Mt. Alberta, Japanese Route, first winter ascent. Ever since first scampering across Mt. Alberta’s (3,619m) precipitous summit ridge, I had wondered what it would be like in winter. As the season progressed, I kept track of weather and avalanche forecasts. By mid-February, 2005, both were exceptionally good.
It was afternoon by the time Scott Semple, Eamonn Walsh, and I finally sorted gear, drove up the Parkway, and stepped into our skis. Winter transformed the familiar approach up Woolley Creek, the wide streambed seeming hemmed in by the snowy conifers. But travel was pleasant, until we came to Woolley Shoulder. The slope leading to it was blown clear, and we teetered up frozen scree, arms aching from poling. Daylight was fading when we crested the col, and all we could see of Alberta was a pale, cloud-enshrouded shape to the west.
Not having had a proper look in the evening, we left the choice of route for breakfast. This gave us an excuse to sleep in. The cold lilac glow of a cloudless dawn revealed a mountain completely plastered in snow, even the headwall on the Northeast Ridge. We discussed the conditions, and decided on the Japanese Route. On February 19, as the sun’s first rays lit up the summit, we were skiing down to the base of the east face. Recent avalanches had pounded the gullies and snowfields, and we booted up the debris, making a beeline for the Elephants’ Asses. The air was cold but the sun was out, and at one point I found myself swinging tools clad in a T-shirt. After lunch on a snow fluting below the Asses, we continued soloing up the Japanese Gully, still mostly on snow, with small ice steps thrown in for variety. Just below the ridge we roped up, turned right, and weaved our way along the crest. Eamonn kept a straight face as he told Scott that if one of us fell off, the others should jump off the opposite side. “Is that safe?” Scott asked in disbelief. I was both pleased and disappointed at the absence of the expected double cornices. The ridge made up for it with delicate knife edges that had us shuffling sideways like crabs, snowed-up rock steps where crampons skated on black limestone, and a bitter wind that arced the rope over the east face and at every step whipped our faces with ice crystals.
The evening sun was painting the clouds a delicate pink when at last we stood on top. With the wind knifing through the parkas we had donned over all our other layers, we did not stay long, just long enough to thaw Scott’s frozen chin. Then we turned around and headed down. A small scoop half an hour from the summit offered one of the few windless spots along the ridge, and we gratefully accepted its shelter for the night. Three people in a Biblcr made for a tight squeeze, especially as one of them was Eamonn, but we were warm. It snowed during the night, and in the morning we woke surrounded by mist. Not until we were below the Elephants’ Asses did we walk into sunshine, and realized that Alberta’s summit cap was the only cloud in the sky. Back at the hut we decided to stay one more night on this the magical side of Woolley Shoulder. The following day we were back at the road in a mere three hours; the adventure was over. Or rather, this adventure was over. Though unseen beyond the Shoulder, Alberta is still there, beckoning.
Raphael Slawinski, Canada, AAC