Climbing in the Bugaboos

Written by: Virginia Sanford

We are standing at the top of the dreaded Bugaboo-Snowpatch col (a steep snow gully), looking down at the slope of melting snow and ice and tumbling rocks that stretch out below us. Three days earlier, we had heard the story of rockfall in the col that had resulted in an air evacuation. For the past two days we have been listening to the sound of boulders tumbling down melting ice and talus slopes. We had also been told the col was not that bad, that we could basically rappel down the entire slope, eliminating the need for crampons. We have now located what we think are the rappel rings that should help us bypass the steepest sections of snow and ice. We are thirteen hours into what will ultimately be a seventeen hour day. We completed the climbing portion of the day in about four hours; the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire seems like a distant memory. Like a hero, Erika volunteers to head down into the col first, in search of the next set of rap rings. Clémence, Athena, and I stare down as Erika descends, and then ascends the rope to get back to the first set of anchors she had passed. Four slow, and at times terrifying, hours later we are back at camp, cooking dinner and looking forward to a morning of sleeping in. We successfully found all the rappel stations and managed to make it down the remainder of the snow and ice slope, which was still surprisingly steep, with no crampons, using our two ice axes and two trekking poles. We had learned a valuable lesson about glacier travel: bring the crampons and ice axes regardless of others’ opinions.

We are ten days into our two-and-a-half week ladies’ climbing trip. We are three days into our week in Bugaboo Provincial Park on the eastern border of British Columbia. We are climbing as a team of four, two parties of two. Our name is team EVAC (Erika, Virginia, Athena, and Clémence), and this trip is the culmination of many years of climbing together in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and California. Collectively, we have extensive experience with trad, multipitch and alpine climbing. However, glacier and snow travel (which is unavoidable in the Bugaboos) was new to all of us. Part of the appeal when this trip was first suggested, was the opportunity to challenge myself with a group of badass women. As team EVAC, we believe in the power and joy that comes with women supporting and pushing one another as climbing partners, particularly in settings where we are far outnumbered by our male counterparts.We also believe in party spandex, cheese, cookies, and nicknames.

Our trip began on a rainy August morning after seven months of planning. The conversation started on an email thread back in January. Erika proposed a ladies trip to the Bugaboos in British Columbia, which included suggested probability levels such as, “I have always dreamed you would ask me, please sign me up” down to, “with much sadness I report I cannot do this trip.” As I mentioned, we all had a fair amount of experience with alpine climbing, but none of us had any experience with glacier travel. The Bugaboos are an alpine granite paradise located in Eastern British Columbia. The granite spires, for which the park is known, are surrounded by glaciers and jagged mountain peaks. Almost all of the routes, which can range from a few hundred feet to a few thousand feet tall, require some degree of snow and glacier travel. The difficulty of navigating crevasses, bergschrunds, or steep snow slopes was mainly determined by how big the snow year had been. Given that none of us had even seen a crevasse and that most of us did not know what a bergschrund was (a deep and often broad crevasse that forms when a moving glacier separates from the stagnant ice or rock above), we decided that taking a crevasse rescue course needed to be near the top of our list of things to do. Over the course of the spring and summer we refined our plans and checked things off our our list, using shared google docs and several team meetings. By mid-July we had a tentative itinerary which included four days in Grand Teton National Park, a day in Glacier National Park, and a week in Bugaboo Provincial Park.

With the truck fully loaded down with two and a half weeks of climbing and camping gear, we left Boulder on that August morning, and headed towards Grand Teton National Park. When we arrived, the air was so thick with smoke from a fire in Yellowstone that it was difficult to make out the Tetons, which we knew were rising up 7000+ feet from the valley floor. This would prove to be a consistent theme over the course of our trip, thanks to an incredibly dry and hot summer in the North American West. We got our bivy permits and our Junior Ranger booklets, and went off in search of free camping that we had heard was just outside of park boundaries. The following morning, with four days’ worth of gear and food, we hiked in towards the Grand Teton. Our plan was to climb Chief Joseph’s Buttress on Nez Perce, the Full Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton, and Red Sentinel if we had time. The first leg of our trip was a good lesson in flexibility and the need to adjust plans and expectations. We ended up climbing a fun variation of Irene’s Arete and the Full Exum Ridge, and spent most of an afternoon scrambling up a loose gully in search of Red Sentinel. We also got sworn in as Junior Rangers, got a party spandex team photo on the top of the Grand, worked hard on our assisted handstand high five, and celebrated my birthday.

A poor weather forecast pushed us to revise our original plan in an effort to get to the Bugaboos a day sooner. With a brief stop in Glacier National Park, where once again the smoke was too dense to make out the mountains surrounding us, we drove on to Canada, arriving at the trailhead not long before dusk. We had seven nights reserved in the Kain Hut, which seemed like a complete luxury after a week of camping and backpacking. Early the next morning, we headed in toward the hut for what we thought would be a cruiser three mile hike, which turned out to be a steep trudge uphill. We dropped our bags and food, and took off for a warm-up route called Lion’s Way. The climbing was fun, went quickly, and introduced us to what was to become a familiar sensation of feeling safe and comfortable on the rock, and feeling a sense of dread for the approaches and descents. Coming from Colorado, we are all accustomed to talus field and rock-hopping approaches. Typically, you aim for the biggest boulders as they tend to be solid and the most secure. We learned relatively quickly that this technique does not apply when the rocks and boulders are sitting on top of a melting sheet of ice. Throughout the afternoon we heard the sounds of rockfall echoing around us, triggered by the heat of the day and the glare of the sun. This became a familiar, though never comfortable sound over the course of the week we spent in the Bugaboos.

Over the next six days, we climbed four mega classics, including Sunshine Crack, which was the agreed upon pinnacle of our trip. On Sunshine Crack, at a grade of 5.11, with a long and strenuous 5.10 off-width pitch, and 900 feet of climbing, we all found an edge to push. The climbing was strenuous, though not so challenging that we weren’t able to still take time for demonstrations of new techniques to untwisting ropes. There were also plenty of “yea girls” and words of support yelled up to the climber grunting through overhanging off-width cracks, or figuring out the heel hook move to pull the thin 5.11 roof. We made the final rappels back onto the glacier in the dark. Erika got on rappel and did a flying jump with her ice ax to get to the other side of the bergschrund then developed a fun rope tug technique to propel the rest of us high above the bergschrund and onto the “solid” snow surface. Tromping into the hut long after everyone had gone to sleep, we discovered a note and platypus of wine that some new friends had left for us. After a well earned toast of wine and way too much dehydrated food, we fell into our sleeping bags for our final night in the Bugaboos.

I have been climbing for eleven years. I have climbed with many men and women in that time. I love climbing with men, and I love climbing with women just a little bit more. Seeing strength and power in my female climbing partners pushes me to find my strength. When I try to attach words to this, the lyrics to Kesha’s “Woman” play on repeat in my head. “I do what I want / say what you say / I work real hard every day / I’m a motherf***ing woman, baby, alright / I don’t need no man to be holding me too tight / I’m a motherf***ing woman, baby, alright / I’m just having fun with my ladies here tonight”.

I interpret these lyrics to mean, I can accomplish anything that I put my mind to, regardless of how physically hard or scary it is; regardless of any social or cultural messages telling me as a woman what I should be able to. I am an advocate for challenging the messages we receive as women about what we can and cannot do, whether that be professionally, in our adventures, in our relationships, or how we decide to navigate the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche says in her book We Should All Be Feminists, “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness. Because I deserve to be. I like politics and history and am happiest when having a good argument about ideas. I am girly. I am happily girly. I like high heels and trying on lipsticks.” Regardless of how we challenge the notions of what it is to be a woman, remember to have fun, kick ass, laugh, breath, and maybe rock some party spandex while doing it!