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.

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