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...

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