On May 21, 2017 Dylan Cunningham, a 27 year old from Revelstoke BC, skied down the revered north face of Mt. Robson. In doing so, he became the third person ever recorded to do so. It has been over 21 years since the first descent of the north face by Troy Jungen and Ptor Spricenieks. Though many have tried, Dylan’s repeat variation marks the end to a significant period of time between successful attempts on what is considered the ultimate Rockies test piece.
There had been a lot of rumours flying that Robson had been skied but we couldn’t actually find anyone who knew the story, who was willing to talk. We finally put the pieces together and caught up with Dylan on the phone to get the story straight and hear how it went.
First off, I think I know it to be true by now, but can you for certain confirm that you did ski the north face on Robson recently?
Ha. Yeah. I mean I guess the word is out. I skied off the Emperor Ridge from within 20 vertical meters of the summit. From what I know it was down a distinctly separate feature of the face than what Troy and Ptor skied. At the time it was just the most aesthetic line to me. I set a rappel, got through a cornice, and rapped on to the face. From there I skied down, eventually through a rock step and then down to the bergschrund. I did not ski the original line and I skipped what would have been isothermal snow, bare ice, and rock skiing down to Berg Lake by taking it out to the meadows between Rearguard and Waffl Peaks. 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 90’s 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.
Congrats. That’s amazing. There’s definitely been a buzz about this but no one knew exactly what happened.
I’d have to say that it was a very personal thing. I’ve never done anything that generated this much interest before. It’s been hard to know how to deal with it. Skiing a line of this nature is both an experience and personal achievement. I have been building towards and aspiring to it for a long time.
Did you ski it solo?
Yes. Dylan Chen and Kevin Rohn, who I summited with, skied down the Kain Face and I went down the North. We stayed in radio contact and they looped around at the bottom in time to watch me ski the lower two thirds of the face.
Tell me about how it all went down.
The goal of the trip was to ski Resplendent and the Kain Face, but really I was curious about the North Face. Skiing something of that caliber has been a dream and a process that included a lot of self doubt. I was curious if it would look skiable, and in that case something I would feel comfortable doing. When we rounded the corner at Berg Lake and I got to see it for the first time I was blown away by how white it looked. I had prepared myself to see blue ice but when I saw how it looked, that’s when I realized I could have an opportunity to realize that type of adventure.
Did you climb the line?
No. We approached via the Kain Face. I definitely meditated on climbing up the line but going up the Kain Face and over the top was reasonable and more enjoyable for me. It was for a number of reasons. Ultimately, I knew the consequences of erring on such a line and was worried that maybe I would miss something in terms of beta if I didn’t climb it. I drew a hard line to only go as far as comfort allowed me. I was prepared to be too uncomfortable looking down at the top and choose to ski down the Kain with my buddies. That didn’t happen though. All my investigations from below the day before and from the top lent me a feeling of confidence that I could put it together and stay within the bounds of what I felt was reasonable. I went for a recon mission when we summited and came back to tell Dylan and Kevin I was going to do it. We had been discussing it right from the trip’s conception and they knew I was serious, but they were still a bit blown away when I told them.
Tell me about the entrance.
I skied and then walked down the emperor ridge about 30-40 meters. It was a balance between apartment sized seracs and cornices on the north side and rime mushrooms on the south side, both with obvious exposure below them. I originally wanted to go another 30m further to where I could ski right from the ridge. I investigated, but to navigate the rime and cornice as a solo act any further would have broken my personal promise not to do things I was uncomfortable with. I cut a piece of the cornice out at that point. Not that such a face would hold a slab but more to build on my picture of what the snow surface was like and how things were tacking onto the ice. I had built a t-slot with my skis and now used that to dig further into the cornice and established a perch under the scarp where I could feasibly put my skis on. The ridge to face connection had just a bit of powder on top of hard blue ice and I wasn’t 100% sure I could ski it in control. At that point I built a v-thread and chose to rappel down. I went about 10 meters to a point where the angle relented slightly and the snow, about 10-20cm of it, was well bonded to the ice. I pulled the rope and skied from that point.
How was that first turn?
It was the most committing part of the whole venture and therefore the scariest. On a face of that nature each turn counts for the full grade and you can’t lose any control. After I sideslipped a little bit to feel the nature of the snow and probed around I gained the confidence I needed to do it. Once I got the first one in, I knew I could do more.
How committed did you feel?
It was definitely extreme skiing. But there was never a moment when I was terrified. That would have been unacceptable to me, an indication I had gone too far in a situation with way too much on the line. There were scary moments that I had to focus but that is the inherent nature of the challenge. As far as commitment, I felt like there was never a point when I couldn’t have either switched to climbing back up or down climbing if I really had to. Along with wanting to ski it, part of me felt like that would be a huge disservice to the line. To get into it and have misjudged the conditions such that I would have to resort to climbing out would have been poor form.
How steep was it? How long?
I measured it twice at 52°. I’d say it was 800m long from where I entered to the bergschrund.
What was the crux of the whole thing?
The crux was going through the rock step about a third of the way down. I ended up skiing down to a vertical wall of rock about 1 meter high without being able to spot the break I had sighted from below. At that point I took out both my ice tools used them to make side-stepping the rock a reasonable endeavour. Looking back at the pictures I am almost convinced there is a spot that would have went clean but I missed it. It makes me reflect on the choice to go top down. It was a great adventure but there is a tinge of regret in not nailing that part of the line. Room for improvement but I remain content.
How big was the bergschrund?
It wasn’t big at all. I took a moment to eye it up before I leapt over it but it wasn’t that big a deal. Maybe a 2-3m drop.
Funny, I’ve heard that thing was huge in the past.
Yeah, so have I, but it ended up not being a big deal on my line.
How did it feel when you got down it?
I was just super satisfied about how it had gone from the top and was having fun. The focus was still on but less intense now. The last 75m of the face above the bergshrund had angled off a bit and I could actually ski like most people think of skiing. Type 1 fun and linking turns more or less. All the while snow cascaded along with me. An unbelievable segment of the descent. I was also looking forward to skiing powder down the incredible features I had spied on the Berg Glacier.
So where does this lead you now?
Good question. It lends a greater depth to future endeavours of all types for sure. There’s also some great lessons Kevin, Dylan, and I were able to draw from the trip that won’t fit in here. I’d say it also validates that I’m capable of doing something like this and want to do more. As I mentioned earlier, I had a lot of self doubt at times but I knew I wanted to try something of this caliber. When the opportunity presented itself I had to investigate. I’ve never been so close to the limit of my comfort level for so long and yet felt so in control. It’s an awesome challenge. I have other aspirations but we’ll see how it goes. It’s not every day or even lifetime you’re given an opportunity to ski something like that.
What would you say to others who would aspire to ski this line?
I would be happy to divulge any information I have about the line to others but it’s not like I could really recommend the line. It’s an extreme ski test piece and if you’re going to do it you’ll seek it out. It’s certainly not a freeride line. I had really good conditions and I can’t imagine trying it in anything less. The face doesn’t hold that much snow. Funny enough, most of the people that have asked me so far are people that I look up to, am inspired by, and should have had the chance to ski it before me. Once again, I feel really fortunate.
Will we see the full story from you sometime?
If people are interested, I would like to share a story with a bit more depth in the future. An objective is cool to hear about but the important part is the journey, the growth, the feelings the undertaking produces.
Thanks for doing this. Any thanks or shoutouts?
I had the opportunity to ski with Troy Jungen and Chris Brazeau at Kicking Horse in 2012. Conversations we had, what we skied, and what they have done through the years gave me resolve to ski things of this nature and do it purely for my own enjoyment. Troy was really genuine about skiing lines like Robson and it really inspired me. Dave Gauley is also a cousin of mine who’s path I have admired and followed. His descent of Mt Deborah with Johnny ‘Foon’ Chilton gave me a chill, and the deep realization I wanted to be able to do something like that. But it was a big question mark if I ever would. Beyond that, I have been blessed with many mentors, friends, and partners along with a tremendously supportive family. They have all helped me grow and made the journey to this point pretty amazing.
After my interview with Dylan I reached out to Troy Jungen for a comment about Dylan’s accomplishment. Troy respond with “Hey Tim. In Squamish, living and climbing beside the chief. Good times! Just read the interview. Its been 21.5 years since we skied it. I was beginning to wonder if I would be around for the second descent! In those 20 years, extreme skiing has been overshadowed by the freeride movement. Two different beasts. Was not sure if the torch was being carried by the next generation to a certain extent or not. Ski descents of that that calibre can turn into a very personal, life changing experience. I’m very proud of Dylan’s accomplishment. The level of commitment is really unparalleled. If one considers standing on the highest summit in the rockies with your skis on your feet, looking down at the most austere, yet life threatening, fabled, ski descents on earth. It all comes down to the moment of truth. Dylan nailed it. Its all about the first turn. It’s the difference between believing and knowing you can do it. Finally I have another skier that i can relate this to. It’s been a long lonely 20 years. Hats off to you Dylan! Solo – it’s another level. Congrats!”
-Interview by Tim Grey