Monday, August 02, 2010

The Emperor

It's been a few years now since I've felt in decent rock climbing shape.  One problem with the whole multi-sport thing is unless your are supremely talented, it's hard to stay in top form in each one of the disciplines you practice.  This spring I had every intention of getting back into the sport of hard rock climbing and hopefully redpoint my hardest route to date.

I was trying.  I bouldered heavily while in Patagonia and came home with an edge up on spring training.  In Vancouver, I committed to training sessions in the climbing gym religiously for several weeks.  I just about glimpsed past strength levels too, when the fateful TSN Turning Point happened - I pulled a tendon pulley in my middle finger.  I was benched from holding any sort of grips, plastic or rockstone.  Even gripping ski poles was aggravating.  Finally, after a month and a half layoff, the finger felt just good enough to hold ice tools.  This development put and end to furious crimper training and I postulated on how to make the very most of my spring.
If alpine climbing was now the only thing in condition for me, there was one guy I knew I needed to get in contact with - Jon Walsh.  Jonny Red (JR) is my total hero.  He has climbed the kinds of routes around the globe that people dream of climbing.  Usually in an uncompromising, bold style - single push, fast, and free.  This is the very aesthetic that appeals to me.  His response was immediate and positive.  At the top of his hit list was a face I had dreamt about climbing since I was a kid, the storied Emperor Face of Mt. Robson.  We didn't have to talk tactics for very long to realize we were on the same page.  If we climbed fast with small packs we would only need a couple good days of weather, not the 5+ usually required for an ascent.  JR was adamant any face in the Rockies could be climbed in a weekend.  "I've realized I can climb continuously for 48 hours before I need to sleep," he claimed.
The Emperor Face from Mist Lake
The hike in is long, like 25 kms one-way long.  We ended up going in on three separate occasions; twice in May and then finally on June 19th.  The first trip ended in part due to bad weather and too much snow on the face, so on the second try we packed skis and our stiff touring boots just to hedge our bets.  Too much snow still clung to the rock on that attempt, so we switched into ski mode and attempted to ski off the very aesthetic Whitehorn.
The Whitehorn north face
I still haven't checked the map, but I reckon it was a ~60km, 12,000ft day of skiing car-to-car in 19 hours.
Hanging off an ice screw to clip in to your skis is tricky on a 50° face 
JR shredding
'Schrund work
The summer solstice seemed a ridiculous time to try and climb a 'winter' route, but with a plump snow pack this year and a mild spring, conditions were looking good for a try.  I had kept a full backpack packed just for Robson, incase we got the window we needed for another go.
On Friday the 18th, after deejaying the Test of Metal blockparty in Squamish, I hopped in my truck and drove the 10 hours through the night to meet Jon in the Robson parking lot mid-morning.  We hiked in quickly and established a camp below the face.
Despite the continuous, cerebral (read: scary) nature of the climbing, it was a pure pleasure to climb such entertaining and sustained mixed ground for so long.  We climbed quickly, swinging leads the entire way up the face.  I can call the hardest pitch I lead M7 with a straight face.  We hit the top of the face at midnight as lightning struck to the north, clouds enveloped around us, and it started to snow a little.  At the time the decision was pretty easy to go down the Emperor Ridge and not continue to the summit.  Now, I can't help but wonder 'what if?'
It always seemed a little silly to argue over the very definitions we climbers make up ourselves.  Summit or not, it definitely felt like a new route.  In correspondence with a longtime Rockies climber, another hero of mine, his point was clear: "we're not arguing black or white here, rather, different shades of ugly".
Look for a feature article I'm writing for Gripped Magazine.  Here are some of my photos:
And JR's route line:

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