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[TR] Bugaboos - Pigeon Spire West Ridge - "The best 5.4 in the world" 7/12/2015

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Trip: Bugaboos - Pigeon Spire West Ridge - "The best 5.4 in the world"


Date: 7/12/2015


Trip Report:



Watch full screen here.


"...one should not forget that his approach to mountains was first and foremost an esthetic one; he saw a peak first as something beautiful—the technical problem was always secondary—and nothing counted beside that vision." --J. Monroe Thorington on Conrad Kain.


  • Cecil and I drove 10+ hours through Idaho and Eastern BC Thursday, arriving at the Bugaboo trailhead in darkness (pretty sure it’s not called that). We had 4 days off: 2 would be spent driving and 2 would be for climbing.
  • I’ve been dreaming of visiting the Bugaboos for years now. It was finally coming true - I was happy and excited. The dead moose Cecil saw on the side of the road just past the Canadian border was a sign of good weather to come, a local Tsilhqot'in woman told us.
  • After 15-30ish minutes we were packed. We'd surrounded my truck in chicken wire, covering all of the rubber tires and protecting the brake lines from hungry porcupines. I thought about the early motorists that had to figure out these were necessary measures. I’d hate to get back to my car exhausted, 50-70km out from the nearest gas station, and find out I had no brakes or multiple flats. I also thought of Conrad Kain approaching the area w/o road or trail in the early 20th century. I wondered if this bin of chicken wire had been there in 1915, or if he had to bring his own.
  • It was cool. I love approaches at night, it’s always cool. I’d rather eat broken glass than willingly suffer through a sweltering, boring approach.
  • A blood red moon appeared out West as we hiked past the tree line. A small black bear had run from road to forest just before the trailhead, so I made noise around blind corners, just in case.
  • Have you seen the trail out here? It’s the most built-up, maintained trail I think I’ve ever seen. Stone steps carefully crafted for maximum comfort, bolted hand-line chains on moderately exposed rocky traverses, even a steel ladder. As if a nice ladder wasn’t enough, there’s a burly hand rail on the upper part of the ladder for even more comfort. I liked it, even if it didn’t seem completely necessary. It gave the place a kind of magical, J.R.R Tolkien-ish feel. I was expecting Bilbo Baggins to pop out at any moment.
  • I had opted to carry a 70llb load that included some heavier camera gear as I’m training for a climbing trip in Chamonix. By the time we neared Applebee Campground, my hips/gluts were feeling it.
  • We went too far, and passed the turn-off to Applebee Campground, losing time. It was ironic because everything is so built up, I would’ve thought some obvious sign + path would’ve brought us straight to the campground. It was around 4-5am, early morning light was filtering over the horizon. I cursed Applebee and kicked a small rock about 1ft down a small slope, then frowned. I needed to pull myself together.
  • I thought it was strange that no headlamps appeared at camp or heading up to Snowpatch Col. I heard this place was busy and expected some alpine starts.
  • I finally spotted a tent. We backtracked and still couldn’t find an obvious trail up to the flat camping area. I ended up climbing a low fifth class section with a 70-pound pack up near the bathrooms, annoyed at the time we'd wasted...and anxious to drop some weight.
  • Turns out we weren’t alone, others scrambled up to the camp as well w/o knowledge of a trail. I finally found the trail before we left. Facing up to the camp below, hug the left and look for a trail through the looser boulder/scree field. It’s a moderate trail that goes up straight to the campground. I went around to all of the tents, waking people up and asking why they were so lazy and explaining the lack of headlamps cost me about 40 minutes in poor route finding. Everyone was really cool, apologizing and promising to get up earlier in the future. When some suggested I get better at route finding, I pretended I didn’t speak English and zipped their tents back up.
  • After sleeping for a few hours we headed toward the steep snow slope under Snowpatch Col. A climber took a tumble from near the top, to about halfway down as we arrived at the base. I thought it was on purpose because—at least near the bottom—the climber looked very controlled. Turns out it wasn’t, but she was thankfully OK. I know people get hurt here every year. There were chalk outlines scattered about the base of the slope as a reminder, many depicting sprained ankles.
  • Further up, the slope steepened, became a little icy, and melted-out at the very top exposing loose rock that could easily fall back down on anyone ascending.
  • A large rock came down toward us about halfway up, but it disappeared inside a moat, thank god. A romantically-involved couple were ahead of us, also from Seattle. I said something like “well you must like rain and starbucks” as I tripped over a few rocks and my helmet fell off. Everyone fake-laughed at my comment to avoid the awkwardness. They asked us to wait until they were past the loose rock section. At first I thought they were being too careful, but once I saw the section it made sense.
  • Our objective was the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire that day, first climbed by Conrad Kain in 1916. He considered it his hardest lead to date at the time. Cecil and I both joked that a 5.6 wasn’t that hard, and then high-fived each other, feeling pretty good about ourselves by downplaying Kain’s accomplishment.
  • Thunder rattled, the winds picked up, and talk of bailing came up soon after reaching the col. We had conflicting forecast info when comparing with the other party. I read scattered t-storms, they heard a front would move in and stay. I didn’t want to leave as we only had 2 precious days here in between 20+ hours of driving. But my thoughts of waiting it out weren’t popular.
  • We said goodbye to the Kain route, then teamed up ropes with the other party and rapped down the steeper, icy section to slightly mellower steep snow. While rapping I thought to myself, “What would Conrad Kain have done here? Beckey and Chouinard? Pigeon? Snowpatch?” It was hard to say. Two double-rope raps on a 60m will get you down past the steeper, sketchier part of the gulley. You can avoid rockfall while setting up rap #2 just around a corner.
  • Two people came through just before we starting rapping. They down-climbed the whole gulley w/o crampons. Some people just do that and I’m always impressed, I’m not there yet. Down-climbing steep precarious snow always stresses me out and I’ll avoid it if possible. At the bottom of the route I had lost the bottom part of my whippet (that’s 2 whippet’s f’d this year) when sticking it deep in some softer snow. The rain then started.
  • We brought both ropes back to camp and settled in as the rain subsided and a beautiful, blue, sunny sky appeared…mocking us. Day 1 of climbing now just involved us doing the least fun, most stressful part of the climbing up here and nothing else.
  • The next morning we aimed for something straightforward – the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire. Climbers of all skill levels seem to love it. Some call it “the best 5.4 in the world”.
  • Pigeon Spire looks so small and close from the Snowpatch Col, but it’s deceptive. It’s a fairly decent slog to the West Ridge base, and you’ll start to notice Pigeon Spire’s true size as you go. We we’re just looking at the narrow end of it from the col.
  • Howser Spire rises up as you approach further, the Vowell Glacier bergschrund covering the base of the three towers, intimidating onlookers like me. On the way up we passed two guys who just ticked off the Beckey Chouinard route (5.10) on the back of the South Tower. I’d love to do it someday. In my current state of mind it would’ve looked surreal to see anyone rappelling off the East Face of the South Tower over the large bergschrund. It just looked so serious. I wondered aloud if Beckey or Chouinard used the bolted chain hand lines coming in on the approach trail when putting up this route, or if they just went up the trail w/o touching them (I didn’t actually wonder that).
  • Cecil crossed a slightly sketchy bridge over a crevasse and headed up what turned into rock hard ice up to the base of the West Ridge. The ice got steep, and I felt a little insecure in my alum. crampons. I decided then I’d prob look for a way to rap down this section. Cecil asked why I wouldn’t just down-climb the icy section. I pretended I didn’t hear him, then feigned/pantomimed some fake back pain injury or something to try and change the subject.
  • We dropped our gear except for the rope and rack, then headed up the West Ridge. I had the rope in a smaller backpack along with camera + rain coat. Cecil had the rack and a bunch of shit on his harness.
  • A solo climber in super bright clothes was heading down. He said it was super easy and fun, he free-solo’d the whole thing. I said, “well ‘easy’ is relative”. He said he wasn’t some great climber. I figured all great climbers probably say that. Anyway, we decided to leave the rope in my pack until we thought we needed it. I put on rock shoes to avoid wearing mountaineering boots (I hate wearing stiff-soled mountaineering boots).
  • The climbing was awesome. The ridge was much longer than I expected. Awesome holds, cracks, and super sticky/rough granite all the way up. We reached the first summit (1 of 3) and saw this gigantic downward slab extend before us. The steeper ascent up to summit #2 lay just beyond it. Views were gorgeous, and the exposure was intense. Clouds kept moving over the Howser Towers behind us as we occasionally glanced down at the Vowell and Bugaboo Glaciers, hundreds to thousands of feet below. So dramatic, I loved it.
  • After crossing an exposed knife-ish edge ridge and heading up a blocky-ish chimney, you reach the second summit which has a huge flat ledge. Here we caught up to a party-of-three who had before dawn. Two of the guys had never done anything in the alpine. I can’t imagine going up that sketchy gulley to Snowpatch Col as my introduction to mountain climbing. But maybe it wouldn’t be as bad if you don’t know how the true dander of rock fall.
  • Photos helped kill time for a while, then we started looking for ways to pass this party. They were trying to navigate a steep downward section after the second summit, and it was taking a while.
  • I finally went out left. I found a moderate path to down-climb, but not all the way down where we needed to be. Cecil followed and down-climbed to the base of where the party of 3 were at. I followed. We left the rope up there. I went up the steep step, grabbed the rope, and went back down (I was now really good at this section).
  • I asked the party-of-three if we could pass. They said no. We passed and Cecil cruised up the final slab pitch to the summit.
  • Stalling before the final pitch, I started and then backtracked. It was steeper slab with no hands. It looked easy, but I felt a little uncomfortable with no rope as a fall equaled death. I looked back at the party-of-three’s leader. Then up. I went up a little, came back down. I looked back again, then up, the back, then up, then to the side. I was mostly just stretching out my neck.
  • I didn’t want to get stuck for another hour, so I finally said “fuck it” and went for it. There were some awkward cracks out left, but I avoided them as they weren’t great and would only distract me from focusing on my feet. A sliver of doubt entered my mind halfway up. There was no backtracking now. I buried any thoughts beyond where to put my feet next. I let out a yelp at the top of the slab when I finally had hands again. I felt like Alex Honnold, only more badass because I also was wearing 2 watches (I’m joking about feeling badass, but I was wearing more than one watch).
  • The top of the last slab pitch ends with the most stunning exposure on the route. Thousands of feet of air stand between you and the Bugaboo Glacier below, it’s awe-inspiring. I thought about how a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to experience something like this. Yes it’s a busy route, but alpine climbing is still pretty niche within the larger population. I felt lucky to be here.
  • We explored the two big summit slabs, then rapped down using the party of three’s rope to bypass down-climbing the final slab pitch. I thought it was pretty awesome for the 2 guys that this was their first alpine climb – the bar had been set high. I asked if I could do some aerial filming of them and they were great with it.
  • We cruised down the rest of the way down sans rope, me staying behind in parts to get wide shots of Cecil descending. Clouds rolled in, some gray – meaning dense and full of precip. Something was coming, but I stayed a bit longer because the visuals were so spectacular. The route and surrounding area was now void of climbers except for us and the party of three.
  • The cool wind from the approaching front felt good as we descended the Vowell Glacier, which would’ve otherwise been scorching hot an hour ago.
  • Finding a large boulder above the glacier, I left a sling and rapped across the solid-icy slope. Before this Cecil was talking a big game about down-climbing this section w/o rope. As I watched him rap it after me I coughed the words “big baby”. He asked what I had said and I said “nothing”. He said that it sounded like I called him a “giant pansy”. I denied it again, and said I had a cough and that’s just how I cough.
  • Cecil filled up a Nalgene in a little glacial creek halfway down the rap. We had to pay the tax of accessing this amazing area one more time by descending the sketchy, rock-fall zone below the Snowpatch Col. My whippet end was nowhere to be found near the base, then it started raining hard as we rolled back into camp.
  • It didn’t stop raining. Thunder and lightning started and I worried about the party of three, who were no doubt coming down that snow gulley in shitty conditions.
  • In the morning we broke camp in the rain. On the way down I slipped on the most benign part of the trail and fucked my knee up. I’m leaving to Chamonix Wed and I just found out I have a torn meniscus, that’s actually folded over. I’m probably going to just tough it out and get surgery when I get back. I hate it when injuries happen on benign terrain after spending so much time on sketchier stuff.
  • Anyway, I feel pretty lucky to have finally visited this place. Can’t wait to go back and try the Kain route, NE Buttress, maybe even the Beckey Chouinard route if I can talk myself into doing that un-protected 5.10 traverse.



Just past Snowpatch Col on the Vowell Glacier. Pigeon Spire (left) looks small from here. Once you get to the base of the West Ridge you realize how large it is from a different perspective. South Howser Tower's East Face is on the right. The Beckey Chouinard route (5.10) is behind South Howser Tower on its West Buttress.



Looking back at Bugaboo Spire (left) near the start of Pigeon Spire's West Ridge route. Getting to the base involved one sketchy-ish crevasse crossing and a somewhat steeper ramp of rock solid ice for 30 meters. I opted to rap down this on the way back on account of my aluminum crampons (and general cowardice).



Cecil heading down a long moderate slab section after passing the first of 3 summits on Pigeon's West Ridge. I had the rope in my bag and Cecil had the rack just in case. We ended up using niether up or down.



Cecil approaching the next leg to Pigeon's second summit. From this distance it looks much more intimidating than it is. The granite was so sticky and solid we felt good continuing sans rope.





Cecil crossing a super exposed slabby knife-ish edge ridge. I had my hands on the blade and kept low across this thing. The exposure is amazing.



Looking down adds to the excitement.



Reaching the big comfy ledge on the second summit. A party of two are topping out in the distance on the third and final summit. A party of three are figuring out how to get down the large step/drop just around the corner to the right. Two of the guys were very new, so we eventually figured out a way out left to bypass them.



Me enjoying the exposure from just below the second summit.







Cecil on both of the final summit slabs (I think one is slightly higher than the other. The final pitch before this (not pictured) is a steeper friction slab with really no good hands. Cecil went up it first, I hesitated. This was really the only spot on the route I wasn't super comfortable free-soling. It's the steepest slab sectionon the route. I ended up going for it as the group of three were behind me and we wanted to try and keep moving due to the forecast (incoming t-storms). Tense, but once I committed I thought of nothing else but what was directly in front of me.



Feet hanging over the summit slab with a couple thousand feet of air beneath me.



Cecil downclimbing from the second summit. This was typical of the route: Huge solid blocks of sharp granite, amazing exposure. The occassional loose rock, but easily spotted and avoided.



Cecil (center-frame) making his way back across the knife-ish edge ridge.



Cecil downclimbing further as I post up for some scale pics. Ominous clouds start to roll in and envelope the lower summit and below.



Cecil re-climbing the long slab section (squint, he's just over half way up).




Cecil nearing the top of the slab. South Howser Tower becomes enveloped by clouds.



Cecil on the top of the 1st summit on Pigeon's West Ridge as bad weather moves in. Once we made it down from the col (2 optional raps and then down-climbing) it started raining, then thunder/lightning through the night. I hope the party of three made it down safely. We ended up packing up in the rain the next morning and heading down. By the time we reached the parking lot, the weather was nice again. Also there were about 4 billion mesquitoes waiting to eat us while we changed into dry clothes.








Copied from my blog. More on Instagram @lukeallenhumphrey if you use it.

Edited by lukeh

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My friend Cecil, doin it up right...


Luke, sorry about your knee, but look at the bright side! Now you get a taste of how some of us old guys feel...


Great write up, VIDEO, and fantastic pics. As per usual.



Edited by dougd

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Awesome! My kind of fun! Thanks Luke for the magnificent photos and video, excellent beta, and for your consideration in asking before launching the drone.

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thanks doug and pcg - doug I feel like I've been injured so much the past couple of years I'm going to be a great old guy (lots of practice hobbling around)

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How do the bugaboos usually look in late August? I've heard the glaciers are already pretty open and icey this year

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Awesome trip report and video! Maybe I'll have to look into getting myself a flying camerabot. By the way, think we ran into you up there :)


I think our friends Nick and Kirsten were the party you rapped down with the day you got rained off Kain route, and Allie and I were the ones that came and downclimbed the col, after getting rained off Surfs Up.

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Glad the weather lasted long enough for you guys to get on pigeon! Perfect place to use the drone, really captures the exposure of the ridge. I wasn't aware I was romantically involved though, clearly you guys didn't smell me from under that rock!


Hope the knee gets better, see at SG one of these evenings!

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Thank you so much for your photos and video. Thanks for spending your time, money and effort to let us all see the mountains through your eyes.


Your UAV (drone) footage is amazing and you did a great job with the editing. I followed your links to see the stuff you'd made in Utah as well. WOW!!!!



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I’m leaving to Chamonix Wed and I just found out I have a torn meniscus, that’s actually folded over.


Sorry to hear this. Though a great thing about Europe is if you can't climb you can hop on a train (planes are cheap too) and go to an endless number of absolutely amazing places that will make you forget all about climbing. Scenery, culture, history, food and all of that.

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Don't know how much pain you are in or the extent of the injury but you may be able to hike and climb with a torn meniscus, I did so for 2 or 3 years.


Awesome vid, reminds me of when I did it. Is that a multi-rotor FPV? What kind of camera?

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Thanks all. @NDrake thanks, yes I might have made a few assumptions/taken some liberties :). Thanks for the beta on the gully rappel!


@ilias - nice, nice work cruising down that icy gully like it was nothing.


@Eric T - thanks, I appreciate that.


@Danager - not sure, this was my first time. Prob some TRs on here though in Aug.


@Buckaroo - thanks yeah I just got back from Chamonix. Knee was totally fine 99% of the time, my doc scared me I guess. What a trip. TR coming soon with more video/pics.






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