All Along the Watchtower

Carl and I had been getting about a bit. Chief laps, cragging, a new variation on the East Face of the South Nesakwatch Spire. It was time for something big.

With leave secured, we weighed our options. The Waddington? Nah. Princess Louisa Inlet?  Nah. Washington Pass? Nah. The Chehalis Range? Perhaps. Something on the North Face of Viennese? Maybe. Let’s pack anyway.

The heatwave rolled through and The Chehalis – with its solar-drenched walls and snowless ridge lines – was out. We rallied for a backup. Options were slimming.

Something further east at the very least, beyond the worst of the millibars.

Yep. Plenty of unclimbed rock on The Deacon, I think.

Primed, watered, fed, we galloped out of town.

In Keremeos, the mercury read thirty-eight degrees and the Cathedral Range was on fire. With the daylong approach, our water source unknown and the possibility of an unplanned self-rescue across the border into the US, the plan seemed uninviting.

There must be some kind of way out of here.

bugaboos

The Purcell range – the Bugaboos – were a surer, if a further, bet. Higher elevation, cooler climes. A known known, if not The Unknown we were looking for. They would have to do. And besides. I had plans with Splawinski to try the North Howser Tower the following week. The Pole was flying out from Thunder Bay especially. Why not get the rope and rack up to base camp?

Time to dust off the ticklists of yesteryear, Carl.

We angled north to Golden. By midnight we were at the trailhead. Atop the Applebee Dome, by three. Tent laid and in bed, by four.

Morning came and we woke to the usual Applebee scenes. Snowpatch Spire. The eponymous Bugaboo. The Crescent Towers, Eastpost. The Hound’s Tooth – the dog’s denture adrift in a crevassed minefield.

Later, after coffee, we packed and rallied. The late night on our feet had meant a just-as-late start. Nevertheless, we trotted off to do something. A forgotten rope realized halfway up the col confirmed our brains needed rest. It made more sense to chill, to brew the afternoon away. Do something big tomorrow. We returned.

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Applebee was full of “jokers and thieves”. Calgarians and Canmorons. Euros and would-be Beckey-Chouinarders. Voracious marmots with food-raiding predelictions.

We’d brought folding camping chairs and we made of them our thrones. Talked of plans. Sprayed and pre-sprayed our way into a self-constructed corner. Half-dolefully re-packed for the next day when we realized what we had done.

Sunset, darkness, first light. We set out for the North Buttress of Snowpatch. Sunshine Crack. “The best rock climb in North America,” I’d heard it called. It climbed well, especially the headwall – a sixty metre arcing whip-crack of fist-jams and finger locks.

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Satisfied, we returned to Applebee to resume our thrones. To hold court with friends in the dimming light. Come the morning, Kyle and Nina were headed up the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo with plans to climb it fast.

“We’re gonna leave early,” said Kyle. Six a.m was early round here, apparently. It makes sense in a way. If you’re in the alpine already, any start of any kind is an “alpine start” after all.

Rosy-fingered dawn came and went. In the end, we were away by seven. Carl dropped an axe early on-route. Rookie move but it wasn’t worth whining about. It was my tool but complaints to management wouldn’t have much effect on the customer’s situation. I was sure we could figure out a way to get down the col on the other side.

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The climbing on the Ridge went well. Simul-climbed everything, passed everyone, gave a nod to the long-dead Conrad Kain as we moved au cheval across dead-if-you-fell knife-edge traverses. Guiding clients up here on the first ascent in 1916 with hemp ropes and hobnailed boots was no trivial feat.

The descent went smoothly enough though the col was too crowded.

Too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

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The Applebee spray resumed and we hiked out the next day, a low pressure system inbound.

Carl was off to his cabin in the Cariboo and I was off to the shops to replace some ailing kit. The credit card came out and I didn’t much care to keep track. If Splawinski and I were truly going to go try The Watchtower on the North Howser then I didn’t want gear to be the precluding factor. What happened at the checkout seemed immaterial compared with the cost of a failed belay loop.

Business men, they drink my winePlowman dig my earth.

Leaving the city once more, I returned hillward. The fresh green fields of Chilliwack. The stochastic landslid layers of Hope. The lakes and lights of Kelowna – West and K-Town proper. University students and beach-going revellers. Fast boats, faster women and the fastest time between shotglass and hospital visit this far east of Whistler. Downtown Kelowna – especially its darker shades – looked about the same as usual. The sad, the tragic, the meth-addled – stuck down here in the valleys of the world.

None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word.

I fetched Splawinski from his family home in Coldstream.

Hey, hey – no reason to get excited.

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But we fucking were. Couldn’t help but be. Headed in as we was to climb All Along the Watchtower on the goddamn North Howser Tower. Twelve hundred metres of Bugaboo granite. An El Cap-sized feature in the middle of nowhere. Everybody whose anybody’s dream route. Big, cold, committing, rad. Some kind of excruciation probably mandatory. A true fête de souffrance awaited.

By mid-next-morning we were back in Applebee, packing for the following day. The weather forecast was perfect. Obscenely good. Unfair to the mountain, almost.

The thief he kindly spoke: “there are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke”.

As the sun slipped behind the summit of Bugaboo, Splawinski was fretting some. His life of late had been clinics and patients – the first year of a Thunder Bay medical residency. He’d been away from the rocks and the mountains for a bit so his questions were natural. Had we done enough prep? Had we adequately studied the topo? Not an invalid concern, though the double negatives were better put aside for now.

Sure, I hadn’t yet replenished all the carbs I’d burned the week previous, but I felt relaxed, well-exercised – comfortable at least with the current, hyper-local conditions in the range. Everything looked like it was good to go.

We talked strategy.

Leave camp at 2am – two men with their thirty litre backpacks. Cross the col. Surge over to East Creek. Rap into the North Howser cirque. En route at 9. One bivy. Hopefully find snow to boil somewhere on the ridge. Tag the summit. Off the next day or soon after.

Eight packets of energy chews, two protein bars. Silk liners for sleeping bags. We’d carry four litres of water as a contingency in case there was nothing to melt. Pretty damn super-alpine style. But were our margins too fine? What if we didn’t find any snow at all? Even on the summit? It was possible – and a potentially shitty, though survivable, eventuality.

But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late, hey
We slept, woke and moved. East Creek was a hive of waking bodies when we swept through at six – a veritable tent city with generators and Arctery’x™ athletes™.
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Watchtower
Atop the North Howser cirque, we found the anchors with which to thread our ropes. Rappelled, Rapunzel-like. Pulled the cords. Traversed steep snow to the base of the route. Committed to the monster.
Splawinski took off quickly, running the rope out long. I followed well enough. Challenging route-finding in the lower third led to a ledge. A brief rest and a gel and a moment to warm the feet in the sun. Splawinski took off again.
An offwidth – grunty with a backpack – then a boulder problem – not the best gear, bad fall if you whipped – before I led through on a long, disturbingly good hand crack. After, as the grade began to dip, we simuled till I ran out of gear.
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The day lumbered on and so did we, a pair of colour-coded vagabonds lost in the sky-vault vert. Halfway up, the route cut left and we could see The Watchtower – with its legendary corner system – above us. A looming grey keep, cantilevered at the top of the dihedral. The colour and texture of weather-worn alabaster.
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We continued. Then, an impasse. Splawinski had run out of road. The top of a crack. Above, a runout slab. To the left, an arête – crack-riven on the underside. Unlikely but maybe-probably-has-to-be climbable.
Reluctantly, I racked up and swung into the lead. A brass nut in a seam protected the belay and a splits manoeuvre brought me to the arête. Reaching round the buttress-blade, I fondled at something and committed. Up, above and over the rock protected poorly but there was no means or desire to down climb.
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Face-climbing edges and a traverse led to a bulging crack – perfect hands. Better protection came with better climbing.
A corner, which Splawinski took while my nerves recalibrated, led to the bivy ledge.
Half a metre wide and utterly wind-exposed. We settled in for the night – hot water warming our bellies before the evening delirium.
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Morning followed a typically-bad sleep and we brewed some more water, slurping through our supplies in the dawn-lit sky. The wind picked up and I led away. Slovenly grovelling up a chimney, my energy levels not what they were the day before. The shiver-bivy had sapped us. A more-than-real possibility that we were’t yet ready to accept.
Leading into and up the initial corner, I climbed to a stance and slumped. The pitches above looked hard. Finger-width cracks in a dead-vertical, perfectly-symmetrical, perspective-distorting dihedral. Forever.
Splawinski arrived at the belay, looking warmed up. I baulked. Something was wrong with my starter motor today.
Caloric deficit from my ramblings with Carl? Or was I under-slept and unrecovered? Or had I been pulling too many all-nighters for work. Cumulative effects. Or was I just making excuses for a lacklustre half-finished lead block.

Either way I felt burned out – frazzled, toast, pork crackle – my brain the hot mess of an old tire left blazing on an Outback asphalt road.

Valiantly, Splawinski took the reins. Indolent and in the back seat, I generously paid out slack and wondered when it would end. The corner continued. Forever. Amazing, other-worldly touching-down-once-in-the-entire-universe climbing, but forever is still forever and we still had a-ways to go.

All along the watchtower.

 

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The dihedral jogged left. The crux.

My lead. A free-for-few, aid-to-most undercling traverse pitch. Hanging plates of granite, riddled with offset pinscars. Zero feet, hence the aiding. With most of the big wall experience between us, it made sense for me to lead it. My amygdala functional but still a mess, I set out across the roof, flake-to-flake, with bounce-tested gear. Offset cams and funky wires – here and there old tat to clip. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

 

 

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I arrived and belayed then the Pole arrived and led through, whipping off in the final hard moves before the ledge. We reached the crest of the North Ridge in style. Rested. Shook hands – though we both knew there was plenty still ahead.

A ducking, weaving serpent of a ridge, in fact. We bivied in the early evening. Home for the night? A snowpatch-plugged wind-protected nook, with a view of the South Howser before us. Golden light on the Becky-Chouinard. The silhouettes of sundry summiteers rapping down the other side.

Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too

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The second bivy – though technically unplanned – was warmer, stiller, more hydrational. With flecks of granite dust in the meltwater, the Pole theorized we’d also claw back some  precious minerals. Doctor’s advice.

Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did howl.

Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.

Morning returned and so did morale. Summit-bound were we.

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We reached it swiftly and sat for long, warming our toes in the morning sun.

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In the distance, below us, layers of fresh smoke backlit by the rolling ridges. Above, an apocalyptic mushroom cloud – spewing forth from a wildfire in the Kootenays – hanging like a burning bauble over all.

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Hendrix played. Figuratively.

Nice one, Jimi.

The descent would be horrible, what with stuck ropes and double-crested bergschrunds to survive. But dammit, Donahue and Harvey were right about this climb. The wildcat did howl, indeed.

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Summary of Statistics:

Sunshine Crack (5.11-, 400m), North Buttress of Snowpatch Spire, Purcell Range, BC

Northeast Ridge (5.8, 1000m), Bugaboo Spire, Purcell Range, BC

All Along the Watchtower (5.11+ A2, 1200m), North Howser Tower, Purcell Range, BC

 

3 thoughts on “All Along the Watchtower

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