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Mount Alberta's North Face and Northeast Ridge

Mount Alberta’s North Face and Northeast Ridge

Mark Wilford

Inspiration FOR INVOLVEMENT with this great Canadian peak came early in my climbing career via a photo by Jim Stewart in the 1973 Ascent, entitled “Canada in Winter.” A two-page spread of Mount Alberta’s sinister north face, plastered in snow and ice, held my attention. The isolation and magnitude of the mountain was almost impossible for me to imagine all those years ago. Only a few pages further, there was George Lowe’s account of his and Jock Glidden’s first ascent of this great north face. Even more inconceivable than the mountain itself was how anyone could climb it. It would be a long time before I fully understood the remoteness and grandeur of Mount Alberta and the significance of Lowe’s and Glidden’s ascent.

Ascent remained in my library with only a brief perusal during the past decade, lost amongst old Summits, Climbing and Mountain magazines. Only in 1989 did I pull the journal out with intent. Business would put me in the Canadian Rockies in January. I wanted a project for my visit. Ignorance and arrogance reared their big heads. I managed to have a tremendous epic on the visit but failed to muster more than hot air as far as Alberta was concerned. I limped back home embarrassed by my brashness and attempted to extricate my tail from between my legs with proclamations of returning.

A seed was sown.

* * * * *

My pride had mended and my head had swollen sufficiently by the summer of 1990 for me to be ready for round two. This episode deserves a little more space than the winter venture, but not much more.

After the marathon drive up from Colorado, I managed the morale-eating approach of river-fording and scree-groveling to the top of Woolley Shoulder to be confronted with the source of my desire. The vision itself, the remoteness and magnificence of it all, were worth whatever was the outcome of the journey. There, a couple of miles distant, rose Alberta from a sea of glaciers and vastness. The valve retaining my motivation leaked a bit. I could feel a subtle loss of psyche as I drank in the improbability of the whole setting. I made it over to the tiny hut, spent from the day’s efforts.

The following day, I rested a bit and then took an afternoon stroll to the base of Alberta’s northeast ridge. This gave me a view of the north face, as intimate as most would want to get to this widow-maker. I well remembered Tobin Sorenson’s death ten years earlier. Tobin’s reputation was so strong that we had felt him immortal, but here was the stage of his last act.

At that time, I had intended to head for the northeast ridge. Safety from rockfall and easier terrain rationalized the route. Ease of access also played a role. The north face proper requires a committing rappel, down-climbing and glacier crossing to the start of the route. With blinders on, I set to work on the ridge. Steep, black limestone, solid but almost crackless save for a few knifeblade placements. Over a period of a few hours, I tensioned, freed and balanced my way up 200 feet of overhanging rock. I fixed my lines and hurried back to the hut. Smug in the small amount of success, I kept the shroud of ignorance bound tightly that night as I struggled to sleep.

I set out the next morning and quickly topped the fixed lines. Above, I cruised up an easy snowfield and then hit the crest of the ridge. From here, the mountain began to show its soul. Its façade of beauty and charm from a distance was peeling away with each step. The black tile gave way to a putrid yellow shale which had no visible adherence to anything. Gravity merely held the stacked dinner plates in place precariously. I had the feeling of walking through a tightly packed antique store of china and glass while trying not to crush the eggs covering the floor. And all the while, a neon sign flashed, “You break it, you buy it!” I wove my way through the little towers of teetering plates all too aware of the voids growing on my left and right: 1200 feet down the east face and 2000 down the north face. After what seemed like miles of tight-wire walking, I came to a small spire in a horizontal section of the ridge. It stood there like a sentinel, not so much guarding the mountain from me, but rather questioning my purpose, seaching my soul for intent and my logic for sanity. Leaning next to it, I gazed over the darkness of the north face. A 2000-foot ice face dropped steeply away from the gangrenous yellow bands. I could hear Tobin’s whispers. I craned my neck to hear but couldn’t. I sucked down air to calm my stomach. It was still early in the day. Up to now, I had been making progress. As I viewed the north face, I felt a lurid sensation. Perched out of sight, I was a voyeur watching the maiden undress. My eyes would bum if I did not turn away. The sentinel put it to me again, “What do you want?” I had no answer. I soon reached the steep, black limestone of the headwall.

I was leery of the apparent solidarity of the black rock. Traversing up the yellow band had spawned a monster of dread in my stomach. Faith in my position had been seriously undermined. I pondered my inability to answer to my purpose. Voices drifted up to me, some from across the north face, some from the east. Voices of men and women. My confidence was being devoured. I set some dubious anchors and started up the headwall. After some reasonable face climbing, I came up under a black roof. I set some protection in a sharp crack and then moved out left and over the bulge. The moves were cool, the rock all right, but my psyche had been bled so low that each move became a major effort. It was like pulling against a huge rubber band, pulling harder and harder and waiting for the snap to end it all. I was over the bulge on decent rock, overly suspicious of it. No more protection for quite a way. I looked down into the darkness of the north face, almost 3000 feet down. The void held my eye and slowly sucked out my remaining nerve. Voices again—some from home, some from strangers. I faced the torment of retreat and failure. The nemesis was mightier than the mountain itself—giving up. I backed down the overhanging moves, down to the belay. I swallowed hard. My eyes watered. The climbing wasn’t too hard, nor the temperature too cold, nor did I lack gear. It was merely too scary. I wanted to live; that was the answer to the sentinel. It was a long way down.

The seed of Mount Alberta was cultivated.

* * * * *

August, 1991. I loaded the trusty Isuzu Trooper for another blast north. The strings of home were painfully tight this time. Breaking them to venture on this journey took immense determination and understanding. Twelve-hundred miles of white-line fever, 80-to 90-mph and no smokies. I whizzed past Banff and up the Icefields Parkway. And then I was back. The Columbia Icefields. I had an ugly reception. Rain pounded down and the campsites were full. I waded through the mud. What was I doing back here again? My purpose seemed faint, almost invisible. Maybe Edith Cavell would be drier. I was already thinking of easier objectives. The rain abated and a beam of sunshine broke through the black clouds. My psyche fired up again. I pulled my gear bag into the spot of sun and began the pacifying task of tool-sharpening as the late Canadian sun set.

The next morning was partly cloudy, better than rain but not what I had been banking on. The Rangers gave the classic, “You should have been here last week—the best weather all summer.” I signed in. Objective: Mount Alberta, north face. Number in party: one. Estimated return: I hope.

Previous experience lent its hand in loading the sack. Less of this and that, more of these and those. I made one last telephone call home. My Isuzu Trooper motored me down to the river crossing and I climbed out. Goodbye, old buddy. Keep a cold one for me. I donned my Tevas and started the plunge across the frigid Sunwapta River.

The march hadn’t shortened and Woolley Shoulder was still a bitch, but somehow it all seemed to go by pretty fast. That afternoon, I was back at the cozy hut. Not alone either. Two fellows from Boulder were just on their way out after a week of pondering the north face—too much rockfall, they determined. It was a nasty, windy, wet night. I was relieved; there is no better excuse to bail out than bad weather.

The next morning, the friends left and I lay about in a quagmire of indecision. Finally, I hiked to the north-face overlook. The weather had cleared, taking with it the main excuse for backing out. I was committed now. With no good excuses at hand, if the next day was clear, I would at least rappel down onto the icefield below and get truly up close and personal with the north face. I didn’t spend much time at the overlook. I knew the power of the north face and how it could drain my psyche. Back at the hut that night, I was tormented by nightmares of all sorts and I prayed for bad weather. It didn’t come.

The next morning, the sky was clear and so I fulfilled my commitment to venture into the north face’s lair. After a quick rappel and some down-climbing, I arrived on the mild glacier below the wall. The snow was dirty and pitted by rockfall. The temperature was above freezing. I scoped the face and wondered where I would breach the headwall, 2500 feet up.

The initial 2000-foot ice face itself looked straightforward, almost casual. I wandered over to the obvious break in the bergschrund which gave access to the wall. It was apparent that the rocks littering the glacier’s surface were recent projectiles from above. At the bergschrund, I donned crampons and, with little ceremony, ventured onto the north face.

After the initial ice of the schrund, I came upon some solid and moderate rock slabs. I traversed up and left on them toward the massive ice face. Once I was near it, I saw that I could move just as easily on the rock slabs bordering the face. I quickly gained altitude until the steepness of the slabs increased and forced me onto the ice. Until there, I had been protected relatively well from rockfall by my position on the rock steps. This changed instantly as I committed myself to the ice face. The warmth was freeing numerous rocks that had been tethered by the evening’s frost. Initially, the main barrage was to my left, but as I moved higher, I became more exposed and the rockfall came closer.

As the rockfall increased, I quickened my pace, launching myself into the barrage. My lungs were burning, dry heat scorched my throat. The flame flickered down to my calves, licking the life out of them. There was no time or place to rest. A rock the size of a half-gallon milk carton hurtled just over my head. The fluttering of the high-speed rocks sounded as if I were being buzzed by a fleet of helicopters. I was traveling through a corridor of terror.

I aimed for the nearest buttress of yellow rock. By now, my body had taken charge of matters while my electrified brain drank in the surging adrenaline. My pace forced me to take brief intermissions from the horror show. Finally, I arrived at the sanctuary of the yellow buttress, where I regrouped, set up some dubious anchors and fueled up.

It was from this section of shattered yellow shale which it is surmised that Tobin Sorenson met his demise; yellow rock embedded in the pitons attached to Tobin’s climbing rope were found with his body. With this in mind, I cautiously made my way up and through the rotten shale. After 300 feet, I came to a band of shattered black tile. Anchors became increasingly difficult to find. Any crack larger than a hairline usually indicated that the surrounding rock was shattered. My belay anchors were now combinations of knifeblades.

I was gaining on the headwall. As this happened, I began to lose my perspective of the route above. Upon reaching the toe of the headwall, I had little idea where Lowe’s route had gone. The only sign of previous activity was a single sling 100 feet directly above me. This wasn’t convincing evidence and so I traversed a full rope-length to my left and to my right in search of an alternate route. None of the other potential lines were convincing either. I returned to my belay and proceeded to climb to the tattered sling. My original speculation was correct: the sling was merely an old retreat anchor. Nevertheless, I pushed through for one more pitch.

The climbing was now vertical and overhanging. The quality of the rock was improving, but I still encountered numerous loose blocks. Eventually, the crack system I was in petered out and I was forced to retreat off the headwall. At this point, the hour was growing late and I decided it best to secure a bivouac spot. From the headwall, I made two diagonaling rappels to the east, back to the yellow band. After a little more traversing, I found a suitable ledge which I cleared to form a decent platform. My position and commitment on the wall was just beginning to sink in. I was still not convinced on how to proceed through the headwall, yet when I peered down the sweeping icefield below, retreat seemed equally improbable. I was in a labyrinth. Spent from the day’s efforts, my mind was given a reprieve as I sank into a healthy sleep. That night, the weather moved in and frosted me with a light snow.

In the morning, my position hadn’t changed, but the rest had given me new strength to weigh the options. It was still not clear to me where the line up the headwall went. I was also certain that I didn’t want to retreat down the ice face. As an alternative, I could make a long traverse to the northeast ridge and, once there, continue on up or escape. This traverse, though, required climbing and rappelling across the terrifying black tile.

After a long deliberation, I opted for the traverse to the left. It was a long, drawn-out process of setting what anchors I could (usually a single A4 knifeblade) and then tensioning or rappelling diagonally until I ran out of rope. I would then climb as high as I could before pulling the ropes. This kept me from losing height along the traverse. It was, needless to say, a most frightening series of maneuvers.

After a short eternity, I finally reached the towers on the northeast ridge, bathed in sunshine. Ironically, it was precisely the point from which I had retreated one year earlier and it gave me a strange feeling of familiarity, a mixture of fear from the year before and relief of being back in the warmth of the sun. I was once again faced with a difficult decision, one that I had made a year ago. Then I opted out. But that was a long time ago. I knew I’d never come to this place again. I also knew that the ridge had been done and that retreat, though involved, would be possible. With nary a blink, I went for it.

The climbing above was steep, yet on relatively solid rock. I was able to move quickly, free-climbing all the moves. In places, the route was actually overhanging. Crack-climbing up to 5.10 was required. I belayed each pitch and so was ensured a relative element of safety. After about eight pitches, the angle began to decrease and I moved into steep gullies. A fixed pin showed signs of earlier passage. By now, I was very tired and dehydrated. To save weight, I had chosen not to bring a stove and the only moisture I had had that day was from sucking melt-water from the rocks. A couple of hundred feet higher, the rocks began to be covered by steep, unconsolidated snow on the east edge of the ridge and disappeared into the dark void on the north side.

At one point, I came across a single bolt on a small island of rock in a sea of rotten snow—a sign of desperation from an earlier ascent. My ropes were coiled and the bolt was of no use to me. I tiptoed along the sharp ridge, leery of the rotten snow on my left and the shattered rock on the right. I finally realized that I had better stop before exhaustion forced a mistake. I cleared a small perch and collected drip-water from a sérac. The view was awesome. I could lie in my bivy and look straight 4000 feet down the north face! To the southeast was the monstrous north face of North Twin. To the south and west was an ocean of peaks as far as I could see. I settled in for a long peaceful night. Again that night, I was dusted with snow.

I awoke in a whiteout. My visibility was now a mere ten meters. Still tired but in grip of my faculties again, I packed up and set myself at the thin, steep snow ridge above. A large cornice loomed on my left and I was forced to drop down onto the north edge of the ridge. Though I couldn’t see it, the void of the north face licked at my boots.

Higher up, crevasses intersected the cornice, offering obstacle upon obstacle. Finally, the angle declined and a few yards further I found myself on the summit platform. As if choreographed, the clouds parted and views down the west face showed the Athabasca river valley. I spent little time in celebration, for the weather was threatening and the descent down the long Japanese route was still ahead. A half-mile of ridge scrambling and a dozen rappels later, I was finally out of Mount Alberta’s grasp.

The seed was harvested.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Canadian Rockies

Solo Ascent: Mount Alberta, 3619 meters, 11,874 feet, August, 1991.

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