Weathering the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire

by Raymond Parker on September 21, 2012

in Adventure, Climbing

Pigeon Spire

An angry wind smashed into the saddleback ridge, stinging our faces with ice pellets.

A gust momentarily lifted me from my à cheval position and dropped me back in place, as though I was indeed astride a bucking horse.

“Lads, this could be a thigh-boner if we’re not careful,” I shouted into the gale. The reference was to a harrowing European mountaineering story, where a search for fallen climbers at the base of a mountain wall turned up nothing more than a femur.

Rob Tomich, Frank Wieler and I decided that the moderate (5.4) West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, a pleasant scramble on a sunny day, was not worth risking dismemberment.

The guided party we earlier met retreating at the base of the route had evidently come to this conclusion without tempting an entry in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

We descended carefully down the ridge to the upper Vowell Glacier, over Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, across the Crescent Glacier to the relative luxury of our tents at Boulder Camp. Well, Frank and I shared a North Face geodesic dome; Tomich had arranged to share a cave with the marmots, under one of the granite boulders.

A peek through the tent’s no-see-um netting, at 4am, revealed a star-studded sky. The planned rest-day turned into a race to stuff our packs with a light alpine kit.

Our headlamps disturbed Tomich, as we passed by his lair.

“What the hell are you up to?” he demanded.

“Pigeon, of course.”

I will leave to the reader’s imagination the novel contortions suggested by our fellow alpinist. They were not illustrated in any rock climbers’ manual I’d ever read.

We marched briskly up the moraine on the familiar trek toward the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, launching ground for many of the areas’ imposing granite spires.

Pausing in the amber light, at the edge of the Crescent Glacier, we met with Mark Bitz and his brother Brent.

Sweat stung our eyes and froze in our hair, as friendly competition spurred us up the steep snow-climb to the col in one-and-a-half hours. Steaming across the Upper Vowell Glacier, we retraced our steps of the day before up the west ridge, towards the second summit. The famous saddleback was free of snow and today we walked across, thrilling at the exposure, sure of our footing.

We roped up and I led across the easy hand traverse and up into the dihedral pitch to the summit, an airy perch with a precipitous drop to the east.

The brothers Bitz arrived moments later and we celebrated our success with cheese, salami and happy banter.

We took turns posing for summit shots. Across the Vowell Glacier, or rather on the other side of the intervening void, the sawtooth Howser Towers raked the cerulean sky: a study in grey, white, and blue. Surely this would count in anyone’s book as worth inclusion in the roster of Great Days, as the famous Italian alpinist Walter Bonatti dubbed his time on the heights. Certainly it is one I shall never forget and so, thirty-two years later, as if in some kind of obscure cyberspace summit register, I leave a record here.

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