Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia contains within its boundaries some of the finest rock climbing in the world. Thrusting up into the sky from their glacier surroundings is a cluster of awesome granite spires – beautiful to behold, even more amazing to climb to the top of. It may not have the prestige of Yosemite or Patagonia’s Fitz Roy and many will never have even heard of it – but make no mistake, this is one special place.
When To Go:
July and August seem to be prime time for rock climbing though Bugaboo weather is notoriously unpredictable so the old maxim of hoping for the best but being ready for the worst – e.g. snow storms in July – holds true. In the winter the area becomes a heli-skiing heaven, with clients whisked onto the various glaciers from the Canadian Mountain Holiday lodge down below (see the satellite map for a graphic look).
How To Get There:
Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park is located in the NW section of a mountain range known as the Purcells, which is itself one of four ranges which make up the Columbia Mountains. Access to the Park begins with a forty-six-kilometer ride along a logging road from Highway 95, which runs down the southern section of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the valley which separates the Rockies to the east from the more westerly Columbias. Approaching from Golden in the north or from Radium Springs to the south, you come to a place called Brisco. It is here that you leave the highway for your 46-kilometer ride on a gravel logging road to the parking lot just to the west of a CMH (Canadian Mountain Holiday) lodge.
BC Parks has a useful pdf-format map. See it here.
It is a 4.5-kilometer hike to the hut and can be a bit of work if you are lugging a lot of gear and food in your pack. Along the way you get to climb up an aluminum ladder and hang on to a cable as you make your way up to the Conrad Kain Hut, seven hundred meters higher than the parking lot. It was a sunny day and the trail was dry the day we went up; doing it in the rain or snow would make it quite the grind.
The Conrad Kain Hut & Applebee Dome:
The Conrad Kain Hut has been there since the early 1970’s and sleeps about 50 people. An unexpected day of rain or a heavy snowfall and you realize how lucky you are to have this hut to come home to after you’ve done your climb of the day on the granite spires nearby. Space in the hut – your own foam mattress up on the second floor of the sloped hut – can be reserved by getting in touch with the Alpine Club of Canada National office; there is $25. a night charge.
Our group was made up of six keen and moderately experienced climbers. Our lead guide for the four-day face-to-face encounter with Bugaboo granite was Jim Gudjonson. Since he was born in nearby Golden, this area is where he learned to climb – and ski. Sharing the guiding duties with him were Andrew Langsford and Brett Lawrence. At one and the same time they inspired total confidence given their professionalism, while also creating a great team spirit thanks to the way their personalities meshed and played off of each other. That would be Andrew providing my head with a set of antlers. Jim and Brett are kneeling beside me. (Andrew and his wicked fast and penetrating wit are no longer with us; he died of cancer at the age of 36 in March of 2011. Without a doubt he is missed by many.)
2019 Update: The Alpine Club of Canada web page on the hut has this notice:
NO POWER AT CONRAD KAIN HUT The micro hydro system for the Conrad Kain Hut was completely destroyed by an avalanche in the spring of 2019. There is currently no hydro power at the hut. BC Parks and the ACC are working towards restoring power as soon as possible.[ See here for the latest.]
If the Kain Hut is full, or if you want a more rugged alpine experience, the Apple Dome campsite is available. A one-hour hike above the Kain Hut, it certainly puts you close to the action. These days it costs $10. a night to tent there. There is also a boulder camp just a few minutes below the hut; I don’t recall anyone camping there during our four-day visit.
We spent a total of four nights at the Kain Hut. On the first day, we drove from Golden and hiked up to the hut and took in the, to me at least, completely unexpected dramatic setting.
Each of the next three days focussed on a different climbing objective:
- Day One was a climb up the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire;
- Day Two saw Paul and I led by Andrew up Crescent Towers (the Ears Between route);
- Day Three had us take the Normal Route up to the top of Bugaboo Spire.
For a non-climber like me, these were all stomach-churning experiences only made possible by guides who exuded total confidence and who convinced me that it was indeed something I could do. The fact that I got to watch a fellow rope partner do it first also made me think I could- or should- do it too. It is funny what motivates you in these situations. The time in the Bugs represents the pinnacle of my rock climbing “career”! While I may have climbed higher, I have certainly not climbed rock faces as technical or difficult!
Day One: The West Ridge of Pigeon Spire rated a PD 5.4
(Click here for an explanation for different rating systems for levels of climbing difficulty.)
In the Atkinson/Piché book on the Bugaboos you read this:
The west Ridge of Pigeon Spire is one of the most appealing and enjoyable climbs in the Bugaboos. The route is neither technically difficult nor sustained but the position is truly superb and the line classic. (223)
We divided into three rope teams with a guide and two of us on each and had an incredible introduction to Bugaboo rock. As the following images show, we also had great weather.
Day Two: Crescent Towers – The Donkey’s Ears ( “Ears Between” ) AD 5.7
Our goal for this day as the climb up the face of Crescent Towers, in particular up to the two southern summits knowns as The Donkey’s Ears. It was not Andrew’s first time up and Paul, my climbing partner, was well on his way to becoming an excellent climber. And then there was me – keen but nervous as I looked at the route and tried to imagine my way up the steep face of the Towers. In the end, Paul’s encouragement, as well as Andrew’s advice and just-executed example, provided me with the extra juice to get there. (I will also admit to feeling the firm pull of the rope from up above on a couple of occasions when I had difficulty with a move or a hold. If nothing else worked, Andrew would have pulled me right up – and then high-fived me on a job well done when I got to the top!)
Day Three: Bugaboo Spire The Kain Route (South Spire) AD 5.6
Cathy and I got to be on the lead rope with Jim on this day, another great day in terms of weather, climbing challenges, and stupendous views of the Bugaboos beyond our route up to the top of Bugaboo Spire. The key moment in this climb was the Gendarme not far from the actual summit. A couple of images below show the isolated rock tower we had to edge around in order to continue towards the summit. A few months before I had read an account of a couple of climbers up near the gendarme just as a lightning storm got them to descend in a hurry. Nothing so dramatic when we were up there! With Jim up front providing rock-solid safety and guidance and with Cathy showing me how to do it with style, I was soon around the crux of the climb and enjoying the classic views from the top.
The Bugs and Patagonia’s Monte Fitz Roy Compared:
While the Bugaboos could provide keen hikers with three or four days of incredible views and possibilities, it is really more of a climber’s world. You need to be ready to deal with hiking across glaciers if you want to access all that the Bugs have to offer.
When I think about the fuss that some make of, for example, the Monte Fitz Roy area of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, I have to shake my head. What the Fitz Roy area has is not even close to what you can find in the Bugaboos – but of course, what it has is much more accessible to non-hard-core hikers. And to top it off, it is in mythic Patagonia as opposed to some obscure sub-range of the Columbia Mountains in British Columbia.
All I can say is that the Bugaboo area is one of the truly magical slices of the natural world that I have stumbled into.
High Col Press has posted a preview copy of Chris Atkinson and Marc Piché’s 2003 book on the Bugaboos. You can find it here. If you know what you’re doing then this book may be all you need to make your climbing trip in the Bugs a reality. You’ll also meet a lot of fellow climbers at the Kain Hut who will have first-hand experience of some climb you are thinking of doing.
Certified Mountain Guide:
If you are the keen novice that I will always be, you’ll want to hire a mountain guide who has been there before. The Rockies and Columbias do not lack for super-competent local guides like the three incredible guys who led our trip. Check out this ACMG web page if you’d like to know more about hiring a certified guide – or check the list of members of the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) to see if the person you’re thinking of hiring is on it. The Bugaboos is only a playground if you really know what you’re doing!
Current B.C. Parks Trail Conditions Report:
If you are planning a ride to the Bugaboos, a B.C. Parks post on current trail conditions from the parking lot to the Kain Hut and the 1 km hike (200-meter elevation gain) from the Kain Hut to the Applebee Dome Campground will be helpful.
The Bugs On Youtube!
To no great surprise, there is some great video to look at on Youtube. A few that brought the magical scenery and that feeling of climbing all back for me as I watched them were these: a Yamnuska video entitled Bugaboo Granite; Bugaboo Spire Rock Climb; an episode of Outdoor Research’s Classic Climbs which looks at The Beckey Chouinard Route on the Howzers. You’ll find enough other ones to while away a couple of hours as you feed that Bugaboo itch!
A Final Warning!
One more thing – this trip happened in 2005 and the images have been sitting on various computer hard drives for some time, buried under pix of yet more trips! I just know that I’ve got some of the peaks and spires mislabeled and that some of the info is plain wrong. If you see something that needs fixing, let me know. I’d like this post to be as useful as possible for someone contemplating a first visit to the Bugs. Looking at the pix definitely has me thinking about a return visit, maybe after a few days in the Jumbo Mountain area before the development down there goes ahead.