Ethereal ~ extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.
There are only a handful of days in a climber’s life where weather, conditions and partner line up like the planets aligning to create a rare event: a magical first ascent.
Tim and I have over fifty years of climbing between the two of us and we both cherish this experience as one of the highlights of our climbing careers. Despite, never getting paid to climb, the amount of work and sweat equity put into our passion defines it as a career.
We got to the Kain hut at midnight after making the last minute decision to capitalize on an improving weather forecast and prime conditions. After sleeping-in past our alpine start time, we were happy to meet our friends Jeff and Mike in the kitchen of the hut. We all agreed upon different objectives and went merrily on our way under starry skies. Tim and I couldn’t stop taking photos all the way up to the base of the route so we ended up being almost an hour behind our fast friends.
We had planned to attempt a new line further left on the face, but we hadn’t expected to see the arrow of ice that drew our eyes and our hearts into longing and excitement.
The best and worst thing about attempting a new line is the not knowing. The uncertainty. Will it go? Will we have to retreat in disappointment? Will I find protection or even a retreat anchor? Uncertainty prevailed for the first half of the route. However, the excitement of a small child on christmas day also filtered through the shadows of doubt. We were so psyched to be climbing such an exquisite line of ice in one of our favourite places in the world under clear skies — it was worth the risk of failure and retreat.
We melted some extra drinking water at the base of the face while we fantasized about the possible exits to the obvious gem of a line we were drooling over. We made a mental note of the options that would become less apparent once we were climbing on the wall. We found a super aesthetic line up through the bergschrund.
Tim started out the hard climbing through the ‘schrund with a pumpy start through icicles to a styrofoam ice ramp to the base of the gully feature. Very fun!
Tim put in a few pins and brought me up to his anchor. We could of brought more small cams on our route, but I was nervous about cams in icy granite still since my accident in Scotland. So Tim made short work several times with pins. I found the cams to be really solid in general on the South Howser tower and not at all like the humid frosty conditions in the Cairngorms. Bomber cams and pins gave me more confidence. Also, the combination of lots of drytool training and enough time has passed that I trust myself again. We both agree that the longer we climb, the more complacent we get. We need to constantly be diligent to double check our systems and be aware when we feel too relaxed in this extreme environment.
I love placing a nest of gear. Like a couple nuts or cams and then my mind is free to try hard on the next difficulty. I enjoy the challenge of uncovering the treasures that are hidden by a blanket of snow: cleaning gravel or ice out of the cracks and finding a solid placement for my tool or gear. This can be a very creative part of climbing and integral to the flow of upward progress.
Pitch four, I call the crampon dangler pitch. While belaying Tim on this pitch, I was witness to the ultimate in self-trust and a calm demeanour when the shit hit the fan. As Tim was moving up trying to decide the best route to gain the left-facing dihedral above, his crampon popped off his foot. It was dangling from his ankle while he negotiated a steep crack system. He made it another body length to a snowy ledge, hopping up his cramponed-foot delicately while systematically hunting out pick placements. After placing a three point pin and cam nest, he felt comfortable enough to put his crampon back on and continue up to a cruxy finish of the pitch. Very improbable climbing that included hand-jamming and dancing on small edges to a sling and nut belay at the base of the ethereal corner system.
Tim inspired me and left me no choice but to attempt the stunning corner above. How could I not step up to the plate after witnessing such bravery and mastery of climbing craft?
There was the potential of protection and good pick placements in the right-hand wall that kept pulling me upward. Also, the promise of lower-angle snice lured in my periphery. I love the challenge of finding the stemming position that will gain the next good pick placement and the dance begins.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, there was a relaxed confidence in every movement up the icy face.
Our belief increased with every pitch. The only question that remained in our minds was which line would take us to the summit.
I often felt reassured knowing we had a siltarp, stove/fuel/pot, soup&tuna, and puffy pants to save us from any unexpected delay or bad weather.
Tim’s pitch naturally led him up to the left. It made the most sense not to fight this continuous line of snice in a shallow corner system. We quickly found ourselves moving into the major left-hand weakness that led to the summit ridge. This 70m pitch flowed with occasional fun cruxes separated by lower angle snow and ice, spotted with bomber rock placements.
Tim suspected we would be on top in one or two pitches. I, the skeptic, disagreed.
Sometimes, I really like it when Tim is right! As I belayed from the summit ridge in the sunshine, was definitely one of these times.
Luckily, Tim recently guided the Becky-Chouinard on the SHT so we made quick work of the descent in the quickly deteriorating weather. As the winds picked up we methodically made our way towards the haven of the Kain hut. We used the Pigeon-Snowpatch rappel route and a cairned climbers trail around stopper crevasses on the Bugaboo glacier.
We are grateful to the stewards of the Bugaboos who install safe and efficient rappel lines on major trade routes. This allowed us to retreat from the summit to the hut in less than five hours and fourteen rappels without incident.
Thank you to Tim, a solid climbing partner. Thank you to the climbers who have gone before; letting us know what is possible.
It’s a fat early ice season in the Bugs — go get some!
We had a very satisfying deep sleep in the Kain hut before descending to the Columbia Valley the next day.
On our slog out we saw evidence of the great animals we share our wilderness with.
When we got to the parking lot we were greeted by our friends Ian and Margot and their kids, they were headed up to the alpine with an iffy weather forecast to enjoy camping at Appleby.
We were happy to share our adventure, as they embarked on theirs — while we cracked our breakfast beers and gnawed on salty bacon.
Approach left of the middle of NE face of South Howser to gain bergschrund.
Pitch one: 50m snow and ice. Cross crevasse and traverse under over hanging ‘schrund to rock and ice belay.
Pitch two: 30m WI 4 Tunnel through ‘schrund trending right, up snice to pin anchor at base of gulley/chimney.
Pitch three: 30m M6 up steepening snice to small gully feature. Rock protection on side walls. Climb through a bulge, dry tooling to snice. Belay under over hanging flakes. Number three camalot crack in anchor.
Pitch four: 25m M6: the crampon dangler pitch. Move left six meters then straight Up m4 cracks. Head for left facing corner using straight in hand crack.
Belay at the base of the corner. Sling and nut belay.
Pitch five: 40m M6. Head up corner using decent protection and hooks in the right hand wall. Sustained with thin ice. Crux pitch. (same dihedral as Thompson-Turk route D+ 5.10R)
Pitch six 65m. WI3 M5 R. Continue up right leaning corner ten meters then step left to snice climbing with occasional nuts and horns.
Pitch seven 70m WI 3 M5. Continue up left leaning snice gully. Step left under flakes over snow covered slab to major weakness. Follow main weakness through short lived cruxes to summit ridge.
Pitch eight 20m scramble on rock to summit and find rappel route on north side of summit block.
Descent South Howser rappel route with a 70m rope.