Dirtbag Dispatches – Mt Robson, King of the Rockies
by Derek Cheng
Shale. Everywhere. Hopelessly brittle, frail enough to dislodge with a strong puff of wind, and yet holding all of my weight on a steep face.
“I’ll just drop down one more move and take a look,” I yelled up to Kiff, my climbing partner, as we continued to descend the southern face of Mount Robson – the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.
This was meant to be the relaxed and groovy descent from an intimidating and dangerous mountain, but we were not on the proper trail and had been forced into unsteady down-climbing on the most dubious of rock types.
My boot-tips were on two small protrusions in the rock, my hands on even smaller ones. I lifted my right foot and started lowering it when, suddenly, my right handhold broke, sending my arm into a flail. Gravity swooped in, grabbed my waist, and starting dragging me from the wall. Below me, the hungry abyss opened wide with glee as my body started to cartwheel. But my left fingers steeled their grip and, desperately, pulled me back upright.
Breathe. I regathered myself, and then quickly clawed back up to the safety of the ledge where Kiff was watching, wide-eyed and a tad pale. “I just saw your whole body lean out.”
I sat. Smoked a cigarette. It was our last one, meant for when we returned to the van, but I needed it. Immediately.
We had approached Robson, King of the Rockies at 3954m, with a suitable amount of reverence for a throne that doesn’t yield its crown easily. The Emperor Ridge is not the hardest path to the summit, but nothing on Robson is plain sailing.
Firstly, there is the sheer size of it: over 3000 metres of vertical gain from the trailhead. Secondly, it is multifaceted, demanding technical skills on steep rock, snow, and ice. Thirdly, it has merciless weather, leaving climbers adrift in white-outs or storms, or simply gripped with terror below the wind-sculpted gargoyles of snow that guard the summit ridge.
We had been waiting for a weather window, and when it finally came, we packed light, ditching the tent, and taking a few ice screws, some rock-protection, and a 40m half-rope. We trudged along the 16km trail towards Berg Lake, passing gushing waterfalls, until we decided to cross the river. The northwest Emperor Ridge revealed herself to us for the first time, looking formidable, with dark clouds circling over her like demonic shadows.
We had been anxious about the river crossing, but as Kiff eased into the alpine waters, he sank only to his thighs. The fear of being swept away or saturating our gear became rather peripheral to the extreme sensation of freezing toes.
Above the river lay a thick forest, blanketing the approach to the start of the ridge. We found no cairns, so we simply forced our way through battalions of closely-packed flora. As a joke, we left cairns in our wake.
Awaiting us above were stacks of rock shards on low-angled slopes that had once formed part of the upper tier of Robson’s armour. Robson has been described, rather aptly, as one mega-giant cairn, and as we climbed higher, the comparison became self-evident. Several times, a hand or a foot would send yet another mass of rock tumbling down to join the ever-growing mounds of cliff fragments below.
As we moved higher, the Black Towers emerged. Clouds threatened, so we made a shelter with my “bivy sack” – a small tarpaulin – and sat. And sat. After half an hour, it seemed to disappear, but as we ascended higher, the skies opened. We rushed to a flat spot and, again, pulled out the tarpaulin, stabilising it with hiking poles.
As the wind throttled us and rain licked our jackets, it seemed we had put too much faith in the forecast. But it soon receded, revealing a spectacular view of the valley, a comfortable bivy, and the resplendent turquoise of Berg Lake. We settled in at the base of the towers, melted some snow to drink, and set the alarm for 5am. When it sounded and we raised our heads, we saw only dark, foreboding clouds brooding from the south-west. Back to sleep, then. When 830am showed little change, decided to head up anyway.
The rock-steps above the Black Towers steepened, demanding technical chimney and face-climbing moves on rock that often buckled under too much weight. I had one handhold dissolve in my fingers, but managed to keep my footing on the low-angled face. Higher up, snow and ice became more pervasive, and we soon had our crampons on and were ice-tooling up wind-swept ridges and narrow, white channels between rock ribs. The clouds that had worried us in the morning had, thankfully, disappeared.
After a tricky negotiation around some steeper ice and rock, we rounded a corner to behold … the infamous gargoyles – a mile-long row of mushy, unstable snow figures that, in another context, would have seemed quite beautiful. In John Peterson’s account of his team’s 1975 ascent – one of the few online accounts we found – he described the precariousness of the gargoyles: “The snow was extremely soft and, even with the entire shaft of the axe dug in, it still felt unreliable. The snow in the notches was so soft, the steps would often crumble into the void as we passed … we threaded our rope in and out of the gargoyles, hoping that they would anchor a fall.”
With little desire to dance our way around such a dangerous prospect, we looked across the west face to the Wishbone Arete. The face was baking in the late-morning sun, becoming more and more unstable every minute, but it looked far more benign than the ridge. We started traversing. Place tool, move foot, place tool, move foot. For 800m we traversed, a seemingly endless task, before spying a weakness and heading up.
We weaved higher, with 2500m of exposure nipping at our ankles. It was a remarkable position, a truly alpine environment, the fragility of our position hammered home by the need to negotiate the fewer but no less intimidating gargoyles of the upper Wishbone.
About 100m from the top, Kiff halted. A mushy snow bank blocked our way, and we had to step delicately onto the south face to continue upwards. I took out the rope, built a fairly questionable anchor out of my ice tools, and belayed as Kiff stepped off the ridge. He promptly sank into deep, bottomless snow. He heaved himself up, and starting stomping a trench, crawling higher metre by metre. When he ran out of rope, I started simul-climbing, also sinking unnervingly into the snow pit on the south face.
Above us was an awkward rock step to overcome, where Kiff placed a single, questionable ice-screw. I followed the rope higher, my thighs burning with fatigue, but the angle eventually acquiesced. I rounded a corner to see Kiff on the summit, a giant smile plastered on his face.
It was just after 1pm. The sun kissed our faces as we inhaled the contours of peaks all around us. A short time later, a pair gained the summit from the Kain Route, one of whom was a friend. We shook our heads in disbelief at how small the climbing world was, and exchanged chocolate.
We wished the others a safe descent and, shortly after leaving the summit, were engulfed in a Robson classic – the afternoon whiteout. With little else to do, we sat in the snow and nibbled food, hoping for the cloud to lift. After an hour with no respite, and with limbs starting to stiffen, we began digging a snow cave – a task neither of us had ever done. The layer of ice a foot below the snow was harder than concrete.
Just as our cave was becoming a dignified size, there was a sudden break in the cloud. Directly below us was a steepening drop to a massive void. To the east, I could see Little Robson, a small, craggy peak just above a shelter. We hurried down in that general direction, through snow slopes that hugged our hips, and were soon below the cloud that had quickly reformed.
We eventually came to the final, and perhaps most terrifying, objective hazard – the Schwartz Ledges, a rock traverse under a jagged line of overhanging, snarling seracs. I started down a snow slope to the ledges, but it quickly collapsed, trickling down in a snow stream. An avalanche slope. The rope emerged for a second time. Anchoring into the slope as best I could, I belayed Kiff until he could sling a boulder for another anchor. The slightest pressure would trigger a snow stream, but after flushing down, the path it left behind seemed safe to tread on.
Eventually we hit the ledges and raced across, wary of ice fall that could strike at any moment. There is something warm about the relief that embraces you as soon as you think you’re out of harm’s way. It was still light when we arrived at the Ralph Forster Hut, our bodies burning with fatigue and cloaked in weariness. We had earned to a solid sleep, but our efforts were thwarted by a rodent who, judging by the incessant noise, seemed intent on building his version of the Empire State Building under the floorboards. I couldn’t ignore it, eventually dragging my mattress out of the hut to sleep under the stars.
Spirits were high in the morning. We woke to a gorgeous sunrise, rose late, emptied our bowels in the most picturesque of outhouses, and eventually started descending. The suspicious rock made the down-climbing a bit shaky in places, but the angle was usually so agreeable that we stayed unroped.
If there were cairns to mark the descent, we missed them. We continued down, eventually coming to a steeper section of rock. I started down first, lowering myself into a crack just above a small overhang. I was clinging to the rock, but comfortable, so I thought I’d down-climb one more move, and then reassess.
Then, suddenly, my handhold broke, sending my body wildly to the brink, rescued only by the most desperate of grips by the edges of fingertips. After I scrambled higher to the ledge and flooded my body with nicotine, I surveyed the terrain below. Below the sharp drop was a sloping ledge, and then another sharp drop. I would have fallen at least 20m, with momentum maybe shoving me further down, down, down. The best scenario would have been serious injury. The worst wasn’t worth thinking about.
We abseiled off a tree, and then, leaving a pair of wires (protective gear wedged into gaps in the rock) and slings, abseiled the next steep section. As we continued down, I became hypersensitive to the possibility of crumbling rock.
Further down, we cliffed out again. With no suitable anchor to rappel from, we traversed for an age. Finally, mercifully, we spied a track which led us to a drainage, and to Kinney Lake, where we immediately stripped and dove into her cooling, healing waters.
After a final six kilometre trek, we were back in the parking lot and soon speeding east, glancing back at the glistening peak with a sense of disbelief that, a few hours beforehand, we had been tiny specks on that enormous mountain.
We focused quickly on the next vital task – beers and burgers. As we feasted in the touristy town of Jasper, the north face of Edith Cavell winked at us in the distance, its black face rising prodigiously. I snuck a look at Kiff, who was lost in his own Edith Cavell reverie, and I knew we would head there as soon as the next weather window arrived.
The lure of the mountains never stops. The next thrilling adventure starts courting you, before you’ve even returned home from the last one.