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Words With Sarah Hueniken on Bugaboo Alpine Camp

Sarah Hueniken is one of North America’s leading winter climbers, with repeats of difficult mixed climbs up to M14. She is also one of less than a dozen Canadian women who hold her level of Association of Canadian Mountain Guide (ACMG) certification. She recently returned from the Bugaboos in B.C., where she was guiding and instructing a group of keen women in the alpine environment.

How long have you been guiding? I’ve been guiding in the Bow Valley for 15 years, and prior to that worked as an Outdoor Educator for St. Lawrence University, NOLS and Outward Bound. Currently I run my own business as well as work for the Alpine Club of Canada and am an examiner for the ACMG guiding certification. Kir Knechtel, who runs the courses with me, has been a full mountain guide since 25 (the youngest to become an ACMG mountain guide), 17 years ago, and also is an examiner for the ACMG ski program.

When was your first trip to the Bugaboos and why are they so classic? I went to the Bugaboos for the first time in 2003. The Bugaboos are unique. They are a clump of extraordinary granite spires surrounded by a sea of glaciers. They are host to some of the best alpine rock climbs in the world at all grade levels, and truly have a beauty and presence that can’t be ignored.

When did you start the intro to alpine camp? Kir and I ran the first Bugaboo course with the ACC exactly 10 years ago. At the time, they weren’t running it every year, so we started to fill in the gaps. We have been running a course every year since.

How many women have registered every year? Our courses max out at eight. We want to keep the size small enough so that everyone gets a chance to be out front.

Do people travel from around North America for it? Yes, we had participants from the east to the west coast of Canada and the USA on our courses.

Where do you stay in the Bugaboos? We have been lucky enough to stay at the ACC Kain Hut. It is such a great resource, well maintained and a real asset for climbers and hikers alike.

What is the experience level of the clients? The course is designed for the novice alpinist. You don’t need any prior climbing experience to join, just be in decent physical condition, willing to learn and motivated to explore the area.

What are your goals during the camp? The course is structured around teaching skills and putting them into practice. We really want women to learn as much as they can about travelling safely in the mountains and leading themselves and others. It is not about getting up guided peaks, but learning how to come back and do it on your own. We cover map reading skills, glacier travel, steep snow travel and anchors, ice anchors and ice climbing, rock protection, rock anchors, short pitching and belaying, self arrests, crevasse rescue and rope ascension.

What routes id you climb this year? We usually like to teach a set of skills and then put them into practice with an objective. The first day we met at Brisco, drove to the trailhead, and hiked into the Kain hut. We covered some equipment and knot classes as well as glaciology. The next day we covered snow and glacier skills and then climbed hounds tooth with the participants leading the way. Day three we covered all the rock skills, from placing gear, to anchors and shortening the rope and short pitching, and then practiced it on the ridge of East Post. The following day we circumnavigated Pigeon and tried to do a Pigeon Feather (a steep snow climb) but the snow was far too unconsolidated and moist and so it felt unsafe. We returned down low and went ice climbing in a crevasse. The final day, we covered crevasse rescue and rope ascension and hiked back out. It was a full full days!

What do you think everyone will take away from the trip? What will you take away? Having heard from many of the women, it sounds like what they took away was an empowered feeling to keep learning the skills and getting out on their own and with other like minded climbers. They felt connected to the Bugaboos after spending five full days playing in them and felt motivated by their accomplishments and successes. They also really enjoyed the camaraderie of the group.

When is your next cap? We have one more Women’s Alpine Camp coming up in August. It is the Advanced camp and we will be doing the Asulkan Traverse- a technical traverse of many peaks, with our belongings on our backs. It is one of my favourites for sure. Next year, we will run both the Bugaboo and the Asulkan camps again, as well as an ACC Lake O’Hara camp. People can get in touch with Kir at kirstenknechtel.com and myself at sarahhueniken.com.

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