Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

Robson from visitor center


Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, towering over its neighbors in the northwest part of the range. A bit under 2000 extra feet make it a completely different beast than its neighbor to the northwest: while Whitehorn succumbed to a fast-and-light assault in about 12 hours, Robson is Serious Business, requiring ice tools, real crampons, and mountain boots. I think it should be doable in 12 hours by the easiest and most direct route (southwest ridge), but I can’t imagine that route being in condition for fast-and-light gear.

Part of what I try to do when exploring new ranges is to dispel their mystery and the accompanying irrational fear. My previous Robson encounter, while successful, had something of the opposite effect. This time, better weather and information resulted in a much better experience, though the mountain still tested my ability and nerve.

Robson from near col

The classic route on Robson is the Kain Face, traditionally reached by a long hike around to Berg Lake, then a hazardous ascent of the Mousetrap Icefall. Both of these factors led me to choose the southwest ridge back in 2014. Since then I have learned of the Patterson Spur approach, which avoids both distance and hazard, and turns out to be shockingly well-flagged. This allowed me to climb the classic, aesthetic route in 14h50 car-to-car. Doing so required balancing contradictory time constraints: on the one hand, I did not believe I could do the approach at night; on the other, the Kain Face and Robson Glacier receive morning sun, so they are best climbed early. I split the difference, starting at 3:22 to hike the Berg Lake trail at night, and climbing the face mid-morning in sloppy but not hazardous conditions.

Patterson Spur near center in sun

The Patterson Spur trail is well-disguised from the hoi polloi, but if you know where to look, you can find a faint boot-path, which soon turns into a reasonably-maintained and extravagantly-flagged climbers’ trail ascending through the woods around the toe of Robson’s south-southeast ridge. The trail peters out in a large slide path, where the route crosses the outflows of some hanging glaciers, then follows the streams toward the Robson-Resplendent col. Occasional flagging and maintenance lead up the slope, with some vegetable combat, to a broad cirque of talus and ledges.

Resplendent

I found an occasional cairn here or there, but there are many possible paths up the slope. The eventual goal is to cross left across the small glaciers’ terminal moraines, then ascend an indistinct ridge (the Patterson Spur) to the R-R col. Getting onto the ridge via rock looked tricky, so I booted up the side of the glacier to its right, then continued the long, meandering climb, finally meeting the sun a few hundred feet below the ridge. From a starting elevation of 2780′ at the parking lot, this approach climbs to around 9,000′ at the col, covering a bit less than two thirds of the total elevation gain.

Robson from R-R col

R-R col is distressingly far from the Kain Face, and this part of the Robson Glacier looked uninvitingly crevassed, so I was happy to follow a recent boot-pack along the ridge, scrambling a mixture of rock and softening snow. I was hoping that the people I was following knew what they were doing, but discovered at the top of a snow-slope that I was wrong. The ridge is separated from the glacier by a bergschrund for its entire length, and becomes more difficult near a large notch at Robson’s SSE ridge. The party ahead had dithered for awhile, then retreated, briefly checking out a likely ‘schrund crossing before… admitting ignominious defeat? Being made of sterner/stupider stuff, I carefully crossed the ‘schrund where they had chickened out, briefly wallowing thigh-deep before reaching ankle- to calf-deep snow on the glacier.

Down face to Robson Glacier

The Robson Glacier looked like serious business, with gaping crevasses on the direct line to the Kain Face, so I took a cautious, roundabout line near the ‘schrund. I tried to minimize the wretched postholing by crossing old slide debris, but it was still slow going, and I was concerned about the state of the face above me. I sweated my way around to the base of the route, and finally put on crampons.

Kain Face ‘schrund

There is another ‘schrund near the base of the Kain Face, and it proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Even where the gaping pit was filled with slide debris, it presented an overhanging slush-cliff that I could not climb. Finally, traversing nearly all the way to the right-hand side, I found a place where it was just filled in enough to carefully cross. I don’t entirely understand how the snowpack changes on Robson, but it seems like the face may be completely inaccessible later this summer.

Across Kain Face toward Resplendent

Above the ‘schrund, I climbed a few hundred feet of steep, calf-deep slush plunging both tools for security. The slush eventually thinned, and I climbed a good bit of honest-to-God ice with a thin covering, allowing me to engage my front-points and tools for real. I hadn’t climbed any ice in awhile, so I over-gripped my tools and stuck them too deep for awhile. As the angle began to ease, the face grew an unpleasant layer of aerated junk over the ice. My feet still fell solid, but I was less confident about my tool placements.

Summit climb

Finally reaching the SSE ridge, I was confronted by another 1000 feet of easy ridge-walking and nontrivial climbing. The ridge starts out broad, and the snow was perfect for cramponing on the left side, well off the cornice. I was no longer sheltered from the wind, which kicked bits of rime past me toward the Robson Glacier, but it remained perfectly clear, and I was warm enough while moving. I stopped from time to time to turn away from the wind, warm my face, and admire the view of Resplendent and the large, complex glacier.

Rimed-up crevasse below summit

The climb steepens toward the top, passing around or over rime formations on the edge of the summit glacier. The snow remained pleasantly firm, and I could French-step much of the slope, front-pointing up occasional steeper bits. Just below the summit, I found a rime-encrusted crevasse right across the ridge. It looked like it might be possible to go around it on the right, but that would be awfully close to the cornices, so I traversed left, crossed a well-bridged part, then climbed a pitch of weird snice covered in inch-long rime feathers, finally reaching the broad summit plateau.

Rime sculpture

In addition to the 2-3 equally high humps I remembered from last time, I found a number of huge, trippy rime towers, fed by the clouds that often blanket the peak. The sky remained clear for me, though, and I looked down in all directions on a sea of lesser peaks. I was partly sheltered from the wind in the lee of a rime-blob, but didn’t linger long, as I had a lot of descending to do. With a clear view of nearly my entire descent route, it was easy to follow the edge of the summit glacier down to the top of the Schwartz Ledges, climbing between two rime towers.

Looking up from Little Robson

After much inward-facing downclimbing, I reached the normal rock transition and removed my crampons. As I was here a bit earlier in the season than last time, the ledges still held patches of evil slush protecting ice. After a slip, I tried to continue along the edge of the glacier, only to find knee-deep slush-wallowing. I glissaded one small, tame section, then made the annoying transition back across the ice to the rock, then avoided snow as much as possible on my way toward the icefall hazard.

Schwartz Ledges

With some obnoxious downclimbing and a brief shower crossing under some ice, I found a ledge leading across the famous icefall gully on which I could step across the lingering snow in the couloir. After crossing the col to Little Robson, difficulties from the snow decreased, though it still interfered with the easiest path in a couple places. Perhaps because of this, I found this section more difficult than I remembered, including a low 5th class dihedral. Nearing the final ice-dodging section just above the hut, I heard the occasional rock pinging down the side of the glacier. Pausing before crossing the gully, I heard and then saw a dozen or so rocks large enough to brain me whiz by, encouraging some haste.

Welcome home!

I took a break at the Forster hut, eating my last sandwich and wringing out my soaked socks. The hut looked abandoned, with the door ajar and a dead rat on the doorstep. Fortunately I had passed this way before, because the trail down to Kinney Lake is similarly neglected, and rapidly returning to nature. It is particularly easy to lose at either end, overgrown on top and blocked by deadfall on bottom. Also of note, the handlines on the 4th class step partway down are nothing but untrustworthy tat now. Fortunately I knew where to look up high, and only lost the route for a bit. My feet, wet for hours, ached in my boots, and my hands, covered in small cuts from the sharp rock, suffered as well grappling with roots and branches.

Finally emerging on the wide tourist trail, I limped the remaining 5k to the trailhead, barely passing the occasional tourist. At the car, I gratefully stripped out of my wet boots and filthy clothes, then drove up to the visitor center for some slow wifi before returning to the trailhead to pass out in the car. I had emerged victorious, but with a healthy respect for the Great White Fright.

4 responses to “Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

  1. Well done, Sean; and glad you made it back (largely) unscathed.

  2. Bob Argiropoulos

    Congratulations Sean! Most of us just dream of climbing the Great White Fright while you make it happen in under 15 hours – for the second time on your second attempt! You realize that you are skewing the 90% failure rate statistic with your casual walks up this peak. A truly impressive, world-class ascent, and descent for that matter. Conrad Kain is smoking a huge pipe in your honor. Truly amazing Sean!!!

    • I would hardly call either time a “casual walk” — even this time, with excellent conditions, I came away with profound respect for the peak. I have done longer days, but this was probably my most challenging and rewarding.

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