Snowpatch Spire, Bugaboos, August 1997


The classic view of the east face of Snowpatch Spire. The route takes a circuitous path to the base of the snowpatch, then up easy ground left of the snow, and then 3-4 hard pitches (all with some 5.6 to 5.7) on the headwall. Descent is a rappel off the back side.


Trip Report

This report is a bit long, but be assured there is some excitement before the end!

Personnel: David Nebel, Estacada, Ore.; Stan Wagon, Silverthorne, Colo.
Date of climb: August 5, 1997.

The objective: Snowpatch Spire (10050') is one of the hardest of the Bugaboo Spires (B.C.) to get to the top of. Rating is 5.6+, Grade IV, but there is no question that 5.7 is more accurate. The spire has a 5-acre snowpatch halfway up its SE side and the easiest route has 3 parts: 1. getting to the bottom of the snowpatch; 2. going up around the edge of the snowpatch to the base  of the steep headwall; 3. climbing the steep headwall to the top. And of course, the inevitable descent. Here one gets off via the Kraus-McCarthy route (5.8) and its five rappels.

History: A lot of history here. In the 1920s and 1930s the peak saw 9 unsuccessful attempts, including those of Conrad Kain and, in 1938, Fritz Wiessner. FW found the right way to the snowpatch: a beautiful "hand traverse" (hands in a deep slot while feet follow on a not-too-steep slab, 5.5). But then he got involved in an unnecessary hard overhang -- the Wiessner Overhang -- and when he saw the steep headwall above he decided it was too hard. It is noteworthy that his buddy, Ans Kraus put up one of the great routes on this spire.

The snowpatch route was fully done in 1940 by Jack Arnold and Raffi Bedayn, Californians with much  Yosemite experience and not intimidated by steep rock that looks impassable.

Aug 4, 1997. Up the trail to the Kain Hut. About 3 hours. Very hot. 105 degrees in Calgary; record. But I was thrilled to see clear weather as my other Bugaboos trips were in not so good weather.

Saw tracks on the very steep snow face of Anniversary. Made by a snowboarder that day, in a round-trip from the parking lot. Also heard helicopters; they were rescuing a woman who suffered a broken femur because of rockfall near the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. Also a man who went for help and fell and broke some ribs was lifted out at same time. And three days earlier a Swiss woman died when she grabbed a large loose block somewhere on Bugaboo. Not good omens.

Aug 5. David and I leave the hut at first light at 5:15. David had tried Snowpatch once before, getting lost on the lower part (as happens to many parties) so his knowledge of the lower route will be very important. We reach the small col at 7 am, and then do the first two pitches unroped. The first two "real" pitches (5.4) go well (though I took a false start on #2 and had to restart), and then David led the Wiessner traverse well.  My first mistake was made weeks ago, when I decided that the moderate rating meant I could try the route in mountain boots, not rock shoes. Big mistake. Still, guide Rod Gibbons, at the hut, said he had done the route in mountain boots, so I had hope.

I followed the pitch with a little stress, but no great difficulty, and we were soon at the bottom of the snowpatch. We then simul-climbed ("running protection") 3-4 pitches on easy terrain (5.1-5.2 slabs), though now I was wishing I had rock shoes!

Soon we were at the pear-shaped rock, somewhat above the snowpatch and very close to the steep climbing (3 long pitches to the top). We were quite pleased with our progress as it was only about noon. Vicki Nebel had been watching us to this point and could see that we were moving well. David led a short distance and we wanted to alternate leads if possible, so I was on the sharp end for the first hard section. That suited me as it looked like a boot-wide crack that would be well suited to my large boots (and feet). Sure enough, it was easy to jam the feet in the crack. A fixed piton protected a critical move and at one point I needed a handhold and was able to throw my arm into the large crack, expand my fist, and lever up. Classic stuff. Then a smooth face to a mossy ledge -- hard for me, easy for David in his shoes -- and I was at the end of pitch 1 of the three hard pitches. Moreover, we knew, from fixed pins and the steep dike that now faced us, that we were right on route.

David led the dike -- the holds were there but they tended to push one off-balance, so this was a tricky section. Indeed, the first ascenders in 1940 pulled up on pitons here and at one other place on the route. Then a hand traverse and David chose to belay after that rather than do the second half of the pitch. I followed up the dike, but it was hard. I fell at one point -- minor, no distance -- and then tried differently throwing my foot against a surface well to the right to lever myself up. This really exhausted my arms, and I struggled across the traverse to the belay.

David then wanted to finish the pitch, since we agreed where the route went. I belayed, David climbed (out of my view), and in a couple minutes I heard some noise and then saw him falling rapidly past my level and below me. The belay held and he was upside-down and groaning about 10 feet below me. One piece of protection failed (the other held) and so he had had a 20-foot fall. But, thank goodness, he was not hurt badly: torn skin on elbow and heel of hand. He scrambled up to my position; we taped up the lacerations, and I thought I would take a try. It was a chockstone, and I sort of like these chimney-type problems so, with the solid protection of a fixed piton in the middle, I clambered over this 5.6 move. Up to the belay, David followed, and two of the three pitches were done. It was not clear why David had fallen; just an unexpected loss of balance.

Now we have a hard pitch of a thin hand traverse, an easy ledge, a face with small holds and three fixed pitons, and a "ramp crawl". David is back in form and leads the traverse easily, and also has no trouble with the rest. It is now 3:30 pm. So, with the leader at the end of the difficulties, we are done, right? Hah! I clamber to the pin at the beginning of the traverse, but this "hand traverse" is really a finger traverse, as there is room only for parts of fingers in the horizontal crack. I get to the pin protecting the start of the traverse, remove the gear attaching the rope to the pin, try the moves but have trouble. My arms are tired, my technique is bad. I peel off and, because the next point of attachment of the rope is very far away (David should have protected the end of the traverse for me), I fall a great distance left. This knocked me unconscious. Presumably my head hit the rock, though I had a sense of being hit by a falling rock and when I came to I was dazed (like awaking from a nap) and yelled: "Am I on belay?" since I wanted to make sure that I wasn't supposed to be belaying David. But probably the rockfall thought is just a delusion, and the KO came from my head and helmet slamming into the rock. I have no idea how long I was "sleeping"; 30 seconds? 5 minutes?

I noticed, to my concern, that the rope was very badly frayed two feet from my tie-in. Moreover, it was newly tied in to my harness beyond the fray! Who did that? I must have done it by instinct, but I had no memory of tying that new knot!

I wasn't quite sure where I was; I tried to follow the rope up, but was off route of course, and could not. I then climbed back rightward to the route and, seeing that piton, I recalled where I was. The traverse still looked intimidating. I tried alternatives; no good. I tried the thing again, and fell again! Again, a long fall and perhaps on this one I smashed my thigh and it became slightly injured. In fact, as I write this 5 days later my leg is quite swollen.

Well, two long falls at that move were more than enough! I pull out my prusiks [a prusik is a knot by which a small sling can be attached to a rope so that it moves upward only; with three of those one can climb a rope relatively easily. Still, it helps to practice and several cat rescues from trees over the years -- also chain-sawing high branches off trees -- have given me some practice with this technique]. Well, it is a slow business, but I did prusik, exhausted, up to David. It is now 5:00 pm. David had, of course, been very concerned since I was out of sight for so long. It was good to be together again.

He led an easy pitch (5.1) to the top and there we were at the bolts marking the first rappel down. The summit was 2 minutes away, but we did not want to get benighted, so we decided to skip it and start right down. I was breathing very hard, despite decent rest, but there were no cracked ribs or anything, so I found that confusing. And I was having a hard time getting full sentences out. A mild concussion, no doubt.

At the first rap (we used a 7-mm 50-meter rope to make our double-rope rappels) we neglected to test by having the first person down pull to see if the rope pulls easily. So, after I rapelled down to David, we discovered that we could not pull the rope. Aaaargh! The solution, as some of you will know, is to prusik up 150 feet and rearrange the ropes. David volunteered, but I was feeling better and had both recent and past prusiking experience, so I went up. This is surely the worst way to ascend something as beautiful as the Kraus-McCarthy route. It was a physical effort to gain 150 feet five inches at a time, but I got there and reset the rappel five feet lower, leaving some gear, and flew down the rappel. The next 4 raps went fine. At all these we arranged the knot so we pulled on the thin 7 mm line; I think this is a mistake; pulling on the large rope gives more weight to the pull and less weight to be pulled. One is not allowed many mistakes in this sport.

An easy walk to the Bug-Snowpatch col and then down the steep snow to the bergschrund. We see a party ahead of us. They rappel and jump the bergschrund. But the thin snow bridge looks good to us, so we walk across. No problem, and soon we are on the easy flat part of the glacier. Now we know we will get back before dark! We reach the hut at 10 pm. A 17-hour day. The other party, it turns out, were two fellows from Vermont who just finished the famous, two-day-long Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower.

For the next several days I am quite exhausted. Hard to sleep because of injured thigh. Next day David, Vicki and I scramble to Eastpost summit, and the day after that we attempt Pigeon Spire, but are too low-energy. We do get to the Pigeon-Howser col, though, which is a beautiful ramble on the high glaciers. This involves two more crossings of that snowbridge. No problem, but it will last only a few more days. We saw two parties on the harder, but shorter, SW corner of Snowpatch (5.9). Looks like a great route. Like us, one of the parties jammed their ropes on one of the rappels.

Lots of interesting folks at the hut. Example: a party of three from Maine PBS doing a reconnaissance for a film they will make in September recreating Kain's 1916 ascent of Bugaboo Spire. Also a party of two from Colorado Springs.

Did we climb Snowpatch Spire? No, because we did not visit the summit (shades of a recent debate in Climbing magazine!). But we saw the route, up and down, in all its glory, and were grateful to get down in one piece.


Carefully research your routes so that you have the right gear.

Wear helmets! Many climbers do not. David and I do, even on clean climbs in Yosemite. Falls are just as likely to damage your head as rockfall is.

While an aggressive attitude is reasonably good in telemark, and other, skiing, it is not the sort of attitude to bring to rock climbing which should be a deliberate, careful sport. I'm learning the difference.

Aside on an Old Incident

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