August 7 - 16, 2003
Three o’clock a.m. the alarm goes off. We all bolt upright and crowd around the tent door to look outside. Cloudy. Fuck. We can barely see the bergschrund. No f&*#ing way. How can the mountain do this to us? The disappointment hangs over our heads as thickly and oppressively as the clouds that prevent us from climbing. But we decide to rope up and go climb a short ways up just to experience being on the Kain Face. And who knows, maybe by the time we get there, the clouds will clear up.
So we head for the Face at 4am. We reach the base and the clouds remain stubborn as usual. We start up, but begin to notice an icy layer a few inches beneath the surface of the snow as we walk, so a hundred feet or so below the bergshrund, Todd starts to dig a quick avy pit with his ice axe. As he runs the handle of the axe across the back of the block of snow, a five-inch slab slides forward. He didn’t even have a chance to impact the top of the block because it slid so easily. He picked it up and it was a heavy, solid chunk of snow with a hard, icy layer on the bottom. The wind and new snow had formed a very nasty wind slab. Avalanche danger was high. Turning around was the obvious and proper decision to make, even though it was officially our last effort. Turning around right then meant we had given it everything and come up short. This was the anticlimactic ending we considered but didn't consider realistically. How would it feel to spend seven days trying to climb a sub-14,000 foot mountain in the middle of August and not make it? We were about to find out, because the avy danger was out of our comfort zone. At the time that decision was easy, although it's more and more difficult to remember that in retrospect.
But somehow we couldn't bear to head straight back to camp, so we stop on a snowy knoll above The Dome and brew up some coffee and watch the sun rise. As we sit there and watch one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen, the disbelief at how horrible the conditions remained for our entire duration on the mountain begins to sink in. The number of weapons this mountain has in its repertoire to bar access to its upper slopes is truly unbelievable. How vehemently this mountain denied us. It feels personal. It feels like there are dues one must pay to reach the peak. It feels like one must sacrifice a piece of your soul to the mountain before it will grant you its summit. Indeed, the lead guide of the group we are sharing the mountain with is here for his fifth time and has yet to reach the top. The cruel reality is that our story is not unique. Somehow I suppose that’s supposed to make it easier to accept, but as we sit there surrounded by immeasurable, almost incomprehensible beauty, anguish grows inside me.
We return to camp and pack up. The guided group watches silently as we prepare to leave. I can sense how palpable our disappointment must be to them. As we say goodbye, I give the mountain the finger, as it’s the only way I can think to summarize my feelings at the moment. Normally, I would consider it very bad luck, foolish even, to make such an irreverent gesture to a mountain when you are not yet beyond the reach of its wrath. But I truly felt that the mountain would feel this juvenile act was so insignificant that it would not even bother with a response. At most it would just chuckle smugly to itself as it watched another dejected party walk away.
Descending through The Mousetrap was quicker than ascending as we were able to reverse our route. But it was significantly warmer and softer. In fact there was fresh debris covering our tracks where we had passed under the large serac. We got down as quickly as we could. We descended the Robson Glacier, passed by Extinguisher Tower, our home for two nights, and made it all the way to the Berg Lake Shelter by about 2pm. We spent a couple hours drying out our gear and eating food while relating our story to a family out for their annual backpacking trip. Our disappointment seeps its way into our tone and sensing it, the nice woman from North Dakota says, “But you guys had a fun time, right?” Later another guy talks to us about it and comments, “Well, looks like you guys tried really hard!” Hearing these innocent perspectives on what we truly had accomplished made the bitter pill that much easier to swallow. The reply to both those comments is of course an emphatic “Yes!”
But as we sit at our camp at Marmot Campground, we watch in disbelief as the last few remaining clouds in the sky dissipate revealing the first perfectly clear skies we have seen since we arrived at the park a week ago. "Five inch wind-slab. Five inch wind-slab." We repeat the phrase over and over in our minds like a mantra, trying to hold onto the knowledge of why we turned around, which was a surprisingly elusive memory considering it ocurred just that morning. Sitting there watching the crystal clear sky settle in over the summit, we try hard to feel happy for the guided group because we know that they will probably summit tomorrow. We know they will probably go up despite the avalanche danger. And they will probably be fine and get up and down safely. But it’s so hard to feel happy for them. We discuss it over and over again trying to process everything, thoughts straying off into ridiculous little delusions such as, “Maybe we really did summit, but we just don’t remember it. Wouldn't that suck?” A sprinkling of insanity pushed its way into our conversation, and we did little to stop it.
Friday morning we wake up and there still isn’t a cloud in the sky. We are in reasonably good moods as we get ready to go. Somehow it almost seems funny, like this has all just been a practical joke. Perfectly clear on the day we arrive; perfectly clear on the day we leave; but terrible the whole way in between. That's funny, right? But as the hike out drags on and on and the miles tick by and we recall our optimism as we pass the familiar scenery we hiked through a week ago, the reality starts sinking in again, and our moods sink with it. The last few miles we’re each in our own self-absorbed world of desperately trying to exorcise the negativity. We reach the car and things feel okay again. We all call our significant others, each delivering the report in our own private way, then drive to Valemount and get a hotel, shower and go to a restaurant for some dinner. Our conversations are short and distracted as we have a hard time concentrating on anything but what to do about this mountain. How will we get over Robson. It feels like the nagging sense of an incomplete project has grafted itself permanently onto our consciousness. But as we drive home on Saturday, the further away we get, the easier it becomes to stop thinking about it. The excitement of getting home, seeing loved ones and telling people about our story revives our spirits.
After a long day of driving, we arrive back home. Immediately I find out that two people I am very close to had family members die while I was away. This puts into sharp relief just how truly trivial the fact that we didn’t reach the highest point on a mountain really is. The point is that we had an amazing time, we experienced the personality of a truly heinous mountain in all its glorious malevolence, and will get to share all the adventures with people we care about. Robson lived up to every inch of its reputation, yet we made it home safe and sound, with nothing but a little self-pity to get over. That's a hell of a trip -- the type you never forget, and I'm tremendously grateful to be sitting here writing this. The big question is: will I go back. Maybe if I can afford the helicopter ride in to the glacier.