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All Smoke Below, All Sky Above: An Ascent of Mount Robson via the Kain Face

Mountaineering (Glacier Travel, Ice and Snow Climbing)
Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
YDS Difficulty: 
Very Little
Monday, July 17, 2017

There are few peaks in the Rockies with more history and majesty than Mount Robson.  Highest point in the range and source of challenge, controversy, and achievement.  Even by the easiest route, an ascent of Robson is not something to be trifled with.  Stable weather windows beyond  one or two days can be notoriously rare, and fleeing off the mountain is not a trivial task.  The keys to a successful ascent are a good team, fast travel, good weather, and good conditions on the mountain.  Ferenc, Steven, and I thought we would have at least two of those things with the others hopefully falling into line.  While our original plan for the trip was to head for Lyell 4 (Walter Peak), the lure of a good freeze and a hint of a chance for Robson drew us to the north.

Historically, the 'normal' route for the peak was to ascend the south face, passing by the Ralph Forster Hut and traversing beneath the infamous Schwartz Ledges (which can be icy and treacherous and are always threatened from serac fall).  In recent years many climbers have started to head back to the original ascent line via the Kain (northeast) Face followed by an ascent of the southeast ridge.  This route has been made considerably more attractive by a direct approach via the Patterson Spur, a rubbly and ledgey outcrop that allows for access to the Robson/Resplendent Col from Kinney Lake rather than having to traverse around the bulk of the mountain to Berg Lake before starting the ascent-proper.
We chose the Kain Face via the Patterson Spur.  Both Ferenc and Steven had done the approach from the trailhead up to the Robson/Resplendent Col previously to ascend Resplendent Mountain.  This helped immensely as the approach is long and staying on the proper trail through some of the bushy sections is quite essential.  The last trip that all three of us had done together was a very long day ascending Mount Victoria and Mount Huber from Lake O'Hara (without being able to use the bus in or out), and the last trip I had done with Ferenc was our tiring trek up Mount Alberta.  With such a history as that this trip was sure to be long and exhausting (and it did not disappoint!).  Ferenc wanted to break up the approach into two days and got a head start to a bivy below the Patterson Spur while Steven and I would start dark and early in the morning from the Berg Lake Trailhead.
Steven and I had agreed to meet Ferenc at 'the bench', below the Patterson Spur' at around 0900 (thankfully confirming ahead of time that we were using Alberta-time not BC-time to avoid confusion) and reckoned that we should probably leave the cars at 4ish.  Starting bleary-eyed at about 0420 we made good time along the Berg Lake Trail reaching the Kinney Lake bridge in under an hour.  Steven had a good memory for where the approach trail to the Spur branches off from the official trail and before long we were traipsing up dirt and dodging tree routes on what is actually a very well flagged and cleared path!  

Setting out from the parking lot in near darkness.


Crossing the bridge by Kinney Lake as things start to brighten.


The flagging on the trail is Edmonton Oilers colors, this bodes well.

The trail works its way eastwards crossing several very eroded watercourses (one of which has a fixed rope which was very useful on the way back) before descending down to the valley bottom and crossing over three parallel creeks.  Ferenc had actually camped near one of these creeks the previous night and woken up a few hours previously to start the ascent towards our rendezvous point.  From the valley to the bench there is about 700 vertical meters to be gained.  Thankfully the flagged trail continues upwards across waterworn slabs, through encroaching bush, and up rubbly ledges.  About five and a half hours from the road we reached the bench under rolling clouds and spotted Ferenc taking a rest on a boulder in the distance, our crew was now all together!

The valley below the Spur is very neat, a far cry from the Berg Lake Trail crowds.


Steven looking up at the steep bushy terrain to ascend.


Looking back down the valley towards Kinney Lake.


Really interesting low lying clouds rolilng in and out.


When zoomed in you can just see a wild Ferenc in left of center!

From the bench there was still another 800 vertical meters to reach the RR col.  Both Steven and Ferenc had said that the first part of this leg was ascending some truly miserable scree but after that the rubbly ledges of the Spur itself were actually not that bad.   Especially with heavy packs the scree proved to be quite arduous and every inch upwards was a battle before reaching a small flat section where we could get on some more favorable rock and start on the Spur.  The ledges that make up the Spur were not actually that bad and we were able to fairly quickly (albeit quite carefully) work our way up mostly 3'rd and 4'th class terrain with the occasional move of low 5'th.  Higher up some fresh snow and rime made things chillier and required a bit of more precise footwork but before too long we had topped out on the quite chilly RR col (about ten and a half hours from the road).

Quite a nice patch of greenery for a bivy if breaking the ascent up into two stretches.


On the Spur, glaciers draining down from Resplendent Mountain on the right.


Ferenc putting some war paint on.


Steven looking pretty chill before the 4'th class sections.


Things got a little frostier higher up the Spur.


Not the greatest views from the RR col today.

At this point we had a bit of a decision to make.  We were all feeling quite tired (I was running on about four hours of sleep from the previously night and was perilously non-caffeinated) but knew that any chance of success would require camping at The Dome (a flat section of glacier beneath the Kain Face) rather than at the RR col.  While on the map, The Dome and the RR col are quite close, traversing between the two requires ascending up and back down a rocky ridge and a series of snow slopes to avoid the very steep and crevassed terrain between the two places.  With the swirling mirk of low clouds (or maybe not low clouds, just we were high up) the ridge looked quite fearsome and both Steven and I were not fond of the look of it while hefting heavy packs.  Breaking out the rope and pitching out the ridge would have taken ages so we hoped that things would be scramble-able and that we could make good time forwards.

Steven working up the first part of the ridge.

Thankfully the ridge actually proved to be quite fun. The rock was surprisingly decent where you needed it to be (with scores of crampons scratches on many of the rocks showing that number of feet that have trampled across this way over the years).  Most of the ridge was moderate or difficult scrambling with the crux section involving a few fifth class moves over snowy sloping rock.  We managed to solo everything on the ridge though, at least I, was thankful to see some rap stations above the trickier parts for the way back down.  Right before the crux was one the of the great tragedies of the trip.  I had brought along a beer thinking that after a long day to The Dome it would be most-refreshing at camp.  But lo, after laying down my pack below the crux for a quick break a mighty rock punctured the can leading to Ferenc and I sharing an impromptu shotgun to avoid wasting the brew.  I guess I should have sprung for one of those insulated beer carriers that people seem to usually use for water bottles for some reason.  :)  

Actually nicely stable rock!


Ferenc and I approaching the crux.  Photo by Steven.


Steven and I with the crux in the background.  Photo by Ferenc.

After the rocky part of the ridge we were looking at some decently steep snow slopes and broke out our crampons and axes to carry on.  We were actually following some recent footprints (they could not have been more than half a week old) which had a branching path with one leg going down towards the Dome while another took a route higher up over a further snow pinnacle.  The lower path looked like it lead straight into a 'shrund so we kicked up the tracks to the pinnacle and were saddened to find that after 80m of gain this was much worse than the lower path.  Backtracking down we saw that there was a bridge, albeit a small one, to get down to the glacier.  Steven carefully soloed across it and made it ok while I saw no point for crossing a 'shrund unroped, especially if we were going to be tossing the rope on right after for the walk up to the Dome-proper!  Sorting out a quick belay Ferenc and I were ferried across and then made our way step after wearing step to our camp near the highpoint of the Dome.  This had taken a little over fifteen hours car to camp, not a short day by any means!

Really interesting overhanging rock features above The Dome.


Looking down towards where the old Mousetrap route used to go.


This overhanging roof is quite spectacular.


The boys dropping down over a snow bridge to get on The Dome.


Looking over towards Resplendent Mountain from our camp on The Dome.

From The Dome it is only about 3 km of distance and a little less than 800 meters of elevation gain to get to the summit but it is a long 3 km and an even longer 800 meters!  Making dinner and melting water for the next day we got as much sleep as we could.  We could see that much of the Kain Face was actually snow covered with some suspect looking patches probably being ice (but certainly not the whole thing).  We were all quite confident for quick travel on snow slopes and reckoned that a bit of extra sleep (compared to if the face was all ice) would serve us well.

Looking up towards the Kain Face with the upper mountain looming above.

Waking up sometime around 4ish the winds had changed and some more smoke had rolled in overnight giving an interesting look to many of the mountains below.  Looking up from camp we had two main options for crossing the 'shrund on the Kain Face and after the most direct line above camp proved to be very open had to traverse far climber's right to a bridged section before working back up the face.  The first 150 vertical meters or so after the 'shrund were actually quite nice.  Decent hard snow with good axe placements and good feeling feet.  After that things started to get more icier and we stopped for a moot to discuss conditions.  Given that the higher we got the better the chance of having wind-scoured icy slopes we switched into belayed-climbing mode and slowly started working up.  With three people our pitches were fairly short but thankfully there was really only one 50ish meter patch of proper calf-burning ice to climb (which I had the privilege of leading).  

Smoke down low and the moon up above with a hazy Resplendent Mountian in the middle.


Steven leading and I following up to the 'shrund. Photo by Ferenc.


Me starting to lead an ice pitch.  Photo by Steven.

At the last of our belay stations there was a minor incident.  With proper ice starting to fade Ferenc's station was a little tenuous and a little bit of cross loading while ferrying gear back and forth popped out a screw.  Being off balance Ferenc quickly kicked in his foot to stabilize and in the process kicked off one of my ice tools which was in the process of being clipped as a personal backup.  It was a sad sight to see the cobra sliding down the face and eventually into the 'shrund.  I would be down to a single tool for the rest of the trip (thankfully I did also have a straight axe but it is completely useless on ice).  Ferenc then lead the fourth of our pitches which brought us thankfully back onto snow and a much quicker pace leading up to the top of the Kain Face!  The views from the top of the Kain Face were spectacular.  On a clear day your views are probably damned-near limitless (curvature of the Earth not withstanding).  Given the smoke our views were more local but still very impressive.  From the top of the face there is still a lot of mountain left to reach the summit.  On the upper face we could see the tracks from the previous party we had been following before which traced a line upwards avoiding the bare ice.  The line looked good and Steven kicked a great many steps leading us upwards towards The Roof!

Steven on top of the Kain Face!

The snow on the upper mountain had very interesting texture.  Air temperature was still quite chilly (-7 C or so) but the intense sun made for a layer or meltforms beneath the surface covered by a thin veneer of ice from the frozen air.  Every step sounded like crashing through a tiny window pane with crackling sounds following as the icy caps drifted down the face.  With the exception of one very soft patch of snow right below the roof-gargoyles stability was quite good and we felt quite secure.  Our final challenge was to traverse the broad upper south face to reach a gap in the gargoyles where a regular snow slope would take us to the summit.  The top of The Roof is surprisingly wide (while sticking to the center just in case) and in another couple minutes we were standing on the highpoint, the top of the Rockies and 3078 meters above our cars at the Berg Lake Trailhead!  Being above the smoke, there was nothing in the way of the blazing sun so it was actually somewhat warm (ok not warm but not warmish while wearing all of your layers) despite the lofty height.  We still had a long way to go down so our summit stay was for a few pictures, a quick bite to eat, and a small ration of water.  

Partial summit views (doubly true with the smoke!).


More of the summit views.


A group picture of the summit.

Descending back to the Kain Face was quite quick.  The snow was softer, but still holding up decently enough that we felt good downclimbing quickly.  Even with a good pace a check of the watch at the top of the Kain Face said 1810, where had all the time gone?  To avoid making it back to camp the following morning it would be essential to downclimb whenever possible and rap only for the icy sections, and not loose sight of our tracks to see where to best cross the 'shrund.  We could downclimb the upper part of the face quite quickly and descending about 140 meters or so before starting our first rap.  We reckoned that the icy section encountered on the way up was about 3-4 raps long with the lower section being considerably easier for downclimbing that the upper and middle part.  Switching gear and getting the rope sorted took a woefully long time.  Neither Steven, nor Ferenc had done much in the way of rapping on ice so it was up to me to sort out the v-threads and triple check everything before we got started.  The first rap went quite well.  The second required digging a little deeper and a couple different bores to get to trustworthy ice, and by the third Steven was getting very cold due to the lack of movement.  Getting back to camp quickly was a priority.  At the bottom of the third rap we were just on the edge of the ice/snow boundary.  Another rap would take a long time so we opted for switching back to careful downclimbing (which thankfully warmed up Steven quite quickly) then rejoined our tracks for crossing the 'shrund.  Again on this 'shrund crossing Steven delicately soloed across but I preferred a belay just in case so we threw out the rope scooted across and then walked back down to camp.  This ended up being a sixteen hour day camp to camp!  As I was saying a bit earlier, it is a long 3 km and an even longer 800 meters camp to summit!  After an hour of melting water and getting food ready dinner was merging into a midnight snack.  A weather forecast arrived on my Inreach and it seemed like there would be a bit of rain in store for tomorrow and then much more rain the following day.  As wearying as it was, getting back down to at least near the official trail if not back to the car tomorrow was a good idea.  Given how exhausted we all were we agreed that waking up at 0700 was a good compromise.

Ferenc traversing back across the face.


Looking back up at the upper mountain from the edge of the Kain Face.


Quite the cornices along the Kain Face itself!


The boys building up sufficient stoke to start the descent.


The upper mountain already in cloud.


Me rapping down the face. Photo by Steven.


Looking back at the Kain Face with the last glimpses of daylight.

The next morning the smoke really started to move in.  Even nearby Mount Resplendent was so hazy to almost not be able to make out some of the texture on the slope.  We groggily ate breakfast (I downed a double-ration of coffee as we had originally budgeted for spending an extra day at the camp and had much to spare!) and started packing up camp.  Working back down towards the RR col the sun had gone a good job at melting snow off the rocks along the ridge traverse and it was actually quite enjoyable scrambling.  Steven and I did one rap by the crux section while Ferenc downclimbed it.  

The third morning was the smokiest yet.


A hazy shadow of Resplendent Mountain with a red sun rising.


The Kain Face looked much icier than the previous morning.


Steven heading back down to the ridge to access the RR col.


The boys downclimbing a bit of snow to bypass a rock section.


Interesting snow and rock pinnacles along the ridge traverse back to the col.


Steven rapping the crux.  Photo by Ferenc.


The top of point on the col even comes with a tiny pool, pretty much a five star hotel!


Descending from the RR col was tedious but technically quite straightforward (lots of careful footwork and stepping down between sets of ledges).  A few of the more technical moves took a bit of thought before committing to them but we got down ok.  The lower we descended, the thicker the smoke became and eventually some more regular clouds started to roll in as well (differentiating between clouds and smoke can be a bit tricky some times).  By the time we reached the gravel flats below the bench we were all quite drained and Ferenc and I's feet were certainly not feeling nice.  The comparatively soft dirt and moss of the approach trail between the flats and Kinney Lake was a nice change and after hitting the Berg Trail we wearily staggered to the picnic table by the Kinney Lake bridge for one last brake.  The last 4ish km was quite unpleasant but we managed a quick pace and were back at the road in under an hour.  Everyone drove back to Jasper for some recovery pizza, a brew, and sleep.

Ferenc in high spirits, Steven temporarily dead.


Descending one of the more technical spots along the Spur.


Lower down the valley the smoke was really moving in.


A last glimpse of views near the bench before descending into the smoke.


It is very impressive how tenacious life can be!


Steven contemplating the last few days back at the flats.


Me crossing one of the very rotten eroded gullies with a bit of arboreal assistance.


The barest hint of Robson in the distance (and a pano stitching error...).


Our motley crew back in the parking lot.

Robson is a beast of a mountain any way you look at it.  The prominence (three vertical kilometers from road to summit), the history, and the sheer variety of terrain to be tackled make it a great challenge.  Much like when Ferenc and I had previously ascended Mount Alberta, I think it will take a while for all of the memories from up on Mount Robson to sink in; to crystalize into a complete picture of the experience.  A huge thanks to both Steven and Ferenc!  We climbed very well together this trip and everyone gave their all to make the trip a success.  If I could give one piece of advice for someone thinking of ascending this route, gain a lot of experience first on all of the various parts of mountain-craft.  Snow, ice, rock, and scree, you need a bit of everything for this beastie.


The route.  Lots and lots of vertical!

Average: 5 (1 vote)


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