John Guy and I headed to the Bugaboos for a few days of climbing in late July. On July 27, we summited Bugaboo Spire via the NE Ridge. The descent via the Kain Route went into the morning of July 28th. This is one of Roper and Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America – a beautiful line in an incredible position.
After only 3 hours of sleep following our late arrival to camp the night before, John and I left the tent at 4:15am. The approach went smoothly, and soon we were surveying our options for accessing the Bugaboo-Crescent Col. It’s critical to not overthink this part of the approach – the guidebook mentions climbing slabs to reach the col. We climbed to the highest point of snow where a large slab corner rose to the saddle above. We did not rope up for this section. With good routefinding this section is not difficult, but the consistent 4th-low 5th class climbing is seriously exposed and keeps your attention. We simply followed the cleanest looking rock – typical routefinding in the Bugaboos.
After about 400 feet of scrambling the slabs, we arrived at the Bugaboo-Crescent Col. After some discussion, John and I chose to climb the rock to the right of the snowpatch, which eventually got steep enough that we stopped to belay a 5.4 pitch before arriving at the base of the Northeast Ridge itself.
Here, we ran into the first true obstacle of the day: other climbers. There were eight people already at the base of the route! To make matters worse, four of the climbers ahead of us were climbing as a single unit, going one at a time on the 5.8+ first pitch because only one of them felt comfortable leading that grade. I guess this route really is one of the “Fifty Crowded Classics.” However, spirits remained high – I recognized one of the other climbers as a friend whom I’d climbed with before. Soon, all of us were laughing and trading stories, waiting for our turn to climb. Over the two hours that we waited for our turn to start the route, two more teams of two arrived at the ledges.
Finally, it was our turn to climb. John led the first pitch with style, easily clearing the crux overhung section right at the start before rambling up steep cracks to an anchor. I took the lead on the extremely fun second pitch, consisting of moderate climbing on juggy flakes. Rather than placing the belay in the traditional spot here, I did the downclimb that starts the third pitch and built an anchor there. While I was belaying John up to my stance, a soloist appeared around the corner. Moving alone and without a rope, he was cool, confident, and talkative – wow. When John reached my belay anchor, he told me that all of the parties behind has had opted to bail because they did not want to wait in the “conga line” of teams going up the route. He took the lead up the next pitch, which had a few thin moves between good holds before reaching a good ledge.
The fourth pitch looked fantastic- it was a steep corner with nice cracks on one side – perfect for liebacking and occasional jamming. I clipped a fixed nut before launching up this sustained pitch. The moves were secure but strenuous – I smeared my feet on ripples in the clean granite wall while pulling on the cracks on the left side. With no restful stances, this pitch was sustained to the end. Finally, I reached the top of the pitch and clipped a fixed anchor. Awesome!
From here, we climbed three pitches up a long, easy chimney. I led a 5.7 pitch above this before John climbed one more pitch to the North Summit of Bugaboo Spire. A rappel off of bolts landed us onto a ledge system on the East side of the ridge. From here, we simulclimbed an extremely exposed ridge toward the South summit. At one point, I looked down to see that there was over 2000 feet of nothing between me and the Crescent Glacier. Incredible exposure!
We reached another pair of bolts – my beta said that we could rappel to the East again before gaining a blocky gully directly to the summit. We did so, and John heroically led the hardest pitch of the day up this blocky gully. Apparently, the better option is to go straight up from the bolts.
On the 10,512′ summit, we quickly realized that some very grim looking clouds were bearing down on us. We switched to our boots and made one rappel directly from the South Summit before lightning started crashing nearby. This was quickly becoming a hair-raising experience – literally. John quickly spotted an alcove where we could take cover – we grabbed the rope and ran inside just as the hail started coming down. In the alcove, we were protected, and spent time arranging some loose rocks and the rope to create a ledge just large enough for both of us to sit on. We clipped into a good three point anchor, prepared to spend the night here if necessary. However, the storm cleared quickly, and soon the sun was shining again. I looked at John and said “we have to make a break for it!”
We quickly packed our bags and made three more rappels to an exposed section of ridge scrambling. From here, two more rappels brought us to the lower part of the Kain Route. We got off route , and could not identify any landmarks now that it was dark out. After weighing our options, we made the hard decision to bivy. Continuing to attempt to descend in the dark was futile – even the best guidebook descriptions are vague about this section of the Kain Route. In the morning, we could easily descend following the features and cairns that mark the correct route. We found a pair of ledges, one above the other, where we would spend the night. I uncoiled the rope on my ledge to provide some insulation from the cold rock, and pulled on all of my clothes – a fleece hoody, a wind shell, a synthetic midlayer jacket and my hard shell. I slid into my crinkly emergency bivy sack and steeled myself for a difficult night.
John and I each had enough clothing to justify staying the night out, but I knew that it would be far from comfortable. The non-breathable bivy sack quickly gathered condensation on the inside, which began to saturate my softshell pants. The bivy was providing vital protection from the wind, but I had to turn it inside out every couple of hours in an attempt to stay dry. If I began shivering too hard, I would do 20 crunches or a few pushups to warm myself back up. The minutes ticked by as if they were hours; given this much time to think, your mind wanders to interesting places. Finally, the cold awoke me at 4am – I stared to the East, waiting for the Sun’s first rays to appear.
Finally, we packed away our bivy sacks and coiled the rope. I finished my last Gu packet while studying the photos of the Kain route on my phone (difficult with shivering hands). I decided that we needed to climb up to go down. Thankfully, this was the right choice! Seeing another cairn was a huge relief – we were back on the right track. Finally, after a lot of easy downclimbing, we reached the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. Three rappels took us past the steepest snow where we slowly downclimbed the slope, which was somewhat frozen after the cold night. After crossing back over the Crescent Glacier, we stumbled into camp – 30 hours after leaving.
The Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire is an incredible route that I would recommend. It is a beautiful ridge that is stacked with pitches of fun climbing, leading to a very proud summit in one of the premier alpine rock climbing destinations in the world. I am proud that we climbed this route and especially proud of our good decision making when the going got tough. This was the most demanding climb I have done by a huge margin – it taught me a lot. There were several factors that led to our unplanned night out:
- Other parties – we lost two hours just waiting for other teams to get on route before we could start. We would have needed to leave camp before 3am to beat the first team on route.
- Weather – the unexpected storm cost us another two hours of hiding in the cave. Unfortunately, there is always a risk of unexpected bad weather in the mountains. By the time we began seeing threatening clouds, we were fully committed to the route.
- Unfamiliar descent – some parties chose to climb the Kain Route before attempting the NE Ridge so that they are familiar with the descent – we were told that it is easy to “onsight” the descent. This is only really true if it is light out when you are doing it!
We carried singles of cams sizes .2-3 with doubles of .5-2, along with a set of regular and offset nuts. This was a great rack for this route! Our 70m rope worked well but a 60m would be fine too. We used crampons and an axe on the approach and descent.
Route Strategy Notes:
Start early and be ready to move fast. This route has a reputation for benighting a disproportionate amount of climbers, like me. You can bail on fixed anchors from the third pitch of the ridge – there are bolted descent anchors on the slabs below Bugaboo-Crescent Col. There are three bolted rappel stations down the skier’s right side of the Bugaboo Snowpatch Col that make the descent a little bit easier. I highly recommend reading Steph Abegg’s beta filled Bugaboos Trip Report and consider saving some of the images to your phone for reference. Her photo of the descent was hugely helpful for the rappels. I printed off a copy of the “Mini Guide” that is available for free download from High Col Press – this was very valuable. The Mini guide consists of the same content for the mega-popular routes as they are printed in the Atkinson/Piche Guidebook, which is the best guidebook you can get for the area.