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Canadians Fire New Line on Emperor Face

Jon Walsh and Jason Kruk’s new line on the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson (3959m), Mt. Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. The pair established the mixed climb (M6, 2500m) in a 32-hour push, June 20-21. Their summit bid was thwarted by stormy conditions; they descended from Emperor Ridge, 1,000 vertical feet below the summit. [Photo] Jon Walsh

On June 20, Canadians Jason Kruk and Jon Walsh climbed a new line up the storied Emperor Face on Mt. Robson (3959m), the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

Walsh reported that on June 19, he and Kruk covered the 23-kilometer approach to a small lake beneath the Mist Glacier in four and a half hours with ample time to rest up and get organized before their big push up the 2500-meter face. On June 20, Walsh and Kruk started up the moraines towards the Emperor Face at 3:20 a.m. Unexpectedly warm night-time temperatures led to concerns that it would be too hot for their planned mixed route. Intense morning sun caused small spindrifts to pour down snow runnels and created near isothermal snow conditions, said Walsh, but the team was able to pick up their pace to reach the shade of the gully system they were aiming to climb.

“Fortunately conditions seemed frozen enough to preserve the integrity of the thin ice, as well as keep any rock fall in place,” Walsh said. The climbing on the lower half of the route was superb, “with goulottes flowing down the gullies and corners, good neve and route-finding options,” reported Walsh. The team made good time, stretching some pitches to 100 meters by simulclimbing.

Higher up on the face, the climbing was harder and more sustained as the angle of the face grew steeper, said Walsh. The climbers rated every pitch for the route at either an M5 or M6 with a few feeling more like M7, possibly due to the weight of their packs and tired arms. Though the team wasn’t counting, they estimated they did 15 to 20 new pitches averaging about 60 meters or more each.

“We were actually aiming for a slightly easier looking right-hand gully,” said Walsh, “but going straight up as much as possible was too hard to resist, rather than doing a couple of traversing pitches.”

Jon Walsh climbs in perilously warm conditions on the Emperor Face. Walsh and Kruk saw a two-hour “meltdown” high up on the face, according to Walsh, which led to concerns about snow and ice conditions. The team managed to gain the ridge without anything substantial coming down. [Photo] Jason Kruk

Around 6 p.m., the sun rounded the corner where Walsh and Kruk were climbing “and the face went into meltdown mode for about two hours,” reported Walsh. With water running behind the thin ice and snow features collapsing, Walsh said that, fortunately, nothing substantial ever came down.

The team topped out onto the Emperor Ridge at midnight as lightning flashed to the north. Being a seasoned climber in the Canadian Rockies, Walsh knew that their window would be brief before the storm arrived. Though their intention was to continue to the summit via the Emperor Ridge and West Face, they knew that descent was their safest option.

Walsh and Kruk made it back to their camp below the Mist Glacier by 11 a.m. on June 21 after a nearly 32-hour push, Walsh reported. After a short nap and food, they started their hike out just as the rain began, arriving at the car at 6 p.m. when weather conditions were turning for the worse.

Walsh added: “Although we were disappointed for not making the summit, which remained almost a kilometer horizontally and 1,000 feet vertically away, the experience we shared opening so many fantastic pitches on such a great face was magical.”

Read more about trial and tribulation on Mt. Robson in the Alpinist 29 Mountain Profile.

Sources: Jon Walsh, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies (Sean Dougherty)

Jason Kruk makes his way up the Emperor Face on Mt. Robson with Berg Lake below. [Photo] Jon Walsh