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A Visit with The Emperor: Mt. Robson, Infinite Patience

Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face at twilight. Berg Lake, Mt. Robson Provincial Park, B.C.

[Photo] Jeffrey Pang/Wiki Commons

[This story was originally published on marcleclerc.blogspot on April 20, 2016–Ed.]

One of the great contradictions of climbing writing is that the bigger and deeper the experience the more difficult it is to write about. Soloing the Emperor Face is one of those experiences that can’t be fully summarized in a few paragraphs, but it was such an significant climb that it would also be a shame to not even try to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The Canadian Rockies are an intimidating place to climb alone. The mountains are big and remote. The rock is frequently loose. And of course there’s zero infrastructure or cell reception (if something were to go awry). The best time to climb there is in the spring, winter or fall, because the gullies tend to be much less melted out, the rock more frozen together, and the scenery more spectacular. Many of the faces are likely easier and faster to climb with less snow, but there is always the danger of falling rock. In summer, the mountain faces often appear less healthy: their ice recession makes them look stark.

My first attempt to climb alone in the Rockies was during a -35-degree cold snap on the Columbia Icefields in November of 2014. I had little idea, then, of what to expect when starting up Mt. Andromeda’s Shooting Gallery and was treated to a rather frightful concoction of downward-sloping frozen cubes of choss masked beneath six inches of powder snow. There was no ice to be found. Unable to climb down, and unable to construct a rappel anchor in the compact rock, I was forced to continue climbing unroped for 30 meters through a soloist’s nightmare. Using my tools to loosen and chop away some of the frozen rock, I hooked the small edges with my picks and stood on them with my frontpoints. The entire time I was wondering if I was going to skate off the holds. I trembled with fear. Eventually, I reached a thin-flaring seam and hammered in two brass nuts that held long enough for me to bail back down the couloir. I hitched a ride to Jasper.

As I climbed more Rockies alpine routes with partners, I wondered whether I’d built up the experience and technical skill to venture out again solo. Each ascent pushed my mental limits. I was relieved to have trustworthy and talented friends to share the difficult leads and strenuous trail breaking.

Between March 25 and April 11 of this year, Luka Lindic, from Slovenia, and I climbed four alpine routes, including three first ascents in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Each time, I could feel my familiarity and confidence with the Rockies becoming stronger. Our final route, a spectacular mixed line on the North face of Neptuak Mountain, left me charged with energy. Luka’s girlfriend was arriving on April 13, and their plan was to travel and rock climb together. This opportunity left me a window to try my solos. And there was good weather in the forecast. Sometimes the stars just align.

As usual, I did not have a car to get to the mountains, so I used public transportation and stuck my thumb out on the side of the highway.

Warm-up: Soloing Andromeda Strain

I decided to climb Mt. Andromeda (3450m) to see if I was indeed better prepared to tackle the mountain solo. I took a shuttle bus going from Banff to Jasper. The driver happened to be a skier and climber, and he invited me into the passenger seat. Here we chatted about mountains and conditions before he dropped me off at the Columbia Icefields. I set up a cozy camp–nicely hidden from view–in the thin trees just off the road.

Since I did not have any sort of phone, clock–or any technology aside from a MP3 player and my headphones–I needed to rely on my intuition in order to wake up and start climbing at the right time. After exploring the fantastic moraines and glacial streams running from the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, I went to bed early. I had only taken one full rest day since getting out from Valley of the Ten Peaks with Luka.

I woke up two or three times and glanced toward the eastern horizon for a sign of predawn. The third time, I felt ready, and I could see a faint hint of light about to rise, so after some hot tea and cereal, I started the walk toward the base of the famous Andromeda Strain. I carried skis to make the short glacier crossing somewhat safer. As I reached the toe of the glacier, it became light enough to see the route and find a safe path to its base.

At the bergschrund, I switched into crampons, clipped a few pitons, a set of wires and two screws to my harness and began. Over the first several hundred feet, I climbed easy snow, ice and mixed terrain to the start of the first mixed pitch. The short corner above me looked like good fun. The pitch was not steep, so I kept my pack on. Soon I was cleaning snow from the down-sloping ledges that are characteristic of many traverses on Rockies alpine routes. I followed a traverse that deposited me at the base of a steep chimney choked with obnoxious snow mushrooms. I traversed slightly off the easiest line to hang my backpack from a fifi hook on some fixed tat. This way it would be well sheltered from the snow I would have to clean while climbing the chimney.

As I soloed up the chimney, I carefully trundled snow mushrooms between my legs, taking care to cut the mushrooms into small pieces so they wouldn’t knock me off or throw me out of balance. When I reached the first crux move, I had to spin around and face outward while stemming. This position allowed me to get secure feet placement and remove my lower tool and use it to tap my upper tool more securely into place. Then I spun back around and climbed into a crack on the chimney’s right-hand wall. Above, the terrain was easier, but still sustained, exposed, interesting and fun. I stopped once to pull up my pack on the 5mm static cord I was trailing, and hang it from a fixed piton in a sheltered nook. Then I continued to the end of the mixed difficulties. I didn’t have to rely on any aid–aside from drytooling–or a self belay.

When I arrived at the upper couloir, it began to snow lightly. Soon large amounts of spindrift poured down. The first wave frightened me, and I braced myself for the impact. But the snow was light, and it simply washed down over my gloves and ice tools, so I began to climb upward through the river of powder. I was enjoying the wild conditions.

Looking back on Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face.

[Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

A cold north wind blew the powder back up the couloir. In this incredible place, I climbed the old gray ice with joy. Soon I arrived at the famous exit pitch, and I made my way easily up a loose ramp to gain a steeper ice bulge. On the final five meters of ice, I felt I’d entered a truly remarkable place above the world. Then I reached the easy slopes above. I broke trail through poor-quality snow, dug through a small cornice and found myself on the summit of Andromeda in near-whiteout conditions. I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to the view from the summit, but nonetheless, I started picking my way down toward to the top of the Practice Gully.

After down climbing easy-but-exposed terrain around the huge cornice, I made several rappels from V-Threads. I continued down climbing for two hundred meters on snow until I reached the bergschrund. I found a convenient ice patch to make the final V-Thread. Soon I was skiing back down to my tent. I guess I reached it around lunchtime.

I marveled at how well the climb had gone, and how calm and comfortable I had felt soloing. The past three weeks of high-frequency alpine climbing with Luka had a huge effect on my familiarity with the style of mixed climbing in the Rockies, and Andromeda Strain had been the perfect warm-up solo. I was so content, that I thought about just staying on the Icefields for a couple more days and calling things good. But the allure of my next objective–Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face–was far too strong. After some wandering about in the gravel flats, I packed up camp and stood on the side of the Highway with my thumb out until a friendly Jasper local gave me a ride to a hostel in town.

Soloing Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face

The next day I made arrangements for a bus ride to Mt. Robson. I completely reorganized and packed my equipment. I planned for four days: one day to approach, one day to climb and descend, one day to relax around Berg Lake, and one day to hike back to the highway and hitch a ride to Jasper.

When the bus dropped me off on the side of the highway, I saw Mt. Robson for the first time. It towered above the road like no other mountain I’d ever seen. The summit felt incredibly distant, as if it were located on another planet. As I began to walk toward the trailhead, I reminded myself that you only get to visit a place for the first time once. I immersed myself into the environment, and took in all the sounds, smells and colors that give the forest its atmosphere. As I headed toward Kinney Lake, I peered upward to the summit ridge to look for clues on how to descend. That is if I would make it that far.

I took a short break on the shores of Kinney Lake to save energy for the huge climb ahead. The scenery slowly changed as I hiked deeper into the valley, passed through gravel flats, and made my way up beyond the Valley of a Thousand Falls to the snow line. As I rounded the corner above Emperor Falls, I saw the Emperor Face for the first time. I setup camp at a small lake at the toe of the Mist Glacier and quietly studied the route above.

The face was partially obscured in mist, and a huge lenticular cloud hung in the sky to the north of the summit ridge. From the moraine, I could hear the wind raging violently more than 2000 meters above. For the first time in a long time, I felt deeply intimidated by the aura of the mountain. Was I ready for such an undertaking? Did I have the mental and physical stamina to commit to such a large and daunting face with such minimal equipment?

I rested on my sleeping pad with these thoughts running through my mind. I was feeling very small and very alone. Then, evening descended, and a certain calmness overtook me. I realized that I was approaching the route with a healthy amount of respect, and that the King (Mt. Robson) also respected me and my ambitions in return. I was being drawn toward the mountain in a search for adventure, by a desire to explore my own limitations and to also be immersed in a world so deeply beautiful that it would forever be etched into my memory.

Despite a strong south wind, I fell into a long sleep. By the time I woke, the air was calm and clear. There was still a hint of light in the sky, and I could not tell if I had slept for five minutes or if it was nearly sunrise. I detected that the glow was coming from the eastern horizon, so I made breakfast and coffee and shouldered my pack to start my journey up the Emperor Face.

By the time I reached the snowy moraine, it was light enough to see without a headlamp, and the snow was of the perfect consistency and angle that I could skin directly up it without sliding backward. As the angle steepened, I began switchbacking until it was no longer sensible to continue using skis. Here, I put on my harness and crampons, and took out my ice tools.

In the upper chimneys.

[Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

A few minutes later I was at the initial ice pillar of Infinite Patience. The pillar was thin, and I decided that I would tag up my backpack to make the climbing easier. The steepness took me by surprise, and I had to stop to shake out several times through the crux section before the angle eased off. I pulled my bag up and continued on easier, but still not trivial, terrain, eventually gaining the low-angled slopes leading toward Bubba’s Couloir. There was a lot of snow on the face, and breaking trail to the couloir’s entrance was arduous. Even in the couloir, the snow was, at times, frustrating. But it eventually became firmer, almost like neve. Then I reached the start of the traverse into the upper couloir.

Here, the rock was covered with about two feet of powder snow, which obscured everything. As I dug through and uncovered the rock beneath, multitudes of thin cracks presented themselves. These made for good, secure climbing. I’d brush away some snow, find an ideal thin crack, and then use my other tool to tap the pick gently into place. Thus, I created a (sort of) self belay while I continued to clear away more snow. I slowly made my way sideways across the wall.

I soon reached an exposed prow heavily covered in snow. I had to dig a trench to make my way onto the crest, and carefully maneuver around cornices and snow mushrooms. This traverse brought me to the upper snow slopes, where I found better conditions and less-tiresome trail breaking. I made my way relatively quickly toward the upper mixed runnels for which this route is famous. As I neared the runnels, I saw two possible options: both were blocked by large snow mushrooms. The mushrooms made it impossible to see if there was any ice beneath the snow, and I couldn’t tell which option would be best. The right-hand direction looked less steep, so I tried that first. I soon found myself scraping up a sketchy groove while digging a tunnel through the snow mushroom. I took great care to not dislodge the entire thing onto myself. Soon the snow filled my jacket, and I was soaked to my base layer. I knew if I topped out on the face soaking wet and was hit by strong winds that I would become hypothermic.

I continued to tunnel through the mushroom (an unexpected crux), slowly, and groveled upward. Soon I exited onto lower-angle terrain where I found solid neve, and I moved over grooves in the rock. I was now fantastically high on the face.

Shortly before the Emperor Ridge, I traversed left onto a sunny ledge. I rested, dried my clothes and brewed up. I was afraid that once I reached the Emperor Ridge, the wind would make it impossible to use the stove. Back on the route, I climbed more easy ice followed by two excellent mixed-chimney pitches.

I scrambled upward to the long traverse across the west face and took in the view. I planned to avoid the gargoyles (gendarmes) that guard the upper Emperor Ridge. Traversing a steep and exposed wall of snow for 800 meters is a tedious affair.

I kicked steps and planted my tools for what felt like an eternity. My gloves became wet and froze in the cold wind. I watched the sun slowly make its way toward the horizon. The Wishbone Arete (IV 5.6), my destination, never appeared to get any closer.

Eventually, I broke upward through moderate mixed terrain. By now, I had to stop often to catch my breath and shake out my feet. My feet hurt from hour after hour of frontpointing.

I entered a blue ice groove between the enormous upper gargoyles. Their shapes reminded me of the famous rime mushrooms of the Torres in Argentine Patagonia. I tried to enjoy the experience, but my feet were in agony. I suffered my way toward the summit, mere meters away.

Left to right: Mt. Robson’s North Face and Emperor Face in winter.

[Photo] Rufus Hawthorne/ Wiki Commons

I stumbled onto the top of Mt. Robson at sunset, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view: snow and ice extended as far I could see in all directions. Robson seemed to be so much taller than any of the surrounding peaks– it was like a platform in the sky that looked down on the rest of the world. I was elated to have made it to the summit, but my feet were in such pain that I knew I couldn’t begin down climbing the west bowl immediately. I peered over the edge of the south face, but I did not want to take any chances walking alone on the glacier or traversing the infamous ledges beneath the south glacier seracs.

My best option was to dig a trench in the rime of the summit plateau and remain in an open bivouac until I felt rested enough to begin the descent. This delay would also allow the snow of the west bowl to freeze, making for safer conditions the following morning. I had a light emergency bivy sack, essentially a garbage bag with a reflective liner, and I used my backpack as insulation to lie down on. I took off my outer boots to give my feet a break and began snacking on my remaining food. I hoped the calories would help me stay warm through the cold, windy night.

I shivered inside my flimsy bivy sack and pondered my position, alone in an ice coffin on the summit of the Rockies’ highest peak, at night. Despite the discomfort, it was undeniable that the situation was stupendous.

Soon the wind died down slightly, so I broke out the stove and warmed some water, poured it into a bottle and placed it under my hip. This is where I was losing most of my heat to the cold ground below. The warmth provided comfort for a short time, but soon I began to shiver uncontrollably again. The strong wind wouldn’t let me light my stove.

Then I attempted to use the stove inside of the small bivy sack. I managed to get it lit, and was re-heating the water, when, in the darkness, the water boiled over and filled my bivy sack and drenched my clothes.

Wet and cold, I knew I couldn’t stay on the summit any longer. I climbed out of the bivy sack and organized my equipment for the descent. My headlamp batteries were dead, and it took me several minutes with frozen fingers to replace them with fresh ones. Rime ice was growing all over my gear, my outer boots and my bivy sack. I forced my frozen outer boots back on. And with numb hands and feet, I climbed back over the edge of the summit plateau and onto the upper west face.

Once I reached ice, I became pleasantly distracted in the familiar rhythm of drilling V-Threads and making 25m rappels. I sometimes had to down climb moderate mixed ground and neve to find suitable anchors, and I left two nuts and a piton so I could rappel short rock bands. As morning came, I reached the long traverse ledge. Here, I dug a ledge in a sheltered zone between two sharp rock pinnacles where I could try to boil more water.

I sat on my ledge as spindrift poured down to my left and right and filled the Jetboil with snow. I tried to re-light the stove, but the wind kept blowing it out.

After putting my lighter in and out of my pocket several times, I eventually kept the pocket unzipped. As I sat melting snow, I noticed a small pebble tumbling down the face and over the edge of the cliff bands below. I soon realized that the falling pebble was not a pebble at all; it was my lighter. Just then the stove blew out again.

Inside the pot was 500ml of water, so I added all of my remaining electrolyte tablets and accepted that this was to be my last water for awhile. My concern was now was that I wouldn’t be able to refuel after the climb: almost all of my food at the base of the route needed to be cooked.

Chips of ice fell from above, released by the morning sun as I down climbed steep, frozen snow for several thousand feet. Then I looked over my shoulder to see a shadow of Mt. Robson extending forever into the horizon against a red sky. I tried to take a photo, but my camera battery had died earlier from the cold. By this point, I was well beyond being motivated to replace it with a new one. I accepted that this moment I would have to be just my own for the rest of my life.

As I lost elevation, I began traversing to the west, eventually rounding the mountain. I made my way down the moderate terrain near the edge of the Emperor Ridge. As the angle decreased, I realized that I was home free and that there was little chance of having an accident now. I had made it!

I stumbled along the shale bands and across a snow ledge, making a couple more rappels over rock steps, before I reached my skis at midmorning. With tired legs, I skied back down the moraine and picked up the food and equipment I had left at my first bivy site. I skied to the edge of the Robson River where I lay in the sun drinking water and eating the food that did not need to be cooked.

Pondering my options, I decided to ski to the Hargreaves shelter at Berg Lake to see if there was a lighter inside there. Two long kilometers later I found the shelter, and much to my relief there was a lighter inside! I spent a long while rehydrating meals and eating before eventually falling peacefully asleep on the floor of the shelter. When I awoke, much to my dismay, I found a backup lighter in my pocket that had been there the whole time! The stress had been all for nothing.

Regardless of the lighter situation, I was deeply happy and in an incredible state of mind. It was now my fourth day alone in the mountains and my thoughts had reached a depth and clarity that I had never before experienced. The magic was real.

I thought to myself that the essence of alpinism lies in true adventure. I was deeply content that I had not carried a watch with me to keep time, as the obsession with time and speed is in fact one of the greatest detractors from the alpine experience. I was happy that my entire adventure had been onsight, on my first visit to the mountain, and that the route had been in completely virgin condition. One of the greatest challenges of mountaineering is in dealing with the natural obstacles the mountain provides. So often in modern alpinism routes will be fearsomely difficult for the first party of the season, and then once the obstacles have been cleared, a track established, the tunnels dug, the way becomes easy to follow.

Climbing routes with an established track simply in order to attain the summit, or keeping time in order to set records reduces the adventure of alpinism to that of a sport climb and strips the route of its full challenge.

As a young climber, it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport. Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch, and the grades, and all the lists of records, I’ve been slowly able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.

Of course the journey of learning never ends, but I’ve come to believe that the natural world is the greatest teacher of all, and that listening in silence to the universe around you is perhaps the most productive way of learning. So often people are afraid of their own thoughts, resorting to drowning them out with constant noise and distraction. Is it a fear of learning who we actually are that causes this? Perhaps we are afraid to confront our own personalities that we go on living in a world of falseness, striving to be perceived by the world around us as something that we are supposed to be rather than living as who we are.

Summit shot.

[Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

Already I have been asked how fast I was, but I honestly cannot tell you how many hours the Emperor Face took me to climb. I began when I felt ready and I reached the top at sundown.

I also don’t know how long the hike back to the road took me, but I do know that while descending through the changing ecosystems and back into the world of green lushness and deep blue lakes that I felt more at peace than I would have had I been counting my rate of kilometers per hour.

I’m happy to say that my visit with the Emperor was a truly special experience. At first I was intimidated by his strong aura, but in the end we became friends and the King generously shared his wealth, leaving me a much richer person.