Going Big

Five wunderfamilies show how children are no impediment to real, no-holds-barred, self-supported adventure.

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

Here, in the chronicles of their trips—scaling a stormy alpine spire, biking a desert canyon, sailing through a remote archipelago, traversing a 12,000-foot pass, and paddling a wide, arctic river—families who stay together play together.

Bagging the Bugs: A mountaineering initation in Canada's Bugaboos turns stormy.

"What's that mountain, dad?" asked 13-year-old Ben. "Can we climb it too?"

I couldn't see the peak from my ledge, but did wonder where he got his drive. That day alone, we had already pushed hard for 12 hours, inching our way almost 2,000 feet up a cliff in British Columbia's spectacular Bugaboo Mountains. We had just summited cleaver-shaped Snowpatch Spire and I was exhausted, mostly from the anxiety of shepherding a junior-high schooler up the thing. Still ahead of us were several dangerous rappels and a long, steep glacier descent.

Fortunately, our ropemate, Rob Hart, enjoyed a better view. "Ben, don't you recognize Pigeon Spire?" he asked. "That's the peak you thought would be too easy. You've already climbed it!"

"That's Pigeon Spire? It's huge!"

Together with four of my closest friends, I had brought Ben along for a mountaineering education. He was a talented sport climber, and the four of us—who had all once been guides—wanted him to experience firsthand our own perspectives about more traditional alpine climbing.

After driving up from Montana, we started with a short but grueling hike, 2,500 vertical feet in two miles, to the Conrad Kain Hut, built by the Alpine Club of Canada and named after a turn-of-the-century guide who pioneered many classic Bugaboo ascents. This was a perfect base, close to several glaciers where we could teach Ben about roped snow travel, cramponing, and ice-ax self-arrest—essential skills he'd need for the week ahead.

Our first major objective was 10,450-foot Bugaboo Spire, a monolith that offered a famous, moderately challenging rock climb up its South Ridge—the Kain Route. This, of course, disappointed Ben, who was pushing for an even harder test piece. Still, as we approached the summit, he learned that the word moderately was debatable. At one point we had to sneak across a frightening, extremely exposed traverse that offered no footholds. Although rated a "mere" 5.6, for a long time it had been considered the hardest pitch in North America. Even Ben was humbled by Kain's hobnailed accomplishment.

Next up was the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, which we'd heard was the region's showcase climb, with fabulous views and exposure. Rated just 5.4 with good protection, it seemed a great place for Ben to practice high-mountain leading skills such as placing nuts. But he was outraged. "I didn't come all this way to do easy climbs," he pouted.

What Ben didn't yet realize is that sunny-day sport climbing is vastly different from alpine mountaineering. He'd soon learn that lesson the hard way, albeit under protest. Although we set off for Pigeon in warm dawn light, clouds began rolling in, and soon our goal was shrouded in fog. No wonder Ben didn't recognize this shapely spire when he later viewed it from Snowpatch.

After a brief debate about weather, we continued. At least it wasn't snowing, and periodically the clouds seemed on the verge of clearing. Once we were off the glacier, the rock was deliciously varied, leading up a blocky, sometimes sharp ridge with big holds that lured us quickly upward. We divided into two teams of three and climbed continuously, without stopping to belay. Instead, the leader of each rope would place enough nuts in different cracks—or slings over rock horns—so that there was always an anchor between each team member. The middle climber would pass these, clipping the rope back in behind him, and the bottom person would remove them. Every few hundred meters we regrouped to let someone else, sometimes Ben, forge the route.

In less than two hours we had passed two prominent false summits and stopped to belay the final, hardest pitch. Ben, who could climb 5.1 back home, begged for this exposed and dramatic lead. Since the weather still appeared to be holding, I let him try. At first, he did well. Then, just as he reached the trickiest moves, from which a retreat would be both difficult and dangerous, it started snowing—hard.

"Watch me!" screamed Ben, who suddenly noticed both the new ice on his tiny footholds and the vast distance between his feet and the glacier below. He needn't have worried about my vigilance; already my heart was pounding. Fortunately, Ben regained his composure and continued upward, powered by adrenaline. A few feet higher he finally grabbed a good hold, then scrambled to the summit, from which our companion team had already rappelled. After joining him on the very top, Rob and I assessed the situation.

Visibility had now dropped almost to zero, a wind was driving snowflakes due sideways, and in addition to shivering, Ben was getting a migraine. Atop a lonely Canadian mountain, these would be serious conditions for anyone, much less my 13-year-old son.

I fed Ben Excedrin and we started down. The other team was waiting beneath our rappel and they were equally worried. By now, two inches of snow buried every horizontal surface and we crept downward tightly roped. It seemed forever before we reached the glacier (which I kissed). When we finally reached the hut, well after dark, several other climbers said they thought we might've needed to be rescued.

"Not us!" shouted Ben, who'd recovered from his headache and was eager to recount our epic. A few days later he'd boast even more about Snowpatch Spire, which he finally admitted was as hard as he wanted to try. I've noticed that since then Ben has never again sneered about an "easy" mountain climb. I guess we elders accomplished our mission.


On Your Own Only Experienced mountaineers should climb in the Bugaboos without a guide. From the Bugaboo Provincial Park trailhead, hike about three hours to the Kain Hut at 7,500 feet. Make reservations for CN $18 (about US $12) a night through the Alpine Club of Canada, 403-678-3200; www.alpineclubofcanada.ca. You can also camp in limited, nonreservable spaces at the Applebee site, a ten-minute walk from the hut, for CN $5 (US $3) per person. For more info, check out Bugaboo Rock, published by The Mountaineers.

Guided Options Canadian Mountain Holidays (800-661-0252; www.cmhmountaineering.com) offers climbing excursions from its luxurious Bugaboo Lodge. There's daily helicopter transport to certain sites, including one near Pigeon Spire—making this an easy day climb. Three-day mountaineering packages start at CN $1,822 (about US $1,217) per person, which covers lodging, meals, helicopter shuttles, guide fees, equipment, and round-trip transfers from Banff. Trips allowing kids—some take them as young as eight—depart June 25; July 1, 13, 25; and August 6, 18, 30.

When to Go Mid-June to early September. The weather's typically more stable toward the end of summer.