"I’m telling you, it’s incredible. Warm sunny granite, splitter after splitter, up at 10000ft; no crowds. It’s absolutely incredible." Chris’ words echo through my mind as we’re scrambling along the summit ridge of South Howser Tower looking for the first rap station. There are two or three parties visible on the upper rappels ahead of us, a team of two from Calgary just free soloed past us. Another party of three is about to start the final ridge traverse a few hundred feet behind us. This is Chris’ and my second day on the route and we’re losing daylight; thunderheads are rolling in on the horizon.
Turns out the Bugaboos are a well-kept secret no more: after years of rave reports from the adventurous few who embarked on the long trek to the Bugs, the crowds have finally caught up. Compounded by a very short season, the campground, hut, and classic routes are now frequently at or beyond capacity for those elusive few summer weeks that offer the best chance of sunshine and mild temperatures.
That’s not to say that the Bugaboos are no longer a worthy objective - aside from the ‘no crowds’ part, everything you’ve ever heard about these granite spires still holds true: the setting is spectacular, the climbing wonderful, the location of Applebee campground exquisite, and the weather fickle. In the last two weeks, Chris and I had so much rain that we were already beginning to pack up - resigned to beating an early retreat - when an updated forecast finally promised two days of stable high pressure and blue skies.
So here we are. It’s the second day of the weather window, our second day on the Beckey-Chouinard; not only are we running out of daylight and good weather... we’re also just about out of calories and water. For the two weeks leading up to this climb, all Chris and I could do is talk about how excited we are to get on the route - after all, if you’re a trad climber the Beckey-Chouinard with its 2200ft of stellar granite needs no introduction. For the last two hours, all we’ve been talking about is how ready we are to be off this mountain. Alas, first there's work to be done: we are looking at 11 rappels, getting over the bergschrund, crossing the Vowell Glacier, descending the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col, and then traversing the periphery of Crescent Glacier to reach Applebee Camp. I take another look at the clouds brewing in the distance, glance at the setting sun, and take off my pack to dig up my headlamp. It is going to be a long night.
When Chris and I started atop pitch eight this morning, we took our time - we slept in, ate breakfast, and waited for the sun to reach us before putting our climbing shoes back on. With twelve more pitches to the summit, we figured we'd easily be able to finish the route by mid-afternoon and have plenty of daylight for the descent. What we didn't take into account was how slowly we would be climbing at altitude and with heavy packs, or the fact that we were inevitably going to become entangled in the congo line of in-a-day parties catching up to us from below. Case in point: by the time I started out on the first lead of the day, we had already let two parties pass and another one climbed past us while I finished up the pitch. As Chris geared up to lead the crux a few pitches later, we were in the middle of a full blown traffic jam and marooned on the belay ledge for over two hours. Now the sun is setting on us, and we are still miles out from the safety of camp.
"Hey, over here - I found it!" Chris waves at me and is already starting to thread our rope through the first rap station. Almost simultaneously, a lone figure appears on the skyline about twenty feet above us and surveys the territory ahead. "You guys know how to get down?" he shouts in our direction as two more climbers appear on the ridge behind him. Chris and I have studied the beta for the descent; the other party has a second 70 meter rope that'll help us get across the bergschrund with a bigger margin of safety. We decide to team up even though we are fully aware that it'll be slow progress getting five people down eleven rappels.
By the time we drop down on the glacier it is well past midnight. The distant thunderclouds have moved in closer; flashes of lightning illuminate the sea of ice and imposing spires all around us. Electrical storms are one of my big fears in the mountains, and yet this night is beautiful - I take comfort in knowing that we are no longer high up on the exposed ridge, and also in the knowledge that there simply is no other option than to keep moving. Nothing to be done than to put one foot in front of the other, to cross the Vowell Glacier until we find the steep col between Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spire, to descend it safely one last time, and then to stubbornly not give in to the desire to sit down until we've dragged our beaten bodies all the way to camp, to safety.
I know what it means to be exhausted. Big walls, 100 Mile ultra marathons, an Ironman - I've put myself through the paces of big days. Now as I take the last steps up to our campsite, 46 hours after starting out, I welcome the familiar feeling of euphoria and gratitude that floods my veins. A new day is starting to break in the east, and I am finally sinking into the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Thinking about your own trip to the Bugaboos? July and August are the best months.
Camp at Applebee - $10 per person per night, first come first serve, water and vault toilets.
The BC Parks website has lots of useful resources, including a map of the park here.
Heads up: The guidebook by Chris Atkinson and Marc Piche is currently out of print
(as of summer 2016). Borrow it or do your research online ahead of time!