I sleep in the next morning and Dan and I take it slow. Ironically named, Sunshine Crack faces north and does not catch sun until late in the day. It is cold in the Bugaboos, despite it being late July. Our approach is easy however and we are at the base by 11 a.m.
There is a party ahead of us and I watch closely as they start up the route. I want to know how hard it is, to gauge what we are up against. The first pitch looks straightforward but the second one is what I am dreading; a crack that starts innocently enough – finger size – but progressively grows menacingly larger until it is bigger than a fist. This is what we in the climbing community to call an ‘off-width’ – too big for hands or fists, too small for a torso.
While the team ahead is struggling with this beast I lead up the first pitch. This was determined based on the fact that Dan is an off-width wizard and we plan on switching leads every pitch. I am nervous but I dispense with my difficulties without too much hassle, trying to push away the pain of my cold finger tips. Once I reach my anchors and am safe, I ask Dan what he wants to do. It is so cold we have been wavering on whether to push forward or try another day. I can tell Dan is ready to throw in the towel; he is not a lover of the cold like I am. I look up at the yawning crack, beautiful in its immaculate structure. I goad Dan on the only way I know how.
“Hey man, it’s even more beautiful up close! If you aren’t going to lead it, I will!” I say. This is very cruel on my part, as I know Dan cannot resist this challenge. My ruse wins the day and in no time he is up and doing battle with the leviathan.
Off-widths, more than any other discipline in climbing, requires your whole body and a commitment to ugly, ungraceful, groveling. It is a full body workout. True to his form, Dan moves through the difficulties, making the whole thing look almost pretty. A combination of climbing these large cracks over the summer and seeing his graceful motions convinces me I will also slay the dragon with ease. I am wrong. Oh god I am so wrong. Halfway up, I have actually managed to get my entire leg stuck in the crack. I am in utter agony, screaming out guttural sounds I can’t help making as I try everything in my power to extract myself. Usually on a climb you are struggling to stay on. In this case, I can’t get out. With some very careful breathing exercises and happy thoughts, I manage to somehow yank my leg out.
“I’m FREE!” I think, before immediately putting my leg back in in order to continue upwards.
We are fully invested now, no time to recoup. I fight my way up, inch by inch, using sheer will-power and determination, until I am finally at the end. We are only one-fifth of the way to the top. We continue to swing leads – I lead the next one and then Dan after me and so on. Our bodies are slowly warming up and as we get to the halfway point the sun begins to reveal itself. We are delighted with the little bit of warmth we can feel on our skin and we finally shed our down jackets. Sunshine Crack finally takes on its name as we continue onward. By now we have huge grins plastered on our faces, as we begin to realize this may be the best climb we have ever experienced. Although it wasn’t planned this way, Dan ends up with the most difficult pitch, which involves maneuvering over a huge roof. Looking up at it, I honestly can’t believe it is even possible. The moves require a generous serving of upper-body strength, good footwork, and a mighty amount of core. I barely make it over.
Above us lies easier ground until the last pitch. By this time the people ahead have given up and are rappelling down. We are alone up here now. Finally it comes my turn to lead the last pitch. The description says not to use up all the big gear at the beginning. This climb is almost 30 metres of fist-size crack- fist jams over fist jams. Unfortunately, we only have three or four pieces that could conceivably provide adequate protection. This amounts to almost eight metres between my pieces. But we have come this far, and it is time for me to muster all the courage I have. To quote Mark Twain courage is, “[the] resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.” As there certainly isn’t any absence of fear, I must master it, focus on my fist-jams, my breathing and placing as much of my weight on my foot-jams as possible. I don’t want my arms to cramp up. I am examining the subtle size variation in the crack, trying to not use up my big pieces. But slowly and surely they are gone. I am trying to distance them as far apart as possible but as I move higher and higher above my last placement, fear and doubt creep in and I am forced to use another. Before I know it, I am at the end of the difficulties. All that lies between us and the end is a short traverse left and then a wonderfully secure hand-crack to the top. I pull over the lip and claim victory. Dan follows up and joins me in celebration.
I can barely contain my joy as I stand on the summit. I have now climbed three phenomenal alpine routes: three separate spires, three incredible climbs, three successes, all in a row. The contrast with our multiple failures in the Cirque of the Unclimbables is incomprehensible. The mind shudders. I know there must be some lesson to be learned here but all I can think about is how incredible this view is, how fantastic this all feels. I am in love with the alpine, with its perfect granite, its billowy vast glaciers, its peaks and ridges that offer views the mind cannot comprehend. I feel whole and a profound sense of belonging.
Finally though, we must depart. First this summit and then days later, the park. In all, we end up with one bad day of weather and I am able to summit two more peaks: Crescent Spire and Eastpost Spire. I am eternally grateful for the weather window we received and have a feeling I may never be this lucky again. Next year I hope to return and tackle South Howser Tower through the Becky-Chouinard Route. Until then, all I can do is revisit this place through photos, memories, and in my dreams..although, I hear there is good ski touring out here during the winter…