House/Anderson - North Face of Mt. Alberta
Uisdean and the North face of Mt. Alberta
Sunday, 18 September 2016
Uisdean Hawthorn and I have just returned from the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. We’ve made the 3rd ascent of the House/Anderson route on the north face of Mt. Alberta, which took us two days.
We attempted this route last year after being inspired by Nick Bullock and Will Sim’s ascent, but we had to bail due to poor conditions. This year, however, we found the mountain in much better shape - the ice was well formed, and the rock was well-frozen and mostly bare.
We swung leads up the famous headwall, climbing overhanging ice, steep dry tooling and loose mixed climbing. Biving in the cave located halfway up the headwall was also one of the most surreal experiences either of us have ever had in the mountains. We descended the mountain just before bad weather arrived, very content to complete a two-year dream.
On our first day (Thursday) we left the nearby ‘hut’ (more of a shed!) at 1 a.m. and rappelled down to the glacier beneath the face. It felt incredibly committing to walk beneath the mountain, with no real chance of a rescue if something went wrong. Uisdean and I have just come from the Alps, which has phone signal, cablecars and helicopters everywhere, so it felt pretty ‘out there’ to be beneath the towering, 1000m face and to be self-reliant.
We climbed over the ‘shrund and then moved together up the icefield as dawn broke, reaching the base of the headwall at 8 a.m. Uisdean quickly climbed past the wire we had bailed off on the first pitch (M7) during our attempt at the House/Anderson last September (2015). We climbed another few mixed pitches around the same grade, and a short section of aid where there should have been ice, to reach a gully clogged with solid glacial ice and snow mushrooms. In a moment of sheer amateur ability, I fell off the start of the steep Wi5+ pitch when I stepped too high on my axe. I didn’t fall far, but the bruise on my hip reminded me to be more careful.
These features led to the cave bivi at 6 p.m., a tunnel which twists and turns into the heart of the mountain and is one of the craziest features I’ve ever seen on a mountain. We spent the night here, feeling very lucky to be ‘relatively’ warm and lying down.
On the second day (Friday) we climbed the final 3 pitches of the House/Anderson to reach the top of the headwall, and then Uisdean climbed the last 150m to the summit in one big pitch. It was 1 p.m. and we were surprised at how early we’d arrived. Unfortunately cloud had covered the upper part of the headwall since daybreak and we were worried about being caught in a storm, but occasional patches of blue skies helped our descent down the long ridge of the Japanese Route. By the time we reached the start of the rappels, we were below the cloud and relaxed. It began to snow/rain during our descent and we still had to negotiate the complicated choss-pile and numerous cliff bands, so we were kept in focus throughout.
It felt sweet to reach the hut just as it got dark, late on the second day. It had been an epic route which kept us involved and tested us, mentally and physically.
I know a lot of the draw of climbing in the Canadian Rockies is about adventure, and ‘the unknown.’ For this reason Uisdean and I hadn’t set our sights entirely on Mt. Alberta. We’d gone to check out other objectives a few days beforehand, but only the ‘higher’ mountains (such as Mt. Alberta and Mt. Robson) were in condition. I realise we weren’t very original in our route choice - essentially copying Will Sim and Nick Bullock - and if I were to nit-pick our ascent, it’s only this. I realise that with each ascent, an almost mythical route like the House/Anderson becomes slightly more ‘known;’ slightly less mythical. So, apart from our unintentional lack of originality for copying Will and Nick, I’m very content. It’s also important to note that this ascent took us two years, due to the poor alpine conditions in autumn 2015.
Leaving the cave bivi on Day 2.
Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn
I was seriously impressed by Steve House and Vince Anderson for questing up the headwall on the first ascent, and for Nick Bullock and Will Sim to inspire us further by making the second ascent. Thanks also to the Canadians who have given wisdom and advice, and for Nick Sharpe for his generosity with accommodation and transport.
With two more weeks of our trip left, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for more good weather. But for now, the pizza-burgers are calling!
Check out Steve and Vince’s report on their first ascent on Alpinist.
The links below are for some of the reports about our ascent, including Gripped (Canada), and UKC/the BMC/DMM Climbing.