South Ridge (Kain Route) on Bugaboo Spire, 1980

by Raymond Parker on September 19, 2012

in Adventure, Climbing

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Bugaboo Spire, South Ridge

“Without hesitation I say that the ascent of Bugaboo Spire offers as many thrills and difficulties as any of the aiguilles in the Alps which I have climbed.” ~Conrad Kain, 1883-1944

In a cool drizzle, we staggered under heavy expedition loads toward the commanding site of the Conrad Kain Hut, step by step, panting up the trail, gaining height alongside the shattered tongue of the Bugaboo Glacier. The mountain air, with its elixir of alpine scents, filled our lungs and strengthened our hearts. The familiar faces of Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires loomed over the pale blue roof of the mountain refuge, their summits obscured by cloud.

Fresh from the Columbia Icefields, and the outer reaches of the Mount Andromeda galaxy, Frank Wieler and I had camped overnight in the rain among a collection of climbers’ mud-caked cars at the head of Bugaboo Creek.

On my first visit to the Bugaboos, in 1977, there were seven in our party: five humans and two canines. We shared the Conrad Cain Hut with a group of four from Colorado, who expressed surprise that such an extraordinary eruption of granite towers was not crawling with climbers. A spring ski traverse, two years later, was comprised of three two-legged explorers and one four-legged, not another soul in sight.

In August 1980, the hut was as I’d never seen it: bustling with an international cadre of climbers and filled beyond capacity. We continued to a level campsite beyond, surrounded by natural granite monoliths. The habitants of “Bugaboo Boulder Camp,” we soon discovered, included familiar human faces–a who’s-who of Vancouver mountaineers, including Robert Tomich, Mark Bitz and his brother Brent.

Everyone was eager to bag the renowned Conrad Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire. A rogues’ gallery of Vancouver alpinists–eight on three ropes–swarmed up the south ridge of the mountain on August 19.

A scramble up the broken lower slope gains more than half the height above the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. Roping up, we climbed two narrow chimneys to pile up on the small pedestal under the Great Gendarme, an immense rock tooth barring way to the summit.

Kain considered this peak, with its formidable gendarme, his most difficult Canadian ascent in 1916. It should not have proved insurmountable, in 1980, to climbers tested on the vertical granite cracks of Squamish. Nevertheless, as first Mark Bitz then Rob Tomich discovered, Kain was a canny route-finder and extraordinary rock-climber, even in primitive hobnail boots!

Several diagonal cracks offered firm handholds, but were not large enough for the toes … Near the top I was stuck for a few minutes, the edge being smooth and and without holds of any kind. I applied the vacuum grip and pulled myself up and over.” ~Conrad Kain

It was decided that our heavy mountaineering boots stood in the way of success, as much as the glowering gendarme. After probing further right on what appeared from our position an overhanging crack, Tomich descended, squeezing back among us to change into his rock-climbing footwear: EBs, the popular klettershoes of the day.

Time was wasting. I suggested we clear the deck and give those better-equipped a clear run. There was general agreement. I began rigging a rappel.

Just then, through the white mist blowing across pink granite, the future hove into view, a silhouette on the apex of the pinnacle. The figure made a series of lithe contortions, descending the gendarme in moments. We shuffled aside to make way for a 15-year-old boy from France.

He grinned as he passed, whether from exhilaration or amusement. The elbows of his pile jacket were ragged and his calloused heels and toes protruded from holes in the ends of his EBs. He’d just scaled the formidable east ridge of the peak, one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America, without partner or other climbing paraphernalia. Bidding us au revoir, he scampered away, back to the hut and his hashish pipe.

Frank Wheeler, in a pair of borrowed EBs, led upwards into the (5.5) crack system, with Rob following. I led the rappel down.

Mark and I landed back among the broken stone and restless cloud on rock-strewn ledges running into the east face. We hunkered down to take in the views and some trail-mix calories. Our hermitage was soon overrun by the the retreating hoard, gathering for snacks and hero photos on this balcony above the world.

Rob and Frank succeeded in their summit bid and returned safely to camp ahead of deteriorating weather. Hopefully, it would blow over. We had plans.

See a new interpretation of the Great Gendarme photo.

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