“Mountain spirit, allow me; protector spirits, follow me”, I plea at the base of the Kain Face, a 300 meter (1000 foot), 50-degree steep, ice and snow slope on the remote back side of Mount Robson. After five unsuccessful attempts, each over two weeks long, I was absolutely amazed to be here and optimistic of my chances. But she wouldn’t let me, yet. Gloomy clouds moved in and sent me back to The Dome, at 3200m (10500') . The other party, Malcolm, Randy and Jason from Vancouver had already abandoned and packed out after a whiteout all day yesterday. There are over 20 unrecovered bodies all over this mountain. It commands supreme respect. I could sense the torment of the wandering spirits of climbers, frozen into the glacier under my tent. “Go to the light”, I urged them.
Mount Robson infected me on first sight, on my first visit out west by bicycle 22 years ago. “One day I will climb this mountain.” As my mountaineering experience matured to include the highest peaks of the Andes, I tackled Mount Robson. “It’s only 3954 meters (12972 feet)”, but I was overconfident. It soon became obvious that climbing her is far more difficult and hazardous than any mountain I had ever experienced. Over the years, it was one humiliating defeat after another. Like having a 100 km/hr (60 mph) wind destroy my tent and having to dig a snow cave. To stop spindrift from whipping inside, I installed the remains of the tent over the hole, anchoring it with my only ice axe. The whole thing ripped off and blew away, disappearing into a howling blizzard that night, and into an abysmal crevasse. My then-new SAR satellite Personal Rescue Beacon had to be activated, and a helicopter plucked me from the predicament. My other expeditions were hampered by storms dumping three feet of snow during three-day whiteouts, making crevasses invisible and causing thundering avalanches, or by my backpack slipping away and crashing down a mountain, or by progress on a ridge being blocked because it was only an inch wide with sheer drops on both sides, or by my aluminium crevasse probe making loud static electric discharge noises. I lost count of how often lightning flashes were simultaneous with thunder booms. Thus the notoriously low summiting rate for attempts on Robson: only 10%.
Mount Robson became a state of mind, an obsession. This time I was prepared as ever: 36 kilos (80 pounds) of gear with supplies for 17 days, and -20 degrees C (-4 degrees F). I did some 'side trips' for training and beefing up my strength, like climbing beautiful Mount Resplendent (3426m, 11240'), Robson’s neighbour, by the awesome 'Ice Arrête' route.
The night sky is ominous. Looks like another day of patience tomorrow; I don’t bother setting my alarm. At 06:30, I peek outside. “Ahh, today is THE DAY, incredible, absolutely clear!” Heat snow to make water, strap on the crampons, tighten the boot laces as tight as they will go, heave on the backpack with the mattress, stove, all my clothes and three days of food. At least I can dig a snow cave and survive if a wicked storm lashes in. Leaving the smooth, round Dome, at a shamefully late 08:00, I soon easily cross the bergshrund crevasse. Then back up the Kain Face, which is randomly icy and snowy. I select between a blade hold or a shaft hold for each of the two ice axes, at each step. Going solo requires absolute caution, and confidence. But it also allows to go at my own pace and only proceed when I feel strong and ready. It is a more profound and spiritual experience. If the front-point crampon kick doesn’t feel 'bomber', instinct and intuition makes me kick again. After this endless ascent, and rounding a huge snow cornice, I reach 'the roof' ridge. A euphoric stroll, taking care not to fall though a cornice, gets me to the summit pyramid. 'Only' 300 meters (1000 feet) to go! The hot sun is busy melting snow in my bottles, perfect. I pick out a tentative route weaving through an exquisite maze of ice cliffs, ice pinnacles, wind-sculpted gargoyles and crevasses. Tip-toeing under huge icicles, I hope my helmet is not put to the test. Up, down, around, zig-zag, in this surreal fantasy. In one spot, I see old footprints. But today I have the Queen of the Rockies to myself. It’s looking like this maze has a solution...this is the summit plateau! Grande music from Carmina Burana playing in my head, I gasp for air. Heart pounding in excitement, I advance towards three snow mounds on the plateau. Which is the highest? Try the right one, no not this one, the middle one?...YES! It’s a dream come true! Six expeditions and endless training and preparation pay off to realizing the hardest, finest, most mind-blowing climb of my life on this August 25th, 2006.
I have a precious gift to Mountain Spirit, for the safe passage. It’s a five-gram pellet of pure osmium metal, twice as valuable as gold. I poke six feet down into the snow with the crevasse probe, but it doesn’t hit rock. I release the offering into the hole and say words of deep respect and gratefulness. I behold the glorious panorama of familiar valleys, peaks, icefields and glaciers in this park that has been my playground for so many years. Been there, and over there, crossed that, climbed that, camped there, and took a beating there. So many memories. The camera struggles to take photos, it’s taken a beating and works intermittently.
Descending the pyramid is easy as the soft snow absorbs the steps. At the top of the Kain Face, it’s decision time. Go down now? It’ll be dark by the time I get to the bergshrund. OK, I can handle it. It’s just as long going down, using as much caution as the ascent. At the crevasse, I strap on the headlamp, and in the dim glow, I see I have traversed 15 meters (50 feet) too far, then find the crossing. After fourteen hours, it’s home free to the tent, which is like a castle of comfort. Exhausted, I sip spiked lemonade, celebrating the climb of a lifetime. Dreams can come true, but may take decades of persistence.
With several days' supplies remaining, I went on another side trip exploring Rearguard Meadows. It’s an idyllic area with tarn lakes, mosses, flowers, marmots and ptarmigans who don’t seem to have any predators. In this exotic landscape, dozens of cowpie-shaped rock domes 10 meters (30 feet) in diameter were separated by mossy ground. A ranger later explained that they’re giant fossil algae colonies. After a refreshing shower under a waterfall, I went joy-hiking on the Berg Glacier, at the base of Robson’s awesome North Face.
Back on 'civilized' trails, word quickly spread of this solo climber who carries a crevasse probe on his pack that points in the air like an antenna, and how he had summitted Robson after many attempts. I basked in the glory, tirelessly repeating the story. A phys-ed instructor even recruited me to give a talk to 15 students at the Hargreaves Shelter. Back at the trailhead, I ran into Richard Dekker from Quesnel, British Columbia, who had soloed Robson via the Ralph Forster hut and the 'hourglass' route. To our knowledge, we are the only two soloists of less than ten summiters this year (2006). Back home, friends came over for a Mount Robson party and slide show, and my article was printed in the local Grande Cache Mountaineer newspaper.
Most of the images below will enlarge to 1000 pixels wide by clicking on the image twice.
This mountain has always had a pull for me, I am hoping to climb the Kain face route in another year or so. It looks like you had a really great time on this climb. It makes me want to get out there right now!
Way to take your time with "The King". I would love to have Robson in my back yard,then I probably would have climbed it more like you! but alas I must settle for the Colorado Rockies. Woe is me. HA! Great photos, and such clear days!
Hey Chris, I'm pretty sure that you are the kind fellow who we met after we completed the North Boundary trail a couple summers ago. Thanks again for the lift and congrats on the ascent of Robson--heady stuff indeed.