One of the great contradictions of climbing writing is that the bigger and deeper the experience the more difficult they tend to be 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 awe-inspiring 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 with oftentimes loose rock of course zero infrastructure or cell reception if something were to go awry. Another characteristic of the Rockies is that in my mind the best time to climb here is in the Spring, Winter or Fall, the main reason being that in these seasons the gullies tend to be much less melted out, the rock more frozen together and the scenery to be the most spectacular in general. Many of the faces are likely easier and faster to climb with less snow, but there is always the danger of falling rock and the mountain faces often appear less healthy in their state of dryness and summer ice recession.
My first attempt to climb alone in the Rockies was during a -35 cold snap on the Columbia Icefields in November of 2014. Being my first experience in the Canadian Rockies I had little idea of what to expect when I started up Mt Andromeda’s ‘Shooting Gallery’, and I was treated to a rather frightful concoction of downward sloping frozen cubes of choss masked beneath six inches of powder snow and a complete lack of ice in the couloir. Unable to climb down, and unable to construct an anchor in the compact rock to retreat, I was forced to continue climbing un-roped for 30 meters through what felt like a terrible nightmare. I used my tools to loosen and chop away some of the cubes of frozen rock, and use the small edges left behind to hook with my tools and stand on with my front points, the entire time wondering if I were going to skate off of the insecure holds, trembling with fear. Luckily I eventually reached a thin flaring seam into which I hammered two brass nuts that held for long enough for me to bail back down the couloir before hitching a ride to Jasper.
Since then, while building experience climbing with partners on Rockies alpine routes, I wondered to myself if I had built up the experience and technical skill to venture out again solo. Each route I did in the Rockies, even with a strong partner, felt as if it took me to my metal limits and always I was relieved to have a trustworthy and talented partner to share the difficult leads and strenuous trail breaking with.
Between March 25 and April 11 of this year I climbed four alpine routes with my Slovenian friend and climbing partner Luka Lindic, three of them first ascents in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Each time we climbed another route I could feel that my familiarity and confidence with the Rockies unique style of mixed climbing was becoming stronger. Our final route, a spectacular mixed route on the North face of Neptuak Mountain left me feeling charged with energy and mentally prepared to tackle some of my solo goals. Luka’s girlfriend was arriving on the 13th and their plan was to travel and rock climb together, leaving me a window to try my solos while feeling mentally prepared, fit and with good weather in the forecast. Sometime the stars just align.
As usual I did not have a car to get myself to the mountains, but this would present few problems thanks to public transportation and the good old tactic of sticking out the thumb on the side of the highway.
First on the list was to re-visit Andromeda to see if I was indeed better prepared to tackle the mountain solo. I took a shuttle bus going from Banff to Jasper and the driver happened to be a skier and climber who invited me up into the passenger seat where we chatted about mountains and conditions before dropping me off at the Columbia Icefields. There I set up a cozy camp in the thin trees just off the road and nicely hidden from view, in almost the exact same place I had a year and a half previous.
I did not have any sort of phone, clock or technology with me aside from an MP3 player and my headphones. I decided that I would 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 to get plenty of rest as I had only taken one full rest day since getting out from Valley of the Ten Peaks with Luka.
During the night I woke up two or three times and glance toward the eastern horizon to look for a sign of predawn. The third time I felt rested and I could see a faint hint of light about to rise over the horizon, so I had some hot tea and cereal and began the walk toward the base of the famous ‘Andromeda Strain’. I carried skis with me to make the short glacier crossing somewhat safer, and as I reached the toe of the glacier it became light enough to see the route and I could see a safe path across the small glacier to the base of the route.
I reached the bergshrund and switched into crampons and clipped a few pitons, a set of wires, and two screws to my harness before climbing several hundred feet of easy snow ice and mixed to the base of the first mixed pitch; a short corner that looked to be good fun. The pitch was not steep and I soloed it with my pack on without difficulty; soon I was cleaning snow from the typical downsloping ledges that so often are characteristic of traverses on Rockies alpine routes. This traverse deposited me at the base of a steep chimney line choked with obnoxious snow mushrooms.
At this point I traversed slightly off the easiest line to hang my backpack from a fifi hook on some fixed webbing where it would be well sheltered from the snow I would have to clean while climbing the chimney.
At this point I traversed slightly off the easiest line to hang my backpack from a fifi hook on some fixed webbing where 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 away the mushrooms in small pieces that would not knock me off or throw me out of balance. I reached a crux move where I had to spin around and face outwards while stemming to get secure enough feet to remove my lower tool and use it to tap my upper tool more securely into place before spinning back around and pulling into a crack on the chimney’s right hand wall. Above this the climbing was easier although still sustained and exposed and always interesting and fun. I stopped once to pull up my pack on the 5mm static cord I was trailing, then I hung it once again from a fixed piton in a sheltered nook before continuing to the end of the mixed difficulties, never having to rely on any aid (aside from drytooling) or use any kind of self belay.
Upon arriving in the upper couloir it had begun to snow lightly and large amounts of spindrift were pouring down the route from above. The first wave of spindrift had me quite frightened and I braced myself waiting for the impact. To my surprise the snow was light and simply washed down over my gloves and ice tools and off to either side without threatening to knock me off, so I began to climb upwards through the river of powder enjoying the wild conditions.
|In the Upper Couloir, Andromeda Strain
A cold north wind blew the powder back up the couloir creating an incredible story ambience while I climbed the old grey ice with joy. Soon I arrived at the famous exit pitch, and made my way easily up a loose ramp to gain the steeper ice bulge where the position become truly spectacular for the five final meters of ice before reaching the easy slopes above. I broke trail through poor quality snow and dug through a small cornice and found myself on the summit of Andromeda in near whiteout conditions. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the view from the summit, but nonetheless started picking my way down towards to the top of the Practice Gully.
Easy but exposed downclimbing around the huge cornice, followed by several rappels from V-Threads and two hundred more meters of downclimbing on snow brought me to the schrund where there was some conveniently exposed ice to rappel from for one last time. Soon I was skiing back down into the valley bottom, arriving at my tent at what I would guess to be around lunchtime.
I marvelled at how well the climb had gone and at how calm and comfortable I had felt soloing the route; the past three weeks of high frequency alpine climbing with Luka had really made a huge effect on my familiarity with the style of mixed climbing in the Rockies and ‘The 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 picked me up and dropped me off a traveler’s hostel in town.
The next day I made arrangements for a bus to Mt Robson, and completely reorganized and packed my equipment. I planned for four days; one to approach, one to climb and descend, one to relax around Berg Lake and a final day to hike back to the Highway and hitch a ride back to Jasper.
When the bus dropped me off on the side of the Highway I saw Mt Robson for the first time. The way it seemed to just tower above the road was like no other mountain I had ever seen; the summit felt incredible distant as if it were located on another planet entirely. As I began to walk towards the trail head I reminded myself that you only ever get to visit a place for the first time once in your life; I began to immerse myself into the environment taking in all the sounds, the smells and the colours that gave the forest its atmosphere. As I walked up towards Kinney Lake I frequently peered upwards to the summit ridge, looking for clues on how I may descent if I did indeed make it that far. I was in awe.
I took a short break on the shores of Kinney Lake, hoping to take in and appreciate the scenery and to not push myself too hard on the approach, saving energy for the huge climb ahead. As I hiked deeper into the Valleys the scenery slowly changed and I passed through gravel flats, and up beyond the Valley of a Thousand Falls to the snow line where I put on my skis and began skinning. As I rounded the corner above Emperor Falls I began to see the Emperor Face for the first time. I continued through the flats and up to the edge of the small lake at the toe of the Mist Glacier where I planned to spend my first night, and I began to cook some food and observe the route above quietly.
The face was partially obscured in cloud and a huge lenticular cloud extended to the north off of the summit ridge. From the moraine far below I could hear the wind raging violently over the summit ridge more than 2000 meters above and 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 lay on my sleeping pad with these thoughts running through my mind, feeling very small and very alone, until as evening approached certain calmness overtook me. I realized that I was approaching the route with a healthy amount of respect, and that the King 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 etch itself into my memory.
|Below the Emperor Face
Despite a strong south wind I fell into a long sleep, and by the time I awoke it 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 light was coming from the east 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 light, and the snow was of the perfect consistency and angle that I could skin directly up it without sliding backwards. As the angle steepened I began switch-backing my way upwards until it was no longer sensible to continue using skis. Here I put on my harness, took out my ice tools and put on my crampons.
A few minutes later I was at the initial ice pillar of ‘Infinite Patience’. The pillar was in thin conditions, and I decided that I would tag up my back pack to make the vertical 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 slowly eased off. I pulled up my bag and continued up easier, but still not trivial terrain and gained the easy angled slopes leading up towards ‘Bubba’s Couloir’. There was quite a lot of snow on the face and the trail-breaking was somewhat arduous as I made my way to the couloirs entrance. Even in the couloir the snow as at times frustrating, but eventually became firmer and almost neve like as I reached the start of the traverse left into the upper couloir.
|The initial ice pitch on Infinite Patience
Here, the rock was covered with about two feet of powder snow obscuring everything, but as I dug through and uncovered the rock beneath multitudes of thin cracks presented themselves making for good and securing climbing. I would brush away large amounts of snow until finding an ideal thin crack, then I would use my other tool to gently tap the pick into place creating a sort of self belay to hold onto while I continued to clear more snow away, slowly making my way sideways across the wall.
|Berg Lake from 2/3 height on the face.
I reached an exposed prow heavily covered in snow where I had to dig an exposed trench further left before making my way onto the crest where I carefully maneuvered around cornices and snow mushrooms. This brought me to the upper snowlopes where I found better conditions and less tiresome trail breaking and could make my way relatively quickly towards the upper mixed runnels that ‘Infinite Patience’ is famous for. As I neared the runnels I could see two possible options, and both were blocked by large snow mushrooms making it impossible to see if there was any ice beneath or which would be the best route. The right hand option did look to be less vertical I so decided to explore it first. I soon found myself scraping up a sketchy groove while digging a tunnel though the snow mushroom; taking care not to dislodge the entire thing on top of myself. I could not help but dislodge snow into my jacket and was soon soaked all the way down to my base layer. I became concerned that if I topped out the face soaking wet and into the wind that I would become hypothermic. I forced my tunnel through the mushroom slowly, grovelling upwards through this unexpected crux, and soon I exited the groove into easier angled climbing above. Here I found better neve and exceptionally fun mixed climbing in grooves high on the face in a fantastic position.
|Upper ice runnel on Infinite Patience
Shortly before reaching the Emperor Ridge I traversed left onto a ledge in the sun where I allowed my clothes to dry and also brewed up four litres of water, afraid that once I reached the Emperor Ridge that the wind would make it impossible for me to use my stove. Once I was sufficiently dry and had plenty of water, I drank half and saved the other two litres for the remainder of the climb. After traversing back onto the route more easy ice and two excellent mixed chimney pitches brought me to the Emperor Ridge.
|The last pitch before the Emperor Ridge
The views were phenomenal as I scrambled upwards to eventually reach the long traverse across the west face that is used to avoid the Gargoyles of the upper Emperor Ridge. This 800 meter traverse can be the physical and mental crux of the route, and although it is not technical, traversing steep and exposed snow for such a distance is a tedious affair.
I kicked steps and planted my tools for what felt like an eternity, my gloves becoming wet and freezing solid in the cold wind. I watched the sun slowly making its way towards the horizon while traversing towards the Wishbone Arete which never appeared to get any closer.
|Traversing toward the summit.
Eventually I broke upwards through moderate mixed terrain, now having to stop quite often to catch my breath and shake out my feet which were starting to become incredible sore from the hours of front pointing. I entered a blue ice groove in between the spectacular and enormous upper Gargoyles which were very reminiscent of the famous rime mushrooms of The Torres. I tried to remind myself to enjoy the spectacular climbing, but at this point my feet were in agony and I was beginning to suffer my way upwards towards the summit, now mere meters away.
I stumbled onto the summit of Robson at sunset and was rewarded to a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains. Snow and ice extended as far as the eye could see in all directions. Robson seemed to be so much taller than any of the surrounding peaks, like a platform in the sky looking 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.
|On the summit at sunset
I decided that my best option was to dig a trench in the rime of the summit plateau and open bivouac until I felt rested enough to begin the descent. This 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 light cord and backpack as insulation to lay down on. I took off my outer boots to give my feet a break and I began snacking on my remaining food hoping that the calories would help me stay warmer 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 quite stupendous.
At one point the wind died down slightly and I used to stove to make a hot water bottle that I placed under my hip, where I was losing most of my heat to the cold ground below. This allowed me some comfort for a short time but soon I began to shiver uncontrollably again. The wind was too strong to light my stove, so I attempted to use the stove inside of the small bivy sack. I managed to get the stove lit and was re-heating the water when in the darkness the water over-boiled and filled my bivy with water and drenched my clothes.
I yelled an obscenity and realized that my situation was becoming too desperate now to stay on the summit any longer, so I climbed out of the bivy sack and began to organize my equipment for the descent. My headlamp batteries were dead, and it took my several minutes with frozen fingers to replace the batteries with fresh ones. Rime 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 into the upper west face.
Once I reached ice I became pleasantly distracted in the familiar rhythm of drilling v-threads and making my 25 meter rappels. I sometimes had to down-climb moderate mixed ground and neve to find suitable anchors and I left two nuts and piton in place to rappel short rock bands. I reached the long traverse ledge exactly as morning began to dawn. I was now slightly out of the worst of the wind and I dug a ledge into a sheltered zone between two sharp rock pinnacles to try to brew more water. Sitting on my ledge spindrift poured down just to my left and also to my right as I filled the Jetboil with snow and re-lit the stove each time the wind blew it out.
I was putting my lighter back in my pocket and removing it to light the stove so often that I kept the pocket unzipped for quick access. As I sat melting snow I noticed a small pebble tumbling down the face and over the edge of the cliff bands below. Suddenly, with a heart sinking feeling, I realized that the falling pebble was not a pebble at all, but in fact my lighter. Just then the stove blew out again.
I opened the lid and saw 500ml of water inside, so I added all of my remaining electrolyte tablets and accepted that this was to be my last water for a while. The main problem was that all of my food at the base of the route needed to be cooked in the stove and I was now worried that I would be unable to refuel after the climb.
I continued down-climbing steep frozen snow for several thousand vertical feet as chips of falling ice fell on and around me, released from above by the morning sun. I looked over my shoulder and could suddenly see the shadow of the mountain extending forever into the horizon against a red sky. I tried to take a photo by my camera battery had died from the cold and 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; it was powerful.
As I lost elevation I began traversing to the west, eventually rounding the mountain and making my way down 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 or mishap now. I had made it!
I stumbled along the shale bands and across snow ledges, making a couple more rappels over rock steps before eventually reaching my skis mid morning. With tired legs I skied back down the moraines and picked up the food and equipment I had left at my first bivi 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. Two long kilometres later I found the shelter, and much to my relief a lighter inside! I spent a long while rehydrating meals and eating my fill before eventually falling asleep on the floor of the shelter peacefully. When I awoke, I found in my pocket, much to my dismay a backup lighter that had been there the whole time! The stress has been all for nothing.
|At the shelter , Berg Lake
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 experience 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 or the ‘tunnels’ dug it becomes easy for those who follow.
Climbing routes that have been cleared, with an established track,simply in order to attain the summit, or keeping time in order to set records is in fact reducing the adventure of alpinism more to that of a sport climb, and strips the route of its full challenge making it more of a ‘playing field’ of a team sports athlete or like a barbell at an indoor gym where a jock tries to lift his personal best.
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 ways of learning. Perhaps it is not much of a surprise, but so often people are afraid of their own thoughts, resorting to drowning them out with constant noise and distraction. Is it a fear of leaning who we actually are that causes this? Perhaps so many of us are afraid to confront our own personalities that we go on living in a world of falseness, filling the void of true contentment by being actors striving to be perceived by the world around us as something that we ‘supposed to be’ rather than living as who we are.
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 as well, but I do know that descending through the changing ecosystems back into the world of green lushness and deep blue lakes I felt more 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 indeed. Thank you.