Leader – John Stevens
Co-leader – Ben Litchfield
Participants – Mike Lafleur, Brandon Freeman (Robson only), Rick Laidlaw (Assiniboine only), Pat Murpy, and Andy Doig
With excellent weather on July 30th, we departed Calgary on our way to the Assiniboine Lodge. After a 2 hour drive, we made it to the Shark Heliport, where we embarked upon a short helicopter ride to avoid the 20 mile approach hike. All of us were blown away by the sheer size of Mt. Assiniboine upon seeing it for the first time. The mountain towers over the surrounding peaks and is nearly 5,000′ above the lodge. Excited and in good spirits, we began our approach to the base of the mountain, taking about 2 hours to reach the beginning of the Gmoser Highway. This section is a very loose, exposed, and steep traverse that gains about 1200′ feet while going right to left for a mile or more. Careful footwork was the order of the day but we all emerged unscathed and happy at the Hind Hut.
As we approached the hut an ominous plume of smoke emerged from behind Mt. Strom and quickly billowed into a massive and dark wall of windblown ash. We were witnessing an intense firestorm in the valley just adjacent to ours and it was quite a unique thing to witness. We called down to the Assiniboine Lodge using the VHF radio to get a weather update: weather was perfect for a summit attempt the next day but the park was under an evacuation alert, which meant, “be prepared to evacuate at a moments notice”. I dreaded the idea of being forced to leave after only having arrived in the park 4 hours prior. However, one final check at 9 pm yielded good news as the park remained open, for now.
Early the next morning and after a horribly restless night of sleep, we awoke to the sounds of the two guided parties departing for their summit attempts; a Japanese guide and his 70 year old Japanese client and a British expatriate and his Canadian client. We started our ascent at 4:15 am and saw their headlamps already high above us. The climbing went smoothly at first as we gained a snow field and followed its 30 degree grade upwards. After that, the real climbing began, easily high 4th-class or low 5th-class scrambling with extremely loose rock. Route finding was very tricky and there were a few spots that could have used some protection but there was nothing but useless and extremely loose blocks of choss. We made it through the initial chimney section and encountered the Brit and his client on their way down; his client had taken a rock to his foot and was limping slowly downwards while being shortroped.
All six of us were moving at a good rate of speed and could see the Red Band coming inexorably closer. After climbing about 2000′, we reached the band at 9:30 am. Both Ben and I led our teams through the chimney crux, dodging loose rock and pulling up through a rubble field at the top. It was a very insecure feeling to build an anchor in that area, but manageable nonetheless. The summit was now within striking distance, with perhaps another hour of scrambling and one or two more short pitches. Summit fever was in the air so we started moving up towards the Gray Band just as we could see the Japanese guide and his client coming down from the summit. They were quickly upon us and without wasting a word the guide told me that the park was now under a mandatory evacuation order and all hikers, campers, park guests AND climbers must comply. I went back and forth with him for a couple minutes, questioning what the harm would be in us continuing to the summit and then being evacuated, but he was stern and adamant and also had a VHF radio (which is why he knew of the order).
At that point I envisioned that if I had continued upward, the call would be placed that the American team leader refused the evacuation order. I saw fines in my future, or at the very least, pariah status. I grudgingly made the decision to turn back and we followed the guide down, which was fortuitous since he knew where the rap stations were to get down the Red band. We performed three full-length rappels on the way through the Red band and another at the very bottom to avoid down-climbing the 5th class chimney. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that we decided to follow the order, as it was going on 2-3 pm by the time we got to the Hind Hut to await the helicopter. The six of us were the last to be evacuated from the park out of hundreds in total.
All six of headed back safe and sound to Calgary. We had this one in the bag, what a great team we had! Pretty disappointing though, we were already above 11,000ft, the weather was perfect…life isn’t always fair so onwards to…
This mountain certainly earns its reputation as the “Great White Fright”. With less total summiteers and equivalent elevation gain to Mt. Everest, Robson is a beautiful beast. Any peak that boasts over 10,000′ of raw elevation gain from the trail head is certainly worthy of respect, perhaps even awe. Perspective is an amazing thing in the mountains, but staring up at Mt. Robson leaves no doubt that it is a king amongst mountains.
We had good progress our first two days despite excessively heavy packs, hiking about 18 miles and gaining 4,000 feet. We gained the Robson Glacier during the afternoon of Day 2, spending a couple hours traversing the lower glacier. The lower glacier was ancient and covered with debris and running water. An artist couldn’t have imagined all the different pathways the water and ice have found over the millennia. A natural masterpiece that might not last forever as the glacier has been retreating about 50 ft per year for the last 100 years.
Day 3 we were to climb from the skyscraper-like Extinguisher Tower at 6800′ to the Dome at 10200′. With 65 lb packs, ice falls, crevasses, and increasingly soft snow bridges, our progress was slow, reaching around 9000′ by noon. We were surrounded by a dangerous ring of seracs and bergschrunds and watched a few avalanches cascade down nearby. We were able to proceed to the knife edge ridge to the Dome by 2 pm but by then 3 of us were too flashed to continue climbing. We divided teams and scheduled a radio check for that evening. The remaining 3 person team continued to the 2nd Tower Crux.
The knife edge ridge line was similar to Katahdin, except that we gazed down a nearly 7000′ drop to the valley below. I’d call the ridge mostly class four but awkward, especially given our heavy packs and that we simul-climbed with protection consisting of the occasionally slung boulder. Rope drag was problematic, communication was also starting to become a little difficult due to losing line of sight on each other. After about two hours, I descended to the base of the class 5 crux, down climbing on huge plates of rock that slid away from me into nothingness. Brandon joined me next but by then it was nearing 5 pm. The choice was push ahead with a split team with only a few hours before summit attempt at midnight, or retreat. Brandon and I both recognized that to continue would seriously compromise our safety margin so he and I agreed, unfortunately, that it was time to turn around.
All in all, weather could not have been better on Mt. Robson. We were close to reaching high camp but I simply underestimated the time and distance required. It was over 22 miles from the trail head to our high point with another 3-4 remaining. I’d like to say thank you to this years expedition members. You guys were carrying 65 lb packs for 44 miles and nearly pulled off one of the tougher summits in North America. I’m positive some of us will be back to try this one again! Same thing goes for Assiniboine – nice job being bold yet safe this year fellas. It was a pleasure to climb with you. ~ John Stevens
Robson and Assiniboine photo albums below.