American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North Over Mt. Robson

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  • Publication Year: 1939

North Over Mt. Robson

William R. Hainsworth

IT is a great satisfaction to recall this mountain adventure with- out a single derogatory thought about the weather. In fact, we were as fortunate in this as in the unplanned sequence of events determining the selection of camps and our route to the summit. To be sure, large areas of Washington and British Columbia forests were being consumed by fire, but we were even granted brief N. wind interludes for pictures. Apparently the snow-men on Mt. Robson, after witnessing three previous attempts by the writer, finally decided, in their austere July council meeting on the N. W. ridge,1 to give this poor mortal a break.

During the winter, Howard Carlson, Max Strumia and I had planned an attempt on the N. face of Mt. Robson. Late in the spring, Carlson and I were deeply concerned to learn that Strumia would be unable to make the trip, and seriously considered abandonment of the attempt, since this climb had long been Strumia’s cherished plan. Strumia insisted, however, that we find someone else to take his place, and by a stroke of luck we found Hans Fuhrer available.

We met at Robson Station, having tentatively decided on a route by the ice and snow wall which rises steeply 2500 ft. from the Helmet col to the summit ridge. Upon arriving at Berg Lake on the evening of Juiy 21st, and while examining through field glasses some enormous caves in the ice wall near the top, we were suddenly spellbound by the spectacle of the entire mass of ice and snow leisurely detaching itself from the wall and rapidly accelerating into a first-class avalanche. In what seemed to be less than ten seconds, the greater portion of the ice wall was swept clean, and the Helmet completely obscured by snow clouds, while the main body of the avalanche came to rest a considerable distance down Berg Glacier toward the lake. After a few moments of awed silence, someone remarked dryly : “I guess we had better take the N. ridge.’’

The weather had been perfect for a week before our arrival, and the Robson reputation led us to the conclusion that an attempt should be made immediately, without taking time on Resplendent, or some lesser mountain, for transforming our week-end pioneering muscles into something a little more useful.

The next day found us about half way up Berg Glacier on the way to a high camp on the rocky buttress W. of the glacier. Here history failed to repeat itself, and we found our way blocked by crevasses and seracs. A way to the rocks was discovered, but the bridges were so light and the ice so deep in places that we thought it inadvisable to proceed carrying our 50-60 lb. packs, which at that time seemed to weigh well over 100 lbs. Disgustedly we turned back, descending about 800 ft., then toiled up the long talus slope to a camp in the pass between Rearguard and the Helmet. This incident, on the following day, led to a selection of a site for our high camp on the snow in the Helmet-Robson col, at 10,700 ft. This point is considerably higher than the rocky buttress, and but for this high start, it is doubtful whether we would have made the N. ridge. Our excavation in the snow for wind protection was laboriously shovelled out with aluminum plates, a frying-pan, and perserverance. Luckily, we had a primus stove and air mattresses.

The N. ridge bergschrund passes over the col and downwardly to the E. wall. By sticking to the lower lip of the bergschrund we were able to pass around the end of this very steep bit of ice. The N. ridge is fluted by several ribs which extend from the top about halfway to the col. After cutting a goodly number of steps and encountering assorted snow conditions, we reached a central gully, and from then on had no choice of routes. Alternating ice and rocks with only one satisfactory belay kept us busy for the next eight hours. I distinctly remember the remark : “As soon as we reach a place where we can sit down we’ll have a bite to eat.” It was two hours more before we ate. Loose rocks were troublesome sometimes, and chunks of ice from the leader's axe fell upon the head of the end man, who, without recourse, accepted his fate.

Near the apex of our gully we found several cornices curling in from the ribs on either side. These were not visible from below. Above the rib cornices, we found practically no others where the N. ridge joins the N. face. However, the approach was extremely difficult due to an almost vertical pillar of ice which couldnot be by-passed. Once over this, it was possible to step out on the steep snow of the N. face. This was at a point several hundred feet below the summit ridge. The snow was steep, lightly crusted and about a foot deep, with very little adhesion to the ice. We stayed as close to the ridge as possible.

The summit was reached at 4.45 p.m., about thirteen hours after leaving the Helmet camp. The difference in elevation is only 2300 ft. Later in the season, with continued good weather, the ridge should be somewhat easier ; earlier, it would undoubtedly be rather unsafe. On the summit there were two snow mounds, each about 20 ft. high, and perched precariously on the ridge. We selected one, ascended it one at a time, and then proceeded to celebrate by drinking with great relish a large can of tomatoes. Chocolate and cheese garnished with Jamaica rum somehow constituted a satisfactory main course. The S. wind had returned, and there was no view to speak of because of the smoky haze from the forest fires.

After half an hour on the summit, we began the tedious descent of the snow and ice slopes on the S. face of the mountain. When dusk fell, we were still on the glacier above the upper icefall, resigned to the thought of a night of circle-walking, or warming the upper side of a knapsack cushion placed upon some icy throne. It later developed that knapsacks have a high coefficient of heat transfer, and did not prove entirely satisfactory. Establishing camp consisted simply of determining how large an area should be made available for our nocturnal perambulations. Hans made a reconnaissance in the dim light, returning with the doubtful assurance that when morning came we should be able to lasso a serac and descend by rope about 60 ft. to the rocks below the icefall. After some experimenting it was determined that a cycle of five minutes exercise and ten minutes on the throne was satisfactory. The quantity of sleep obtained was a variable.

The night passed. In the morning, fortune smiled again upon us when we discovered an entrance to the rock chute a little above the camp. The position was exposed, and even though we made the best possible time, a descending rock hurtled close enough to cut several strands of our rope.

Upon reaching the lower glacier, we descended the central avalanche path, crossing over to the true right side of the glacier,where we found the passage of the lower icefall easy and safe. We rested several hours at the high camp, blessing the kind provider of a few sticks of wood, and then explored the bewildering trail to Kinney Lake. Nature, goats and human beings have conspired to make this a baffling undertaking.

Next day we returned to Berg Lake, where we were greeted by the N. wind which again defeated the smoke and revealed azure blue skies. Obviously, now was the time to try a practical application of certain experimental ski lore developed in the hills of New York and Connecticut. Good slopes were found near the Extinguisher on the upper Robson Glacier. The snow was humpy, and only clister wax seemed suitable, but the day afforded great sport, and I for one discovered the vast difference between skiing on gentle winter trails and on open mountain slopes in summer. Carlson seemed quite at home and for some reason his skis always agreed on the direction to go, whereas occasionally one of mine decided to go up hill while the other was going down.

Two days later the wind changed again, and we found ourselves enveloped in a heavy pall of smoke as we established high camp between two large moraines on Mt. Whitehorn, above Emperor Falls. Across the valley Mt. Robson was barely distinguishable.

Leaving camp at 3 a.m. we headed for the N. side of the E. ridge, having in mind a traverse of Mt. Whitehorn2 and expecting to find a route through the couloir just E. of the hanging glacier which is a prominent feature of the ridge. From the snow cone at the base, the route was visible only halfway, which led us to select the much longer, but probably surer, approach to the ridge via the glacier on the S. side of the mountain. The upper glacier proved very interesting, especially to Hans. Shortly after a hidden crevasse had attempted to swallow one of his legs, Hans noticed a decided tendency to slip back. A crampon had come loose and, unnoticed by him had fallen into the crack. It required fifteen minutes of squirming and careful maneuvering in the ice maze to recover this essential bit of equipment, which he found about 20 ft. below the surface.

We ascended a diagonal crack across the upper lip of a large crevasse and found an easy route to the ridge just above the big notch which is visible many miles from the mountain. Climbing above this point consisted of a succession of short traverses and steep pitches over rock which was ice-glazed in spots. We attempted to stay near the crest of the ridge until we reached the summit, which we did at 3.15 p.m. It was soon determined that there would be some difficulty in making the traverse due to an overhanging crevasse which cut completely across the usual route of ascent—our expected route of descent. Although located on the upper bench which extends across the N. W. base of the mountain, this crevasse was clearly visible from the top, and it was apparent that we would have to find a way to a lower and parallel bench.

We did not reach the W. glacier from the W. ridge until about 6 p.m., after which it was necessary to descend across the glacier and well into the valley, then up again to the pass leading to the benches on the N. W. side of the mountain. We made all possible speed over this route, managing to reach the moraine above camp about 8.30 p.m., just at dusk. We were glad to be spared the discomfort of another night on the ice, the memory of the Robson experience being all too fresh in our minds.

The following morning, good fortune being still with us, we found the horses just above Emperor Falls. Although we found it quite practical to ride bareback, guiding the horses with the shafts of our iceaxes, the time element worked against us, so we made our triumphant entry into camp on foot, instead of in true mountain cowboy fashion.

Thus ended a happy sequence of events—the N.-S. traverse of Mt. Robson, a day of good skiing, and the E.-W. traverse of Mt. Whitehorn—all in fine weather.

1 This ridge is noted for its large number of peculiar snow formations.

2 The first ascent of Mt. Whithorn was made by Conrad Kain alone in 1911, by the N. and N.W. sides. He repeated this with a large party in 1913, traversing and descending the S.E. glacier (C.A.J., iv, 47; vi, 55).

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