Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mt. Alberta North Face

John Scurlock's amazing photo of Mt. Alberta's North Face, with our line of ascent. The yellow dot marks the entrance to the amazing cave we explored.

From September 6th to the 9th I teamed up with my good friend Josh Lavigne from Canmore for a rare ascent of the north face of Mt. Alberta. I hadn't had a good Rockies alpine hit for almost a year. I'm usually a pretty easy going guy, but I was going to start flipping tables if I missed my shot at trying a big Rockies rig this time. The weather was going to be splitter but a large amount of fresh snow had already accumulated in the mountains and temps were looking fresh overnight. Conditions on the north faces seemed pretty wintery. Mount Alberta immediately came to mind as a good objective. The snow was hopefully forming good névé on the boilerplate ice face and the headwall, while steep, wasn't as big as say, something really big like the North Twin. We'd hopefully have more than enough good weather to deal with the particularly slow nature of the difficult alpine drytooling we expected to encounter.

I was really looking forward to teaming up with Josh. I had known him in passing for years. He, a regular out on the Coast, and I, a frequent visitor to the Rockies. I got to know him a lot better when Hayden and I were crashed on his and Andrew Wexler's couch for a couple weeks when we were trying to climb the North Twin a couple springs ago and again this past winter down in Argentina. He left his job at CHM to fly down to Chalten when the news reached that Carlyle was stuck high on Aguja St. Exupery. Her passing was really hard times for us all, but Josh knew her the best. As tribute to her memory he had continued to live by the values they shared, especially alpinism and the love for adventure. Josh was coming off a big, intense send on Mt. Asgard on Baffin Island. I knew he'd be fit and stoked and we'd do well together, despite having only shared the rope a few times at the crags.

The long hike up the Cromwell valley and over Whooley Shoulder to the ACC's Alberta Hut was very familiar, having done it on two previous occasions. This time my mind was at rest. To be honest, after dropping in on two epic attempts at the neighboring North Twin, it felt like I was on a bit of an alpine vacation.

We left the hut at 4:20 the next morning, and followed our noses to the base of Alberta. We took only one 30L backpack and one small hydration pack for the leader. Shockingly light, modern gear is incredible. At the bottom of my pack was one of those new delux therm-a-rests and a small ovular tarp Josh had stitched up, hopefully our slim bivy setup would remain unused. Ha ha. Unfortunately, we bumbled around a little bit in the dark, unable to locate the rappel necessary to gain the glacier below the north face. We ended up committing to a few new rappels, just to get it over with. Sometimes a little beta on route finding ain't so bad. We were climbing in my favourite style: with new route eyes. Meaning no topos, no beta, just climbing what looked best. Pure adventure climbing. It get's me fired up every time!

Day light broke and we got our first look at the face. During an ascent of the north face in winter conditions, every climber must be drawn to the incredible WI5+ pillar that forms seemingly reliably halfway up the headwall. It's one of the classiest stretches of ice I've seen on a big mountain route, and provides easy (or easier) passage around what would otherwise be very time-consuming steep drytooling... At least for a pitch. We were aiming for the water ice, and would drytool above and below it, that was the plan.

A very foreshortened look up the 1000m face from the glacier below with the moon poking out above the summit. The water ice pillar can be seen just left of center on the headwall. Josh Lavigne photo.

We soloed around a gaping-schrund and belayed two easy mixed rock pitches to get established on the ice face. Coiling the ropes, we soloed the ice to the base of the yellow band. I thought conditions were pretty good, we climbed through everything: supportive, boot-top powder; névé; hard, old ice; fresh blue stuff. The pitches through the yellow band were low-angle and easy, but insecure and required care, with lots of fresh snow over supremely chossy stone. Eventually, we were below the headwall, staring up. We followed ground climbed by Steve House and Vince Anderson in 2008 to the top of the ice feature we were gunning for. Stacked pitches of real deal M7 gained the ice. Josh did a bang-up job at the lead here. At the crux of the House-Anderson, Josh whipped off the sloping, snowed-up holds four times, eventually ripping out the shaky pin placed on the first ascent. Finally, only upon my suggestion, he conceded and stepped in a shoulder sling to get past the move troubling us. This was the only bit of aid for the leader or second on the entire route.

Wow, the waterfall ice pitches were stellar! Wildly overhanging, but with a good stem out right on rock where needed. Josh and I have both climbed a lot of this stuff, and ranked this ice feature very near the top of the list of all time classic ice. A short stretch of mixed lay above and I climbed this to the point where the ice was flowing from. I mantled on top of an icy ledge and peered inside the cave feature, it appeared to be a pretty stellar bivy. The small opening at the back of the cave was also intriguing, I wondered if the cave continued deeper. We knew we had to climb up and right from this point if we wanted the easiest way off the headwall. It was longer and steeper up and left. I explored a ledge out right leading hopefully to a system we spied from below.

The ledge was choked with snow had a bulging wall above it, forcing you off balance. As I awkwardly switched from wallowing across on my knees to tip-toes, I tried to imagine a couple of big dudes like Vince and Steve balancing across this ledge and really couldn't! An email from Vince I later received confirmed they had in fact used this ledge to traverse to easier ground. From this perspective I also got a good look at the thin crack systems that led back out left, straight up and through the steepest part of the headwall remaining. Wild-looking climbing, but too tempting to resist. The rock quality up to this point had been reasonable. A real connoisseur might call it choss, but it was sufficiently held together by cold temps and snow and ice to protect adequately on the bits where you needed it most. We still had a bit of time before dark to continue upwards, but I reckoned a decent nights sleep would be better for the steeps above, and besides, I really wanted to explore the cave!

Josh joined me at the cave entrance and we agreed a stop here would be the best tactic. We poked our heads inside the cave and a large room appeared. A horizontal oasis in a vertical desert. It was great to take off helmets and harnesses and move around freely. Josh dealt with the gear and I grabbed my headlamp to go explore. Right away the cave opened to flat ground and easy walking. A very fine yellow silt lined the ground, the smooth twisting walls were coated with very large rime ice crystals and there was a very slight breeze. I explored deeper into the cave for about 5 minutes until I became a little scared by myself. I turned around to go get Josh.

We must have walked that thing for 20 minutes or more, going deeper and deeper into Mt. Alberta. I was sure we would dead-end soon, but we'd turn a corner and another hidden hallway would appear, luring us further. After several hundred meters of exploration we both decided we should probably get back to the task of climbing this big face. Were we going to follow this thing to the end? We came to climb, not cave, really. We were pretty hungry and thirsty, so we turned around to go brew up.

At first light I led out around the left side of the roof of the cave, directly up the headwall. The exposure was an intense wake up... way better than the starbucks instant coffee we had just gulped down. Steep, thin drytooling with awkward feet. The rock was pretty shit. I left the gear at the lip of the roof and climbed further and further above it. I was conscientious of the shift in my focus from my initial terror as I entered the no-fall zone to a very deep mental clarity. I maintained a sort-of acute attention to every detail, my mind completely free of excess noise. Slow, systematic upward progress, crucial for survival up this terrain. I was jolted into reality when without warning a large, unstable pillar of rock I was stemmed around collapsed, hitting me in the chest and falling between my feet. It brushed by the ropes, I felt a tug on my harness but I maintained hold of my tool placements torqued in a thin crack. Had the ropes been clipped through any gear I would have likely been pulled from my strenuous stance. I was hoping the trundled rock would reveal solid protection behind it but no such luck. I gave myself a quick mental pep talk. It's hard to fully relax with mono-point crampons balanced on small edges. I reminded myself this is the very thing I live for and there was no other place in the world I'd rather be in this moment. My only way out was up. It's always a weird feeling for me to leave a resting point mid runout and continue questing onwards. I delicately hooked and scratched my way up the remainder of the pitch, locking back into meditation and striving for complete precision and perfection of movement. The belay required time and creativity to construct and I was feeling very tired mentally upon securing myself to the anchor.

Josh swung through and led a shorter pitch up and right. Another steep pitch on better rock followed, still forcing large runouts though. Briefly on this pitch was the only time during the route I would remove my gloves and crimp on the thin edges instead of hook them with my icetools. I stopped short at a sheltered stance out left, brought Josh up. The next pitch looked like a blockbuster. I could feel we were nearing the very top of the highest point of the headwall. Above, a slightly overhanging feature of stacked changing corners continued out of sight. Josh was stoked to swing through on lead. Steep, psychical drytooling, good gear and tool placements when needed kept his momentum going through the wild terrain. After following a full pitch of strenuous climbing I reached the final crux overhang that Josh had pulled way out from the belay. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for the outrageous position and difficult climbing we were blessed with on this adventure. Another outrageous pitch of M7+++. The summit ridge was now in our sites, but another long pitch of low angle mixed ground remained between us and the end of the difficulties. This sort of climbing is frustratingly insecure, my periodic efforts at digging for protection were pretty much pointless. I balanced upward on my frontpoints, knowing it would be over soon. I reached solid glacier ice and sunk in two bomber screws, relieved to have it in the bag. Josh swung through up the ice to the ridge and we simul-climbed the remainder of the double-corniced ridge to the summit of Mt. Alberta.

Following the second pitch through the Yellow Bands. Josh Lavigne photo.

Josh on the steep second pitch of the headwall. Jason Kruk photo.

At the entrance to the amazing cave. JL photo.

Josh questing up steep mixed ground. JK photo.

A brief stretch of gloves-off crimping high on the headwall. JL photo.

Les gars on the summit of Mt. Alberta! JL photo.

Starting the rappels down the Japanese Route. The north face of Twins Tower behind. JL photo.

We traversed over the summit and along the long ridge south to what we were pretty sure were the top pitches of the Japanese Route and committed to a rappel descent. Deep snow obscured a few of the rappels, forcing us to leave behind a few pieces, but likely reduced the amount of rockfall we endured while pulling the ropes down after each rappel.

The lower eastern flanks of Mt. Alberta are somewhat confusing to descend onsight. The scrambling required to navigate around the steep cliffbands was super in-obvious in the fading light, then dark. We likely could have made it back to level ground that night if we committed to more rappelling directly, but we conceded to another cold night under the soggy tarp, spooning on our single thermarest.

We were tired, satisfied, and happy back at the hut. After a brief meal and siesta, we shouldered our packs and started the long trek back to the highway at a slow, steady pace. The reality of a perfect mission was starting to set in. It's always a bit of a guessing game choosing the right route and hoping for certain conditions. Sometimes you guess right.

As far as the satisfaction of a successful climb, I was already thinking about the next adventures to come. It's nice to just be able to relax and enjoy every step along the way in the process of alpine climbing.. and life in general. It's all just a pretty neat adventure.

Josh made a really great little film that really captures the spirit of our mission. I can't embed it on this blog but you can see it here:

Mt Alberta, North Face from Joshua Lavigne on Vimeo.

Mt. Alberta's east face, on the hike out. JK photo.

Les gars.

My friends the Twins.

The adventure continues. Looking down on the Chief on a flight home from our local mountains...

I'm heading to North Conway, New Hampshire this weekend to give a slideshow for an AAC event. Also on the bill is the legendary alpinist Doug Scott. I've actually seen him speak before, when I was about nine years old in Vancouver. I can't wait to see his slides again!

1 comment:

TEA said...

Wonderful blog. Thanks for sharing. You two need to name that cave. You were probably the first humans EVER to explore it. Is there any possibility of asking Joshua for prints of the HDR images that were posted?