which was obvious). Mirek then hooked into the ropes, rapped to me, and we pulled the ropes. One rappel down, with only some minor screwing around.
The next rappel went with no problem. The following one, we were not as lucky. Our rope got stuck about 20 metres above us, after we had pulled it (an issue with diagonal rappelling). No amount of pulling, swearing or praying managed to get the rope down. Because we had the majority of our 11 mill down, Mirek led back up the face (using the 11 mill) to where the rope was stuck. Once there (some tricky 5.8 moves), he set up a station (leaving a cam and wire) and rapped back down to me. Three rappels down; some major screwing around.
The next rappel went without an issue. We were at the station and Mirek had just started to pull the rope, when I suddenly heard a large roaring/rumbling sound. I said to Mirek, “What the hell is that”. He looked up, and said (and I swear this is true) “we’re going to die”. The cornice that we were rappelling away from (the reason that you make diagonal rappels) had decided to cut loose. Well, you should have seen us trying to hide under this one small overhang (where the station was placed). We were basically trying to make the two of us fit into a space only big enough for one. I never actually saw all the snow and rock pass by us, because I had my eyes closed. We felt the rush of the air, and the got pelted with some small ice and snow, but that was it. Luckily we were far enough to the right of the cornice to have been missed. If the cornice had let go 10 minutes earlier, we both would have been dead – no question. Four rappels down, one near death experience.
The view from the summit - looking down on the Bugaboo Spire (to the left) and Snowpatch Spire (to the right)
So after that little mishap, we continued on our way. The next rappel took us off the face and onto a small rock outcrop just at the lip of the bershrung. When we went to pull the rope – it wouldn’t budge. And I mean, not a bit. After 15 minutes of trying, we decided that we only had one option – prussick up the rope. As Mirek had done the last bit of rope rescuing, I was elected for this task. I had never prussicked up a rope before (more than a few feet) and did a horrible job – after about 20 metres of trying (and about 30 minutes), and losing a piece of gear, I suggested Mirek have a go (he’s done this before). Although he wasn’t happy about it, he agreed. Off he went – it took him approximately 1.5 hours to reach the top of the ropes. He fixed the problem as best he could (the roped was twisted – it had to do with using a 7 mill with an 11 mill) and rapped back down. We pulled the ropes. The ropes came down – the 11 mill rope got stuck. Unbelievably, the rope was stuck in the small gap, where the glacier meets the rock face (where the warmer rock has melted away the glacier). By this time it had been dark for a couple of hours.
Now the main problem we had, is that the last rappel (which we were about to do) was a free hanging rappel over the bershrung down to the glacier. The guidebook said you need every metre of a 50 metre rope to make this rappel. Somehow we needed to get our rope back. However, here was the situation. We were about 50 metres below where the rope was stuck. It was a 60-70 degree snow/ice slope up to bottom of the face (which is where the rope was stuck). It was pitch black, and we had one set of small instep crampons and one ice axe. Mirek said – “you’re up buddy – I just prussicked up the rope; your turn now”. I couldn’t argue with his logic, so I put on my little crampons, got the ice-axe, put on my head-lamp and started up. Mirek was belaying me, but there was no protection possible. I kicked or cut steps as best as I could, and plunged my ice axe as deep and solidly as I could and started up. I got up about 10 metres, and my head lamp died. True story. We had really pissed off the rappelling gods.
Mirek, took his headlamp off, and sent it up on the rope. Now this may not sound hard, but switching headlamps requires two hands. I couldn’t really take my hands off my ice axe, so it was a real challenge to get the friggin headlamp on. Finally I persevered and kept climbing. I eventually managed to get within about 10 metres of where the rope was stuck, but I couldn’t get any higher because the snow/ice was too thin – my ice axe and feet kept hitting rock. To give you a sense of how steep it was (see photo below) – I was plunging my ice axe in at about my neck level, and having to cut out places to put my feet.
We both thought that if I cut the rope there, we would have recovered about 40 metres of rope – with the 60 metres of 7 mill we had, we figured we’d have just enough to get us down. So I cut the rope. Now I had to down-climb the same 40 metres. This was only slightly scarier than going up. Luckily it was dark, so I couldn’t see the huge drop I was working over. Once I got down, we had officially completed our 5th rappel. It was now 1 o’clock in the morning.
The red "x" marks the spot where the rope got stuck and I had to solo up the ice to retrieve the rope
The last rappel over the bershrung was interesting, because it’s free hanging. Because of the dark, we were not sure whether or not the ropes had hit the ground until we were about 30 metres into the rappel. Luckily they had, with about 5 metres to spare. Once we hit the glacier, we followed a set of tracks back to our tent – tracks left from a party that had climbed the route a couple of days earlier. If it wasn’t for these tracks, we would have had to wait until light (it’s a big glacier to be wandering around on in the dark). We got back to our tent at about 2:30 in the morning. It had taken us almost as long to do six rappels as it had taken us to do the entire 18 pitch route. It is for this reason, that I truly hate rappelling.
Lessen learned – don’t use a small diameter rope as your retrieving rope when rappelling.
We spent the next day recovering, and then climbed the McTech Arête the following day – a beautiful climb that I would highly recommend. After that, as so often happens in the Bugaboos, the weather crapped out and we went sport climbing.