Canadian Dreams - North Face of Mt. Alberta Attempt
The north face of Mt. Alberta.
The House/Anderson basically goes straight up the middle.
Photo: John Scurlock
Thursday, 1 October 2015
One rainy summer’s day in Llanberis last year, Will Sim chatted about his forthcoming trip to Canada. Will described the House/Anderson route on Mt. Alberta, and the cave bivi halfway up the face. We listened, riveted, tea slowly going cold.
When Will and Nick Bullock made the second ascent of the House/Anderson later that year (September 2014) it was great to hear their stories first-hand. I was filled with awe, fear and inspiration. What a route, face, mountain and wilderness! Their comments of questing up the headwall and then descending the Japanese Route in a storm... big respect.
This September, Uisdean Hawthorn and I topped out on a snowy Greenwood/Jones on Mt. Temple. We’d threaded through loose cliff-bands and gently pulled on the esoteric rock and an alpenglow lit the surrounding peaks from the summit. Although we felt content for a few minutes, the real objective of our trip to Canada soon re-appeared. Mt. Alberta swirled and tumbled through my mind as we descended into the darkness.
A week later, we stared at the north face on Mt. Alberta. It was just as impressive and intimidating as we hoped.
We studied the face at great length. There was fresh powder snow covering the face, virtually no evidence of ice, and our chances of repeating the Walsh/Brazeau route were drowned in the snow as it continued to fall. We sighed in dismay before packing away the rock shoes and turning around. (If you haven’t read the Alpinist piece on Jon and Chris’ onsight, in a push, new route on the north face of Mt. Alberta you need to.)
With our month-long trip rapidly coming to an end, we were determined to return to Mt. Alberta. If it didn’t snow for two days we would be in with a chance of the House/Anderson route, and checked the forecasts constantly.
Unfortunately, Friday night dumped new snow over the Rockies and we cursed. The Icefields Parkway webcam showed the largest amount of fresh snowfall we’d seen during the entire month. We cursed again. I was really pissed off: all we needed was a bit of luck, but had been denied again. Such is the nature of the alpine game. We had to try, so headed into the mountains anyway.
The walk in was ‘fun.’ We crossed the Sunwapta River (aaaghh, freezing cold!), bushwacked for two hours up the side of a creek (slapped in the face by branches), scrabbled over scree to reach a col (rollerskating uphill), before wading through deep snow to the hut (swimming through treacle). We finally reached the hut some five hours later, our private cabin in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. Hiking to beneath the face, we agreed it looked whiter than before and was obviously covered in lots of fresh snow. It was in far-from-ideal condition and we both harboured doubts. But we weren’t going home without a fight.
A short while later, Uisdean and I were wading through boot-top snow up the central icefield on the north face of Mt. Alberta, on the House/Anderson route. We were soloing close together, pushing 50 steps before catching our breath. I couldn’t pull my eyes from the 1000 metre face.
The weather was calm and we’d been blessed by bright moonlight on the approach, abseil and second approach onto the face. As the golden dawn illuminated the mountains stretching into the distance, we paused and turned to appreciate the situation. The headwall towered above as we pulled through the notoriously loose Yellow Band. I could see the line of the H/A stretching into the sky.
Uisdean started up the first pitch of the House/Anderson just before 10am. We’d been gawping at the line all the way up the icefield and I was feeling confident. Unsure if we were in the right place, Uisdean climbed barely-frozen choss and snow-covered rock. There was a lot of cleaning and digging, and after about two hours he had run out of cams and was only about 20 metres higher.
He seemed to be unsure of the route ahead, so I shouted up to check the photos from Nick and Will’s ascent on his phone. He decided he wasn’t in the right place and I lowered him off a wire. After checking the photos from the belay we concluded he was actually in the right place. We cursed again.
We knew the conditions were poor, with lots of powder snow and not much ice - a bad combination. We also knew the climbing was really hard (Steve graded the second (crux) pitch M8 R/X) and we knew it was taking ages.
We had a few days of good weather forecast, so instinctively I thought we should just suck it up and continue, but we also got the feeling we had pushed and pushed our luck, taking gamble after gamble just to get to there. It had taken Steve and Vince around 9 hours to climb those first two first pitches, and they had it in a lot better condition that we now did. There was a lot of debating, a lot of silence, and a lot of desire to continue upwards. The good weather and sanctuary of a cave bivi lured us upwards, but conditions and instinct told us to get out of there.
We probably spent half an hour trying to sensibly reason and decide, but eventually we traversed left across snow slopes to the North-East Ridge. From here we spent five or six hours downclimbing and rappelling the east face. It was a bitter pill to swallow and it’s still stuck in my stomach.
A few days later and I can’t decide if we made the right decision. I know it was an ambitious objective. The only thing truly in our favour was the weather, which was forecast to remain fair for another day or two. Otherwise, the climbing had been powder snow on loose rock, with virtually no ice. Higher up the headwall, there was a lot more snow covering everything. I’m pretty sure it was the right call; we chose to be safe. I’m determined to come back for Mt. Alberta... but I have a gnawing, angry, frustrated hunger that can’t be sated.
I have learnt so much from my time in Canada. The alpine world is difficulty, suffering, cold and pain. It’s everything that says, ‘go down.’ You have to learn to accept fear and push up.
Now, I know what I need to do. Now, I know what to expect. I want it more than ever, and I’m prepared to fight for it. The more time I have in the mountains, the more experience grows. It’ll take hard work, all I can give, but it’s always worth it.
I have learnt: it’s going to be hard. Put the gloves on, grit the teeth. It’s going to be a fight... enjoy it.
Regardless of the success - or lack of - that my performance-orientated mind has concluded during this trip to Canada, I’d like to stress how much fun I’ve had, and how enjoyable it’s been. The experience of travelling to a new place always excites me, and I certainly appreciate it for all its worth. Canada is an incredible country, so similar to the UK but also worlds apart. The people are friendly and chatty, the sport climbing is pretty damn good, the mountains feel like an adventure and the bears... well, you can keep your bears, Canada.
So thanks, Uisdean, for a great trip. Thanks also to Raf Andronowski, Nick Sharpe, Jon Walsh, The Alpine Club of Canada, Nick Bullock, The Kerr Family, Jottnar and countless other Canadians who were kind and helpful.
Finally, I stumbled across Dan Crockett’s poem on a rest day. He describes surfing and the edges of sanity it takes people to. I think climbers and surfers share a lot of emotions and sensations, and it seems to ring true for me. It might explain some of the obsession. Watch the full Finisterre film here.
Edges of Sanity
It’s been said
On far shores, weary mariners hear voices
Songs so beautiful they cast a spell
There is no choice but to hear.
They claim these whispers hold a message
Each ear hears different music
But the same call hunts the senses:
Without risk, there is no beauty
Without chance, no adventure
Through suffering, wealth without limit
So we scheme and plan
And tell nobody of our dreams
Shuffle cards, chance vague variables
And tread endless road miles until
Close against cold ground we toss and turn
And summon black water
For I am of the waiting deep
The great denier, the poised fist
Stalker of pitch oceans
Whose fingers twist about your throat…
I swallowed the sad pilgrims
Who fell to flat reef, their vessels sunk
Into water bitter as winter night
Beyond the edges of sanity
I am the waiting teeth of the rocks below
The grinning maw in the clouds
Bearer of the hourglass - killer of the short dim day