Mount Alberta, Japanese Route
By: Bruce Bindner | Climbers: Bruce Bindner, Em Holland |Trip Dates: August 4-8, 1998
Photo: Bruce Bindner
You know a climb was something special when, three months afterward, you turn to your partner and shaking your head, comment "I still can't believe we pulled it off." and she knows immediately what you are talking about. The Japanese Route on Mt. Alberta in the Canadian Rockies was such an experience. Rated 5.6, the technical climbing on the route was the very least of our worries. Em and I arrived in Calgary in August of 1998 with a fierce hope that we would be blessed with an unheard-of combination: A scant snowpack from a warm, dry year in western Canada, and the right weather conditions to allow us to tag the elusive summit of Mt. Alberta. Lacking confidence to commit to this notorious peak as our first limestone alpine objective, we decided to warm up on another Rockies Classic.
(Ed. Note: see Castle Mtn. trip report)
The following afternoon was spent sorting gear and packing for our next adventure. We drew more than a few curious looks from well-heeled tourists driving the Icefields Parkway as we spread our muddy, tattered gear beside the parking lot at Chateau Lake Louise. Evening found us bivouacked on the bank of the Sunwapta River, across the gravel flats from Wooley Creek, gazing in alarm at the river we would have to cross in the morning, when its flow was at its lowest.
August 4, 1998, 5:00 am:
In the chilly pre-dawn gloom, we stripped down to minimum clothing and donned hip boots. Our strategy was to cross the ice-cold river in the waders we had brought for this purpose, then stash the boots in the forest for the return. The silt-laden, racing water of the Sunwapta occasionally splashed over the tops of the hip waders and pooled around our curling toes within, while the strong current continually threatened to knock us off our feet. We leaned heavily on improvised walking sticks, probing for unseen obstacles, bracing against the powerful force of the icy river. This was without doubt the most hazardous part of the entire climb: Strapped to seventy-pound packs, if we lost our footing, we could easily drown. The alternative in the event of a slip would be to jettison the packs, abandoning all of our gear to the river's icy clutches while saving ourselves.
No morning coffee ever provided the wake-up that the Sunwapta brought us. But eventually, after fighting across a half-mile of gravel flats and braided channels, angling downstream to avoid head-on confrontation with the current, always seeking the shallowest and slowest moving parts of the river, we found ourselves sloshing onto the far bank, stashing the rubber boots in a tree (well out of the reach of the rodents reputed to chew boots, tennis shoes, and other gear to shreds.) The remainder of the day was spent working our way up the tangled banks of Wooley Creek. High water from the unusually warm weather forced several arduous detours far upstream to ford tributaries, as the daylight slipped away. Darkness found us exhausted, crawling into sleeping bags, still hours from our objective. Although some parties have completed the walk to the Alberta Hut in as little as four hours, we were advised to allow a long day for the approach. It was now apparent that, with our heavy packs and the high-water crossings, at least another half-day would be needed for this part of the journey. The following day we completed the scrabble over Wooley Shoulder, crossed the glacier, leaving wands for retreat in whiteout conditions, and descended on the hut just as a torrential downpour swept the region. Thus ended the first part of the approach.
Upon reaching the hut, we were greeted with the following words of wisdom in the journal within: "The approach to Alberta from here makes Wooley Shoulder look like a Park trail!" That night, electrical pyrotechnics, hurricane-force winds and thunder shook the tiny metal shed. Having already lost a day on the approach, our hearts sank. By lightning and lantern light we watched our hopes for the climb melt with the torrents of water streaming across the windows. But the next morning, sunbeams playing amongst the breaking clouds gave us just enough encouragement to pack gear and head out on the final stage of the journey. It would be fair to say that more parties have been defeated by the approach to the Japanese route than all who have actually roped up, successful or not.
Similar to Castle Mountain, Mt. Alberta consists of horizontal ledge systems and plateaus alternating with vertical escarpments. The ledges accumulate debris from the crumbling cliffs, until gravity overcomes friction and the shale-like wafers of rock slide off the edge and careen down to their next resting spot. The net result is similar to walking unroped across a balcony on the twenty-fifth floor of a skyscraper... a balcony without railing or parapet, stacked to carrying capacity with billions of loose stone dominos and tons of kitty litter. To make matters even more entertaining, the third class approach to the Japanese route wanders back and forth, traversing these endless, rubble-loaded ledge systems sometimes nearly one quarter of the way around the mountain to access weaknesses in the cliff bands. In keeping with the spirit of adventure on this vast mountain of slag, parties remove their cairns as they depart the peak, leaving the enigmatic approach unmarred for future parties. Finally, above a tiny tent platform scratched into the last crumbling, sloping ledge systems, where most parties bivy, stands a vertical barrier from six hundred to one thousand feet high, completely encircling the mountain, the last obstacle barring the way to the endless summit ridge.
Dawn of summit day found us at the base of the technical climbing. All too aware of the need for speed, we pushed through the eight pitches of loose technical ground as fast as safety would allow, sometimes leading and cleaning a pitch in as little as twenty minutes. The long and intricate summit ridge loomed overhead, a constant reminder of the urgency of the passing minutes. As the sun warmed the east face of Alberta, we hunkered under an overhanging bulge for a rest. Soon the daily rockfall from the rising temperatures eased off, and we continued upwards.
Although conditions vary greatly year-to-year, everyone who has traversed the summit ridge of Mt. Alberta has encountered seeming miles of devious route finding along the jagged crest. Many have completed the technical crux of the climb only to be stopped by lightning, swirling mist, and difficult wet mixed alpine terrain ranging from double-overhanging cornices to loose traverses, gendarmes, and ice chutes. At one point, we squandered daylight on a premature traverse out onto the east face of the mountain in anticipation of the fabled 25-meter step, only to look back over an easy flat ridge top walk bypassing my "variation". Clouds began to accumulate overhead as we simul-climbed the easier sections, the mist and wind playing cat-and-mouse with us. Occasional pitons protected difficult sections. Time was precious sand trickling through our clutching fingers: We occasionally abandoned our harder-to-clean pins to buy a few more valuable minutes of daylight. At last we reached a point on the endless ridge where we could go no higher. A summit cairn with a paper Japanese parasol announced that our ascent was over. It was an emotional moment. With tears in our eyes, we munched a few bites of food, signed the register, and, not quite believing, spent a few priceless minutes on the summit, scraping snow into our water bottles before retracing our steps along the ridge, racing the end of the day.
August 8 1:00 am:
Clouds blanket the night sky, obscuring the moon. Hiatus. Two ropelengths from the bottom of the meandering descent, our rope has jammed. In the blackness I wander up shattered, unknown terrain, battle to keep my eyes open as I set an intermediate rappel anchor consisting of a single knifeblade piton, finally free the rope, and descend to where Em waits below, hunkered in the cleft of a steep tilted-rubble chimney at the edge of a dropoff, shrapnel from my struggles tapping a staccato rhythm on her helmet. I shake my head to clear the fatigue. Drop one of our last three pitons. Drop my fleece hat. They tinkle and float into the darkness, no longer existing. I find it hard to care. Finally, by the last light of my fading headlamp, I recognize the alcove that marked the beginning of the roped climbing. We trade out dead batteries for fresh. Drink some much-needed liquid from the Dromedary we had stashed, the water chilling our fuel-depleted cores and sending us into spasms of shivering. The bivy site, and our tent, are a scant fifteen minute scramble away. But which ledge leads to camp? Where are we? The hungry darkness awaits just beyond invisible dropoffs. If we descend too far, we'll end our climb with a misstep, hurtling into the ravenous night. Desperate and frustrated, we wander about the labyrinth ledges, ineffectively searching for clues, making no headway. At one point I stumble and lurch sickeningly toward an edge, rocks spinning away into the darkness, clattering unseen far below.
2:30 am: Em finally talks sense into me. Though heavily overcast, the weather is holding. We scratch two butt-sized scoops into the shattered limestone dominos, and settle down, space bags and fleece jackets our only shelter, feet tucked into our packs, the distant storm-tossed sunrise ahead the end of a long, cold dark tunnel.
5:30 am: "Em? do you see that? it's getting light!" My water bottle is frozen shut. In the grey twilight of dawn, far across the face and one ledge system lower, we finally spot one of my cairns. It's over. No longer blind, we look out across the face with new eyes as if for the first time, into the future. Ten minutes later we are at the tent. I can't believe we pulled it off.
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.