North Face Epic
North Face Epic
Page Type: Trip Report
British Columbia, Canada, North America
53.11670°N / 119.15°W
Aug 22, 2003
Created/Edited: Oct 2, 2003 / Apr 26, 2007
Object ID: 169094
Page Score: 77.18%
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August 19-26, 2003
Thomas, Colin, Joe, and me...Krister
Finally, after driving all the way from Colorado, we were there. The mountain stood in all of its glory in front of us. We started packing our bags while waiting for the visitor’s center to open. We decided not to take any sleeping bags. Only our bivy sacks, down jackets and Magamid tent were to keep us warm. We decided we should take one sleeping bag incase of an emergency, and because I had the lightest pack I took my bag.
Tourists started to pore into the parking lot. Mostly Asian tourists, which I thought was interesting. People saw our gear and kept asking us if we were going to climb the mountain. It is funny to see the faces people make when you tell them you are. We talked to one of the rangers about our route. A man had just soloed the north face a few days before and he reported good ice all the way to the top. Also, about half of all attempts had made it to the summit which is about forty percent more than average. No storms were expected until Saturday morning, so everything was looking really positive and we were pumped.
We started the hike to Berg Lake which was about a twelve mile hike with about three thousand feet of vertical gain. We followed the Robson River up the incredibly lush valley, and it was one of the craziest rivers I have ever seen. There were class five, class six rapids flowing with milky glacier water. On the way to Berg Lake was Kinney Lake. It was a long, beautiful, milky blue lake. The water was as smooth as glass. As we continued on to Berg Lake the valley became even more beautiful. Enormous 300 foot waterfalls falling off the sides of the valley fed by glaciers up above. The valley floor became very steep and the river turned from roaring to raging. The river dropped into huge 100 foot to 200 foot waterfalls, one after another with slick rock slides carved by glaciers between them. There were mammoth limestone cliffs on each side of the valley with lush vegetation. This might have been the most beautiful place I have ever been.
We finally made it to Berg Lake and the Emperor Face was looming over us. After a few pictures, we crossed the Robson River to our camp for that night. Next to Berg Lake is Mist Lake. These lakes are separated by a huge moraine formed by the Mist Glacier. We set up camp at a bivy site right next to Mist Lake inside the moraine. After dinner we went to bed and got ready to start an early morning.
We woke up before sunrise to start the climb to our high camp. It was cold and we were slow to get started. We hiked on the top of the moraine to the side of the mountain leaving behind our tennis shoes, extra food and anything else we thought was unnecessary to cut down on weight. Because the valleys in Canada are so wide and deep everything is much bigger than it actually looks. Just hiking to the end of the moraine to the mountain side seemed to take forever.
The most dangerous part of the climb was before us as we had to climb for 3000 feet of steep scree and bands or rock with 5.4 to 5.6 rock moves. The rock is so brittle that it is impossible to protect so there is no use for ropes. We were also climbing in our clunky plastic boots with our fifty pound packs making the climbing even more precarious. If any of us had slipped and fallen, that would be the end of him. All we had was the occasional cairn and a crappy picture from a guide book to find our way through the choss. Thankfully we were able to stay mostly on route and after about eight hours of scrambling we surmounted atop the rock and onto the Berg Glacier. The most time consuming part of the rock section was the route finding. It was so hard to find the cairns, and the fear of going off route caused a lot of set backs, so to help future parties we erected some more cairns although I am sure that many are already gone due to rock fall.
When we got to the edge of the glacier we prepared our ropes and put on our crampons. We pre-decided our rope teams with straws. I was with Thomas, and Joe and Colin were together. Thomas and I took the lead up the glacier and into the crevasses. Once we reached our first unavoidable crevasse we found foot prints in the snow from the soloist a few days earlier. We were not able to cross the crevasse where he did because a bridge had fallen where his steps were. After a slight detour we were able to catch up to his steps, and it made the rest of the glacier to our high camp much easier.
We didn’t camp all the way up at the Helmet Col like our guide book suggested because we found a good snow ledge that we set the Megamid up on. This was nice because we were much closer to where we were going to ascend the brushrund to gain the North Face. It started to snow a little bit and the mountain was socked in with clouds. The mountain pretty much has a permanent cloud that looms over the summit. Sometimes it is small, sometimes it is bigger. Sometimes it isn’t even there at all, but we figured that this was one of the bigger times because no fronts had moved in and the weather wasn’t all that bad.
We woke up at two o’clock in the morning to start our climb up the North Face. It was still snowing a bit and there was low visibility so we decided to wait a few hours to see if conditions would improve.
We woke up again at six o’clock and it was still socked in so we decided to hang out at our camp until we had a clearing. Because the storm was predicted to come in Saturday morning we knew that we could leave no later than Friday morning at two o’clock in the morning. If it didn’t clear by then, we would have to climb up and over the Helmet Col and make our way to the decent below the Kain Face.
We were messing around, having fun at high camp until about noon when the clouds started to break up. We were able to break down camp and start moving up the face by two o’clock. To gain the face we had to climb the brushrund. The brushrund is a huge crevasse blocking all access to the steep slope of the North Face. We were able to find entry into the crevasse easily, but we still had to climb a 200 foot vertical ice face to gain the North Face. Thomas started to lead it but became too tired and couldn’t pull through, so Colin continued on the lead. At the top was a small overhanging cornice that Colin boldly pulled over. After two hours of climbing and following Colin’s lead we finally surmounted on the North Face.
It just took us two hours to climb 200 feet and we had 4000 feet to go. No one was feeling too happy about our situation but nobody wanted to suggest heading down, so after little consideration we continued on. We simil-climbed the Face and rotated leads. Joe became sick and threw up so he decided to take himself out of the leading rotation. The sun began to set as we were only a third up the Face. The climbing was not difficult but more tedious, though the exposure was not something to scoff at. Hack, hack, step, step all the way up. The first third of the face had very good ice to set ice screws, but the top two thirds were covered with too much snow and the only available protection was snow pickets. We only had four snow pickets which made the pitches shorter. We ran out the leads as best as we could by leaving only one or no pickets at all between each climber. Climbing by headlamp we were desperate to climb as fast as possible to make it to the top.
Some time around midnight the clouds closed in on us and the storm that wasn’t expected for another day and a half had arrived. It wasn’t too windy because we were protected by the mountain; however, the snow was coming down hard. While climbing we incurred some spindrift and many sluff avalanches coming down the face. You had to brace yourself as they hit you and the powder would go down your coat making you wet.
On the Face there are a few bands of rock that expose themselves. We tried to avoid the rock as much as possible, but on one of my leads I came to a rock band that I could see no end to. With my last piece of protection fifty feet below me I continued to do some mixed climbing. I had never done any real mixed climbing before, yet I was able to pull through despite being more scared than crap.
The sky became brighter as the sun began to rise though the only color we could see was white due to the storm. It seemed like we had been on the Face forever. We were hoping that we would hit the ridge soon. Colin finished leading his pitch and I was soon at the belay station with him and Joe waiting for Thomas. I was getting ready to start my lead until I realized that we were at the ridge! It was only five feet away from my face and I couldn’t see it. Colin and Joe thought it would be nice for me to figure it out on my own. It was a wonderful moment. After seventeen strait hours of climbing we were finally at the ridge. This was disappointing because we figured it would take no more than ten hours, and we still had to traverse the ridge.
You cannot walk on the ridge; you must traverse just below the ridge on the same sixty degree slope you were just climbing. After a few pitches we made it to a wider part of the ridge and we were able to walk the rest of the way to the summit. It had been twenty hours since we had felt the feeling of solid ground below our feet. The summit was not so much a joyful occasion as much as it was a relief; relief from such terrific exposure. We were socked in and the wind was blowing. Visibility was as great as one hundred feet at times but usually only twenty or less. We had a compass with us and we knew that we had to head East and a bit South East to find the ridge down to the Kain Face but we couldn’t see anything and we didn’t even know what the ridge looked like or if we would be climbing down the right thing.
During the process of trying to find our way down, Joe started walking off a Gargoyle thinking it was the ridge until his foot busted through a cornice. If his other foot went as well he would have fallen all the way down the W Bowl to the valley floor with Colin not far behind being pulled by the rope. We couldn’t see crap. After deliberating for quite some time we decided to pitch the tent and hope for a clearing later in the day or the next day.
Pitching the tent was a challenge in its self fighting the wind. We bunkered down and it didn’t take much time for us to fall asleep. The night was cold as Colin, Joe and Thomas didn’t have sleeping bags. I was on one end of the tent because I had my summer bag which is only good to about thirty degrees, but I was still warmer then the other guys. Thomas was on the other end so I gave him my down jacket to aid in warmth. Despite being in the bag with most of my clothes on I would still wake up shivering during the night. I can only imagine how the other guys were feeling.
We woke up at sunrise and the light inside the tent seemed bright; as if we were being hit by direct sunlight. We opened the tent door only to be welcomed by almost two feet of snow and the same raging storm. We continued to lie in the tent playing a dice game we learned in Cut Bank on our drive up, and periodically checking the conditions outside. We had nothing but a bit of peanut butter, a couple of energy bars, two packets of ramen, some cuscus, two liters of water, and enough fuel to melt maybe one more liter. We were desperate. We knew that if we didn’t get off the mountain by the next day we probably wouldn’t have the adequate strength to make it safely down. Finally the reality of the situation hit us like a ton of bricks. Death was staring us right in the face and we were at the mercy of the Most High.
All four of us have a relationship with Jesus Christ and it is an important aspect of all our lives. We prayed before we left the car, we prayed before our meals, before we went to bed, and as we woke up to start our day. I know all I could do was continually pray as we were climbing the North Face. The storm had humbled us before the Lord and all we could do was ask for his compassion on us. We opened up into a time of prayer asking God for guidance, strength, and mercy. You could call it a coincidence, but the moment we finished praying the clouds lifted and we could see the sun. It was obvious this clearing would not last long but we were able to get an idea where the ridge continued down and somewhat where we needed to go. It was a truly magnificent moment and we celebrated with yelps and praises to God. Soon we were consumed by blowing snow and clouds and couldn’t see a thing. I have never in my life experienced such a quick and direct answer to prayer. Like I said, you could call it a coincidence, but I think it was much more than that.
It was too late to start a descent so we bunkered down for one more night. We were still highly dependent on the weather the next day because we only had an idea of where to go. We could still make an easy mistake and descend down the wrong thing. We were also very weak from malnourishment, dehydration, and extreme exertion. We weren’t out of the woods yet, but we had the Lord as our guide.
When we woke up, again it seemed from the brightness of our tent that the skies were clear, but they were not. Socked in like they always were. We knew that we had no choice but to start making our way down. After we finished packing up camp we started to head down. At that moment exactly the clouds lifted and it was clear skies once again. We took some pictures of us at the summit and praised the Lord.
We started making our way down the ridge. From the top of the ridge we could look down to the top of the Kain face. After descending the ridge for a few minutes we saw three climbers pop up from the top of the ridge. We took a slight unnecessary detour because of some miss-guided information from the guide book that delayed our decent of the ridge. During the detour we were passed by the other group. Colin was able to talk to them for a bit but they were moving fast. We were moving slow. We were tired, malnourished, but determined.
When we made it to the top of the Kain face we were met again by the other three guys. They hooked us up with some flavored water, and we were very thankful. The three guys started down the Kain face before us and we slowly followed down behind them. The decent was pretty uneventful besides some areas of crappy ice and some steep down climbing near the bottom at the brushrund. The three guys went back to their camp atop the Dome as we descended further into the Mousetrap icefall. We wanted to get off the mountain as soon as possible.
Once we started to get into the meat of the icefall it became obvious there was no way to know your way through with out having ascended it first. We could also see more snow clouds moving toward us and we weren’t going to camp in the middle of the icefall. Frustrated and tired we started to hike back up to the top of the Dome. We were moving so slow. It took us over an hour to ascend the lousy quarter mile. Once we got to the top we started to make camp close to the other group. They hooked us up again with some food and a couple liters of water. It was like candy in our mouths. They told us they were waking up early to head down and that we could follow them through the icefall. These guys truly were a blessing from God.
We told the park service that Sunday was the latest we would be down. We didn’t know it yet but they had already started searching for us. We were able to follow the other guys out of the icefall no problem, and most of the dangers were behind us at this point. It was just a twenty mile hike back to our car. As we were near the base of Extinguisher Tower a helicopter landed near us. They asked if we were the boys from Colorado and if we were ok. Once we confirmed everything the helicopter flew away and the search was over.
We continued hiking down the Robson Glacier to its base. It was a sweet moment to take off our crampons, ropes and harnesses for the last time. Joe and I were hiking a little faster than Colin and Thomas. Joe and I continued down to Berg Lake when Colin and Thomas stopped at the ranger station near the lake. I drew the short straw to cross the freezing Robson River to our first camp and collect the few things we left behind. I didn’t want to walk across the river with my double boot inserts in because I didn’t want them to get wet; however my feet were so blistered and sore that I couldn’t go barefoot, so I walked across with my feet in the empty plastic shells. In hind sight I should have let my socks and inserts get wet. The plastic rubbed against my already raw shins and took all the skin off. Once I got across the river I took off the boots and walked the rest of the way with my bare feet. It took me about twenty minutes to walk one hundred yards. I was able to use Colin’s sandals for the walk back and across the river. The cold water felt so good on my feet. Joe and I started to eat some of the food we left at the camp as we waited for Colin and Thomas to met us.
We decided to continue our hike out of there and get all the way back to the car. We really didn’t have much of a choice as school started the next day. The rest of the hike was long and exhausting. Joe and I ended up running into a ranger and we talked to him about our recent epic. I was surprised and happy to see he wasn’t mad at us and was just happy to see we made it safe.
We finally made it back to the car with some daylight left. We were able to make some calls home before we quickly hit the road to Jasper. We got into Jasper and ate at a Family Restaurant. We ate so much food even though it tasted like crap. We hit the road and drove until everyone was too tired to keep driving. We parked the car in a pull off and dropped our bags on the ground.
We woke up after a few hours of sleep to rain falling on our faces. I tried to ignore it but then it started to downpour. We got back into the van and kept driving. The drive one the Icefields Parkway was so beautiful. The rest of the drive home went without incident. The car didn’t break down, we didn’t join any potluck dinners, and we were able to cruse all the way home. At the US border the Border Patrol officer gave me a hard time because all I had was a driver’s license, but he let me in. We rolled into town in the late afternoon. Our feet were swollen like an unmilked cow and unbelievably blistered. We looked pathetic trying to walk around. We returned victorious. We were happy, alive and home. The summit had nothing to do with our victory, but it was an added bonus.