American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, British Columbia, Canadian Rockies, Mt. Robson. Emperor Face, Haley-House

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Mt. Robson. Emperor Face, Haley-House. When I got the call, Joe Josephson was on the other end of the line. Joe and Barry Blanchard were looking for a third to join them on an attempt on the Emperor Face, and so began what we came to call “the annual attempt and failure to climb Mt. Robson.” Over 10 days in March 1997, Barry, Joe, and I made two attempts on the face. Our first attempt, up the central gully, ended at one-third height by that favored climber’s delusion, dry snow over steep rock. (Amazing how it looks climbable if you spend enough days staring at it.) Next we tried the largest gully system on the right side of the face. A couple of thousand feet up, we could traverse 80' to the Emperor Ridge and comfortable bivouac sites. There I discovered that I had somehow dropped a crucial part of the stove, rendering it inoperable. Rather than huck myself straight off the cliff, as was my initial inclination, we spent a dry, cold night. At sunup Barry calmly led us back down the Emperor Ridge, with a dozen rappels and much downclimbing.

For the next 10 years, every spring I went north for the month of March, hoping to climb the Emperor Face. In 2000 Barry, Joe, and I climbed to the same highpoint and descended the same way, thwarted by storm. Later a pair of young Slovenians climbed precisely the same terrain and declared it a new route.

Barry and I didn’t consider it done. Then, in October 2002 Barry climbed the route with Eric Dumerac and Philippe Pellet and named it Infinite Patience. In July 2001 I spent seven nights there in a tiny tent with Rolando Garibotti, and in March 2007 another nine days in the Hargreaves Shelter with Vince Anderson. In 1997 we’d helicoptered in and skied out. In 1998 we’d flown in and out. With Rolo and Vince I was determined to go by foot, but each time the weather window had closed by the time we had negotiated the 27km approach.

I had slept 35 nights below the face over a span of ten years. After the March ‘07 attempt I bookmarked all Internet weather forecasts for Jasper, Valemont, and McBride (Robson being roughly equidistant from these locales) and checked the forecasts religiously. I created a spreadsheet to track the forecasted and actual weather, to estimate their reliability. Finally, in late May the weather looked good, but Vince was in Alaska guiding.

Colin Haley is young and lucky and available. Good, too. So I drove to Seattle, bivied in Colin’s parent’s loft, and on May 24 we drove to Valemont, hired a helicopter, and flew to the Helmut-Robson col. The flying got us there within the forecasted three-day good weather period (we burned the first day driving and flying), and it allowed us a safe approach to the face by downclimbing the Mist Glacier to the start of the climbing. I had done the approach from Berg Lake and up through the dangerous Mist icefall four times, and my odds were not getting better.

We left the tent at 4:30 a.m. on May 25 and were climbing within an hour. Colin led the first block of seven pitches. We stretched the pitches by simul-climbing where reasonable, thus averaging 80m per pitch. At over half-height the wall gets steep, and my experience and familiarity with the terrain came into play. There is a steep corner system just left of the apex of the face. I headed for that, leading a block of seven excellent pitches with very good ice conditions. The last 30m through the headwall were exciting, steep M7 climbing that kept me on my arms.

The rock varied from solid to suspect. The climbing was excellent, with technical moves protected by small cams and pins. But the greatest surprise was finding a tight Lost Arrow piton right at the exit move. The pin had to be from the ‘78 Jim Logan and Mugs Stump ascent (AAJ 1979, pp. 122-24). A few meters higher I found two more pitons that had obviously been someone’s belay. The pitch overhung about six or seven meters in the last 30. At 10:30 p.m. we hacked out a sitting stance on an ice arête that appeared to be 300-400' of easier climbing below the Emperor Ridge cornices, covered ourselves with a lightweight tarp, and alternately dozed and drank warm water while waiting for sunup.

Illustrious oranges and dazzling reds made me feel like I was climbing out of a 70s Technicolor daydream as I led the final two moderate thin ice and mixed pitches. At the ridge we belayed down a hundred feet and started simul-climbing across the top of the south face before unroping. We aimed for the Wishbone Arête and soloed up it for a few hundred feet. The ice was spooky rime, so we brought out the rope. I went ahead, winding over, around, and through the incredibly wild formations.

As we started climbing down a rime lump, the wind whipped and seemed to tear a momentary hole in the clouds. We had just climbed over the summit. We headed down the Kain Route, which Colin had descended before. Our camp-to-camp time was approximately 36 hours.

After we got home Dougald MacDonald put me in touch with Jim Logan. Jim concluded our phone conversation by saying “I like the idea that somebody else has been there now. It’s like Mugs and I knew what it was like up there. Now you guys know what it is like. It’s kind of cool. Nobody else knows. I was getting to the point where I was wanting somebody to do that face. When you did, it made me really happy. I really liked it.”

“Jim,” I replied, “We liked it too.”

Steve House, AAC

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