Canadian Rockies

Mt. Robson trip report

Tags: Posted on June 05, 2012

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...  


Uniform Queen

Tags: Posted on December 14, 2011

I climbed one of the best pitches of trad mixed I think I've ever done this past weekend.  The route was the Uniform Queen on the Stanley Headwall (very close to Man Yoga), and it doesn't get much better than its third pitch, which involves climbing a dead vertical hand crack and a thin smear of ice - at the same time!.  The hand cracks  for your right hand and foot, and the thin smear of ice is for your left tool and foot.  Hand jams in the right crack seemed to be the only way at times, which is a little out of character for the Rockies.  After about thirty meters of this, a small icy overhang needs to be passed before reaching easier grounded and the belay.  It doesn't seem to come in that often so if you haven't done it, you should go now!  The grade is M7…  

Thanks Gery, for the great day and the photos.  

 For more photos and Gery's website:     

"Uniform Queen" is marked.  The third pitch starts at the top of the arrow.  The fat ice in the middle is the "Suffer Machine".

Me following the second pitch.

Halfway up the third pitch.


Man Yoga

Tags: Posted on November 15, 2011

Dec.5 Update: To see Joshua Lavigne's nicely shot and edited 10 minute Man Yoga video, click here 

Simms on pitch 1 - photo: Joshua Lavigne

Jon Simms and I just finsihed a new route on Stanley Headwall named "Man Yoga", that spanned three seasons.  I put a total of nine days in on it and Simms put in seven.  This past weekend, we spun two laps on it, friday 11/11/11, and sunday for some photos.  We managed the redpoint both days and can finally call the 250 meter line done!  We were supposed to go up there the weekend before but while I was at the Banff film festival, Simms bailed on me via text message.  Jason Kruk was at the festival and chomping at the bit for a good climbing adventure, so we teamed up, and finished the line to the top of the cliff, but came up short of the redpoint.  We did get some pretty good photos of it on Jason's camera, and they can be seen here, along with Jason's account of the day.

Man Yoga (n):  may involve scratching around, getting pumped mentally and physically above natural protection on sometimes questionable rock, while searching for passage up steep virgin terrain, often a mix of rock, ice.  Man yoga involves commitment, digging deep, and on-sighting in back-country situations.  It could also involve scrubbing dirt off boulders or cliffs in full conditions, and / or ducking Roman Candle shots fired by your belayer, arms locked off with poor feet, beyond protection, while engaged in the crux sequence.  Etc., etc..   The term was coined by Jonny Simms several years ago while we were putting up the route Drama Queen - also on the Stanley Headwall, and has since been stuck in our vocabulary, and frequently used when making climbing plans or generally talking about climbing.  It has also been applied to steep skiing situations such as billy-goating down steep, scary snow faces, or just long full value runs in no fall zones, that require skill, tenacity, and a calm confident head to shred.   i.e.: "Let's go do some Man Yoga…"  Man Yoga is not limited to men - women can do it too, although it's far less common to see a women engaging in advanced man yoga, although fortunately, their numbers are indeed growing. 

The story of the route Man Yoga:  
Man Yoga became the name we used to refer to our latest project, and obviously it stuck.  In January 2009, Chris Brazeau asked me if I wanted to join him on a Stanley Headwall adventure to try and gain the obvious steep ice, whose access was blocked by a massive roof, about two hundred meters right of the Suffer Machine.  Naturally I was psyched, and despite the snow covered rock, we nearly finished the second pitch on our first try, via a natural line that skirted the monstrous roof on its left.  The self drive bolt, two thirds of the way up the second pitch marks our high point, and was the only bolt placed that day, after two long leads.  Amazingly (or not), there were no traces of any other parties visiting this crack system up this beautifully immaculate limestone wall, despite the fact the every person who has ever walked back to Nemesis or Suffer Machine has gawked at the ice above the stunning overhang.  Although we planned on returning soon, shoulder injuries from skiing prevented it from happening anytime too quickly.

Between October and December 2010, Jonny Simms was back on the scene after a couple years on the coast, and was in need of a proper man yoga session.  Brazeau's recovering shoulder wasn't up to it, so Simms and I returned five times over two months to the Headwall project.  We finished the second pitch, bolted the belays and added a total of 16 protection bolts to the second and fourth pitches.  It was way more bolts than we hoped to add (the original dream was for a completely natural line),  but the result is a safe and fun route, and it's probably at least as long and demanding as anything else on the Stanley Headwall in terms of overall effort.  We hope the bolts and excellent natural protection will encourage others to repeat it, and we highly recommend it.   We're definitely psyched with how it turned out, and building the route was so much fun.  The rock quality is astounding, the route follows a devious natural line, the climbing is sustained and always interesting, there's lots of variety, and the two pitches of ice at the top are superb.  It might be better in early winter when the thin ice is fresh and well bonded, and the rock is less snow covered, but it should be good right through until spring.  However, more snow will give it more of alpine feel - perfect training for more serious routes in the range.  Actually, it's steep enough that battling the snow isn't too bad as not that much seems to stick to it.  This November (as well as last season's ice), was far thinner than that of the winter of 2009 / 2010, so I would expect some of the bolts on the fourth pitch may be covered in ice on fatter seasons.  This will undoubtably make the crux slightly easier... 

The beta:

M8, approximately 250 meters of climbing in 5 pitches + an approach pitch.  FA: Jon Simms and Jon Walsh.  Special appearances, inspiration, and help from Chris Brazeau, Troy Jungen, Tony Richardson, and Jason Kruk

The route is located about 200 meters right of Suffer Machine.  It's a devious line that skirts the left side of the huge arch and then trends back right to reach the ice flow above it.  There is more rock than ice, on this route, and the rock is of excellent quality throughout.  The route is probably best in early season, but is climbable all season from November to April.  In times of good stability, it's much quicker to leave the trail in the valley, just as it starts ascending the south side, by crossing the creek, cutting through the trees, and ascending the fan directly to the base.

P0 - (the approach) pitch 0 cause we've never actually roped for it, although it is about 5.4.  Climb up two short chimneys with snow ledges between, until below the great roof (about 25 meters).  Make a couple of moves up and left around a corner, then traverse across about 30 - 40 meters of 40-degree snow, or third class in early season.  A bolted anchor can be found near the left side of this big ledge, on then left side of small cave that probably fills in with as the snowpack deepens.  Heads up on the big ledge, it holds a lot of snow and could avalanche.   5.4   70+ meters
(rappel 40 meters from bolts to ground)

P1 - Juggy dry-tooling, and hand-jamming on immaculate rock with bomber gear.  Climb easy terrain above the anchor with sparse protection at first, then trend right towards a shallow right facing corner at the left edge of the huge arching roof.  Climb this with excellent protection in finger sized cracks.  Sometimes the slab on the right gets iced up and sometimes its dry.  Pull a small overhang into a slot, and work your way up the crack that widens from hands to offwidth.  Pull through the roof and follow a 50-degree ramp for about 8 meters to the 2 bolt anchor.  M7  45meters

JW on pitch 2;  photo: Joshua Lavigne

P2 - The delicate face pitch.  Pay close attention to your rope drag - it's crucial to use lots of extendable draws.   Move out left from the belay and then back right towards a bolt, then up a seam past a fixed pecker.  Continue up a left facing corner until below a roof (about 15 meters).  Place a red camelot with a double length runner in the obvious splitter, and traverse right below the roof with good protection.  After about 10 meters of traversing, a series of five bolts and some delicate face climbing up parallel seams leads to the next 2 bolt anchor.  Gear to 2.5".   M7  35 meters
(rappel 60 meters direct to the big snow ledge, then traverse 10 meters back to the anchor at the top of pitch 0)

P3 -  Follow the cracks / groove straight up from the anchor, until it's possible to step right onto a good ledge and a 2 bolt anchor.  (gear to 4 inches)  M5 25 meters

P4 -  The crux pitch - careful of the rope drag - use your extendable draws wisely!  Climb up and right past a knifeblade to a bolt.  Traverse right along the ledge past another piton.  Continue up and right past 2 bolts until you can step around the corner and cross an icy slab.  Keep following the bolts up and right as they traverse below the big roof the ice drips from.  A right facing corner offers steep powerful moves with great pick torquing through the roof, and a pumpy move back left to a stance at the lip.  This will be a bit easier on fatter ice years.   Continue up mixed ground for another 8 meters, past a bolt and a knifeblade, looking for a small ledge on the left with a two bolt anchor.  This pitch is all fixed (11 bolts, 4 pitons,) although small rock gear might be useful for some people, as will ice screws on fatter years.  M8  32 meters

JW pulling the overhang on pitch 4;  photo: Joshua Lavigne

P5 - Proper ice climbing at last, and a fine finish - It starts with some thin, lower angled ice up a right facing corner, with good rock gear for protection, followed by a short but steep pillar to a stance in a small cave.  Straightforward WI 5 from here leads to the cave the ice flows from, and bolted anchor.  A single rack up to #1 camelot and ice screws needed.  WI 5  50 meters

Simms climbing ice with good rock protection on Pitch 5;  photo:Joshua Lavigne

Two rappel options exist.  Obviously rappelling the route is one, although the fourth pitch needs to be back-clipped to make it to the third anchor.  pull the ropes here, then another short rappel down the third pitch.  60 meter ropes land you on the big snow ledge of pitch 0, but 10 meters of walking is required to get to the bolted station.    Alternatively, from the top of the 4th pitch, make a 60 meter rappel straight down to a bolted station at a small stance, just above the lip of the big arch.  This station is about 3-4 meters left of the plumb line of the rappel.  This might be a bit of an intense rappel line if you're doing it for the first time in the dark.     Then make another wild rappel over the big arch, 55 meters to the snow ledge of pitch 0, 10 to 15 meters of walking to the bolted station.  One more 40 meter rappel to the ground.

Ropes:  Two 60m ropes.  Using doubles would be advantageous for reducing the rope drag, which there is a lot of on the second and fourth pitches, unless the leader does an excellent job placing extendable slings in the right places.  We used a single and a tag, but knowing the pitches helped, and we used at least 10 extendable slings.  The advantage is of course the ability to haul, and both climbers climb with less stuff on their backs and harnesses.  If you're hauling the pack, Hauling on the first pitch is best done, by pulling the haul line all the way up, and then throwing it back down in a more direct path to the belay.  It still may get caught and is best tied off as short as possible, so the seconder can help jerk it around some overhangs.

Cams: the following sizes are in BD Camelots, which is what we used
Singles:  #0 C3  (green);  #2 C4 (gold); #3 (blue) #4 C4(grey)
Doubles: #1 C3 (reds); #.3 C4 (blue); #.4 C4 (grey); #.5 C4(purple); #.75 C4(green); #1 C4(red)
1 half set of nuts
Pitons are optional but the route is set up for climbing without hammers, and there are several fixed in key places.
Draws:  16 draws -- 10 extendable and 6 quick draws, one or two extra double length runners

Screws:  7 - 10 including stubbies.  I guess the number depends on your comfort level leading steep ice after a relatively full day of climbing.  The ice gradually gets fatter the higher you get.