American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mt. Robson: Ascent of the Wishbone Arête

Canada, British Columbia, Canadian Rockies

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Don Claunch
  • Climb Year: 1955
  • Publication Year: 1956

Numerous attempts had been made on the Southwest or "Wishbone Arête” of Mt. Robson since the first try in 1913. In that year the Swiss guide Walter Schauffelberger led Basil S. Darling and H. H. Prouty to within 400 feet of the summit, but they were turned back by lack of time in an approaching storm. Extremely slow and difficult step chopping was encountered as they worked their way over and around the fantastic ice formations near the summit. Their defeat was a crushing blow to Schauffelberger who had set his heart on reaching the goal. B. S. Darling later wrote, "Of the two climbs we made, I look back upon the first (the Wishbone attempt) with greater pleasure, and feel sure that some day the arête will become known as one of the finest rock climbs in Canada, and probably the most sporting route to the top of Robson. I hope that before long I may again be privileged to assault its gaunt, upward sweeping cliffs and stand at last upon the summit, that proudly carried frosty crest so jealously guarded by its battlements and storms.” Their try was one of the most remarkable feats of mountaineering ever accomplished in the Canadian Rockies, the high point being attained after only 14 hours of travel from high camp. Snow conditions vary, but I suspect that the rocks were relatively dry.

Fred Ayres, John Oberlin, and A1 Creswell made a determined attempt in 1951 and reached the second highest point ever attained on this route by coming approximately 1,800 feet from the top. Loose snow was on the verge of avalanching. They gazed upward longingly at the summit and the towers of ice guarding it, which looked as though they could well be the most formidable part of the climb. Ayres wrote, "There was no respite from continual, cautious belaying on a seemingly endless succession of towers, always exposed, and always composed of rotten rock. One of these very nearly stopped us.” On both of these attempts the return was made via the snow chute of the "Great Couloir,” an easier but very dangerous spot because of possible avalanches.

The Wishbone Arête is the showpiece of the two-mile high south face of Mt. Robson; it rises from the lower buttresses of the mountain and sweeps upward for 5,000 feet in an ever-thinning ridge composed of a series of cliffs and towers—long, narrow, sustained. Two branches merge about 1,500 feet from the glittering apex, formed by the right or Schauffelberger branch and the left or north branch, and the continuation soars on—narrow and icy to the final ice cap, its extremity covered with a series of amazing ice towers.

A feeling of admiration, irresistible attraction, and cold hostility is produced in the ambitious climber gazing at this spectacle. So it was with me and others. Some of the comments made by climbers about the hope of making an ascent were not the least bit encouraging. However, it is well known that previous to nearly every interesting ascent, such remarks are made; so one merely ignores what he hears and goes along his merry way, often finding that there are no problems at all. But such was not the case with the Wishbone, as we were soon to have our hands full.

One afternoon following a break of good weather Mike Sherrick, expert rock climber and member of the Sierra Club, Harvey Firestone, medical student at UCLA, and I left Berg Lake flats for this challenging ridge. In a remarkably short time we had bypassed several cliff bands and scree slopes and found ourselves on the vast terrace of broken shale located at the 8,000-foot level. After many grueling minutes of "side-hill gouging” we crossed these great yellow bands to the west face and the accumulation of ice and snow known as Fan Glacier. High camp was set up at the east end of this glacier. The weather was very bad, and it was not too long before churning clouds announced the presence of a thunderstorm. The crashing of lightning and the slow buzzing of static electricity put our nerves on edge during the night. The next day the situation was not much better, and we found ourselves growing cynical about the chances.

The following morning we happily greeted the rising sun breaking gently through the light mists. We were in luck! The storm clouds had vanished, and every hope of beautiful weather was realized. Far above us the great ramparts and ribs forming the south side of Robson glittered, covered with a mantle of fresh snow. Fortunately for us, most of the cover was high and not thick. Streamers of avalanching snow crystals could be seen. The Wishbone could be seen clearly and in its entirety, two dark knife ridges coming together more than 3,000 feet above—cold, bleak, and menacing. Its crest was snow free, but the sides were icy and snow plastered. The famous Northwest Ridge could be seen with its ice teeth, and below, long ice slopes descended for thousands of feet. The final ridge above the juncture couldn’t be seen, but instead, the chaotic mass of ice on the summit crest, directly above it.

Starting at approximately 8:00 A.M. we worked toward the base of the Schauffelberger Arête, on tilted slopes of shale and limestone, shattered into fragments of all sizes. Reaching the ridge, we climbed directly up- ward, going up and down over several small gendarmes. The arête is truly a masterwork of natural design, built as though it were the rib of a great cathedral. For more than a thousand feet it appears to be supported by myriads of ridgelets like flying buttresses, while below, it rests upon the solid foundation of Robson’s immense south battlements. The party worked its way continually and cautiously upward through a system of couloirs on the right side of the arête, while the valley floor receded— far beneath. Emerald green Kinney Lake was now at our footsteps. Cutting back to the ridge on steep, rotten rock, we soon found evidences of previous parties. Here was a rock shelter and higher up were rapell slings. Mike led a 200-foot wall of steep slab rising directly above, icy and snow sprinkled, climbing with the rhythmic spring of a well-balanced rock climber. Basically the travel consisted of working one’s way over the crest of a continually exposed knife ridge with the harder rock bands protruding as wide vertical steps.

The ominous line of rock bands and gendarmes soaring above our heads was indeed appalling, and the party seemed to be getting no closer. Route finding was often troublesome because of the large number of buttresses encountered—unfortunately the result of ice on the sides of the arête; a direct attack on the cliffs was often necessary. Mike led the most difficult pitches. It would be hard to effectively describe the route here, for we could hardly remember where we had been ourselves. Essentially, the route consisted of a long series of cracks, narrow "catwalk traverses,” vertical bands, terraces, and narrow ridge crests. Hours went by as the three of us climbed higher. We were almost stopped two or three times by cliffs. One of these places is particularly noteworthy. Mike went first, nimbly going over a steep wall and up three short, slippery overhanging pitches—a magnificent lead. We used about 13 pitons for safety on the rock ridge. Finally, as the day neared its end, we scaled the last big tower and dropped into an airy notch, exposed to almost 3,000 feet of air. It was getting dark and cold, and the superb display of changing colors added supreme majesty to the vast panorama of mountains and glaciers. The bivouac was a short distance above this notch on a narrow snow bank. We had an excellent tent, 240 feet of nylon rope for insulation, plenty of clothes, and candles for extra warmth. It was quite warm for some time, and I recall dozing off occasionally.

The next morning we started out in perfect weather, welcomed by radiant glaciers and soft green valleys. We cramponed up a steep slope of ice and hard snow, directly exposed to the dark abyss of the "Great Couloir.” The route continued over rock outcroppings and finally along the narrow crest of the upper ridge. Constantly belaying over thin cornices and along 50-degree ice and snow slopes, we eventually reached the strange towers of ice some 600 to 800 feet from the top. Often likened

to "gargoyles,” these unusual towers of ice began as ordinary cornices but were blown straight up and eroded into weird shapes by storm and wind. They were covered with thick layers of hoarfrost feathers, rounded out, often overhanging in one direction and then in another. It was something of a battle to bypass them, almost always requiring one’s climbing directly over them, on alternating ice and soft snow; only once were we able to traverse. In one place I was almost stopped, but managed to haul myself up with two ice-axes. Occasionally mists would blow in and produce a white world. In the breaks one could look down two great ice slopes, both approaching 60 degrees, to the shining threads of the Fraser and Robson Rivers. Timberline was thousands of feet below. The two thin lines of the Canadian National Railroad were apparent, looking deceptively near. The Northwest Ridge was very close and very formidable, a long line of ice teeth. To the right were the snow-covered south walls and the glacier-capped promontory of "Little Robson.” The going had been extremely slow, cutting and kicking steps over about a dozen "gargoyles,” but we eventually reached the final bulging walls, some 250 feet from victory. It didn’t look too good above, and one attempt ended in utter failure. It became obvious that the route, instead of being easy, would be devious and tricky.

We spent another night here in a spot similar to the previous one, but this bivouac was by no means as comfortable as the other—we spent the entire night shivering in the cold tent. This perch was high, remote, and lonely in a strange ice world. Everything about us was bathed in soft moonlight, while the valleys far below were lost in the inky darkness. It was beautiful, but unfortunately we were too cold to appreciate its sublime aspects. The night seemed endless. Hours later I stepped out into the bitterly cold air and gazed at the sea of mountains still grayish in the morning light. Our position seemed perilous and isolated. Crampon straps were frozen solid and boots were like ice. We stamped our feet for some time in order to restore circulation. The cold was numbing. Whitehorn, Phillips, and Longstaff were considerably lower. The situation was tense.

Draped in excess clothes, scarfs, balaclava helmets and whatnot, we started out. I led across an intensely exposed section over the west face, using two ice pitons. Entering a 65-degree ice chute, I then worked my way upward, cutting steps and placing more pitons. An unbelayed fall here could carry someone 5,000 feet, directly to the yellow bands. Often it was possible to creep higher by inching upward on the front crampon prongs. After tediously cutting more than 150 feet of steps, we came to an unsuspected barrier at the head of the chute. Walls overhung. The only hope was to ascend a vertical section of 30 feet. I started up, stemming in a groove composed of soft snow and rotten ice. It was very exhausting, and there was no way to place pitons for safety. After 25 feet a gale was blowing snow crystals downslope-—covering my beard and eyes with ice. I was almost blinded by this sudden surprise, but managed with considerable effort to climb the remaining five or six feet above the groove, delicately balanced on a thin crust. Sixty or 70 feet more and we were on the summit, greeted by clouds and evidences of an approaching rainstorm. We clasped hands. The Wishbone was the hardest bit of mountaineering any of us had ever done. It was hard to realize that this dreamed-of goal had been reached. I thanked God for the strength to tread the snows of this lofty, rarely conquered summit and for the scenes of grandeur uncovered as we rose higher.

The descent was begun almost immediately down the south glaciers. It was uneventful, except for a 200-foot rappel over the upper ice cliffs. Contours of the upper glacier had changed greatly since I had been there two years before. On reaching the yellow bands we had to make a long, tedious traverse back to high camp. It was much longer than anticipated. We were tired, sleepy, quite hungry, and absolutely dehydrated. We stopped at every stream. That night we slept the sleep of exhaustion and returned the following day to Berg Lake and Hargreave’s Ranch.

The next day my companions left for further adventures on Mt. Assiniboine and the Grand Tetons. I was alone once more. It was morning, the mists parted, and high above the fields and the cottonwoods was the immense south wall of Robson, gleaming in the early light. There it was, Robson, "The mountain of the spiral bands,” almost touching the roof of the sky, rising far above the green Fraser Valley and giving an impression of tremendous height. Its snows were sparkling and its canyons seamed with the scars of avalanches. Here was the scene of a lofty and stimulating struggle.

Summary of Statistics: Wishbone Arête, Mt. Robson, Canada, first ascent, August 11, 1955.

Personnel: Don Claunch, Harvey Firestone, and Mike Sherrick.

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