Published in Adventure Magazine NZ, JUNE/JULY 21015
by Derek Cheng
It took only a handful of seconds for the mountains to respond to our misguided declarations of invincibility.
We had just conquered the ominous Bugaboo Spire, following a 500m line of chimneys and cracks, and gleefully pronounced how at ease we felt, in a place where conditions could change in an instant and ensnare us in grave danger.
On the descent col, my climbing buddy Alan removed his crampons and started walking down in approach shoes. He had taken barely five steps when he slipped, sending his body towards an enormous, gaping crevice. He managed to self-arrest with the single ice tool he was carrying. He regained his footing, only to lose it again at a smaller crevice lower down. This time he slipped into the ice-hole up to his armpits, before he managed to pull himself out.
I stepped cautiously around the crevice, but didn’t go wide enough. When I weighted my right foot, it crashed through a thin layer of snow, throwing my balance into disarray. My left leg wobbled and threw its crampon into my right thigh, piercing it.
Just as I was pulling myself together, we were given a final reminder of our vulnerability. A boulder the size of an armchair hurtled towards us from somewhere high above the col, missing us by a mere seven metres.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said.
Alpine climbing is inherently risky, but we accept these dangers so we can climb in such sublime settings. And it doesn’t get much better than the Bugaboos. In the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, it is home to countless granite towers that rise steeply out of undulating, glaciated terrain. Some routes are 200m high. Others are more than 1000m. Five sentinels alone encircle the Applebee Campsite. Behind them in all directions are more cirques of equally dramatic peaks.
We had been trying to visit this playground for months, but each time were thwarted by a dubious weather forecast. But it was worth the wait. When we eventually arrived, the area – known for imprisoning climbers in tents for endless days – gifted us a week of uninterrupted sunshine.
It was almost too much beauty to take in. Most mornings we rose pre-dawn and set off, crossing glaciers and cols, towards a new peak. We would always pause at that perfect moment when the sun first warms the tips of peaks, turning them from an ethereal blue to a tender pink.
Despite perfect weather, the Bugaboos had no shortage of challenges. I was halfway up the classic Beckey-Chouinard route, when we were suddenly deprived of all the route descriptions and maps on the camera in my pocket. I had been throwing hand-jams into a beautiful corner crack, but the climbing also sent my thigh crashing into the corner from time to time, breaking the camera screen.
But this loss only imbued us with a sense of adventure. We were Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard in 1961. We looked at the hundreds of metres of rock above us, picking the best line to take to the top.
A few days later, anxiety of a different nature gripped me on the classic route up Snowpatch Spire. I was climbing unroped, 300m above an unforgiving, indifferent glacier, limbs spread out on a slab that offered few handholds. My right hand was on a block in a crack, but applying pressure made the block wobble.
I froze. Wobbling blocks do little to fill me with confidence. I placed my hand on His Wobbiness several times before deciding to pull on it with more force. It held. I sighed in relief, and moved higher towards Alan, who was grappling with his own moments of uncertainty.
A few hours and some roped climbing later, we summited to a view of the Howser peaks and Pigeon Spire. It wasn’t yet midday, and I tried to entice some enthusiasm from Alan’s tired limbs for another climb. He declined. We abseiled to the glacier, and as he departed for the comforts of alpine lagoons, I set off for the base of Pigeon.
The West Ridge of Pigeon is touted as the best easy rock climb in the world. It’s 500m long, and includes a section that demands a few metres of tip-toeing a narrow plank of the ridge. Both sides of the plank fall away sharply to oblivion.
On the way up, I discarded all dignity and straddled the ridge, humping my way along like an overexcited adolescent boy. But on the descent, buoyed by the euphoria of a second summit on an already superb day, I danced my way across, arms outstretched, palms up, warm sunshine on my face.
It was a stark contrast to that morning, when fear had paralysed me on the Snowpatch slab. How quickly I had transformed from a trembling feather, fearful and fragile, into a confident, plank-walking, alpine dancer. Just like the temperamental Bugaboos, which for months had been a stormy, weather-ravaged asylum, but just for us had flowered into a paradise of blue skies and sunshine, smiling down on those perfect peaks, shackled in infinite ice-fields.