New Routes in Bugaboos and Canadian Rockies by Uisdean Hawthorn

© Ethan Berman

Scottish climber Uisdean Hawthorn has been busy making first ascents and impressive repeats in Canada's Bugaboos and Rocky Mountains over the summer and autumn seasons. Uisdean moved to Canada last November and has been making the most of his easy access to its world-class mountain ranges. In August, he climbed a new line with Alik Berg on North Howser Tower (5.11+, 500m) in the Bugaboos, which they named Voodoo Chile. This week, Uisdean established Running in the Shadows (VI AI5 M6, 2000m) on the Emperor Face of Mount Robson - the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies (3,954m).

Uisdean seconding in the excellent ice conditions.  © Ethan Berman
Uisdean seconding in the excellent ice conditions.
© Ethan Berman

Following his big move, Uisdean racked up some mileage last winter and ticked a list of classic ice and mixed routes in the Ghost Valley, Radium Highway, Icefields Parkway and beyond, including Hydrophobia (WI-6) and Cryophobia (M8), French Reality (WI-6), Storm Machine, Curtain Call (WI-6), and The Replicant (WI-6+). Uisdean told UKC:

'Ice conditions in Canada are always good - the hard bit is to not get frostbite or avalanched and remember that everything is choss.'

Having made multiple trips to Canada over the years, Uisdean is content to finally be based there for a short while. He commented:

'I find the size and scale of the wild places really inspiring. It's great to be able to live here for a bit as there are so many places that would be hard to do a trip to from the UK due to weather and logistics.'

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, spring and early summer was relatively uneventful for Uisdean, aside from a slight mishap. He explained:

'I bashed my head whilst new routing in the Fraser Valley in May, which stopped me climbing for a month. I had a helmet on and a bolt at my feet, but I still got a pretty bad concussion.'

Having recovered, Uisdean spent most of July and August in the Bugaboos when the weather permitted. He and Alik Berg had climbed All Along the Watchtower (5.12a) 5.12a in early August, which climbs the West Face of North Howser Tower - the highest peak in the Bugaboos. Uisdean explained:

'It's very similar to climbing the American Direct on Les Drus, except the big dihedral is even longer and more sustained. All the routes on this face require climbers to do several abseils into a basin below the face. Once in the basin you are committed to climbing 1000m up the face or a very long walk back round the other side of the Howser spires.'

Uisdean on one of the stunning crack lines on Voodoo Chile.  © Alik Berg
Uisdean on one of the stunning crack lines on Voodoo Chile.
© Alik Berg

Whilst scouting the abseils the day before climbing All Along the Watchtower, Alik showed Uisdean a line leading up a buttress. Uisdean told UKC:

'It started from a ledge on the very right-hand of the face, meaning that it didn't require the committing abseils, but it was also considerably shorter, being only 500m.'

The line of Voodoo Chile on North Howser Tower.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
The line of Voodoo Chile on North Howser Tower.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

The pair made a last-minute decision to head back in to try the line. 24 hours later they reached the camp at East Creek, before rising again at 4 a.m. to make the short approach and start climbing. Despite a dead end on the first pitch, the pair found a better way and soon were moving up quality rock and endless cracks. Uisdean described the route as follows:

'On pitch 4 Alik led a 5.11(E4) pitch that finished up a perfect hand crack on a mini headwall. I started leading but got stopped 30m up by a wide crack which required a number 6 camalot, which we didn't have. After lowering back to the belay, I tried going right. The climbing ended up not being too hard, but involved 10m of 5.10 crack climbing filled with mud and water. I was very tempted to start aiding, but we had freed everything else so far so I fought through the grime. A pitch later, Alik started off up a steep crack for 10m before doing a hard move left to gain another crack. He climbed this to a small roof/overlap, then holding himself in a very strenuous layback position, he scraped some black lichen on the crucial foot holds before he pulled over into the double hand cracks on the white headwall above. The double hand cracks were incredible! The climbing was very straightforward but steep with a great sense of exposure. Above this we climbed a couple of easier pitches and then moved together for 100m to the summit.'

Enjoying the double hand jams on Voodoo Chile.   © Alik Berg
Enjoying the double hand jams on Voodoo Chile.
© Alik Berg

Uisdean hopes the line will enable more climbers to access the peak. He commented:

'It felt great to climb the line all free first go and for almost all the route to have such high quality climbing. It's nice for others to have a less committing way to climb the North Howser, especially if - as so often is the case - the weather isn't good enough to commit to the abseils.'

Uisdean's Bugaboos ticklist:

  • Fingerberry Jam
  • Solitary Confinement
  • Furry Friends (New route on the Lost Pigeon Pinnacle 5.11-, 200m)
  • All Along the Watchtower, 1-day ascent
  • Voodoo Chile (20 hours camp to camp)

First Ascent on Mount Robson

Last week, Uisdean climbed a new line on Mount Robson (3,954m) in the Rocky Mountains alongside Ethan Berman. The peak's Emperor Face on its north side has seen relatively few ascents following Jamie Logan and Mugs Stump's first ascent in July 1978, but it has nonetheless been climbed by some big names in North American alpinism, including Colin Haley & Steve House, Jason Kruk & Jon Walsh and Marc-André Leclerc in his more recent, first solo ascent of the face in 2016.

Ethan had spotted a potential new line a few years ago and had scoped it out in June, but arrived to find too much snow to be able to climb. Uisdean told UKC:

'He watched the weather all summer and made an accurate prediction that the conditions would be all-time in the autumn once it had the chance to freeze and thaw all summer. It rained on the walk into Berg lake and stayed cloudy the evening before we started climbing.'

Running in the Shadows topo on Mount Robson.  © Ethan Berman
Running in the Shadows topo on Mount Robson.
© Ethan Berman

On the first day, the pair scrambled up easy choss to reach the mountain's "jaws" feature, following the original 1974 attempt line through the "jaws", before heading up and right into a new gully system and climbing around 14 pitches to the Emperor Ridge. Uisdean explained:

'In the gully system, we found excellent conditions of nevé, allowing fast climbing. After 500m, we hit a steeper band, but there was ice stuck thinly on a rising ramp system which I climbed, albeit with no gear. After easier-angled nevé, we hit the last longer steep section, which we had always been unsure of as to whether it would go or not. Ethan tried the ice corner straight above, but the ice was too thin to climb safely, and he sensibly backed off. I tried a steep corner on the right, it was full of snow, but it had a crack in the back so at least I could get some good gear. It was very awkward, especially with a heavy bag on. I bounce-tested two cams in the icy crack and aided on them for the last two metre to move quicker. It felt like climbing a scrappy Scottish VII,8 mixed pitch.

Ethan below the start of one of the crux pitches on Running in the Shadows.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
Ethan below the start of one of the crux pitches on Running in the Shadows.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

'The next steep pitch Ethan did a superb job on, it was an icy mixed pitch with a steep bulge at 55m he had two pegs and a tied of screw below him. I doubt if they would have held a fall. I reached the belay as it got dark. 'I think I just entered another state of consciousness' he told me. Another pitch of some bold ice climbing for the first half and with some steep mixed at the top. It felt wild leading something that hard in the dark after so much climbing below.'

Two more pitches of good ice in the upper gully system led the pair to the ridge. They climbed the face to the ridge in a long 19-hour day. By the time they had made a bivi platform and cooked food, they had been awake for 23 hours. The following day's climb to the summit was made more challenging by poor visibility. The ridge is long and involves an 800m traverse along 45-degree ice to avoid some 'huge, rimed-up gargoyles.' Uisdean continued:

'We pulled onto the summit after 12 hours of climbing. Amazingly, the top 10m of the mountain was above the cloud and we got to see the last glimpse of red in the west. We bivied on the summit and made the 3000m descent the next day. The last section through the forest was long and our bodies hurt, but I managed to settle into a rhythm and enjoy the feeling of being wrecked but having no other choice but to keep going.'

Uisdean on one of the last pitches in a brief clear spell.  © Ethan Berman
Uisdean on one of the last pitches in a brief clear spell.
© Ethan Berman

The route is named after the song 'The Chain' by Fleetwood Mac, which was playing full-blast in the truck as the pair drove away from Mount Robson. Uisdean wrote on Instagram:

'I turned back around as the speakers blasted "Chain keep us together, running in the shadow." Ethan and I danced and sang like crazy in our seats as the mountain drifted away in the mirror.'

Summing up Running in the Shadows (VI AI5 M6, 2000m), Uisdean told UKC:

'Alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies has a huge feel to it. Any big routes I have done here resemble climbing in the Himalayas much more than the Alps; this route was no exception. It is one of the wildest and most out-there routes I've ever climbed.'

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Uisdean Hawthorn is a Scottish winter climber and Alpinist with some extremely impressive ascents to his name. 

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