15/03/06: First Winter Ascent of Pigeon Spire
On Sunday, March 12, Marc Piche and I made the first winter ascent of Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos via its north face. During the snow-free summer months Pigeon sees constant traffic up its classic west ridge. A 5.4 ridge scramble, this is the most popular route to the summit of a major Bugaboo tower. However, in winter, this ridge has thwarted all attempts at a winter ascent. Double cornices, unsupportable rime and sketchy snow slabs hovering over smooth rock slabs turn this benign romp into an alpine nightmare. My partner, Marc, assistant manager of the CMH Bugaboo Lodge and co-author of the Bugaboo guidebook, had tried this many years ago and also got shut down. Our plan was to try the north face route, originally done by fred becky in 1948 at 5.7 A2. This forgotten route was most likely unrepeated as it climbs an unappealing wet, mossy gully in summer which offered perfect alpine mixed climbing in the cold of winter.
Marc and I flew via helicopter from the CMH Bugaboo Lodge to the west side of the Howsers and landed just outside of the park boundary. We skied over the Pigeon – Howser Col and down the Vowell Glacier to the base of our proposed objective. A couple hours before dark we managed to dig a luxury snow condo just below the bergshrund and crawl in for the night. The sky was clear and the temperature dipped to -30 Celsius. Getting up in the morning was difficult to say the least but we managed to be climbing by 8am. We both struggled with frozen toes and fingers making upward progress slow. A short snow slope gained the gully where Marc stretched our 60m ropes with some simul-climbing up the first pitch. The next lead had me tapping up a thin (2 feet wide by 2-4 inches thick) vein of water-ice. When the ice ran out steep rock with good drytooling and turf shots deposited me into a snow gully. Two pitches worth of steep snow went fast but the pace screeched to a crawl as Marc did battle with a tight squeeze chimney. A blank section had him stumped but he finally overcame it by lassoing a boulder from 10-meters away. More snow groveling and we gained the west ridge one rope-length below the top. We reached the summit at 5pm just as the last helicopter of skiers buzzed by then proceeded to rappel the route back to our snow cave at the base.
The next day we wanted to try North Howser Tower which also has never seen a winter ascent but whiteout conditions and a building storm convinced us to call it good. We packed up and skied back up to the Pigeon-Howser Col in a whiteout then survival skied down 1500 vertical meters of the Bugaboo Glacier to valley bottom. Soft climbing boots and 60 pound packs had us kick-turning and snowplowing down one of the wildest and most scenic ski runs in the world.
Summary: First winter ascent of Pigeon Spire, North Face (M6 A0, 8 pitches); FWA: Marc Piche, Sean Isaac, March 12, 2006.
Bugaboo Winter Ascents Chronology (none have been repeated)
1975: Snowpatch Spire via the Snowpatch Route by Heiri Perk, Walter
copyright 2004: SeanIsaac.com