Words by Jesse Huey | Photos by Maury Birdwell and Jesse Huey.
I had been hearing about the Bugaboos for years. “It is like Patagonia without the bad weather,” Hayden Kennedy told me as we were hanging out one afternoon. I can’t say for sure what my hesitations were, but in retrospect, it feels like those general hesitations, are what have kept the “Bugs” from becoming another Yosemite. When I arrived in basecamp with Will Stanhope, Leo Houlding, and Maury Birdwell, we looked to Will for answers. “Oh my god, has that been free climbed” we would ask Will over and over. Will, being our “Canadian guide” was our best source of information outside of the outdated guidebook and the several photocopied modern topo’s that friends had passed along to us.
When the Helicopter left us at basecamp (yes, you can take a helicopter to basecamp!), we were left with bluebird skies and 12 days of food, fuel, and beer. It was our mission to get as much climbing in as we could before returning to normal life in Colorado. With only several hours after arriving, we were already climbing the amazingly classic Beckey Chouinard on the South Howser Tower. A huge 20 pitch ridgeline; it is one of the most perfect moderate rock climbs you could find anywhere in the world. Packing little more than a light rain coat and a few GU’s we were already three quarters of the way up the mountain in just less than two hours. We were looking at being on the summit in 2.5 hours of simul-climbing madness. Just then: drip… Drip… Drip, Drip, Drip…. Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip…. Downpour! Nooo! We were in the worst place you could imagine and it was our first day. We slowed our pace so we could talk and mulled our meager options. With one rope, it would literally cost us all of our gear to rappel the 15 pitches we had already come and totally screw up our trip, or we could continue in the downpour since there was no lightning… yet.
As we woke the next few mornings, we were taunted by the beauty of the soaking wet Minaret. Leo had brought a clever little Sat Phone that allowed us to get the weather forecast- a voice of reason to keep us from trying to go too big. Luckily, the Minaret begins to dry quite quickly around 10am from direct sun and offers some of the best cragging you could imagine. Maury and I were drawn to an absolutely beautiful corner that sat about 800’ above our basecamp. We looked at the topo beta we had and realized that the Belgian boys had free climbed this amazing system in 2006, calling it the New Millennium at 5.12c. Maury and I concurred that it was just our sort of thing and sauntered the gentle 8 minutes from our tents to try its first pitch.
The rough topo showed a slabby start, and since I didn’t see a bolt, I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Forty feet up with no gear at all, I was staring at a ballistic slab crux that for sure would end in both legs broken if I didn’t send it. Having been really hurt in the backcountry once before in a similar situation, I had to punt. Maury and I decided to aid a super thin crack to the left on tiny bird-beaks and knife blades (which we would free climb later at 12-) to create an option for us that wasn’t a free solo. Several days of inclement weather and working on this route later we hit our stopping point: a super wet roof and soaking wet micro-seam with several fixed copperheads as free climbing protection. It wasn’t to be, so we rapped and moved on to our main goal, the West Face of the North Howser Tower.
After almost a week at our basecamp, we finally started to get word that the weather was coming and that we should prepare to “kill.” It was a nice message from our forecaster friend and greatly improved camp moral. Maury and I’s goal was to try and free climb a route that two of our heroes and friends Mike Pennings and Johnny Copp established in 1999 called the Armageddon. Mike and Johnny put the route up almost free, the second climber jumaring with a heavy pack, only meeting 25 feet of aid climbing on the entire route. It sounded like the perfect candidate to be free climbed.
Maury and I played the “what’s not essential” game while packing our bag so as to be taking the least amount of gear necessary and set off to the 3200 foot face. Seven liters of water, a single light sleeping bag, a foam pad, a small stove, enough food (barely), two light jackets, headlamps, and our big boy pants were all packed into my Alpha FL 35 liter backpack, bringing our “light” pack to around 35lbs. This made the start of the West Face of the North Howser Tower feel more like work than climbing. Maury took our first lead block which brought us up to our bivy ledge. I followed, trying to my hardest to focus on the bigger picture.
From our newly constructed bivy ledge, we looked up anxiously at the huge steep arching Armageddon corner system. Arriving a bit earlier than we expected with a mere 5 liters of water left and in blazing sun, we decided to put forth the Bedouin practice and wait until the sun dropped before going any higher. At around 5pm we took our 70m 9.4mm lead line and 6mm tag line and went to go check out the hard climbing above.
After a few pitches of 5.9, 5.8, and 5.11+, we were at the start of what looked like the really hard climbing. Looking up, it appeared unbelievably thin and wet, and undoubtedly hard.
After all the days of training, time, and money invested, we had finally arrived at the place I had been day-dreaming about for months. Other sports have their own version of the finals. The Olympics, The Stanley Cup, the World Series, the NBA Finals; to Maury and I, this was our World Cup. When you are climbing in the “playoffs,” the word TAKE doesn’t exist. I was hell-bent on trying my hardest, knowing that Mike had freed most of this pitch already in 1999. The worst part was not knowing what he hadn’t free climbed. Looking up, I surmised it had to be this section? Or was it that section? Or was it that one up there? It was all a question mark, so I paid attention to the only holds that mattered, the ones right in front of me, and started up the steep corner.
I left the belay with all of our gear up to a number 2 camalot. It looked terribly thin and I was concerned I would run out of gear as I set nearly all of my small stoppers and micro cams in the first 40 feet with sustained difficulty around 5.12a. Two thirds of the way up the pitch I found a reasonable size foot ledge that I could stand on with one foot and without the support of my hands. I yelled down to Maury, “This is our belay if I come flying off of this thing,” (with free climbing ethics, a “no hands stance” is widely accepted as a belay stance as to split pitches up without weighting the rope).
Fifteen feet later I was airborne and slumped on the rope totally out of gas and gear. I was not surprised; I still had 25 feet of climbing above that, and it looked way hard. It was certainly out of my on-sight free climbing ability. I decided to aid to the top and figured a morning top-rope session was in order if this thing were going to go at all. We fixed our ropes while rapping back to the bivy (rappelling on a fixed 6mm rope is almost as horrifying as jumaring it the next morning).
That evening Maury and I talked about everything under the sun while trying to steer the conversation from that 25 feet that lay ahead of us. The morning brought us perfect blue skies and an amazing shadow casted before us of the Howser Tower group. It was going to be a perfect day, and I told Maury, “the only thing that can screw this up is us.”
The day began with 130 meters (exactly) of jumaring to our high point with a minitraxion and a grigri. As I looked up I could tell the pitch had seeped through the night and was in worse condition than the day before. Maury started our day following the pitch that I had climbed the day before, earning himself a savage flash pump. When Maury reached the belay, I suggested that he keep climbing above to try and figure out the moves that lay ahead. Maury and I, as climbing partners, have an agreement; I get the off widths and stem corners, he gets the boulder problems. Maury’s bouldering skills, being far superior to my own, quickly linked sequences that made us think that the corner was possible. After having climbed every move, Maury took a break and it was my turn. I fell in about 10 feet as my fingers and toes went completely numb. Thirty minutes later, I too had put together all of the moves and delicate sequencing and decided it would be most time-efficient if I just pulled the rope and went for it.
Pulling the rope in the mountains is a strange concept. If it were just about getting up the route (and not free climbing it) we would have done it in a day with half the amount of equipment. Frankly, it would have been easy. These days, for us, getting to the top isn’t what it is about. Back on lead, I was looking at the spot that I fell at the night before, and executed the sequence that I had just rehearsed. I screwed up a critical foot and was airborne. I lowered, pulled the rope, and started again. This time, I nailed the sequence I had just fallen on, and I felt my instincts starting to take over. I was staring at the last few feet where there was a critical palm and foot match that took 100% concentration. I waited 30 seconds longer than I would have (a little technique I have picked up while trying hard red points) and bridged the footless wall with my hands palming for dear life. I matched feet on the tiniest little edge below me and high stepped my right foot head-high on a ½ inch edge far to the right of my body. Full-body bridging to get my weight over and onto the edge had me through the crux and screaming at the top of my lungs in complete and utter psyche!
It was Maury’s turn to follow and, with a Georgetown lawyer’s memory, he executed every sequence almost perfectly and shouted as he stepped onto the sloped belay ledge to join me. The questions then arose. Did we just climb the crux? Oh god, what if we didn’t? I have climbed enough hard corners to know that this pitch was for sure 5.12+, but that Mike Pennings has a real tendency to sand bag me. Was this his ultimate sandbag? Oh god we both thought, what if the “A2” section is still above us??? I asked if Maury would lead the next pitch, and he said he needed some time to rest before he could go. Understandable I thought, but we didn’t have time to rest. We had still 1000 feet of climbing above us. With precious time leaving us, I said I would lead the next pitch. Looking up, it wasn’t certain. Was there a blank seam that Mike and Johnny aided up there? It was hard to tell, so I just kept climbing and found myself almost 40 minutes later on a small foot ledge with a large fixed stopper. The pitch, albeit quite scary, went… but it was only 5.11c ish.
Maury and I were elated; we knew that the only thing that could take it from us was a stupid mistake or an afternoon storm. After several more pitches of 5.10 and 5.11, we were on the North Howser Tower summit ridge. We took off the rope and soloed the 45 minutes to the summit. Always just 10 feet away from each other, Maury and I laughed and joked like kids all the way to the summit. At the top, it was an amazing release as we realized our goal of a first free ascent of one of the largest walls in North America.
A day of rest, “The Power of Lard” (a 5.12 on the East Face of Snow Patch Spire), and a long hike later, we were in the comforts of our fresh clothing back at the car. Twenty four hours after that, we were sleeping in our own beds back in Colorado, where it took me a full week before I could muster the energy to climb again.
I can’t imagine a summer where I don’t at least try to make it to the Bugaboos now. It is some of the best granite I have seen anywhere, and the potential for new routes remains largely untapped. It’s like what Yosemite must have been like in the early 80’s. I think about the Armageddon now. I think how epic it would be to try to link the crux corner into one long pitch (likely 5.13a and probably the hardest pitch on the proudest wall in the range). I think about the other features we saw up there that looked so much fun to free climb on. So many possibilities, I can’t wait to go back!