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Simon Richardson: The First Ascent of the North Spur of Mount Phillips

Richardson's story of how he and Ian Welsted came to climb the North Spur of Mount Phillips begins with a classic line: "It all began with a photo."

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It all began with a photo. Flicking through the Internet at home one evening in Scotland, I came across John Scurlock’s beautiful image of the north side of Mount Phillips. The compelling, sharp-cut North Spur dividing the northeast and northwest faces of the mountain was a feature that simply had to be climbed!

Simon Richardson on the approach with Mount Robson behind. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Ian Welsted and I met on an International Climbing meet in Scotland. We share a love of wild places and arranged to do some exploratory alpine climbing in the Canadian mountains this summer.

I was a little concerned that the high pressure anchored over Alaska had directed unsettled weather over the Canadian mountains, so wondered whether our primary objectives would be in condition. Almost on a whim, I printed off the photo of Mount Phillips hours before I boarded the plane to Calgary.

When I showed the photo to Ian he was similarly inspired and the route seemed a safe option as the late Rockies spring transitioned into summer. Timing is key when it comes to alpine climbing, and we hoped to take advantage of cool conditions on the back of a passing front.

[Also Read First Ascents On The Stikine Icecap, Alaska, By Richardson And Robson]

Neither of us had heard of Mount Phillips before, but a quick Google search revealed it was a 3,246-meter-high peak just to the north of Mount Robson. Phillips’ 600-meter north face appeared to be unclimbed. Ian contacted Jesse Milner and Dana Ruddy in Jasper, who said they knew about the line, but generously said they would be delighted if we gave it a go.

On July 21, we left the Berg Lake trail just above Emperor Falls and bushwhacked through forest that opened out to meadows of wild flowers with the Emperor Ridge of Robson towering behind. Scree and snow slopes led to a comfortable bivouac on the right flank of the Phillips glacier.

Simon Richardson on the lower section of the North Spur Mount Phillips. Photo: Ian Welsted.

We rose at 12:30 a.m., anxious to become established on the route before snow on the east flank of the spur softened in the morning sun. A two-and-a-half-hour approach over the col east of the mountain saw us crossing the bergschund at dawn, and we moved quickly up the lower spur on mixed snow and rock.

Ian Welsted approaching the headwall on the North Spur Mount Phillips. Photo: Simon Richardson.

Our pace slowed at two-thirds height where the spur abuts the steep headwall. I had hoped for a hidden ramp leading right to the west ridge, but instead we were forced into the “jaws,” a narrow ice gully that cut deeply into the headwall. It appeared to end in an impasse, but fortunately an icy ramp led left to easier ground.

It was now midday and the sun was softening the snow at an alarming rate. Every time we dropped a rock it precipitated a huge surging avalanche down the face below. We were perfectly safe—but thankful for our alpine start.

The next pitch across the snow band to reach the final part of the west ridge should have been a straightforward romp across a 45-degree slope, but instead Ian was forced to make a bold and demanding lead on dark shattered limestone covered in a wet layer of snow. I marveled at his skill placing knife blades and finding the perfect location for our precious single Pecker.

Then, suddenly, it was almost over. A broad ledge on the west ridge gave way to three exposed and intricate pitches up the sharp arete to the summit.

It was 5:00 p.m. The weather was good; there was no need to hurry. Robson towered 700 meters above us and behind we could see down the Rockies chain to Mount Clemencau and beyond. To the north the view was even more intriguing. Steep and jagged peaks stretched all the way to the horizon, holding countless possibilities for more adventures to come.

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