This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 192 (March 2011).
The first 5.10 I ever climbed, the 60-foot Do-er-Fly, an obscure crack in the basalt rimrock of Eastern Oregon, took many toprope attempts and many hangs. Hang-dogging was derided as poor style back in 1985, but I needed to climb 5.10, the gateway to the classic routes I’d been dreaming of. In my 15-year-old brain, Do-er-Fly hinted at a whole new world.
On my first trip to the Bugaboos, I was 21 and working as a guide. During my many trips across the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col to climb the classic towers—Pigeon Spire’s West Ridge, Bugaboo Spire’s Kain Route—I always looked at the black north face of Snowpatch Spire, and the striking crack that it held.
According to my guidebook, Alex Lowe had plucked the line in 1980, 11 years before, with his partner, a certain mysterious S. Scott. They had named the climb Sunshine (IV 5.10+), an ironic title for a shady route on a north-facing wall.
The narrow base of that wall starts with a perfect white-granite slab wounded by a single splitter. As the crack gains height, the wall broadens and the rock darkens, streaks of black lichen tracing the frequent streams of rain that frame the first roof. Above the roof, the crack widens again and steps through smaller roofs, then several final big ones. The crack, a pure line to the abrupt top of the wall, winds at last through a wet-looking slab.
With each time I crossed the col, doubt entrenched itself and I always wondered if I could possibly be good enough to climb an Alex Lowe route.
The next summer, I decided to find out. One day, my partner Mark and I humped two big loads up to Applebee Dome and set up camp under clearing skies. That first blue morning we romped up the glimmering white staircase of the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo, traversed the summit, and descended to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. The shade line had already swept up the wall, cutting short Sunshine’s only kiss of radiant warmth. Feeling determined but queasy, we committed to the route by caching a rope and some rack near the base before returning to camp.
That night I lay sleepless on the rocky ground. My mind focused on one number: 5.10+. What did the plus mean? Could I do it? Could Mark? What if I fell and got injured? [Note: some new guidebooks now rate Sunshine 5.11-.]
It was barely light as we drained soupy oatmeal into our unsettled guts. The boulder-strewn approach was locked down hard, no trickle of water to break the frozen morning. Two hours later, my elbow pressed painfully into the walls of the initial offwidth, I panted and cursed and squirmed. Finally, I reached the sling belay, clipped in and slumped forward. This wasn’t even the crux.
A second wind got me five pitches higher, where I perched on a slab and stared out over the crux roof. I can’t do this, I thought. I know I can’t. The crack looked damp and slick inside—the roof too big, its lip too far away. I placed a cam at my chest. Exhaling, holding a knot of fear in my belly, I climbed two feet and placed another cam. I reached out almost to the lip, placed two more cams and palmed inside the impossibly smooth crack. I had used all my hand-sized gear already and hadn’t even pulled the roof. Panting, I clenched my cold fist below the top cam and weighted it. Feeling my skin tear a little, I climbed back down, breaths coming fast.
I stared at the cams in front of me. Those work, I told myself. They’re all bomber. Forget about them.
My world darkened to only the color of the cold gray rock. The crack swelled a little where I hadn’t noticed it before: A perfect slot for a hand jam. I took out one of the cams, re-racked it in front of my harness and stepped up again. I exhaled and reached toward the lip. Arms pulled tight, feet twisted, I reached up again, above the roof this time. Feet, I told myself. Feet.
I untangled my clumsy legs, and torqued a foot in below me. Feeling the relief of unlocking a sequence, I reached again. Mike whooped from below. I gasped and plugged my last cam in. Feet, feet. At this point I was able to move fluidly to the belay slings, bleeding hands stinging.
I sank into my harness, and thought about how this climb had been a year, perhaps even more, in the making. All the doubt that had formerly existed last night in camp, and this morning down on the col, was gone. I breathed in the satisfaction, and a warm feeling spread across my chest as the sweat on my palms dried, and the blood oozing from my hands started to cake. Mark swung through the roof, and the warm feeling dissolved as I started to imagine bigger goals and the next climbs that would themselves become gateways. My mind’s eye bounced from The Grand Wall to Wheat Thin to The Snaz: that autumn’s road-trip sprouting with 5.10’s I hadn’t considered possible before Sunshine. All suddenly possible, even probable.
Trip and Route Logistics
Bugaboo Provincial Park is an untamed wilderness of beautiful granite spires situated upwards of 10,000 feet. In North America, there’s no better collection of stellar alpine rock climbs. The Bugs are home to such classics as Kain Route (5.6) on Bugaboo Spire and Beckey-Chouinard (5.10) on South Howser Tower.
The Purcell Range of British Columbia, 150 miles north of far northwestern Montana. Take B.C. Highway 95 to the small town of Brisco, where you’ll head west on dirt roads following signs for the park. From the trailhead parking lot, you can see the Conrad Kain Hut at the end of a three-mile uphill slog.
Mid-June to early September. Weather is typically poor.
Snowpatch Spire (10,050 feet)
This dominant buttress holds over 50 routes from 5.8 to 5.12. The east face can be seen from the hut. Sunshine is on the north face, which can be approached by following the trail from the hut about a quarter way up toward the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col to a large, loose ledge. From here look for the obvious chimney/offwidth; the route starts just below.
Sunshine (IV 5.10+)
The first two, and the third and fourth, pitches can be linked with one 60-meter rope. All anchors are now bolted with Fixe rap rings, and some may have been slightly moved from their locations on the guidebook topo.
Pitch 1-2: Right-facing dihedral to a small roof. Then straight-in splitter for 100 feet. Crack widens to 5.10 offwidth and leads to anchor.
Pitch 3-4: Continue up crack, following it up and right, past anchor to a perfect hand crack to another anchor.
Pitch 5: Follow dihedral through an overhang up and right to belay below crux roof.
Pitch 6: Climb up to roof, place some gear, and fire the crux.
Pitch 7: Follow cracks up a left-facing dihedral.
Pitch 8: Jam exposed splitter hand and fist crack. Many people split this into two pitches, but it’s best to do as one 55-meter money pitch. There are two different finishes; going right is the best.
Double set of cams from .5” to 3”. Three 3.5” Camelots. One 4” and 4.5” cam (the 4.5” cam can be left at the first anchors and retrieved on rappel). Two 60-meter ropes to rappel route.
Steve House is one of the world’s most accomplished alpinists. He is best known for climbing the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat and a new route climbed solo on K7 in the Karakoram. Numerous groundbreaking ascents in Canada and Alaska include the third overall ascent of the North Face of North Twin in winter conditions, a hard new mixed route on Mt. Alberta’s North Face and Denali’s Slovak Direct in 60 hours, a record that still holds. Steve always enjoys a quality 5.10.