The Big Day--Bugaboo Spire!
Wednesday, July 20
If you skipped the teaser story on our first Bugaboo Page, please go back and read it now!
So, as you just found out, we got up shortly after 2:00 in the morning and the weather didn't look that great. But putting all our fears aside we got up and started preparing to climb Bugaboo Spire's Northeast Ridge nonetheless.
After cooking up a hot breakfast and making a quick trip to the outhouse, we peeled off a few layers of clothing, put on our harnesses and packed up our bags. We headed out of camp at 3:50. With the cloud cover it was quite dark--we were glad to have better headlamps than when we climbed Crestone Needle a couple years ago. Hopefully we wouldn't get lost on the approach! We hadn't had the time or motivation to check out the approach previously, so it was all new to us.
It turned out that the first part of the approach was pretty straight forward. We passed two small tarns north of camp and climbed up and over a few small moraines. When we reached the third and final tarn, it seemed that the obvious route when right over it! (It was still mostly frozen.) Things seemed good and frozen this early in the morning, so we cautiously headed across, spreading out a bit so we wouldn't both punch through into icy water at the same time.
Safely across the last tarn, we climbed up onto the Crescent Glacier. The glacier was well covered with solid snow, so we held off on roping up. There were no more obstacles between us and Bugaboo Spire now, and with the sky just barely starting to lighten up, so it was easy to see where we were headed.
To reach the Northeast Ridge, one must first climb up to the Bugaboo-Crescent Col via 4th and low 5th class rock. The line follows a right leaning ramp that was hard to make out from camp, but luckily, now that we were right in front of, was hard to miss. The guidebooks make it sound like roping up for this section is optional, but being that it was still quite dark out and we were still feeling bleary eyed, we decided quickly that we would rope up and try to simulclimb this section. The small mote between rock and snow made a bit of an awkward place to rope up, but we managed to keep from getting tangled.
So, off we went up the rock, glad to be off the snow and on to what we really love! While the climbing here wasn't particularly hard, there was lots of loose rock. I tiptoed around it the best I could in my mountain boots and tried to arrange the rope so it wouldn't be knocking things off on Angela as we moved up. While I didn't place a lot of protection on this section, it was definitely nice to have the rope in a few key places. Plus we were both able to keep moving together, so I don't think it slowed us down much at all.
By the time we reached the col, we had already dowsed our headlamps. The sun wasn't up yet, but it was definitely light enough to see now. If you've read many of my other stories, you probably know that I just love reaching a notch or a pass and having a look over the other side. This might be one of the more spectacular notch views ever! This was our first view of the lower Vowell Glacier, and an impressive bunch of remote Spires called the Vowell Group.
Besides the awesome views of the Vowells and Brenta Spire, the view up the ridge of Bugaboo was amazing! Everything was coming together now. The rest of the approach was laid out before us in plain view, and I could easily pick out the first three pitches of the climb. We couldn't wait to get up there and start climbing.
Though we were on much easier ground now, we stayed roped up. No sense in wasting time putting the ropes away when we would probably need the again soon. We wove around boulders making our way towards the obvious patch of snow that must be crossed before the final bit of 4th class rock to the "beginning" of the route.
The top of the snowfield is supposed to lead to an easy wide crack which can be followed up low-angle rock to the base of the Northeast Ridge. However, as I neared the end of the snow, the snow steepened and then gave way to ice! My access to the easy crack was cut off. Not having my crampons on and not being in a good position to put them on, I had to retreat a bit and take an alternate route on the rock to the right. While the climbing here wasn't really hard, I would have felt much more secure in the crack! I climbed up the slabby face cautiously smearing and edging in my mountain boots. After finding a cam placement or two, I managed to relax a little, knowing we weren't going to fall off the mountain if one of us slipped. Eventually I was able to traverse back to the left and rejoin the normal route, where the climbing proved much easier and more secure.
And, before we knew it, we were at the base of the "real" climb. While it certainly didn't feel like it, the approach had taken just under three hours. Since we were already roped up, the transition to more technical climbing was easy--just had to change footwear and drag the rack out of my backpack. After a quick snack and a swig of water we were ready to go. The first few moves surmount a small roof split by a finger crack which must be lay-backed--definitely not my specialty! After about two moves I could tell I was in trouble. With my feet stemmed out, smearing on next to nothing, I frantically placed a small cam at eye level and managed to get the ropes clipped without falling. Unfortunately, the more I tried to move up, the less secure my feet got. In an instant, I was falling back towards Angela. Damn it! Couldn't believe I fell so close to the beginning of the climb. I hoped this wasn't an indication of how the rest of the day was going to go.
After catching my fall, Angela lowered me the foot or so back to where I started. I reevaluated the situation and noticed that there might be a sneaky way around the finger crack to the left. I gave it a shot and found that I could get above the small overhang easily and then follow a tricky traverse back to the right above the spot where I had fallen. Now I was on my way! The rest of the first pitch went without a hitch. The climbing was varied and exciting! It had a little bit of everything--from cracks to chimney to liebacks on a one inch flake to friction and face climbing. When I got to the end of the pitch I was feeling better about things--it always seems to take me a while to work out the jitters at the beginning of any climb.
Just after I had started up the first pitch, another party had arrived behind us. It was Seth and Vren--we had run into them off and on around camp. There were planning on simulclimbing much of the route and asked if it was alright to climb through. We agreed and let them start up before Angela. Soon they were passed us and Angela cleaned the pitch, joining me on the first belay. By now, the clouds were starting to thin out, and we both having a blast.
The second pitch follows a series of flakes which reminded me a lot of some formations at Lumpy Ridge in Colorado. The climbing was easier here (5.6) and much more straight forward than the first pitch. In no time we were both at the second belay.
The third pitch is the second hardest on the climb at 5.7. I'd been wondering for some time what this pitch would be like. Interestingly, it starts by climbing down about 12 feet and then traversing out to the left before heading up a crack. Very soon the crack peters out, and you must follow a dyke system which offers large holds heading out to the right. While I had been nervous about this pitch from reading the descriptions, now that I was actually doing it, I didn't want it to ever end! It was one of the most fabulous pitches I've climbed. Excellent position and exposure, thought provoking, balancy moves on sometimes oddly shaped holds, and just enough places to put in protection. By the end of this pitch I was really feeling like I was in the groove of things. The climbing had become almost effortless and the pro seemed to almost place itself. When Angela joined me at the third belay, it was hard to tell which of us was having more fun! We both just loved that pitch!
The forth pitch followed a nice looking dihedral at 5.6. Getting started proved a little tricky and awkward--you nearly have to stand on your belayer because the ledge below the corner is rather small. Once I got up and got going the climbing went smoothly. Feeling good and with plenty of pro left on my rack, I linked the fifth pitch with the forth, ending on a large comfortable ledge with the most amazing views.
Up until this point there really hadn't been a break in the action since we left camp at 3:50. Our transitions at each belay had been quick and efficient--pausing just long enough to re-rack the gear and re-stack the ropes. We had made the first five pitches in three and a half hours and were feeling pretty good about ourselves! From here on out the climbing was supposed to get easier with only one section of 5.7 left, somewhere around the 10th pitch. And to top it all off the weather had turned out to be just plain beautiful! So we took advantage of the comfortable ledge and dug some snacks out of our packs before heading on.
The next four pitches are a bit of a blur. In general they follow an incredibly long chimney system (nearly 800 feet). The climbing is mostly easy with an exciting move here and there just to keep you honest. Fortunately there wasn't a lot of actual chimney climbing as we where both climbing with packs and didn't fancy having to haul them. By this time I was really feeling one with the rock. I'm not sure where he came from, but from somewhere inside me there emerged a confident friction climber! (Something I've never really excelled at.) At one point I remember Angela calling up to me wondering how I made it up a particular steep squeeze chimney with my pack on. I proudly responded that I had simply climbed around it on the steep face to the right! Angela, knowing my fear of friction, was flabbergasted. "Are you feeling alright?" she asked, "since when are you a friction climber?" "Since right now, I guess!" I responded.
After the four chimney pitches there is one remaining 5.7 pitch through a couple of overlaps. Though the climbing looked like it might be a bit interesting or difficult, it ended up being pretty easy--much more so than the earlier 5.7 bits of the climb. With this last difficult pitch under our belt, we were only a few hundred feet below the north summit. At this point the angle of the rock decreases considerably and the climbing gets much easier. Angela and I decided to simulclimb this fourth class section to save a little time. It reminded us very much of the traverse across the top of the First Flatiron in Colorado, only with a much better view!!!
They say that when you get to the top of a climb your journey is only half over. I don't think this has ever been more true than on Bugaboo Spire! Getting down from the top of the Northeast Ridge involves intricate route finding (reading between the lines in your guidebook), numerous rappels, hand traverses with 2000 feet of exposure, and much scrambling down loose rock (oh, and steep snow as well). All of this, of course, must be done when you're tired from the climb up and just want to get down!
The first order of business from the end of the NE Ridge is to traverse the length of Bugaboo Spire to the south summit. Instead of going right over the top of the north summit and following the ridge right over to the south summit (nothing's ever that simple!), one must first rappel 20 feet to the east onto a small ledge strewn with boulders. From here you're supposed to be able to scramble over and up to gain the ridge that does connect the north and south summits, but the path is not obvious at all. I followed my instincts and took a crawlspace behind a large boulder. This seemed to the be right thing to do as I now had more options than I had previously. From here it was a sort of "choose your own adventure" up to and across the ridge to a notch below the south summit. Many people climb this section unroped, but with a few spicy moves (hanging your butt out over 2000 feet of air) any small mistake could be your last. Needless to say, there wasn't much debate between the two of us about what to do--we roped up with about 80 feet between us and simulclimbed the entire ridge. With the added security of the rope and a few points of protection between us, we were able to move just as fast or faster than the parties behind us who chose to go ropeless.
The ridge between the north and south summits is wild and exciting! At some points it's rather broad and at other's it's shockingly narrow, forcing you to shuffle along it's edge with lots of air below your feet! From this amazing vantage, we finally got our first view of the Howser Towers to the west which had been shrouded in clouds a few days before. Talk about marvelous! This view really took our breath away.
By about 4:20 we had reached a notch about twenty feet shy of the south (and taller) summit. To climb directly to the summit from the north involves a short pitch of 5.10. Apparently the taller you are the easier this pitch is, but neither Angela nor I have an impressive ape-index. Even if we did, neither of us is really up to leading a spicy little 5.10 on top of a 2400 foot rock spire. There was another alternate route to the summit, but the description wasn't that clear and in the end we just decided against taking the time to find our way to the very top. Besides, actual summits have never really been that important to us anyway (leaves us something to aspire to the next time). We knew we had a long descent down the Kain route ahead of us and thought it best that we get to work finding our way down.
While getting to the south summit seemed like it would be a little confusing, our decision to bypass it didn't exactly make for a straight forward descent. I knew from one of the guidebooks that this bypass was possible and that eventually we would join the standard descent route, but I had neglected to copy the paragraph describing this terrain. So, we were on our own to sniff out the route down. Initially we were forced to rappel from a fixed anchor--but where to stop and where to go next? There was another party right behind us now, who had made the same decision to bypass the summit. They seemed to have even less of an idea where we were going, arguing amongst themselves and adding to the confusion. (They had been doing this all the way across the traverse from the north summit.) I tried to block them out and focus on reading the rock and finding the best and most obvious path. We rappelled down to a ledge and with much hunting and poking around, we found another anchor which would allow us to rappel onto the Kain route just above the famous gendarme and rejoin the normal descent.
Reaching this point was a real relief--from here on out we had a very good description of the descent. Our tired brains and thirsty bodies had just about had there fill of adventure and decision making for the day. It was going to feel really good to crawl into our sleeping bags when we finally got back to camp!
Of the five or six rappels still ahead of us, the first one off the back side of the gendarme was the only one that really stood out as memorable. Once you set up your rappel gear, you must squeeze through a ridiculously narrow slot face first and kind of swing onto rappel. Ideally you'd like to go through this slot sideways with a little more grace, but wearing a backpack makes it impossible. Adding to the excitement is the steepness of this rappel. The back of the gendarme actually overhangs a little bit so you hanging freely from your rope the whole way down.
After that one exciting rappel, there were several more less exciting ones, sometimes linked with bits of scrambling down the Kain ridge between anchors. Thankfully someone has installed very nice and beefy bolt and chain rappel anchors, which we very much appreciated. No worries about ratty old webbing or loose boulder anchors here. Our biggest concern on each of the rappels was just retrieving the ropes as it seemed there were a million things they could snag on as they came down. But we got lucky and our skinny little ropes came back to us every time.
The further we got down the ridge the more loose rock we seemed to encounter. Parts of the down climbing seemed a bit sketchy, but we kept our cool and took our time, making sure to find the best way down. Finally, we were done with all of the rappels and down the steepest parts of the Kain route. We took a short break to change back into our mountaineering boots and rummaged through our packs for some food. We were starving and thirsty! We actually had brought plenty of food along, but had neglected to take the time to eat it all throughout the day. Water was another story. In order to save some weight we had each only brought one quart of water. Knowing we had a limited supply we had started out the day very well hydrated and then just sipped a little here and there as we climbed. So now, needing a little boost of energy to get us down the rest of the ridge, we gobbled down some mini packets of Nutella with our fingers and drank a little of our remaining water.
From this point on we still had quite a bit of unknown terrain to cover before getting back to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col which we were familiar with from Monday's failed attempt on Pigeon Spire. For the most part this involved picking our way through the great rubble pile that is the south ridge of Bugaboo Spire. We commented as we went along about how glad we were to have decided against climbing up the Kain Route and just "going for it" on the NE Ridge instead. While there are probably a couple nice pitches on the Kain route, there was certainly an awful lot of nasty loose terrain involved in getting there, and we had just about had our fill of loose rock on this trip!
With our brains nearly fried from all the route finding and picking through the loose, hazardous terrain above, we finally reached the Col. While we still had to manage the technical descent down the snow with a gaping bergschrund a third of the way down, at least we new what we were up against from previous experience. Since it was late in the day and our bodies were nearing exhaustion, we decided to take our time down the snow and try to utilize the rappel anchors along the edge of the snowfield. We weren't alone in our decision, a pair of Kiwis who had followed us up the NE ridge but taken a little longer on top had finally caught up with us and also opted to rappel the upper part of the snow field. While two rappels didn't quite get us past the 'schrund, it did get us down the steepest part of the snow leaving us with only a hundred feet or so of moderate snow to get us safely below the 'schrund.
While we had taken the time to neatly coil our ropes after this last rappel, the Kiwis were feeling a bit lazy (or something) and just drug their ropes down the snowfield behind them. They were both obviously more comfortable on snow than we were and descended with great bounding steps. To us it was comical! They bounded and frolicked down the slope with their ropes twisting and snarling behind them. Looked like an accident waiting to happen. They totally cracked us up! It was nice to see that we weren't the only ones anxious to get back to the comforts of camp! I ran into one of them the next day and asked about their ropes. Apparently it took them a very long time to untangle them!
Once below the bergschrund, we sat on our butts and did a long glissade down the snow field. The snow was starting to firm up which made for a very abrasive ride. When I got to the bottom I totally expected to stand up and find the seat of my pants shredded. Fortunately that wasn't the case--it had just felt as if the snow were ripping through on the way down. When we finally did come to rest on the flats of the Crescent Glacier, we both breathed a sigh of relief. After 16 hours of moving through technical terrain we were finally in the clear and could let our guard down. From here it was a simple hike back to camp with no real blatant hazards.
That being said, our hike back was not without it's own adventure. In my weakened mental state, I let Angela convince me to take a route different from the one we were familiar with. She had heard that this other way was shorter and easier and that sounded good to me! Unfortunately, it didn't turn out to be so. I don't know if it was any further, but since we didn't really know where we were going it definitely took us longer. The moraines between Bugaboo Spire and camp rise and fall repeatedly making it difficult to really see where you are going or where the easiest line is going to be. Just as we were starting to get frustrated and wonder if we were ever going to make it back to camp, something magical happened. The huge, nearly full, bright orange moon started sneaking out from behind a mountain on the eastern horizon! It was just a beautiful sight! Though we were anxious to get back to camp and just stop moving, we paused a few minutes to watch the moon slowly reveal itself. What a great end to an incredible day!
Finally we stumbled back into camp, exhausted but with our brains buzzing and giddy over our day's accomplishment. We couldn't wait to share our experiences with our new friends from Seattle, but it appeared that everyone had already turned in for the night. Once we dropped our packs and gear by our tent, our first priority was to quench our awful thirst that had been building for hours. We scrambled down to the nearest running water supply and drank as much of that freezing cold water as we could with out getting a brain-freeze. With our thirst satisfied, we headed back to camp and stuck our bottle of champagne in a snow bank to chill. After nearly drinking it out of desperation the day before, we were glad we had saved it and pushed ourselves to do something really deserving of a celebration.
As we were organizing our gear and getting out tent ready for a good night's sleep, Angela spotted some headlamps descending the slope between Crescent Towers and Eastpost spire. As they drew closer to camp we realized it was the guys from Seattle! Apparently they weren't in their tents sleeping after all. As it turned out they had gone to climb a route on Brenta Spire and ended up having quite a long day as well. While we were all eager to discuss our adventures, the need for sleep soon overcame us and we retired to our tents. Tomorrow was certainly going to be a rest day for all of us!