I planted my axe into the silver strip of ice, pulled up and crossed over the threshold. I had touched this line twice before – once in the winter of 1997 and again in the winter of 2000 during my third and fourth attempts to climb a new route on the Emperor Face of Mount Robson – but never crossed it. Five thousand feet of face fell away below my crampons – this was the known, the mountainscape that I could draw in fine detail inside my head. Two thousand five hundred feet of mountain lay above my shoulders: the unknown, the mystery. My abdomen tightened, and the skin over it quivered into tension. I felt like a long-distance swimmer wading naked into a northern lake, the far shore beyond sight.
Shards of diamond-hard ice fractured from my axe strikes and rattled off down the ancient, chrome-colored couloir glowing dully with diffuse daylight, the sun never reaching into this deep shadow on the mountain. The ice looked like frozen quicksilver, and the climbing was superb. I was partnered with hometown buddy, Eric, and our good friend and fellow mountain guide, Philippe. Philippe is from Briançon, France. It was his block of four rope lengths, and Eric and I followed him cheering to each other, laughing out loud and shouting out “how cool” it all was.
The day was cold, cloud-free and clear, the kind of weather window I’d waited for months to see. Our rope was 198 feet long and that was the range of our influence. We tacked our way up the slender strip of ice using simple tools – ice axes, crampons, ice screws – unfolding the 2,500 feet of mystery by hand, 6,000 feet above the emerald waters of Berg Lake.
That night would be my eighth passed in bivouac dug into the winter snows of the Emperor. It was my fifth attempt on the face in 13 years. All this time, I’d clung stubbornly to the ideals of alpinism that I inherited from the writings of the great Italian mountain climber, Walter Bonatti, a man I had never met.
Every attempt was made with only what we could carry on our backs. We committed to this beautiful mountain totally, reverentially. We would either make the top in one pure push, or we would retreat by our wits, 198 feet at a time, to live and learn and try again. Robson is the “king” of the Canadian Rockies and the mountain deserves nothing less. The night was viciously cold, and at one point I saw Eric’s blanched cheek in the light of my headlamp and told him he should hide it from the westerly wind to keep it from being frostbitten.
At nine o’clock the next night, we connected to the couloir that tops the Wishbone Arete on the west face of Robson. We climbed the ice by headlamp, Philippe in the lead. At midnight we crunched onto the summit, and embraced, and cried – and then we howled.