South Howser Tower, SW Buttress (Beckey/Chouinard)

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: August 15-23, 1998

Photo: Gary Clark

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8/15: We arrive in southern BC to learn that there have been 6 weeks of almost perfect weather, which must be a record of some kind. This can't last much longer, so we drive directly to the Gmoser Lodge to inquire about helicoptering directly into the base of the route. This is my 4th trip to "The Bugs" , so the approach hike is a well-known and gratefully avoided part of the experience. The helicopter takes all of 6 minutes to deposit us on a small snow lump just below the Pigeon-Howser Col. We had intended to climb up to the col to camp, but there are people up there waving down at us, so we descend instead to camp at the base of the Howser Minaret. This turns out to be one of the better decisions of the trip. We pack our rucksacks with high expectations for morning. However, clouds are starting to gather.

8/16: The alarm rings at 4:30a, but it doesn't matter. It's raining hard on the tent. The Clarks have arrived in Canada, and the drought is over.

8/17 - 8/20: We get to know this beautiful but limited area quite well as we sit out 4 days of depressing weather, including 24 hours of dense fog. The glacial streams dry up, and we must break through ice to get to water each morning. In our wanderings we find 2 old slings, 8 carabiners, an ancient active cam, and miscellaneous items of clothing, all of which were likely dropped from routes above. We get to know the local rodents. The morning of the 20th dawns clear, but the entire upper half of the route is coated in rime ice - it looks like Cerro Torre in Patagonia, and we decide a full day's sun is minimum before we're going up there.

8/21: The stars are out, so we head up. During one of the weather days, I had reconnoitered the approach again, and now it pays off. The guidebook is misleading - scrambling up the lower ridge is very strenuous and time consuming due to the numerous monster boulders perched at all angles to each other. The best way is to hike up out of the pit at the base of the buttress, but not to go too high on the actual ridge. Instead, traverse until you can drop slightly down onto a talus slope on the other side. Slogging up the talus is preferable to climbing around and over all those boulders. We rope up around 7:30a and begin on familiar ground, since we had climbed the lower 8 pitches a year ago. That climb turned into an epic that resulted in us rappelling in hideous wind and rain, with two new ropes eaten and destroyed by a diabolical crack. The first few pitches now go very quickly, and we are happy to be back.

A pair of Brits arrive from the Pigeon-Howser Col. They are very young and very fast, especially Andy, who fires 5.8 pitches like they were 4th class. After I lead the crux pitch 5, they are ready to climb through, which goes smoothly due to their 60m rope (recommended, albeit not mandatory). We share the same rock for the next several pitches, which turns into an interesting cooperative effort - we help with their pack hauling and route finding, and they help with some stuck gear. Nice blokes.

We stop for a break and some lunch at the top of pitch 8, the site of our unfortunate bivouac a year ago. We notice we are definitely starting to slow down, but determine to continue even if it means another bivouac (for which, this year, we are largely unprepared). We had decided to give it our best shot in a day, so have just the clothes we are wearing. In 1997 we brought full bivouac gear including sleeping bags, but this had largely destroyed the fun of the climbing due to the weight of the packs and the necessity to haul them on the most strenuous pitches. It's the standard alpine climbing game paradox - you can't have it both ways.

Pitches 9 & 10 go by unremarkably, and now comes another crux - a 5.9 off-width crack just above the Sandy Ledges. I find this to be fist-sized rather than truly off-width, and it presents less than 40' of difficulties before relenting - a pleasant and classic pitch. A #4 Camalot would have been welcome; I have only a 3.5, but make do. We follow closely on the heels of Andy and Allain up pitch 11, but then I hear Andy yelling down that they are on the 5.10 variation instead of the usual pitches 12-14, which supposedly contain a nasty squeeze chimney. I climb back down a bit to get over to get to the regular pitches; where Chouinard and Beckey had gone is good enough for me. The pitches flow by with the speed of a glacier due to pack hauling. I'm happy to discover that the topo again exaggerates; rather than a squeeze chimney, I encounter a classic dihedral with lots of 5.8 hand cracks and stemming. I guess you could jam your body in the back of it if you tried, but it doesn't seem necessary - the climbing is excellent, an adjective I'd never apply to a squeeze chimney. The 5.10 alternative pitches looked superb as well from below; take your pick.

It's becoming obvious that we have two choices: (1) continue climbing and end up at some random spot for the inevitable bivouac, or (2) stop while there is still a little light at a spot of our choosing. We select #2. The spot of our choosing is a tiny irregular ledge big enough for two butts, but not for two supine people. We know this is going to be miserable, so deliberately slow all processes - setting the anchors, organizing gear, and moving rocks around are protracted until finally it is midnight and there is nothing left to do but sit down and wait for the cold to creep in. The closest we have to bivouac bags is a couple of those cheap reflective emergency blankets I've often carried but never used. Amazingly, they make a noticeable difference! Whenever a corner becomes untucked and a part of my body becomes exposed to the night sky, I can feel it. This occurs about every 5 minutes, so by the end of the night our blankets are trashed from constant manipulations. Mine develops multiple tears that I repair by headlamp with climbing tape. Due to the warmth of the previous day, the cold is not severe, and our fears of shaking ourselves into a state of hypothermia are unrealized. However, as the 22nd begins to dawn, a worse fear is realized - more typical weather is returning. By the time we are up and ready to move, snow squalls come up from the valleys and are on the wall. Decision time again.

8/22: We decide to bail, since the storms we had observed from base camp were sobering - the kind where you look up and ask rhetorically "Can you possibly imagine being up there now?" Now we can not only imagine it, we can experience it first hand. We dejectedly set the first rap anchor and throw the ropes down, then just stand and look at them, unwilling to clip in and commit to yet another failure. In about 45 minutes of procrastination billed as "weather observation" , we determine that conditions seem to cycle - first a snow squall, then a break, repeat loop. Finally the break we want and deserve arrives, and we hurriedly pull the ropes up and set a new anchor for climbing. Of course, by the time I'm on belay it is snowing harder than ever, but I'm tired of facing decisions, so just start to climb.

New rules apply as the wet heavy flakes build on the ledges and melt down the face - on the first 5.8 pitch I discover I'm off route, so plug a big cam in the corner and do a tension traverse over to the left side of the chimney. I bring Lynn up, and soon I'm leading up to the famous 5.9+ / tension traverse pitch. Let's see - should I climb the 5.9+ friction, or clip into the two fixed pins and call for Lynn to lower me out and around the corner? I stand dumbly mulling over this new decision until I realize that several precious milliseconds have elapsed. The rest of the pitch is only 5.6, but the snow is deepening, and I must go quite high without placing protection so that Lynn will have a good upper belay. She wastes little time with formalities on the tension traverse - I hear some scraping sounds, then she swings around the corner into view.

Finally I'm leading the final technical pitch on the topo - a nice 5.3 corner that would be a pleasant scamper in dry conditions, and leads to the ridge crest, which paradoxically is the psychological nadir of the whole experience. The snow is now building on our packs and backs faster than we can brush it off. The wind is serious and the visibility near zero. I have seldom been so discouraged in the mountains, realizing that we cannot protect ourselves from conditions this severe with the clothes and equipment at hand. We need a break.

We locate the anchors for the short rappel that's now called for, and gratefully change to the mountain boots we had so laboriously carried up the mountain. I feel instantly warmer on rappel as I drop out of the wind to the lee side of the ridge. Now begins what the topo labels "250 feet + of scrambling." I've learned that estimates of scrambling are rarely accurate, so we settle down for a long session of serious belaying. There are many options here, but it turns out one should stay slightly right for the first 300 feet rather than being drawn back up to the crest. This takes us around a corner, where the summit still seems depressingly distant in the fog. Two more full rope lengths, mostly 4th class but containing short 5.6 sections, finally gets me to the crest just right of the summit. I'm desperate to find the anchors and get on with the descent, but do note that the true summit is very close. By the time Lynn arrives, another short break in conditions encourages us to truly finish the climb. We manage a smile for the summit photo, and begin to believe we might just live through this to climb another day.

The standard descent via the NE face is routine enough, with many fixed stations. We follow the standard advice of always tending right, and cringe every time we pull the rope in anticipation of it hanging up - a nearly unthinkable event given the conditions. We later learned that Andy and Allain had in fact pushed it over the top with headlamps the night before, but somewhere in mid-face a headlamp went on down without them. They spent the night standing in their harnesses at one of these rap stations. Poor blokes. Bloody miserable.

The final bit of adventure comes as I anchor in at the final rap stance. Just as Lynn starts down to join me, a hailstorm begins, nothing remarkable in itself. However, it turns out that the large dihedral I'm hanging in serves as the drain trough for the entire upper face. I look up to an amazing sight - a flash flood of hail stones cascading down the dihedral toward me! I strain against the anchors, stemming out as far as possible against the dihedral walls as a river of hail rushes between my legs. I'm screaming at Lynn not to come down, but of course she can't hear me. This phenomenon lasts a full 10 minutes, and would have been a lot of fun had I known that it wasn't going to intensify even more and totally engulf me.

I'm still shaking my head and muttering in disbelief as she arrives, oblivious to my experience. More drama was about to come, though. We had heard that this final rappel over the bergschrund might not be possible with just a 50m rope this year - nobody we talked to knew for sure, but there were rumors of an ice screw anchor part-way down. I set off to find out. The rappel begins with about 50' of steep ice runnel. Then the bottom drops out as I ease over the edge into 60' of free-hanging rappel amidst the fantastic ice sculpture of this impressive schrund. Finally crampons touch again, on a delicate bridge area. Tiptoeing over the next edge, I can see that the ropes do reach - but just barely. Gratefully I drop onto the snow slopes below, yelling upward "Off Rappel - you're going to love this one! "

Within an hour we are at the col, where some very considerate Canadian climbers have prepared hot drinks for us. They had been watching the face anxiously since Andy and Allain had arrived early in the day with stories of their climb and the news that some old fat slow Americans were still up there. One glance at the tower was convincing that anyone coming off it would probably not be in the best of shape. After gratefully tossing down a liter of hot chocolate, we head down to camp. Here we discover another act of compassion on our behalf. Another Canadian party had arrived to camp nearby and had seen our tent in very bad shape. We had collapsed it when we left, being concerned about winds taking it away. The storm had turned it into a convincing imitation of a backyard swimming pool, which was slowly draining into all our gear. They had resurrected it, and taken steps to dry our gear. As if that weren't enough, they cooked us up some treats. It seems that we had planned for 5 days food, which we had now stretched to 7, so this was extremely welcome.

It is now almost 7:00p - a climb we had planned for a single long day had turned out to be almost 26 hours of effort, plus the bivouac. We are seriously dehydrated, having subsisted on mouthfuls of snow (fortunately for this purpose quite plentiful) for the entire second day. My digestive system is in such bad shape that hiking out tomorrow is questionable. I don't remember the last time I so seriously underestimated an objective.

8/23: We are almost beyond caring, but are nevertheless grateful to wake to a promising day - scattered clouds with periods of sunlight for drying gear. We brew drinks and talk by the hour with Chris and Sean, who are camped nearby with the Beckey-Chouinard in mind. Finally we can procrastinate no longer, and begin the long journey back to the car. The Pigeon-Howser col is by now routine, but we have no idea what awaits at the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col. Due to the extremely dry year, the bergschrund area has deteriorated to a deplorable state. We spend about 3 hours getting down it, mostly in trying to find the way, which is completely different than the familiar path of past years. Finally we choose a sub optimum strategy of rappelling down some fixed lines stretched over ice, rock and gravel. The gravel slurry in the ropes manages to cut deep grooves in our carabiners. Another cost of doing business. Compounding the situation is the sudden arrival of lots of people going both up and down, and the fact that it is impossible to move on this nightmarish slope without loosing torrents of rock. To our great surprise, we barely it to the hut before dark. A normally 4-hour trip has taken about 8!

Once in the hut, an amazing scene develops. After it is established that we just came from the Tower, the entire population of the hut gathers around for storytelling. And this theme continues - on the hike out the next day and in the final parking lot, every party we talked to (about 15 total) were planning to try the Beckey-Chouinard. The guidebook is correct in labeling this the most sought-after climb in the Bugaboos .

Synopsis & beta:

The route is sustained quality, characterized by classic jamming and stemming on fine granite. Protection is almost always whenever you want it. The route has at most about 90' of 5.9. However, a substantial percentage of the rest is quite continuous at 5.8. With packs, even the 5.6 starts to feel like 5.8 after a while. The guidebook synopsis of classic strenuous crack climbing is apt. Don't underestimate it based on its rating.

The main challenges to this route are its remoteness, requiring a significant technical approach with heavy packs (or a very expensive helicopter ride - don't ask), its length, and of course weather and the condition of the route. It should be attempted only by those with solid 5.9 leading skills and significant alpine experience. This route has a long history of epic adventures (two of these being ours!). In perfect conditions for a competent party, it would be a relatively routine Yosemite-style grade V, but these conditions exist very rarely. Weather reports are notoriously useless - you have to just go and try, and keep trying until you get lucky. All the weather comes from the SW, so you can see it coming. When I told a local I was there for my 4th attempt, he said I know people who've come 20 times, and haven't gotten it yet! .

Route finding is not overly difficult, but not entirely obvious. Hopefully my new improved topo will help.

Gear List (besides the obvious):

  • 1 set wired Stoppers #4-#9
  • 1 set Metolius quad-cams, #1-#4
  • 2 sets Camalots, #0.75-3.5 (recommend Camalot #4)
  • 1 rope 10mm x 50m
  • 1 rope 8mm x 50m
  • 6 Spectra single-length slings
  • 2 double-length slings
  • 8 Spectra quick-draws
  • Sportiva Trango boots - approach & descent
  • Stubai aluminum crampons
  • 1 aluminum axe for party
  • Capilene underwear top
  • Pile sweater
  • Waterproof/breathable mountain parka
  • Stretch nylon climbing pants
  • Waterproof shell pants
  • Fingerless gloves (recommend extra pair full gloves)
  • Head band (recommend balaclava in addition)
  • Emergency space blankets (recommend full bivouac bag)