The Howser Spire is actually three distinct granite peaks located in the Bugaboos – the renowned alpine climbing destination found in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountain Range (a sub-range of the Selkirks). The three separate peaks, collectively known as the Howser Spire Massif, are the North Tower, the Central Tower and the South Tower. The North Tower at 3398 metres (11,150 ft) is the highest, the Central Tower is the lowest, and the South Tower is only slightly lower than the North measuring in at 3292 metres (10,800 ft).
The Howser Spires are the tallest peaks in the Bugaboos and are located at the southwest corner of the Vowell Glacier. The majority of the climbing on the Howser Spires takes place on their west faces making them one of the more difficult peaks in the Bugaboos to access for climbing. The Howser Spire also holds one of the best of Roper and Steck's 50 Classic Climbs of North America - the West Buttress of South Howser; also known as the "Becky/Chouinard".
Access into Bugaboo Provincial Park is a fairly simple affair. Get yourself to Radium British Columbia – this is your last good chance to buy groceries, beer, books, etc. From Radium, head north on Highway 95 about 17 miles (27 km) until you reach a little community called Brisco (there is also a small store here). Turn left (west) off the highway at a well marked sign that points you to the Bugaboo Provincial Recreation Area. Follow this road across the Spillimacheen River following small signs that direct you toward the Bugaboos. The road is gravel and narrow in spots – so drive with caution. There can also be logging trucks and other heavy equipment using these roads – remember logging is British Columbia’s largest industry. This link provides a good map of the area - Location Map From the highway to the parking lot it is about 28 miles (45 km) and will take you approximately one hour. You don’t actually see the Bugaboos until you are about 5 minutes from the parking lot – lots of people jump out of their vehicles here and start taking pictures (it’s that good). The main road continues up to the Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) Lodge, but parking there is for clients only. There is a signed road that branches off the main road to the right just before the lodge – this is the main parking for the middle class.
If you see all the vehicles with chicken wire around them and think you’ve wandered into an episode of the Twilight Zone, I can’t blame you. The first time I arrived there, I wondered what the hell was going on. Turns out porcupines can have a bit of a rubber habit – they are attracted to the hoses in your vehicles. Although the risk is low – you don’t want to be the guy who had to get towed back from the Bugs because you were too lazy to put up a little chicken wire. From the parking lots it’s a steep hump up to the Kain Hut. The trail is over 3 miles long and climbs over 2100 feet in elevation. In one section, there is an aluminum ladder installed to help you surmount a little rock bluff. With big packs, the hike in is a bitch, but not the worst hike I’ve ever done – and the views are outstanding. Also keep in mind that when Conrad Kain first came climbing here in 1910, there was no trail. As you slog up the well-built and well-marked trail have a look off to the side and ponder what it would be like over there with the same pack, and no Gore-Tex.
Oh yea, and here’s a little local tip – about 15 minutes into the approach (before you start the steep bit), you cross a cold, clean, bubbling stream. If you were crafty, you might hide a few beer cans down (or up) stream. The thought of these beers will keep your quads going on the tortuous trip down – it’s scientifically proven that cooling beers in a stream will allow your body to plug on a full hour longer than normal. With big packs, the trip to the hut usually takes anyway from 2 to 3 hours. Most climbers however, don’t stay at the hut, but rather camp at the Applebee Campground, about 30-45 minutes further uphill. Camping at Applebee shaves time off approaches to all but a few of the climbs, and saves you from having to sleep in a hut full of snoring people.
There are no permits required to camp or climb in the Bugaboos or on Howser Spire. The main red tape has to do with camping, which is discussed above. There is some recent talk about BC Parks making some changes to the regulations affecting access, but nothing definite has been proposed yet (the rumors are there may be a permit system employed, thereby limiting access into the area).
Camping in the Bugaboos basically offers you three options: 1. Camp at the Kain Hut - The Conrad Kain Hut is available for overnight accommodation up to a maximum of 40 persons. Reservations may be made through the Alpine Club of Canada at 403-678-3200 or through the Alpine Club of Canada website. Any unreserved spaces are allocated on a first-come first-served basis. During the peak climbing months of July and August the hut is often full - reservations are highly recommended. The fee for the Kain hut is $25/night per person, or $50 per night for a family. 2. Boulder Camp – this site is located below the Kain Hut and is for tenting. It’s not where you want to be if you are climbing in the Bugs, but is a nice spot if you are there simply to hike and hangout.
3. Applebee Dome – This is the camping site that most climbers utilize. The views are awesome and there is an outhouse (toilet) here. The only issue is the ground squirrels – you need to be vigilant about storing your food. We found that burying food deep in the snow (making sure it is marked) is a good strategy. Both the Boulder Camp and Applebee Dome camp have a $5 per night fee, which is payable at a self-registration station located inside the Kain Hut. Please don’t try to get out of paying this fee – there are Wardens there whose job is (among many other things – like maybe rescuing you) to ensure you have paid. Don’t make their life complicated (i.e. “I didn’t know I had to pay”, I don’t have any cash on me dude”, etc.) To prevent contamination of the water supply and damage to the sensitive alpine environment, camping in the park is not permitted anywhere in the vicinity of the main spires (Bugaboo, Snowpatch, Crescent, Pigeon, Howsers). Bivouacking is not permitted unless circumstances dictate it is necessity. Wilderness camping is allowed in other, more remote areas of the park, such as the Vowell Group. Leave-no-trace wilderness camping ethics should be utilized. With respect to the Howser Tower – there is wilderness camping allowed but it must take place on the west side of the Tower (which is actually outside the Park). Here is a link to a good map of the Park. Camping on the west side of the Howser Spires involves a long hike in from the Parking lot that involves crossing the Bugaboo/Snowpatch Col, then crossing the Vowell Glacier and descending down the Howser/Pigeon Spire, until camping areas are reached in the rocks at the bottom of the ice. Alternately, if you have the greenbacks, you can helicopter in (see below).
There are a number of ways to access the Howser Spires, but only two of them are really practical (i.e. a third way to access the Howser Spires is from the west via East Creek or Howser Creek, but it is very difficult). You can hike in from the main Bugaboo parking lot (accessed via Highway 95) or you can fly in by helicopter, which folks normally arrange via Canadian Mountain Helicopters. Of course the helicopter is the easiest way, but the most expensive. If you’re like me, you walk in.
Accessing most of the west side routes of Howser Spire involves hiking over the Snowpatch/Bugaboo Col, and across the Vowell Glacier, and then descending through the Pigeon/Howser Col. Roped travel on the glacier is a must, as is some type of ice axe and crampons. I’ve used little instep crampons that strap on any boot – this is marginal, but does help and is very light. The trip from the parking lot to the Pigeon/Howser Col, with a full pack, will likely take you somewhere around 6-8 hours. Routes on the west side of the north Howser Tower can also be accessed by climbing the Snowpatch/Bugaboo Col, but instead of ascending the Vowell Glacier to Howser/Pigeon Col, you head northwest across the Vowell Glacier skirting the Towers to the north and then across the northwest ridge.
Although there are climbs on the east side of Howser, these are mainly snow and ice climbs and are not overly popular. This is because the east side of the Howser Spires are not spectacular (although still beautiful) and are relatively short due to the fact that the Vowell Glacier sits up against them. It is the west side of the Howser Spires that draw alpinists from all over the world – these faces are long, steep, and committing. Having said that, all climbing on the Howser Spires is a serious endeavor – the approach to any climb involves traveling across glaciers and roping up is mandatory. The routes on the west side of the Spires contain the longest alpine climbs in Bugs – the west face of the North Howser Tower rises up almost 1000 metres and contains hard multi-pitch grade 6 routes such as “All Along the Watch Tower” (5.10 A2 or 5.12) and “Young Men on Fire” (5.11 A4). The west side of the Central Tower has the shortest wall (around 500 metes) and has seen the fewest new lines – “Fear and Desire” (VI 5.9 A3) was put up in 2000 and significant details on the climb can be found in the 2000 Canadian Alpine Journal. The South Howser Tower contains perhaps the best (and most sought after) route in the Bugaboos – the West Buttress; more commonly known as the “Becky/Chouinard”. At 5.10, it is the easiest route on the west side of the Howsers, but don’t let that fool you – it’s still a sustained crack climbing route that will test all your skills. It’s also probably the site of most of the epics – due to the length of the line, it’s not easy to retreat once you are more than half way up; and any retreat means leaving gear as there are no fixed anchors. Unfortunately, the weather in the Bugs is notoriously bad and subject to afternoon thunderstorms, so you can see where one might get into trouble.
The descent off the Howser Towers are all primarily by rappel down the east face, although it is possible to down-climb a number of the ridges on the North Tower and north ridge of the Central Tower – however, the normal course of action is to rappel.
Although this page is meant as good overview of the Howser Spires, it is in no way complete. If you are intending to climb any of these Spires, you would be well served to buy the guidebook - Bugaboo Rock. It contains much more detailed information and as well as information on most of the routes. The weather in the Bugs is quite variable - it is a good idea to get some sort of weather forecast before trying any of the big routes. Weather information can sometimes be obtained by the Park Ranger. You can also talk to the folks at the Canadian Mountain Holidays Lodge and sometimes arrange to contact them by radio (you will need to have a radio with a programable frequencies). Remember - if in doubt, get the hell out.