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Chasing the Ethereal on South Howser Tower

Ethereal: extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.

[Photo] Jennifer Olson collection

[This post was originally published October 12, 2014, on Jennifer Olson’s blog.–Ed.]

There are only a handful of days in a climber’s life where weather, conditions and partner line up like the planets aligning to create a rare event: a magical first ascent.

Tim and I have more than 50 years of climbing between the two of us, and we both cherish this experience as one of the highlights of our climbing careers. Although we’ve never gotten paid to climb, the amount of work and sweat equity put into our passion defines it as a career.

We got to the Kain hut at midnight after making the last-minute decision to capitalize on an improving weather forecast and prime conditions. After sleeping in past our alpine start time, we were happy to meet our friends Jeff and Mike in the kitchen of the hut. We all agreed upon different objectives and went merrily on our way under starry skies. Tim and I couldn’t stop taking photos all the way up to the base of the route so we ended up being almost an hour behind our fast friends.

Tim McAllister “lagging behind after taking a thousand photos in the most picturesque place in the world,” Olson wrote on her blog. [Photo] Jennifer Olson

We had planned to attempt a new line farther left on the face, but we hadn’t expected to see the arrow of ice that drew our eyes and our hearts into longing and excitement.

The best and worst thing about attempting a new line is the not knowing. The uncertainty. Will it go? Will we have to retreat in disappointment? Will I find protection or even a retreat anchor? Uncertainty prevailed for the first half of the route. However, the excitement of a small child on Christmas day also filtered through the shadows of doubt. We were so psyched to be climbing such an exquisite line of ice in one of our favorite places in the world under clear skies — it was worth the risk of failure and retreat.

We melted some extra drinking water at the base of the face while we fantasized about the possible exits to the obvious gem of a line we were drooling over. We made a mental note of the options that would become less apparent once we were climbing on the wall. We found a super aesthetic line up through the bergschrund.

Olson starts up Pitch 3 of Ethereal, a ribbon of snice the squeezes into a steep gully above. [Photo] Tim McAllister

Tim started out the hard climbing through the ‘schrund with a pumpy start through icicles to a styrofoam ice ramp to the base of the gully feature. Very fun!

Tim put in a few pins and brought me up to his anchor. We could have brought more small cams on our route, but I was nervous about cams in icy granite still since my accident in Scotland. So Tim made short work several times with pins. I found the cams to be really solid in general on the South Howser tower and not at all like the humid frosty conditions in the Cairngorms. Bomber cams and pins gave me more confidence. Also, the combination of lots of drytool training and a passage of time has helped me trust myself again. We both agree that the longer we climb, the more complacent we get. We need to be constantly diligent — to double-check our systems and be aware when we feel too relaxed in this extreme environment.

(Top) McAllister follows the final pitch to the summit of South Howser Tower. | (Bottom) McAllister works through difficult moves low on the route. [Photos] Jennifer Olson (both)

I love placing a nest of gear…then my mind is free to try hard on the next difficulty. I enjoy the challenge of uncovering the treasures that are hidden by a blanket of snow: cleaning gravel or ice out of the cracks and finding a solid placement for my tool or gear. This can be a very creative part of climbing and integral to the flow of upward progress.

Pitch 4 I call the Crampon Dangler pitch. While belaying Tim on this pitch, I was witness to the ultimate in self-trust and a calm demeanor when the shit hit the fan. As Tim was moving up trying to decide the best route to gain the left-facing dihedral above, his crampon popped off his foot. It was dangling from his ankle while he negotiated a steep crack system. He made it another body length to a snowy ledge, hopping up his cramponed foot delicately while systematically hunting out pick placements. After placing a three-point pin and cam nest, he felt comfortable enough to put his crampon back on and continue up to a cruxy finish of the pitch — very improbable climbing that included hand jamming and dancing on small edges to a sling-and-nut belay at the base of the ethereal corner system.

Tim inspired me and left me no choice but to attempt the stunning corner above. How could I not step up to the plate after witnessing such bravery and mastery of climbing craft?

(Top) Olson leads intermittent ice through the crux of the route. [Photo] Tim McAllister | (Bottom) McAllister rappels back to the Bugaboo glacier. [Photo] Jennifer Olson

There was the potential of protection and good pick placements in the right-hand wall that kept pulling me upward. Also, the promise of lower-angle snice lured in my periphery. I love the challenge of finding the stemming position that will gain the next good pick placement, and the dance begins.

Despite the lingering uncertainty, there was a relaxed confidence in every movement up the icy face. Our belief increased with every pitch. The only question that remained in our minds was which line would take us to the summit.

I felt reassured knowing we had a Siltarp, stove/fuel/pot, soup and tuna, and puffy pants to save us from any unexpected delay or bad weather.

Tim’s pitch naturally led him up to the left. It made the most sense not to fight this continuous line of snice in a shallow corner system. We quickly found ourselves moving into the major lefthand weakness that led to the summit ridge. This 70m pitch flowed with occasional fun cruxes separated by lower angle snow and ice, spotted with bomber rock placements.

Tim suspected we would be on top in one or two pitches. I, the skeptic, disagreed. Sometimes, I really like it when Tim is right! Belaying from the summit ridge in the sunshine was definitely one of these times.

Ethereal (D+: WI4 R M6, ca. 1,000′), South Howser Tower, Bugaboos. [Photo] Jennifer Olson

Luckily, Tim recently guided the Becky-Chouinard on the South Howser Tower, so we made quick work of the descent in the deteriorating weather. As the winds picked up we methodically made our way towards the haven of the Kain hut. We used the Pigeon-Snowpatch rappel route and a cairned climbers trail around stopper crevasses on the Bugaboo glacier.

We are grateful to the stewards of the Bugaboos who install safe and efficient rappel lines on major trade routes. This allowed us to retreat from the summit to the hut in less than five hours and 14 rappels without incident. Thank you to Tim, a solid climbing partner. Thank you to the climbers who have gone before; letting us know what is possible. It’s a fat early ice season in the Bugs — go get some!

[Photo] Jennifer Olson collection