American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The East Face of Mount Chephren

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  • Publication Year: 1966

The East Face of Mount Chephren

Arthur Gran

We were three climbers, who had come from Alaska and New York to attempt a great alpine face. John Hudson, Pete Geiser and I were packing to a high camp at the base of the east face of Mount Chephren. After crossing the Mistaya River at the north end of Waterfowl Lakes, we headed straight towards the face. Gaining the crest of the moraine, we followed it to the south corner of a small peak that blends in with the face. We moved right a bit and started carving tent platforms in the slope.

While the others finished the platforms, I made a reconnaissance of the lower face before darkness. Traversing to the center of the glacier, I ascended to within a short distance of its top. The steepest 4000-foot wall ever attempted in the Canadian Rockies loomed above me. The entire face, even the abrupt summit of the mountain, was visible. Numerous waterfalls, bearing with them a multitude of rocks, plunged down the face. Three ramps rose diagonally up right to the crest of the main rib which broke the lower face. The center one appeared feasible and less rock-swept; a necessary traverse up high from this to the larger left- hand ramp appeared moderate. Once the main rib was gained we would attempt to follow it to its end below a series of sheer walls.

As I stood there straining my eyes, I began to feel uneasy. I decided to forget about the climb until the morning before it completely psyched me out. As I returned to camp a huge avalanche cut loose on the face, pouring over vertical walls and filling steep gulleys. Large boulders shot by 90 feet from our protected camp. At ten p.m. a steady rain started which lulled us to sleep.

We awoke at three a.m. My mental alarm clock was an hour late. The barometer was steady. The clear night sky was studded with stars. We started retracing my steps at four. Reaching the top of the glacier, we roped to cross the ice that partially filled the schrund. We gained the center ramp from a rotten rock chimney and followed it, unroped, for 500 feet until an easy traverse led left to the larger ramp. Where the ramp steepened, the question was whether we should try the wall straight on or attempt to enter a gulley up to the left. While John checked out the wall, I surveyed the gulley, which led to a large room with vertical walls and a heavy rain of rock. John’s line was friendlier. To save time, we decided that I would lead, John would remove pitons, and Pete would either climb or prusik with Jümars, whichever was faster.

John and I climbed a steep face to a small belay stance. I led on and in two long pitches we reached a notch on the crest of the main rib. After belaying John up, I climbed on as John brought Pete up to his belay stance. If we had had two in the party I could have been belayed on much of this unbelayed climbing. A party of three, however, has the additional manpower needed to lower an injured climber. Since Pete had no experience with Jümars, we decided that he could climb much faster with occasional tension, using Jümars only on the hardest pitches. The route ascended the rib, threading from side to side and up the center for three more pitches. Two more pitches and the rib steepened to an outside corner or nose.

We stood on a flat platform, ate and relaxed in the sun. The next pitch entered the rockfall zone from which we could not escape except by retreat or success. Too soon we would be flattening ourselves under overhangs in folds and niches. Three pitches more and we would reach the first steep ramp that breaks the face. Fortunately for maintaining high climbing standards and unfortunately for an injured climber these ramps have large notches in them that offer no escape from the wall.

Our objective now was a small shelf 100 feet above, separated from us by a blank wall. I traversed right around a corner and started ascending an exceptionally rotten fault. From around the corner my companions heard a rumble and shouted, "Art, are you all right?”

"Yes! That was the ledge I was standing on.” More rumble.

At last the shelf was reached. John followed while Pete used the Jümars.

The next pitch appeared less rotten (a common illusion on limestone). I laybacked up a large flake and held a mantel position on its top with one hand while placing a piton for protection in the wall above. Upon clipping the rope in, I leaned out on the flake and it leaned with me. I grabbed the piton, pulled both of us back in, then manteled up and climbed this exceptionally rotten section. The slightest movement of the rope would unleash a large cannonade on my friends. Pete was hit hard once but not hurt. My pack received two slashes large enough to require its disposal after the climb. John performed one of his remarkable feats of climbing with both of our packs under tension in order to avoid creating more rockfall by hauling them.

We gained the steep ramp that broke the face. Above stood a 200-foot overhanging wall from which rock, water and ice cascaded in numerous places. There were only two breaks in this wall. One was a crack system 350 feet left where the wall was unfortunately 100 feet higher. The other break, on our right, was an iced-up chimney with very heavy water and rock fall, obviously a last resort. We traversed left, occasionally running when the cry "rock” went up. Upon reaching the crack system it became apparent that we could not avoid getting soaked on this wall. I started up the overhanging limestone with 40 pitons and 40 carabiners. It was another slow A3 nail-up, slow because the pitons went into expanding cracks. At the belay point, which was in the main stream, I was completely soaked. John removed the pitons with the speed only experience can yield, but it was a soggy John Hudson who greeted me. I immediately continued, hoping to escape the cold and find a bivouac site before nightfall. Halfway up the next lead, still in the waterfall, I had to stop while John helped Pete. Pete was fouled up while Jümaring with a full pack. After tying in to the belay rope that John lowered him, Pete managed to Jümar up losing no more time, only his voice.

The next belay point was exposed to rockfall but dry. By the time John reached me I was shivering uncontrollably. The succeeding pitch gave access to the next large ramp. I immediately donned dry clothing while belaying under our next obstacle, a 200-foot overhanging wall. The others joined me as night descended. We traversed left around a corner to a small, but sheltered, bivouac. Tied into a base line, all of us attempted to dress and eat at the same time. We were not tired; we were exhausted, but merely for this day. The water supply was consumed down to an optimistic gallon for the following days.

First light of a new day is a more dramatic event than sunrise to a bivouacked climber. As the light brightens one can feel the surge of strength returning to tired muscles. Five hours rest and we were ready to continue the struggle for this very tangible goal. We were under way by five a.m., traversing back to the route and continuing 200 feet beyond. Stepping around a corner, we saw that the wall above ended in a steep shale and ice slope. We ascended the slope and reached a shelf after negotiating an iced chimney. We climbed to the next ramp at the base of a 200-foot overhanging wall.

We decided to traverse right. From a belay point on the very edge of a rockfall zone, our objective was a large gendarme standing midway between the two major rock chutes. After a heavy rockfall, I started across; not exactly running, but moving with great speed. The ramp was 5.2 and covered with verglas. John and Pete also made short work of this section. We worked our way through heavy rockfall up around the right side of the gendarme. Two more pitches and the base of the next ramp was gained. Above this very steep ramp was a sheer 500-foot wall composed of dolomite. The east face, although mostly limestone, has a good deal of dolomite, sandstone and shale, in addition to a base of quartz conglomerate.

Up to the left was a sheltered lunch spot near the base of an ice couloir. After climbing for sixty feet above John on steep, rotten shale of unprecedented looseness, I reached ice and made three quick nicks with my axe. Just as I was ready to mount the ice, absolutely everything around me broke loose. A self-arrest in the shale finally brought me to a sliding halt right across from John at the very top of a 200-foot overhanging wall.

After lunch, we cut steps across the couloir and then worked up the rock on its left side for two pitches. The next pitch required a fight through a steep snow rib to regain the couloir, which we ascended to its top. We stepped onto the dolomite, which was firm but lacking in cracks. A shallow ascending trough 50 feet above was the objective but the only means of reaching it was a crackless groove. The rock was somewhat soft and so I attempted to deepen the groove. I drove a long knife-blade into the crackless corner and when it buckled replaced it with a rurp, which went in only 1/16 of an inch. I retreated 20 feet, placed a good piton, and then went back up and used the rurp for direct aid. Everything was falling into place. Was it good route finding or just good luck? If a storm had hit, at this height, we would not have had enough pitons to get down. One more pitch diagonally up right and we cleared the wall. Two more pitches followed on limestone up right with a steep ice finish. At the top of the ice I reached up to a rock shelf and manteled. I could not believe my eyes, for before me was a horizontal plane, a startling sight after two days in the vertical. Our altimeter, which had not been set at the start, indicated that we had 800 feet to go.

I have never seen a more joyous summit party. And yet it was a quiet one. Mount Chephren’s position in the range affords a view that makes it an extremely worthwhile ascent. To remind us that the Rockies were still almost untouched, the 4000-foot unclimbed east faces of Mount Forbes and Howes Peak stood before us. We descended by the standard route and bivouacked at snow line. The next morning we descended to Chephren Lake. We tried to reach our camp by traversing the north side of the Lake (probably a first) through miles of alderslide and devil’s club. But that is another story and best told somewhere else.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Canadian Rockies.

Ascent: Mount Chephren, 10,715 feet, July 29 and 30, 1965. First ascent of the east face (Peter Geiser, Arthur Gran and John Hudson). Technical Data: 34 pitches, 4000 feet roped climbing, 1200 feet unroped climbing.

Pitons needed: Horizontals — 2 knife blades; 5 extra-long knife blades; 15 assorted; 1 rurp. Angles — 2, ½?; 1, ??; 5, ¾?; 2, 1?; 2, 1½?; and 1 each of 2?, 2½?, 3?, 3½?.

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