Where have I gone, and what have I relinquished,
that security and comfort have become my masters
and I their slave? Has the mansion of the sky
grown so tall, that I cannot touch it, cannot
gaze upon it? Or does the greater being, the
boundless self of which "I" am but a moon-cast
shadow, stride daily through its doors of morning
mist, and peer each evening through its windows,
the frames of which are the tall mountains of
the earth, seeking the songs and silences of
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, Brewer's
Buttress on Castle Mountain.
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 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 Alberts
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 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.
August 7. 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 routefinding 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 ridgetop walk bypassing my "variation".
Clouds began to accumulate overhead as we simulclimbed
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 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 mis-step,
hurtling into the ravenous night. Desperate and
frustrated, we wander about the labrynthine 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.