American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, Canadian Rockies, Emperor Ridge, Mount Robson

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1962

Emperor Ridge, Mount Robson. Our spirits were high as Ron Perla and I hiked up above Kinney Lake under our ponchos late Sunday afternoon, July 16. We felt fortunate to find the often attempted Emperor Ridge still unclimbed. Monday morning was clear, and we had our first impressive glimpses of the ridge from the west. From there the mountain appears as a nearly perfect high-angle pyramid very much like the Matterhorn. Even more impressive than the lower massif was a view along the upper, low-angle portion of the ridge, where tooth-like ice blocks lining its crest had a translucent quality, back-lighted by early-morning sunlight. Crossing the frigid, waist-deep torrent just below Berg Lake was an adventure in itself. We were happy finally to drop our packs and establish our high camp at about 8000 feet where the ridge has an inflection. The climb to that point had been over scree and rotten shale slabs. We awoke to blowing snow and hail. Robson’s cloud cap extended well down over the upper rock portions of the ridge. The weather was uncertain, but we decided to start the climb and to turn back only if it looked as if we were in for an extensive storm. Icicles and verglas, covered with light fresh snow, complicated the high-angle rock portion of the climb. Direct aid, using crampons and pitons, which held badly in the rotten shale, was required to regain the ridge after a short traverse to the right to avoid the full force of the wind. Snow and ice-covered slabs at an uncomfortable angle followed. Reaching the crest, Ron and I were faced with an ice-coated, overhanging rock projection. We were tempted to turn back, for it was already two o’clock and it seemed as if we were being swallowed up by the cloud cap at the top of the high-angle portion of the ridge. A false lead ended our attempt to pass the rock obstacle on the left, but its slightly overhanging face was finally forced directly with protection from surprisingly solid pitons. This difficult pitch brought me to a moderate gully leading to the ice blocks we had come to cope with. Perla, who was out of view, had been subjected to considerable mental and physical anguish during this long and frightening lead, as his belay position on the ridge crest was exposed to the full force of the icy wind. Our perseverance was rewarded, for we were able to move rapidly along the first ice blocks from belay to belay in spite of the wind. Our technique was to establish a solid axe belay on one ice block and thread our 150-foot rope alternately on the left and right side of subsequent blocks. Occasionally we had to chop away overhanging portions of blocks and used several ice pitons for direct aid. The ridge line was often a true knife-edge and we side-stepped, using the axe for balance. We were almost grateful for the cloud cap, for during rare partial clearings the terrifying exposure from our knife-thin ridge was revealed. Kinney Lake was visible 8000 feet below on our right. The northwest and north faces fell away for about a mile at an angle in excess of 60°. The north face was a sheet of blue ice, punctuated by sharp rock projections. Our progress was interrupted after about a half-dozen rope lengths at a point where several ice blocks were missing and rock showed through. There for the second and last time we were victims of a natural tendency to traverse past obstacles in the ridge. Again it took much time and unnecessarily difficult ice climbing to regain the ridge. Over thirty rope lengths were required to complete the ice-pinnacled portion of the ridge. These pinnacles perch on a rock ridge, which is already a knife-edge. Their left side is a continuation of the north face, and they precariously overhang the south slope. As we neared the summit, the ice blocks were larger and we sank deeper into the snow. We trenched around the left side of some of the larger blocks to avoid gaining and losing so much altitude and put less strain on the apparently fragile bond between the block and the ridge. As we neared the summit, the cloud cap completely parted and lit our route along the ridge. It appeared that the cap might break up, but after reaching the top at 7:30 P.M., we waited in vain for a view of our intended descent along the Wishbone Arête.

We had anticipated a bivouac and were prepared with extra warm clothing, a stove, and dried foods. Our "cozy” ice cave on the summit, which we fashioned with little effort in a conveniently shaped crevasse, was as uncomfortable an accommodation as either of us could remember. We dozed only briefly near morning. We arose to a fantasy world of wind and snow and weird ice formations. We could see for only a radius of about 50 to 100 feet, as the weather had not slackened. Rather than to descend the Wishbone Arête, we chose a route I had climbed in July 1959 from the south, angling directly up from Little Robson to the summit along the west margin of the hanging glacier, probably a new route. I had climbed this in five hours from a camp just above timberline and had descended in less than three hours. The extremely narrow field of view offered by the cloud cap made it difficult to find the route, for Robson is a massive peak; we literally stumbled onto the key traverse after backtracking only once to insure that we had not come upon the icefall from above. Wet snow over glass-smooth ice on the steep upper slopes, which had been such a joy to climb two years before, forced us to drive ice pitons and belay every step. The view of the traverse beneath the icefall was terrifying. The descent had already been more harrowing than our ascent, and the section ahead looked impossible. The cloud cap was starting to lift, which greatly helped in the tricky ledge switching on the traverse. It was occasionally necessary to cling to holds where water was running. We alternately drove ice and rock pitons, cut many steps and at one point rappelled from a piton anchored in an ice block. The traverse wound in and out from under the overhanging ice, where water and ice blocks occasionally fell twenty or thirty feet out beyond our route. The objective danger was great, but we finished it without mishap and romped down to Little Robson col in the sunshine. Twelve hours had elapsed when we reached my campsite of two years ago.

T. M. Spencer, Wasatch Mountain Club

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