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THE NORTH WIND AND THE SUN

29-Jun-2010
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The rocky Emperor Face of Mount Robson. House-Haley roughly splits the center of the face.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Colin Haley, 22, and Steve House, 36, completed a new route on Mount Robson’s famous Emperor Face, aka “The King,” reaching the summit on the House-Haley (WI 5 M7, 5,800 feet) on May 26. Their route is just left of (and shares final pitches with) the Stump-Logan (VI 5.9 A2, 5,800 feet), the first route up the imposing wall. Below is House’s account of climbing one of the most sought after prizes in alpinism with one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars. 

The rocky Emperor Face of Mount Robson. House-Haley roughly splits the center of the face.

In 1978, Jim Logan and Mugs Stump took three days to climb up Mount Robson’s Emperor Face, the crown wall of the Rockies. Their groundbreaking route added yet another 5.9 A2 alpine wall to the range.

The King’s second route came in 1981, when Dave Cheesmond and Tony Dick climbed a line that is believed to lie left of the Stump-Logan. Years later, in October 2002, Barry Blanchard, after multiple, mostly winter-season attempts, finally completed his route Infinite Patience with Phillipe Pellet and Eric Dumerac. 

In the mid-1990s, I had accompanied Barry on three of his attempts. My first time, I dropped the stove, wasting clear, but cold weather. It’s a moment in my alpine career that I’ll never forget. 
 
In the ensuing years, I made more attempts to take down the King, though I usually hiked/skied 18 miles to Berg Lake and watched storms ravage Mount Robson for a week. 
 
In April of this year, as usual, I began my daily routine of Robson weather watching. Seven weeks later, in late May, “it” finally came—a forecast for four consecutive days of sun. Vince Anderson, my usual partner, was in Alaska, and the list of people I might call for such a trip was short. However, Colin Haley, a fellow Northwesterner and a college student and young alpinist on a run of good luck, was able to skip class and head north.

Due to the short window of weather (we spent the first two sunny days driving), we elected to helicopter in to the 9,200-foot Helmut-Robson Col. 

At 4:30 a.m. on May 25, we left our tiny camp. Colin led the first block of pitches. He crossed a difficult rock step, weaved up an ice gully behind a huge chockstone, and higher, found a steep ice vein barely the width of one boot to climb. Colin climbed fast and built solid anchors—good attributes in an alpine partner. 

By the afternoon, Colin had led us halfway up the face, and it was my turn. The best pitches came up high. I climbed a vertical ice runnel the width of my body up to a 30-foot-wide spider-shaped ice field. I then followed it to a point where I could rock climb six feet right and gain another beautiful strip of vertical ice. 

Two hard mixed pitches followed. All the time I spent rock climbing this spring paid off, and I was able to recover between pumpy cruxes. We found an old piton 30 feet below the top of the last pitch, and a couple more after the crux section—relics from Logan and Stump’s climb that were older than my climbing partner, and nearly as old as I am.

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By the time we topped out on the headwall, just feet below the ridge, the sun was setting. We chopped a ledge into the ice, hunkered down, ate freeze-dried lasagna and took turns holding the stove to melt enough water for a few drinks.
 
We passed the time by taking short naps and imagining what else we might be doing on this Saturday night. Colin: hooking up with lovely college chicks. Me: sleeping. 
 
By 5 a.m., I resumed the lead. There is nothing like waking up and having your first pitch begin with 3,000 feet of exposure. Cresting the Emperor Ridge, we began a long traverse across the south face to the Wishbone Arete, our route to the top. Robson’s infamous summit gargoyles appeared through the growing clouds. These rime-ice mushrooms are not unlike Cerro Torre’s summit decorations, and in winter and spring they can become daunting guardians of the top. 

Roping up, I led up the crest of these fragile, yet somehow supportive monsters of ice. This technique presumes that if one of us were to be spit off, the other would be on the far side of the ridge to arrest the fall. Luckily, I didn’t pitch, and we reached the summit safely, albeit in a whiteout. Neither Colin nor I could see further than 20 feet in front of our faces.

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