The outline of Howser Spires loomed in the back of my mind for two years. It was a vivid memory and constant driving force propelling me back to the Bugaboos. All climbers have skeletons in the closet, “perfect routes that got away.” The Becky-Chouinard on South Howser Spire is one of those perfect routes. In Chris Atkinson’s and Marc Piche’s guidebook, The Bugaboos, it is described as, “the Bugaboo classic and one of the most esteemed alpine routes in North America.” I needed to know myself.
It was June 2015 last year. Sean and I just came off a very early, and successful mission, on the North East Buttress of Mt. Slesse. The snow pack was almost nonexistent in May, which was very unusual for the mountains. Neither of us had even put skis on more than twice over the preceding winter. We met at the coffee shop to discuss climbing plans. Coincidentally, both of us were driven to climb the same route and it was time to talk Bugs.
Over the last two summers I made three trips into the Bugaboos gaining valuable wisdom and first-hand experience as to the local conditions. I watched the infamous “col”, in perfect shape, with a white staircase delivering climbers easily up and down off the Vowel glacier, quickly transform into a climbers nightmare with blue ice and heinous rock fall. We sat at our strategic planning table in JJ Bean, sipping our boutique, micro roasted, coffee hand-picked in Guatemala, and crafted a cunning plan of attack for the Becky-Chouinard Route.
It was at this first planning meeting when Sean introduced a third climber into the mix, Geoff Bart. Sean vouched for Geoff’s ability and fitness since we had never climbed together. I can be a stodgy alpinist. “Three on the BC”, I said? We smiled at each other knowing that it was a cheeky, bold move for a big route. However, we also both liked the challenge and secretly wanted more company than just each other. I soon discovered that Geoff shared our enthusiasm and determination for the Becky-Chouinard. Its amazing how motivated climbers can become, and when you channel that passion unanimously, not much can stop the flag being planted on the summit.
We hatched our plan for the first week of July, when we all had time off over the long weekend. It was Wednesday, July 1 and we rolled into the Bugaboos parking lot early in the evening. We had enough light left to finalize packing and make the hike up to camp. Mosquitoes were ferocious in the parking lot and I was ready to blast-off up the trail, psyched for the barren, bug-free granite of the Applebee Campground.
Arriving at the Conrad Kain hut below Applebee camp, Geoff and Sean were keen to rekindle a nostalgic moment from a previous trip where they camped below the hut. Being tired from a long day of travel and with fading light the team decided to drop down and camp in the trees. Since we are lightweight fanatics, and wanted to save room for whiskey, we opted for a team shelter and all slept in Sean’s Black Diamond Mega Mid. It did not take long that evening to realize the mosquitos were nasty. The only thoughts going through my mind were: Mega Mid, no floor, open around the base – “we’re screwed!” There was not enough whiskey in the Golden liquor store to drown the sound of buzzing. Morning could not come soon enough and we headed up to the hut to make breakfast.
Instant oatmeal is my go-to breakfast staple and coffee. Powered by oats and really poor, non-boutique coffee, we trudged up the moraines to the sanctity of Applebee camp. Our plan was simple. Work on our tans all day in Applebee then wake up at 2am, make coffee, and start the approach to South Howser. From camp, the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col (the “col”) looked in great shape with a perfect, white staircase of boot buckets and no signs of rockfall.
Lying in camp, we studied the topo and got our packs ready. Sean brought Whole Foods Power Cookies and confessed that he had been snacking on them without us knowing! The Whole Foods Power Cookie is an organic delicacy highly prized by Vancouver stretchy-pant enthusiasts. Sean knew how they make Geoff weak in the knees and surprised Geoff by bringing him a pack of Power Cookies for the climb. Coincidentally, at the same time Sean had been raising our awareness during the day that his stomach was not feeling right. Something was rumbling and it was not right but he was quick to dismiss it as a minor problem not to be associated with a threat to our climb. We continued to pack and Geoff happily stowed his Power Cookies. We lounged in camp, fading in and out of sleep, more excited than one should ever be to wake up at 2am.
Alpine starts at 2am are not my specialty; alpine starts at 9am are though. Regardless, I was stoked for this climb and bolted awake with the iPhone alarm. The team assembled and shouldered packs. The starry night dimly illuminated the col and we set out briskly towards it. The adrenaline and caffeine surging through our veins found us at the base of the col quickly. Gazing up the imposing, white wall with our headlamps, we searched for the staircase of boot buckets. Opting for approach shoes and Khatoola micro-spikes, we were elated to confirm that the steps were big, deep, and obvious. We were greeted at the col by a bone chilling northern wind and quickly scampered down the other side to the calmer Vowell glacier.
Heads down, we stomped across the crisp glacier. Arriving at the Pigeon-Howser Col where we stopped to investigate the bivi sites and scope our descent into East Creek. Take the hard, snowy couloir with micro-spikes or descend the talus to an obvious climbers trail? We scurried over the talus and blitzed into East Creek stopping for a Power Cookie snack break.
Finding the approach ramp onto the ridge at the base of the route was obvious. We were soon scrambling over hundreds of meters of third-class slabs and cracks. The guidebook mentions an impasse where roped climbing begins at a large boulder. No surprises here. We flaked the ropes and tied in. Sean did not look well but more alarming was Geoff. He looked like death rolled over him! It was baffling but I knew there had to be an explanation because Sean and Geoff’s symptoms were both gastrointestinal. Both reported nausea and a feeling of being ready to vomit. Neither wanted to turn back but the topic came up. My heart was beginning to sink, worried that our climb might be over; I needed to find the answer.
Sean took first lead in his five-tennie approach shoes. It was normal for him to climb 5.8 in his approach shoes but, I could tell he was off kilter and moving slower than usual. Climbing up to the belay, he handed the reins over to me and requested I speed up this operation, and get the team to the summit. Geoff was hanging in but not looking well. Nausea was taking over the team. It was at this moment when Sean was pulling out his Power Cookies to snack that I made the connection between Sean, Geoff, Power Cookies, and nausea. I requested to see the label to check the expiration date knowing organic foods do not last long. Sure enough, they had expired 2 days ago! Whole Foods nearly killed the climb!
That was the last of the Power Cookies. We pitched them off the ridge to the marmots and snafflehounds, wishing their stomachs best of luck. Within three hours we were pulling onto the bivi ledge at pitch 10 and both Geoff and Sean had come around 180 degrees and were feeling better. I kept leading the team, having the most energy but it was nice to see their color return and energy levels perk up.
The climbing was amazing. Perfect cracks every pitch. From the 5.8 fist corner that ran on for 150m to the perfect mid-5.10 headwall finger cracks. We took the finger crack option on the headwall to avoid the wide 5.9 corner. Seemed like an obvious choice for us and it proved to be pure brilliance. If ever a route was a 50 Classic that I have climbed, I would have to say that the Beckey-Chouiard is the top of the list.
Finishing the headwall cracks was the highlight of the route. Great exposure on amazing granite and a full 60m pitch to the belay stance. From there, we continued to climb upwards, freeing the A0 pendulum into the 5.6 gully. The pendulum move (10+) felt bold and more like 11a but it is hard to grade after many pitches climbing with a pack at elevation.
A short rappel on many loops of tat webbing deposits you 20m below on a ledge. Following 4th class ledges upwards toward the summit is fairly straightforward route finding with several options leading to the summit ridge. We topped out in the early evening with plenty of daylight, elated to have stuck the summit and redpointed the route in the face of dire stomach distress.
A few summit photos and we went in search of the rap route. Frimer’s mini-rap guide says the first station is not obvious and its true but once on the route its incredible. The rap stations are full-on, shiny, stainless every 30-35m. We used one 60m rope for most rappels and then double ropes on the last few. Straight forward rappelling across the schrund to the glacier.
The walk back to Applebee camp in the evening alpenglow was icing on the cake. What an amazing finish to an amazing day of climbing. Even though the team suffered through stomach bugs and the mission was almost spoiled by Whole Foods Power Cookies, I was very proud of my climbing partners. Their tenacity and determination to go full throttle with only half a tank and some stomach bugs was impressive.
Brent Nixon is a local Vancouver climber and a total beast when it comes to building trails.