The Great White Fright


Words and photos by James Barkman.

James is currently embarked on The Pan American Trail, a 30,000-mile motorcycle and mountaineering expedition spanning from the tip of North America to the bottom of South America. Along with his friends Jeremy and Allen, the goal is to complete this epic road trip while summiting the highest and most challenging mountains along the way.

It had been a few months since the beginning of the Pan American Trail, a motorcycle and mountaineering expedition that started in Alaska and will (hopefully) end in Patagonia.

After a brutal and rather miserable ride up to Deadhorse, the northern-most point in North America accessible by road, Allen spotted an upcoming weather window on Mt Robson, our next objective on the Pan American Trail. Being in Fairbanks and quite a ways from the destination, we gritted our teeth, put our heads down and rode the 1600 miles through driving rain, arriving in Robson Provincial Park the evening before our summit departure.

Carrying all of our alpine equipment on our DR650 dual sports, we hastily packed our gear in the shadow of Robson’s iconic summit, eating one last luxurious supper of pancakes and eggs before begrudgingly returning to the familiar climbing diet of ramen, oatmeal, and protein bars.

Camp 1 after a day of scrambling. Photo: James Barkman

We bivied in the parking lot and caught a couple hours of sleep before the 4am wake up call. We ripped out to the Berg Lake Trailhead, parked our bikes, and crossed our fingers in hopes of our possessions still remaining upon our return.

We decided to approach Mt Robson via a slightly lesser known and relatively new climbers route known as the Patterson Spur. The Spur shaved off quite a bit of miles, and essentially provided a shorter although dicier route than the typical approach via Berg Lake Trail and Robson Glacier. However, we quickly realized that the route provided less information and presented a good deal of route finding.

With a solid 4 days of good weather in the forecast, we hit the trail with high hopes and much anticipation. After a few kilometers, we cut off from the trail and began the official “Patterson Spur Approach”. The approach began in dense forest and was guided by the occasional orange flagging tape.

4th Class scrambling n the Patterson Spur. Photo: James Barkman

The majority of the first day was spent plodding our way through dense forest and sections of 3rd class scrambling. We had planned on camping at a grassy knoll a couple thousand feet below the Robson-Resplendant Ridge, but due to following inaccurate cairns we overshot it by a few hundred hard earned feet of elevation, arriving at Camp 1 much later than expected. We spent the night studying a route up the next few thousand feet of 3rd and 4th class scrambling,

We woke up to a beautiful cold morning with alpenglow on the Patterson Col above us. A marmot had taken Jeremy’s toothbrush, chewed through his trekking pole strap, and destroyed a couple straps on Allen’s backpack. We picked our way up a scree field and arrived at the beginning of the spur. Despite only being in the 3rd and 4th class range, the scrambling proved physically taxing in lieu of our 60-70 lb packs and ever present exposure.

We made it to the Patterson Spur a few hours behind schedule and feeling rather exhausted. The Spur was straight forward: Go up. Don’t go left and don’t go right or you will drop off the side. Most of the beta we had read from previous trip reports stated to “use your mountain sense”, so with that in mind, we shrugged our shoulders and continued the slow slog up to the R/R ridge.

This section was mostly 4th class and we may have touched a bit of 5th class in a few sections where we got a little off track. The final few hundred feet proved increasingly difficult, therefore we erred to the side of safety and led the last pitch up, sans pack, and set a belay station just below the ridgeline.

Finally topping out on the Robson/Resplendent Ridge, we had below us thousands of feet of messy rock scrambling and above us true alpine climbing all the way to the summit. This is what we were here for! The R/R Ridge was perhaps the most beautiful section of the climb. It followed a knife-edge ridgeline with thousands of feet of exposure on both sides and included three towers that presented challenging obstacles. While we felt relatively comfortable free climbing the ridge, we opted to rope up and set protection along the entire ridge. Allen led and set loops of 7 mil accessory cord every 20 to 30 feet for protection. The fourth tower was the hardest, and based on the recommendation of previous climbers, we skirted around the tower by climbing a pitch of 45 degree snow and ice.

From this point, we had only to cross the relatively moderate upper section of the Robson Glacier before arriving at Dome and bottom of the Kain Face; our planned destination for the second night. Despite pushing our weather window, we opted to camp where we were and use day 3 to make it to the Dome, leaving the summit bid to day 4.

With an incredible view of Robson before us, we were treated to an unexpected display of Northern Lights.

The third day was the easiest day of the climb. We left late and after rapping down and over a bergschrund, we navigated through the Robson Glacier and arrived at the bottom of Kain Face by early afternoon. The Kain Face receives morning sun so is best climbed early before the ice has a chance to thaw and melt. We spent the rest of the day preparing gear, brushing up on V-threads, and studying the route. We crawled into our sleeping bags, cooked a hearty supper of Ramen and set our alarms for 4 am.

Summit Day:

We woke up to a perfectly clear and quiet morning, with a glowing orange sunrise. But, as the old saying goes: “Red sky in the morning, sailors warning…”

Before us stood the massive Kain Face, with 1000 vertical feet of snow and ice at a sustained 45 to 50 degrees. Allen started off with a strong lead up the bergschrund over some sketchy vert ice. Once above the ‘schrund, the Face was straightforward and the conditions were perfect. We were late enough in the season that the face was not at risk of melting out in the morning sun, therefore we quickly and efficiently worked our way up.

Climbing on the Kain Face with 50 feet of vis. Photo: James Barkman

Allen led and set an ice screw every 70 to 80 feet. We simul-climbed the entire Face and reached the top three hours after leaving high camp.

After a short rest above the Kain, we traversed a sketchy corniced section of ridgeline before the terrain turned to 45-50 pitch of rotten ice and snow. Following the ridgeline, we stayed plenty shy of the cornices and navigated crevassces until reaching the summit roof, an enormous bergschrund covered in rime and crumbling ice, that stretched along most of the summit plateau.

Skirting left along the bottom of the ‘schrund, we found an accessible chute and hacked our way up steep and crumbling rime structures to the summit plateau. A short hike to the true summit and we were standing on Mt Robson, the ceiling of the Canadian Rockies! We shared a hoot and a holler, while taking in the breathtaking 360 degree views. 10,000 feet below us, we could see the Visitor Center and Parking lot, a surreal experience indeed.

Despite summiting with relatively clear skies, our weather window ironically ran out a few minutes after reaching the top. The descent as a result proved slow and tedious, with 50-70 foot visibility for the majority of the downclimb from summit to high camp.

Doing our best to retrace our steps, we finally arrived back at the top of the Kain Face. Using V-threads, we rapped down the entire Face in a series of 10 pitches. Exhausted and stoked, we post-holed through waist deep snow to our tent, grateful to have conquered the Great White Fright.

Follow @jamesbarkman and @thepanamericantrail for more.

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We bivvied out in the open at the base of the mountain and it…

We bivvied out in the open at the base of the mountain and it was a cold night with intermittent sleep. Luckily the excitement of starting a climb always fills me with extra energy. Here’s Mark looking far too cheery at 5 am.

I tried to stay focused on the gear placements instead of the…

I tried to stay focused on the gear placements instead of the storm brewing over my shoulder… we learned that in Scotland, you need to take advantage of each and every weather window.

Volcanic Ring Crags of Kilchoan, Scotland

We don’t always make it to the top. Knowing when to turn around…

We don’t always make it to the top. Knowing when to turn around is just as important as knowing how hard to push yourself. Sure I’ve climbed to the summit of dozens of peaks, but there are also many I’ve had to turn away from. Whether it be due to weather, injury, difficulty, time, or any multitude of other reasons, the great thing about mountains is that they’re not going anywhere soon. Take what you can from the experience, learn from it, and use it to stoke the fire for next season!

This pic was taken after bailing off the Norhteast Buttress of Slesse, an ambitious 20+ pitch alpine 5.9 route. After some deliberation, we realized that we just weren’t making good enough time. It sucks to have to make the call, but I don’t regret it. Already making plans for a second try next summer 🙂