Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Two West Aussies and a Whole Lotta Bugs

I wrote this in Sept, 2006.
"C'mon it’s a weather window, we're going so why don’t you!" Chris Atkinson, one of the guide book authors, and a hard core female friend attempted to rev us up. "We can shout at each other during the bivvy on the wall tonight". Lawrence and I looked at each other. We were mentally trashed from a series of shutdowns on wet, loose, sandbagged routes and our bodies didn’t exactly feel refreshed. How long since our last rest day I thought to myself, I couldn’t remember. We started to sort our gear.

The Bugaboo National Park is located in south eastern British Columbia, Canada. It is described as one of the best alpine playgrounds in the world and rightly deserves its description. A cirque of free standing spires with walls ranging from 10 to 30 something pitches forms the central Bugaboos and the quality of rock is amazing when compared to other alpine areas. Access is easy, just walk up a great trail for a few hours and you are at the Conrad Kain Hut and Applebee campsite near the base of Snowpatch and Bugaboo spires. A few more hours over a couple of cols and a glacier and you are at East Creek Basin at the base of the Howser towers.

Lawrence and I had planned an onslaught of the Bugaboos for the better part of a year and things finnaly came together at the end of July when we met in nearby Lake Lousie armed with all our gear, a months worth of food and high spirits. Due to the amount of gear we got a helicopter into East Creek Basin allowing us to skip the walk. The object of our trip was and had always been an ascent of All Along the Watchtower (ED2, 5.12- sandbag, 26 pitches + a convoluted ridge). It tops out on the North Howser the highest peak in the bugs and is one of the major hard classic alpine bigwall climbs in the world. According to the locals (we camped with the guidebook authors) it had very few free ascents, possibly only 2, even though it had been tried by many strong climbers.

I must admit after the first few weeks i was thinking that i was insane for ever wanting to climb big walls in the alpine. It was pure torture climbing in the cold stormy weather on suspect rock that was occasionally wet. We were having fun of some sort which lacked the flair of sanity which pops up in most forms of climbing. Anyway we had a bit of an emotional low doubting ourselves about halfway into the trip. We had done some of the classics including the famous Becky-Chouinard (~16 pitches, 10c) on the south Howser and also some not so classics. Shy away from 11+'s put up in the 1970's! I spent 20 mins aiding a 2 meter section of a 5.9! So during a psychological low, while i was on the verge of hypothermia after climbing a Chimney/waterfall (in 0 degree temps!) we thought screw it lets just have some rest collect ourselves and jump on the Watchtower.

The next day, a planned rest day, we woke to blue skies and the news that apparently we were getting a break in the weather and the next few days would be perfect. That’s when Chris started to rev us up. "C'mon it’s a weather window, we're going so why don’t you!" It didn’t take much to convince us. We were physically and mentally beaten but that didn’t count for much. Chris and his partner were preparing to leave for an ascent of the north Howser via a different route. We hurried to catch up to their stage of preperation and quickly packed one nights worth of food and all our gear. We walked and rapped in to the base of the north howser and started to climb at 3 in the afternoon. A good old Alpine start!

After the first pitch we saw Chris and his partner bailing and heading back to camp. They had sandbagged us! Was there whole act a sham? Anyway we were comitted now and we turned our attention to the kilometer of rock above us. We polished of the first 10 pitches to a bivvy ledge over the next 7 hours arriving just as it got dark.
A huge dinner and a hot chocolate later we were cozy on our little ledge. We had dragged up sleeping bags, bivvy bags, a cooker, heaps of clothes and the days worth of food. The leader climbed with a 35 litre pack and the seconder had a 70 litre pack. 5.9 old school offwidth is very hard with a 70 litre pack (Trust me...I Know!).
The morning was awsome, a great view and perfect weather. I woke first and enjoyed watching the moon arc across the blue sky. We had no idea what time it was till we got started and Lawrence looked at his watch.... It was noon! So the rest of the day was spent route finding to the base of the amazing dihedral that has given the watchtower its 3 stars and then climbing the dihedral (4 pitches) while hauling our bags (we took up a huge canvas bag to haul without damaging our backpacks). We made it to near the top of the dihedral (very soft 11+, climbing) before sunset and then rapped back down to a bivvy ledge fixing our ropes in the dihedral so we could jug the next morning. So the entire day we moved our camp up 4 pitches only! Dinner consisted of a couple of cliff bars. We were starving.

After the second night on the wall we had half a cliff bar and half a gell each for breakfast and started to jug up the dihedral hauling our bags. Then to my surprise i hear a Hello! I turned around and theres another party that had bivvied at the top of pitch ten. They were not trying to free the route but just get up it and the seconder was jugging up the rope after the leader. They seemed very strong and were moving quite fast by doing this. They also only had a single pack and were spending very cold nights on ledges with no bivvy gear. One of the guys some of you might know. He is the guy in the Indian Creek guide book and in some BD catalogues wearing the funny glasses in an offwidth placing a huge cam.
Since there were two parties and we were the slowest we offered to let them pass. This led to a very screwed up situation at the top of the dihedral with gear everywhere and Lawrance and I hanging in our harnesses for hours!

Both Lawrence and i had not fallen yet and we where both keen for the lead on the crux pitch which was coming up. We watched the other strong climbers flail on the pitch and resort to aid never pulling the crux. They tagged a line for us and fixed it in case we couldnt pull it either so we could jug pass the crux. Unfortunately for me we were running out of time and i had the whole hanging belay and hauling system set up around me so it was obvious Lawrance was to get the lead. We had a 1 fall policy (you fall you jug pass - no working).

Lawrence gave it a good shot but didnt pull the crux either, the footholds were non-existant. After jugging past he put me on belay. Although i wasnt on lead i still felt nervous and aprahensive, the next 10 meters was soooo important to me. It wasnt on lead but it was still a free ascent that was at steak although not in the best style. I focused taking apart my belay setup and shouted "clmbing!" I saw the crux and knew it was hard, two very strong climbers had just pulled past and a third (the cam dude) didnt even bother to try.

I dont think ive ever been so focused or wanted anything as much. I underclinged a couple of crystals and stepped up onto one of the worst footholds you've ever seen (it was the only thing there). As i stepped up i let out a scream as i felt the tension between my fingertips running up through my shoulders and down to my toes. I brought my right hand into a one finger and a bit tiny pocket and matched feet. Then stepped a long way across to a better foothold and grabbed a better undercling. One more big cross over and i was through the crux.

The rest of the pitch was still very hard and i had to concentrate super hard not to screw it all up. I had done it, not on lead but still free. I looked up and saw the next two pitches, easily the second and third most hardest of the route, at sandbagged 5.11. It was my lead and it took all my strength and will power to keep it together. We topped out the hard climbing as it got dark and did another 5 pitches of mid fifth class climbing in the dark before reaching the summit ridge sometime in the middle of the night only to find the party that had overtaken us. They gave us a bite of salami each which tasted and filled me up as if i had had a roast dinner! We melted some snow and had a tea made from a tea bag they had just given us. Then we passed out.

After the crazy ridge in the morning we stood on the summit, very weak and kinda dizzy. I felt slightly re-energised just knowing the fact we had achieved our goal for the trip. The plan had been in the works for over 6 months. We had done it, an Aussie ascent of the watchtower which included one of the few ever free ascents.
It would have been great to have had the energy to celebrate but all we could manage was a few summit shots before turning our concentration to the descent. Can you believe we got our rope stuck on the last rappel! Lawrence showed his worth by brushing off fatigue and dehydration to lead just one more short pitch to get the rope unstuck. We stumbled and slid across glaciers and past crevasses back to camp to begin a well deserved feast of spam and crackers.

No comments: