Climbers Matt Segal and Will Stanhope had huddled in their tent for 40 hours in a driving rainstorm last August when they reluctantly decided to pack it in for the season. They’d been camping at the base of Snowpatch Spire in the Bugaboos in British Columbia for two months, attempting the first free ascent of the Tom Egan Memorial Route, a 1,500-foot splitter crack up the East Face. It was their third year on the route, and supposed to be their last, but July heat had shredded their fingers on the coarse granite, and a month later insistent downpours forced them to retreat. “We were mentally cooked and it wasn’t coming together,” says Segal.
Now they’re gearing up to return for their fourth—and likely final—attempt on the Tom Egan this summer. The pressure is on. Neither climber wants to throw in the towel after investing so much time and effort. But if they can’t complete it this year, the question becomes, is it even possible?
The Bugaboos in eastern British Columbia are one of the last climbing frontiers. These big walls are wild and remote, with all the thrill of Yosemite but without all the hype. At first glimpse, the steep peaks are so startling, they seem like a movie set—as if someone hacked off the tops of the Alps, shaved off any gentle edges, and deposited massive fingers of granite in the middle of nowhere, just to see if anyone would dare climb them. To tackle the spires of the Bugaboos, you have to commit. The season is short—mid-June to mid-September. The approach is long. And the weather is brutal, with drenching storms that settle in for days.
Early pioneers deemed the entire Snowpatch Spire unclimbable. The Tom Egan Memorial Route is one of the last great iconic lines, ascending for roughly 15 pitches up a crack that is the wildest Stanhope has ever seen. It’s been aid climbed (relying on gear to pull oneself up) a few times, but never free climbed (using ropes only for protection, not for support). Stanhope and Segal say they didn’t pick the route; it picked them.
Stanhope first swung into the Tom Egan in 2010, when climbing an adjacent line, and felt a lump form in his throat. “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,” he wrote.
If Segal and Stanhope manage to send it, it will be the hardest thing either of them has ever done, despite impressive climbing resumes.
Stanhope is a 28-year-old Canadian Arc’teryx athlete who earned his chops in Squamish and is now starting to make a name by free climbing big walls. He’s never seen a wall as sheer as the Tom Egan, which he and Segal lightheartedly named the “Drunken Dawn Wall” because you’d have to be drunk to see a route up it.
Segal, 31, is an athlete for The North Face and a Zeal Optics ambassador who hails from Florida, an unlikely place to hatch a world-class climber. After spending the better part of high school in the climbing gym, dominating the comps circuit, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, and took up trad climbing. His proudest moment: a first ascent of the 5.14 Iron Monkey in Eldorado Canyon, just outside of Boulder.
For the past three years, Segal and Stanhope have lugged a summer’s worth of supplies to the base of Snowpatch Spire and settled in, spending long days on the wall. Every evening, they hike an hour back to their tent, cook a simple dinner (provided by Skratch Labs) and take a shot of single malt, before retiring for the night. It’s been a practice in patience, seeking a line to climb.
The Tom Egan has eluded climbers’ grasps in part because the first 50 feet, below the crack, are on a face that is impossible to free climb. To find a variation to the aid route, Stanhope and Segal swung back and forth on a rope looking for holds. “We spent the first season (2012) looking for that perfect line of holds that would lead up to this crack,” says Stanhope. For a long time, they focused on the right side. Then one day, Segal spotted a crescent of holds to the left that led right to the crack. From there, things started to fall into place, and by the end of that first summer, the two had figured out and bolted the route.
The first pitch is a stout 5.14—almost as tough as they get—with handholds so tiny it took the climbers weeks to feel them out. “The smallest holds on the route are one-third the size of a finger pad, and you have to totally grip them for all they’re worth,” says Stanhope. The first pitch leads to a 5.14 crack pitch, immediately followed by two 5.13 pitches up a slim crack that barely fits a finger. The wall is so steep, a hanging rope hardly seems to skim the surface.
In 2013 and 2014, the climbers painstakingly practiced pitch after pitch, using a top rope, trying to figure out how to free climb them. When game time comes, Stanhope and Segal will alternate leading pitches, placing protection as they go. In one push, the full route will take two days of climbing, plus time for rest and weather delays.
“It’s super hard so it’s forcing us to up our game and become better climbers,” said Stanhope. Both he and Segal spent the better part of this past winter in Spain, refining their skills on really tough routes in order to be in tip-top shape come summer.
“A lot of climbers have talked about trying it, but it’s kind of epic so not many people have actually tried it. Will and I are the only ones to dedicate a lot of time to trying it,” says Segal.
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Climber Tommy Caldwell, who in January successfully completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan, can relate to the spirit of this challenge. “Climbers are starting to choose climbs that are bigger than they are, hoping they will be pushed to become a better climber in the name of reaching their dream. Those climbs become a life-driving force,” he says.
“I find the fact that they stick it out up there in a tent year after year incredibly inspiring. I think it is probably the first time that someone has taken on a multi-year big wall free climbing objective that is so far from a road,” says Caldwell. “It takes a incredible resolve and toughness to endure this kind of project for so long. I find that kind of commitment admirable above all else in my fellow climbers.”
One thing seems certain: The Tom Egan might be an obsession for these boys, but it sure is pleasing. And if they succeed, the achievement will lodge in their souls for the rest of their years.
“We’ve spent 50 days on that wall,” says Stanhope. “It feels like an epic saga.”
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @averystonich.