Between September 30 and October 2, climbers Ethan Berman (US) and Uisdean Hawthorn (Scotland) completed a new line on the Emperor Face of Yuh-hai-has-kun (Mt. Robson, 3954m), the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Their climb, Running in the Shadows (VI AI5 M6 A0, 2000m), follows a distinctive gully on the right side of the face.
Running in the Shadows is the culmination of three years of thoughtful preparation. The idea for a new route on the mountain’s most impressive aspect began in the fall of 2017 when Berman, a remote sensing scientist who splits his time between Squamish and Canmore, hiked out to Berg Lake during a work trip to Alberta.
“It was a bluebird and pretty cold day and the wind was just howling over the ridge,” he says of the first time he laid eyes on Mt. Robson’s northwest (Emperor) face. “It was the most beautiful and intimidating face that I’d ever seen and I could just imagine how terrifying it would be to be on the mountain that day. That’s when I spotted the line.”
The line he reconnoitered shares its initial approach pitches with the Kruk-Walsh Route (VI M6, 2000m) before entering a right-trending gully system once the true difficulties of the face begin.
Logging this information for later, Berman spent the next three seasons honing his skills on classic waterfalls in the Rockies and big routes in Alaska. By the 2020 winter’s end, Berman felt ready to try the unclimbed line, which he attempted in the spring with partner Pete Hoang. Denied by warm temperatures and unfavorable snow conditions, the pair retreated.
After waiting for the fall weather window, on September 29, Berman returned to the mountain with Uisdean Hawthorn, a Scottish climber currently living in Canada. On the walk out to the backside of Robson, rain and billowing clouds hampered the pair’s motivation.
“It dried up by the time we got to [Berg Lake],” says Hawthorn. “But the upper third [of the face] where the harder pitches were, we couldn’t see that at all. That was a bit daunting because that could have been covered in snow.”
A discussion about the feasibility of the objective followed that night. In the end, inspired by glimpses of dry conditions on the lower face and with a promising forecast ahead, they decided to attempt the route. The pair set their alarms for 1:30 a.m. and began climbing at 3 a.m. It was their first day on ice tools for the season.
After ascending rock bands low on the route, Berman and Hawthorn moved quickly through the infamous “Jaws”–an intersection of multiple gullies where debris flushes down from the upper face. At the top of this feature, they roped up and veered right into completely new terrain–a prominent gully that enfolds a series of neve-choked goulottes, broken up by incipient sections of rock and thin, laminate ice.
“Really reminded me of Scotland,” Hawthorn said of the climbing.
The crux of the route, as it turned out, was high on the face–approximately six pitches from the exit onto the Emperor Ridge. Up front on the sharp end, Berman attempted a direct line through a thinly iced face but was unable to find adequate protection. He backed off.
Unsure if the pitch would go, Hawthorn stepped up next. Moving right towards a steep, snowed-in dihedral, Hawthorn found that with enough excavation, a splitter crack and stances for feet could be reached at the back, permitting a cam to be placed, and progress to continue.
Partway up a mixed section on the next pitch, Berman fell onto a tool-leash when his left tool ripped from a tenuous hook. Below him, a “good” cam and the full expanse of the Emperor Face. Regaining his position, Berman continued upwards into the guts of a long pitch, connecting runneled sections of ice separated by run-out, psychologically taxing rockbands.
Reaching the crest of the Emperor Ridge at 10:30 p.m., the pair stamped out a bivy platform, rehydrated and went to sleep after a total of 23 hours on the move. The next day, with a forecasted mass of clouds socked in around them, Berman block-led the upper section of the mountain to the summit, avoiding the rimed gargoyles guarding the upper ridge by traversing beneath them on the west face. Low-visibility route finding across convoluted terrain was a persistent challenge that day but the clouds also offered protection from the worst of the midday sun, which helped minimize the objective hazard posed by falling rime. Eleven hours later, the pair reached the summit.
Alone on the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, Berman and Hawthorn watched the last glow of redness in the west, while behind them, a full and luminous moon hung in the east. They bivied there in a sheltered depression in the snow. A 10-hour 3000-meter descent the next day brought the team to the valley and to their car in a pullout on the Yellowhead Highway.
Staying true to what Berman calls “the Robson experience” was central to the team’s approach during this ascent. By walking the whole way into Berg Lake, climbing a new route on Mt Robson’s most intimidating feature, linking the upper Emperor Ridge and west face traverse to the summit, only to then descend the southeast ridge, the Kain Face and the Resplendent Glacier to reach the Kinney Lake basin, Berman and Hawthorn pulled off a circumbobulation of the peak that involved a human-powered interaction with almost every aspect of the mountain. The pair’s fealty to everything-on-foot ethics is notable in a time where the approach to the Emperor Face is frequently cut-cornered with the assistance of helicopters.
Running in the Shadows is named for a lyric from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and follows 14 full-length pitches of independent climbing to reach the Emperor Ridge and, ultimately, the summit of Mt. Robson.