Mark Smiley - Worst Route in the World?

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Worst Route in the World

By Mark Smiley

"It's the worst route I've ever done."  This was Canmore local, Nancy Hansen's, summation of her experience on the Wishbone Arete Route on the South Face of Mt Robson. This, coming from a very accomplished alpinist, who is the 1st (and only, I think) woman that has climbed all of the 53 peaks in the Canadian Rockies that stand over 11,000'. I'm not positive on this, but I think that less than 10 other people in the world can boast the same. So that report, coming from her, hit hard. In fact, her and her husband, Doug, were climbing the fifty together too, and a failed attempt on the Wishbone made Doug drop the pursuit entirely. He said he never wanted to get back on that awful route. We had traveled a long way to try this mountain for the third time, so these heavy, first hand accounts, made my stomach turn.

In 2010, Janelle and I hiked to the Forester Hut, only to be turned back due to warm temps, and utter intimidation. Last summer we made the journey again to, "check things out". There was way too much snow on the rock sections, and the rime-ice gargoyles were even bigger than the previous year. So instead of climbing, we decided to run to Berg Lake, to scope out an alternate approach to the Wishbone Arete. 24 miles later our spirits were not boosted, as we found no easy ramp system that would put us near the base of the route…or anywhere close. Now, in 2012, we were ready to give 'er another try.

As we drove north on the Icefield Parkway, after talking to Nancy, the conversation was as lively as a cemetery. It seemed like Janelle had already mentally thrown in the towel. Me, the stubborn one, tried desperately to find the bright side of this dimly lit situation. "Well…at least after climbing the Wishbone, every other route we climb the rest of our lives will be better." Silence. "Just think, we are going to climb the worst route in Canada, and maybe the world. The worst! That's kinda worthy right?" More silence. Things were not looking good. I resorted to changing the subject to the amazing views unfolding through Lulu's windshield.

Pulling into the visitor's center, just off the highway, one is slapped in the face with Mt Robson's South aspect shooting 10,000 feet from the valley to the summit. It is the most impressive roadside mountain view I've ever seen. Janelle drug her feet getting out of the van. "Come on, let’s go check the weather forecast, it will probably be crap anyway, so we won't have to climb." The door opened, and she got out.

The forecast is posted on the main entrance: clear and sunny across the board. Crap. No excuses now. We then drove down the road to Valemont, where our friend, Reiner Thoni, lives. Reiner was letting us borrow a couple bikes, allowing us to turn the 6-kilometer (4ish miles) hike into Kenny Lake into a ride. His parents own and operate the nicest restaurant in Valemont, the Caribou Grill, and we had been invited to stay with them while in the area. The upper floor of their home is the restaurant, and the bottom floor is their living area.

In the parking lot we went to work. Janelle prepped the food and I prepped the gear…in silence. The following morning we woke early and started the journey.

As we pedaled along, light rain fell – so much for the forecast. At Kenny Lake we stashed the bikes in the woods, and continued several miles to the ranger station located in the Valley of 1000 Falls, where we asked the ranger for a conditions report. She did not have good news. They had had record snowfall this past winter. Record snowfall equals record run-off. The river we had to cross was still in its flood stage, oh, and the water was about 38 degrees! We had not brought running shoes, which meant a barefoot crossing. The stoke sank even lower. A few more miles brought us to another ranger, a twenty-year veteran. He confirmed the bad news, and piled more on. Things were grim now. On the creek bank, where the normal creek crossing is, we stood and looked across 80 feet (24.39 meters) of fast flowing, liquid ice water, roughly waist deep. I’m stubborn, but not that stubborn.

Throwing down the packs, we had a family meeting, me, Janelle, and a chipmunk. The opportunist chipmunk said about as much as we did for the first five minutes.  Mr. Chipmonk's cheeks were bulging when Janelle broke the silence, "Why do we have to climb this stupid route anyway. It’s totally not classic. Nobody ever climbs it, and the Kane Route is supposed to be way better."

Long story short, we set our sites on the Kane Face Route, which was another 6-7 miles (10-12KM) up the trail.

Short story shorter, the lack of freezing temps turned us around at the base of the Kane Face the following day, and we walked all the way out. I was totally bummed, and Janelle was totally over trying to climb this scary mountain that is really not that classic. The stoke was at an all time low. That is, until we met back up with Reiner Thoni.

Reiner has a pretty cool thing going in Valemont, BC. For three months he works non-stop planting trees in the rough clear cuts. He makes enough during that time to, more or less, float the rest of the year. He ski tours non-stop, and is a very accomplished randonee racer. In fact, he is the fastest rando racer in North America. He is, what we call in the industry, good energy. After sharing our woes of defeat, he suggested that we just hang out a few days, pick some huckleberries, and turn our sites to the Japanese Route on Mt Alberta. He wanted to climb this with us. So that’s what we did. 

Fast forward 8 days now. The sun is still shining, and we are back on our bikes heading again to Kenny Lake, with Reiner leading the way. The hike up to the Forester Hut, which took us 8 hours in 2010, took us only 4.5 hours this time. We got to the hut without a hitch and started packing for the following day. The forecast was amazing, so we decided to par down our kit even more. Opting to take only one sleeping bag, one pad, and a little tarp for a tent. There were a couple other guys at the hut, who snored, so we all slept under the stars outside the hut.

The alarm went off at 3:30, and we were en route a little after 4. That far north, in August, daylight starts early. We picked our way along the yellow bands by headlamp. After an hour we had already past our 2010 highpoint. Virgin terrain from here up. We were all moving well, full of energy and a combination of nervousness and excitement. Staying unroped to move quicker, we scrambled up the first few thousand feet in only a few hours. The macro route finding was easy, as this is a ridge climb. The micro route finding, on the other hand, was a different story. Finding rock that actually stayed in place was a real chore. We climbed side-by-side when possible to avoid sending rocks on one another. When the rock got steep, we threw the rope on and I led a couple pitches of "5.7 dangerous". Then back to un-roped terrain.

The heavy snow that made the creeks impassible, a curse for that approach, where now a blessing for this route. A snow coulior was still intact just to the right of the ridge. Jumping on this firm snow, we got a needed break from the loose-nasty rock. The ice had some spice though. Several big rocks fell above and picked up real speed on their way down the 65 degree snow slope. Climbing quickly, and looking up constantly was our only defense. This snow section took roughly an hour. It was a big aid in our upward progress, as the rock to our left and right looked especially loose and steep.

Back on the rock above the coulior, we took a break in what was obviously a bivy site. This is where Reiner found an old plastic tube with a metal screw-top cap. The clear plastic tube was cloudy from what looked like decades of Mt Robson abuse. Inside was a little wishbone, and a dried apple core. Curiosity led us to open the tube (it broke easily while trying to unscrew the lid). Inside was a little pencil, a chicken wishbone, silver and orange paint chips, and the apple core turned out to be a rolled up damp note! Concluding that the note would be worthless if we left it there, Janelle tucked it into her pack. We left the broken tube/cap and the wishbone right next to several rusty tuna cans. Maybe if someone is up there epic-ing they can get the calories they need to get down by chewing on the bone marrow of the wishbone?!

The rock ended, and we were back on snow. Simul-climbing ticked off several more thousand feet. The slope got steep and we switched to climbing in pitches. I was nominated to be on the sharp end. It seemed like we were just a stones throw away from the summit, but our altimeter watch kept things honest. We still had about 800 vertical feet (240 meters) to the summit. Not wanting to mess with the super scary Patagonia-like rime-ice gargoyles I traversed to the west side of the ridge, looking for easy passage. Four traversing, slightly rising pitches later I started straight up the 60-70 degree snow slope. The beautiful sunny day had softened the snow considerably. I had to move slow to ensure I didn't fall. Once out of rope I dug into the snow to build an ice anchor. This was worthless. There was no ice. I dug my tools deep into the snow, made a butt bucket, sat in it, kicked my feet in, and put Janelle and Reiner on belay off my harness. They quickly climbed up my foot buckets to my lame anchor. "Sorry guys, no ice." Sobering looks all around. They kicked in, drove their tools into the soft snow, and I launched for another pitch. When I was 70 feet out with no protection, Janelle looked at Reiner and said, "You can unclip from me if you want? No sense bringing us all down if Mark falls." He laughed, and stayed connected.

I made it up to the severely corniced ridge, and looked down the other side. This was epic! It didn't look passable, and I started looking around for a good way to anchor myself to go back down and try a different way. No ice here either. This was becoming an unfortunate trend. The sun was now well on its way to the horizon. A prompt decision had to be made. I hopped up on this knife ridge of snow. If I was cool like Chuck Norris, in that moment I would have likely tipped my hat forward, looked boldly into the camera and said something macho like, "Giddy up" as I saddled up on the snow ridge. Instead, since I'm just Mark, I said "oh please don't break, please don't break" many times as I crossed the ridge onto the other side.

Here on shaded east side of the ridge I was able to find ice! I placed a screw and a couple really crappy cams, and shouted "OFF" into the wind. Janelle and Reiner came up, saddled up, scootched across, and climbed over to me. "Wow, that was really hard, nice work Mark." "Thanks, but it’s not over yet," I said. Above us was an even steeper snow face. We were smack in the middle of the Gargoyles now. I was able to place a stubby screw four feet above the anchor before the ice disappeared.

I had just entered unknowingly into the zone of vertical trench warfare. Every step took 12-15 foot kicks, needed to compact the snow. This effort would advance my body roughly 3 inches (7.62 cm) upward. My arms "windshield wipered" the loose snow in front of my face. Gravity took hold of the dislodged snow and it fell thousands of feet down the slope. I then buried my arms and tools up to my armpits to get some sort of purchase. These "handholds" held so long as I only pulled less than 20 pounds (9.07 Kg) of pressure on them. Then it was back to my feet. Sweep the area with my knee to clear snow, kick 12-15 times, commit to that new step, back to the arms, clear snow, bury arms, twist tools, and repeat….1000 times. This took me to the top of the first Gargoyle. Time for the next. More of the same for a total of 180 feet (50 meters). When I finally pulled through the vertical onto the slightly-less-than-vertical I was so relieved. I could now get great foot and tool purchase, so I yelled down for them to simul-climb. I had to make it to the other side of this last snow ridge so I could give them a proper belay with a good braced terrain anchor.

Twenty minutes later Janelle's head poked over the ridge I was belaying behind. Her eyes were wide. "Mark, where did that come from?! That was insane!" "I know right." Now, we were a stones throw away from the summit.

The next image will be forever burnt in my brain. Janelle and Reiner took the lead walking on a rib of clean snow to the summit of Mt Robson. The sun had set and the twilight was surreal. Brilliant purples, reds and blues lit the background in a way that I hope heaven is like. Their bodies were dwarfed by the huge views that wrapped around us.

On top I quickly changed my wet clothes for dry ones, put on all my layers, and we headed down. Darkness turned on about 500 feet below the top. We were back seeing only what our headlamps could reveal, which wasn't much. Not wanting to cross under the seracs in the dark we dug a snow cave and shivered for 4 hours until the sun came up again.

Crossing under the Schwarts ledges is scary. The Schwarts ledges are formed by the edge of the glacier coming to an abrupt end directly above a 200-foot rock cliff. This forms a 180-foot tall ice wall, that cleaves off on a regular basis. One must walk on the rock, under the ice face, in order to get past this section. I don't know why this is a route up this mountain. Don't ever try this in the dark, or at all. I have never had to roll the dice in the mountains like this. Thankfully we were only exposed for about 10 minutes, but in my mind that is 10 minutes too much.

Back at the hut we lounged around, soaking in the victory. Someone had photocopied the Alpinist article about Robson and left it in the hut, which I started reading. The Wishbone Arête had a page dedicated to it. I freaked out when it mentioned that second party to attempt the route (unsuccessfully) had left a silver painted chicken wishbone at their highpoint. "DUDE! We found their wishbone!" It had been left there July 24, 1951. So cool. Reiner took the note to the mountaineering museum in Valemont, and the wishbone is still up there. Thankfully, I never will be. Every other route I climb for the rest of my life will be better than that one. Now that's something to be pumped about.

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