A few weeks ago now, on May 12th, I finally had the opportunity to tie in with Josh Wharton. I first met Josh in Patagonia in 2005, and over three consecutive seasons, watched him and his mates raise the bar, time after time. I observed, got inspired and tried to copy, and a string of my own successes ensued. More recently, he’s been making regular trips to my main stomping grounds - the Canadian Rockies, and getting amongst the big mixed routes they’re renowned for. We were totally psyched on the same types of adventures and frequently exchanged conditions updates and beta. We often talked about climbing together, but our schedules had never quite meshed until now.
As the weekend of May 12th and 13th approached, the cosmos seemed to fall into alignment. Not only did I have an ideal partner for a big alpine outing, but four days of sunshine were forecasted, with perfect temperatures, and excellent snow conditions all at the same time. I suggested we go to Robson, and we agreed on a hiring a helicopter to save us the half-day approach to its north side. This would hopefully allow us to be quick enough to climb the Emperor Face and have me back to work for 7 a.m. Monday morning, not to mention keeping our legs fresh for the excursion ahead.
So on Friday afternoon, I ducked out of work two hours early, drove directly from my job in Calgary to Canmore (all my food and gear was pre-packed), met up with Josh, and we were on the road by 3. Four hours / 400 kilometers later, we repacked in the Mt. Robson provincial park parking lot, agreeing to bring only enough food for a big day, mostly in the form of gels and bars (Vega of course in my case) and waited for Yellowhead Helicopters to show up and whisk us away to the other side. By 9 p.m., we were at Mist Lake, gawking at the Emperor face, which towered 2000 meters above us! Conditions were generally looking a bit snowy, so the route Infinite Patience seemed to be the most logical option. I had looked down it a couple of years ago while descending the Emperor Ridge, after climbing another line just to its left. Incoming weather had forced my partner Jason Kruk and I to descend the ridge instead of continuing to the summit after topping out above the face. What I had seen was a perfect strip of silver ice dropping for a long ways, and I knew at that moment that I would be back to climb it someday. Since Barry Blanchard, Eric Dumerac and Philippe Pellet had opened the route in October of 2002, it had remained unrepeated.
We made a small fire from the dry shrubbery around the lake to hang out by for a bit, and after a few hours of “sort-of” sleeping under a light tarp without sleeping bags, the alarm went off at 3. A quick bit of coffee and we were off, cramponing right from the lake on a well-frozen snowpack. A couple hours later, it got light at the first steep rock band, which is the hardest climbing on the route. I liked the look of a corner 20 meters right were the FA party had climbed, although soon I was battling up 80-degree snow, steep rock and run-out M6 for two pitches, wishing I had taken the original line. “We’ve climbed the crux” Josh said, “I guess we can go home now”. A lot of simul-climbing ensued across a snowfield, followed by some delightfully fun / moderate ice climbing, that weaved around huge snow mushrooms, to connect different couloirs and gullies. One of the more memorable moments for me was a fun overhang past frightfully detached, belay-threatening snow mushroom, that required persevering a relentless spindrift wave. I hesitated for a moment to ponder the 13cm ice-screw / ice-tool belay that Josh was hanging from 20 feet below, and the absence of any gear between us. Waiting for the spindrift to stop seemed futile so a quick wipe of gloves, and a couple of lock-offs later had me into the upper ice runnel. This continued for about six magical rope-lengths, and we began pitching it out.
Conditions were absolutely perfect. Where there was snow, there was just enough for secure bucket steps that had mercy on our calf muscles, yet not enough to cause us any concern for avalanches. Temperatures were very comfortable, and just warm / cold enough for optimal snow stability. The ice was generally soft and our ice tools bit securely into it with light one-stick swings ninety percent of the time. In other words, we were making quick and efficient work of the face, and having a good time doing it. The one drawback of the soft ice was that it didn’t protect very easily with ice screws, but between that and the lack of too much rock gear, there wasn’t much to slow us down.
After about 11 hours and 1700 meters of elevation gain, we were off the face and onto the Emperor Ridge. The wind was screaming up the 3000-meter SW face which made using our Jetboil to melt snow into drinking water an impossible task. An 800-meter sideways traverse was ahead, as well as another 500 meters of elevation to gain to reach the 3954 summit – the highest in the Canadian Rockies. The plan was to go over the summit and down the South Face route to the car. If we were lucky, we might even get to the Ralph Forster hut, which is halfway down and have a luxurious bivi. So we trudged on getting thirstier by the step. Going sideways for that far is tedious and monotonous but fortunately the snow was good and a few interesting moves around some snow, ice and rock features presented themselves from time to time. We simul-climbing all the way to the summit, switching off the trail breaking whenever the leader needed a break.
As we got closer to the top, the “gargoyles” which are the massive rime formations that tend to wildly overhang the ridges near the summit on all sides, got bigger and bigger. We climbed a dead-end gully right into the heart of them, but a straightforward way through didn’t present itself. Instead, more sideways climbing over steep Patagonian-like rime features and down their other sides repeated itself several times before we finally found passage to the top. The wind was nuking! Snow crystals stung our faces and after a quick hi-five and a couple of photos, we began the long descent. It was 8:45 and it had taken us 17 hours from the lake, making it the first one-day ascent of Mt. Robson via the Emperor Face.
The descent wasn’t easy and we were surprised at the amount of down climbing we had to do. The terrain was steep all the way to the valley, and very little of it was free of objective dangers. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time exposed to potential serac fall! Shortly after midnight we stopped in a sheltered spot for a short brew, as we were beyond dehydrated at this point. A little while later, we had made it to the yellow bands, but were lost in the dark and losing hope of finding the hut. It was now 2:30 and we needed daylight to find our way through the cliffs below. We laid out the packs and rope, and crawled under the tarp for a quick power nap. By 5 a.m., it was getting light and we were tired of shivering. The rest of the descent remained tedious, but went smoothly and by noon we were back in the parking lot, with 10 000 feet of descending behind us, and stoked to have had such a fine first adventure together. Although it wasn’t nearly the most technically difficult route either of us had done, it made up in pure physical burl factor, and was of extremely high quality. We would highly recommend it and I think it deserves to become a classic. Easily one of the best I’ve done in the Rockies!
Summery: the first one-day ascent of Mt. Robson via the Emperor face and the route Infinite Patience (2200m M5-6 WI4) JW / JW, May 12th and 13th 2012
32 hours from Berg Lake to the parking lot; 50 hours Canmore –Canmore return.
The North Face and the Emperor face of Mt. Robson from the heli. Our line is marked in red.
Josh hanging by the fire and scoping the face. There were about six hours to kill between the heli drop and wake up and go time.
Josh heading towards the some sweet ice and mixed climbing about halfway up
Josh, swapping leads and scoping. A snow covered Berg Lake below.
Josh following a pitch in the upper reaches of Infinite Patience, a little below the ridge. There were at lease 6 consecutive pitches of this nature in a row here.
Josh in cruise control mode during the six hour traverse accross the upper west face, eyes on the summit
Looking back at our track accross the west face. Can you see it?
Josh, about to head more upwards than sideways at last
Entering gargoyle country
Hopefully these crazy rime features aren't ready to succomb to gravity
Climbing through these things reminded us of Patagonia
Thumbs up on the summit! The strong winds driving rime crystals into our faces and preventing us to melt snow for water kept out summit time to about a minute. Only 10 000 feet of tedious descending to go...