The Bugaboos: In the Shadows of the Spires

The Bugaboos: In the Shadows of the Spires

Live Your Dream in 2016

Some experiences are so profound that you are left forever changed. Perhaps some part of you remains behind in the physical moment or some other part is permanently altered, but you walk away with a shifted frame of mind and obscured feeling of reality. There are places in this life that few people ever get to see, remote gems of reigning beauty and unreal inspiration. They exist for those that seek them out, unattainable except to the most determined. Bugaboo Provincial Park is one of those places of perfect, untempered magic. The shadowed spires of flawless granite that comprise them tower over a glacier deep within the wilderness of the Purcell Mountains. They are everything a alpinist could desire, gray, arching, monolithic spires that rise thousands of feet above a glacial valley; a mixture of rock, ice, ridges, and climbing. Winning the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant to climb in the Bugaboos changed my life forever. 

The Bugaboos

We had awoken to a cold 3am morning in the Applebee Campground. The horizons were shrouded in low-hanging clouds and there was not even a hint of the full moon that had hung like a beacon of light above the world just the morning before. The sight of our breath upon the air spoke of harrowing temperatures overnight and freezing of the rain that had

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Bugaboo Spire, morning of attempted ascent

barraged down the previous afternoon. There was minimal stirring of other climbers; a lack of the normal symphony of unzipping tents, lighting gas stoves, and the clink of gear being racked. An eerie silence settled upon the background of the air against the constant churning of an alpine breeze, as if the mountains themselves were breathing foreboding whispers down our spines.

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Bugaboo Spire, previous day

The frozen snow crunched beneath the rhythmic placing of crampon-strapped feet, interspersed with the muted thuds of the end of ice axes plunged into the snow to support every stride. It was our last day to attempt to summit the infamous Bugaboo Spire, a 1500ft ascent from glacier level into the sky.
We had scouted out the approach the morning before, a four-hour hike across the glacial valley followed by a 5th class scramble across loose rock up to a thin ridgeline that stretched from the Crescent Spire to the col at the base of Bugaboo. Having done the approach yesterday made today’s going easier if you didn’t account for the extremely cold and windy weather and addition of multiple clothing layers.

The Approach

While the conditions were not optimal for a climb with this level of commitment, spirits remained high as we clung to hope the weather would give us a window for safe passage. The snow had been dusted in a layer of rain that had frozen overnight,

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The morning of the ascent

leaving a light slippery casing we had to be cautious of as we ascended the knoll that took us up to the second level of the glacial lakes. We fiercely thrusted our axes into the snow and stomped sideways, digging our crampons into makeshift stairs and trudging upwards. We reached the base of the ridge by 5am.

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The Spires in the clouds

Looking out across the valley as the sky began to brighten we could see the spires were still masked in low hanging clouds. They were like cut-out cardboard squares; pyramid tips missing. The wind still gusted in low bursts and fought the Gore-Tex shell zipped up to my chin holding in the heat of two layers of down coats beneath. My fingers fought to retain circulation beneath their soaked leather glove fingers. I looked over at my climbing partner, who seemed equally somber, hooded face downturned, but he did not say a word. Being out there in that place, and in that moment, was a magical experience all in of itself. We were so captured by the beauty of it that success did not seem to matter as much. But because it was our last chance we pressed onwards, as far as we could go.

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Momentary sunlight

The scramble up to the ridgeline was more treacherous than the day before, with the added weight of our packs and ice gear, slippery lichen holds, and ledges stacked with piles of loose rock. Visibility was momentarily decent as the sun began to rise up above the valley, casting a warm pink glow across the bases of the spires. It was simply ethereal, like we were witnessing gods of light kissing the bases of great temples. We meandered slowly, zigzagging back and forth as we formulated the easiest route, careful of every foot and handhold. Just as we mounted the ridgeline, the sun broke through the thick blanket of persistent clouds on the horizon across from the spires, burning away the drear and for a moment it seemed like we might have a chance to go for the summit. Bugaboo Spire towered over us, taunting, its shadow cast by the sun falling across the valley below, its peak fighting to maintain the dark mystery contained behind ever-present clouds.

Bugaboo Spire

It was 7am by the time we reached the base of the col. A snowy staircase dipped upwards like the handle of a spoon into the rocky ledge above. The sun had disappeared again behind the cloak of the choking clouds, but at this point my mind had ceased to absorb the changing environment around me. Consciousness is such a fickle thing, sometimes you exist at its mercy and other times you formulate its being. There was an energy that had bubbled up inside me, overtaking my nerves and vibrating at the core of my being. The idea of climbing the spire, being immersed in a sea of granite, just a speck of stardust on a rock in this giant universe, insignificant and yet so great; it captured me like a fever. My whole body was burning with the imagination of the sensation. I could feel the flowing movements across the rock, fingertips smearing coarse granite and rubber-tipped feet locking easily between the cracks as my body fought physics and every natural instinct of man to carry me upwards into the unnamed valhalla between the earth and the sky. A place only climbers know. But the mind can be a dangerous thing. It can make you feel invincible, completely in control of your own existence. And the problem with this place, out here in nature, far removed from the civilized world, is that you are never in control. You are always at the mercy of the elements that are greater than you. The mountains are a most notable example.

One of the most terrifying and rewarding things about climbing is the relationship between you and your partner. Out of necessity, climbing creates the perfect balance of responsibility and reliance and at all times you hold your partner’s life in your hands. It takes the selfishness out of humankind and forces you to act on a humbled level. The measure of your success is not your own, but each other’s together. It was that day in the Bugaboos I truly learned the meaning of this.

We had clambered out of the snow and onto the rock face at the top of the col just as tiny beads of sleet began to pummel down upon us. But my fever had turned into fire and I quickly started leading up the slippery scramble to the ledge at the base of the first climbing pitch, placing occasional camalots just as an after thought and rather focused solely on moving upwards as quickly as possible. At this point, I am not sure what I was thinking. That maybe if we got up there faster we could somehow hold off the inclement weather? That somehow my unchecked facade of prowess could hold sway over the elements?

Acceptance

I belayed up my partner as the sleet began to fall in sideways curtains. When he got to the top my mind was overrun, my fingers moving deftly, flaking out the rope, fiddling with the gear, and it was just as I was taking my climbing shoes out of my pack and preparing to climb did I look up at his face. It was in that moment I knew. The foolishness of undertaking this endeavor could risk our lives and no mountain was worth that. But it was not a simple realization, rather the equivalent of the rock crushing slowly down upon my shoulders. All of the preparation, the hard work, the training; it had all led to this moment, and now we could go no further. We would have to turn around and go back down, because if we went any further that option would be closed to us.

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Sunrise, nicer day

I cursed the winds and their biting gales, the uncaring stone face staring down at me, the gray clouds and their relentless hold upon the spire. I cursed them, but it left me empty, and afraid, because for a moment I had thought I was in control. And in this place you are never in control. The tears fell unchecked, and I cried because it felt like failure, but I think I also cried at the beauty of it all. Just being in this magnificent place, so far removed from the touch of man, in a world of its own, should be enough to fill the void of any person’s happiness.

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The Bugaboos
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Jed and I, Banff

I could not have asked for a more epic first alpine experience. While it has left me breathless and nearly wordless, all I can do is thank my partner, the keepers of this magnificent place, Bugaboo Provincial Park, and most of all the American Alpine Club. I am here today because of your generosity and I have truly ‘lived my dream’, one that is everlasting. For I will be back to the Bugaboos and this time I will lay myself down at the feet of that place that joins earth and sky, the summit beneath me.


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