Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Salvaging success: alpine glissading and impromptu non-rest days

I rarely complete the main objective of a climbing expedition, but it’s often the peripheral events that really tie the room together, as the Dude would say. Last summer in the Bugaboos, Rowan and I experienced several “mission failures”: we had to bail off our attempt at the second ascent of East Columbia Indirect, 5.12A on Snowpatch Spire when I aggravated an old ankle sprain in a fall; we bailed off our attempt at the “easy” side of Snowpatch when we finally admitted, 4 pitches up, that it really was actually raining a lot; and we bailed off the west face of North Howser Tower, which earned us a very long scenic tour or the massif (see the post All Around the Watchtower). Each time, however, any disappointment we felt at failing to reach our particular summit goal was quickly dispelled by the joy of impromptu shenanigans: above all, we realized that while there is certainly a large amount of quality stone in the Bugaboos, the area is a world-class alpine glissading destination!

at the drop-in

Rowan spent his high school years in Switzerland, which makes him basically native Swiss, endowed with the natural talents fostered in the isolated, politically neutral fiefdom: punctuality, rationality, a discerning cheese palate, and sick skills on skis. We discovered that about the time we were getting off the rock most afternoons, the steep snowfields had softened to a perfect consistency for shredding: an inch of softness on top.

Rowan demonstrates equal prowess shredding with back-hand and fore-hand axe technique

Gazing up at the spires, we started scoping lines for descent as well as climbing lines. The pursuit of glissading added a fun dimension to each day; on the morning’s approach we’d be pointing out clean ski lines, already psyched for carving turns on the descent. Double stoke! We experimented with techniques such as the running start, the launch-and-slide, and debated the merits of mid-foot vs. heel strike glissading. We will need to confirm the records of the Canadian Alpine Club but I believe Rowan made the first standing-glissade descent of a gulley to skier’s right of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch couloir. 

Extreme glissading. Double-Black terrain.

The other way we managed to salvage non-success on our primary objectives was impromptu sending on rest days. The morning after out Watchtower attempt we woke late to clear skies and lay about the camp in the stunningly beautiful East Creek basin, yawning and stretching our sore legs. After a leisurely breakfast, a game of backgammon and some reading, we found ourselves both staring up at the clean white granite of South Howser Tower looming above our camp. South Howser is the site of the Becky Chounaird, IV 5.10a, which resides on the fabled “50 Classic Climbs of North America” list, and as such is one of the most popular grade IV backcountry rock climbs in the Northwest. For many parties it is the primary objective of a trip to the Bugaboos, and rightfully so, because the position on a ridge and headwall of the South Howser Tower is superb, and the rock is immaculate.

I don’t remember our exact conversation, but it must have included the standard niceties of “you know, it would be nice to do some climbing on such a nice day” and “I bet we could get up that thing pretty fast”…by noon we were strapping on our shoes, grabbing a rack and some bagel sandwiches, and racing off towards the South Howser.


We enjoyed the loveliest of days on the Becky Chouinaird, which lived up to its reputation of beauty and all-time classic-ness. The rock was superb, the pitches were fun, and the views were stellar. We simul-climbed most of the ridge pitches and by the time we reached the headwall we were thoroughly stoked. Rowan lead an awesome physical pitch up the headwall, exclaiming his brimming stoke to the wind and celebrating each no-hands stance with booty dances. We topped out the South Howser Tower in the middle of a beautiful sunset, with the whole Selkirk range spread around us, aglow in the warm light of the falling sun. In the middle of the dense Interior Range of British Columbia, I had the feeling that the whole world was an unending range of mountains spreading in every direction. We enjoyed an expedient descent on the modern bolted rap route, a twilight glissade down the Pidgeon-Howser col on perfect snow, and were back in camp in time for dinner.

By this time our friend and fellow cliff-scrambler David Fay had joined our camp in East Creek. In impeccable style, David hitchhiked up from Idaho and hiked in solo, and he had just returned from a solo cruise-around mission, psyched on the beauty of the spires. The next morning we were hit with a hard cold rain in proper Bugaboo fashion, which gave us a great excuse to sleep in again, make pancakes and play backgammon. (Backgammon is a great backcountry game: all you need is the board drawn on a stuff sack, two dice, and a handful each of two different colored rocks). Soon the sky cleared and we were once again lounging amidst gorgeous sunny spires and beginning to wonder what the day would bring. Rowan opted for an R&R day, but David and I had the itch for vertical adventures so we grabbed the rope and rack and scrambled up the base of the Minaret to check out Doubting the Millenium, a really pretty line freed by Sean Villanueva and Nico Favresse. We were, as they say, stoked, however our stoke depleted a bit as we realized that the first pitch was a pretty thin slab and the first gear was 40 ft up, the second piece 80 ft up. That math = don’t fall. We both made tentative forays up the slab but neither of us was willing to lead it. We philosophized about how the snowfield was probably higher back in those days, but in reality Sean and Nico are just super talented and fearless.

We retreated back to camp for more lollygagging and enjoyment of snacks and the great view. However, we began to feel the itch again, and some time around 4:30 David proposed jokingly that we could climb Fingerberry Jam because we still had five hours of daylight left. We quickly both realized that he wasn’t joking. After hastily gathering our kit together we left camp at 5 PM wearing only our shoes and undies, as it was quite hot out, with Rowan laughing at our backsides like an old curmudgeon on his porch.

Fingerberry Jam, IV 5.12a, is one of the most aesthetic rock climbs I’ve ever tasted. The “business section” of the first three pitches follows a slender crack system up a basically blank wall of gorgeous clean granite. We scrambled up to the wall in our skivvies, got dressed on a small ledge, and David launched into a thin, arching crack which turned out to be an unrelenting tips crack. He powered through the tenuous moves in good style and sent the pitch. After struggling up the beautiful first pitch I continued up the second, which involved pulling a physical roof and enjoying a perfect finger-size splitter. After a few body lengths the splitter turned into a rail that tapered off towards a blank section, about one arm-span from another crack system. I obviously had to switch crack systems, but I was spooked by the questionable gear I’d wiggled into some funky pods on the rail. While second-guessing myself before the move I fell and ripped two pieces, falling a good 40 feet or so but it was a clean fall in golden evening light, so I was quite stoked and pulled back up to my last piece, found better gear in the rail, and sent the crack-switch move without too much difficulty. The incident proves the maxim that it’s better to just go for it the first time, because I could clearly do the move. The only damage was to my pants: I ripped a generous flap off one butt-cheek and my undies were flopping out, which David was kind enough to inform me as he climbed to the anchor.

The unrelenting first pitch of Fingerberry Jam. photo from David Fay

David cruised up most of the 3rd pitch, which involves a 5.12a face-traverse crux. In his frenzy of stoke and haste due to the setting sun he climbed too high and attempted to traverse a completely blank slab of granite. After a few valiant attempts which all turned into stylish whippers, he pendulumed to the next crack system and scurried to the anchor. I was neither able to execute the traverse; we later learned we were about 15 feet too high. Whoops.

We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset on the wall as I ran the rope 70m up fun, cruiser terrain and belayed on a freestanding pinnacle about the size and posture of a standing grizzly bear, then David switched his headlamp to adventure mode (on) and ventured up into the darkness. By some strange literary trick of nature, once the sun went down and darkness descended upon the spires, the rock became physically black, a bit loose, and crusted with lichen. The orb of David’s light skittered around above and a litter of lichen and rubble trickled down the face.

“Dude, I feel like I’m climbing into Haloween!” David exclaimed. I’m sure I said something encouraging and gave a very attentive belay as I hugged the bear-pinnacle and tried to not get hit by any of the debris.

We topped out the tower, high-fived, coiled the rope, and began sauntering off towards the casual walk-off. Our saunter was terminated abruptly by a sheer cliff in front of us, and I informed David that, unfortunately, we would be needing the rope again. I lead out a ridiculously narrow ridge covered in loose blocks, on which there was no gear, and straddled the end aiming my headlamp beam into thick darkness in all directions: clearly not the way down. I had to reverse the ridge, which was terrifying, then we scrambled around for a while and managed to find a rappel anchor. What ensued was a classic descent that made the whole endeavor a true alpine character: lots of tenuous downclimbing on steep snow, searching for anchors, and slinging questionable blocks.

There is something unique that happens when you can’t see any further than the beam of your headlamp; you can’t tell if the couloir you’re kicking steps down is 200 ft long or 2000 ft long, because the light beam just decays into blackness beyond the visible snow. I always tend to imagine the snow disappearing over a bottomless cliff and grip my axe a little tighter. All you can do is keep going down, carefully, which is what we did until we realized we were at the bottom again. Relieved, we whooped at the glorious stars, glissaded down the glacier, and enjoyed a tasty meal and hot cocoa at 2 AM underneath a huge display of the galaxy framed by the dark silhouettes of the Howser Towers.

The next day was supposed to be a rest day too, but instead we packed up everything and schlepped our loads back to Applebee camp, stopping on the way for a quick attempt at the Pidgeon Tower speed record, team free-solo, naked, which is a story best told by David.

Rowan and I atop the South Howser Tower

At the trailhead, with the Brave Little Toaster sufficiently armored against marauding porcupines.

    Bailing in the rain

Hard to make out, but our glissading tracks from a prior day, viewed from the Becky

Gorgeous rock on the Becky-Chouinaird

Summit Sunset Stoke Dances!

A rare sight in alpine climbing, David getting ready for Fingerberry Jam

cruiser terrain above the difficulties on Fingerberry Jam

psyched on a sunny day

 The Alpine Mayonnaise Centrifuge
Desperate for calories, we salvaged the last of our mayonnaise by taping it to a sling and swinging it around our heads, gathering the precious fat in the lid. A game-changer.

sunset in paradise

heading off to go for the speed record on Pidgeon Spire...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

All Around the Watchtower

Bugaboos, British Columbia, August 2013

It started like any other excursion of Colorado climbers at large in the big, wet Canadian wilderness: a custom playlist; a car that slowly devolves from shrewd organization to an entropic litter of chip bags, wrappers, and crumpled cans; a long, sweaty approach with massive packs; and a supply of stoke much sunnier than the weather forecast.  Despite all objective hazards, Rowan Hill and I stumbled over the Pidgeon-Howser col with our gratuitous loads in the midst of a thunderstorm and picked our way across the glaciers to the East Creek camp with a weeks' worth of food, a triple rack, and most of the gear we left Colorado with (minus a pair of gloves and some pack webbing, stolen by voracious rodents the night we bivvied in the forest). We felt seasoned from our previous climbing on Snowpatch spire, psyched after a weekend of cranking on (mostly) dry limestone in Canmore, and we’d arrived just in time for a two-day weather window to take our best shot at our primary objective: All Along the Watchtower, VI 5.11 C2.

I try to refrain from obsession. I call it dreaming, or inspiration, but my best friends know it's a front: I've wanted this line for years. In 2011 I cowered under a tent in Applebee camp with Noah Gostout and Erik Rieger as thunderclaps detonated overhead and the Howser Towers seemed some faraway Mount Olympus, only visited by herculean efforts of steely-eyed hardmen. In 2012 I climbed harder and further up the large walls of the American west, pushing outside the comfort zone with each climb until the dizzying void below and the difficult terrain still above at the fall of dusk began to become...acceptable? Normal? Like so many climbers have done, I was learning to relax into the objective hazards inherent in committing climbing and embrace the wild journey of expanding potential.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison provided the perfect learning environment; the first time it seemed a miracle just to regain the canyon rim from the valley floor, but each successful “escape” led to a longer or harder line. Then I drove west last September to pay homage to the pioneers of our art and submit myself to a proper apprenticeship in Yosemite. My last week in the Valley I free climbed Astroman and ascended the Big Stone in one long, tiring day and suddenly the vertical world blossomed in possibility.

Success on the walls of Yosemite did not leave me satiated, but kindled my hunger for longer, bigger, harder, with the elusive goal of the Watchtower floating above all dreams and delusions, spurring me to dive deeper into the unknown. On December 1 Tucker and I woke before dawn on the rim of the Black Canyon in a completely vacant campsite, hiked through snow to the Cruise Gulley, and roped up beneath Jimmy Dunn’s tour-de-force Stoned Oven (V 5.11+). 16 hours later and minus our #5 Camalot I clawed through the “womb fight” and dragged myself over the canyon rim. We'd climbed in full darkness connecting crumbling, intermittent crack systems for over four hours, and at one dismal off-route hanging belay I'd committed to selling my rack and taking up running or biking or anything sane and safe as my main hobby. Still, in the cold night we stood alone at the top of a chasm of infinite darkness and knew what hardships lay below us and knew it was a good day.

The plans for an expedition to the Bugaboos hatched in the winter of 2013.  I kept the guidebook on my desk, bookmarked to the photo of North Howser Tower.  After ten-hour days crawling under floors and running wire in 12° houses it was tempting to collapse on the couch after work, but the image of the Watchtower floated in the periphery of my consciousness and I knew I would need increased stamina and new strength when the time came; I learned to nordic ski and puffed out laps by headlamp after work, then went bouldering at the gym. Once spring came Rowan and I worked our wilderness therapy gigs and spent our off-shifts bouldering and cranking on power-endurance testpieces at the local crags.  The dream of the Watchtower hovered like an angel or a spectre in the shadows of each day; I carried rock-rings in the field, and fatigued from long days working with defiant youth, I resisted the temptation to nap and spent my precious break time running and doing finger-hang workouts, trusting that each modicum of strength I gained would come in clutch on gameday.  On quiet afternoons in Durango I'd hike up alone to the Watch Crystal with a rope and mini-traxion and try to maximize the vertical I could get in 2 hours, never resting except for rappelling back down for another pitch.


Gameday. Our preparation was perfect; the day before we'd scoped the approach and kicked steps in the short snowfields so we wouldn't need to stop to don crampons. We woke at 2AM, huffed through the approach in an hour, nailed the rappels, and roped up beneath 2,500 feet of granite at first light. We were fit, ready, and psyched...and then it all began to unravel. We'd been heard vague rumors of “route-finding difficulties” on the first half of the route—I have always prided myself in the ability to choose the right path, in a forest or up a rock wall, but that day I met my match. The initial apron of the North Howser Tower looks from a distance to be a low-angle ramp that a confident party could simul-climb in 2 hours; it turns out to be a system of slick slabs connected by corners that hold intermittent seams, not splitter cracks.

Twice we climbed a full 60m in the wrong direction and rappelled back to our last point of “probably on-route,” a demoralizing experience. Rowan rose to the occasion and led up some frightening terrain through sparse protection, but each time we arrived at a position where neither of us was willing to proceed; the terrain above was difficult, unprotected slab.  Even Hayden Kennedy reported dangerous off-route slab climbing; we should have taken a hint.  We lost a precious hours of daylight attempting various options and returning to the same position. Eventually it was 3 PM and we were still staring at the same convoluted face, with the upper headwall, the headwall that had resided in my dreams for two years, floated in the upper distance like a castle in the air.


It was a hard call to make. Bailing off the face of the North Howser is a major proposition: reversing the entrance rappels is not an option, so returning to camp requires a complete circumnavigation of the Howser massif. 3PM, menacing clouds gathering despite the optimistic forecast, and still no path upward that wasn't a severe risk. Our eyes met. We made the call and began coiling the ropes. Back on the glacier, the sky opened up in a cold, hard rain, as if to confirm our decision, but it was little consolation. We were not sure of the distance or exact path of the route around the Howsers, but we'd both seen the photo, right? We knew it was a long way involving a steep gulley and a pass. Which gulley? Would we be able to see the pass? Would it be guarded by a vertical ‘shrund? The answers to these questions lay shrouded in the dark mist coalescing around the mountain. Standing in the rain exhausted at the base of one of the tallest walls in North America, I groped for any shred of hope that we could walk right back to camp, but it was just one of those situations where there is one reality, and the only path forward is to accept it.  We shouldered soggy packs and hiked out into the wilderness.

It always amazes me what human legs can do if you keep putting one in front of the other. I don't remember all the details of our long, circuitous bail, but I do remember some things I learned, like how a Cliff bar goes a LONG way if it's all you've got, and how climbing 1500 ft of steep snow is easier than the same amount of scree, and how it's best to put your hood up while rappelling over a bergshrund, and how to laugh while squatting in “lightning drill” on an ice bridge between two crevasses. For the third time, we automatically crouched and set down our axes after an electric flash illuminated the cloud, and we couldn't help bursting out in grins at the absurdity of our situation.

“Dude, isn’t it…like…a little past the point if we’ve already seen the flash?”
“Yeah, I reckon so. But it’s good style, right?”

Stumbling across the Vowell glacier in a white-out, weaving our path through crevasses while thunder resonated in our chests and lightning pummeled the summit of the North Howser, we couldn't help but wonder at the twisted web of circumstances that put us here, squatting on the glacier with the ice flashing luminescent with each thunderclap, rather than huddling in some unknown alcove on the peak above. Is there really fortune and misforture, in an absolute sense? Or do we simply keep writing our story forward, with each decision in each moment?

The storm passed and we were rewarded with a sweeping view of our final miles of glacier glowing soft pink in the sun's last rays. Relieved, we could see a path through the twisted convolutions of ice and realized that the day’s technical difficulties were over; all that remained was the comforting rhythm of exhausted walking. Our wet clothing chilled in the cooling air but the incessant plodding kept us warm, and under cold bright stars we scrambled over the Pidgeon-Howser col and glissaded beneath the South Howser on burning thighs that shook like jelly.  At last we stood outside our tent, soaked and steaming in the deepening night, and high-fived with big grins. We didn’t succeed in climbing the Watchtower, we were thwarted by frustration and dead-ends, but at least we showed up ready, and we got to explore miles of wild terrain and feel thunder rumble across the ice and stand in the wilderness with a good friend watching the vast expanse of the Selkirk Range fade into velvet twilight.

The biggest send of the 2011 expedition

The 2011 team, Noah and Erik, tentbound.

Glissading with a view in much better weather in 2013

At camp in East Creek basin

"Dude, it's really big"

The West face of North Howser Tower

heavy packs up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col

                                                          Mayonnaise = alpine stoke

 Rowan racking up beneath 2500 ft of the goodness


A glissading technique not recommended by Freedom of the Hills, but executed with style nonetheless.

The swiss man shreds perfect afternoon corn snow

 Scoping mission complete, stoked.