Monday, August 26, 2013

Spicy Red Watchtower - North Howser Tower, Bugaboos, BC

EFFFFFFFF! Goddamn son of a BEEEEEEEEAAAAATTTTCH! I was losing my shit and I knew it. I couldn't look Hannah in the eye as I vomited out my tantrum. Hands shaking with frustration I rigged a rappel off the #4 camalot I was hanging on and wriggled and writhed my way into the darkness of the grit-covered snow tunnel. I had dropped my climbing shoe as I was trying to put it on while hanging in an awkward position over the moat at the base of North Howser Tower in the Bugaboos. Luckily the moat wasn't too deep and it only took a few minutes to grab my shoe and batman 4 meters back to surface. My outburst was partially due to the fact that this was my second lap into the moat, the first was to grab my crampon which I had also let slip out of my grasp. I was frustrated at myself for being careless, but also at not being more direct with my opinion about where the route started. I was trying to rush because we had just wasted over an hour climbing 60m up the wrong feature in the murky light of dawn despite my feeling that what we could see above us did not match our beta photo and route description. 

I wiped as much of the melted snow and grit off my climbing shoes as I could and started jamming, the familiar flow of moving up a perfect granite splitter quickly calmed my nerves. "Sorry for my freakout Hannah" I said, "this pitch is awesome, you are going to love it!".

Hannah Preston and I were on the second instalment of a two-part Bugaboos mission. Our first week had been spent around Applebee, trying to warm up to climbing in the mountains and climbing together. Although we are both Squamish based climbers and guides, we haven't climbed together much, in part because almost 10 years of age separates us. Hannah is by no means a novice climber. At 23 she has climbed 5.12+ trad, done the Nose in a day, climbed a handful of El Cap routes, soloed several grade V aid routes and achieved her ACMG Apprentice Rock Guide certification. She began climbing as a kid and by the time she finished high school she was seriously hooked, embarking on long road trips to the States and spending summers in Squamish. Hannah has a rare combination of motivation, passion and a strong background of big-walls and free climbs, and this blend made her a great partner with whom I could attempt a bigger alpine rock objective.

Golden sunrise on the flawless granite of Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires
Our time at Applebee was fun, but daily thundershowers kept us from completing our two main objectives - Sendero Norte on the East Face of Snowpatch Spire and Divine Interventions on the East Face of Bugaboo Spire. We climbed part of both of these routes and they seem amazing. I can't wait to get back and complete them in some better weather. Ironically, the one day it didn't rain we climbed the Edwards-Neufield on Crescent Tower. The 7 pitch route near camp has a few sections of good climbing, but overall was fairly mediocre considering the gems that surround it.

Sun peaking out on a perfect morning before a stormy afternoon

Heading up the cruxy second pitch of Sendero Norte
Hanna enjoying the "Split Pillar" pitch on Sendero Norte
Matty Segal and Will Stanhope, poster boys for commitment, on their 40th day of sessioning uber-proj Tom Egan Memorial Route. 
The scenery was probably better than the climbing on the Edwards Neufield on Crescent Tower
The Howsers peak over the col at dawn as we head towards Divine Intervention only to be rained off after 4 pitches. 

After spending a weekend teaching a Women's Climbing and Yoga Series at Lake Louise with the lovely yoga instructor Lydia Zamorano, we were centered, limber and ready to head back into the Bugs for round two. We both really wanted to climb something on the huge west face of North Howser Tower, and after researching a bunch of options, it seemed that starting up Spicy Red Beans (topo here), then doing a runout traverse pitch into All Along the Watchtower (topo here) was the option that provided the most well-protected, straightforward climbing with minimal route finding challenges. Tony McLane, Hannah's boyfriend had soloed this particular combo in an extremely bold 15 hour camp to camp effort a month earlier, and he kindly provided us with beta and encouragement. We weren't sure if the unsettled weather pattern would provide us with the 24 hour window we felt we needed to commit to the imposing face.
The lovely women of our Women's Climbing and Yoga Series weekend in Lake Louise
Part of what lends this face its reputation is that it is accessed by four steep double rope rappels to reach the basin beneath the tower, meaning that retreat from the routes back to base camp in East Creek due to weather or accidents requires significant time, effort and hazard. Additionally, online trip reports and some stories from friends recounted frequent and large natural rockfalls into the basin which you must cross to get to the base of the wall. Rockfall is something that really scares me and can quickly kill my desire to attempt a route. I love climbing, but after losing many friends, acquaintances and heroes, and seeing that there are so many more ways to savour life, it's just not worth it to me to choose routes with significant objective hazards. The knowledge that we would have to cross this threatened slope to gain the climbs weighed heavy on me as we packed our bags to head back in to Applebee. I wasn't sure how to deal with the nerves, so just decided to focus on one step at a time, and if things weren't feeling right, to pull the pin and head home.

Our first night back in the Bugs was a great one to relieve our headspace issues and get back to what it's really all about - fun times with friends in beautiful places, appreciating things you can't appreciate down in the valleys surrounded by comforts and distractions. After sunbathing and a dip in the lake above Applebee, we enjoyed drinks, laughs and music while spectating an epic lightning storm with friends, revelling in the fresh air and 360 degree panoramas of granite spires and crumbling glaciers. In the morning we would get the final weather report via sat phone and make the call to head to East Creek or head home to Squamish, where our boys, work and lives awaited our return.
Cocktail hour in Applebee would not be complete without these two.
With the weather report staying positive, we trekked our gear to East Creek and set up camp beneath the inspiring face of the Minaret on South Howser. We arrived just as a helicopter was long-lining a climber with a broken ankle off the famous Becky-Chouinard route, simultaneously reminding us of the perils of climbing and the fact that highly-trained backup was not too far away.
Heading to East Creek

Long-line rescue off the Becky-Chouinard

Our 2AM wakeup wasn't too painful. Temps were mild and mentally we were both really ready to get the adventure under way. Our approach to the raps went smoothly in the dark and as we began the descent into the basin the focus on the familiar tasks at hand (prepping the ropes, setting up the raps, pulling the ropes) provided comfort as we moved into unknown terrain. As Hannah was looking for one of the stations, I waited on a ledge with my light off to preserve batteries until I felt something crawl on my leg. Jumping back I turned on my headlamp to reveal a fat and shiny packrat. The packrat was extremely tame and kept crawling towards me until I waved my arms at it. I was relieved when Hannah found the station because it felt like eventually it was going to be either me or the packrat on the ledge, but not both of us.
Hannah rigs the raps in the dark on our way to the base of North Howser
As we approached what was for me the mental crux of the mission - the rockfall threatened snowfield we had to cross - my chest began to tighten. Clattering of small rocks on the slope heightened my nervousness, but darkness cloaked the terrain we needed to cross and the source of the rockfall. Before starting the final rap onto the snow, Hannah and I donned our crampons and discussed our plan to pull and coil the ropes and beeline across the slope as quickly as possible, separated so that if one of us was hit by rocks, the other could respond. I felt sick to my stomach as we discussed these details and when the ropes were coiled and stashed on our packs, I began moving as fast as I could across the snow. When we reached the moat at the base of the wall relief washed over me. Now was the part of the day I was really looking forward to; climbing a giant granite face! 20 minutes later as I crouched in the moat belaying Hannah on what would turn out to be the wrong route, the roar of rocks falling down the slope we had just crossed filled my ears. Over the course of the morning, long before the sun hit or significant warming of the air temperature, at least four large rockfalls occurred, one of which was a boulder the size of a smart car bouncing down the snow.

When we were finally on the right route we moved steadily upwards, both carrying packs and climbing in pitches or simulclimbing through mostly 5.9 and 5.10 cracks and chimneys. After 7 pitches by the topo, we reached broken terraces where a traverse from the Armageddon corner left into All Along the Watchtower is possible by following a fractured, runout dyke feature. Hannah cruised through the easy but hard to protect moves on the dyke, and one more 60m pitch of traversing to a flared 5.9 corner crack brought to the base of the giant corner system that the Watchtower is known for.

It might be awesome, but it's still alpine. Gotta get your vegetate-on. Hannah confidently uses the moss as a foothold.
Hannah beginning the dyke traverse out of the Armageddon corner to link Spicy Red Beans into All Along the Watchtower

Hannah in a smoky haze but looking stoked we are finally in the Watchtower dihedral. Little does she know this is the last ledge belay we are going to see for a long while. 

We followed the dead-vertical 90 degree corner for 7 pitches. The climbing on this part of the route was amazing. Mostly solid finger locks, and good foot scums in the corner kept most of the climbing feeling like 5.10 or 5.11-. As we approached the crux the gear became more fiddly and we french freed as necessary to keep ourselves flowing upwards in good time. We hauled our packs using the tag line, but they kept getting stuck in the corner, and the seconder would have to free them, making for tough rope management at the very uncomfortable hanging gear belays in the dihedral. Physically I felt like the bag hauling was taking more of a toll than the climbing! It would be awesome and I think quite doable to free all of these pitches, but my first crack at tackling the North Howser was intimidating enough as it was, without worrying about climbing it in an ideal style.

Me following the third corner pitch. 
Continuing up the corner
Hannah getting it done on the roof pitch (5.12 for some, C2 for us)
Hannah follows the last of the dihedral pitches. Forest fire smoke is hazing the views and irritating our throats.
We reached the top of the steep dihedral and quickly climbed the final few 5.8 pitches to gain the summit ridge where our toes squeeled like joyful little piggies as we changed into our approach shoes. With the sun still high above the horizon, we relaxed and enjoyed simul-climbing and then soloing the long ridge to reach the summit. The raps off the east face went as smooth as can be, and even the long rap over the bergschrund was far less intimidating than some of the challenges I'd faced last year in the Waddington Range. We stayed roped up for safety as we traversed above massive crevasses until we reached the yak-track trench left by climbers descending the ever-popular Becky-Chouinard.

Hannah enjoys happy toes and the transition to simuling on the ridge. 
Me looking disheveled as usual. Chalk bag in front - all the cool alpinists are doing it. 
It's still light, and we're almost there, and it's not raining! Woohoo!
She's got most of her 20s and a lotta mountains stretched out in front of her. This girl is gonna have a lot of fun.
Looking across central and South Howser from the North Howser descent.
Even the 'schrund crossing wasn't too bad!

Upon arrival at the Pigeon-Howser col we were greeted by smiles, hugs, wine and potato chips by my mountain guide friend Craig. After fortifying ourselves with Craig's generously offered treats, we continued down to be pampered more by Kate Rutherford, Mikey Schaefer and their friends who had flown in to East Creek and therefore had yummy food and drinks that they were kind enough to lavish on us in exchange for beta on our climb which they hoped to check out during their stay.

A heavy shower drove us back to our small tent for a good rest, and as I sunk into my thermarest and listened to the patter of drops on the tent I was grateful to not be hunkered somewhere on the North Howser under a flapping sil tarp. It had been a great day of climbing with Hannah: 19 hours camp to camp with many high quality pitches on mostly really good rock. I was tired but not as destroyed as some other climbing efforts in the past few years had left me. In all it felt like these previous adventures (super long days and less than perfect weather on giant granite walls in Greenland, intimidating glaciers and stormy epics in the Waddington Range, trying harder than I've ever tried when my body is tired on the Freerider and University Wall, and climbing in the dark on my Northern Lights - Freeway - Grandwall link up and at the 24 hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas) had in some way prepared me for the North Howser adventure. As I drifted off I enjoyed that fleeting feeling, that as climbers we all sacrifice time, money and comfort to seek, of a long-held goal achieved.

Looking smily in front of the Minaret after our big day. Thanks to Jimmy Chin for taking this one on my camera.  
Just a little trick I learned from my Dad. Beers in the creek. Oh. Yeah.


Peter Rowat (Lena's dad) said...

Congratulations on a fine adventure!

Ant Harris said...

Well done.