Peter Austen - British Columbia`s Greatest Challenge-Cimbing Mount Robson

climbing Robson

Climbing Mount Robson:
British Columbia's Greatest Challenge Climbing Mount Robson:

By Peter Austen

To climb Mount Robson, by any route, is the dream of many North American climbers and also of climbers throughout the world. Mount Robson is a peak of world class reputation and mountaineering difficulty. The peak of almost thirteen thousand feet is the highest in the Canadian Rockies and offers difficult and objectively dangerous routes on all sides. There is a constant threat from avalanches, icefall, and stonefall. The weather can also change in a very short time from blues skies and sun to raging blizzards and it plays a major part in any successful attempt. The first ascent was led, in 1913, by Konrad Kain, an immigrant Austrian guide, and was a very bold feat for the period. Mountaineers then had what would now be called primitive equipment nailed boots, a few sweaters and ice axes that were far too long for their purpose. However, climbers of that period made up for deficiencies in equipment by endurance, determination, skill and sometimes very fast climbing.

summit of RobsonMy first attempt on Robson ended when I looked of the tiny mountain hut perched on a ledge at eight thousand feet and saw six inches of new snow at 6:00 a.m.

I had come on this second occasion in late August, the best time for climbing Robson, with two Americans, Chris and Brock. They were both veterans of many mountains but had not yet summitted on Robson after many attempts. For some weird reason, American climbers pronounce Robson "Robeson." Perhaps this is because of Paul Robeson, the great American Negro bass voiced singer.

We met at Kinney Lake that lies at the foot of the gigantic, almost Himalayan ten thousand foot south face of Robson. Reverend Kinney was Robson's first protagonist and got to within a few hundred feet of the summit after a month long march from Edmonton. We toiled up the lower slopes of dense bush, steep talus and rocky slabs for six hours. The sun was merciless and we needed frequent rests. Reaching the hut at 2:00 p.m. gave us the remainder of the afternoon to watch the show that Robson puts on for interested spectators. Robson climbingNear the hut is a latrine from which you watch with bated breath as the icefall spews out huge chunks of ice that break off and plummet into the depths. The constant spectacle and roar of blocks means constipation is never an issue. We sunbathed and watched the sunset on the myriad of jagged peaks to the south. In the evening I calculated from the hut record that only about thirty percent of the many attempts on Robon's summit had been successful. In fact, during one ten year period, the weather was so bad that no one climbed it all. Over the last five years only thirty people have made the top compared to over 100 on Everest. At 12:00 p.m. we heard a noise outside and discovered a party of Chinese mountaineers who, in true courteous Chinese tradition, had decided to sleep outside rather than wake us up. They had just returned from the summit after a very long day and were glad to come inside for a brew of tea.

We set the alarm for 3:00 a.m. and set off in the frosty air, the snow cracking under our boots and a weak glow from our headlamps revealed dragon-like shapes riding in fairyland castles. The rock was loose and icy and led to the summit of Little Robson, a subsidiary peak, which we reached at around 5:00 a.m. From here snow slopes and small ridges led to the "Schwarz" or black ledges. Here the fun starts.

Climbing Mt RobsonTo reach the first ledges, one has to pass under the "shooting gallery," a vertical corner of rock over which an icefield looms. Every few minutes or even seconds in some cases, ice will break off, drop on the ledges, and pulverize anyone who is unlucky enough to stand there. Then it cascades five thousand feet down to the lower slopes of Mount Robson. We waited until the "shooting" stopped and scooted across one by one at top speed like frightened rabbits.

Above the Schwarz ledges is a snow ridge which seems to hang suspended over the enormous drop below. Ravens show off constantly and drop like stones a short distance away, leveling out thousands of feet lower. This always gives me a sickening feeling in the stomach and I rammed my iceaxes in even deeper. Many people say they can not stand height, but the thrill comes from deliberately looking down and overcoming their fear.

A thousand feet below the summit there is a long crossing under a giant icefall and we blasted across this to reach the final sixty degree steep ice ridge leading to the summit. This ridge can be any consistency from soft snow to hard ice and in fact it was solid ice. We had to place ice screws every twenty-five feet for protection. After two hours of this we emerged on to the summit ridge, feeling the effects of reduced oxygen and a too fast ascent. The last hundred feet led to the summit and we sat there, one at a time as the summit only has room for one person. "Good grief, said Chris, what an amazing place." No one else said much on the top. It was so overwhelming. Kinney Lake glinted like a lost diamond, ten thousand feet directly below. It felt like hanging on a plane's wing. Clouds drifted in and caused a bizarre feeling of unreality.

The descent was tricky as it was late afternoon, and everything was melting. We dreaded the ever present threat of avalanche and icefall. Stones were falling at intervals and fatigue was taking its toll. We had to be especially careful anchoring each other down the ice and snow ridges. Climbing down is very different from climbing up and we spent hours finding the way down in the mist. The hut was reached six hours after leaving the summit and we fell asleep after numerous drinks of tea and soup. Lunch time next day saw us swimming in icy cold Kinney Lake, looking back up at the gargoyles sculptured by the eroding wind on the top. My dream of climbing the highest and most challenging peak in British Columbia had been realized.

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Peter Austen - British Columbia`s Greatest Challenge-Cimbing Mount Robson