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The First Ski Descent of the North Face of Mount Robson

The first ski descent of the north face of the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies nearly 30 years ago was a big deal

Photo by: John Scurlock

The first ski descent of the north face of Mount Robson (Yuh-hai-has-kun). was by Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen in 1995. In the book 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, Sprincenieks said, “Yuh-hai-has-kun is the original Shuswap name for Mount Robson, meaning ‘Mountain of the Spiral Road.’ As the King of the Rockies, it always seemed more fitting and respectful for it to be called by its traditional name rather than after some colonialist fur trapper who never climbed it.”

There had been a number of attempts to ski the face before 1995. In 1980, two skiers from Whistler tried it, but bailed on two separate attempts. “We really tried,” said 21-year-old Jacques Thibault after he and 22-year-old Peter Chrzanowski nearly dropped in. “If they fell they’d be done for,” said Chuck Hammond, who was promoting the run for his two friends. “You have to stop rolling by at least three rolls otherwise the momentum would be built up to such a point you’d wind up at the bottom.”

Chrzanowski went on to attempt the face no fewer than five times. His first attempt involved three helicopters and a coil of yellow nylon boat rope on which he and a partner had intended to lower themselves into The Shotgun, a 100-metre-tall ice chunk that was only two feet wide in places. Another of Chrzanowski’s attempts involved top skiers Scot Schmidt, Trevor Petersen, Steve Smaridge, and filmmaker Eric Perlman. They were turned around.

Doug Ward, who was arguably one of Canada’s best skiers of the 1980s, made two attempts. On the second try, a top Rockies climber reportedly lost his hand to a helicopter blade. Rumour has it that his hat blew off his head and as he went to grab it, the blade chopped part of his arm off.

There were numerous rumours of top European skiers making covert attempts to ski the north face, some ending in avalanche deaths. Whatever was true, the north face of Robson was a formidable objective and one of North America’s last great ski problems.

First Descent

It’s too cold in winter for snow to stick to the steep glaciated blue ice, so on Sept. 8, 1995, Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen climbed the 1,100-metre, sustained 57-degree north face under a full moon. Sprincenieks had just returned from an attempt to ski Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, where he’d lived at 5,000 metres for a month. His conditioning aside, his time on the world’s ninth-highest peak made the Rockeis less intimidating to him.

Leaving camp at 3 a.m., the pair climbed past the huge bergschrund cleaving the bottom of the north face and kicked steps straight up, ending with a 20-metre climb up 75-degree ice. At 8 a.m. they tagged the summit and turned around.

Pique, a Whistler newspaper, reported in 1995: Two Whistler adventurers used the light of the full moon and the native name of Mount Robson as inspiration as they pulled off the first ski descent of the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen summited the 3,954-metre peak in the pre-dawn moonlight last Saturday after a gruelling four-and-a-half day ascent and skied down the entire mountain in a day-and-a-half. “This is the greatest adventure so far in my life,” says Spricenieks, 27, a global ski tourer and cosmic consciousness raiser. According to Spricenieks, cosmic couch surfer Jungen had been carefully monitoring the snow conditions on Robson all summer and a combination of summer storms and the full moon prompted the pair to attempt the descent. They were also motivated by their daring chauffeur, Whistler’s Robin Allen, who plied the boys with energy and positive prompting. A number of ski descents have been attempted on Mount Robson, but all have failed.

Spricenieks and Jungen are what he calls “natural partners” and are both in the process of writing their PhD thesis on Ski Shamanism and the Robson adventure should be worth at least a chapter. “Since way back Troy and I have been spending years getting scared together,” laughs Spricenieks. The two made the ascent over the upper Mist Glacier under the full moon and had to free climb the last pitch of 70 degree ice to the summit at 3 a.m. Saturday. They had climbed most of the route they skied down, but opted for the ice climb to the summit because the chute they were going to descend was full of “like, totally winter powdies,” says Spricenieks. After a power lunch on the summit, Jungen and Spricenieks jumped into the 70 degree chute. “We dropped in right off the summit and it was really, really, really, really steep and really, really big and we were way scared… it was great,” recalls Spricenieks, adding snow conditions ranged from winter powder at the top to slushy, isothermic snow over top of ice near the lower elevations — but there was snow all the way down.

“We had to blow like 20 feet of air to get to safer exposures on the glacier because of all the crevasses,” he says. Spricenieks and Jungen dedicated their effort to Peter Chrzanowski, the Canadian extreme skiing pioneer who attempted to descend Robson four times, and Jerry Garcia who motivated the boys to higher heights. “It’s a real gnarly place and if the weather came in it would be almost impossible to get off the mountain,” Spricenieks says. “The cosmic forces were definitely with us.” He says their success can also be attributed to the fact that they called the mountain by its original Indian name — Yuh-hai-has-hun — and did their adventure during the Indian Summer. “It’s really important to remember the original Indian name,” he says. “That’s what these mountains should be called, not under some name of some Hudson’s Bay dude who walked into the area to make cash off the natural resources.”

Jungen on the summit of Robson before dropping in Photo Spricenieks
Jungen on the summit of Robson before dropping in. Photo by Spricenieks

In 2017, Dylan Cunningham became the third skier to descend the north face of Robson. “I skied off the Emperor Ridge from within 20 vertical metres of the summit,” Cunningham told Big Lines. “At the top I investigated what I think was the original line but it looked like there would be at least two mandatory rappels. If you compare a recent photo from to that from the 90s the you can see there’s a lot less ice than there used to be. I was more aesthetically drawn to a line just down the ridge.”

Cunningham climbed the Kain Face with Dylan Chen and Kevin Rohn and then continued to where he dropped down below the cornice. According to Biglines.com, the skiers stayed in radio contact and Chen and Rohn made skied the Kain Face and then watched Cunningham finish his big line.

Lead photo: John Scurlock