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Mount Alberta

Mountaineering (Technical Sustained Rock, Complicated Routefinding, Glacier Travel)
Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
YDS Difficulty: 
Maybe twenty branches in total?
Saturday, August 22, 2015
There are few peaks in the Rockies that elicit more of a response from people than Mount Alberta.  For some the rising spine of rock looks like fin of a great monster, best to be viewed from far away and never approached while for others it sings a siren song of 'climb me if you can, you know you want to try'.  Ferenc and I fall into the latter group and had been anxiously talking about an attempt on the majestic beast for much of the summer.  Alberta is not a peak to be taken lightly and we both had been training for the ascent for a long while.  Given scheduling constraints we would have only one window to climb the peak and as the days drew closer we were surprised that the weather actually seemed to be cooperating, with the best weather window in weeks showing up right during our ascent-period.  The concern was that a snowstorm was rolling in the day before our trip was to begin, and some forecasts were calling for up to 40 cm of snow in the Columbia Icefields region, that much snow would be a death-sentence for anyone on Alberta so we crossed our fingers that the storm would be less fearsome than forecast.  Thankfully the steepness of the rock and due East angle of the ascent face worked out fabulously, as the storm was blowing in with powdery snow from the west, very little of which actually stuck to the east face (though we couldn't know this until we reached Woolley's Shoulder as Alberta is not visible from any highway!).


Ferenc and I planned to break the approach down into two days, the first day staying over at the Lloyd McKay hut to keep our energy levels up and then head to the bivy below the technical sections on the second day.  We then planned to either do the ascent in one day (if conditions were fabulous) or break the ascent into two days with a, likely very frosty, bivy on the summit ridge.  Thankfully the weather forecast was certain of good conditions for many days in a row (thanks to Ken for updates while we were out on the trek) so we decided to give it a go!


Leaving from the parking lot east of the Sunwapta River (Alberta shares the same approach as Mount Woolley and Diadem Peak which both Ferenc and I had done before) in the afternoon we set off towards the hut with the aim of getting there before head-lamp time.  Initial signs were not favorable with fresh snow on the approach trail only ~50m above the road-elevation but we plodded onwards, we'd already paid for the hut so might as well get some use out of that eh?  The approach to the Woolley/Diadem bivy was fairly uneventful but blue sky above and comfortable temperatures kept us in good spirits as we headed upwards to get a glimpse at our peak.  At the bivy we ran into a couple who were camping to enjoy the scenery and had a nice chat about the area, which peaks each of us had climbed, and other general chit-chat.  We couldn't stay for long though as the hut was still a fair ways (and a decent chunk of elevation!) away.


Across the Sunwapta River time to change into boots.


A little ways up the trail by Woolley Creek.


Looking up at Woolley, Diadem, and Mushroom Peak.


Not a bad spot for a break.


Above the Woolley bivy, heading towards the very snowy Shoulder.


Getting up to Woolley's Shoulder was a kind of sketchy proposition, the fresh snow had accumulated in the gully leading up to the shoulder leading to post-holing atop slippery rocks (often with 'rock crevasses' which mangle your balance).  We briefly donned crampons to cross a slope that had started to collect ice before topping out on the Shoulder and being bombarded with the astounding views that can be seen from it.  This was Ferenc's first time up there and I think he was feeling the same thing I did last year when Steven, Vern, and I went up Little Alberta, getting up to the Shoulder is worth a trip by itself even with all the loose sloggery to get to it!  The highlight of the view was a black beastie directly across the valley from us, Mount Alberta.  Given the type of snow (powdery), and aspect of the face (east), the ascent route was actually remarkably dry.  We wouldn't be trying to ascend the technical sections until at least a full day from then so the rock would have even more time to clean itself off, the game was still afoot!


Some slippery steps to get up the Shoulder.


Even patches of ice in places, eek!


Up at Woolleys Shoulder at sunset with lovely lighting.


A closer look on Alberta, the technical rock isn't actually that wet!


Me on the Shoulder, photo by Ferenc Jasco.


Descending down from the Shoulder went fairly quickly with the associated elevation loss/regain being as frustrating as it was last time I had been up here.  Before long we were at the hut, cooking a late dinner, and enjoying not hauling our packs any more.  I took a few long exposure pictures of stars outside the hut and then we both got some sleep, planning on waking up roughly for sunrise and then leisurely getting ready, no sense draining all our energy on the approach!


Stars above Alberta from the hut.


Lovely stars above the hut with Little Alberta rising above.


The next morning we set off as planned, heading down the rock covered glacier making a beeline for the bivy.  Corbett's routeline served us pretty well and aside from some loss/gain around runoff channels in the glacier we made good time.  Ascending the yellow cliffbands to reach the bivy proved a little more complicated than we were intending (we were a little bit too far climbers left putting us on more 'climbey' terrain than would otherwise be needed though sticking climbers right puts you in trickier terrain too, best stay around the middle).  Before long though we were above the cliffs and slogging up wet miserable slippery scree and soon after that the bivy corrals were in sight.


The Lloyd McKay hut is a fabulous viewpoint.


Looking towards Alberta, we would traverse just left of the glacier and eventually up to the scree on the far left.


Me with Alberta in the background.  Photo by Ferenc Jasco.


Still lots of snow on the lower mountain.


Very slippery and loose rock!


At the base of the yellow cliffs, time for some scrambling.


Little Alberta is another great viewpoint in the area.


Ferenc ascending upwards to the bivy.


At last almost at the bivy (top left of this image).


Views from the bivy (which was still snowed in from the recent storm!).


A good viewpoint, but very windy!


Given that it was still relatively early we set up camp and then set off to scout the rest of the way towards the technical section to make our travel more efficient in the cold dark of next morning.  The guidebook description of the ascend gully being '100m from the bivy' confused us and we ended up going up a wrong gully that included a very exposed traverse along a narrow cliff (someone had left an old pole in a notch along that traverse so evidently someone else had made this mistake too).  After getting past that sketchy patch we started to come across cairns/rap stations so became more confident that we were on route.  Given the snow still on this part of the route what would normally be scrambling/low 5th type terrain looked much trickier so we roped up and kept scouting upwards.  We were initially kind of worried as the climbing was getting trickier and there was little sign of traffic until Ferenc came across a well used station (and then I even found a bolt a little higher up!).  As we had talked about scouting the route on the second day I had brought along a 30m 8mm rope to use as a fixed line to speed us up on our ascent day (so that would make 3 ropes in total..) and rigged this up to the bolt so we could prussik/belay more swiftly through the icy section when it was frozen in the morning.  Above this section we were on the traversing ledges to reach the 'Elephant Asses' that mark the start of the technical climbing so called it a day and went back to camp down an easier line avoiding the exposed traverse.


Taking the wrong gully lead us up here, very careful traversing...


There was an old pole just to the left of Ferenc here.


A little bit futher along we were back on route (they we didn't know it at the time).


Ferenc looking upwards wondering where the route goes.


Me leading up to a station (which turned out to be a bolt).  Photo by Ferenc Jasco.


We left a rope here as the wet stuff would icy in the morning.


Time to do our first rap to get back down to the camp for the evening.


Around sunset the smoke started to roll in (and would stay for the whole trip).


The next morning we got up a little later than planned (damned quiet watch alarms) and set off with a decision time of 4pm for deciding if we would return to the tents or go for the high bivy.  The wet conditions on the lower mountain made the traverse to reach the Elephant Asses take much longer than we planned (rock that is slippery and loose when dry was hella loose hella slippery when still wet).  Finding the proper Elephant Ass to ascend was tricky without a good picture of what to look for.  The beta we had all mentioned pass 'a few' or 'several' before heading up on grey ledges, these descriptions apply to make different places on the mountain.  Eventually we saw the main gully and then knew that it route had to be a decent way climbers left of this and ascended to the base of the grey rock before backtracking climbers left.  After being beguiled by a rap station (likely on the 'direct gully descent' route described on the bivouac TR) we got to the start of the actual climbing route, sadly far behind schedule, it was looking likely that we would either be turning around at 3pm or going for the ridge bivy.


Traversing the ledges above the bolt, very loose rock here.


Still lots of melting going on here, we would traverse at this level for a while.


Another bivy corral further along the ledges, this would also have some amazing views.


Looking back at Ferenc, we are almost at the base of the route now.


The Elephant Asses do live up to their name!


An interesting window in one of the Elephant Asses.


Once at the chockstone that signals the start of the ascent route things became more enjoyable.  We got the rope out, readied our pro, and started upwards.  For the technical climbing Ferenc and I would swing leads after each pitch to keep us fresh and thankfully this actually lead to a good division of difficult/easy pitches (i.e. a hard pitch for me then a hard pitch for Ferenc etc.).  The route was mostly easy to follow, trending generally up and right until eventually seeing a rap/anchor station.  The stations themselves were actually in pretty decent shape with lots of redundant cord that seemed in fairly reasonable shape.  We hit 3pm and were still nowhere near the summit ridge, and decided to go with the ridge bivy plan.  The climbing went quite well until after we crossed the snow/ice gully up near the notch (at the two parallel stations) where we were then confused as how to progress higher.  There was no good ice to be had in the gully and lots of rockfall potential so we stuck to the rock climbers right and Ferenc weasled a line upwards (making full use of my 70m rope) along what is certainly an easier line than the rock you have to climb if topping out on ice from the gully.  After this pitch I lead one last pitch for the day which topped us out on a ledge with a good boulder for slinging an anchor around which would serve as our accommodations for the evening (with evening upon us we reckoned that the bit of shelter this ledge had from westerly winds might serve us better than the fabled bivy corral one pitch higher which we hadn't actually seen yet).


Out came the rope, and up we went.


The stations had all manner of rope, cord, and slings around them.


Up, up we go.


Climbing in the sun was nice and warm.


Higher up close to the main gully.


Looking back down on one of the intermediate pitches.


Much chillier climbing out of the sun.


The summer sun rapidly melting snow down in the valley.


Almost at the paralell stations marking the start of the normal ice gully pitches.


The blurry views from our high bivy, not a good place to sleepwalk!


Sunset views from our high bivy.


Thus began possibly the coldest night I have ever experienced (possibly eclipsed by that very frosty winter camping trip around Grande Cache with Eric and Steven) at an elevation of 3432m.  Ferenc and I clipped in to the anchor on long slings and set up our stuff for the night.  I had hauled up gear for a fairly 'luxurious' bivy (emergency bivy bag, ultralight thermarest, and 0C bag as well as some extra clothing) Ferenc opted for the 'many layers of clothing' route with a heat reflective blanket.  Partway through the night I gave Ferenc my sleeping bag as the wind picked up and was biting through his layers while I started doing improvised kung-fu-ish exercises to keep up my body temperature, I found sleep very hard to come by.


The moon kept us company for a while.


Cold views the next morning, thankfully we were just above the smoke-level.


The sun rose the next morning to see two would-be summiters cold but otherwise unharmed.  I had brought a really light stove up and being able to have a hot coffee before setting off was exceptionally fine.  Ferenc lead a short pitch up to the ridge-crest and sure enough the bivy corral was up there, but it was covered in several feet of snow.  Taking a look at the ridge we actually felt pretty good, and left a bit of gear behind and set off solo-ing the exceedingly exposed (but mostly easy) rock.  There were a couple patches of trickier moves (one that was ultra-exposed on the way up but oddly enough felt much safer on the way back down later) but generally progress was steady.  There was still enough snow on the ridge that I got an axe out when leading along a snowier section just in case (carefully probing to not slide off into the abyss).  Before long I yelled over to Ferenc that we were at the summit notch (which people normally rap down as it is snow/ice), he wasn't as certain as it was completely melted out so we carefully downclimbed (on perilously loose rock) and made it past before looking back and confirming that was definitely the notch, quite a dry year indeed!  I was snapping some pictures and looked over to Ferenc raising his arms triumphantly, we were at the summit!  We snapped pictures holding the summit umbrella and took a break to collect our thoughts.  Between the loose rock, climbing, and chilly bivy there were a lot of memories made in the time between the summit and leaving our tents. 


Me all bundled up in the morning.  Photo by Ferenc Jasco.


Up on the summit ridge proper, time to ditch some gear and head summit-wards.


Ferenc heading along the first part of the ridge, just loose scrambling here.


The summit ridge itself is a formidable task.


Ferenc carefully spreading his weight at one point along the ridge.


Me leading up more techical bit.  Photo by Ferenc Jasco.


Not a good place to slip!


Further along the ridge, slowly but steadily going upwards.


Ferenc downclimbing the very dry notch.


Deep snow still on some places on the ridge.


Before we knew it, we were at the summit and summit umbrella!


Summit views from Mount Alberta.


Ferenc and I on the summit.


Me posing with the umbrella with the Columbia Icefield peaks in the background.


Before long we set off back down, there were still tons of raps to go, loose ledges to traverse, and Ferenc wanted to get back to the hut to be able to make a family commitment back in Calgary the next afternoon.  Downclimbing the ridge went much faster than climbing in and soon we were at the first rap station descending down into the gully.  My memory is a little foggy on the details but the first rap was short, then 2 60m raps took us back down  to the parallel stations.  From there we did another 60m rap down the gully (rockfall central, be careful) hitting a temporary station where we could traverse traverse a ledge skiers right to get back on the ascent route line.  From there a few more raps took us down to within sight of the Elephant Asses and the start of the technical pitches where we hit a quite literal snag.


Ferenc starting back down the ridge.


The smoke gave some really interesting contrast.


Back re-ascending the notch, very loose rock here (and loose big ones too!).


Ferenc starting down the first rap.


Looking back up at the second rap.


Looking down the third rap.


With one double length rap to go our rope was stuck.  We tried all the usual plans, shaking both strands, traversing (unroped...) left and right trying to dislodge it but nothing worked out.  Finally with daylight dwindling and still lots of technical terrain to get down we climbed as high as we could, cut the ropes and carried on with ~30m raps to get back to the ledges.  Thankfully we ended up having enough rope to get down to the next stations and made it to the bolt at headlamp-time.  Rapping down below the bolt by headlamp was sketchy with all the loose rock and Ferenc ended up taking a chunk near his eye that was bleeding profusely by the time I joined him lower down.  We stuck close downclimbing the easier terrain to get back to the tents where we had our next problem, all of the water sources that we used on the way in had dried up so we were quite dehydrated and without easy access to water.  Ferenc was adamant that he had to be back in Calgary the next afternoon and wanted to continue down by headlamp to the hut.  With no sleep and no water in hours I was in no shape to do this and was going to have to stay at the tents, cook up some snowmelt, and get some sleep first.  After discussing matters in a surreal dehydration/lack-of-sleep-trance we agreed to split up.  I staggered to my tent and got my stove going while Ferenc's headlamp light descended further out of sight.


And lo the rope was snagged....


Traversing below the Elephant Asses around headlamp time.


1.5L of water and 10 hours or sleep later I woke up to the smokiest day yet (Little Alberta was barely visible from my tent), packed up camp and started on downwards towards the hut.  Reversing the ascent line was much easier than on the way up, due to both easier routefinding, and especially the drier rock being less loose (that being said less loose is very much a relative term).  I managed to pick a very straightforward line down the yellow cliffs and was soon greeted by the soft delicate bubbling sounds of glacial runoff, I have never tasted water so sweet.


Waking up in Mordor the next morning.


Time to head down into the smog to get to the hut.


Lower down at least you could see for a bit in the valley.


Once down on the glacier the trek to the hut is just a walk but seemed to stretch on for a long while.  I would intermittently run across footprints pointing towards the hut so was confident that Ferenc had made it that far.  At the hut I cooked up some lunch, drank the 'victory or conciliation beer' (most certainly a victory beer!) that I had hauled in on the approach and happily read that Ferenc had made the hut as he intended from his entry in the register.  After a quick nap I did the rest of the deproach, not seeing any other folks, keeping a decent pace, and generally enjoying a day out in the hills (despite the smoky gloom).  Seeing the twin cairns that mark the last patch of trail down to the Sunwapta was a lovely moment and shortly after crossing the river (which was much higher than on the way in) I was back at my car enjoying a warm can of coke and smiling ear to ear, the journey was done.


Back at the hut for victory beers.


Very limited views from the hut today.


Hours later up at Woolley's Shoulder.


Looking back down at the Woolley bivy.


The twin cairns, not far to go!


HDR looking back up the trail.


The approach trail is actually getting kind of exposed!


Just a river to cross then back at the car.


Looking back at the trip as I write this a few days later, this was a great (in the 'of large extent' sense) and terrible trip (terrible in the lesser used dictionary sense i.e. 'formidable'), I like archaic language uses, what can I say....  Ferenc and I worked well as a team together, complementing each others strengths and I can't think of another member of my climbing-crew who I would have rather had with me for the ascent.  We certainly took risks, but were able to manage them appropriately and stayed within our comfort zones.  I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone climb the Japanese Route.  If you are certain about climbing Alberta, think it over first, don't take it lightly, while the climbing is as one in the hut register described "only 5.6" there are sustained challenges both physical and mental that carry on for the entire way from the car to the summit.

Average: 5 (1 vote)


Great trip report Ben. I'm planning this same route for August 2016. I hope conditions will be as good as you had.

By Michael Dyck

Anything that is a must or anything you'd leave behind?

By Eric

A standard Rockies alpine rack would do pretty well. A few knifeblade pitons would be quite useful in a few places. I don't recall using many of my bigger cams (a 2 or 3 C4) but smaller ones (.3 - .75 C4s) were pretty useful. There was a bunch of old cord around the belay stations but having enough fresh cord to back some of them up would be good. The first few raps from the summit ridge downwards work well as double-length, once you get back on the ascent line it might make more sense to switch to single raps to avoid rope snags.
Hope that helps,

By Ben

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