[This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 73, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
SEPTEMBER 29, 2020. My approach shoes skipped across the small dry patches of mud between a network of expanding puddles. A grey gloom clung to Ethan Berman and me. My mind wandered to the big peak above us. I’d never actually glimpsed Yexyexescen (Mt. Robson), the king of the Rockies, but I’d seen the photos and I’d heard so many stories. Its summit towered, invisible, somewhere behind the mist and rain. A massive hulk of mountain painted in brushstrokes of black limestone and white snow. I couldn’t really imagine it. I couldn’t even feel its presence. The droplets became heavier. We stopped under the thick branches of a pine tree, where we sat on Ethan’s mat to eat the pastries and sandwiches we’d bought that morning in Jasper. Hikers passed by, trudging along the popular trail to Berg Lake. They stared at us and our packs as if to say: Why have you stopped there? It’s only an hour to the main camp. It’s only a bit of rain.
“Coffee time?” Ethan asked. As he huddled against the tree, his broad shoulders stretched his green hard-shell jacket, and droplets of water ran off the fabric.
Even the small task of making coffee provided a welcome distraction from the rain and from our doubts. The forecast had shown light showers for the morning, but the clouds were supposed to lift by the afternoon–the start of a high-pressure system predicted to last three days.
“We might as well keep going to the river crossing,” Ethan now said. “We’ll see the face if it clears.”
When we left the shelter of the tree, the mist rolled around us, fogging my brain. Beside the river, I looked up only to see more grey and uncertainty. We settled on the best spot to set up the tent. Poles clicked and fabric crackled while the river gurgled. Soon, I relaxed in the comfort of my sleeping bag, grateful for rest after hours of walking. Every five minutes, I peeked out the tent door. The mist remained. We can’t commit to getting on the face if we can’t see it, can we? Was it disappointment I felt or relief?
My eyes opened sometime later. Ethan was sitting up. His shoulder-length hair drooped messily over his head. “Noodles?” he said, and he grinned.
I burned my tongue slurping the hot noodles. The near silence between us wasn’t awkward or strained: neither of us had any more information to process. I didn’t know Ethan as well as I knew my other climbing partners. I’d moved to Canada from Scotland just a year before to live somewhere with consistent winter ice and snow. To explore expanses of true wildness that appeared so vast compared to the small patches I could find at home. To wander through seemingly endless old forests and find unclimbed walls and frozen waterfalls. And to be able to access all this only a few hours from town, so I could enjoy the simple pleasures of normal life: maintaining important relationships, touching warm rock and sipping good coffee. Ethan and I had done some ice climbing together near Canmore, spent a week on the rock spires of the Bugaboos and smeared our way up perfect Squamish granite. Because of his long hair, baseball cap, easy smile and slight overuse of “Ohh, dude,” Ethan had initially reminded me of the Californian beach surfers I’d seen on TV. In reality, he was brought up in Massachusetts and spent his teenage years in New Delhi, India. And he had an almost Scottish trait of not saying more than is needed. As my dad used to say, “Don’t open your mouth and let your belly rumble.”
I appreciated not feeling any need to talk just for the sake of filling the quiet.
The mist was lifting slightly, but only enough to let us see the beginnings of dirty moraines rising from the floodplains of the river. Here and there, dark and twisted silhouettes emerged of the odd scrub or particularly tough tree that managed to survive in this harsh alpine environment. Every few minutes, an eyehole blinked above us, and a patch of mountain peeked out before the eyelid flicked shut. Each blink looked much the same: horizontal stripes of black rock interspersed with white dots. It was impossible to gauge the size without seeing the rest of the mountain.
“Well, it doesn’t look too snowy…that part anyway,” I said.
“That’s just the bottom third of the mountain,” Ethan told me as he continued to stare up at the invisible mountain.
I was sure the part I’d glimpsed was high enough to be the top half. But I’d still only seen a photograph of the Emperor Face, one of the biggest alpine walls in North America. The face had all the classic allure of the Rockies: horizontal bands as sharp as if formed by the scrape of a grader, the steepness increasing toward the top where the peak narrowed to the tip of a perfect triangle. And there was the contrast between the chaos of seracs and crevasses on one side and the smoothness of the deep blue lake at the base.
Using his long-handled axe, the famous guide Conrad Kain had chopped more than a hundred steps up the ice of the northeast face and continued along the southeast ridge when he led the first team to the summit in 1913. More than sixty years passed before anyone climbed the Emperor Face. In 1974 Pat Callis and Jim Kanzler made the first significant attempt, climbing through a feature they called “The Jaws,” where three giant gullies merge together. About 1,500 feet higher, after running low on food, they had to make a sixteen-pitch traverse to the north face and descend. Jamie Logan, who first tried the face in 1977, later described its hazards in Alpinist 29: “Night and day, giant avalanches roared down it. As the snow kept falling, I’d go out to the edge of The Jaws, tie in to a piton I’d placed, and just stand there. The air from those slides was so intense it felt as though I’d get sucked off if I weren’t attached to something.” A year afterward, Jamie and Mugs Stump completed the first ascent of the face up the left-hand side. Although their route avoided The Jaws, they still found themselves struggling to survive. “Each pitch was pretty much the same,” Jamie recalled, “terrifying…. Nobody knew we were on the face. It was basically, ‘Climb this pitch or die.'”
With each story, the aura of the Emperor Face grew. In 1981 Tony Dick and Dave Cheesmond veered to the left of the Logan-Stump route and kept going up steep ice and rock while a barrage of stones and hail rumbled past. Twenty-one years later, Barry Blanchard had made four prior attempts–turned back by cloud, cold or storm–when he finally completed the new line of Infinite Patience with Philippe Pellet and Eric Dumerac. He summed up his experience of reaching the summit: “Language is superfluous. The moment is communicated spirit to spirit to spirit. Then we HOWL.” Composed of perfect strips of ice separated by undercut limestone, their route banded the right-hand edge of the face. It has almost become a classic–well, a classic for Canada with several ascents.
Steve House also tried the Emperor Face multiple times over the course of a decade. Eventually, he, too, succeeded, establishing a direct line up the steep middle section with Colin Haley in 2007. In his account, Steve wrote of climbing past layers of history as they entered “the key to the wall,” a steep, ice-filled rift, less than a meter wide: “Barry’s route, Infinite Patience, lies several hundred meters to the right. The guidebook shows the Cheesmond-Dick and the Logan-Stump–both unrepeated–well to our left. I feel the audacity of Jamie Logan and Mugs Stump…climbing on horribly loose stone, of Dave Cheesmond and Tony Dick.” Near the top, they found, to their surprise, three pitons: the line of the Logan-Stump had been drawn incorrectly, and Steve and Colin’s route now joined it for the last, crux pitch of the face: steep and unrelenting limestone, plastered with snow and ice.
Three years afterward, Jon Walsh and Jason Kruk ventured between Infinite Patience and the House-Haley and continued through The Jaws and up the central funnel. At first, the face remained frozen and still, but when the evening sun struck the upper mountain, meltwater began trickling behind thin sheathes of ice. Large clumps of snow broke off, but luckily nothing big fell. When they arrived on the Emperor Ridge at midnight, the sky flashed with an incoming lightning storm, and they realized the best choice would be to retreat. Still, to climbing journalist Meghan Ward, Jon described the overall experience as “magical.”
In 2016, while Marc-Andre Leclerc spent four days making a solo ascent of Infinite Patience, he left his watch behind so he could immerse himself in the cadence of the mountain, the shift from green forests to blue ice and grey stone, the changing light of the sun from morning to evening, the natural tempo of his own body and mind. “My thoughts had reached a depth and clarity that I had never before experienced,” he wrote, and like Jon he added, “The magic was real.”
The line Ethan had envisioned for us climbed to The Jaws and took the eye-catching cleft of the rightmost funnel. He’d spotted it in October 2018, on a day hike to Berg Lake. He hesitantly described his proposed route to me as a big slash. “I think it could just be filled with ice,” he told me the week before we left as I sat on my couch staring at the weather graphs showing high pressure next week. He’d spent all summer obsessively noting the freezing levels. “I could be totally wrong though, so who knows,” he said.
“Ha, yeah, well, in the Rockies you never know unless you go,” I replied. This statement was the only thing I could be sure of; I felt slightly skeptical about the climb itself. There must be a good reason no one else had gone that way. The first ascensionists of routes on the Emperor Face included many of the top alpinists in North America in the last forty years. But still it was tempting: the chance to cover unclimbed terrain up such a beautiful and historic face stirred my deepest desires and fantasies of alpine climbing.
THERE WERE SO MANY REASONS not to climb. It was too warm. We hadn’t seen the upper half of the face. There was too much overhead hazard. The bottom section was too dry. Ethan and I had never done a big route together. And mainly, I didn’t have to go up there. The constant flow and soothing noise of the river contrasted with my erratic sense of time: one minute dragged; the next seemed to skip forward to the next hour. My thoughts were just as volatile, changing from It will be fine, all ice and good, safe conditions to It’s too big. We’ll be too slow to get to the ridge in one day. When I divulged all these ideas out loud to Ethan, he repeated them back to me in the same noncommittal way as mine. Maybe we’re too similar, I wondered. Neither of us is playing the role of the mega-psyched climber while the other becomes the voice of caution.
I’d had so many discussions before getting on a big route. With experience, I’d slowly learned to try to focus on the facts. Even the smallest bit of snow, ice or rock that shed from the top part of the face would funnel into The Jaws. By the time it rocketed through there, the debris would have had 1000 meters to gain speed. It would peel off anything in its path and only stop on the glacier below. If a wall is quiet in the afternoon, it’s likely to be pretty safe in the cool of early morning. Because of the mist, however, we still hadn’t seen the upper two thirds of the face, let alone the whole mountain. I almost wanted there to be a solid reason why I could say we should bail. But I couldn’t voice this thought: no one ever wants to be the one to say it. All we needed was some little reason to tell our friends why not and to convince ourselves we were unlucky.
I wondered what Ethan was thinking. His eyes focused as he stared up into the mist. What if he, too, is slightly more worried about these issues than I am letting on, and he just doesn’t want to admit it? We could end up starting something neither of us wants. And from past experience, I know that’s not a good place to be.
“We could delay a day.” I can’t remember which one of us said those words. We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing tactics: Would we have enough food, would the weather hold, would it be too warm on the lower face once the sun returned? The stuttering conversation continued until we decided a delayed start wouldn’t work. We’d just get worn out by our own indecision. According to the forecast, the freezing level would rise to the summit of the mountain in two days’ time. If we waited, we’d be on the most exposed part of the face on the warmest day.
AND SO, THE NEXT MORNING, we started up the mountain. At 1:30 a.m. high, patchy clouds stretched into long, thin shapes, as if they, too, were keen to move away. We struggled up scree slopes that slid beneath our feet. Chunks of limestone rumbled down into the dark. As we moved onto steeper bands of smooth limestone, we pressed the rubber of our boots against wet rock. The eerie stillness felt suffocating. Below us, the shadow of the lake grew smaller. We still haven’t really committed to climbing, I told myself.
When I stood on the first patch of soft snow, I sank to my thighs. The sound of running water cut through the silence as if the mountain were trying to tell us something. The noise stayed while our trail of footsteps grew longer behind us in the strip of snow.
We stopped directly below the start of Infinite Patience to take stock. The shoulder-width groove shot straight above us for several hundred meters before it hit a dead end. From there, the established route heads left up a slab of limestone to join another runnel of ice, which leads to the Emperor Ridge. The safer option would be to climb Infinite Patience instead of trying a new route. Two dots in a huge vertical landscape, Ethan and I seemed so insignificant as we stood on a small perch, with broken rocks scattered like eggshells around our feet.
The sense of doubt had become a familiar one. The more time I’d spent in the Rockies, the more my optimism had been replaced by skepticism and fear. At first glance, some of the mountains looked like a comfortable place to climb: huge faces close to a road. I quickly discovered they weren’t quite what I’d assumed. The approaches, ascents and descents always took longer than I expected. After I’d bushwhacked, scrambled or climbed for many hours, whatever I was hoping to reach still lurked in the distance. Here, I learned, the rock is mostly loose. By modern standards, the forecasts are unreliable. And if the route you’re going to try was graded 5.8 A2 before 2000, you should expect it to be at least 5.10/M6. Often the levels of avalanche hazard are extremely unpredictable. I came to realize that these undesirable qualities form part of what make the region so unique. They guarantee solitude and adventure, something missing in many ranges today.
In September 2016, Tom Livingstone and I had sat in a small mountain hut the size of a garden shed discussing all the different reasons we should or shouldn’t try to climb the north face of Mt. Alberta the next morning. When we’d attempted the route the year before, we’d realized, halfway up, that too much snow had accumulated on the headwall. To escape, we’d had to make a runout traverse and descend the east face. It was an experience neither of us wanted to repeat: small slough avalanches rolled around us while we rappelled. The temperature in 2016 was higher than forecast. Given the face’s history of shooting rocks at people, this wasn’t an encouraging factor.
The air still felt slightly warm at 2 a.m. Before we started the rappels to the base of the route, we heard something big fall somewhere on the face. It was too dark to see what it was and where it came from. I shrugged at Tom, and he shrugged back. Why didn’t something this ominous make us pause, question ourselves? Maybe we’d both already committed in our minds and we were happy with the decision, or maybe we were just young and foolish enough not to care. No one called us reckless after we completed the route. They all said, “Well done.”
In June 2020, when Ethan and our friend Peter Hoang had walked in to attempt the route we were now here to try, plenty of snow remained on the Emperor Face, and they, too, had sat at the base and tried to decide whether to continue. They’d messaged Jon Walsh, asking him what he thought since he’d climbed the route closest to their intended line at a similar time of year. He just replied, “You will have to decide.” With those words in mind, after they woke to see snow sloughing down the face, they chose to walk away. When Ethan told me the story, I’d laughed and said, “That’s the best bit of advice you’ll ever get in a 160-character inReach message.”
The evening before we planned to start climbing, just as the light began to fade, the eye in the mist blinked again. The hole was higher this time, and more of the face emerged. I could see the bottom of the three gully systems that led to The Jaws. Ice flickered and vanished into the unknown, tempting us in. Thick clouds still blocked the upper half of the mountain. Twenty seconds after the eye opened, the view had all gone back to blank mist. During my brief glimpse, however, I noticed the Emperor Face was covered in a frozen spiderweb. Back home in Scotland, I’d spent years watching ice and neve routes form on Beinn Nibheis (Ben Nevis). I knew that look: the spun threads of white draped across the hollows, connecting to each other, showing you the way.
LEGENDARY ALPINIST Yvon Chouinard once wrote, “Most climbers are a product of their first few climbs.” I’d learned to climb on Beinn Nibheis in winter. There, the Atlantic storms blow the wet snow sideways into every fissure, allowing the flakes to stick to even the steepest and smoothest facets of volcanic rock. Freeze-thaw cycles eventually form stripes of snow-ice across the faces. You can climb freely: with one swing, the pick of your axe sinks to the hilt in sticky neve. But when you try to place gear, you realize that ice screws are often useless. The rare cracks you find are choked with snow as if filled with expanding foam. The wind is almost always howling, driving sharp, stinging crystals into your face. I’d keep my head down and wait for the tiniest of pauses in the shower from above, only for a violent gust to blow the spindrift back up from below. White lines splattered across slabs, ramps and corners. Gradually, I learned the art of pulling softly and sideways, a technique that allowed me to progress into harder and thinner ice routes.
During long belays, I’d look down toward the edges of the snow line where the heather began to stick through the drifts. Eventually, the coarse sprigs would turn bare brown and then purple as they swept into the glens. I’d grown up on a remote hill farm, and as often is the case, I’d taken the local scenery for granted. I’d never stopped to look at it properly–just the odd glance at the view before I carried on walking head down into the wind, my boots stepping extra high through the thick heather while I hunted for deer or searched for a rogue sheep. As I spent more time up high, I gained a new appreciation for the beauty of the land. I went on to explore the Alps, the Himalaya, Patagonia and Alaska. Yet while those trips abroad added to my experience and skills, I still identify most with the terrain I climbed in those early Scottish years.
Now, the fleeting glance at the spiderweb on the Emperor Face gave me just enough confidence that when Ethan mumbled, “Will we go have a look?” at 1 a.m., I quietly replied, “Yeah, OK.” By then, any whiteness that was left should have turned into polystyrene ice. But sticky ice doesn’t change the reality that the slightest teardrop or flick of dandruff from the upper part would still come rocketing down through The Jaws. I imagined running up perfect neve into the shadows, feeling euphoric, only for something heavy and deadly to plummet from the darkness above.
IN THE 1979 American Alpine Journal, Jamie Logan recalled, “The real key to climbing the Emperor Face was making a firm decision to try, regardless of the obstacles that nature and our imagination might place in our path.”
Ethan had imagined the line. He’d made the effort to hike in to try this route before, only to walk all the way back out, without even swinging an axe. He’d still felt motivated to return, knowing full well the most likely outcome could be the same. As we stood in the dawn, above a lake now covered in fluffy clouds, he was the one who said, “Well, will we go have a look left? We can always come back over to Infinite Patience if we don’t like the look of it.”
I agreed, but I knew if we decided we didn’t like what we found, it would be hard to gain enough motivation for a Plan B. We’d most likely just descend and begin the long walk back to the road. Our crampons bit into old, dirty glacier ice and scratched over chossy limestone bands as we headed deeper into the shadows. When daylight arrived, we took the rope out, and Ethan started leading up the steep ice that glimmered between buttresses of rock and through The Jaws.
I belayed in silence. Gradually, I began to relax, letting the quiet of the mountain settle over me. My dark imaginings washed away, and I could stare out at the jagged peaks and begin to enjoy being here. Once I started climbing after Ethan into the rightmost of the three gullies, I felt sheltered from at least some of the upper mountain’s debris. The rope slithered over lower-angled ice while we moved together, trusting each other as we continued into the frozen world above. That afternoon, Ethan had climbed about a body length above the belay when I heard the dull clang of metal hitting rock. The ice must be thin, I thought. The next swing of his axe resulted in a hollow, cracking sound. He stepped back down until he was just above me, and then he moved ten meters to the side to try a different sliver of ice. Only a short way up, his axe pulled through the aerated surface like a rake through soil. He returned to the base of the ice strip. “Do you want to give it a go?” Ethan asked me. His voice sounded tentative. He glanced at me and then back up to the ice.
“I don’t see how it’s going to be any different for me,” I replied. I half stood, half hung from our anchor at the top of a slanted ice field. A vertical band towered overhead, as menacing as a fortress wall.
“Yeah, I mean, maybe it’s climbable. I just don’t know,” Ethan said.
“Hmm, shit man, I dunno,” I said. “Not sure what other options we’ve got.” Secretly, I wished that Ethan wasn’t going to ask me to lead.
“OK,” Ethan said. He attempted to climb the ice again, merely to repeat what had happened two minutes prior. He stepped back over to the belay. His muscular shoulders hunched. This time, he told me that he just wasn’t “feeling it,” and I should have a go. Instead of claiming it was too hard, though, he said he just got a bit spooked.
I appreciated his honesty. It spurred me to try the pitch with an open mind. I got one meter higher than Ethan did before I stopped. The ice was steep, thin, and mostly not ice. I paused: thinking, considering, weighing the risk. I imagined this was a pitch in Scotland. I needed to find some protection. But in Scotland you can spend hours digging to place one piece of gear that gives you the assurance to keep going. The voice in my head screamed: I don’t have that much time! Darkness was only a few hours away. It seemed increasingly unlikely that we’d find a flat spot to sleep on before the ridge. I held my right tool, its pick half sunk in the only solid blob I could reach. I tried not to pull on it too hard, while I settled my crampons on anything that didn’t instantly fall off. With my weight spread awkwardly between my right arm and both feet, I hacked at bits of ice and snow. I’ll search for gear, I decided, but I won’t spend too long doing so. A tiny fissure appeared in the rock, and my axe battered the thin metal blade of a pecker into the crack. A flat low-pitched noise suggested the stone was breaking every time I pounded. Commit or don’t.
In Scotland, I’d become obsessed with the feeling of commitment on thin ice routes. Once you’ve made those delicate moves up, you can’t down climb. You have to stay singularly focused as you quest into new ground, without knowing how long the seam of snow and ice will support your weight. I’d kept looking for something that could maintain my consciousness in this state of total concentration. In the AAJ, Jamie Logan wrote, “It becomes possible for me, sometimes, in some very special places to transcend my ego, my learned skills, my hopes, fears and expectations, and simply climb…. At such times I am able to climb much better than usual…. For me, the Emperor Face of Mount Robson was such a place.” But I couldn’t find that feeling here–not yet. I couldn’t stop thinking about the consequences of making a mistake on such a big mountain so late in the day. A long fall from the top of the band into the sloping ice beneath us would guarantee disaster. Its surface glinted. It looked as hard as steel.
I CONTINUED TO HESITATE. Above me, the bubbly neve was barely attached to a fifteen-meter-high band of limestone that spread across the gully in a concertina shape. From the base of the peak, I realized, none of this would even be noticeable–each detail of our struggle rendered invisible by the sheer immensity of the face.
Just fucking do it, five minutes, and it will be over. I bet it’s not as hard as some of the other thin ice routes you’ve climbed in the past, the ambitious part of my brain said.
Shite! Why do I always fucking end up on these pitches. Fuck this. We should have just walked back to the car this morning. I want out of here, the scared part of my brain said.
I hung from my tools, lost in thought. Below me, the ropes dangled free, untethered by any gear between me and the belay. I breathed deeply and tried to let my rational self take over: the one who accepts some risks, but who respects that crucial margin of safety. Emboldened by my bending to him, my scared self wanted to drive me in the quickest direction to security. I couldn’t let this urge dominate me. Descending hastily could be even more dangerous than going up. Step down carefully and change your focus, my rational self said. Try something else. Don’t let a potentially fast but dangerous way tempt you.
Dejected, I down climbed slowly, paying close attention to each movement, until I stood at the base of the steep band, a few meters up and right of the belay. Great. Down we go, down to safety, my scared self shouted in my head.
No, try something else. Look at that corner to the right. It has a crack in it. Let’s try that, my ambitious self replied.
No, it looks hard. Just go back to the belay.
A corner to my right did seem to have a crack at the bottom of it. I couldn’t tell if it continued to the top because two feet of snow covered everything except the lowest meter. To reach the base of the corner, I’d have to climb up a three-meter-high flake. Smooth on its front side, it tapered to a jagged edge. Just a small step. I rallied: I wasn’t going to let my scared self control me, not yet anyway. I reached my axes to the top of the flake, but it was harder than it looked to get the rest of me up there. The picks pulled through the sugary snow and my crampons skated on sleek, bare rock, so I stepped back down. The battle in my head began again:
I fucking told you it would be hard, my scared self said.
Just go back up and do the move. You probably won’t fall off, my ambitious self said.
Great (in a sarcastic tone). Probably, but if I do, I’m going hit the ledge of ice below and break my ankle, my scared self said.
I took a deep breath to give more space for my rational self. Just find some gear, try the move, get to the corner, and tell these emotional fuckheads to shut up.
I found a good place to set a wire, which allowed me to make the moves to the base of the corner. My axes plowed on through the snow and jammed in the crack. As my body inched up, my brain quieted. I wrestled more gear off my harness. The lobes of a cam crunched against the ice-filled fissure. My arms were getting tired. But my brain had stopped screaming when I committed to climbing up. The separate voices were all now in line: Safety is upward. A place to sleep is upward. Satisfaction is upward.
As I struggled to clear drifts of powder from the corner above my head, my mind relaxed. The snow hit my face and slid down the inside of my jacket, but my axes torqued in the crack to keep me connected to the rock, and I could see places for protection ahead. No more big decisions. I entered a state of peace with myself. It had taken a whole day of walking and more than twelve hours of climbing for me to feel devoted and free.
I know I sometimes climb best in these situations: leading a make-or-break pitch, I can attain a crucial momentum I find hard to experience at other times. For years after, I can remember every move and piece of gear, each smile and exhale of breath as my arm locked an axe pick into a solid hook in a stone crack or turf patch at the top of a pitch–each instant when I knew I made it, though I easily couldn’t have. Maybe finding satisfaction in this way isn’t good. Maybe I should practice trying to perform my best when it’s not so important. Or maybe I should accept that it isn’t possible for me to figure out another way to reach that level of focus. Cramming my hands against the icy walls of the crack, smearing my crampons on the smooth corner, stuffing my whole axes into the rift, aiding on cams, I deployed everything to get up the pitch. I can still smell the gunpowder whiff of my axe striking sparks from the rock and hear the metallic noise of the cam creaking as I weighted it.
“Ohh, dude, that was rad,” Ethan said. As he joined me at the next belay, energy emitted from his grin. We were both committed now. This was a different Ethan than the one who’d backed off the pitch below. He grabbed the rack and started upward. His arms and legs moved like pistons seamlessly driving one after the other. Two pitches later, a shout echoed from above. I flicked my head up: Ethan was falling. I braced, waiting for the rope to pull. It didn’t happen. Ethan was hanging on one of his axes, the leash strung tight. To my astonishment, he didn’t even seem fazed. He simply tugged on his leash, grabbed his axe and kept climbing. Ahead, the ice ended. The final top ten meters of rock bulged out, blocking what we hoped was the exit from the headwall. Although the climbing was as hard as the pitch he’d backed off earlier, Ethan sped onward, like a race car gunning for the finish line.
A FEW HOURS LATER, my headlamp flashed across a steep blank wall, covered by splatterings of ice–there was enough to climb, but there was definitely nowhere to place gear. I made the decision without giving it any real thought: my arm arced, boots kicked and sparks flew as my picks hit the rock behind bits of ice. Maybe I would have looked around more if it had been earlier in the day, but now I just kept climbing, absorbed in something like that natural rhythm Marc-Andre had found. The darkness swept in from the right as I glanced left. I desperately hoped that this would be the last hard pitch.
At 11:30 p.m. that night, we collapsed into the tent on the Emperor Ridge. The wind swayed our tent from side to side as it perched on a flat spot just smaller than its ground cover. The stove spluttered in the cold while we tried to melt snow to rehydrate. During the last nineteen hours of movement, we hadn’t passed a level place big enough for the tent. Now we laughed freely. Vapor from our breaths danced in our torch beams, and we leaned back, happy to be somewhat out of the elements. The next morning, despite a good six hours of sleep, our giddy mood had vanished. Ethan’s normally bright and attentive eyes were dull and puffy as he slowly tried to maneuver out of his sleeping bag. He kept bumping into me while I struggled with my frozen boots. Thick instant porridge did nothing to improve our sluggishness. Coffee helped only a little.
When we left our tent platform, I wondered how long the mini walls we’d built out of stones would last and if anyone else would ever be glad for them. “Three maybe four hundred meters of vert to the summit, right?” I asked as we shouldered our heavy packs.
“Yes, but over one kilometer horizontally, and everyone says it’s still a big day,” Ethan replied. A knowing smile appeared on his face.
“Ach, shouldn’t be too bad,” I said. Optimism got us this far. And at this point, it was all we had left to keep us going.
Twelve mind-and toe-numbing hours later, I punched through the final meter of a rime mushroom onto the summit plateau, and I howled into the night. I walked toward Ethan, pumping my first in the air while the clouds swept past like smoke. Strobes of orange from the sunset flashed to the west. The full moon sparkled like a disco ball in the east. It was like that one point in a night you will always remember, when you’re giving it everything as the beat drops, wanting it to go on forever. Not caring what tomorrow will bring, be it a hangover or a long painful descent, you just dance until the music or the moment ends.
THE TRUCK ROLLED SMOOTHLY when we turned westbound on the Yellowhead Highway the next afternoon. I hit shuffle on my music as we sped up and the noise of the engine increased. We were hurtling down a long straight road to reach Valemount in time for pizza and beers. Three thousand vertical meters above us, the rime mushrooms and ice gargoyles of Yexyexescen seemed to stand at attention. The sun shimmered off their white shoulders. People will say, They timed it perfectly and got perfect conditions. But in reality, we’d just stood there bleary-eyed in the dark, had a bit of confidence or perhaps a fear of failure, and we’d gone for it. It was only our curiosity that let us discover if the Emperor would be willing to accept our passage. In alpinism, I think, we should be honest and admit when we made the right or wrong choices for us as individuals at a particular place and time, confronted with all the micro-factors of the nuances of ice, stone and snow, with the contexts of our past experiences and our lives. I believe Ethan and I made the right decisions, to start and to continue even when the route became uncertain, though we’d never know how close we could have been to failure or catastrophe. As we hurried ever deeper into the shadows, we’d both finally crossed a threshold into a state that felt like freedom.
I stuck my head out of the window and looked behind me. The mountain sparkled in the sunlight. I felt fortunate: this was the first time I’d seen it entirely, unhidden by mist. And now I knew it personally. I’d touched it, weaved around its summit mushrooms, scrambled down its brown scree and smelled its earthy forests. I turned round again as the riff dropped in Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” and the singer wailed about running into the shadows. Ethan and I danced wildly in our seats while the speakers blared. The mountain glinted and faded in the rearview mirror like a signal flashing and then flickering out.
–Uisdean Hawthorn, Berg Lake Trail
[A Newswire report about their ascent can be found here. This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 73, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!–Ed.]