On my third day in the Bugs I team up with my friend Andrew, who is one of the late-comers. We wake up when our bodies decide to and have a leisurely morning. Our objective for the day is the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire – a very easy technical climb, but one made popular for its awesome exposure and views. From the south summit of Bugaboo Spire the day before I had witnessed what lay behind Snowpatch Spire and beyond; the huge white expanse of Vowell Glacier, and then Pigeon Spire and Howser Spire. When I saw this great blanket of snow and ice I knew I wanted to somehow be a part of it – to walk on its back and exist within it, if only for a brief moment.
We leave camp at 11am, boulder hop and scoot across the Crescent glacier just below camp, and then kick steps up the snow wall. When we reach the Vowell Glacier we decide to rope up, being that we have very little knowledge and experience with big-boy glaciers (plus it makes us feel like real mountain-men). As we cross, Andrew leads the way. Any time he comes upon a crevasse, he calls out to me and I prepare to self-arrest in case he suddenly disappears like a magician’s trick. When I reach the same crevasse ten seconds later we repeat the process in reverse. When we arrive at the foot of Pigeon we remove our crampons and stow them away with our ice axes.
Climbing on Pigeon is breathtaking and incredibly fun. It’s difficult enough to keep things interesting while the exposure quickens your heart and makes everything both grand and thrilling. Off on the horizon we see a storm approaching. With these huge landscapes, however, judging the storm’s distance and speed proves difficult. We pick up the pace as we climb higher and higher on easy ground. In short time we are at the top of the first sub-summit. The ridge ahead drops below us and thins out, before revealing a huge wall that, due to the sheer size of everything, looks unclimbable. The climbing looks far more difficult than was described in the guidebook. We head down the ridge towards the saddle, moving across thin sections by straddling the rock between our thighs and scooting forward, riding the stone like a bare-back granite horse. On either side of me is a sheer drop to the bottom.
“This is amazing!” I say to Andrew.
When we reach the other side the wall that looked unclimbable reveals its weaknesses. We head up and up, every now and then looking behind at the approaching storm. We reach a false summit. The only way over is to either climb down, or rappel. Andrew goes first and asses things. Very carefully he climbs down, trying not to overcommit himself. To me, he is truly courageous.
Once again, what at first appears too hard is slowly exposed to be straightforward. Finally, we reach the ‘crux’. This is the part of the climb that gives the whole thing its technical grade. By the looks of it we will have to traverse a shallow hand-rail over a steep drop-off with only angled slab for our feet. We must simply paste our shoes to the wall and put most of our weight on our fingers. With a rope and protective gear, this would simply be fun; unroped, the consequences of a fall are unforgiving. I go first, seeing that the difficulties are short. The exposure is intense but I have faith in my skills and make my way across, hand-over-hand. Once on safe ground, Andrew follows. The summit of Pigeon Spire is finally just a short scramble away. To our gleeful surprise, Pigeon actually has two distinct summits, twin high-points, ten meters apart. We each clamber up to our own pointy thrones, take pictures and trade places.
Although we have a light rope and some protective gear, we never end up using them. This is how we inadvertently ‘free soloed’ our first alpine route, 450 meters off the deck.
With our mighty climb finished and our view unobstructed we can see that the storm is on its way. With no time to play around we retrace our way back, down the ridge, over the glacier, down the snow pass and back to camp. As we approach our tents, the storm hits. Rain begins to pour down as we jump into Andrew’s tent and burst out laughing.
“What incredible luck!” we say.
Our friends, however, are not so lucky. After we have been laying around in Andrew’s tent for an hour or two they arrive, each pair with a different story of getting caught in the storm and, in some cases, refused their peak.
I find Dan -the holy man – has brought mana from heaven; condensed milk. We talk about options for the next day. He has had his heart set on a route called Sunshine Crack. I have seen pictures and think that he is insane for wanting to try something as bold as this. It is technically difficult, with few easy pitches, and follows perfect cracks all the way up the north side of Snowpatch Spire. I trust Dan, as I know he is a better climber than me and I want him to be happy to be here, as he was denied his climb today. Tonight I go to sleep with mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement. I am beginning to be know this feeling well.