July 27, 2014
Bugaboo Provincial Park, BC
Among the granite spires in the Bugaboos, Pigeon Spire offers a relatively straightforward route up. The West Ridge is only rated at Alpine II, 5.4 and the 5th class sections are short-lived. Despite the fact it’s “easy”, this is a true classic with high quality scrambling and incredible positioning – rumored to be the best 5.4 in North America!! On a clear day, its summit offers unparalleled views and the view towards Howser Towers and Bugaboo Spire will likely take your breathe away! Ferenc, Ben and I did it on the last day of our 2014 Bugaboo trip. Having already successfully ascended the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire on the previous day, we knew this one wouldn’t give us too much of a trouble. We just hoped the new snow/ice had melted out but we’d see once we got there.
We woke up around the same time as the day before at 5 am. Seemed like other folks were starting a little earlier on this day and by the time we started the trek towards Bugaboo/Snowpatch col we could see 7 to 8 climbers ahead of us. Some people only wore hiking shoes and didn’t even bother with an ice axe… We, on the other hand, decided to use all the snow gears since we brought them up anyway. I also took out my ice tool as it really helped on slopes steeper than 40 degrees, even just for balancing. The big group ahead of us was going up Bugaboo Spire but everyone else was doing the West Ridge of Pigeon. The upper Vowell Glacier from B-S col to Pigeon/Howser col was heavily traffic’d so nobody actually bothered to rope up on it.
The travel on this glacier was straightforward and scenic but a bit foreshortening. We had to gain quite some elevation to the base of West Ridge, and once we got there, the remaining elevation gain was less than 200 m – that was short! The base of West Ridge of Pigeon was a shaddy and cold place in the morning so we wanted to move quickly. The texture on this route looked similar to Bugaboo’s so I switched to rock shoes at the base which proved to be a correct call. The three Colorado climbers (Charlie, Caroline, Rax) were short-roping the entire route while we decided to free solo/scramble for as much as we could.
In my opinion, the scramble/climb to the first summit was as challenging as the final 5.4 move on the 3rd summit. After ascending some slabs we came to an awkward spot. I couldn’t believe nobody mentioned this part being “5th class”. Firstly we had to ascend a short crack and then friction up a few moves. The exposure of these friction moves was significant and the consequence of a mistake will almost guaranteed to be fatal. And that’s not the end, just after the friction step we crested the ridge, and straight ahead was a ridiculously exposed section – au-chevalling was the best technique… Ben was wearing the rigid mountaineering boots so he couldn’t go up the friction part. He had to squeeze through a near-overhanging crack/chimney- an even harder route choice. The rest of the ridge to the first summit was straightforward until near the top – a few near vertical moves but nothing too serious. Soon enough, we made to the first summit and got the first sunlight shone on our cold hands… (We seriously needed some warming up)…
The view of the second summit from the first one was insane, but as we approaching it the angle started to lay back, and in my opinion getting up the second summit was the easiest section. We could easily use ledges and friction moves on some low angled slabs, and soon we made to the famous knife-edge slab. With rock shoes on we could just walk across this slab – perhaps every climber will spend some time taking a few photos of this section. The positioning and the exposure was just incredible, with Howser Towers behind. Unfortunately Ben followed me behind too closely so I missed these photos, but thankfully Ferenc got some. After this bit, we detoured slightly to climber’s left (north) side and ascended a wet and snowy 4th class chimney to the base of second summit. Directly attacking the summit block was not possible so we went around on an obvious ledge on the climber’s right side.
Descending the second summit to second/third col was low fifth class, and even so it depends on your route choice. Ferenc led the way directly down towards the col, and as I watching him I told myself: that’s not low 5th class, there must be an easier way…. Sure enough, I went down left (north) side for a bit and found a chimney. I thought this chimney must connected to a wide ledge below so I carefully down-climbed that way. Since it’s north facing the holds were a bit icy and slippery. Ben followed Ferenc down the direct route, though shorter, was considerably slower than the route I took. The route up the third (true) summit skirted around the block on climber’s left (again, the north) side. There’s a wide blocky ledge leading that way and as expected, it was icy and snowy. It was a bit interesting to post-hole on rock shoes, but oh well, we made to the base of the 5.4 section regardless. There was a bit of route-finding here but the easiest line existed on the far left corner. Because our shoes were wet, the exposure was huge and we’d use the rope anyway on the descent, we pitched it out. Ferenc led it up fantastically and I seconded up with no problem. The last 20 m or so towards the summit was on some low angled slabs and blocks and we all solo’d it. The true true summit was on a rock pinnacle and getting up there required some friction climbing. It’s easier than it looked and I got up and down there without a belay. We spent a long time on top soaking in the views, and at the meantime to wait for Charlie, Caroline and Rax climbing up the technical pitch.
The two groups teamed up together for the descent. We were supposed to do two 25 m rappels but we together had 120 m or rope, so we decided to make it a single full-length rappel to speed things up. This rappel was committing with a few overhangs, and brought us straight down to the wide icy/snowy ledge. At the second/third summit col we separated as Ferenc, Ben and I would down-scramble the rest of the ridge rather than short-roping. It was fun but on the descent from 1st summit we had to pass at least 10 climbers on their way up – the view looking down reminded me some photos of Mt. Everest… That was kinda ridiculous but thankfully the ridge was wide enough so we could pass them. Coming down the au-chevalling section was interesting as I somehow convinced myself to try Ben’s overhanging chimney. I got myself squeezed in by immediately got stuck inside. I had to remove my backpack and down-climb without it… Then Ben lowered both mine and his backpacks to me before down-climbing the same chimney. Ferenc was the smart one to down-climb the friction slabs. After this bit of excitement we were back to easier terrain, and soon we were back to the base. And there were more people coming up…
Due to the softened snow we didn’t even bother with crampons for the glacier walk. It’s easy, fast and very scenic and I felt sad to slowly leave these views behind… Back to B-S col, just like the day before, we’d down-climb the steep snow rather than doing the extremely awkward diagonal rappel. And again, except for the sandy/rocky sections the down-climbing was relatively straightforward. It’s was noon only by the time we got back down all the technical sections so at camp, we leisurely packed up while speaking with some incredible climbers. (In Bugaboos you really will meet some incredible people – seem more like “creatures” to us)…
The hike out was steep but straightforward. It wasn’t very fun with the heavy backpack though… We also forgot how long the flat section was at the end – must have been a few kilometers and seemed to drag on for a long time.
Overall, this was an incredible and very satisfying trip – many thank to Ben and Ferenc, as well as other climbers who helped us during the climbs. I still couldn’t believe I’d already bagged Bugaboo Spire. Speaking Pigeon Spire, it’s a true classic and should be on the wish-list for every mountaineer – steep snow, glacier travel, top-quality 4th class scrambling, incredible exposure, short technical climbing, one of the finest summit views and being positioned in the heart of a world-class Alpine gem.