South Howser Tower, SW Buttress (Beckey/Chouinard)

By: Everett Fee | Climbers: Everett Fee, Frank Campbell |Trip Dates: July 15-17, 1995

Photo: Gary Clark

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The Southwest Buttress of the South Howser Tower is one of North America's great rock climbs. Situated in the Bugaboos---a classically beautiful cluster of spires at the heart of British Columbia's Purcell Mountains---this 2500 foot high prow of flawless white granite was first conquered in 1961. Today it is considered by Bug's regulars to be a "graduation" climb: if you get up it in reasonable style, you're ready to play in the big leagues. Though many are called, few are chosen: the route is long, technical, remote, and subject to the Bug's (in)famous bad weather.

My partner on this trip was Frank Campbell, who is known in the Canadian Rockies world for the technical ice routes he pioneered in the Ghost. I had been climbing with Doug Nelson but he had to leave for a week; Doug suggested that Frank, who he had introduced me to a few days previously, might be available. After climbing for a few days in the Lower Bow Valley (Grassi Lakes Crag, Yamnuska: Diretissima, Kahl Wall) the weather turned bad, and we decided to go to Skaha. But when we were passing through Radium Hot Springs (the closest real town to the Bugaboos) the weather was breaking and the forecast for the next few days was excellent. It didn't take too much effort to talk Frank into taking a run at the Becky/Chouinard, which I'd been lusting for since my first visit to the Bug's in 1980.

We pulled into the Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park parking lot at 4:00 pm and were on the trail by 5:30. Four hours later we staggered onto the Bugaboo/Snowpatch Col, eagerly greeted by a horde of ravenous snafflehounds. Bold is far too mild a word to describe those furry devils! Fortunately, I was with a veteran of previous rodent wars. Frank produced a 10 foot length of stainless steel wire which we strung between big boulders; everything edible was hung from it. He also scattered leftover food a short distance from our camp to distract them. Their only significant victory was a 2 inch cube of cheese that I left unguarded for an instant while I was stirring the soup.

After a few hours of sleep, we struck camp and were off at first light. A little more than an hour later we were at the base of the route, and forty-five minutes of scrambling (occasional technical moves of up to 5.4) brought us to the rope-up point. Thereafter, the climbing was---to say the least---challenging: nineteen pitches of upper fifth class climbing, each sustained at its grade. Moreover, our hefty packs (mountain boots, water, food, down coats, a sleeping bag, first aid kit, ... it all adds up) made everything much harder than it would have been at a conveniently located crag.

Both of us took inconsequential leader falls---my first in 20 years of mountaineering. Quite low on the route I was stopped by a roof; there was a sharp-edged crack about 7 feet off the deck but absolutely nothing but smears for the feet. At the time I wasn't in the mood for a strenuous and committing layback, so after clipping a permanently fixed cam in the crack I inched around the outside corner to my left: nothing there but a smooth, vertical wall. I greased-off small holds when I tried to move back to the crack. The layback went smoothly once I committed to it (solid 5.9).

Soon thereafter, Frank got into trouble when he attempted to avoid a 2 inch jam crack (5.8+) that went on for 100 feet. Having only two pieces of pro' in this size range, and dreading what looked like a blood bath, he chose discontinuous cracks and the face to the left of the crack. When this easy-looking terrain turned evil (5.10c-d) he came off, and there was no way for him to get back to the crack without leaving gear. Fortunately, we were climbing with two 9mm ropes. He slid the rack down to me on one rope and I climbed the crack; with a top-rope he cleaned the gear and swung back to the crack. These shenanigans cost at least a half-hour.

After that we smartened-up (i.e., stopped trying to avoid horrendous-looking cracks) and arrived at the Great White Headwall without further misadventure. We lost 45 minutes here trying to decipher the route description in the guidebook. Exasperated, we took the least-bad looking option: a difficult dihedral (a couple of aid moves) about 20 feet from the left edge of the headwall. For the next three pitches the guidebook made no sense at all---indeed, we were certain that we were on the "Lost in Towers" variation---but it turned out that we were on route all the way.

Seventeen hours after leaving the tent and in near total darkness we were snuggling into down coats and Frank's sleeping bag on a ledge just below the summit. As we split our remaining rations and watched the stars emerge our momentarily perfect world---the sky was cloudless and there wasn't a breath of wind---had but one flaw: no water.

The next morning we descended via six long rappels down the east face. I'm glad we didn't try to find those rap stations in the dark! Soon we were rehydrating at the Snowpatch/Bugaboo Col and battling the rodents again. When we walked out that afternoon black clouds were forming over Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires. Clearly, we had been blessed by the weather gods; and as far as I know, there was only one other successful party (Steve Shostek party, Portland, OR) on this magnificent route in 1995.