What do you get when you combine Yosemite’s rock quality with glacier features? The Bugaboos — an alpine paradise with some of the best crack climbing in North America.
Climbers from all over the world have been climbing the Bugaboos for well over a hundred years. I first came in 2008. More than a decade later, I keep coming back. Breathing in the alpine air is therapeutic on its own, but once you overcome the crazy technical ascents and scale your first spire, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world. The perfect mixture of dynamic icy terrain and bulletproof granite rock make the Bugaboos one of the best rock climbing places I’ve ever been to in my life. Out of the many reasons to travel to this alpine playground, the technicality, variety and glacial landscape are enough to make you prep your ice kit and head straight to British Columbia.
Pros and Cons of Climbing the Bugaboos
The Bugaboos are a 482-meter-long (300-mile) range in the Purcell Mountains, located near Golden in the southeast corner of British Columbia, and they are truly stunning. Not only does the terrain offer some of the best crack climbing in the world, it will make you feel like a professional photographer. Its icy spires are so stunning, all you have to do is point your camera and shoot.
The Bugaboos are Jimmy Chin and pro climber approved
Almost six years ago, my buddies and I were getting ready to set up camp on the glacier not far from the East Creek Basin. We saw a helicopter swirl down and land where we were about to take a lunch break. A guy jumps out, North Face bags in hand, and apologizes for the noise. He turned out to be the professional climber Jimmy Chin. If you’re unfamiliar, Chin’s a professional climber and skier and also happens to be an incredible photographer and Academy Award-winning director. Soon after, the entire North Face team follows, including fellow climbing icons Conrad Anker, Alex Honnold and Rob Frost.
When they asked me what they should climb first, it was a no brainer. I suggested Solitary Confinement, a 5.11 multi-pitch splitter and my all-time favorite. Seeing photos of their crew at the Bugaboos Provincial Park on Instagram weeks later felt amazing.
The best Bugaboos climbing season is summer
The peak season for climbing in the Bugaboos is usually in August. Climbers frequent the Bugaboos year-round, but peak season falls in a pretty narrow window. I climbed at the end of July, and even then, it started snowing on us. Keep in mind, you’ll be climbing in a high-alpine environment that’s challenging on its own. You then need to factor in carrying five days’ worth of gear in your pack. If you decide to visit the Bugaboos in the winter, you’ll also find great opportunities for backcountry skiing.
Classic Climbing in the Bugaboos
Climbing here is easily considered one of the best places for rock climbing in Canada. The Bugaboos are also a great training ground for bigger alpine objectives, like climbing the North Face of Eiger in the Alps.
The Bugaboos are home to superb trad and alpine climbs evenly split across five notable spires. You’ll encounter the Snowpatch Spire, Bugaboos Spire, Pigeon Spire, Howser Towers and Crescent Towers. No matter what objective brought you to the Bugaboos, you’ll get a sample of accessible to technical climbs on these formidable rock spires. I’ll break down the highlights of what to look out for at each of the formations.
Snowpatch Spire is the most difficult climb with large walls and classic routes
When you think of the Bugaboos’ spires, you think of the Snowpatch. With over 50 routes ranging from challenging 5.8s to humbling 5.12s, the Snowpatch will not fail to deliver unmatched technical climbing routes. This standout spire is exactly what you came here for — trust me. Some of the classics include Kraus-McCarthy (5.9+), Surfs Up (5.9), Snowpatch, aka the SE Corner (5.8) and Sunshine Crack (5.11-). Most routes boast seven to 17 pitches that will test all of your technical skills.
If you can do only one route, head to Surfs Up, a 5.9 on the west face. You’ll have to push through three pitches with some less than impressive rock. As soon as you surpass the ledge, it’s all worth it. The last three pitches feature amazing cracks on stunning granite.
Pigeon Spire’s West Ridge is a must-visit Bugaboos climbing route
Look no further than the Pigeon Spire for anyone getting their footing with alpine climbing but who still wants to get a taste of the Bugaboos. The Pigeon spire spices it up by throwing in two boulder-and-aid routes. You’ll find a goldmine of low moderates, especially at the West Ridge’s beautiful knife edge (5.4). In fact, the West Ridge of the Pigeon Spire is an all-star for its position and exposure — even among the classics. If bulletproof rock quality wasn’t enough, wherever you turn you’ll see something stunning thanks to the Vowell Glaciers sitting close by. I try to head to Pigeon every time I’m in the Bugaboos.
Hauser Towers offer pure, alpine mountaineering routes
If other spires don’t pose enough of a challenge for you, the Hauser Tower will take it up a notch. Hauser is also the tallest spire in the park at almost 3400 meters (11,200 feet). Beckey-Chouinard is one of the most classic climbs in North America, if not the world. Ringing out at 5.10, this 609-meter (2,000-foot), 15-pitch wonder ascends up the whole height of the west face. Take your pick from the South or North Tower. You won’t go wrong.
There’s also an awesome route called The Big Hose, put up by the writer Jonathan Krakauer in the 70s. It’s a fun couloir climb, but you do need a helicopter to get there.
The Crescent Towers
Each and every one of the Crescent Towers’ pitches are stunning. The Crescent Towers are settled between Crescent Spire and Eastpost Spire, close to the Applebee Dome campground. Not to be confused with the spire of the same name, the towers are actually a series of five summits. Routes start at 5.6, so don your harness and warm up on the Lion’s Way or the Ears Between. Another climb you can’t miss, McTech Arete is a 5.10 that’s just the perfect mix of trad and alpine climbing. Even though there are only a few, Crescent Towers’ routes play an important role in making the Bugaboos one of the world’s greatest alpine rock-climbing centers.
Bugaboos Spire lives up to the name thanks to technical Kain Route
With climbs as classic as Bugaboo Spire’s, there’s no surprise why this 3200-meter (10,500-foot) spire bears the range’s name. The Kain Route will take you up the South Ridge. Even though it’s rated a 5.6, you’ll want to have a significant amount of experience under your belt. Reaching the Kain Route requires mountaineering skills. That said, the rock quality is stunning with ridge traverses and protected moves to lower grades. Less experienced climbers are wise to climb with a guide. I’ve seen many people get caught on top of these ridges. Plus, the weather is merciless. You have to be prepared for a lightning storm to appear out of nowhere and pin you down.
An AMGA Guide’s Advice for Planning Your Bugaboos Trip
The Bugaboos will cook up plenty of challenges for you in the form of thrilling technical ascents. You also have to hit just the right weather windows and know your routes. Even moderate climbs in the Bugaboos might require technical skills and ski mountaineering in the approach. To make this unforgiving alpine environment less daunting, here are my tips for the best Bugaboos climbing.
Do you need a permit to climb Bugaboos Provincial Park?
No permit is needed to rock climb in the Bugaboos. If you’re planning on spending the night in the park, however, you’ll need to get a camping permit and make reservations through the Alpine Club of Canada if you want to stay at the Conrad Kain Hut. Otherwise, Applebee Dome campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want to avoid making reservations — or sleeping above treeline — you can also find lodging in East Creek Basin, which is outside Bugaboo Provincial Park.
Do you need a guide to climb the Bugaboos?
You can climb the Bugaboos on your own, but much like you would for any other alpine environment, you’ll need to prepare extensively. It’s easy to get trapped on these ridges because they’re so complex when climbing down. The weather can come in and stop you in your tracks. Then, you’re stuck on wet rocks. The custodians will always bring a weather report to the campground or in the lodge, but it’s crucial you have and know how to operate a satellite phone. It’s a good idea to also carry a solar panel to charge your essentials. The cell service isn’t just spotty, it’s non-existent.
The remoteness of the Bugaboos is also what makes it so attractive. The benefit of climbing guides is that they’re able to plan routes based on your skill level, bring emergency equipment and are first-aid trained. Plus, climbing with the pros takes the pressure off, so you can relax and have fun while in this gorgeous section of the world.
How do you get to the Bugaboos?
You can get to Bugaboo Provincial Park off Highway 95 in British Columbia. The Bugaboos are in the Purcell Range, just 17 miles north of Radium Hot Springs or 48 miles south of Golden. You’ll know you’re on the right path once you hit a dirt road that continues past a lumber mill. Depending on the time of year you visit the Bugaboos, keep in mind, there is a high chance of avalanche debris and muddy roads. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
What gear do you need for Bugaboos climbing?
Being so far north, the snow in the Bugaboos doesn’t fully melt. As a result, you’ll need technical gear for mountaineering and ice climbing. You’ll traverse on glaciers, so you also need mountaineering boots with crampons. I do a combination of climbing shoes and boots to make sure I don’t get any surprises on the rock. Expect your ascents to be technical, even for lower, moderate routes. I find I can climb 5.7s in my boots, but I make sure to change into climbing shoes for higher grades. In addition to that, pack a trusty ice kit. Speak with a local guide and double check your gear to make sure you’re good to go.
How to prepare for the Bugaboos
Most people underestimate the Bugaboos, but preparation is key for these technical approaches and pitches. You have to be a seasoned climber who knows how to traverse across crevasses, glaciers and couloirs. It takes a lot of technical knowledge just to get to the routes. The Bugaboos can be an intimidating place to go as somebody who doesn’t have the skills to travel on snow. You’re traversing up very steep snow and couloirs, and that’s just to get to the base of a climb. You want to be very prepared by planning well in advance and tracking the weather ahead of your approach. It’s a pretty big production to go up there for even five days.
Essentially, climbing in the Bugaboos also calls for experience and knowledge on backcountry camping. It’s not as intense as it may seem if you know how to winter camp. It’s all about the right gear to stay comfortable in the high-alpine. Staying in the hut is a great option for anyone not skilled or interested in cold-weather camping. Keep in mind, you’ll need to haul up a lot of gear either way. You also want to make sure your equipment is top-notch because the weather will most likely be wet and cold.
My recommendations for where to stay in the Bugaboos
Where you should stay in the Bugaboos depends on your budget and comfort level. Many will argue that visiting the Bugaboos without staying at the Conrad Kain Hut is like not coming to the Bugaboos at all. It’s a European-style alpine hut managed by BC Parks and the Alpine Club of Canada. It sleeps 35 and is similar to a hostel with the space divided into bunk beds, a functioning kitchen and outside toilets. A particularly charming part of it is the small library equipped with books on the alpine history of the Bugaboos, as well as board games.
If you have a taste for adventure and prefer to stay closer to the routes, opt for the Applebee Dome Camp. While it is far less cozy than the Kain hut, it does have bathrooms, bear lockers and hangers for your equipment. The camp operates on a first come, first serve basis, and you can prepay for your backcountry permit online. This doesn’t reserve you a spot but it does allow you not to have to carry cash and pay upon your arrival.
Give your muscles some rest post-climb at Radium Hot Springs
There is nothing better than spending a day in the hot springs in Banff National Park or Radium Hot Springs after a week of intense climbing. Radium is a mountain village two hours away from the Bugaboos. The town’s motto is “the mountains shall bring peace to the people,” and after soaking your tired muscles in the natural springs, you’ll leave the place with a newfound sense of serenity.