[Photo] Reel Rock/Taran Ortlieb
Alpinist caught up with Canadian climber Will Stanhope, who, between August 11 and 14, completed the first free ascent of one of the world’s hardest alpine big walls, the Tom Egan Memorial Route (5.9 A3, Hatten-Simpson, 1978; FFA: 5.14, Stanhope, August 2015) over the phone from Golden, British Columbia. When we talked with Stanhope, he was taking swigs of water from a glass jug on his friend’s porch, rehydrating before heading back to Bugaboo Provincial Park to revisit the route with partner Matt Segal.
The Bugaboos, a sub-range of the Purcell Mountains in eastern British Columbia, contains sharp granite peaks, including Bugaboo Spire (3204m), the Howser Towers (3412m) and Snowpatch Spire (3084m), which scrape against clouds, offering climbers long routes up ridges and steep faces.
The East Face of Snowpatch Spire, named for a snowfield that clings to the southeast ridge contains several 12- to 15-pitch climbs, including the Tom Egan Memorial Route up the right side. Stanhope’s recent free ascent of the line makes it the hardest route in the range.
In 2010, 28-year-old Canadian climber Will Stanhope, while climbing nearby Power of Lard (V 5.12d, Lamprecht-Dengler, 1996), noticed an uninterrupted, three-pitch splitter crack on the Tom Egan route. On rappel, he swung over it, later writing on a blog: “Rough alpine granite barely wide enough for [finger] tips the whole way. Lower down, the crack pinched off into knifeblade nothingness. If there was going to be a way to free it, there would have to be a way in from either side, a grim prospect considering both faces looked almost completely blank to the naked eye.”
In 2012 Stanhope returned with 31-year-old Matt Segal and began working the line. First they worked out a sequence of crimps on a blank face that led up right to the base of the crack, solid 5.14 climbing with a defined crux move. Six bolts were hand-drilled to protect the 40 feet of face climbing.
The pair projected the route over the next four summers, spending over 100 days on the wall (returning to the ground each night), primarily on pitches 3 to 5. Stanhope redpointed the route over August 11 to 14, freeing all 13 pitches, including two 5.14 pitches.
Alpinist: What attracted you to it?
Will Stanhope: We picked the line because aesthetically it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a gorgeous chunk of rock–bone white to gold. If you like finger [tip] cracks, then this is the ultimate climb. You’re mostly placing purple micro cams, and drop in a few blue Master Cams. The route is unique because it’s not pinned out. This is the Bugs, not Yosemite. If it was in Yosemite, it would have scalloped-out pin scars like Serenity Crack.
Alpinist: You gave some interesting names to the two hard pitches–the Drunken Dawn Wall pitch [Pitch 4, 5.14] and the Blood on the Crack [Pitch 5, 5.14-], homage to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Can you describe the hard climbing on those pitches?
WS: It’s mostly moderate climbing [at the bottom] to reach the diamond-shaped headwall. [Here] the crack is described as a Shield-type crack–like El Cap’s Shield [route]. The first 30 feet of the crack was unfreeable; it’s too thin. Pitch 4 is the most insecure pitch that I’ve ever been on…it has this one slopey Gaston. That was the stopper. Then it’s consistently hard to the end..and then you downclimb to reach the anchor.
The route has two 5.14 pitches, 4 and 5, and two 5.13 pitches, 6 and 7. Above Pitch 7, the route follows Sweet Sylvia (V 5.12b, Luebben-Hair-Jackson-Harvey, 1997). The last pitches are a bit nebulous.
Alpinist: Did you and Segal swap leads on the free attempt?
WS: We were trading burns on the face and then once I did it, I took the lead from there. Matt toproped the cracks free.
Alpinist: Did you reach the top of Snowpatch Spire?
WS: We stopped a few hundred feet from the top. I wanted to solo to the top up these 5.7 hand cracks on this pedestal, but was watching a storm blow in. [Nearing the top,] I downclimbed and then the electrical storm hit [us]. I was [struck] by big chunks of hail. We were psyched to have helmets. It was the most ferocious minute of weather that I’ve ever experienced. We were getting absolutely nuked [by the hail].