Saturday, August 16, 2003

Mt Robson - Conclusion

Mt. Robson, B.C.
12,973 Feet
Kane Route
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.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Mt Robson - The Dome

Mt. Robson, B.C.
12,973 Feet
Kane Route
August 7 - 16, 2003

Monday morning we woke up at 5 and packed up camp. We decided to head up to the Robson Cirque, and if a route through The Mousetrap became obvious we would continue up. Otherwise we would set up camp in the Cirque, a large bowl just east of The Dome and The Mousetrap. Heading up the upper Robson Glacier at 7am, it was apparent the temperatures had dropped overnight. The glacier ice was bullet-proof, and even all the little rivulets had frozen. The glacier-melt stream where we had obtained fresh water from our camp below the tower had slowed to a trickle, whereas the day before, during the storm, it was a rushing torrent. Okay, maybe not a torrent, but it was certainly running high. We roped up after half a mile or so of traveling on the glacier when the crevasses started opening up. The glacier travel slowed to a crawl at this point as finding our way through the crevasses became more and more difficult.

Finally we reached the long slope leading up to the Robson Cirque and we switch-backed our way up it. As we went up, we watched a helicopter fly into Reargard meadows. It appeared to be dropping off a guided group and picking up another one. Cheaters. They only effectively cut out 18 miles of the climb. We arrived at the edge of the bowl around 10:30 and we were greeted by some of the largest crevasses I have ever seen. Some were about 20 to 30 feet wide and a couple hundred feet long. It was simply nutty. Almost as soon as we crested the clouds cleared up a little and we could see a fairly obvious line through The Mousetrap, so we made the decision to keep going.

The ice and snow in The Mousetrap was reasonably firm lower down, and we made good time getting through it. Before we knew it, we were about half-way through. However we were at a point where we weren’t sure if it would go based on our visual inspection from the cirque, and sure enough, Todd ran into a huge, gaping crevasse. There was debris built up inside it from crumbled seracs that Todd thought would provide access to the other side of the crevasse by climbing down into the crevasse, crossing the debris, then climbing back up the other side of the crevasse. Something to think about. We decided to explore other options. We circled back around to the left and found a place where the top of a serac was drooping a bit. We thought we might be able to climb to the top of the serac, then hopefully gain access to the broad bench that runs the width of The Mousetrap at the top. However it was a shot in the dark as to whether the span between the serac and the bench was continuous enough to allow passage. Around this time Maria spotted a tunnel-like space between two seracs that appeared to provide access to the other side of the crevasse we had been stopped at. At this point, we had been hanging around for about half an hour on chunks of snow debris that had fallen off of the serac we were presently standing under. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was becoming extremely anxious to get out of there because the afternoon sun was getting warmer and the danger of chunks of ice crumbling off the serac was growing by the minute. I really, really, did not want a serac to crush me, and I had this paranoid feeling that the serac wanted to.

We decided to check out Maria’s route as it would probably be the easiest way to turn back from if it didn't go. However it involved traversing around a steep, exposed corner of a large serac. It was at this point that our reliance on Todd’s technical experience with ice climbing became evident. Maria asked me to call Todd over to lead it. Todd graciously took the reigns and led around the corner with the large crevasse looming below him. When he got around the corner, Todd yelled “Holy shit!” It was at this point that Maria and I marveled at Todd’s ambiguous exclamations. “What does ‘holy shit’ mean?” I yelled back. “Is that good or bad?” Todd replied back in a slightly less uncertain manner, “Maria, you’re a genius.” We assumed that meant he had gained the other side of the crevasse, so we continued around.

We were so relieved to be out from under the seracs and on the other side of the crevasse, and with excitement and renewed spirits we started up through the upper portion of the Mousetrap. But, in what was becoming very characteristic behavior for this mountain, the clouds decided to join us in our revelry by thickening up and spitting cold, stinging hail in our faces for half an hour. Those were some good times. However we managed to find old footprints which we were able to follow, wandering through the many remaining, large crevasses. We crossed several thin and/or narrow snow bridges, finally reaching the relative safety of the broad, minimally crevassed slopes of the last few hundred feet below The Dome.

Maria took over the lead as Todd had exhausted himself leading us through The Mousetrap. Around 3pm we topped out on The Dome at 10,100 feet. We had ascended into a whiteout and had about a rope-length of visibility. Maria called down to us asking for our opinion on going left or right to find a place to camp. While she was shouting, the clouds thinned a little and I saw a snow wall about 100 feet away to our right. Someone had built a nice snow wall around a large tent platform, big enough for about four tents. We rejoiced at our good fortune, for it was vacant. We ambled over to it and set up our tent in a corner. That night there was more lightening, the visibility remained poor, and snow began to fall, so we didn’t even bother setting our alarms – we knew there was no way we were going to the summit in the morning.

We woke up Tuesday morning to about 4 inches of new snowfall. We wondered about the fate of the team from Denver. We saw them up at the col watching us go up The Mousetrap the day before, so we could only assume they tried the ridge traverse, but backed off. There was another team of three we saw show up in the cirque Monday. The never made it to The Dome either. That meant that out of 15 non-guided climbers (including us), we were the only three to reach The Dome.

The clouds were still very thick Tuesday morning and afternoon, so it was to our great surprise when the guided group we saw fly in the day before showed up in our camp. There were nine of them and we were very annoyed that they were disrupting our solitude. We were even more annoyed at the superiority complex displayed by the three guides. That evening the sky cleared up enough to reveal the bottom half of the Kain Face, and they announced proudly that they were going to go try and find a way across the bergschrund which cut nearly all the way across the bottom third of the Face. Earlier we were able to see the top of the Face for brief periods and we noticed a particularly large cornice hanging out over the left side. But it was cloudy again now, and so we told the lead guide about it and his reply was, “No, there aren’t any cornices on the left side.” Todd politely insisted that there was in fact a rather large one and the guide gave in slightly and conceded that “Well, if there are cornices, they’re small ones and I’m not worried about them.” We could do nothing but shrug our shoulders and wish him good luck. Apparently appearing omniscient in the eyes of their clients is more important than assuring the safety of the group. I didn’t figure it would be of any interest to the guide to hear about the crack that had formed on the underside of the cornice.

One benefit of having the guides there, however, was they had new weather reports. The forecast for Wednesday in Jasper was for it to be clear and sunny. Jasper is an hour east of Robson. This meant, well, absolutely nothing. Robson fits perfectly the description of a mountain that creates its own weather. So many times we witnessed blue skies surrounding the mountain, but one thick, dark cloud clinging stubbornly to the upper mountain, barring access to the summit for days. Nevertheless, hearing the forecast renewed our optimism that we might get a chance to climb. Sure enough the clouds cleared a bit more Tuesday evening and we could see all of the Kain Face. We analyzed it through Todd’s wicked cool pirate scope and there appeared to be a strip down the middle that had an icier consistency than the rest of the Face. However there were still large patches of snow all over it, which caused us some concern. It seemed that snow precariously plastered onto a 50-degree slope had the potential to be a little sketchy for climbing.

We woke up at 3am Wenesday morning and looked outside the tent. Whiteout. No chance of summiting. Unsurprised, we went back to sleep. According to the new forecast the guides received, it turned out the good weather was to be delayed a day. Todd, Maria and I discussed our options. According to our plan, this was supposed to have been our last chance of summiting. We had one more dinner with us for Wednesday night, so we could either descend this morning and have an extra dinner, or hang around until Thursday morning. If we summitted Thursday, then we would have to go without dinner Thursday night, but we had come this far and waited this long, and the prospect of having a hunger for food for a brief period of time seemed like a trivial concern compared to our hunger for the summit. In fact, not reaching the summit wouldn't be as disappointing if we could just get on the Kain Face. We all wanted desperately just to be on it. It had been looming over us for 48 hours. Taunting us. Intimidating us. Daring us. “Go ahead, climb me.” Will it be safe? Will it be easier than it looks? Will we get up there and have the time of our lives, or will we get up there and be scared out of our minds? We had to know. We decided to give the weather one more chance and risk missing a meal, so we stayed an extra night.

Wednesday evening the sky cleared up more than it had in days. We could almost see the summit. Our excitement mounted and we put the finishing touches on our summit packs. We discussed in detail the kind of conditions we might find and how we would handle different situations. We plotted, schemed and analyzed with confidence that we would climb. That night, I slept with Kirsten's bandana clutched tightly in my hand. The anticipation of the inevitable good weather we would be greeted with when we awoke, and the inescapable reality, it seemed, that we would be on the Kain Face in a few hours, pulsed with intensity through my body. But coating my visions of being on the Face and the upper mountain was a desire to be home again. Get home safe, man, that's all you have to do.

Saturday, August 9, 2003

Mt Robson - Extinguisher Tower

Mt. Robson, B.C.
12,973 Feet
Kane Route
August 7 - 16, 2003

We went into the Ranger Station and spoke with the climbing ranger, Hugo. He told us it had been really warm lately and everything was soft and wet up on the glacier. Only one team had summitted so far this year, and many others had turned around. He also told us that a 22-year-old man had attempted to solo the mountain and was now 72 hours past due. This was bad news that tainted our mood slightly as we prepared to head in to the mountain.
After dividing up all the group gear and packing up our backpacks, we headed up the trail at around 1pm. We estimated that each of our packs weighed between 60 and 70 pounds – I was very glad Kirsten let me borrow her beefy Dana Design pack because there’s no way my light framed Dana would have held up under that kind of load. We ran into a party of six from Ottawa who was on their way down from attempting the Kain Face and we tried to get beta from them, but they didn’t make it past Extinguisher Tower. They got rained on pretty consistently and they said they heard seracs falling in The Mousetrap all the time, even at night. This was disconcerting news because The Mousetrap needs to freeze at night in order for it to be relatively safe, and they were telling us it was not cooling off at night at all.

We had 10 miles to hike in to Emperor Falls Campground and most of the trail was flat and very well maintained. We hit a steep section between Whitehorn CG and Emperor Falls that took a serious toll on our bodies – thighs, hips, backs... all sore. We arrived in camp Friday evening around 6 and enjoyed nearly perfect, clear views of the west ridge (the Emperor Ridge (V, 5.6)), and a bit of the Emperor Face (VI, 5.9, A2 -- seriously) – one of the most formidable alpine faces in the world, having only three ascents to date, all via different routes.
After fighting off chipmunks and eating some potato soup, we slept well and got up early Saturday morning to head up to Exinguisher Tower. The weather was again beautiful, with only a few more clouds in the sky. We stopped at the Berg Lake Shelter; chatted with some folks; sat on the last plastic toilet we would see for the next 6 days; and stashed a day’s worth of food in the shelter for our hike back down. We had traveled 14 miles and only had 4 to go to Extinguisher Tower.

We hit the Robson Glacier around 1pm Saturday, roped up and within minutes of setting foot on the glacier, the blue skies closed up with clouds, and about an hour later it began to rain on us. Shortly after, we started hearing thunderclaps. Although we couldn’t see any lighting, it was still quite nerve-wracking to be out on the middle of a glacier with metal crampons and ice-axes connecting our bodies to the ice. If it did get close, we were sitting ducks. Fortunately, after about an hour the rain and thunder went away. But now our first apparent technical challenge arose. Sitting between us and Extinguisher Tower was a large, jumbled mess of seracs that we weren't terribly excited about climbing through. We decided to scout out the possibility of exiting the glacier to the left before the seracs, and fortunately the glacier sloped gently away, all the way to the ground on the left side. There’s even enough glacier left in 2003 to get you across the stream easily.

The slow slog up the loose scree of the moraine went for another quarter mile or so up to the base of Extinguisher Tower at 6,600 feet. There we met a party of three from Denver. We set up camp and BS’d with the Denver guys for a while. They seemed extremely confident in their knowledge of the mountain, which was interesting to us because the route they were describing sounded nothing like what we had planned. So we pulled out our route description and diagram. They were shocked to see that they had erroneously been planning to climb up the wrong side of The Dome, which from all the visual evidence we could gather, looked like a suicide mission.

Saturday night a larger storm hit. Lightning flashes lit up the tent and thunderclaps sounded like a fleet of 747's overhead. Sunday morning the weather was still looking bad, so we decided to stay at Extinguisher Tower for another day and hope it cleared up, and also rest our legs a bit before tackling The Mousetrap. A storm hit in the early afternoon and lasted about 6 hours. Rain, lightning, the whole bit. The Denver team had left that morning, but we weren’t sure whether they were going to try The Mousetrap, their false version of The Mousetrap, or the Robson-Resplendent Col. We spent the day resting and took a reconnaissance hike to scout out The Mousetrap. We discovered that the Ottawans we chatted with on the trail several days ago could not have even seen The Mousetrap from their camp, much less discern whether the sound of seracs falling was coming from The Mousetrap or one of the many other icefalls in the area. The sky began to clear up a bit Sunday night, and it felt like the temperature was finally starting to cool off, but we were still concerned about the temperature in The Mousetrap and about the fact we were unable to spot a sure route through it on our reconnaissance hike, not even with Todd’s wicked cool pirate monocular. The other option for gaining The Dome was to go to the col and traverse the ridge. This option looked much, much steeper, longer, and more difficult than it did in any of the pictures we looked at back home, and we pretty much ruled it completely out.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Mt Robson - Intro

Mt. Robson, B.C.
12,973 Feet
Kane Route
August 7 - 16, 2003

I was ecstatic when Todd called me up at work sometime back in May and invited me to join him and Maria to climb Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. I had read things here and there about it, and I was already a little caught in its spell. It seemed like a mountain that was years away from me though. So even when Todd disclosed to me that it only has a 10 - 20% success rate, lower than Everest or Denali, I still accepted the invitation enthusiastically. At the time the climb was three months away, and it’s reputation for bad weather seemed like a mere inconvenience, not a legitimate threat to our chances of summiting. Surely in the middle of August the weather had to be more cooperative. We would spend the next three months eagerly anticipating the trip. Planning, reserving campsites, analyzing route descriptions, compiling information from sources ranging from back issues of Climbing magazine to trip reports from the web. We would attempt the Kain Face, Alpine Grade IV. There are more easily accessed routes on the Mountain, but none of them involve the classic and relatively moderate technical nature of this route.

The route involves hiking 16 miles of trail to the foot of the Robson Glacier. Traveling 2 miles up the Glacier to Extinguisher Tower, a choss pile that stands about 500 feet high and constantly sheds rock down onto the Glacier. Camp there, then get up early in the morning and travel across 2 more miles of glacier to an icefall to the east of The Dome, called the Mousetrap. Climb straight up through the heart of the Mousetrap to The Dome, a large, snow-covered mound at 10,000 feet that is situated directly below the Kain Face. Camp on The Dome and wait for good weather. If you are lucky, then climb the Kain Face, a 45 to 50 degree, 1500 foot tall ice face, then the east ridge to the summit.

We decided to give ourselves seven days to complete the climb and hike out. Seven days seemed like a very safe amount of time. Any bad weather systems that moved in would in all likelihood dissipate within a couple days, opening up the summit to us within our timeframe. It would be August, after all, a month which has become famous for its good weather in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere of this planet.

We drove into Valemount, BC around 9pm Thursday night. So far the trip had gone well, with the exception of a shortcut that involved dirt roads and horses. We drove through the yellowish-gray haze of the nearby forest fires and made a rather depressing food and gas stop at a small town called Clearwater (which is immediately preceded by Black Pool, incidentally). Clearwater was out of power due to the forest fires, and half of it was shut down (the half that couldn’t obtain power from backup generators). There was something third-world-country-ish about it. Between Clearwater and Valemount, we made 3 more stops in an effort to obtain cured meat for the trail. Cured meat, you may be aware, does not require refrigeration, making it a convenient source of protein and fat while hiking. So it was to our shock and amusement when an employee of one store announced that they lost all their cured meat when the power went out. Todd considered advising him as to cured meat’s physical properties which allow it to not be "lost" when power goes out, and therefore it’s economic value when power does go out, but he perhaps unfairly but ultimately correctly assumed that it would be lost on him. Finally, in Valemount we found some Canadian made Lanjaeger. Let it be known, this is horrible, horrible stuff. Stay away from it. It's just not worth it.

We camped in Valemount for the night, and woke up early and drove another hour to Robson Park. There was a bit of a haze in the air, but otherwise it was a pretty clear sky, and as we drove around a bend in Highway 16, we caught our first site of Mt. Robson. We were viewing its south side, and it was utterly breathtaking. Such a beautiful, rugged, and captivating mountain.