Monday, 23 November 2015

Soloing and Roped Climbing; Both Fun, but Different.

Juan Henriquez high on the ridge, on a hot, low snow year.  When I had visited the upper ridge years earlier, the gargoyles were rather larger.

The Emperor Ridge was calling one summer. With more desire and spare time than climbing partners, I decided to climb it alone. It was an intimidating prospect but the idea was fuelled by my history which gave me an understanding of the mountain. The magical display of the thin red line of sunrise I saw while soloing the easier Kain Face had begun my infatuation years earlier. I came as close to dying as one would like on one of three attempts to solo the North Face when the entire face avalanched above me. Bold though the idea seemed, the Emperor Ridge as a ridge was safe from rockfall and avalanche danger which threatened the face routes. And what a route the ridge was. It was arguably the longest feature on the highest peak in the Rockies. The Berg Lake approach trail I would follow is justifiably renowned: the scenery is Alaskan in scope with huge glaciers pouring into the lake gained after 22 kilometers and two spectacular waterfalls. For directness the line could not be rivalled as it rises straight from the western foot of the mountain as a knife-edge to the summit. And it was said to be a perfect training ground for the greater ranges for which I pined. The route was technically easy enough to solo predominantly unroped. Of course there were the famous gargoyles of the upper ridge which sounded dangerous. I had to go and see for myself.

One of the bigger routes in the Rockies.  As Juan, a former Aconcagua guide, noted, it's like climbing a technical route on Aconcagua in a day.

Making the decision to attempt the route was the most difficult part. Once in motion, the beauty of the activity drew me on. At 3:20 am I took a photo of my wristwatch at the parking lot. The idea was to complete the route and descent in 24 hours so as to claim a one day ascent. I jogged full of anticipation to Kinney Lake through a floating blanket of knee high morning fog. Crossing the icy braided fan of the river below Berg Lake I left the tourist trail behind. From there to the foot of the ridge lay interminable scree slopes. Two steps up one back , but I was so enraptured by the immensity of the terrain that I hardly noticed the effort. Too engrossed and distracted by the looming ridge, I missed my last opportunity to get water and spent the rest of the climb without liquid. I arrived at the foot of the ridge at 10 am. Ominously, the rock had changed from steep but passable scree to nearly vertical scree.
Almost a decade after my solo I did the route again, with Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski.   Not as scary as soloing it, and more laughs.

Route finding was easy. Left, right, avoid anything difficult. My mind raced ahead, bounding up the blocky and ledgy terrain of the lower ridge. It slowly got more solid and narrower. At one point my doubts got the better of me and, hauling my backpack, I self-belayed up a ten metre step using the minimal 15 metre piece of rope I had brought for tricky sections. Being alone made for fast movement and intuitive decision making. I felt the solitude which was both exhilarating and disconcerting. At mid height on the route I took a step left onto the vast expanse of the famed Emperor Face itself and into the shade. A roughly-bounded ice gully was coldly dark and gloomy but afforded speedy passage. Suddenly I was 600 metres up the face. Retreat would be difficult.

At various points you actually have to climb.

The extreme exposure here hit me. After once glancing past my crampons I made sure never to look below me again. On the ridge proper a fall was conceivably non-lethal but here one would stop falling only at the flats at the base of the face. Time slowed and my scope of vision narrowed to focus on each swing, each step into the old and brittle grey ice which shattered with every movement. The mental aspect of such a climb seemed tantamount with action following unconsciously. Doubt battled desire and I drove on.

Upon exiting the gully and regaining the sunny ridge, I encountered a perfect bivouac circle of stacked rocks. What a relief it was to encounter a touch of civilization, a perfect time to rest, eat, and recuperate away from the huge exposure. No longer mentally gripped by the action my mind leapt to the idea that the mountain gods were showing their pleasure with my passage by providing this sign of previous human activity here in this lofty eyrie. I reflected that the bivi circle was probably the work of the man many consider to be THE Rockies mountain god, Barry Blanchard. By an incredible coincidence of fate, years earlier I had witnessed Barry, Eric Dumerac, and Phillip Pellet on the first day of establishing their new route which I had shared since the gully, Infinite Patience. At the time, sitting in the meadows below the Emperor Face, I had succumbed to severe FOMO ( fear of missing out). A familiar lonely, self-pitying jealousy had gripped me. As a new arrival in Canmore and a bit of a loner, I felt myself to be outside the crew of people who climbed at such a level. Now, by foregoing the need for a partner and practicing self reliance, I felt like I was sharing in the pantheon at that moment on the ridge.

The upper ridge with very little snow.

The gargoyles beckoned above. It was the hottest part of the day when I was in the midst of them. A magical fantasy land of snow sculpture enwrapped me. My worries about the hazards of soft snow did not materialize. Styrofoam-like snow made each axe placement as secure as a belay. With no partner to act as counterweight, the usual advice to weave the rope through as many formations as possible did not apply. I did not think it hazardous though. The features were so large that I was never forced to peer over the Emperor Face itself but climbed on the highway side of the ridge or on the crest itself with perfect snow the whole way. Enchanted, I wandered and weaved and climbed until the last mushroom flattened out into the mellow grade of the summit plateau.

Arriving at the summit was stereotypically anticlimactic. The summit plateau was broad and featureless in contrast to the unique forms of the upper ridge. As I had already summitted previously, there was no special elation. Parched by the effort, I would have given anything for a sip of water but made do with sucking on icicles. Realizing just how alone I was, my solitude suddenly struck me as a potential problem and I was only half way through my journey. Due to the time of day, 6 pm, as the air and my body cooled my mind turned to the descent. As much thought had gone into the descent as the climb. The known terrain of the Kain Face was topped by a cornice for much of its length and, from above, finding the correct spot to begin descending would be tricky. I had decided to downclimb the normal south face route instead. In the cooling temperatures of late afternoon, a misty whiteout had formed on the glacier just below the summit with not a breath of wind to clear it. With no visibility, I feared falling into one of the few crevasses. By 9pm I was getting decidedly cold but had no option but to take the decision to sit down and rest. In a small wind trough, I climbed into the black garbage bag that I had brought as an emergency bivi bag. The inevitable sleep was not restful.

Older, wiser, and glad to be on the summit with friends and a sleeping bag.

I woke from a dream of helicopters and rescuers flying up to my position. I was on my own on the summit of the Rockies and I had no one to look to but myself. No one even knew where I was, part of my man-on-a-mission ethos of the time. Far removed from the established Squamish-Canmore axis of the Canadian climbing scene, the summit of Robson felt very "real" and far from the madding crowd. I was learning that it truly is a stand-alone world. Lights on the Yellowhead Highway 3000 metres below made me realize my situation and that the whiteout had cleared. The watch read 3am and I was convulsing involuntarily from the cold. Time to get a move on!

Face out down the slopes of the south face I heel plunged gulping the massive open air at my toes. It crossed my mind that if I fell I would end in a heap at the flats by Kinney Lake. As I ran below threatening blue-green seracs, a strangely intense wind kicked up tossing stones, not just pebbles, through the air. Everything above my elevation was capped suddenly by a thick summit cloud. Crawling on my knees had not been part of the plan for a speed ascent but it was the only safe way to proceed toward the Ralph Forester hut. Finally sipping water, I resisted the urge to sit down.

Spot the climber.  Undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the outing , on the Shwartz ledges. As Raph said, "At times you just have to shut your mind off". At least when you have partners you only have to turn it off briefly.

Some parties fly in to Berg Lake or out from the hut. I had more adrenaline than money and so continued jogging down the gravelly trail. Eventually I got off route and ran down the belly of a massive avalanche gully to the blessedly flat valley. How sweet and easy normal, everyday terrain seemed after my mountain circuit. Thirty-three hours of adventure had elapsed when I returned to the parking lot having experienced hallucinations, delusions, unforgettable climbing, self doubt, and visions of what is possible with a little self-confidence. It was a highpoint of my time climbing in the Rockies, a joyful day of adventure which still fuels my love of the "King" to this day.

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