The guidebook for the Bugs calls the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire ‘the best 5.4 scramble in the world,‘ which in my opinion is analogous to your grandmother telling you that you’re the handsomest boy in the 7th grade. I was in no position to judge it’s position as the best 5.4 scramble in the world because to date I’ve done exactly one climb matching that description, but it was pretty friggin’ cool (and for the record, I was the handsomest). I’ll take the guidebook at it’s word but feel free to chime in with your own personal contender for the title.
We climbed this line on our first full day up in the hut so were unfamiliar with the general layout of the park beyond some beta we collected from other climbers. Leaving the hut in the dark at 5:30am was a bit unnerving but there were more than enough cairns for us to find our way through the boulder field en route to the glacier. We tried to move quickly through this section as just a few days before a hiker was crushed under an 8 ton boulder in the very same area, with only a herculean multi-organization rescue effort to thank for saving her life.
At the toe of the glacier we met up with a group of four heading to the same climb so we decided to navigate the glacier together, with James and I on one rope and the team of four on another. James and I were a bit quicker getting our crampons and ropes on so started out on the lead. Luckily the glacier was totally dry, meaning that all crevasses were visible. The only challenge was occasionally leaping across an opening or meandering through the glacier field looking for a suitable bridge. This was a surprisingly boring/terrifying experience, just walking and walking and walking interspersed with occasional bouts of heart-in-throat moments of ‘I really hope this holds.’
The first two hours or so of glacier crossing was uneventful and very flat, but eventually we reached a section where the glacier hit a slope of around 20 degrees. It began to accumulate snow here, but because the route is so well travelled there was basically a highway of footprints leading the way through the crevasse field.
I found this section extremely challenging. Every step was much, much more tiring than a similarly-angled slope at home (20 degrees isn’t very steep). Towards the end of this section every thought I had was directed only towards my legs and lungs, forcing one step after another. I can only blame the altitude for this, as I know my fitness was otherwise more than up to the task. For context, I’ve lived on the East Coast at sea level my entire life, with my previous high elevation point likely around the ~1,000m mark, if not lower. By the time we reached the end of the glacier we were more than double that mark, at ~2,700m elevation. I was nauseous, dizzy and didn’t feel like eating. It’s hard to look back and recall exactly how terrible I felt but I remember thinking at the time that it was without a doubt the single hardest physical effort I had put forward in my life.
After the 4 hour approach was over (like I said, I was moving glacially slow. ha!) we could start getting ready for the climbing. The six of us talked at the bottom who was going to climb first. One of the party of four was an experienced alpinist who was in the Bugs on a Live Your Dreams grant from the American Alpine Club. He elected to solo the route and started off. The other three would climb on one rope so James and I decided to go next as the three guys didn’t expect to move very quickly.
Even though the soloist made the initial section look like a piece of cake we were worried about getting sandbagged and didn’t want to get into a situation where a ‘scramble’ was actually a terrifying 5.6 rock exploding solo like we had on Katahdin. We roped up, planning to simul-climb until I ran out of gear on lead. We found the first two pitches ‘super casual’ (my favourite new term I pilfered from a climber we met on route from Washington State), only placing gear every once in a while. After we finished the second pitch of simu-scrambling we decided that the route was, in fact, a scramble, with a few minor exceptions and decided to unrope to make up some time.
The next couple of hundred metres of climbing flew by. The route had great exposure along the second ridge, forcing us to pay 100% attention to the scrambling moves as we didn’t want to experience the 1000 feet of sheer exposure on either side any more intimately than we already were. Reaching the ‘au cheval’ pitch, however, I found my confidence evaporating and asked for a belay. The climbing turned out to be easy but I was glad for the rope, as a strong gust of wind had the potential to blow me right off the ridge and over the side. Here we met the soloist on his way back down and grabbed some beta for the last 1/3 of the climb before he took off back over the au cheval pitch, moving with the confidence and tempered speed befitting an alpine climbing grant recipient.
The last 1/3 was on the North side of the spire. Many of the flat surfaces, nooks and crannies were stuffed with ice and snow, making moving unroped much more interesting. After some route finding discussions and a ticking clock we hit the last pitch. Even though the actual 5.4 section looked like a quick and easy move across we decided again to rope up lest we encounter something harder around the corner and had to reverse. I led up around the final crux move, glad for the rope as the large hand crack move was less secure feeling than it looked like from the belay. I moved up into the final snow-filled gully, placing a few pieces to keep James secure, and reached the summit block.
I belayed James up, hoping I’d play on his worry that we’d have to retreat before reaching the summit due to time, by calling down ‘I think we’ll have to turn around!’ I was right, after all, but he didn’t know that it was because we had reached the top. After a couple of summit photos and debate over whether the right or left summit block was higher (we decided we didn’t care) we started back down. After two raps to get off the summit block you’re forced to reverse the route. Apart from just one short section where we downclimbed while roped up we decided to descend unroped, reversing some difficult moves that I had made sure to protect on the way up. It was one of the most mentally turned-on yet confident climbing experiences I’ve had so far. Not that I necessarily condone solo’ing 5.12 but I now understand it better. I’ll also concede that me saying this is probably akin to someone saying they understand what driving a NASCAR must be like because they passed someone on the highway once.
The descent went quickly (maybe 30-45 minutes?) and we met back up with the team of four from earlier. The soloist had taken a nap to wait for his partners and the other three guys wisely turned around earlier in the day when they realized they weren’t making good enough time to tag the summit and get back down safely. We put our glacier gear back on and hit the road, following our tracks back down across snow bridges that looked like they had melted out somewhat since the morning, making for a few ‘this is definitely not going to hold,’ moments.
All in all the trip took 13 hours hut to hut. The guidebook recommended 6-10 hours so we weren’t that far off, especially compared to our previous alpine trip times. We recognized that there were a few areas that we could have made up a significant period of time:
- Be faster. Between me struggling with the altitude and us taking extra care over the glacier we probably could have saved at least an hour if not more. One the way back we were passed by a team of two guys that were moving as fast as if it were a regular hike. In retrospect the glacier was safe enough to do that, but I’ll chalk it up to first time jitters. I’m not sure if I could have done much at the time to speed myself up. As the trip went on I became more comfortable moving quickly in the thinner air so it may just be a time thing, I needed to adjust. I also could have used an ‘extra gear’ to move quicker when needed; I just didn’t have it. I could plod forever and ever but couldn’t kick it up a notch without gassing immediately. I’ll address this in another post.
- Be less amazed. I noticed after reviewing the video footage that we spent a LOT of time just standing and staring at how ridiculous everything was. In other words, be way more jaded about how awesome climbing is so that we move faster.
- Trusting ourselves that a scramble is actually a scramble and we can move confidently through that terrain without a rope. If we had started scrambling unroped from the beginning we would have cut another hour off of our time. However, moving that way helped James come up with a great way of managing the rope to quickly move from scrambling to roped climbing and back to scrambling without having to screw around with uncoiling/coiling the rope. I’ll get him to describe it in its own post because I think it’s a very valuable skill to have. You can catch it for a second in the ‘Traverse’ video above.
- Be quicker at transitioning between hiking, glacier travel and climbing. This problem is mostly mine as I seem to take forever to do things like get crampons on or organize my gear. We could have also saved 5-10 minutes by getting the rope in ‘glacier mode’ the night before, but now I’m splitting hairs.
All in all it was a great day. There was none of the major problems that we’ve run into so far on our alpine climbs so the writing is a little bit less dramatic. Everything worked and we even got back to the hut while the sun was still up!
Given the way the rest of the trip went I think it was a great end to our training year. I’ll be back for sure and my appetite for real alpine climbing is finally justified. Instead of thinking I’ll like it now I know I like it.
P.S. In the week or so that this post has been sitting in the hopper I’ve been having dreams/nightmares where I continually slip and fall off during the descent and plummet to my demise on the glacier below Pigeon. Maybe this is my brain trying to deal with the exposure? I don’t remember being scared during the day but I’ve fallen to my death while sleeping now probably a dozen times or more since getting back so there’s something going on. Please provide any amateur dream analysis, Freudian psychology or Tarot reading in the comment box.