The Long Way Down?

Bugaboo: an object of fear or alarm; a bogey. Upon seeing the gendarme high on the south ridge of the then unnamed Bugaboo Spire, Conrad Kain, during the first ascent of that peak and the route that now bears his name, realized that it was the perfect name for this group of towers jutting like teeth from gums of ice and snow.

Ninety-seven years later that range elicits its namesake emotions from me as I sit and stare at the now well traveled but still imposing, monoliths.

Anna and I are here for the first time. We have succeeded on a handful of routes but it is not enough, it never is. McTech Arete had good climbing but lacked mountain adventure. The Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo had good adventure and challenge but lacked quality climbing. Surf’s Up had a little bit of both and the Sunshine Crack offered excellent climbing but like McTech came up short on the adventure. Greedy as we are, we want more of both. So the Beckey-Chouinard (pronounced Chewy-nard as said by our Quebecois friends) looms large in my mind, like a bugaboo, if you will, as that may be the ticket. There are no doubts that it will provide both.

IMG_8601
Our camp (with ol’ blue) below the South Howser Tower and the Beckey-Chouinard route.

We did everything we should have done. We gave ourselves adequate time, we scouted the approach, we cached gear at the base and we had a well stocked and outfitted base camp in East Creek Basin. We tested ourselves against a handful of other Bugaboo classics and did not find ourselves lacking. We rested, we researched and we brought the right gear. We waited for the weather and when we saw it, we positioned ourselves to take advantage of it. But did we get up early enough? Or maybe it was too early.

The alarm on Anna’s watch went off at 0400. Since I was already battered awake by the cold and the wind, it didn’t serve to wake me as much as it served to tell me to get moving. I crawled out from beneath ol’ blue, our blue polyethylene, gas station purchased tarp and stood up. Fully dressed due to the lack of a sleeping bag, I had only to stand up. My hands fumbled with my headlamp, as my teeth chattered and Anna sat up. Off in the distance two headlamps descended the glacier from the Pigeon-Howser Col. It was our competition, but I paid little mind as I sat down next to the stove and set to making hot water. The flames licked high into the darkness as they did their duty and heated the generator. Further up the rocky moraine our neighbors moved around prepping for their ascent of the North Howser. As I waited for the flames to die down I watched one of them make their way to the toilet. I poured water into the pot and set it on the now primed and running stove. Anna was back with the food bag and pulled out the granola, milk, peanut butter and various other hot drink accouterments. The two lights came down the glacier, then across the moraine and disappeared into the depths of the approach. We ate, warmed up, then made tracks for the base of the route.

Eight-twenty found me at the top of pitch four, the first of three five-ten pitches below my boots. I belayed up Anna and made the usual conversation with Angela who was half of the party in front of us. As the morning and the day wore on we would continue to take advantage of their route finding discoveries and lament some of their movement challenges. We sped upwards and the time spilled away much like the floor of the East Creek Valley. We stretched the rope out, yelled “belay off” as loudly as we could while jamming, shimming, scrambling and sauntering our way up the South Howser Tower. Behind us sky continued its mixed moods, high stratus clouds mixed with lower puffy cumulus clouds, which would grow, disperse and grow again. The climbing was mostly immaculate, clean corners and splitters, good belay ledges and abundant protection options. Off-widths, fist, hands, fingers, chimneys and slabs all got their moment under the rubber and skin. We reveled in its glory while casting hesitant glances over our shoulders and upwards.

Anna exiting the squeeze chimney of pitch 12 on the Beckey-Chouinard.
Anna exiting the squeeze chimney of pitch 12 on the Beckey-Chouinard.

The hail gave us a small staccato signal of something at the top of pitch eleven. Perched on the small ledge, I struggled into my rain jacket before setting off on Angela’s heels into a balancey traverse that would lead up a beautiful 200 foot corner of all shapes and sizes. The hail didn’t last long and soon the sun gave us a bit more buoyancy. We raced upwards as much as we could hurry up and wait with our furtive glances over our shoulders revealing less dispersal and more growing in the clouds to the west.

“I can make room for you once she moves out” Drew says down to me from the top of pitch fourteen. I am standing about six feet below him on a small stance made of a jammed block. It is quite acceptable for the moment. I look around.

“No worries, this will work out fine” I respond after my quick scan reveals a few good pro placement opportunities.

“OK” he responds, “but I can make room up here if you need it.”

“Thanks, this’ll be fine though.”

I fish a gold Camalot off my harness and then a number 13 nut. Both slide into place quickly. I fiddle in a grey Camalot and equalize all three pieces with a long cord. I clove hitch my orange rope to the masterpoint and pull my green rope up to the gold Camalot and attach it with another clove. “Belay off” I yell downward after a quick double check of my system.

“Thank you” Anna replies from one hundred feet below. “You’re off” she yells, her voice swallowed by the growing claps of thunder. She quickly disassembles her anchor and lets me know she is climbing. Lightening visibly flashes for the second time and I start counting only to be stopped three seconds into the count by the ensuing thunder. The easy jamming leads to some loose blocks requiring a bit of stemming to avoid, but soon enough she is right below me. Using my foot, I push the rope over and make a place for her to stand. She clips in and I take her off belay. Lightening flashes again. Above us Drew is taking leave of his belay stance and tension traversing left into the gully.

“Well, we have about 200 meters of 4th and 5th class ridge climbing after we do this tension traverse and the rest of the pitch…” I trail off

“Yep” Anna replies. Around us the rock and our equipment are giving off the distinctive hum and chatter of an electrical charge. I touch the gear and it quiets.

“I am not sure if I want to continue up into this” I offer after a moment of silence. We debate the pros and cons for 30 seconds and the growing din of the electrical charge surrounding us tips the scales. “Drew” I yell up. “We are going to descend the route.”

“Okay, look us up at Applebee, we got some sweet photos of you” he yells down.

“Sounds good, be safe up there” I respond. Anna puts me on belay and I scramble up six feet, sling a bomber horn and rig the rappel to commence our descent. Three hundred feet and two stuck ropes lower, the skies have quieted their roar. The swirling mists and driving rain have dissipated, leaving us wondering if we made the right decision.

“Do we want to continue on our current plan?” Anna asks. “And by asking that question am I by no means saying we should change our plan” she adds.

“I guess we could go back up” I offer though the skies have not totally cleared yet.

We chat a bit more and decide to continue our gravity aided trajectory. The thunder rumbles a few more times, but fails to materialize into anything more obnoxious.

Sunset
Sunset

Ten-thirty finds us touching down on snow in the growing darkness. From here, the route home is well traveled. “Just went out to scout the rappels” Anna quips, quoting the recommendation from the guidebook to climb the Kain Route in order to scout the descent from the Bugaboo Spire.

“I think we got the best of it anyway” I add “What, we missed a tension traverse and some fourth class ridge climbing. And where is the adventure in bolted rappels?” We coil our ropes, tighten our laces and make for ol’ blue.  We might be a few stoppers, ‘biners and cord lighter, but we are a good mountain adventure richer.

 

 

 

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A bit of a nomad, Jared likes to refer to himself in the third person.

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