Bugaboo ski bums

by Raymond Parker on August 5, 2010

in Adventure, Autobiography, Climbing, Skiing

“A still grander view lay before us: a broad, more or less circular glacier stretched out and rounded up to rest on the sides of several beautiful spires along its south edge, one of them with its outline capped by an image of a pouter pidgeon; at its west side it ran up high on the walls of a lofty ridge that stood in a semi-circle with five sharp peaks vying with each other for leadership.” ~Albert MacCarthy on the view from Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, 1916

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S/W faces of Snowpatch Spire

At the head of the steep valley, piercing the fractured blue glacier, the grey spires of Hound’s Tooth, Anniversary and Snowpatch Spires raked the blue sky, spilling puffs of white mist around their summits. I dangled my feet in the cool, refreshing water of Bugaboo Creek, jotting in my journal.

“ June 1st. A brilliant, clear day. Peace within and without.”

The first half of 1979 had been busy. I’d made several trips to the Kootenays to visit my daughter. These were the days of economical passenger trains.

In April, I celebrated my 27th birthday by formalizing my Canadian citizenship.

In May, I accompanied Tom Hocking, Frank Wieler and Wendy Burke on an aborted climb of Mount St. Helens. It was a climb I didn’t fancy–another boring slog up a volcano.

Whether it was a reaction to that ennui or the horror of watching hundreds of Mazamas march past our camp at 1AM, my back spasmed.

In retrospect, perhaps my bones established some kind of harmonic resonance with the incipient eruption building below my Therma-Rest. This day, May 19, was the first day into the countdown to the May 18, 1980 catastrophe that leveled the west side of the mountain, flattened 40,000 acres of forest, claimed 57 lives and plunged parts of the Pacific Northwest into darkness at noon. I felt the explosion 400 kilometres away in White Rock.

When I took my daughter home to the Columbia Valley, after a spring visit to the Coast, there were tentative plans to return to the Bugaboos. I tried to normalize relations with my former climbing buddy and my ex, if only for my daughter’s sake.

It was soon clear that those plans were not to be. My old friend bowed out.

I retreated to the Lakeside Inn on Lake Windermere to assess my situation. I saw myself an outsider here now, whose indiscreet presence was the source of whispered discussions around town.

The Cuckold Expedition may have fallen through, but I desperately wanted to return to the granite cathedral of the Bugaboos.

Enter Jim Morris and Harry Hower–two local adventurers who were also eager to renew their mountaineering vows in the hallowed “Bugs.”

The Conrad Kain Hut was a welcome sight after a long day plowing through deep, wet snow, in places falling hip deep into hidden melt-holes. A brew, chicken cacciatore and sleep were well-earned.

Free of our expedition packs, we skied next morning, southwest into the the cirque formed by  (3,032 m / 9950 ft) Mt. Marmolata , (3,124 m/10,250 ft) Pigeon Spire, and the massive west face of  (3,063 m / 10,050 ft) Snowpatch Spire, to the north.

We were considering a plan to circumnavigate the monolith and, between us, the only unfamiliar territory was the icefall separating the Pigeontoe, at the eastern base of Pigeon and the soaring west wall of Snowpatch. It looked navigable.

Meanwhile, we were on a steep, south-facing slope, late in the afternoon. It was high time we got back to Boulder Camp.

As I carved inelegant telemark turns on borrowed cross-country skis, I realized with a fright that the snow was moving with me. Attempts to turn were useless as the heavy snow carried me toward the first big icefall on the Bugaboo Glacier. I jammed my leading ski left as hard as I could, throwing myself after it. Like a river of wet cement, the flow continued dragging my buried skis and me after them, as I clawed at the mountain.

I felt the torrent release my skis. I scrambled away toward solid ground, watching the slow-moving avalanche undulate over the glacier, gaining speed to pour into a big crevasse, a hundred metres below. The cardinal rules of avalanche avoidance, learned at the week-long course I’d attended at Red Mountain the previous winter, were driven home hard.

Eager to avoid a repeat experience, we were on the Vowell Glacier at 7AM the next morning, schussing along under the great east face of Snowpatch Spire. Turning west, we zig-zagged up the steep slope to Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col.

I was thrilled to be back here, after almost two years. What a spot! Across the expanse of the Upper Vowell Glacier, the triple summits of the Howser Spires dominated. To the north, the shattered peaks of the Vowell and Conrad Groups pointed the way to Rogers Pass and the Southern Selkirks.

We worked our way along the wind-sculpted crest at the base of Snowpatch’s west face, until we arrived at the icefall we’d reconnoitered from the south. It was a very different thing to be looking down on at close quarters.

“Looks like it’ll go.” I reported. We roped up and I led into the gully.

OK, maybe that was a bit of a hasty assessment. Looking at the tottering blue seracs overhanging my position, I floundered back up. Perhaps a circumnavigation wasn’t such a good idea.

But the thought of retracing our steps was less appealing. Calling for a belay, I ditched my skis and pack.

The ice was plastered in soft snow, with meltwater running underneath. Gobs of the white “frosting” sloughed off and disappeared with a hiss, into the shadows below.

One-hundred-and-fifty feet down, I chopped out a bucket with my ice-axe and belayed my partners. First though, a tangle of skis and klettersacks came tumbling beside me.

We hurried to escape the deadly hanging seracs as well as the softening snow on the glacier below, but descending an icefall is a tedious business.

Harry was the first to point his skis in the direction of the hut. The rope uncoiled as he shot off down the slope. Jim was still adjusting his pack when it came taut. For a moment, he imitated a kamikaze albatross, before nose-diving into the hard corn snow.

This did nothing to endear Harry to Jim.

We spent only enough time at the hut to pack our expedition bags before heading alongside Eastpost Spire, into a defile that avoided avalanche slopes beneath the hut.

We were soon questioning the wisdom of this decision as the route narrowed to a waterfall chute, cascading from the snowfields. It was difficult to skirt and impossible to downclimb with pack and attached skis. I shrugged my burden onto a ledge.

At least, I thought it was on the ledge. I watched as the blue bullet shot off down the couloir, thumping to a sudden stop, between the wall and a chockstone, under full force of the cascade.

How many pieces, I wondered, was the borrowed ciné camera in?

As I struggled to dislodge the pack, I could see Harry–and the bright orange rope he was using as a pillow–sunning himself on the rocks, 150 metres below.

The camera had survived. I pulled out all my nylon slings and knotted them together to create a line 8 metres long, to lower the pack from ledge to ledge.

Strangely, I was having a good laugh.

“Ve descended ze Vorter Hose. Ven ve arrive at ze Death Bivouac, ve are soaked to ze skin.”

Jim, was missing ze joke.

Arriving half an hour behind me, he was silently fuming. My attempt at levity sent him into a fit of accusations and recriminations.

Harry tried another tack.

“Whose route is more valid, Jim? We all made the best of a bad job.

“We’re on solid ground now.”

Jim thought Harry was an asshole. He dropped back on the hike to the van, while Harry and I recalled highlights of the trip.

By the time Jim arrived, the beer was cooling in the icy stream we’d earlier shivered under.

“Here’s to adventure! … and to good friends.”

Bugaboo Provincial Park | Conrad Kain Hut | Mount St. Helens Story (video)

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