Off the Wall
Freeing a Big Route on Snowpatch Spire
Bugaboos Hard Classic
The 500-metre high east face of Snowpatch Spire has been getting a lot of attention over the past decade and is quickly becoming one of the finest alpine rock faces in North America for free climbing.
What used to be a face known primarily as an aid climbing venue, is now covered in free-climbing lines, although mostly difficult ones, usually requiring at least a couple pitches of 5.12.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that almost every pitch is good. “I don’t think there’s another mountain in western Canada that can boast that,” said Jon Walsh, who has been putting in countless hours of effort over the past few years to free aid pitches. “Like a big crag offering pure rock climbing in the alpine, it offers an easy approach from the nearby campground, belays on most routes are mostly bolted, there are no ‘approach’ pitches, and there’s no tedious summit ridge.
The climbing is almost all traditionally protected, but most routes have a few protection bolts where cracks need to be connected by face moves and face holds are plentiful. “It has been one of my favorite zones for over 10 years now,” said Walsh.
After 20 seasons of climbing in the Bugaboos, Walsh was held back in 2017 by some injuries. Walsh credits Michelle Kadatz for pushing him to head back up to the campground to work on old projects. “We looked a little farther left than usual on the east face of Snowpatch and began to check out the original 1959 line up the face by the legendary Fred Beckey and Hank Mather,” said Walsh.
“Amazingly, this route had somehow escaped the free climbing fiesta the rest of the east face had received in the last couple of decades. It turned out they were quite dirty, but totally free-climbable and incredibly good. We cleaned heaps of wet moss with nut tools on the way up, and after just three pitches of climbing and prepping, a fast-approaching storm forced our retreat.”
Walsh returned with photographer Tim Banfield and climbed the first four pitches, bolting three stations, as one was already bolted. They scrubbed some of the moss and lichen off and rappelled down. That night, Craig McGee met them and the next day, they climbed from the glacier to summit before rappelling the west face. They made the first free ascent of the route in a 14-hour, camp-to-camp push.
“We used a left variation on pitches three to five, ascending a long right-facing corner to rejoin the line in the guidebook at the roof,” said Walsh. “This exceptionally fun variation had clearly been climbed before, as there were rusty pitons and a couple of old bolts on it. We thought the route as a whole was superb, especially the steep five pitches at the start.”
The pitches check in at 5.11+, 5.12-, 5.10-, 5.10+ and 5.10, followed by another eight rope lengths of fun 5.7 to 5.9 choose-your-own-adventure terrain. Word quickly spread, and the new free version of The Becky/Mather received another five or six ascents before the season was done, confirming the quality and the grades. “The route is a significantly easier free climb than anything else on the east face of Snowpatch,” said Walsh.—Gripped Opposite: Jon Walsh on The Beckey/Mather