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Bugaboos Alpine Rock: The Beckey-Chouinard

Updated: Jan 7

Eyeing the next thin slot above, I jammed my fingers in deep and wedged them into the constriction. Far above my last piece of protection, I reached for the silver cam on my harness that would fit inside the crack, before suddenly noticing a rusted piton in the granite to my right. Hammered to the hilt and likely fifty years old. I tried to imagine myself in the footsteps of Fred Beckey, and Yvon Chouinard, questing up the 2000 foot west buttress of the South Howser tower, way back in 1961. No double rack of cams, no sticky rubber, following the endless splitter cracks and offwidth corners with just a simple rack of iron pitons and maybe a few hexes. These two pioneers were the most prolific first ascentionists in North America in their day, and here in the stunning alpine rock playground of the Bugaboos, we truly appreciated their masterpiece, forging one of the most sought after rock climbs in Canada.

To our fortune and surprise, we were enjoying a similar solitude to Beckey and Chouinard. Michael Johnston and I were two hundred metres up the 750m long route, there were finally no climbers in sight above or below. The previous day, we had made the strenuous four hour approach hike to Applebee Dome campsite, with the impressive late season glaciers spilling into the valleys from the sheer cracked faces of the Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires. Instead of setting up base there and settling for an easy warmup, we decided to plough straight on to our main objective, the BC.

Dropping off our excess rope and wide cams (for the Sunshine Crack [5.10+, 500m]), we changed into mountain boots and began cramponing our way up the 45 degree snow slope to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. Without knowing whether this would be hard late summer ice or soft snow, we erred on the side of caution with crampons and an ice axe each, saving our more lightweight setup for the following morning. On the way up, we passed at least five other groups who said they would attempt to climb the BC the following day – no surprise since the forecast was perfect. This worried us, but with our headstart we hoped we would be able to stay ahead of the crowds.

From the col that evening, the beauty of the granite spires rimming the glacier distracted us from the last painful slog up to our camping spot close to the Howser towers. The sense of isolation and wilderness was far stronger up here, this was the magic element missing from the otherwise exceptional climbing in Yosemite and Squamish. The scene was being set for a classic adventure.

A surge of spanish trumpets screaming ‘Andale!’ riled us awake at three that morning. Each equipped with a combination of microspikes on one foot and aluminium strap-on crampons on the other, we set off for the Howsers, edging carefully down the frozen snow to sweeping glaciers lightly glowing before dawn.

Nearing the toe of the West Buttress, we thought the coast was clear… until two bright down jackets appeared, just packing up their bivouac, we didn’t need to guess or ask of their intentions. We upped the pace. Racing to harness up at the base ahead of our friends was unnecessary – coffee had struck them and their foil bivvy bag would be paying the price for conserving these wild lands. Very honourable of them, albeit disgusting.

Cold hands squeezed into cold cracks, numb toes narrowed into tight Scarpas. We were on our way. Two simul climbing 5.5-5.7 pitches led to the first crux of the route, a small 5.10 roof. In reality, the thin flaring finger cracks leading up the roof proved more the challenge, requiring some delicate smearing on breakable crystals; the roof itself was pulled through on solid hand jams, and I relished running out the rest of the rope above.

Michael said he had spotted yet another party above: where had they come from? Another long pitch and they were in sight, pitching up the Great Dihedrals, a superb stretch of plum hand and fist jamming. Their strategy was intriguing, having left Applebee at 830am the previous day, they had then bivvied on pitch 5, but were down to just a litre of water between them with more than 10 pitches remaining. Our minimal water rations were also leaking, we worried for them as we quickly passed them on our way to the Gravel Ledges and never saw them again.

Scrappy and awkward terrain above led to the Big Sandy bivouac ledge, even more comfortable looking than its name sake on pitch sixteen of Half Dome, but we were glad not to use it; the Great White Headwall above beckoned. Just simply endless crack climbing of all widths on pure white alpine granite. Delicious. I missed my blown out TC Pros at every step by this point, wearing my tighter backup pair of shoes, the miles of thin foot jamming was increasingly punishing on the toes. I could now fully sympathise with Momo who climbed the 13-pitch ‘Angels Crest’ in Squamish in her bouldering shoes. Maybe the “5.8 offwidth” would have been a better option after all than our chosen “5.10+ fingers”, a regret driven home after I ran out of gear and gave in to a particularly uncomfortable hanging belay.

By the time we reached the final crux “5.10+ face traverse”, my energy levels were waning, I’d led every pitch so far and Michael wasn’t in a position to take over here. Sometimes when theres an easier option you simply take it, this was alpine climbing after all. I gave Michael a lesson on how to belay a tension traverse, and he slowly lowered me out across the face from two pitons, until I could wrap around the corner into the gulley – a sinch at 5.9 A0. All that was left was several hundred metres of low 5th class climbing to the top, with a bonus rap, and just enough of a “false summit” feeling to give the true summit its deserved satisfaction.

It had been Michael’s dream to climb the Beckey-Chouinard for over a year, and mine for over a week, and I couldn’t have been more happy for him to finally achieve this. Since his epic misadventure on the North Buttress of Sabre in Fiordland the previous summer, he was yearning to do it right this time: no more being lost on approach, no climbing off-route and no unplanned bivvies was his goal. It was fulfilling to share some of my experience with Michael who was so keen to soak it all up, and now determined to train up to be able to lead the route next time. No doubt a season in Squamish will serve him well. We abseiled off the eastern rib and reached our tent by dusk. Ramen rarely tasted so good.


Single set nuts

Single set cams 0.3 – 4, doubles 0.5-3

15 alpine draws, 2 cordalettes

Crampons and 1 axe recommended for the ascent to Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col and descent from Pigeon Howser Col.

Approach shoes + lightweight strap-on crampons are ideal, or microspikes if very confident.

Check with ranger at Applebee if it is allowed to camp at Pigeon Howser Col as this adds to the experience and shortens the summit day by 3-4 hours.

Water melt was found just below the col in late July. Other water melt was found on the approach to the route on the glacier.

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