Bugaboo Spire, Northeast Ridge

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: August 08, 2001

Photo: Gary Clark

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We are back at the Kain hut again, with a strong sense of deja vous. The hut is jammed to capacity and beyond, as is the parking lot down at the trailhead. We had to park down the road at a wide spot, where others had previously done the same; there was even some chicken wire here to ward off the porkies. This was actually our second trip to the hut in less than two weeks. The first ended when we learned from climbers returning to the hut that the routes we wanted to do were still snow-covered from a recent storm. We had gathered our stuff and headed back down the trail the same day we arrived, writing it all off to a good physical training day.

We knew the extremely popular NE Buttress of Bugaboo Spire would be crowded, but racing for the start pretty much ruins the experience for me, so we set the alarm for a reasonable 4:00a, and were out of the hut by 4:30. As we reached the glacier, my eye was drawn to the gully just left of Crescent Spire. The last time I descended that gully I reasoned that it might make a more pleasant, albeit longer, approach route to the base of the NE Ridge of Bugaboo. The usual, more direct, approach involves a steep, dirty dihedral that is unpleasant and dangerous. I asked Lynn if she minded trying the alternative, and soon we were working our way up the steep but non-technical talus. When we reached the saddle below Crescent we wasted no time in beginning the traverse toward Bugaboo. People were materializing from all directions, all seemingly headed for the NE Ridge, and despite the fact that I didn't want to be in a race, we realized our chances of even getting on the route depended on getting to the base quickly.

The traverse along the ridgeline, although certainly not difficult, had enough impediments that it took much longer than expected. As we dropped down to the saddle where the regular approach reaches the ridge, we heard a party just below, and more below them. Had we been 2 minutes later, we'd have waited several hours just to get on the route. We could see a party well established on the route as we hiked the steep slabs toward the rope-up spot, and as we arrived, exchanged "Good mornings" with a party of two waiting at the base with their ropes uncoiled and ready to go. So far so good, we were third in the queue, with the upper party already high enough and moving fast, so they were out of the picture.

All the Canadian climbers we've met on routes have been friendly and likable, and these two were no exception. As I watched the leader work out the first difficult moves, it was obvious that it would cost us some time to stay behind them, but I decided not to worry about it. We weren't here to set any speed records, although we had discussed climbing the West Ridge of Pigeon in the afternoon if we got off this climb soon enough. We decided on a turnaround time of 3:00p at the Snowpatch-Bugaboo saddle. If we arrived there any later, we'd head on down to the hut and return to Pigeon another day. I also realized that our photographic opportunities would be improved if we had a party just above, so patience was the best option for enjoying the day.

We had two motivations for this climb. First, it is one of the "Fifty Classic climbs of North America." Although I climbed it before Roper and Steck's book was published, Lynn had not yet had a crack at it. In our previous trips to the Bugaboos together, we had been concentrating on other objectives, notably the South Howser Tower. Lynn really wanted to 'tick' this climb. Second, I wasn't completely happy with the selection of photos I had for my own "North American Classics" collection. We brought two cameras as usual, intent on documenting it thoroughly.

As I began the first pitch, I discovered why the Canadian party had taken such a long time. They hadn't looked very carefully at the description, and were climbing a straight-up crack to the left of the usual 5.7 flake. I also found the crack seductive - straight up, thin fingers, well protected with small cams, and certifiably classic. It went at a good solid 5.9, or perhaps 5.9+ due to it's continuity. Lynn did not have a good time on this pitch. First, she had to take a hang at the crux when she couldn't remove a TriCam without using both hands. Second, there were now several parties waiting at the base, with a leader just beneath her heels. She does not like public climbing, especially if she feels she is holding others up. Third, her ice axe suddenly parted with her pack, tumbling down the face and terrorizing everyone below. Now she felt like a total gumby, and dissolved into tears. We came to do this route just for her, but she was having a decidedly shitty time. When she arrived at the stance I offered her the next lead, but she was in no mood. She just wanted to put some distance between us and the parties below, so I led off, disturbed by the turn of events but determined more than every to enjoy the climbing.

And enjoy the climbing I did. The next four pitches were as classic as any I've encountered, and again I appreciated the appeal of this route - perfect rock, exposed but moderate climbing at a consistent level, and scenery that gets ever more spectacular as one gains altitude. It doesn't get much better than this. As we reached the top of the 5th pitch, we noticed our new acquaintances climbing an unbelievable crack - an arrow-straight splitter on a monolithic slab that soared toward the sky. It looked hard, and I pulled out the route topo to discover that they were on yet another variation. The regular route traverses to the right about 8m to a much easier crack system. This system turns quickly into a chimney that extends for several pitches directly up, parallel to the crack the Canadians were in. After a snack I set off up the normal route. I soon called down to Lynn to just start climbing when the rope ran out, because it was very easy 5th class, a real contrast to the unprotected 5.9 they were encountering after that perfect crack. Since I was on easier terrain and we were simul-climbing, we soon passed them, but when I arrived at the belay below a little headwall, they were just minutes behind, and I refused their offer to let us pass. We were enjoying sharing the route and chatting with them.

The route topo showed a "Grunt move" somewhere above. It became a joke with us, as we continuously queried the leader as to whether he had reached it yet. He would occasionally call down "Well, that could have been a grunt move", or "That was gruntafiable". We never were really sure where we were supposed to have grunted; it all seemed like pretty straightforward climbing. Above here, I had expected to arrive on a low-angle ridge line that would eventually take us to the summit, but that isn't what happened. Suddenly we were just there, looking at a rap anchor that began the long descent. We were still on a good schedule, and the weather was perfect, but we could see herds of people on the west summit, doubtless having climbed the Kain route that morning. Climbing Pigeon that day was beginning to look doubtful as we sized up the accumulating delays.

The descent down the West Ridge deserves its reputation. There are rappels, tricky traversing, more rappels, fixed lines, fixed anchors everywhere, tightrope knife-edged ridges, and finally thousands of feet of crumbly ledges interspersed with the occasional 4th-class move. I know that some consider this route a classic as well, but it must be due primarily to its history as the bold first ascent of the Spire by the incomparable Conrad Kain in 1916. There is very little quality climbing on this route, with the exception of the upper few pitches. We got hung up behind a huge group that was being led by one competent person directing all the technical maneuvers. Some of these climbers were equipped with double plastic boots, and they had no sense of route finding, so were spread all over the face. This is the area where some people go astray, heading directly down rather than sticking to the ridge, so I gently tried to help the leader with what seemed to be an exercise in "herding cats."

Finally, we were at the saddle. Let's see - shall we go over to Pigeon? It was 3:45, 45 minutes past our "drop-dead" time for turning around. It was hot in the direct afternoon sun, and we were low on water and energy. The mountain would still be there tomorrow.