Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park is a magical place and is one of our favourite spots in the world. Its granite spires are the perfect playground for alpine climbers. In addition to the amazing climbs, the area is unbelievably beautiful. Tall, dark granite spires rise high out of fields of white glaciers. It’s a spectacular scene. The really special part is that they’re kept hidden behind the front range of the Purcell Mountains and can’t be fully admired until you’ve hiked for over an hour.
Prospectors exploring the area in the early 1900s gave it the name Bugaboo which means a ‘dead-end’. They had expected to find an area rich in minerals, but instead it lacked any mining prospects. It’s good for us because the area was left in its pristine state.
Getting to the park involves a long drive on a rough gravel road and a hike that includes chains and ladders. The effort of getting there however, only adds to its magic.
We’ve been to the Bugaboos over a dozen times and are still stunned by our first glimpse of Houndstooth Spire above a field of alpine flowers. It is a breathtaking surprise.
The Bugs are known for long, trad-style climbing on sheer granite walls. Below is a collection of the climbs and hikes we’ve done in the Bugaboos over the years.
This large granite massif towers high above with Crescent Glacier on one side and Vowell Glacier on other. We love how the mountain looks completely different from varying angles. It has two popular climbing routes, Kain Route and NE Ridge. The first ascent in the Bugaboos was on the Kain Route in 1916 by legendary Austrian guide Conrad Kain. Because of the difficulty of the Gendarme section, it was considered the most difficult climb in the world. Today it is a classic and on the ‘must-do’ list of many climbers who come to the park.
With a commanding presence in the middle of the park, this large impressive spire has a small patch (5 acres) of snow on its face. It’s seen looming overhead of Applebee Campground and dominates the scene. The Snowpatch Route is considered a classic climb. The route takes you right beside the snowpatch on the way to the summit. It is a very long climb with 18 or 19 full rope length pitches so we began our ascent early in the morning and saw the sunrise alpenglow all around us on the mountain.
One year when we were in the park, Sender Films of Reel Rock Film Tour were filming the documentary ‘Boys in the Bugs‘, about the famous Canadian climber Will Stanhope. He was attempting a first ascent of a thin crack on the mountain’s face. We watched their slow progress from our tent. We even volunteered to help by carrying a load of their gear.
To access many of the climbs the best approach is through the steep Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. The pass separates Crescent Glacier from Vowell Glacier so getting to many climbs involves glacier traversing. Unfortunately, this pass is not safe every year. Depending on conditions, rockfall or a large, open bergschrund make crossing it dangerous. On these years, the approach for many climbs is hours longer because you have to walk around Snowpatch Spire. The photos below are taken on different years and you can see the change in conditions of the pass.
Located on the other side of Vowell Glacier, the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire is a very popular climb and often the first climb people do in the Bugs. It’s considered to be the best low grade 5 climb in the world because of both the solid rock for climbing and the spectacular scenery. The approach involves crossing the sketchy Bugaboo-Snowpatch col and then the long Vowell Glacier to reach the start of the climb. In the pictures below, look for the very small people crossing the glacier. It gives you a sense of the scale of these mammoths.
Another great climb on Pigeon is the North East Ridge/Miller Shepard traverse. It begins near the ‘Tail Feathers’, climbs to the summit and descends down the West Ridge. It’s a very long day, but offers incredible views.
We haven’t climbed anything on this massive spire but have admired it from many angles.
With a view of its Donkey’s Ears from our tent, Crescent Towers is always one of our favourites. The mountain is a chain of broken peaks separated into different towers giving it a rugged look. One of its climbs is Lion’s Way. It’s one of the easiest climbs in the Bugaboos and is often busy with a few parties climbing it every day. The final move to the summit makes for a good picture and the small flat summit is a great place to rest and enjoy the view.
Another fun climb on Crescent Towers is Ear’s Between. It climbs between the two towers that make up the Donkey’s Ears.
Located above Applebee Campground, Eastpost Spire Ridge offers dramatic views of the entire Bugaboo Park. The long ridge allows you to see the park from different angles.
Hikes in the Bugabooos
Even if you don’t climb, hiking to Applebee Campground is worth it for the amazing scenery. The hike goes up a steep moraine, slowly revealing the impressive spires. Once on top of the moraine, the flat campground is surrounded by Snowpatch, Bugaboo, Crescent and Eastpost Spires. It’s one of the most beautiful campsites we’ve ever seen.
A nice day hike from the Bugaboo parking lot or a more involved route over the Brenta-Cobalt Lake Spire Col takes you to this lovely spot. A small, blue mountain tarn hides in a tight cirque created by Brenta and Cobalt Lakes Spires. The descent to the lake can be tricky as the path is often snow or ice covered.
One year we hiked on the Vowell Glacier around Bugaboo and the Eastern Spires to Cobalt Lake. We saw an even more rugged side to this amazing area. The glacier is highly crevassed so we would only recommend this route to experienced alpinists.
About the climbs
There are hundreds of climbs in the park, most are accessible from the hut or campgrounds. Many of them involve glacier traversing which, depending on the year, can be complicated. This area deserves respect and climbs should only be attempted by experienced parties. Those without experience should use a certified guide. Even though the climbs are graded, everything in the Bugs is bigger. Climbs are longer and more difficult than you expect by their grades. Skills at route finding and topo map reading are a must as most climbs have no markings. The climbs are trad-style meaning that there are very few bolts or pitons. Climbers need to use removable protective equipment such as cams and nuts. This adds an element of danger to the climbs.
There is no cell phone coverage in the park or on the long gravel approach road. Climbers and hikers must be prepared to take care of themselves in emergencies. Satellite safety signals can contact rescue helicopters, but their availability is weather dependent.
Books with detailed information on this area are available and necessary to do any of the climbs. We use The Bugaboos by Chris Atkinson & Marc Piche; Bugaboo Rock, A Climber’s Guide by Randall Green & Joe Benson.
Where to stay
Alpine Club of Canada operates the Conrad Kain Hut (2230 m) as well as 2 campsites that are only accessed by foot. The hut sleeps 35 people on long rows of mattresses. There are stoves, pots, dishes etc, but you must bring your own food. (4.6 km, 700 m gain from the parking lot)
Applebee Campground (2480 m) is another one-hour hike above the hut, but its worth it for the views and the lack of being elbow–to–elbow with the other hut occupants. We believe it’s one of the nicest campsites anywhere in the world. (5.6 km, 930 m elevation gain from the parking lot)
Depending on what you are climbing, it may be better to stay at Boulder Campground, (2170 m) 10 minutes below the hut. Snowpatch Spire is more easily accessed from the hut or Boulder Campground.
Reservations are not required, but the hut can get very busy so booking ahead through the Alpine Club is recommended. You cannot reserve a tent site, but you can pre-pay on-line. Note that for 2020, the hut policies have changed so go to their website for current information.
Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park is located 340 km west of Calgary, Alberta but will take close to 5 hours to drive as the last 46 km are on a gravel road, and the final 3 -5 km are very rough. High clearance 4WD vehicles are recommended. The parking lot usually has a supply of chicken wire to protect your car from porcupines who will eat the rubber off your car such as brake lines. Details on the drive are available in the books listed above.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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