The Bugaboos

Mike Kerzhner and I started our four week stay in Canmore with a stop at the Bugaboos. Neither of us had been and we thought a little dose of alpine climbing would make us thankful for the Canmore bolted limestone. Mike and I met in El Chaltén, so it would be fun to check out this “mini-Patagonia” together.

Mike drove up from Portland and picked me up in Seattle. On the drive we discussed our options. We could try one of the harder free lines on the easily accessible Snowpatch Spire’s east face. Or we could try to link a few moderates and get a tour of the area. Or we could go all in on All Along the Watchtower, a remote and long climb on North Howser Tower. All Along the Watchtower was the first climb I knew about in the Bugaboos, listed inFifty Favorite Climbs. I’d looked at it for years, and was naturally drawn to doing it. It seemed to be the Bugaboos classic big objective.

After spending a night in the truck, we finished the drive, taking the longest of dirt roads to the trailhead. It had been raining all morning and we were hoping to make the six hour approach to East Creek Basin that day to be set up to climb the Watchtower. The rain didn’t let up and we didn’t feel like slogging through it for several hours, so we decided to adjust our plans. No Watchtower this time.


Kain Hut (bottom left) from Applebee Camp


Applebee Camp

We waited out the rain and made the three hour approach to Applebee Campground, the main climber’s bivy. The next day we’d try a reasonable link-up of two classics—the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire and the Becky-Chouinard on South Howser. Several parties have climbed these two routes plus a few more all in a day, so our plan didn’t feel like it would be that ambitious.

Upon arriving at camp and finding a spot amongst the hundred or so other climbers camped there, we discovered we were walking into a long overdue opening in the weather. We also head that the rain had fallen as a foot of snow higher up. Having never been there we weren’t sure how to take in all the information and adjust our objectives. But I figured starting with an easy classic would be a safe bet. We could deal with some snow if there was any on Bugaboo Spire. And we didn’t have to link into South Howser if conditions were slow.


We set our alarms for 4am and were hiking by 5am. Sure enough, the NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire was wet and covered in snow, pretty much in winter condition. I took the first block, simuling through the 5.7-5.9 pitches low on the route. Mike took over but we quickly realized he was out of his element, attempting to lead snowy low-fifth in a pair of downturned Scarpa Instincts. I took back the lead and took us to the summit which involved lots of tromping through snow in rock shoes, digging out handholds, and skooching across snowy knife-edge ridge.


Pigeon Spire and the Howser Towers


Me rappelling from the summit of Bugaboo Spire


Descending the Kain Route on Bugaboo

We didn’t stay on the summit long because we were just standing around in a bunch of snow. We did a few weird rappels and made it down most of the Kain route until we got to a dry spot to have a snack and decide what to do next. Even though it was still morning, attempting to climb South Howser in these conditions seemed a little more alpine than we wanted. We ran into some climbers who had checked out a popular climb called Surfs Up on Snowpatch but bailed because it looked too wet. We took a photo of their topo and decided to go have a look ourselves, hoping it had dried out a little in the sun since they looked at it.

We made the short and easy walk across the glacier to the base of the route and stared up at it in indecision. Snow and ice was occasionally falling off the route. It started in a wet and snowy looking corner, which wasn’t inspiring, but we had nothing else to do with our day. It was only noon. The route was only “5.9” so we were sure we could probably still get up it wet. The first few pitches turned out to be more than we bargained for. Where the route usually climbs was snow and ice so we had to climb to the left through wet and mossy disjointed cracks with weird protection. Mike had to lead through a waterfall. We creeped through these pitches though and made it to dry splitter cracks that quickly and enjoyably took us to the summit of Snowpatch.


Mike on the 2nd pitch of Surfs Up


Looking from the summit of Snowpatch over at Bugaboo Spire


Mike getting ready to descend Snowpatch


Mike on the first rappel down Snowpatch

We enjoyed the views and looked across the way at Bugaboo Spire, relishing the fact that we had been standing on it earlier that day. After a snack we went down the normal rappels which follow a huge corner system. It was a trap for snow and water, and the whole thing was a giant waterfall. Exciting! Luckily it was still in the sun and we were able to stay warm.

The next day we chose a shorter objective—the classic Sunshine Crack on Snowpatch—so we could hike out and make the 3.5 hour drive to Canmore at a decent time. The approach is an easy 45 minute jaunt across the glacier from Applebee. At the base of the climb we met two Chilean climbers who only had one 60m rope and needed another party to climb with them so that they could get down. I made a deal with them that if they let us go first we would rappel the route with them.

The first few pitches were wet, including an offwidth waterfall. The upper two thirds of the route was dry though and the climbing was amazing—one of the highest quality mostly 5.10 routes I have ever climbed. We set the pace and our Chilean friends kept up. We descended together and Mike and I booked our way out of the Bugaboos. It had been a fun couple days of climbing in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.


The Chileans on the last pitch of Sunshine Crack (photo Mike)


Snowpatch Spire