Trip Report: The Bugaboos

Note: this trip took place in August 2017 but I’m only writing about it now in 2020!

It started, like so many things, with a picture from the internet. Bugaboo Spire, in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I started talking to Valter, and we started planning a trip. One plan grew to three, and soon I found myself in Seattle-Tacoma Airport, armed with a folder full of route descriptions, and looking for the bus to Bellingham.

Prelude: Bellingham

Somewhere between Vancouver and Seattle, Bellingham is some kind of ocean-mountain paradise. I spent three days with Lauren and her family, rambling up hills in the beautiful temperate rainforests, sailing in Bellingham Bay, and a night on top of Winchester mountain with its beautiful views of Mt Baker and the North Cascades leaking into Canada. It was the perfect introduction to this amazing part of the world.

At home in the Cascades

Unfortunately I had to say goodbye to Lauren, but Max arrived promptly from Germany, full of energy to continue adventuring. We’d set our sights on the Devil’s Dome Loop, and had packed food (mostly couscous) for the ~5 days the internet expected it to take. That night treated us to a weird bushwack between East Bank Trailhead (our parked car) and Canyon Creek Trailhead (the start of the hike). Up at dawn the next morning, we egged each other on, speeding to the top of the switchbacks and into the alpine meadows with their flowers and tasty-looking birds. We got to our supposed campsite before midday, but, since neither of us was in the mood to stop, we pressed on. We got to the next night’s campsite in the afternoon, but it didn’t have much of a view, so we pressed on – our competitive streaks taking turns to set the pace. Just before sunset we arrived at the best camping spot yet and decided to call it a day – we broke out the bear canister and feasted (on couscous).

After hiking for ten hours on the first day (30-odd km and 2500 vertical metres), we hadn’t left much for the remainder of the hike. We had an easy ramble down to Ross Lake, and found a real campsite, replete with bear lockers and picnic tables. Early the next morning we arrived sheepishly back at our cars – what to do with the extra two-and-a-half days that had suddenly appeared in our schedule? The answer: some sightseeing, hamburgers and pancakes, and an early start to our next objective.

Black Peak! We had considered some more difficult objectives, but the Class 3 scramble up the South Ridge of Black Peak (2734 m) seemed like the right starting point for us newcomers to the North Cascades. It was a beautiful, mostly off-trail hike up to the two still semi-frozen lakes that would serve as our high camp. We were up early the next morning to cross the talus and small snowfield with a few jitters – what exactly does Class 3 mean to whichever grizzled old climber first came here? It turned out to be pretty straightforward, with some serious exposure followed by the easy Class 3 step onto the summit.

Coming down from the summit of Black Peak in the North Cascades.
Coming down from the summit of Black Peak in the North Cascades.

Back down and after another diner-stop we had to split up for a day: I quested north into Canada to pick up Valter at Vancouver Airport (don’t worry officer I’ll be back across the border in a few hours officer), and then we pointed south to get to Mt Adams (3743 m) in time for the Great American Solar Eclipse (TM) of 2017! Apple Maps led us completely astray heading through the back woods between Adams and Mt St Helens, but luckily Max had also been misled, so we got the ranger station around the same time.

It was a gruelling hike in the afternoon heat up to the base camp, where dozens of people were packing up and on their way down. Up early the next morning, we head up the rolling snowfields leading to the top, an easy introduction to cramponeering for my two amigos. We got to the unremarkable summit in perfect time for the occultation of the sun to begin! We had not managed to buy eclipse glasses (despite turning Vancouver upside-down) but three pairs of mountaineering glasses did reasonably well until another group arrived and gave us their spare pair.

The moon moved across the sun and… not much. It got a bit darker, chillier certainly, and we watched the shadow moving over Oregon, where the committed eclipse-hunters were staked out. Unfortunately, it turns out that 99% eclipse is much closer to 0% than 100%; you don’t get the real deal without that last 1% of coverage. Anyway, we were on top of a beautiful mountain with nobody about, rather than stuck in crowds and traffic like the rest of America.

To The Bugaboos!

After an easy descent, we hit up another diner for burgers and blueberry milkshakes (in season in a big way) and said goodbye to Max: it was time for us to head north and east up to the Canadian Rockies. Washington gets very different east of the cascades – flatter and ruraler and less-accepting seeming of our hybrid vehicle. After investigating some free-er candidates, we cozied up for a night in a motel God-knows-where, and head on the next day to stop in Spokane for supplies and some extra gear. Then briefly into Idaho, followed by the Canadian border (yes officer, for a bit longer this time officer) and up Highway 93 (pause for a night in a trailer camp) towards Radium Hot Springs and the long forest road to The Bugaboos.

We girded our car tires with chicken wire (against mini bears and porcupines), loaded up our very heavy bags (six days’ food, ropes, crampons etc) and slogged up the terribly steep hill, past the Conrad Kain Hut to set up camp on Applebee Dome. We made some friends, noted that everyone was very hardcore compared to us, and examined the reams of route descriptions I’d printed. To warm up, we head up Eastpost Spire (2697 m) the next day with two friends (living the life in Squamish) a Class 4 scramble with some fun exposure. Feeling good, we decided climb Lion’s Way the next day, a YDS 5.6 route up the Central Towers. We got to the spot we’d scoped out and started climbing, about 50% sure it was actually the start of the route (“this should be Class 4 - does it seem like it?” “Yeah I guess so, just gonna solo it until I figure it out!”). It was, but we (me, actually) managed to go wrong on the second pitch, requiring some downclimbing and a lost biner. Back on the route, we had an amazing time, swapping leads and working our way up the 8-9 pitches to the top of the Crescent Towers, followed by an easy scramble down.

Finally the next day, we would head for our big objective: Pigeon Spire (3156 m, YDS 5.4), the imposing granite spire out in the glacier field. We crossed the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col, crossed the glacier, and swapped our crampons and boots for climbing shoes. What followed was a few hours of super-exposed extremely fun scrambling (roped the whole way, unlike some braver people) along the West Ridge. We got to the small ledge just below the summit (maybe 20 metres) and it hit 14:00 — the time we’d agreed to turn around. We took a last look at the summit, and started winding our way back. We take time limits seriously in the alpine (although some people consider The Bugaboos a bit of a playground) and in the end were very glad to get down the Snowpatch col rappell before nightfall.

Valter getting some serious exposure on one of Pigeon Spire's knife ridges.
Valter getting some serious exposure on one of Pigeon Spire's knife ridges.

Epilogue

After a big day, we decided not to attempt Bugaboo Spire after all: we’d had a big enough adventure already. After a final day messing around on the glacier practising crevasse rescue (conclusion: not possible in a group of two), we trekked back down the mountain and head for a Canmore, where a kind second cousin had a luxurious basement room waiting for us. We hiked to Moraine Lake (obligatory, it seems), and spent a breezy couple of days hiking near Mt Hector. An amazing time in the mountains of the West came to an end as we faced the long-suffering rental car towards Calgary and our flights home (yes officer hope to be back soon officer).