Saturday, August 27, 2011

Postcards from the Bugaboos

As soon as I got back from Alaska I headed out on the rocks. Three weeks on a glacier does not do much for finger strength, and I wanted to be ready when summer hit. I need not have hurried. July was cold and wet, with a deep snowpack lingering up high. I suppose walking around in the rain and trying to keep my digits warm, be it in Echo Canyon or in the Bugaboos, made me appreciate real summer when it did finally arrive.

I was not always big on the Bugs. In the four or five hours it takes to drive from Calgary to the trailhead one passes so many fine objectives it is easy to get sidetracked. But as years passed and I ticked off routes on Yam, Windtower and Temple, I found myself increasingly looking for adventure among those granite spires. This summer alone I have already made the short but steep approach four times, and I might not be done yet. Two very different routes have been the highlights of my Bugs season thus far: one shorter but more technical, the other longer but, well, also not altogether casual.

The Power of Lard

When climbing in the Bugs I always used to go into alpine mode, picking routes I could simply walk up to and send without much ado. I reserved sieging routes, and the whole business of hangdogging and redpointing, for Acephale and the Lookout. But I realized that if I wanted to get better at the (for me) black art of crack climbing, I needed to get in over my head in the Bugs as well. I picked the Power of Lard on the east face of Snowpatch Spire as my granite university: long but not that long, and hard but not that hard. In the end weather and conditions turned it into more of a project than I had anticipated. On the first trip we did not get beyond the fourth-class scrambling at the base, as rain and snow enshrouded the spires. On the second trip the weather was better but the second pitch was desperately wet. Finally on the third trip I managed to put together the first six pitches for a baby version of the climb (the Power of Tofu?). I dogged my way up the crux seventh pitch, but a redpoint of that spectacular overhanging splitter will have to await better crack technique. Still, I had a blast playing on what must surely be one of the most aesthetic climbs in the Bugs.

Take 1

It rained a lot in July: good for flowers, not so good for climbing. 

The Power of Lard is just one of many fine routes on the right side of the east face of Snowpatch Spire. You cannot really argue with steep rock, splitter cracks and a twenty-minute approach from Applebee. Things are even better if it is not raining and snowing.

"This weather sucks, let's stash the gear and go home." Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Take 2

"You expect me to climb in this weather?" Marcus Norman looks less than thrilled with intermittent flurries while gearing up for the first pitch. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski. 

"Hmm, I'm not sure about hangdogging in the Bugs." Raphael Slawinski sorts our the second pitch while Marcus Norman looks on (disapprovingly?). My beta at the crux overlap? Throw a heelhook on the jug below the bolt and pull. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Delicate stemming and palming on the fourth pitch... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... and sustained jamming on the sixth. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Good times but still no redpoint. Stashing the gear in anticipation of yet another kick at the can. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Take 3

Juan Henriquez takes great care preparing his yerba mate on a gorgeous morning at Applebee. 

Redpointing is ultimately the art of cheating and a bringing a route down to one's own level. Like hanging a long draw from the bolt at the crux on the second pitch, or avoiding the ledge-fall potential on the third by an end run on the left.

To lieback or to stem, that is the question on the fourth pitch.

The crux seventh pitch overhangs by a good five metres in thirty five, as evidenced by the free-hanging rope. It also marks the difference between the Power of Tofu and the Power of Lard.

All Along the Watchtower

A key (perhaps the key) ingredient of adventure is uncertainty: the uncertainty of attempting an on-sight at one's limit, of setting out on yet another redpoint burn on a month-old project, or of committing to a big alpine route. In each case the outcome is in doubt, and just to have a shot at success requires that one put forth one's best effort. But uncertainty, as is its wont, can spring from the most unlikely sources.

We were still ten kilometres from the trailhead when the tire blew. No problem, we had a spare. Our confidence evaporated when we saw that it was both tiny and nearly flat itself. Would the old Honda Civic, with its already low clearance, make it the rest of the way? Or would it suffer shipwreck on one of the many rocks on the rough dirt road?

Later that evening, with my bladder close to bursting, I extricated myself from our tent at Applebee. Half asleep, I stumbled across the starlit campground. The next thing I knew a boulder rolled underfoot and dropped me on jagged granite. I felt blood trickle down a skinned shin, and why did my knee hurt so much when I bent it? Would it be up to the long day ahead?

I was wide awake when the alarm went off at 2:30 am. A mug of black tea, a bagel spread thickly with Nutella, and we were off. I limped with every step on the trail leading down from Applebee, but luckily the knee felt fine on the uphill to the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col. Well, we were going climbing, and isn't climbing about going up? By the time we were scrambling across the spine below the Beckey-Chouinard it was light enough to see. A quick jaunt across the neve below the Central Howser, and we stood on the spur overlooking the glacier below the west face of the North Howser. We knew that once we rappelled into the basin below the face, the most pleasant way back to our sleeping bags was up and over the summit. Without hesitation, under a cloudless sky growing lighter by the minute, we threw the ropes down the first rappel and committed to the climb.

The Civic, before the flat, along the Bugs road. Snowpatch Spire is poking up above the intervening ridges.

Jerome Yerly crosses below Central Howser as the sky grows pink in the east...

... and traverses deep in the blue shade below the west face of the North Howser.

The lower half of the route is not especially difficult but has some tricky routefinding. After following a left-trending corner system for a couple of pitches, we moved right under a roof and up to the base of a long chimney/offwidth. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Jerome and pack emerge from the said chimney/offwidth.

Another routefinding decision has to be made above the offwidth. Low-angled ledges tempt one to the left but lead nowhere. Instead, a hard step to the right gains a fun if somewhat vegetated left-facing corner crack.

From the ledges above, instead of trending left right away, we continued up Armageddon before climbing a steep ramp up and left. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Jerome one pitch below the crux dihedral, in short sleeves in the early afternoon sun.

The point of the whole exercise: the crux corner. It looked short from below (at least to me), but it took us four pitches to get up to the overlap where the route jogs left. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

No single move in the corner was especially hard, but after making the same palming/stemming/liebacking manoeuvre a hundred times, it all started to add up. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Breathtaking exposure down the corner. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

We had a bit of excitement at the crux traverse. I thought I would aid across it and check things out before trying to free it. Instead, just as I neared the end of the horizontal section, the TCU I was hanging from blew. Its siblings below the overlap also blew one by one, sending me for a nasty swing back into the corner. Ouch to say the least! After that, I am afraid I lacked the gumption to attempt the pitch free, and shamelessly yarded across it. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

It was dark by the time we topped out on the hard climbing. As such, there was no longer any rush, and we settled in on some ledges to eat and drink and layer up before moving on.

Climbing the summit ridge under a starry sky was a magical experience, with friendly granite under our gloved hands and huge drops on each side guessed at rather than seen. We tagged the summit around 2 am and promptly started rappelling the east face. We strolled back into Applebee as the sky grew light for the second time since we last slept, some twenty six hours after we set out.

PS: Last but not least, I would like to thank Ulysse Richard and his partner Eric, with whom we shared the route: for pointing us the right way, and for graciously letting us pass. I hope we did not hold you up too much!