How it all happened
A fifteen hour drive, a sore back, some instant rice and my brother Jared and I were at the Applebee dome camp Sunday August 9th. Our nonstop travel from Utah and Wyoming to the Bugaboos left us fatigued and we were fast asleep in my brothers newly purchased MSR Mutha Hubba 3 man tent (a roomy tent).
Monday was planned as a rest day until our lounging around camp hadn't satisfied our appetite to climb the iconic spires surrounding us (no rest for the crazy). Our list of “to do's” included the Kain Route and North East Ridge on Bugaboo Spire, West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, and maybe a north side/glacier ascent of the North Howser Tower, and if we had time maybe the Classic Traverse. The weather was partly cloudy and seemed good enough to scramble a peak. We started up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col and onto the Kain route.
As we neared the Gendarme we could see the weather was quickly deteriorating forcing our retreat back down to the col to Applebee. It continued to rain until the afternoon of the following day, 24 hours.
We prayed Bugaboo weather would not be the single event of our trip. As we climbed out of our tent we noticed a massive rock/mud slide had fallen down Bugaboo/Snowpatch col, less than 12 hours after we been there.
The climbers at Apple Bee camp agreed this col was now an unforgiving objective hazard and alternative ways to access the climbs were discussed. An unfortunate event, considering this col is the quickest access to many of the climbs. Later in the trip, we saw guide book author Marc Piche’, who told us it was the worst he has ever seen the col since he’d been climbing in the Bugaboos.
West Ridge of Pigeon Spire
Wednesday's weather was forecast to be cloudy with a slight chance of precipitation. Discussing our options, we decided to climb the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire via the longer approach of Pigeon fork on bugaboo glacier, then off to bed.
3:00 A.M., I awoke from a peaceful sleep and the thought of getting up was depressing. Moments like this make me wonder why I do this. My sleeping bag seemed to be pulling me down like a giant magnet. Somehow I got up and after a granola breakfast we were off at 3:40 A.M. We traversed around the south base of Snowpatch spire and onto bugaboo glacier.
For the first bit we traveled by headlamp and soon came within view of the Snowpatch-Pigeon col and a party of 5 climbers ahead. We were now traveling up steep glacial snow south of Pigeon Spire.
As we approached the top of this section we found the 5 climbers had stopped at the edge of a large crevasse, 15’ wide, and 100’ deep running from the edge of Pigeon spire to an area left of us, ending dangerously steep.
Two small snow bridges were found perched across the abyss. The group of 5 soon retreated leaving my brother and I alone to discuss ways over the snow bridges. New snow from the previous day made it hard to evaluate the strength of the bridges. I was helping Jared with a boot-axe belay when two new climbers approached. After they helped back-up our belay, I began with small steps across the closest bridge and my axe began to sink deeper and deeper with no feeling of hard snow beneath. I nervously expected a collapse, but was pleasantly surprised when I reached the other side. The uphill side of the crevasse was 4 feet higher requiring me to dig steps to climb off the snow bridge. Reaching solid snow I began belaying my brother and the two other climbers across.
We continued up the glacier, over one more snow bridge and finally to the start of the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire. Chris and his partner began up the route.
After looking up the 5.4 ridge I could see it was plastered in rime ice from the day before. Rime ice known as “an opaque coating of tiny, white, granular ice particles, caused by the rapid freezing of supercooled water droplets on impact with an object” (in this case rock).
It was intimidating and I was happy the other climbers were taking the lead considering the icy conditions above. The temperature was hovering around 45 deg F, and the ice seemed to break apart easily. However, I realized any lack of attention could send any one of us off the ridge with unwelcome consequences. We roped up to simulclimb with some pieces of protection between us in case of an unexpected slip.
The West Ridge Continued
We continued following Chris and his partner over the first peak and onto the second. Looking back, we could see our Applebee camp neighbors Tom and Rich approaching. They were free soloing the route and passed us by heading to the summit block. They thanked us for clearing the rock of ice as they followed. Tom and Rich took the lead up the last few sections to the summit (this time roped up).
The weather till now had been a windy 30 mile/hr, with low visibility and occasional patches of blue sky. My brother took photos when he could while dealing with my persistent hurried state (Great job Jared the shots are awesome). I seemed to be suffering from tunnel vision focused only on our safety up and down the ridge.
After one long pitch we arrived at the summit to enjoy the view. We could faintly see down through the clouds to the glaciers below. After enjoying the summit we rigged the ropes and after two short rappels were descending the route. While down climbing we were happy to see some of the rime ice had begun to melt away. After the second and then first summit it felt good to be down at the start of the ridge. The weather had improved with a view across vowel glacier to bugaboo spire, and our first clear view of the Howser towers and their enormous glaciers demanded our attention. We couldn’t be happier, we were safe (thus far) and I was able to relax a little. Jared experienced the best view of his life while using the toilet placed by the “Friends of Bugaboo” overlooking the Pigeon/Howser col, a throne to remember!
We roped up, and began the straightforward descent down the upper vowel glacier to the Snowpatch-Pigeon col rappels. The top of the rappels gave a birds eye view of the snowpatch-pigeon ice fall and a direct view of the east face of Pigeon Spire.
We thought we had died and gone to heaven, well, almost! A series of 6 rappels and we were back down onto the bugaboo glacier. With only one stuck rope (the only cursing I did the whole trip) we were happy with our descent. Heading down the glacier we rejoined our steps jumping over one small crevasse. We continued and I heard a yell, looking back, Jared had sunk one leg hip deep into what must have been a melting snow bridge. We considered ourselves lucky as he easily recovered and moved onto more stable snow. We contemplated for a moment if we were ready had he fallen into a crevasse. We had left our purusiks (a convenient mistake) in our packs after we had put them away for the climb of the West Ridge. A lesson learned, NEVER LET CONVENIENCE TRUMP SAFETY! Soon we were back on solid ground and traversed under Snowpatch Spire and back to Applebee camp, what a day!
The last day
The weather report for the next day sounded morbid, but we continued to be optimistic and see what happened. Thursday morning, only partly cloudy, we gathered our gear and headed for the crescent central spires to climb Lions Way, 5.6. Our previous plan to climb the North East ridge of Bugaboo spire was on hold do to wet icy conditions, and the Kain route was blocked by an unsafe ascent up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. But no regrets, Lions Way was fantastic with a 2 star rating from the guide book, we were not disappointed. The route follows an aesthetic line, 4-5 pitches up a ridge with great exposure. The view from the summit included Snowpatch, Pigeon, Howsers, and Bugaboo Spire.
We could see climbers below on the McTech arete (5.10a) and thought someday we will climb it. Despite the weather forecast we had great views; you never can predict the weather in the bugaboos (Unless you are summitpost member Dow Williams and can spend all summer in the Bugaboos with a Mormon friend named Joe).
We enjoyed our last summit in the bugaboos, this year anyways! An area of many adventures, our trip to the bugaboos would not be our last.