Back in the early 1900s, Conrad Kain, an Austrian mountain guide, arrived in Canada with the promise of being the Alpine Club of Canada’s first official guide, and thus he began exploring a region widely revered as one of the best places on earth to climb. More specifically, I’m referring to the area now known as Bugaboo Provincial Park in the wildly spectacular Purcell Mountains of British Columbia.
When Conrad got there, there were few maps, no established trails and naturally little or no beta whatsoever on any of the most remote reaches of the mountains. Conrad would simply go into the mountains armed with his accumulated knowledge of mountaineering as his map, and his sense of wanderlust as his compass. No plan other than to explore and see what was out there…and climb what he found. Some publications refer to him as a pioneer of Canadian mountaineering, some as a legend of modern mountaineering, but everything I’ve read is consistent with their use of one word…adventurer.
The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary that’s sitting here next to me defines an adventurer as “someone who undertakes an endeavor involving danger and unknown risks” or as “a person engaging in exciting or remarkable experiences”. I think it’s safe to say that Conrad Kain was the poster child for that definition.
My friend Cole and I had conjured up a plan to travel to Canada to climb in the Bugaboos and see what this amazing landscape Kain had explored was all about; we’d been talking about it for months actually. We’d looked at maps, read books, read other climber’s accounts of the routes we wanted to attempt (Bugaboo Spire and Pigeon Spire), etc. etc. We had this grandiose quasi-plan all laid out and ready to execute. Barring weather issues, we would do it up right and return with more peaks to add to our ever-growing list, and naturally, be able to pen a new chapter or two in our own personal stories.
The difference 100 years makes is that the trek up to the high cirque where we would start our climbing took Kain 30 days to accomplish from the village of Brisco, BC… it took us about an hour and a half drive up a logging road and an ensuing two hour slog from the parking lot. It was pretty difficult to call anything about our approach to the hut bearing Conrad’s name a true adventure given the well worn trail from step one. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a bit spicy in places. In a couple of spots we were actually going full-on via ferrata style with chains and ladders to assist in ascending the rather narrow and exhaustingly steep trail. With 60-pounds of gear strapped to our backs and a nasty tumble through granite boulders a real possibility, the assistance was quite welcome. Again, Kain did it without the benefit of modern lightweight gear, with no established road or trail, no convenient via ferrata cables or ladders to reduce the “pucker factor” and he was definitely without a cushy hut waiting for him at the end of the day.
While sitting around the hut that first evening, I half-foolishly envisioned that this carefully crafted tick-list of climbing targets would systematically begin and everything we’d planned would go off accordingly. This was diametrically opposed to my longstanding credo “Rule #1 for Barry: Make no plans and simply let things unfold as they will”.
As with any pending adventure, making a “plan” is basically just a way to fill in the dead time between when you initially dream up something cool and the point where you actually set off to do it. But I know as well as anyone that if it can be planned, it’s really not an adventure at all. It’s sort of like reading those silly books on what to expect after “baby is born”. You can pretty much be assured that the naïve notion of reading such things and everything unfolding by the letter of the textbook will be crushed under the onerous weight of reality as soon as that umbilical cord is cut…if not sooner.
Nevertheless, we woke at 04:30 the first morning with Bugaboo Spire as the first item to mark off the list. Unexpected thing #1: I didn’t feel well, at all. I rallied as best I could, got dressed, ate a little, shouldered my pack and we started slogging up the steep 1,000 vertical feet up to the base of the Crescent Glacier called Appleby Dome. I was still not feeling any better. Another fifteen or twenty minutes across the frozen cirque floor and we were standing beneath the sketchy and oftentimes extremely dangerous Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col. We donned our crampons, pulled out our ice axes and started the trudge up the next ~1,000 vertical feet of 50-degree (i.e. STEEP) snow and ice. We were very fortunate that the recent snows and colder temperatures had stabilized the Col’s condition and we were able to climb under relatively calm circumstances. Later in the season this Col is a shooting gallery of house sized boulders crashing to the cirque’s floor.
I’ll just say it — Cole is a climbing/mountaineering machine, period. He powered up the steepest parts of this Col with amazing strength and grace. I, on the other hand, was reduced to a methodical rhythm of kicking steps in the steep snow, always a hundred feet or so behind. After half an hour or more of that lovely experience, we were mercifully standing atop the Col.
The Vowell Glacier to the west of the Col immediately opened up and I was totally blown away by the overwhelming vastness, the gaping crevasses and the sight of dramatic Pigeon Spire and the daunting Howser Towers at its terminus. The only word I could find at the time was “other-worldly”. So incredibly beautiful. Dampening that visual euphoria however was the fact that everything I’d eaten for the past 24 hours seemed to be hovering about two inches below my throat and ready to make a hasty exit at any time. I honestly felt like shit.
After a few photos, some conversation, some option analysis and some soul-searching on my part, I reluctantly made the call that I simply had to go down. With 2/3 of the climb basically done, save for the summit ridge, that was indeed a tough decision. Tough decision, but made even tougher because I felt like I was disappointing Cole in not forging ahead with a climb we’d been talking about for quite a while. But prudence took precedence and we rapped the ~1,000-feet back down the Col. We sat on the icy flats of the cirque floor for a bit and discussed our next moves. I decided that I really needed to continue back down to the hut and sleep. Cole opted to continue on and solo Eastpost Spire. And just like that, the original plan fractured and another “adventure” unfolded. From this point the adventure would be unplanned and undefined as it should have been to begin with.
While I slept (for about six hours), Cole did in fact solo summit Eastpost Spire. He’d also returned to the hut to find a fellow climber, from England, who was eager to climb “something else” before it got dark. By the way, at 22:00, I could still read my book with only natural light so an early evening epic of descending in total darkness was not really a concern! They took off to climb Crescent Spire via a route called Lion’s Way, a six-pitch, 1,500-foot, 5.6, Grade III endeavour back up near where we’d descended earlier. I continued to sleep (and barf and….).
Later that evening Cole said that he’d met a couple other climbers during the day, one from Colorado and one from Alaska, and that if I wasn’t feeling any better in the morning they might try a route on Snowpatch Spire. I was not feeling better at all right then so I told him he should definitely take the opportunity and join them. And sure enough, when 04:30 rolled around the next morning, I curled back into my bag and slept on while Cole geared up and started the steep haul back up to Appleby Dome where he’d meet Jesse and Gabe and climb back up the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col to the base of their project.
At 06:00 I was pretty much wide awake and fortunately feeling a little better. I stirred around down in the kitchen area and talked with a fellow climber over a cup of coffee about his plans for the day. He said he was leaving later that morning but was more than game for a project before he did. After quickly eating seven (yes, seven!) packets of instant oatmeal, I felt a little better still and was quickly geared up and out the door. Like Cole had done an hour or so earlier, we hauled ourselves back up toward Appleby Dome, ~1,000-feet above, and continued to move deeper into the cirque to the Crescent Towers with our target being Lion’s Way Route (the same route Cole had done the day before). I kept glancing over at Snowpatch Spire, knowing that Cole was over there somewhere, but my pitiful limitations as a human were brought front and center when I considered the lunacy of trying to visually spot their small climbing party on such an immense protrusion of granite. We pressed on with our own project.
Climbing with a complete stranger can feel sketchy when you’re closer to home, but climbing with a stranger in a foreign land seems natural, especially in a place like the Bugaboos. We climbed very well together, swinging leads and moving as if we’d climbed together for years. We wasted little time, mostly out of comfortable efficiency, sometimes out of a need to finish up quickly so he could start his descent from the glacier and make his way back home to Calgary. I took very few photos, we talked very little, though when we did it was very friendly, comfortable and relaxed. We basically just concentrated on the task at hand. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience, even though I wasn’t accumulating my customary battery of photos. I just let my mind and eyes be the camera/lens this time and climbed for the sake of climbing. I hungrily consumed the energy of the moment without distraction, something I find myself not doing enough of sometimes.
At one point when I was belaying, I thought about an article in a recent Mountain Gazette where the guy writing the story said he once realized he was spending more time trying to envision how to blog or Facebook about his adventure than he was actually having the adventure. He was missing the very thing he first set off to do. With that thought, I vowed to leave my camera holstered most of the time and simply absorb every second of the experience. It felt good.
After we rappelled off the route, we exchanged info and I bid him farewell. I quickly decided that I would then solo up Eastpost Spire before I descended any further. It was close geographically, technically not all that difficult and I was admittedly riding a bit of a high after going up Crescent Spire. I still wasn’t feeling physically on par though and I was really hungry since my caloric intake the day before had been reduced to less than zero after all the retching. Therefore, I shoveled in a couple of Clif Blocks, took a sip of water and trekked the short distance to the base of Eastpost.
On my way up, between bouts of being a little gripped from the airy exposure, I thought about all the “plans” Cole and I had made and how none of them really materialized as we thought they would…other than actually getting to Canada and climbing in the Bugaboos. And I thought about how the original plan NOT materializing was probably closer to the true adventure we’d both come looking for. If we’d wanted a completely planned out and sterile holiday, then we’d probably have opted for an all-inclusive stay at some swanky resort in Costa Rica or booked a week on a Princess Cruise. We certainly never would’ve considered trekking into a remote part of the Purcell Mountains and queuing up for the totally unknown. Admittedly this wasn’t the high adventure that Kain had undertaken when he first explored those mountains, but at least we were quickly knocked off our original plan and were able to “take it as is came” and live in the moment as we should.
And these were just the bigger pieces of the overall adventure. We never could have imagined meeting some of the most incredibly fun and interesting people that we did. For example, there was a girl, Helen, from Ontario who does voiceovers for the Sponge Bob series and other Nick for Kids shows…and climbs super hard and can make you laugh in a blink of an eye. There was an incredibly interesting PhD student named Jerome, from Switzerland who was now living in Canada. There was a field researcher named Knut, from Norway, who was living at the hut for a few months doing various kinds of environmental studies. There were people who were camped in tents up high on Appleby Dome and had been there for weeks, climbing and livin’ the dream. There was an awesome family of climbers from Canmore, AB who made the evenings quite entertaining — in a great way!
Additionally, there was a super funny guy from Quebec named Michelle whose boisterous laugh was absolutely intoxicating. There was Amelie, who crawled into the narrow bunk space between me and my new friend Jerome (the guy from Switzerland) around 02:00 — cold and completely exhausted from the late night trek up the steep trail to our base camp. The two Brits who comically lugged steaks up to the hut, drank Tetley’s regularly and had beans on toast for breakfast every day. There was Bernard, the hut attendant who totally reminded me of Heidi’s grandfather from the classic movie. There was more French being spoken at times than English. There was the ever-present “eh?” after each sentence the native Canadians would utter. Smelly boots. Body odor galore. Abundant bed-head, helmet hair and I really-don’t-give-a-sh#%-hair. Climbing gear of every shape, size, and make was scattered everywhere in the hut. Amazing stories from amazing people about unimaginably amazing travels. Astonishing sunrises and stunning sunsets. Mind blowing views across the Bugaboo Glacier. The omnipresent and irritating mosquitoes. Narrow runnels of water plummeting thousands of feet off the lips of granite domes. We could have never planned for these things, but they are just as critical, if not more critical to the experience than the climbing itself.
The total tally for our all-too-brief time in the Bugaboos was a combined 27 beautiful pitches of spectacularly exposed rock climbing. The funny thing is that despite all the joint planning we’d done, Cole and I didn’t do a single rock pitch together, not one (only the steep snow couloirs up to the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col). Disappointed? Not really, although it’d been nice to at least get one climb with Cole. But Cole got to put up an extraordinary route on Snowpatch Spire that we likely wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I got to climb a couple of long routes with a super nice guy who I hope to cross paths with again. We also made some other new friends along the way. I got what I think are some pretty good photos. We’d seriously walk out the door of the hut or stop along a climb to look outward and literally gasp at the remoteness, magnitude and heart-stopping beauty of the place…gasp every time. We walked and climbed amongst the spires of which the names Yvonne Chouinard, Conrad Kain and Fred Beckey are synonymous and legendary. Not a bad way to spend four days, eh?
Canada gave us a beautiful canvas with which to create another memorable experience. And despite our intentions to paint a picture we’d previously dreamed of painting, we were savvy enough to not be constrained by those plans and were able to let the “art of adventure” flow naturally and let les expériences du moment guide our brushes. The result was a much richer, more exciting, infinitely more meaningful experience.
I am once again reminded that trying to plan an adventure, which by definition is unplannable, and expecting that plan to unfold exactly as it was laid out is the surest way to foster disappointment (and boredom). Truly, the terms planning and adventure are mutually exclusive. We fortunately did the right thing and as we always do, took things as they came, adjusting, adapting and accepting as time and experience unfolded. As a result, the adventure we hoped for turned out to be exactly that, an adventure, and not just another sterile, filtered, pre-experienced holiday.
Good on us.
Climb high, run long, paddle far, live big.