Saturday, September 28, 2013

You can't always get what you want

A year ago J. and I made the long drive from the Bow Valley to pay a visit to the King of the Rockies. On a crisp, cloudless late September day we climbed Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face, bivied high on the Emperor Ridge, and continued up the gargoyles to Robson's summit in the morning. It was a nearly perfect alpine climbing trip. After all, how often do we get to run up a line on one of the Rockies' biggest faces without dodging a single falling stone? And how often do we get to spend a windless evening camped right on the spine of the mountain. and to top it off, climb squeaky neve up and down and around the feared gargoyles? But however much we get, we always want more. While climbing Infinite Patience, I kept stealing glances toward the centre of the face. There, cutting through a sea of snow-covered rock, a slanting ice couloir beckoned: the line of the Cheesmond-Dick route. The following day, while walking the highwire of the upper ridge, I looked down ribbons of grey ice snaking up from the depths. Now that was a proper climb. I filed it away for future reference.

A couple of weeks ago, on another perfect September afternoon, Ian, Juan and I walked up the trail toward Berg Lake, intent on - what else? - the Cheesmond-Dick. As we rounded the corner of the Emperor Ridge and the face slowly revealed itself, I was shocked to see how dry it was. Where there should've been veins and fields of ice was an ugly, brown choss pile. The summer Rockies are going to be a sad place a hundred years from now, when they've lost much of what permanent snow and ice still remains. But I digress. The initial couloir of Infinite Patience was reduced to a sad strip of dirty ice, while the lower icefield of the Cheesmond-Dick no longer merited a name with "ice" in it.

Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but I want climbing to be good. Let it be hard, let it be intense, but let it be classy, too. After a six-week heatwave there wasn't much on the Emperor Face that looked good or classy. And so we started casting about for a consolation prize. We thought about Whitehorn but didn't know how to approach it. We thought about the Fuhrer Ridge but weren't keen on the broken glacier we'd have to cross to get to it. In the end I suggested the Emperor Ridge. Sure, Ian had soloed it a decade earlier and I'd been up the interesting bits last year after climbing Infinite Patience. But what else were we going to do? Walk out and drive back empty handed? We reminded ourselves that we stood below the tallest peak in the Rockies with a perfect forecast. And until earlier in the day Juan had never even seen Robson, much less set foot on it. It was decided, then. We took off our boots and strode into the numbingly cold waters of the Robson River.

Twenty four hours later we were slowly but doggedly approaching the summit. To get to this point we'd slogged up endless scree at the base of the ridge, frontpointed an ice gully, scrambled along exposed ledges and chimneys, and even roped up a couple of times when it looked like some actual climbing might be required. Now we were finally negotiating the sadly diminished gargoyles. Small they might have been, but what they lacked in stature they made up in attitude. Instead of swinging into perfect neve we plunged our ice tools into insubstantial snow. The occasional screw into honeycombed ice didn't inspire much confidence, so we tried to weave the rope between the gargoyles as much as possible; now venturing into shade on the north side of the ridge, now into the low sunlight on the south.

And right now, I'd been traversing on the north side for far too long. The rope looped down the face, clipped into a suspect screw more than thirty metres back. "Once the guys climb up from the other side, that screw'll be the only protection left," I realized. "I need to get back on the ridge and traverse along the south side for a bit." Making for the nearest gap between gargoyles, I pulled myself onto the crest. It looked narrow and precarious but not impossible. "I just needed to shave a bit off the top," I thought. The next thing I knew I was flying through fortunately clean air, fortunately down the south side of the ridge.

I bounced to the end of the ropes without touching anything. Getting back on the ridge involved some overhanging snow climbing, though fortunately on toprope. And with the sharp crest gone, the way ahead was clear. Still, the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time I pulled the ropes across the highest point, the boys emerging onto the summit plateau sixty metres back. We'd hoped to sleep at the hut, but always knew that hope to be a long shot. As it was, we settled for spending the night in a palatial crevasse a couple of hundred metres below the summit. You can't always get what you want. But if you try, you just might find you get what you need.

The lower Emperor Face in September 2012, with the diagonal ice couloir of the Cheesmond-Dick clearly visible.

A much drier Emperor Face in September 2013.

Juan Henriquez (left) and Ian Welsted share some dinner at a bivi near the Robson River.

Slogging up the initial scree slopes with Berg Lake still in shadow below...

... enjoying a gully filled with alpine ice for a change of pace...

... and carefully negotiating some steep and exposed choss above.

Conrad's Column: Well worth a winter trip to the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

Ian and Juan rounding the corner onto the west face...

... with the sadly diminished gargoyles coming into view.

Ian comes up the last dry section of ridge...

... while Juan follows the still dry ridge higher up, the gargoyles only remarkable through their absence.

Finally some white stuff! Juan traverses on the north side of the ridge...

... and Ian heads off into the small but nasty gargoyles decorating the last stretch.

The last rays of the setting sun cast a warm glow on the gargoyles...

... while a cold-looking moon rises over the summit.

The last light of day from the summit.

Juan (in front) and Ian at home for the night...

... and downclimbing The Roof in the morning.

Juan traverses the Schwarz Ledges: definitely the least pleasant, though mercifully short, part of the Robson experience.

High cirrus over the summit from the Forster Hut presages the coming bad weather, and the end of summer.