The Big R
Climbing the Emperor Ridge on Mt. Robson
PrologueThis is the story of one of those `experience of a lifetime' type of climbs. The kind that you will always treasure but never do again. Many climbers have found that their most rewarding experiences come from the recklessness, inexperience, and enthusiasm of youth. I don't think this sort of adventure will ever happen to me again - I now know better than to get so far over the edge. At the time, we felt we could climb almost anything. With an appalling lack of experience and great deal of luck we were able to climb one of the big routes of the Canadian Rockies.
The PlanIt all started with a bike trip. In 1973 I went on a two week tour through the Canadian Rockies with some climbing friends. The highlight was the hike to Berg Lake in Mount Robson provincial park. Of all the mountains we saw on the trip, none were as impressive as Robson. It's size, steep faces, and reputation made it the most impressive mountain I had ever seen. While hiking to Berg lake, one route stood out: the Emperor Ridge. Without knowing anything about this route or its history we knew this is what we wanted to climb.
Bruce was also on the bike trip and he too was taken with the idea of climbing Robson. The next spring, however, he got involved with some local `hairy giant superclimbers' and was invited on a trip to Mount Huntington the next summer. He succeeded in doing the second ascent of the Roberts route and came back ready to tackle more big peaks. Bruce was an ideal partner: he was fit, ambitious, fast, and level headed. Although he was not a strong free climber, he could get up anything one way or another.
Besides Bruce, two of my old high school climbing partners were interested. Jim and Dennis were in my high school class and we had all taken the Colorado Mountain Club climbing courses. We never really had any mentor to guide as our skills improved; instead, we slowly worked up through the grades, making almost every possible mistake at one time or another. We were full of enthusiasm and were eager for new experinces. We climbed both in the pure rock areas such as Eldorado and in the alpine peaks of Colorado. Except for an ascent of Edith Cavell by Bruce, we had never climbed on the ice or crumbly rock of the Canadian Rockies but that didn't stop us.
In the spring of 1975, the four of us decided to try the Emperor ridge. We had little idea of the history of the route or the mountain. Our plan was to leaving the trail just above Emperor Falls, where we cross the river and climb easily up to 8000 or 9000 feet and bivi. From here, the ridge steepens into a large triangular pyramid topped by the `black towers'. We would climb up the face of the pyramid, past the towers, and on to the ridge proper. From here, the angle drops and the ridge becomes a knife edge leading to the summit. The knife edge is encrusted with huge ice gargoyles 10 to 20 feet high. Almost a full mile of gargoyles stand between the top of the pyramid and the summit. Once on top, we planned to descend via the south face past a climbers hut. The only difficult part of the descent appeared to be getting past a large ice cliff just above a secondary summit called Little Robson. We didn't worry too much about the descent, though. The guidebook made the whole thing seem quite easy - a high bivi, a day up and a day down. Only a grade V! No Problem!
Our equipment was rather primitive. We all had good leather boots and hinged crampons. We each took an axe and an ice hammer as well as a small rack of pins, nuts, and screws. For the bivis, we had genuine `Mango Brand' sacks. Bruce used to create his own climbing gear (guaranteed for the life of the climber!) and he would buy a long chunk of coated nylon, sew the ends together, and call it a bivi bag. At the time, 'Banana' was a popular brand of gear so Bruce decided he could be 'Mango'. We had two one person sacks and a one two person sack. My only sleeping bag was a lightweight down bag (rated to 30 degrees! Wow!) so this had to make do. Our basic strategy was to climb light and fast. We all wore lots of wool to keep warm in wet conditions. Another part of the plan was to keep food weight to a minimum. We planned to take 3 or 4 days worth with us.
The TripWe left Colorado the same day of Colorado's Big Thompson flood. We could see huge, billowing clouds out the window as we flew from Denver to Calgary. We had no place arranged for our night in Calgary (Bruce thought we could find a hostel) and we finally had to camp behind the downtown YMCA in a downpour. The next morning, Bruce was able to rent a car (he was the only one old enough for the rental company) and we set off for the mountains.
Arriving at the Columbia ice fields, we decided to warm up with some ice climbs just behind mount Athabasca. We had good weather and Bruce and I cramponed up a 45 degree ice gully for 7 or 8 pitches. This was my first time on alpine ice and I wasn't sure of myself but with a little help from Bruce everything want well. I was suprised by the amount of rockfall - small rocks were constantly zinging down the gully - and the softness of the rock. Near the top where the ice thinned out the ice screws (those big sturdy old MSR screws) would drill right into the rock underneath. While we were climbing strictly on ice and snow, the surrounding rock seemed quite crumbly and loose.
We moved on to Jasper to do some more conditioning but the weather turned worse. We settled into a pattern of signing out for a climb each evening, waking up at 4am to pouring rain, playing tourist for a morning, and then watching the rain come down again in the afternoon. While there we visited the climbing ranger, Hans, whom Bruce had corresponded with earlier. Like the guidebook, Hans made everything sound quite casual. He showed us detailed photographs of the route and advised us to attack the pyramid and the black towers directly as that was `more sporting'. The first ascent of this route had only been a little over ten years ago and perhaps only 6 or 7 other parties had climbed our line. We were psyched!
Boredom set in and we resolved to do our waiting closer to the objective. We drove over the Yellowhead pass and were greeted with an impressive view of Robson. Having nothing better to do, we sauntered up the trail. After a while, we noticed that the usual afternoon rains were not coming in. After a short conference, we ran back to the car and packed our gear as fast as possible. In the fading light we hiked up to Emperor falls and settled in for our first night. It rained hard.
Day 1The morning dawned clear. We were ready to go! The first task was to leave the trail and cross the river. Hiking well upstream of the falls we found a place to wade across the swift, icy water that was less that waist deep. We wore tennis shoes and on the far side of the river hid them under a rock along with our shorts. After we finished the climb we could quickly cruise up the trail and retrieve them.
We bushwhacked a bit through wet trees and shrubs and the finally emerged onto the bare rock. Here the mountain was basicly a tremendous pile of shattered limestone. A friend calls Robson the worlds tallest cairn and we were about to find out why.
We gained elevation rapidly. There were a few cliff bands but these had easy gullies. After a while we encountered the 'Yellow Bands', a less steep area that was quickly crossed. Above the bands loomed the pyramid which forms the lower part of the ridge. The pyramid was cut be numerous horizontal ledge systems and a few gullies in its lower part. On the left was the (then unclimbed) Emperor Face - a truely horrific looking place. Around the corner on the right was the south-west face, a more gentle slope. Below was Berg Lake, getting smaller and smaller as we climbed. However, the top of the pyramid didn't seem to get much closer! We engaged the pyramid via one of the small snow gullies. This went up 4 or 5 hundred feet and then we started rock climbing.
The climbing was easy but absurdly loose. Anchors and protection were
almost always dubious. Our standard belay calls became
'Is the anchor any good?'
'Shut up and don't fall'
'Oh well. Climbing!'
About half way up the pyramid a vertical step blocked our progress. As we traversed right clouds rolled in and a heavy rain started. Fortunately, the step contained some large roofs and we were able to stay moderately dry. By evening the rain stopped and we set up camp. We were probably at around 9000', and the top of the mountain was about 13000'. In spite of the cliff above we were convinced we would be on top the next day and settled in for the night.
Day 2The view at sunrise was stunning. Whitehorn, the mountain across the valley, was bathed in a reddish glow. We were already as high as all of the surrounding peaks except Whitehorn. After a brief breakfast, we started hunting for a way past the wall above our camp. This barrier extended all the way across the pyramid. We split up into two teams: Jim and Dennis wanted to try climbing straight up the cliff behind our camp via a small crack system while Bruce and I traversed right looking for a break in the cliffs. After traversing for a while, Bruce and I heard Jim franticly screaming that he was going to fall. We looked back and saw him just topping out on the cliff band. Unfortunately, all the rock at the top was verglassed and he was having difficulty with the last step onto the ledge. Eventually he established himself on the icy ledge and managed to put in an anchor. Actually, he put in 6 or 7 anchors and decided one or two might hold. This pitch turned out to be about 5.7 and we all followed him and hauled our packs.
From here, the climbing began to fall into a simple pattern. Small walls with rubble and ice covered ledges below. The small bands of snow on the ledges were rock hard and we found we needed to crampon up even the smallest snowpatches. Eventually we decided it was easier to do all the rock climbing in crampons instead of trying to cross snow without. No footfangs back then - taking the crampons on and off was a major chore. We also found that the rock climbing was not so bad in crampons - the soft limestone didn't seem to dull the points at all.
About 1000 feet up we encountered our only band of solid rock. It was only 20 or 30 feet high and we decided this was an awfully long approach to a very short bit of worthwhile rock climbing! The clouds began to thicken and we alternated between sun and shade. When the sun poked out we would try to dry out our wet gear from the previous days storm.
The angle began to steepen. We eventually moved to the left side of the pyramid and were getting close to the black towers. Around this time we began to think about the impossibility of retreat. Rapping down was out of the question given the small amount of gear and the unreliability of the anchors. Perhaps we could have traversed right to the southwest face but we couldn't see what was over there. We began to feel extremely committed to the route and the descent over the summit.
The climbing was slow but moderate. As darkness approached and the clouds rolled in we found a small ledge among the black towers on the left side of the pyramid. A large boulder frozen into the snow on the ledge served as our anchor. We were on top of one of the lesser towers and more of them loomed above. We still expected to get to the top and down the next day and were not worried about our slower than expected pace.
The bivouac was cold and uncomfortable. I don't recall any rain but it was cloudy all night. We never took off any clothes or boots at night - we just jumped into the sleeping bag and bivi sack with everything on to keep warm.
Day 3We woke up surrounded in cloud. Although the weather looked poor, we had no choice but to go up. Just above our ledge was a vertical chimney, iced at the back, leading up the left edge of the final black towers. It was my lead. The chimney was wet and hard to protect. I was able to get shallow ice screws in but these were probably as useless as most of the other protection we put in. After a long struggle I arrived in a funnel shaped snow bowl with a fixed piton in the cliff at the back. Nobody else wanted to lead the chimney so after Bruce came up we threw the rope down to Jim. Once Jim arrived Bruce started the next pitch, a lower angle continuation of the chimney. Higher up, Bruce traversed out of the chimney toward easy snow on the left. As he started to mantle onto a ledge he suddenly yelled for us to watch out. A large boulder on the ledge was starting to slip off and Bruce couldn't push it back.
Dennis was in the worst possible location when this happened. Almost to the top of the chimney, he was right at the neck of the snow funnel. The rock started to roll and hit the snow. It broke into three pieces. Dennis put his arms up over his head to protect it. We were not wearing helmets (BIG MISTAKE!) because we were on a ridge and we didn't think rockfall would be a problem. The first piece hit his wrist, chipping a bone. The next two hit him squarely on the head, leaving him dazed. We quickly brought him up under the shelter of the cliff and looked him over. His wrist and head hurt but there was no bleeding. We wrapped his wrist up in a tight spiral of webbing and let him rest for a while.
After finishing Bruce's pitch we were pleased to find the climbing had turned into easy snow. We soon gained the crest of the ridge above the towers and were ready to blast for the top. However, we soon found the ridge blocked by a sheer black cliff about 300' high. The sun had never come out and it was difficult to see where to go in the fog. Eventually we were able to reach an ice gully on the right side leading up to the ridge crest again. Once back on the crest we noticed that the light was fading - a whole day had passed and we had gained only 1000 feet. With a mile of gargoyles remaining it was obvious it would take another day to reach the top.
Fortunately the ice in the gully we had just climbed provided good anchors. We chopped a ledge in the ice about the width of a park bench and placed a screw at either end. By stringing a rope between the two screws we created a safety belt to keep us in place overnight. Since we were unable to lay down, it was our most uncomfortable bivi yet. Occasionally we would hear small avalanches sweeping down the Emperor Face just behind us but otherwise the night was cold, cloudy, and still.
Day 4Again the mountain was encased in cloud when we woke up. After a small breakfast, we began to work our way along the knife edge of the ridge. Initially, no gargoyles were present but the ridge was corniced and had occasional small rock steps, one of which required digging through a cornice. The fog obscured the drop on either side however we knew it was about 8000' on the left side down the SW face and 5000' on the right down the Emperor face. After our bivi, we never encountered solid anchors. The rock was deep under the snow and rotten and the snow itself was soft and air-filled. The only possibility for a belay was the `ridge belay'. That is, if your partner falls left you jump right. I wondered if I would really have the guts to take the jump if my partner fell.
As the strongest climber, Bruce took Dennis since he was still suffering from the concussion and wrist injury. Jim and I followed for a while but soon Bruce asked me to join him. A 20' wall blocked the ridge. To the right, the wall continued into the mist as far as we could see. On the left, it merged with the steep snow and ice of the face. Bruce and I searched for weaknesses. There were no cracks for our pins and the snow was soft. I thought I could aid it but the wall was blank. There was no question of retreating - we had no idea how to reverse our route. Finally, Bruce told me to watch him (with no anchors of course!) and traversed left on to the emperor face. He slowly climbed the mixed loose rock and snow and eventually regained the crest of the ridge. Following this pitch was the scariest part of the whole climb for me - I knew the Bruce had no anchor and I was completely unfamiliar with this sort of mixed terrain. Traversing left on a small ledge, I was horrified to see the whole ledge crumble and disappear as I stepped off it. Although the angle was not too steep, the lack of reliable holds had me terrified the whole way up to Bruce.
We now entered another world. Snow gargoyles began to appear on the ridge - smaller at first and then growing larger and larger. Slowly we rose above the fog bank around us into the bright sunshine. No other mountains were visible - we were completely alone in our own universe of ice and snow. On our left the sun created circular rainbows around our shadows. Ahead we could finally see the summit! All that was left were the endless gargoyles.
Each gargoyle was climbed in exactly the same way. Kick steps up the side, plant your axe on the top, gingerly step around to the other side (the tops of the gargoyles were too soft to stand on directly) and descend to the notch before the next one. These notches were the worst part - 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. As the guidebook suggested, we threaded our rope in and out of the gargoyles, hoping that they would anchor a fall.
After seemingly endless up and down over the gargoyles, we looked ahead and saw Bruce and Dennis on the summit plateau. We arrived, glad to finally be free of the knife edge. The summit itself was yet another gargoyle standing over a large flattish area. On the left we could see huge cornices towering over the north face. On the right the mountain was hidden under the blanket of fog.
There were old steps on the summit. Tracks were leading down toward the south face or the Kain face (these share the final 1000'). No other sign of human life could be seen either on the summit or in the distance; no roads, cars, lights, or any other sign of humans were to be found. We felt completely isolated from the world.
After taking summit pictures and eating `lunch', we noticed that the sun was about to set. Damn! Another night on the mountain. Time to dig in. Bruce and Dennis found a small cave directly under the summit. Unfortunately, the cave was just a crack under the summit gargoyle and wind blew through it in the night. Jim and I carved a small bench in the snow and entered the 2 man bivi sack. The stars came out and the temperature dropped.
Day 5After a very cold night, we crawled out of our bags and were eager to descend. The view had not changed at all - we were completely surrounded by clouds about 1000' below. No summit panorama at all except for blue sky and the tip of our peak.
We didn't really have a good idea where to go so we started following the tracks, hoping they would take us down the right way. At first there was no problem. A short snow cliff required a rappel from a fluke but the going was generally easy. Lower, the snow hardened and we had to front point down a long slope. We soon entered the cloud that surrounded the peak. Although we could see only 50' ahead, the sun beat down on us from above. The angle lessened but we lost the tracks and began encountering crevasses. Bruce fell into one of the larger ones, stopped only by his pack. We began to get worried about finding the correct route in these conditions.
A little later Bruce called a halt. The slope below steepened and disappeared. None of us wanted to start down this slope without seeing the bottom. The snow had become very soft and we were worried about crevasses. There was really nothing to do but stop and wait.
In spite of the fog, the sun was intense enough to melt snow on our dark blue bivi sacks. We filled our water bottles and ate at our remaining food. I was left with only two choices: granola and raisins. I was desperately hungry but absolutely sick of granola and raisins! The others were in a similar state.
As the afternoon dragged on, we heard a creaking noise to the left. A large serac, maybe 10 feet tall, was just within sight in the fog. As we watched, the serac leaned over and disappeared. The odd thing was that it made no noise - it just disappeared. Then, after what seemed like a very long time, we heard a loud boom from a long way directly below us. We finally figured out that we were on the very edge of the summit glacier, overlooking a drop of some 1000'. Hmmm - maybe we should sit up the uphill side of this crevasse behind us!
Toward evening, the clouds finally lifted. We could see the drop just below and the summit of Little Robson to the right, not much lower than we were. We had missed the route where is leaves the glacier and descends to the Schwartz Ledges on the right. There was no question of descending immediately - the snow was too soft and not much light remained.
Thus began the worst of all the bivioucs. It either was colder or we had lost our ability to fight off the cold. By now, my down bag was almost useless as all the down had clumped into little wet balls. None of us slept well. As the trip had progressed, we all had begun having very vivid dreams. The subject of the dreams was usually food, warmth, or returning home. Jim remembers a dream about eating a feast from the top of a coffin. This evening I had a dream that was more of a hallucination. Far below we could see a red flashing light on the railroad in the valley. In my dream, this light was signalling me that Dennis was a spy. I was to cut the rope and send him over the ice cliff below! The odd thing was that my eyes were open the whole time - I would look at the light, then at Dennis, and then back to the light again. Fortunately for him, I was to cold to stand up and do anything.
Day 6The cold of the evening froze the surface of the snow, making cramponing easy. We quickly traversed up and left, aiming for the point where the ice wall was directly over the ridge leading to Little Robson. Instead of looking for the ledges we decided to rappel the ice cliff, which was only about 200' here. We gladly gave up our ice screws as anchors - we didn't care about our equipment at all anymore. We just wanted down.
The ice cliff creaked and groaned under our weight but we rapped without incident. From the base of the cliff, an easy ridge led to Little Robson. This was it - no more obstacles between us and the base! We put away our ropes and started to stagger down to the hut. Unfortunately, the only food in the hit was dried rice. We continued on down, following cairns down steep, loose piles of rock. Once in the trees, the trail became even worse - a cliff with an ancient rope for a handline, logs with steps cut in them, downed trees, and endless descending. We were too tired to move very fast. Our feet became sore from the constant pounding against the toes of our boots. In fact, none of us had taken off our boots for 6 days now.
At last we reached the tourist trail. Now just 3 miles to the car! It was late and we saw nobody. I had $20 in my pocket and was ready to pay the first tourist I saw to take my pack but everyone had already gone home.
All I remember of reaching the car was stuffing food into my mouth past cracked and bleeding lips. A can of mandarin oranges stung but tasted heavenly. After decimating the available food in the car, we drove out to the main road. It was almost 10pm and the burger joint was about to close. We shoveled down junk food and then headed for the campground across the street. After parking, Bruce fell asleep behind the wheel of the car. Jim never made it out of the back seat. Dennis and I staggered out of the car onto the ground. Later it began to rain and I rolled under the picnic table.
The ReturnThe next morning was spent eating everything remaining in the car. Surrounded by tourists with radios, dogs, and kids we had a hard time adjusting to our return to `civilization'. After posing for a final picture in which we all looked totally wasted, we packed up the wagon and drove to Jasper. We celebrated our climb by grabbing a room in the Mt. Robson motor lodge. Dennis visited a doctor and they Xrayed his wrist and head. No lasting damage was found but they found a chip in a bone in his wrist. That afternoon I staggered around Jasper on sore feet visiting every junk food emporium imaginable. Donuts, ice cream, burgers, chicken, anything! I stumbled around in a daze until I was so stuffed I could hardly waddle back to the motel. The others had been to the store and had prepared a huge feast but I was unable to eat any more. I flopped on the bed and drifted off to sleep.
The next day we drove to Banff and camped again. We had planned to hike back for our tennis shoes and shorts but there was no way any of us wanted to do an 18 mile hike. We decided to leave them as a sacrifice to the mountain gods and head home. As we drove, we noticed an incredibly foul odor coming from our gear in the back of the car. When we pulled into the campground, we looked around and found that my lightweight down sleeping bag which had been thoroughly soaked during the climb was the source of the smell. We encased it in a plastic bag and buried it as deep as possible but the odor remained noticeable. I had to camp in the back of the wagon without a bag that night. The next day we drove to the airport and flew home.
EpiloguePhysically, all four of us were a wreck. When I weighed myself I found I was 45 pounds lighter - and that was after 4 days of solid eating. We all suffered from some sort of nerve damage to the feet. Bruce's doctor thought it was the downhill hiking that did it. It made walking painful for the next two or three months, especially going down stairs.
For months after we returned we ate like horses. I was eating every meal twice and so were the others. Mentally, we were in a fog for weeks. I had just started grad school and sat in the back of my classes in a total daze, not caring at all about anything.
For unknown reasons, we decided to go out and climb again in October. Jim and I went to Eldorado and I decided to do the Bulge. This route had been easy for me earlier but I was both physically and mentally wasted. Our attempt ended in my 50' ground fall - fortunately I landed on my ass in the only patch of dirt anywhere near there. My sole injury was a broken wrist. This finally convinced us to give up climbing for a while.
All of us have returned to the Rockies. Bruce went back the next year to try the north face of Robson. He was stopped by poor snow conditions (due to warm weather!) and the bergschrund at the base of the face. The next year Jim and I also tried this route. Just below the north face we were almost blown off the mountain by strong winds. Our white gas spilled into our food supply and we were forced to retreat. Dennis has not yet returned to Robson but has climbed many other routes in the area, including the north face of Edith Cavell. We all still want to stand on the top of Robson again but other things have intervened.
Even as almost 20 years have passed, the four of us continue to share a bond. Bruce and Jim have dropped out of climbing but Dennis and I both continue to pursue our sport with the same passion as before. We both have families now and stick more to rocks than to mountains but we both feel the call of the summit. Next time, though, it will be via the Kain face!