Uisdean Hawthorn and Ethan Berman have bagged a first ascent on the right side of Mt. Robson’s (12,972 feet/3,954 meters) intimidating and rarely-climbed Emperor Face, naming it Running in the Shadows (VI AI5 M6 2000 meters).
“Alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies has a huge feel to it. Any big routes I have done here resemble climbing in the Himalayas much more than the Alps, this route was no exception. It is one of the wildest […] routes I’ve ever climbed,” Hawthorn wrote in a report he sent to Rock and Ice.
Jim Logan and Mugs Stump made the first ascent of the Emperor Face in 1978. In the 1979 American Alpine Journal, Logan wrote, “When I first saw the face, I was totally awed by it. It was the biggest face I had ever seen, much larger than the Eiger and unbelievably, still unclimbed, fully 40 years after the first ascent of the Eiger. I made several unsuccessful attempts to climb the face in 1976 and 1977 and felt determined to give it a good try in the summer of 1978.”
The Stump-Logan route took a plumb line directly up the face. In the 42 years since that climb, the blanks spots on the Emperor Face have slowly been filled in by other top climbers, but the number of ascents is still countable on two hands. Other routes include the Cheesmond-Dick (VI 5.9 A2, 2500 meters), established by Dave Cheesmond and Tony Dick in 1981; Infinite Patience (VI 5.9 M5 WI 5, 2200 meters), established by Barry Blanchard Eric Dumerac and Philippe in 2002; and a partial route (not to the summit) done by Jason Kruk and Jon Walsh in 2010. (Kruk wrote in the AAJ, “With a straight face I can call the hardest pitch I led M7.”) Marc-Andre Leclerc, who died in Alaska in 2018, made the frist solo ascent of the Emperor face in 2016, via Infinite Patience.
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Ethan Berman first envisioned his and Hawthorn’s new line a few years ago, but a too-snowy face prevented a proper attempt. Berman was convinced this autumn was bound to hold good conditions after the freeze-thaw of summer, so he and Hawthorn made plans to give it a go.
Hawthorn and Berman hiked the nearly 16-mile approach and made camp beneath the mountain before starting up the face the next day.
They “scrambled up lots of easy choss” at the start, and eventually started up an unclimbed “gully system” where they found firm, squeaky neve snow. Some 500 meters up they “hit a steeper band, but there was ice stuck thinly on a rising ramp system which I climbed, albeit with no gear,” Hawsthon said.
The crux of the day—and the biggest question mark on the line they had picked from the ground—consisted of two steep pitches near the top.
“Ethan tried the ice corner straight above but the ice was too thin to climb safely,” Hawthorn said, “and he sensibly backed off. I tried a steep corner on the right, it was full of snow, but it had a crack in the back so at least I could get some good gear. It was very awkward especially with a heavy bag on.” I bounce tested two cams in the icy crack and aided on them for the last 2 meters to move quicker. It felt like climbing a scrappy Scottish VII,8 mixed pitch.”
Berman took the sharp end for the second crux pitch.
“It was an icy mixed pitch with a steep bulge at 55 meters,” Hawthorn said. Berman had only two pitons and a “tied off screw” beneath him at the most strenuous part, that may or may not have held a fall.
“I think I just entered another state of consciousness,” Hawthorn remembered Berman telling him after the lead.
Another two more pitches on the Emperor Face proper—the thirteenth and fourteenth of the day—deposited them on the Emperor ridge, rounding out a healthy 19-hour day.
They bivied on the ridge and awoke the next morning to a more difficult day than either had anticipated. After 12 hours of traversing 800 meters with sections of ice up to 45 degrees, they were standing on the summit. Another bivy there, followed by a tedious descent on day three, and the pair was back at base camp.
Hawthorn was nominated for a Piolet d’Or in 2019 for his and fellow British climber Tom Livingstone’s 2018 new route Fun or Fear, on the East Face of Mt. Jezebel (2,880 meters) in Alaska’s Revelation Mountains. He also holds the winter speed record for the traverse of Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye, Scotland, with a time of 4 hours 57 minutes 7 seconds.