British Climber’s Towering Achievement

Cumbria-based Leo Houlding teamed up with Canada’s Will Stanhope to ascend each of the three Howser Towers in British Columbia in a single day. It became an unprecedented feat of technical skill and extreme mountain endurance.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 10 Nov 2017, 23:34 GMT
Leo Houlding on the incredible 250m crux corner of the North Tower. The 1000m long climb ...
Leo Houlding on the incredible 250m crux corner of the North Tower. The 1000m long climb is a major one-day objective in itself.
Photograph by Waldo Etherington, Berghaus

For most climbers, an ascent of just one of the Howser Towers would be the highlight of an expedition. Each tower is a near-vertical rock face, a sheer challenge in a wild and exposed landscape. Get caught out by the weather mid-climb and there’s nowhere to hide.

But to attempt to climb all three towers in a single day raises the degrees of difficulty and danger exponentially.

“This type of climbing really is endurance, but it’s different to running an ultramarathon because it’s highly technical,” said Leo Houlding. “It’s not simply a question of grin and bear it, although there is a bit of that, because you still have to be performing at a technical level. It’s not one foot in front of another, it’s much more complex and if you blow it… you’ll die.”

Mountaineering’s elite have mulled the idea of linking the three towers into a single non-stop climb, but Houlding and Will Stanhope were the first to attempt it. Setting a 24-hour time limit raised the stakes higher still.

The linked-up route marked in red on the west faces of the Howser Towers.
Photograph by Marc Piche

To put the challenge into perspective, the Towers involve 58 guidebook pitches and 2,100m of vertical ascent; that’s the equivalent of six Eiffel Towers. In a game of rock wall Top Trumps, the three towers comfortably beat the legendary El Capitan Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, which involves ‘only’ 1,500m of ascent, albeit of a slightly more technical nature.

But the Bugaboos are in an alpine environment, which adds a whole new world of complications – including severe lightning and electrical storms.

“If you get caught out you cannot just go down, you are deeply committed,” said Houlding.

“It’s a huge amount of climbing in a vast, remote landscape. Any one of those climbs is a big climb in a day, and to do two in a day is an elite, international level of climbing. Doing all three in one day – well, I didn’t think we were going to do it.”

Unfavourable weather had hampered the pair’s preparations, but this is a climbing zone where too much practice can hamper progress, as Houlding's hashtag, #sorehands, testified. About 2000m of the 2,100m of their ascent was ‘crack climbing’, which involved jamming their fingers into finger-shredding cracks.

“If you wear your fingers out, your skin takes a week to grow back,” said Houlding.

Will Stanhope (left) belays Leo across the hardest pitch of the link-up on the 500m Central Tower. 
Photograph by Adrian Samara, Coldhouse Collective, Berghaus

The duo started their attempt shortly after dawn at 7am, beginning with the Central Tower, and reached the first summit after four hours and 20 minutes. A swift descent led to the North Tower, the highest peak in the Bugaboos at 3,412m. Its west face soars for 1,000m, and they didn’t reach the top until 10pm.

Climbing light, the pair carried no more than 1.5 litres of water on each ascent and relied on energy bars to fuel their effort, snacking on bagels smothered with peanut butter between each tower.

“The last climb was the easiest. But we could not relax and had to keep the pressure on. The faster you climb the more dangerous it is. If you start getting to the stage when you are slurring your words, you need to reel it in a bit, but we didn’t reach that stage. You really get a reawakening as the sun comes up, and that happened just before we got to the top of the third Tower. It’s such an energy boost when that happens,” said Houlding.

“The key to the whole endeavour was the partnership,” he continued. “Will Stanhope is one of the world’s best crack climbers, he’s a great guy, and we had a great bond. He was in better shape than me, so he took the lead on the harder sections of the climb. I’m more experienced than him in an alpine environment, so when it came to the route finding sections I took the lead. It was really efficient as a partnership. When he started flagging I was strong and could take over and when I got really tired and he took over.”

Leo Houlding on the 600m South Tower, one of the finest routes of its standard in the world.
Photograph by Adrian Samara, Coldhouse Collective, Berghaus

As the morning sun edged higher on the horizon, Houlding and Stanhope finally reached the summit of the third tower, stopping the clock at 23 and a half hours.

Assessing their astonishing achievement, a philosophical Houlding posted on his Instagram page, “We come to these places… not for conquest or achievement, nor even success and summits - just to be up there, higher in body, mind & spirit.”

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