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And Then We Were Twelve

[UPDATE, AUGUST 13, 2021: Barry Blanchard recently slipped on some stairs and suffered a brain injury. He is facing a long recovery. A Go Fund Me campaign has been set up to help the family. The following story originally appeared in the Full Value section of Alpinist 72, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

STREAMERS OF CIRRUS CLOUD picketed the sky like a fence made of bones. I worried that by day’s end the dark underbellies of storm clouds might sink onto the summit of Yexyexescen (Mt. Robson). By tomorrow, the sharp contrast of black rock and white ice could vanish under new snowfall, and a murky smoke of clouds could dull the midday summer air. For now, the sun still shone, and Troy Kirwan and I were working hard to shepherd our three clients–Todd, Doug and Larry–over the ridgeline that connected Resplendent Mountain to Yexyexescen. At 10,100 feet, they had big smiles and big packs. It was Tuesday, August 21, 1990, and we were two days and seventeen miles out from the trailhead. Rust- and slate-colored rock ground under our crampons. The Robson Glacier flowed northeast like a massive boulevard riven by crevasses. To the southwest, an unnamed creek glinted 5,000 feet below. I felt as if I could throw a rock into it.

That afternoon, we set up our high camp on a glacial hump just below the Kain Face, 10,300 feet above sea level. From there, we intended to climb to the 12,972-foot apex of Yexyexescen, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, the “King.” In 1913, during the first ascent, the great Austrian Guide Conrad Kain had wielded his yard-long alpenstock to hack hundreds of steps into the broad shield of pearl-colored snow and pewter ice. If the weather held, our group would stride out several hours before dawn.

FOUR YEARS BEFORE OUR TRIP, in 1986, when Peter Kofler was twenty-seven years old, he’d taken an Introduction to Mountaineering course with our company, the Yamnuska Mountain School. During that week, Peter learned the basics of mountaineering, and he was guided up several straightforward peaks on the Wapta Icefield in Banff National Park. After he flew home to Kitchener, Ontario, he and his childhood buddy, Rob Herbst, began dreaming of going on a climbing trip together. They wanted to experience the stirring of the soul that they’d read in books about Chomolungma (Everest) by mountaineers such as Pat Morrow, Bruce Patterson and Chris Bonington.

Rob believed that a path could be found on high peaks that would lead through internal sufferings to a place of pure light, peace, calm, love and absolute truth. He hadn’t climbed any mountains yet. But as he and Peter consulted Sean Dougherty’s Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Rob said, “Let’s climb a big one.” The young men chose to start with the South Face of Mt. Robson, another route pioneered by Conrad Kain in 1924: nine thousand, five hundred feet of complicated route finding, including a hundred yards of jogging under a murderous wall of aquamarine seracs to enter the labyrinth of crevasses and icefalls of The Roof, a hanging glacier that looks like a steeply pitched thatch woven from chalk-white grass.

In August 1990, Rob and Peter flew to Calgary and rented blue plastic mountaineering boots and crampons from the University Outdoor Centre. Perhaps inspired by Kain, they each bought one 95cm axe. Under eighty-five-pound packs, they labored for two days up thickly vegetated rock, and then they zigzag scrambled over shattered stone to the Ralph Forrester Hut. The next night, they bivied on top of Little Robson, a glaciated 10,300-foot-high subpeak. Experienced parties usually gain this point in mere hours from the hut. Rob and Peter took all day. But at noon on August 21, eleven hours after leaving their bivy, they were elated to reach the summit of Yexyexescen. Rob was newly engaged, and he wrote his fiance’s name and his enclosed within a heart in the summit register. Soon, it was time to skedaddle as the high fence of bonelike cirrus clouds began melding into a solid darkening mass.

By then, Rob and Peter’s luck had stretched gossamer thin. Yet they weren’t the first young climbers to be overcome by enthusiasm and naivete. When I was seventeen, brimming with desire and ignorance, I got stuck in an unplanned bivouac on the flanks of Mt. Louis. My partners and I resorted to burning our slings for warmth on that piercing November night. Like Rob and Peter, I’d gained all I knew at that point from books. As I learned by trials and (fortunately small) errors, I made most of my missteps on low rock peaks, not on massive complex glaciated mountains. Rob and Peter’s biggest error was not approaching the mountains incrementally, but they also didn’t know any real mountaineers who could advise them. My first mentors had showed up when I was nineteen. Rob and Peter’s hadn’t appeared yet.

They started to descend Yexyexescen with twenty feet of rope between them. At 1 p.m. Rob lost his footing. He hissed past Peter and hurtled down the frozen gullies of The Roof. When the rope snapped tight, the force of the fall catapulted Peter into the air and smacked him onto ice as hard as armor. The rush of compressed air tore at their ears as they accelerated. Three hundred feet lower, Rob crashed into the inside lip of a crevasse at the same instant that Peter crunched onto its outer edge and fractured his tibia. The rope stretched and cut into the lip like a hot steel wire, but they’d stopped sliding. One of Rob’s crampons was broken. Perhaps it had caused the fall.

Rob splinted Peter’s leg with aluminum pack stays, a tensor bandage and a red bandana. Although they could see our high camp, we couldn’t hear their screams for help. By 3 p.m., they realized that if they were to survive the night Rob would have to climb down to the base of The Roof and retrieve the stove and extra clothes they’d cached there. Rob set out with one 95cm axe and one crampon. Another mistake. But this one bore no consequences because, just then, two experienced climbers from Breckenridge, Colorado, showed up.

Ethan Guerra and Lorne Glick were just starting up The Roof when they heard the cries, and they traversed to Rob.

“I have no right to ask you this,” Rob said, “but my buddy has broken his leg and we need help.”

“Fuck,” said Lorne. They were on their way to the top and so, so close. Since two climbers from Spokane, Washington, happened to be descending, Ethan and Lorne shouted to them to go for help. They told Rob how to dig in, stay warm, and wait for a rescue. Several hours later, when Ethan and Lorne returned from the summit, they were shocked to see that Peter and Rob hadn’t moved. They lowered Rob and Peter, one by one, to the bergschrund at the base of The Roof. There, Rob started to dig a snow cave. Ethan and Lorne got ready to continue down the peak. In Ethan’s words, “Peter just fuckin’ wigged. Lost it, shouted, ‘You guys can’t just leave us here!'”

Climbing culture: we come to each other’s aid in times of need. Ethan and Lorne knew they had to stay and help. The four men hunkered down inside the schrund-cave. With each cup of tea they brewed, their spirits rose. They would make it through the night.

WHEN THE SPOKANE CLIMBERS arrived at our high camp and told us the story, Troy and I grabbed what our team could spare, and we hurried up the face. We reached the four men at 8:00 p.m. Hope flashed across Peter’s face as if he’d been trapped in an underground mine shaft and we’d let the sun in. Troy and I had a stove with fuel, extra jackets, two ensolite pads and a tent fly, but we didn’t have the wherewithal to get all four men down. Fear, then resignation, settled onto Peter and Rob as they understood. They slumped back against the sooty ice and lowered their eyes, and then their heads. Ethan and Lorne stepped outside to talk with us.

“These two are in so far over their heads it’s unbelievable,” Lorne said.

“Peter asked me, ‘Shouldn’t we start a fire?'” Ethan said, “And I said, do you see any trees around here? I think that he may be in shock.”

“Ya,” Lorne chimed in, “then Rob asked ‘Do they do avalanche control on this slope?’ And I said, ‘Do you see a road at the bottom of it? No, they don’t do avalanche control on this slope.'”

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

Ethan and Lorne wanted to go back to our high camp with us, but someone needed to stay with Peter and Rob. We agreed that Ethan and Lorne would remain in the schrund. Troy and I would return the next morning to help everyone descend. We knew we’d need several ropes, a rack of ice gear and plenty of daylight to get everyone down. Night was fast approaching, now, and Troy and I had to get back to our clients. We had no idea that a cold front was about to smash into The King like a heavy blow from a battle mace.

“You guys aren’t staying,” Rob said, shock in his voice, “Isn’t the Kain Face steep? How will you get down?”

“Same way we got up,” I replied.

“How can you do that?” Peter asked. He sounded bewildered.

“We’re Alpine Guides,” Troy stated, “This is what we do, and my partner Barry here is one of the best. We’ll get down. Don’t worry about us.”

“But it’s getting dark out,” Peter said.

“We’ve got headlamps, and we know where we’re going,” I replied.

“You’ll come back tomorrow though, right?” Rob implored.

“Yes, we’ll be back in the morning,” I said.

Waves of rain soaked Troy and me to the bone as we down climbed the Kain Face. The temperature plummeted to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. By morning, a foot of heavy snow lay on our high camp. When I lit the stove, my fingers went numb. I could only see about ten feet through mists of freezing rain. Invisible slough avalanches rumbled.

“We can’t go up there in this.” I said to Troy, “We’ll be hypothermic before we get half way up the face, and we won’t be able to see the traverse to The Roof. We could step off of the ridge and trigger a cornice, or fall off the other side.”

“Ya, I’m not going up in this. I hope those guys are doing OK.”

“They must be cold. I hope they’re not freezing to death.”

“Shit.” Troy and I both looked down at the wet snow now accumulating on our boots. The real possibility of death felt as leaden as the new drifts and as grey as the ashen sky.

UP IN THE SCHRUND spirits sank like candle flames flickering low. Ethan and Lorne decided to “Make a break for it” and asked Rob if he was coming. Rob stayed. In a couple of hours, Ethan and Lorne were back in the schrund, soaked clean through. Outside, wet crystals of snow stabbed like tattoo needles at any exposed skin. Inside, the cold of permanent ice clamped down from all sides. This was how people froze to death.

At our high camp, it snowed and snowed. Our umbrellas were our best piece of equipment because we could stand under them until we started shivering. Several times, we heard the faint distant thwack of a helicopter. We suspected that the Spokane team had gotten the word out via one of the ranger radios at Berg Lake, 4,850 feet lower and seven and a half miles away by foot, or from the Visitor’s Centre, 7,600 feet below us and eighteen and a half miles back down our route. Cell phones barely existed then, and even now, they don’t get coverage on much of Yexyexescen. It would still be a couple more years before guides started carrying VHF radios.

Late that afternoon, patches of clear sky flitted over the mountain. Through one brief opening, a helicopter flickered way the hell up there, above the summit, before it vanished behind clouds. Its thumping grew steadily closer and louder. For the span of a heartbeat, it lifted out of the whiteout and hovered above us, and then it set down quickly, like an eagle alighting on a branch.

“Barry Blanchard, come to the helicopter.” The words resounded from the machine’s public address system. Troy and I held our hoods against the gushing downdraft and rasping snow. Darro Stinson, a Jasper warden who had taken the Assistant Summer Guide course with me, opened the door. Usually, a grin cracked his full ginger beard. This time, I noticed concern in his furrowed brow. But it felt so good see him sitting in the machine. The helicopter could lift the four souls stuck in the schrund to safety. “Is there a guy with a broken leg here?” he asked.

“No, Darro, they’re up at the base of The Roof. Troy and I got to them yesterday and left them some supplies.”

“Fuck! I’ve got four wardens on top of Little Robson, but they’re pinned down and can’t move.” Little Robson was on the other side of the mountain, and between it and the schrund lay a mile of steep glacier slashed side to side with crevasses. All of that terrain had melded into a whiteout. Even today, armed with GPS, it would be damn near impossible to find the stranded men without a line of wands every thirty feet.

“Darro, we’ve got to go,” the pilot Todd McCready said. Beneath his matter-of-fact statement, I heard an iron edge of concern.

Darro handed me a radio. “At least we’ll be able to talk to you,” he said.

The helicopter lifted and slowly spiraled down toward Berg Lake. During the next hour, Darro checked in with me several times over the radio. We remained inside a giant ping-pong ball of snow and cloud. It would be impossible to land at our elevation, or higher up where we prayed that four living men still waited.

Toward evening, our grey world paled slightly. Visibility increased from twenty to a hundred feet.

“Troy,” I said, “I think that we should just go back up and get those guys.”

“Ya buddy, I’ve been thinking the same thing.” From the huskiness of his voice, I could tell that he, too, was feeling the weight of being, possibly, their last chance.

When I cued Darro, he replied instantly, “Ya Barry, what is it?” I knew that he was living beside the radio.

“Darro, Troy and I can climb back up there and get those guys down to here,” I said.

The radio went silent for thirty seconds.

“OK,” Darro said, “but only because it’s you up there. If it was anybody else, I’d say no.”

It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing when Troy and I started cramponing up the face. The thought of finding four guys frozen to death felt as bleak as the black ice beneath our feet.

Inside the schrund, the men were stuffed two by two in separate bivy sacks. The fuel was gone, and they’d split the last of the food–an onion that Ethan had–four ways. They were already shaking with hypothermia.

“Someone here order Chinese food?” I shouted.

A bunch of hollering and whooping erupted. Troy’s face bust into a smile.

“Do you think you can walk?” I asked Peter.

His eyes lit up, and he wriggled from the cramped sarcophagus of the bivy sack. “Ya, I can walk,” he said.

“Do you want to get out of here?” I asked.

“I do not want to be here anymore.” Tremors shook his arms and his jaw stuttered, but he staggered to his feet.

I led back across the traverse to the Kain Face with Peter right behind me on a short rope so I’d have a chance of holding him if he fell. Stiff-kneed and jerky, he pegged along on his broken leg. He choked back any gasps of pain. Next in line, Troy clamped down hard with his right hand on the rope that led to Peter. His blue eyes focused unwaveringly on Peter’s crampons. Behind Troy was Ethan, then Rob and Lorne.

We walked into the darkening day while clouds blocked the sun and night came on. On one section of the traverse, the ice rolled away steeply to our right. If anyone lost his footing, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for others to stop the fall. All six of us would plummet 7,000 feet to the valley floor.

In a sober voice, I said, “Gentlemen, we can have no mistakes here. You have to concentrate on your crampons. Do you understand?” I looked into Peter’s eyes, and they were wide, bright and scared.

“Yes, yes, I understand,” Peter said.

“Rob, do you understand? No mistakes.”

“Yes, yes, I do,” Rob said. He blinked. I could tell he was thinking about the consequences of an error.

I held the rope coils in my right hand tight against my chest. If Peter slipped, I’d gain milliseconds from the time it would take for the force of the fall to open my crooked arm–enough, perhaps, so I could lean upslope and lock my legs. Troy knew that if he did the same we’d have a chance. Peter kept his broken leg rigid, but with each excruciating crampon placement, he managed to get the metal to bite into the ice.

The night was moonless. We identified the top of the Kain Face by a broadening of the ridge to street width and by several wands left by previous parties. As we rappelled through the snow and the cold, we hacked bollards into gunmetal ice. Our earlier tracks had long since vanished under fresh drifts. We shouted to our clients in our high camp, and they shouted back until we eventually found our tents. Todd, Doug and Larry had hot drinks and food waiting. They organized us for the evening: nine men in two tents. It felt so good to pass off responsibility for a while.

“That’s great, man. Just great,” Darro said over the radio when I explained that we were all in the same high camp. “Have you seen or heard any other climbers? There’s a party of three overdue on the North Face.”

“No, nothing. Sorry, man. It’s still storming and cold up here.”

“OK. The weather map is saying it might lighten up a bit tomorrow.”

The morning was ugly. Moist snow stuck to tent flies like wet cement and sluffed off in heavy slabs each time we shook the frame. Two feet of sodden drifts now sat on our high camp. There was no distinction between cloud and snow, sky and earth. Everything was a dirty worn white.

Midmorning, we heard voices. Troy and I trudged back up to the bottom of the Kain Face. Eric Peterson, Leon Henkleman and Paul Divernac, the team overdue on the North Face, came off rappel. Paul was a doctor, and he knew that his toes were frostbitten. We got them down to the high camp, and then we were twelve. The drifts piled higher.

I lay in my tent listening to my Walkman radio. A dozen mountain climbers are stranded on Mt. Robson…. I yanked out my earphones and contacted Darro, “I just heard about us on the CBC news.”

“Shit! Where are they getting their information?”

Late in the day, the snow stopped pelting the tent. Weak yellow filtered in from the fly. Darro called to say that a Parks Canada team was going to try to fly up. Soon the deep, slow whap, whap, whap of a big helicopter reverberated from the clouds. The thumping grew louder and louder, and then a Bell 204B, as big as a delivery van with a tail, climbed into view, blowing around one hell of a lot of snow. We grabbed the tents to keep them from being flattened by rotor wash. When the machine touched down, Parks Canada warden Frank Staples emerged, and I walked over to meet him.

“How many here can’t walk?” He asked. A broad smile appeared under a neat auburn moustache, kindness and compassion in his eyes.

“Probably four,” I replied.

“Let’s get them on board and get them out of here.”

Peter, Rob, Ethan, Lorne, Paul and one of his partners piled into the running ship. Garry Forman, the founder of Yellowhead Helicopters, was flying, and when he lifted off, we all cheered. Inside the aircraft, Ethan and Peter shut their eyes and made the sign of the cross. The helicopter rose about ten feet. But the clouds closed in, and everything was back to white on white. The machine returned to the ground. Garry, who was dressed for an autumn day, turned to Frank in the copilot’s seat and said, “Frank, don’t let me freeze to death.” I felt as if we’d all just been punched in the gut.

Garry opened his door. “I can’t fly in this,” he said. He stayed in the pilot’s seat. Every five minutes, he radioed his crewmembers at Rearguard Meadows, 3,000 feet below, to ask if they could see Snowbird Pass. “No” was the answer all the way until dusk when Garry finally clambered down from his helicopter and spat a “Shit!” at the snow. It was the first time he’d been forced to spend a night with his machine high on a mountain.

At least Frank had bought extra sleeping bags, pads, a stove and tent. Once we got Garry set up for the night, we gave him some hot chocolate. When Frank came up and asked how he was doing, Garry beamed. “I could get to like this camping thing,” he said. We all knew that the rescue rested in the pilot’s hands now. His mood and demeanor would affect everyone in the high camp.

The storm began to dissipate that night. Snow no longer pressed sags into the tent walls, and the wind didn’t batter the fly with a hissing of ice particles. The next morning, Garry took off with the six casualties. I led down into the Kain Icefall with six men behind me, all the souls who remained in the high camp. Under the fresh white drifts, there was no sign of human passage: no footprints where other parties had stomped by, no snake lines where climbing ropes had wriggled. Only the top five inches of two bamboo wands jabbed out from the snow, their neon pink tape flags fluttering weakly. The world appeared re-created, bright and innocent, as if death hadn’t recently been so close.

We were trudging down the Robson Glacier about an hour and half later when Frank got a call on the radio from Garry. “How are you doing, Garry?” he asked.

“I’m doing fine. I just had bacon and eggs. How are you, Frank?”

“Well, I was doing good until you told me that.”

“Well, how about I have Todd McCready fly up and bring all of you fellows down?”

Twenty minutes later, we all climbed on board the helicopter. Ten minutes after that, we were stepping onto the green grass in front of the Visitor’s Centre. Darro trotted over. He smiled and gave me a bear hug. “If you were a girl,” he said, “I’d kiss you.”

Two vertical miles above us a long flag of cloud stretched to the northwest from the summit of Yexyexescen. To me, it looked like an angel’s wing. All the climbers were down.

AFTER THE RESCUE, Troy and I were lauded as heroes, a result that we hadn’t expected, but didn’t mind. Five years later, a knee injury and operation ended Troy’s guiding career. He went on to become a great mountain helicopter pilot. Both Ethan and Lorne also fly helicopters. I’ve continued guiding, and I’ve taken my guests to the top of Yexyexescen a half dozen more times. In 2002, after many attempts, I completed a new route on the mountain’s Emperor Face, Infinite Patience. The route marked thirty years of getting to know a peak that defined the northern edge of my knowledge in the Canadian Rockies and formed a mystical border within my mind, the other side of which lay dragons. In my heart, Yexyexescen has become another old, dear friend.

Peter Kofler passed away in 2016. Earlier this year, in 2020, my buddy Troy reached the end of his seven-year-long journey with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. I like to remember them, now, as they were when they arrived in the high camp thirty years ago, still in the prime of their lives. Even though Peter was limping, he and Troy smiled with relief and gratitude. In that moment, everyone was still alive and safe.

Rob now lives in Canmore, my home too. Recently, he caught up to me while we were road biking, and he reintroduced himself as “one the guys you saved on Mt. Robson way back when.”

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

“Ya, Rob, how are you doing man?” I said. His face was more chiseled, no longer rounded with the vitality of youth. But his eyes were wiser, and he looked lean and hard. We rode parallel for a bit and chatted. Then he stood on his pedals and pulled away from me. As he accelerated, he rocked his bike side to side with certainty. Soon, he grew small on my horizon, another man on a bike riding toward Cascade Mountain, a peak that I’d once heard Chief John Snow of the Nakoda Wesley First Nation call “Welcoming Mountain” because it greets you when you enter the valley. Rob is fitter than I am now, I realized. Our lives go on, Peter still lives large within Rob and a little in me. Troy owns a room in my heart, and a little of Rob’s.

And Rob and I are planning to get out and do some more climbing soon.

[Shortly after publication, it was brought to our attention that the Indigenous Secwepemc name for Mt. Robson is spelled Yexyexescen, not Yuh-hai-has-kun. While the inaccuracy of “Yuh-hai-has-kun” remains in the printed story, we have corrected those references in this electronic version. This story originally appeared in the Full Value section of Alpinist 72, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]