Mt. Alberta, West Face. I first saw a photo of the face in a 1989 Climbing magazine. A spectacular aerial shot showed a wall of black limestone topped by a dazzlingly white summit ridge, with a rare blue sky. A gothic flying buttress, rising gracefully to the summit icefield, jumped out at me. The caption read: “The unclimbed west face of Mount Alberta.” At the time, given my abilities, the photo may as well have been of Olympus Mons on Mars, but I did not forget it.
One weekend in late July, Rich Akitt and I headed for the face, but, for reasons that escape me now, I thought we should traverse to it on one of the large scree ledges that girdle Alberta. We retreated, and the next day ran up the Northeast Ridge, descended the Japanese route, hiked out to the road, and drove back to Calgary, arriving shortly before dawn on Monday.
I thought I was done with Alberta for the season, but gradually I found myself thinking about it again. So on a heartbreakingly beautiful Friday afternoon in mid-September, Eamonn Walsh and I waded across the Sunwapta River and headed up Woolley Creek. The fresh snow plastering the peaks would not melt until spring, but ever the optimist, I figured the steepness and sunny aspect would mean it would still be in rock- climbing shape.
We skidded down rubble and jumped gritty crevasses toward Alberta, visible only as a hulking black shape against a star-filled sky. The moon was just past new and did not light our way like last time, but unlike last time I knew where to go. Staying low, we rounded the south end of the mountain and easily walked across a rocky plateau beneath the west face. At a shallow col that plunged into a deep, shadowed valley to the north, we stopped for a quick rest. A cold wind whipped across the saddle, and we were soon moving again, scrambling up scree and rock steps toward the vertical headwall capping the west face. We filled up on water where it trickled down an ice gully, keeping an eye out for falling stones. Where the gully opened into a snowfield, we donned crampons and traversed to the base of our chosen rib. A beautiful ribbon of ice cascaded down between the main wall and the lower part of the buttress. We were briefly tempted, but our having only one tool apiece and no screws convinced us to stick to the rock. Besides, we were freezing and could see the first rays of sunlight warming the crest.
At the top of the first pitch we found an old rappel station. And I do mean old: heavy, rusted pins stamped “Swiss made,” connected with bleached goldline. In 1963 four Vulgarians had attempted the west face and nearly made it up before being forced down by electrical storms. We would be following in their footsteps most of the day. Changing into rock shoes, we continued up.
Crimping on crumbling edges, the last knifeblade a distant memory, I basked in my fear. At least once a year I find myself whimpering to my partner: “I do not want to be scared anymore.” And yet perched on that flying buttress, high above empty, silent valleys, there was nowhere else I would rather have been.
As the afternoon wore on we were faced with a steep off-width crack, the only weakness in what looked to be the final steep step. Fortunately, the rock also took a turn for the better, and after some grunting and me sending a few volleys of stones down on Eamonn’s head (“Dude, are you OK?” “I’m… not… sure…”) we were up, and looking at what we hoped really was the final steep step. We snuck up it via an easy gully, the rock shoes and chalk bags went into the packs, out came boots and crampons. Under an intensely blue sky, more Karakoram than Canadian Rockies, we walked up the gentle snow slope to the summit and, without stopping, headed down the long south ridge.
Night fell as we completed the last rappel down the Japanese gully, below and upwind of the Elephants’ Asses. But we knew where to go and so were spared sitting out a cold night. Plunging into the darkness, we downclimbed rock steps and surfed scree toward the distant creature comforts of the hut.
Mt. Alberta (3,619m), West Face (V 5.10+).
Raphael Slawinski, Canada, AAC