Learning to Compromise on the Beckey-Chouindard

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I first visited the Bugaboos in 2017 with two friends from Leavenworth.  I was immediately captured by the vast glaciers snaking their way through dramatic granite spires. That first trip, my partner and I knocked out many classic moderates; Kain Route, West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, McTech Arete and the NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. We came, we saw, we climbed and I left with a longer tick list than when I arrived.  With endless climbing possibilities and relatively easy access, I knew the BC Provincial park would be on my short list for return visits in the future.  

I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted to climb during my next visit.  I mentally set aside a two week period to return in Summer 2018.  So in spring, when Lizzy asked if I wanted to climb the Beckey-Chouinard with her, I immediately agreed. I was beyond stoked to head into the mountains with another woman.  

I was first introduced to climbing as a teenager, with two boys I went to school with and their father, who was their Boy Scout leader.  In college I worked at the University gym, where my manager Matt taught me about leading and outdoor skills. The vast majority of my foundational multi-pitch and alpine skills came from my boyfriend of 4 years, who was a skilled guide and mountaineer.  As I developed as a climber I eventually formed a solid group of strong women to climb with but my big objectives in the mountains have always been with male partners.  This trip to the Bugaboos with Lizzy would be the first time attempting a big climb with a female partner.

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The Beckey-Chouinard is a 2,000’ granite route with fifteen pitches of climbing in the 5.7 to 5.10+ range on South Howser Tower. Many of the popular routes in the Bugaboos are in the main cirque, less than an hour approach from the climbers camp. In the peak summer months, these approaches require minimal glacier travel, if any. The BC, however, is on South Howser Tower, nestled deeper into the range across the Vowell Glacier. This would be the most audacious climb either of us had attempted. 

In an ideal situation, we would have hiked in, set up base camp, and climbed a few shorter routes to get comfortable with each other.  Given that we had limited time and less than desirable weather in the forecast, we decided that the Beckey-Chouinard would be our priority and first objective.

On the drive up to Canada I began to notice a few differences between how Lizzy and I approached alpine climbing. Before our trip, I scoured the internet for beta (information about the climb).  I had written notes about the route, printed out topos (maps that indicate the climbing route, difficulty, pitch breakdown, etc) and read trip reports. I had a good handle on where we needed to go, how to get there and the type of terrain we would be encountering along the way. While I am, perhaps, an excessive planner, Lizzy had a more whimsical approach to preparedness.  She had her gear, her stoke, and plenty of trust that I knew where we were going.  (And her Garmin, InReach, which gave us some much needed peace of mind.)

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We left the car at a leisurely pace with insanely heavy packs and a lot of stoke. After gaining nearly 5,000 ft in elevation over a few miles we arrived at the historic Kain Hut sweaty and hungry. We checked out some maps and decided to take the less direct approach to the Pigeon-Howser Col to avoid midday rockfall hazards that plagued the typical route. In order to give ourselves as much climbing time as possible we chose to take light packs with minimal food and only the necessities to bivouack the night before and potentially after our climb. We stashed our remaining gear and food in bear boxes and spent the next few hours navigating large crevasses and snow bridges on the Bugaboo glacier. 

Lizzy nervously expressed that she was not confident with snow and ice travel.  Although I am fairly comfortable in glacial environments, I barely have the skills to take care of myself, much less someone else.  So we quested on to the glacier and outside of our comfort zones.  Since the crevasses were mostly melted out along our route, we decided not to rope up when it got steep because we didn't have protection for snow and ice, and we would be more of a liability to each other than just to ourselves.  There was one particularly steep, blue, narrow passage in between an echelon cracks where a fall would be bad news.  Our cheerful chatter quieted as we took in the seriousness of the moment.  I front pointed up the ribbon of blue, white knuckling my axe and reminding myself to breathe. As the grade started to subside, we hit a patch of rotten ice that crumbled under the points of my crampons.  I inhaled sharply and froze, too scared to take the few steps required to reach safety. Lizzy followed too close behind and I tried not to think about falling right into her and knocking us into the dark mouth below. Approximately nine small aluminum points kept me anchored to the ice and I didn't want to move a single one of them.  

“You got it, Katie.”

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Lizzy’s voice wavered and I could tell she was as gripped as I was.  I took a breath and committed to the last few feet, giggling with nerves once we both reached the flats above and collectively unpuckered.  Within 30 minutes we had arrived at our bivy spot.  Lizzy settled in to collect water and make dinner, while I soloed to the top of Pigeon Spire for sunset.  

Our night was plagued with restless sleep, mostly caused by a brazen pack rat that repeatedly tried to grab the hat right off my head as I dozed.  The alarm rang just before 4am and we were hiking within 30 minutes by the light of one headlamp- the curse of rechargeables!  By dawn, we were at the toe of the stunning Southwest Ridge of South Howser Tower, also known as the mega classic Beckey-Chouinard.  The first couple hundred feet of climbing was easy scrambling, though sometimes wet or snow covered.  We moved quickly to stay ahead of a party of good spirited German men.  As we approached the more defined ridge, where the climbing steepened enough to warrant a rope, we began to notice many other parties ahead of us on route.  

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As we stopped to rope up Lizzy and I started to discuss logistics for simul-climbing the next couple of pitches. We disagreed on some things, and had a brief, but intense, debate.  One of the things that I really appreciate about a climbing partner, and I appreciate about Lizzy as a friend and coworker, is the ability to communicate.  The two of us have plenty of things we like to do differently on an alpine climb, and strong opinions about them but we were able to compromise our preferences and peculiarities in a way that was safe and effective; forcing me to let go of some stubbornness and allow her to do certain things her way, even if it wasn’t the way I personally preferred.  

We simul climbed a handful of pitches 5.8 and below until we arrived at the first crux pitch and, not coincidentally, the first traffic jam.  There was a party of two men ahead of us that looked mildly familiar, they were from Portland, Oregon, and one of them enthusiastically informed us that his girlfriend had taken one of our courses!  We sat at the ledge for about 30 minutes, chatting with the Oregonians and the pair of Germans.  When it was my turn, I took the lead, following a finger crack through a short bulge and an awkward wide section.  Grades feel different in the alpine, when you’re at altitude and wearing a medium sized backpack; but the 5.10 climbing went smoothly and soon we were swinging leads through the next block of moderate pitches.  

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We arrived at base of the Great White Headwall before noon.  We were over half way and making good time.  This was also the next 5.10 pitch, and between the generous ledge and more difficult climbing, everyone’s progress slowed and we spent a good two hours waiting for our turn to proceed.  It was sunny but cool, and the company of the other groups was surprisingly pleasant for a busy day on route.  After Lizzy cruised the long pitch, I followed with the next leader close behind me.  About 15 feet off a ledge, I fell unexpectedly, nearly decking and hitting the climber below. I was a bit shook up by the size of the fall despite being on toprope.  When I arrived at the belay, I knew it would be my turn to lead.  We had decided to take a variation so as to spread out the traffic and keep ourselves moving, but I hadn’t asked anyone about the grade of the alternate route.  I tried to shake off the fear that had settled in my chest, and began up the pitch.  I climbed conservatively, I was still scared and it soon became clear that I would run out of gear (it was nearly 60m long) and the climbing was hard enough that I didn’t feel comfortable running it out.  I built an anchor on some less than ideal small cams in order to clean the gear below and allow Lizzy to continue the pitch with a full rack.  

By now, most of the friends we’d made on route had passed us by and our progress was unimpeded, but the weight of the day had sunk in and we were feeling fatigued.  This was the point where Lizzy’s positive energy and drive was so valuable to our success.  She agreed to take the last difficult pitch, which many people aid through, and dispatched it with few qualms.  Just when I thought I couldn’t climb any more, we had reached the top 300 or so feet of scrambling and the summit was in sight!  Given the number of people on route, we hadn’t had a moment of privacy to relieve ourselves all day, so when we reached the generous ledges, the first order of business was… well, you get the idea. 

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The sun was getting concerningly low in the sky as we reached the summit.  Overwhelmed by the day, and where we stood, Lizzy and I hugged, had a quick snack and snapped some photos.  We felt the sense of urgency to get down before we lost daylight.  Fortunately, the descent is a fully bolted rappel route, quite unusual for the alpine; unfortunately, it was still notorious for being a little bit hard to follow in places.  I hit my typical second wind after the midday slump and Lizzy admitted that rappelling was her least favorite part of climbing, so I took the lead in getting us safely back to the glacier.  The first few rappels were down a knife edge ridge, awkward to say the least, and if you went off one of the sides, you would not find the next anchor.  I carefully navigated us to the first big ledge on the descent route.  After Lizzy joined me on the ledge, we pulled the ropes and the knot connecting them snagged on a flake.  We were perturbed, but knew there were still two parties behind us that could unsnag the knot. 

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Getting your ropes stuck on a long rappel route can be the difference between a casual descent and a total epic, especially when the rappels are not along the same route of ascent. We didn’t need to climb back up to remedy the situation, so we waited until the faint voices of two Canadian route mates began to trickle down from the wall above.  They freed our knot, and we were soon scrambling down to the next series of rappels.  

The air was smokey from regional fires and the pink glow of sunset was stunning through the haze.  We started to lose visibility and I overshot the next set of anchors that were around a corner and out of view.  As I reached the knots of our twin 60m ropes, I found myself at a fresh bundle of slings and cord slung over a dubious flake.  Clearly we weren’t the first folks to end up in the wrong place here.  Lizzy carefully slid down to me and anchored to the tat, looking nervous. 

 “I’ve never had to rappel in the dark before.”  

Now it was my turn to be strong and confident for the both of us, just as Lizzy had for me earlier.  I’ve done a few dusky descents in my life, but this one felt more serious.  We didn’t know if our ropes would reach the safety of the glacier, plus this was clearly an active rockfall zone, and I wanted to spend minimal time there.  The black mouth of the bergschrund gaped below us and we needed to rappel past it to get down safely.   As we pulled the ropes, the tail wrapped itself around a flake and got stuck… again; and once again we were saved from having to attempt any dangerous maneuvers or cut rope because of our kind friends above.  We heard them start to rap, and called up for assistance.

“Oh ropes stuck again, eh?”

Soon I was rigged up and carefully walking backwards down the crumbling face.  As I tried to manage the ropes they tangled on everything, and several loose blocks plummeted to the glacier below.  I looked up and saw the two parties behind us struggling to find the anchor we had missed by headlamp.  Their ropes were shorter than ours and we warned that they would not be long enough to reach our anchor.  

The crunch of snow under my boots was a welcome relief, but I still had to cross the seemingly bottomless crevasse before Lizzy could follow me down.  We had opted to leave our axes and crampons behind in favor of lighter packs on route, so once over the bergschrund I carefully kicked steps and handholds down to a flat spot where I could go “off rappel.”  Lizzy had been huddled alone at the anchor this whole time, not saying a word.  I felt for her.  There are these moments in the mountains where you feel so small, and suddenly you realize how many things could go wrong and how far you are from help.  I kept the rope ends firmly in my hands as she began to descend, in order to keep them from pulling loose rock down on me.  Once safely on the ground, we wrapped each other in a relieved hug and discussed if we should stick around to make sure the other two parties made it down; they were still fumbling with building an anchor in the dark, after giving up on finding the bolted rappel station.  As it was nearing 11 pm, we decided that there wasn’t much we could do from our position, and they seemed to be figuring it out amongst themselves.  

We kept an eye on their headlamps as we began the hike back to our stashed gear.  The Germans who had passed us earlier were bivied in the same place, so we followed their boot prints through the dark to our sleeping bags and a hot meal.  Back on solid ground, I forced us to eat dinner, even though we could have happily gone to bed without it.  Right before dozing off, we counted four headlamps on the glacier, headed back toward Applebee.  Happy that our companions were safely off the rappels, we fell into the deepest of sleeps.  There is nothing more rewarding than the sleep you sleep after a huge day in the alpine.  The flaked out rope underneath me transformed into a cozy memory foam mattress, my sweaty clothes could have been silk pajamas, and the pack rat could have taken my hat and shaved my head while he was at it, and I wouldn’t have budged.  Neither of us stirred until 8:30 the next morning, when a party of climbers hiked right over us.  Lizzy awoke with a huge smile and a giggle, despite our lack of coffee, and we laid in the sun all morning reliving our biggest day in the alpine to date.  

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