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BOLD NEW LINE ON NORTH HOWSER'S WEST FACE
Posted on: October 22, 2007
The Real Mescalito (ED2: 5.11+ C1, 18 pitches with lots of simul-climbing) on the west face of North Howser Tower, Bugaboos, British Columbia, Canada. Though this photo was taken in winter, the new line was climbed on August 13 by Joshua Lavigne and Crosby Johnston. A great deal of lore has surrounded the direttissima since the AAJ mistakenly transposed El Capitan's Mescalito (VI 5.9 A3-) onto the North Howser Tower and listed it as a new route. [Photo] Marc Piche
In August, Crosby Johnston and I managed to connect in the East Creek Basin, in the Bugaboos. We planned to meet in the early afternoon at the Brisco turn-off, each driving in from different directions. Arriving late, Crosby showed up on his Suzuki 1200 motorcycle. He looked like he had just lost an ugly match of paintball, with a spattering of dead bugs and dragonflies plastered on his chest and helmet. He had maintained an average speed of 160 kph on his five-hour ride over the Selkirks, his reflexes sharp and his nerves on edge. It seemed an appropriate state of mind, considering our planned objective: blitzing up a new line on the west face of North Howser Tower [see Issue 14 for the profile on the Howser Towers. —Ed.].
Our schedules gave us only two days—the length it takes most parties just to make the approach and exit. We knew we'd have to leave all the amenities behind and light a fire under our asses to get out in time. So Crosby threw his two small saddlebags, full of gear, into the back of my 1984 Volvo, and we raced toward the parking lot. We hiked up and over to the Pigeon-Howser Col that afternoon and restlessly tried to settle into our sleeping bags.
Joshua Lavigne seconding Pitch 15 (5.11+), just before traversing left out of the "elevator trap." [Photo] Crosby Johnston
The planned line in my mind, sketched together from four previous trips to the west face, connected a lower corner system (The Shooting Gallery) to the Seventh Rifle gully and then upwards into the cracks in the vicinity of the fictitious line, Mescalito (due to a mistake in the AAJ, Mescalito [VI 5.9 A3-] on El Capitan was transposed onto the North Howser Tower and listed as a new route, resulting in a number of subsequent confusions). We hoped the new line would provide a free route straight up the middle of the west face, filling in the gap on the topo where Mescalito had been drawn mistakenly. Nervous anticipation settled in as we prepared and repackaged our gear for the next day, paring down in all ways possible: no bivy gear, light approach shoes, a single set of crampons, one ice tool and one head lamp.
Our 3 a.m. start on August 13 brought us to the base of North Howser Tower's west face after three hours of negotiating steep and very tenuous conditions on the glacier. Going light always seems like a good idea until you end up in the predicament where you are descending hard glacier ice, on 55-degree terrain with a single crampon and one shared headlamp.
Lavigne seconding the crux pitch on the upper headwall (5.11+). The leader didn't free this pitch because of loose rock, some of which fell onto Lavigne, belaying. Seconding, Lavigne free climbed this pitch. [Photo] Crosby Johnston
The first section of the route, via Shooting Gallery, I freed last year to establish the fourth free route on the west face (Under Fire: ED2 5.11, 21 pitches). Since then I've climbed and cleaned the route two more times. This passage offers moderate 5.10 climbing on clean, splitter cracks and the best access to the upper face. We connected pitches and simul-climbed the first 500 meters, establishing ourselves on the upper part of the face by early afternoon. We crossed the Seventh Rifle gully and continued straight up the face for 200 meters of perfect fist jamming and stemming in a clean and water-worn, right-facing corner. Simon Meis and I had climbed this terrain the year before but loose, wet and verglassed conditions above had turned us around. It looked like the upper pitches on the face were going to be clean and steep—but getting to them would require climbing through several pitches of horrendously loose, wet and icicle-strewn granite. This section of the face was like a freezer box, with surface hoar covering the cavernous fissures and loose death flakes exfoliating off as we tiptoed by. Working our way up the right side of the upper corner systems, avoiding the center of the carnage, we found mostly clean and steep finger cracks. The climbing was sustained at solid 5.11 and required some sections of aid to avoid dropping rocks onto the belayer. Dents in my helmet, scrapes on my shoulders, and one throbbing bruise on my inner thigh coerced us out of this gauntlet of death. We skirted left out of the main corner system, which is the obvious continuous line, to avoid loose rock on the upper wall. We then re-entered back right into the obvious shaft for the final pitch. Crosby pushed the line up splitter cracks to the summit ridge in the early evening with only 100 meters of scrambling left to reach the summit.
Although a couple quality steep pitches wove through this granite choss in the upper headwall, we came to the sad realization that no amount of cleaning would render this route a classic. Nevertheless, we were exhilarated to have completed our goal. Eleven and a half hours after starting the climb, we had successfully completed a one-day first ascent of the North Howser Tower's west face: The Real Mescalito (ED2: 5.11+ C1, 18 pitches with lots of simul-climbing).We did not manage to seize the first free ascent, but there is always next year and many more cracks and corners strewn across the west face to explore.
Crosby Johnston leading the final pitch (5.10+) out of the "elevator trap" to the summit ridge. [Photo] Joshua Lavigne
We stumbled our way back to the bivy as the light faded. There I packed my bags, hoping that I would be able to descend before it got completely dark (I had no headlamp). I had added haste to our adventure from the very beginning, not because we had jobs to return to or appointments to make but because that summer each of us had become completely enamored with beautiful and captivating women—and I had a date. As I walked away from the bivy, I looked back and saw Crosby opening his sleeping bag and lining up his dinner. I wanted to stay and celebrate, but I trudged on, possessed by the thoughts of soft skin and warm embraces.
Johnston and Lavigne on the summit of North Howser Tower after their eleven-and-a-half-hour first ascent push up the west face. The climb marked Lavigne's fifth time reaching the summit via the west face. [Photo] Joshua Lavigne