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Jim Logan: The Emperor of Mount Robson

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Jim Logan, the emperor of Mount Robson, sits under the pavilion he designed as part of a mixed-use north Boulder neighborhood.

Jim Logan drifts into our offices, a turkey sandwich in hand, totally elated. “Did you see the Web? My route’s up there!” he blurts. We sit and talk, and it slowly unravels that Steve House and Colin Haley’s May 25 first ascent on the 8,000-foot Emperor Face of Canada’s Mount Robson (12,989 feet; see more) is a repeat. However, it’s the only repeat of a committing, daunting alpine line — with an M8 crux pitch — that Logan climbed with the late Mugs Stump some 29 years ago. Here, high on the snowy limestone wall, Logan made the lead of a lifetime, scraping up a runout corner wielding a customized (bent) Chouinard bamboo axe in his left hand and a Forrest ice hammer in the other. He spent hours on the pitch, freeing it onsight. Now Logan, a youthful 60, runs architecture firm in Boulder, but often plays hookie to climb in Eldorado and at the Boulder Rock Club. He ranks the Emperor Face as one of his three great climbs, along with the 1960s FFAs of the Diamond on Longs Peak and the punishing offwidth Crack of Fear (5.10) at Lumpy Ridge.

Jim Logan is a Boulder fixture, climbing at the cutting edge – on snow, ice, and rock – for more than 40 years. He has many firsts, including FFAs and a bold first ascent, with Mugs Stump, of a direct line up the Emperor Face of the ominous Mount Robson, in Canada. Still, the exact particulars of his obsessive trip up the wall (it took three visits to Canada to complete) were almost lost to the ages, guidebook lines not quite on route and the passage of years with no activity on that part of the wall conspiring to rewrite history. This spring, Steve House and Colin Haley climbed what they thought was an entirely new route on the face, only to find remnants of Logan and Stump’s passage near the exit. Climbing Magazine caught up with him for a quick chat.

—Matt Samet

Matt: How long have you been in Boulder, Jim?

Jim: I came to go to CU in 1965.

Matt: 1965?

Jim: Yeah.

Matt: And, you’ve been since then?

Jim: Yeah, I flunked out of CU pretty quickly cause I was climbing all the time, and I have been here ever since.

Matt: Did you go back and finish your degree?

Jim: Yeah, I went back in my 30s and got an undergraduate degree and then became an architect.

Matt: Oh, OK.

Jim: I made that transition from being a carpenter-climber to a viable citizen.

Climbing in Boulder

Matt: Did you guys do D1?

Jim: The second ascent of D7, and we didn’t take any bvvy gear. We didn’t have a plan. It never came up that you should have a plan and know if you are going to spend the night or not spend the night. It just didn’t register. We spent a very cold night hugging each other waiting for the dawn on that ledge a long time ago. So Roger and I have been climbing together since then.

Matt: And what year was that?

Jim: 1967 or 68.

Matt: And you still climb a lot with Roger?

Jim: Yeah, Roger and I are still good friends. I designed his house. Yeah, however many years that is, 40 years, we’re still climbing together.

Matt: And you’re also known for the first free ascent of the Diamond?

Jim: Yeah, Wayne Goss and I, what was then thought of as late in our climbing career, because we hadn’t really been doing much and people thought we were old has-beens because we were 30-somethings.

Matt: That’s tragic.

Jim: Yeah, we were in our 30s, and somehow we didn’t count anymore, so we decided to do the first free ascent of the Diamond. And, we did that in 1976. And what was cool was it was the first time the Diamond was ever climbed with no hammers, no bivvy gear, just the way it is climbed now. We bivvied on Broadway. We left our gear on Broadway. And just went for it, so we had a rope and a rack and a rain jacket, and that was it.

Matt: All clean gear?

Jim: All clean gear, all nuts. It was before cams were invented. It was all hexes and stoppers.

Matt: What year was that?

Jim: 76, I think. Probably 76, maybe 74 or 75.

Matt: And you guys did D7 into the Forrest Finish?

Jim:D7 into the Forrest Finish. I looked up what became the Casual Route later and declared it not free-climbable from the ledge. So, Wayne led a really hard pitch going left back into the top of Black Dagger. There was a crack there that is now completely cleaned out. At the time it was completely full of grass, mud, flowers, and stuff. So, Wayne face climbed in the rain on the right side in between the Black Dagger and the Casual Route.

Matt: So, much harder than the Casual Route?

Jim: Much harder than the Casual Route, and he managed to not fall off, and I followed and managed to not fall off. We were pretty excited.

Matt: Has anyone repeated that specific variation?

Jim: It’s hard to tell. It actually a pretty good route if you did that set of pitches into the Casual Route. It would be a really nice free climb actually. The Forrest Finish pitch, I looked it up, and I think it is like 11a or something maybe but, I just remember it was a very consistent, really good, pumpy crack climb. In that kind of complicated Diamond way where you jam, then you layback, then you reach up on the ledge and stem for a move.

The Emperor Face of Mt. Robson. Pink line: Cheesmond-Dick, 1981 (approx. line). Red line: Logan-Stump, 1978. Green line: House-Haley, 2007, with red dot marking the end of Haley

Jim: So, just going up and down on it is a pretty big deal. I had been up and down on it a few times, so I was getting pretty comfortable. I think going in the wintertime helped even though it was snowing all the time and avalanching all around us, and we barely lived through it. So, anyway Mugs and I went on Hummingbird, failed and had a good time, and came back out. And this is when Mugs told me his plan to become a famous climber, or well-known climber was to do the Emperor Face with me, and would I go with him? And I said OK, he seemed like a really good climber. And so that winter then, we were ice climbing all around and rock climbing, and just doing different things. And we went up there that summer with the intent of doing it, and then we had to camp up under the face across the river, and then we got a spell of good weather and went ahead and were able to climb it.

Matt: How long did you guys camp for before the weather opened up for you?

Jim: About two weeks. We went up under the face once and it rained on us. Everything got all wet; we didn’t have Goretex or anything like that, and you know leather boots, bamboo axe and all that kind of stuff. So, we went back to Jasper and got more supplies and went back. We were up there just a few days and it stormed. It snowed. We woke up, and it was clear weather and we had a little radio. We could listen to radio reports and for good weather. The base had a lot of ice on it, a lot of rind, so we thought we could climb on that.

Matt: The blocks were kind of frozen together.

Jim: Yeah, kind of frozen together and stuff. It turned out to work, but it was really scary climbing. The face was characterized by 60-degree snow slopes intersected by vertical steps of limestone that are 20 to 60 to whatever feet tall. So, when we were on the rock steps, they were covered by a thin layer of ice. And you had to climb on the ice and not knock it off, so there was no protection, so you were climbing 20, 30, 40 feet above these steep snow slopes with your only protection being a couple of screws at the bottom.

Matt: At the top of the snow?

Jim: Yeah at the top of the snow, so you would put in two screws at the top of the snow and then start up these things and hope something might develop, protection-wise, but and nothing did.

Matt: So, it was pretty crackless rock?

Jim: Yeah I just talked to Steve House, and cams work. And we didn’t have any cams.

Matt: Did you just have pins and nuts?

Jim: No, nuts. We didn’t take any nuts.

Matt: Strictly pins?

Jim: We just had pins; we had 16 pins.

Mt. Robson

Matt: Oh, OK.

Jim: But, they didn’t break. Every other tool we had broke. Like when I did Takaka Falls with one of the two Burgess twins. What’s Adrian’s brother?

Matt: Al

Jim: Al, yeah. I still can’t remember which one is which. I think I climbed with Adrian. Anyway, the Calgary one, which you always felt like you were just about to go to jail. He and I did Takaka Falls.

Matt: It’s good to know people like that.

Jim: Yeah, we were skiing past the hut with all the big locks on it. And he goes over tapping on the door with his ice ax, you know seeing if we could break in. I said, I think we should just keep going. Anyway, he and I did Takaka Falls, second or third ascent or something. It was 40 below. I broke three tools on the climb. We had borrowed every ice tool we could find in Calgary and we had them all with us, and we just broke them. But, after you’d finally broken everything else, the one tool you always had that left was the pterodactyl, the Joe Brown tool — the Brits, you know from Scotland. And it just beat the shit out of your hands, but it didn’t break.

Matt: It didn’t break, it was trusty?

Jim: It was trusty, and it had a real steep pick on it. It was actually a good mix tool. And Forrest made a hammer, which I still have — a fiberglass hammer that had a steep pick. So I had a steep pick, hammer, short, and then an ice axe. Not a 70, you know, we shortened them.

Matt: What was your technique using these two kind of tools? Were you switching hands with them?

Jim: No, ice axe is always in your left hand, and the hammer is always in your right. That’s what we did.

Matt: I guess it was so steep too to switch around in any way.

Jim: No, and we had wrist loops that were half-inch webbing. So, basically you would tie at least a half-inch webbing into the head of the tool and then tie it to the right size to be a wrist loop. So, you had half-inch webbing, wrist loop, and, you know, gloves or not gloves. And then the hammer was in your right hand cause we had pins. So you got to put in pins. And we had holsters, so you could holster both tools and free climb. Now, we ice climbed a lot — in those days, we climbed ice a lot with no tools.

Matt: You guys would freeze your gloves?

Jim: Yeah, you’d use wool gloves.

Matt: Yeah Jeff Lowe was telling me about that. You’d get them wet?

Jim: And it was a cool thing. Jeff and Duncan were always into the, could you climb this with no tools?

Matt: So, did you do some of that style climbing on this pitch, or were you strictly on tools?

Jim: No, I was doing both. I was actually climbing barehanded in places. There were places where I was cleaning off holds, and cleaning them the best I could and using them as a hand hold.

Matt: OK, so just pulling every trick out of the bag?

Jim: Anything yeah. I was just trying to stay alive. Just trying to get up it.

Matt: How big was the run out off the belay?

Jim: Well, for me, it was 30 years, 29 years ago. But, these guys said it was 40-50 feet. 10-15 meters.

Matt: Straight off the belay?

Jim: Oh no, that was above the knife blade.

Matt: So, that was where all the hard climbing was?

Jim: Yeah, for me it was on top of a 150-foot pitch. I did a whole rope length. Steve and Colin belayed at different places on the pitch.

Matt: Oh, OK.

Jim: So, they didn’t belay as low as Mugs did. They belayed higher up. There is a place, I can remember now where it is, where they got some pins in. So they belayed there and ran past my belay. So, we were lower in the corner. But, the hardest section is still the same. So, for me, it was a full 150-foot pitch that started off as a direct aid pitch, complicated, but not too hard. But, we were tying off icicles and stuff, tied-off pins, and things like that. But, then it ran out. I didn’t remember the knifeblade until they said about it, but it makes sense. So, I evidentially got the knifeblade in that is still there. But then there was nothing to do but just climb anyway you could. Finally, there was a shelf up above me and I got my axe sunk in the shelf and I didn’t know what it was hooking in — it was just like a rock in a little shelf covered in snow. But I got to where I could get my axe to hook in the same place repeatedly. So, I cut loose, mantled onto the axe and stood up and put the pins in. Then I was done.

Matt: That’s quite a fight. What did you think when you saw the report and heard that these guys had done the route?

Jim: Well, I was a bit curious what I was going to feel like cause this was very important to me that we did this and stuff. I was sort of getting to the point where I was wanting somebody to do it. And actually what happened when I heard was my son Michael called me and said, “Dad, Steve House repeated your route.” Then I looked on the Internet and it made me really happy. I really liked it. I liked the idea that somebody else had been there. I called Steve House today, and we talked about it. And so, it’s like Mugs and I knew what it was, and they know what it is. It’s kind of cool. No body else knows what it is.

Matt: It seems like another good thing to come out of this was that now people know exactly where the lines are too, versus what was in the book. History has been straightened out.

Jim: History has been straightened out. And actually for other people who want to climb onto it, I think what it really boils down to is in the lower section of the face, you can kind of go whatever direction you want given conditions and the day, and all that stuff, but when you get up into the steep, harder stuff, there is a line, which is the line that Mugs and I figured out. And, independently, it is the line that they figured out. And there’s obviously more lines out — well there is a huge amount of face out to the right that is going to be steep and hard, and that’s going to be really cool when somebody does that.

Matt: Similar genre — bold, runout, steep.

Jim: Oh, it’s going to be hard. I don’t think it is going to happen for a long time. And also Steve House and I were talking about White Horn — when you’re on Emperor Face you’re looking straight across it, this really beautiful, really big face on White Horn. I have never heard of anyone trying it either. I didn’t ask him. But as far as we know, and the bottom line is that there is a lot of rock left to climb.

Matt: Yeah.

Jim: There is stuff for young guns that want to go make their mark. There is stuff to do. White Horn is waiting.

Matt: White Horn is waiting. Why do you think it took so long for this route to be repeated?

Jim: I think you had to be a good climber to repeat it, and there was still enough stuff in the Rockies to climb. So, I think it was like if you are a good climber, and you are going to risk your life to try to do some thing, would you rather do a new route? Or would you rather do a second ascent? It had to go long enough that somebody said OK, I am willing to put that energy into the second ascent, or they thought they were doing a first ascent.

Matt: No one remembers the second-ascent guy.

Jim: Yeah exactly.

Matt: The third-ascent guy, forget it.

Jim: So, that is why I think it took so long. It doesn’t make a difference how many ascents. It is always going to be serious.

Matt: And where do you climbing mostly these days?

Jim: Mostly I sport climb around Boulder. Eldorado, Boulder Rock Club.

Matt: Eldo is known for its sport climbing…

Jim: It’s almost like sport climbs because…

Matt: You’ve got them so dialed by now.

Jim: Yeah when Roger and I go out, Roger racks the rack in the order he is going to put the gear in on the pitch.

Matt: He knows exactly.

Jim: He knows exactly — the Stopper, then the Alien, then the red Camalot.

Matt: 40 years on those routes.

Jim: You start getting them. Oh I better put a sling here because if I don’t, there is going to be rope drag.

Matt: It seems like you guys climb as hard as ever.

Jim: Pretty much, yeah. And Outer Space will always be great, you know, no matter what.

Matt: This is true. I totally agree.

Jim: I think actually it is interesting. I don’t think our climbing ability has really changed in 40 years. The equipment is better, there’s a lot better technique. We are kind of doing the same climbs.

Matt: That’s good. I mean there’s such good climbs… if it’s not broke, I guess why fix it.

Jim: I don’t know how long I’ll be able to climb the Naked Edge. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe longer.