Friday, October 3, 2014

The North Face of Mount Alberta

Somehow we pulled it off, the plan A, the big one, shit, i didn't think that ever happened.

The North Face of Alberta is what i'd call a mythical face. In form, its pyramidal spike of a gable-end is so pleasingly intimidating, it must be one of the most spectacular faces i know of. This incredible photo by the aerial photographer John Scurlock is what inspired me a few months ago to put the N face of Alberta at the very top of my list of things to do.

From left to right; The N Face of the Twins Tower, Mount Columbia, N Face of Alberta. Photo: John Scurlock.

After the food poisoning episode i touched on in the last post, we watched the weather forecast, and when a two day window, with bad weather either side cropped up, we set our sites on Alberta once more. Although only really a marginal window for what we were wanting to attempt, it was our last chance so we had to take it. What we were wanting to attempt was the House-Anderson line on the N Face of Alberta. An incredible looking line, that was put up at the end of winter, 7 years ago by the amazingly driven American team of Steve House and Vince Anderson.

Nick drying off after fording the Sunwapta again.

With most of our gear stashed up there already, we made the walk in over Woolley Shoulder pretty fast and were chilling out in the sun for most of the afternoon before we left.

Drip harvesting off the roof.

There are many fascinating entries in the hut book.I love this one from Bill Bancroft and Scott Backes from sometime in the early 90's after climbing the N face on their third try, via the Lowe-Glidden.

The alarm went at 2.30a.m. and it all felt right. It's amazing how different you can feel before an intimidating route, sometimes you'll do anything for that alarm not to go off, sometimes you can't wait to get on with it.
      After forcing a bagel and a litre of water down my neck we got wrapped up and headed out in to the perfect crisp morning.

To get to the bottom of the N face you have to make a series of raps to the lower glacier which feeds off the face. After walking for an hour we were nearly at the point where we down climbed to make the first abseil when i made a horrifying discovery. My belay plate was not on my harness. What the fuck! how is that possible? after quickly checking the contents of my bag it was obvious i didn't have it. My magic plate has been attached to my alpine harness for about 5 years, i never take it off, along with two slings a screwgate and a ropeman i never remove it for the precise reason that it would be catastrophic to not have it in a situation like this. After some brief thoughts of anger at myself and how cruel it all seemed, my mind immediately flicked on to thinking of alternative methods of belaying and abseiling.With about 5 raps to get to the route, multiple pitches of very technical climbing, and god knows how many raps to get off the mountain, my belay plate was going to be sorely missed. Nick wanted to bail immediately, the wind had got up and stood freezing ourselves while having a debate about how possible the route would be with one belay plate things had suddenly got desperate in just an hour from waking up. I did my best to persuade Nick and in the end he agreed to give it a shot, i owe him for giving it a chance, with roles reversed i'm not sure what i'd do. I still don't know where my belay plate is.

We made about 4 abseils, 2 of which were free hanging, plus some down climbing to make it to the lower glacier. We managed to leave as little gear as we could, conscious that we needed to conserve it for the climbing ahead. I now know we actually abbed off the wrong spur, and it would have been better to go 200 metres further north.

With this over, we were now beneath one of the most inspiring faces i've ever stood beneath, and we could see it was absolutely plastered with whiteness, it looked awesome, so we strolled over to the schrund and got stuck in:

The first 60 metres of blue glacier ice was a painful start!

But soon we found a beautiful ribbon of neve to blast up to the icefield above.

Myself halfway up the icefield.

The brilliant line of the House-Anderson goes up the ice streaks in the centre of the headwall, with hard mixed climbing above and beneath, this is why i love alpine climbing, the lines on big mountains are just so inspiring. The pitches up to the top ice blob had been repeated by Canadians Jason Kruk and Joshua Lavigne when they climbed their great looking new line on the left side of the headwall in 2012.

Myself soloing through the yellow band. Scaring myself by finding the only pocket of nasty crud on the whole face!

Nick starting the first of twelve intense pitches we climbed on the headwall. This pitch was given M7 be Steve House.

Myself on the next pitch also given M7/who knows.

I was alarmed to come round a corner to see Nick in a sickeningly exposed hanging position on a belay mostly consisting of a rotting spike.

A scrappy and annoying little aid section got us out of a potentially sticky situation. The "ice" above this roof was mostly useless snow, so after a couple of small falls when gear ripped, i managed to reach higher to better ice.

Dark, still going.

And going
We climbed the last few pitches of day one in the dark. A 50 metre pitch of bullet-hard WI5+with wild stemming on the right wall was exhausting. The pitch above was an incredible yet very worrying skin of vertical and overhanging ice. Nick put up a brilliant lead, and i'll leave it to him to tell the story of how he climbed it. I spent the whole pitch belaying with my bag on top of my head as i was directly in the firing line.
    A pitch later and we were relieved to find the legendary cave feature that Kruk and Lavigne found. Although we knew it was there, we didn't know for sure whether we'd be able to get in to it, or if it was iced over or blocked somehow. We were relieved to be able to enter it and have the most surreal bivy of our lives. Narrow to begin with, we crawled to where it opened out and it felt like entering a cathedral. A huge tube covered in rime ice penetrated in to the mountain. We weren't sure how deep to go, as we needed to have some indication of light outside, but it goes deep, really deep.
      We didn't take bivi kit, i had a duvet jacket and some insulated trousers, curled up on the ropes and had a few hours of shivering with occasional bowts of sleep.

The surreal confines of the cave.

First pitch of day 2. Airy.

Nick seconding the traverse.

Seriously? about to commit to the wall above.
After leaving the cave, we climbed a few pitches then hit a kind of dead end. Nick went up and left, and belayed beneath a steep blank looking wall. I started up one weakness, which after a little excavation turned out to be a blank seam. I then traversed right and noticed a steep flake firing up the wall, it looked improbable but i got involved anyway. I battled my way up it with arms exploding for the final 10 metres. I think given the circumstances it was one of my hardest leads. I've done much easier VIII's in Scotland.

Nearing the top of the headwall.

Three continually tricky pitches later and we were off the headwall. 150 metres of  easy angled rock and ice lay above us which we climbed in three long pitches to reach the south east ridge.
Bad weather arrives on the summit ridge.
By this point the weather had taken a real turn for the worse. It was windy and snowing, and as so often is the case with these things, we walked straight over the summit, no hug, no handshake not even an acknowledgement that we were on top. The alarm bells were starting to sound in my head, we needed to get as far down the mountain as we could before darkness and the weather worsened still.

After down climbing the summit ridge, which seemed to take forever, we located the top of the Japanese route and started abseiling down the east face. The Japanese route, the easiest route up the mountain is probably the worst heap of choss i've ever seen. Extreme care was needed not to chop the ropes or worse with falling rock when we abbed. The night went on and on and once finished with the abseiling we started down climbing the easier angled lower sections. In the dark and snow it was very hard to navigate, and we were cliffed out everywhere we went. In the end we decided to call it and spent another night shivering in a fetal position. I got my head under a boulder and tried to find a happy place.
      After scrutinizing photos i'd taken a few days earlier of the mountain in good weather, i managed to work out where we were, and the next morning, with blocks of wood for feet, we stumbled out on to the glacier after the most intense bit of navigation i've ever done.

The hell hole i spent the second night in.

Morning of day 3.

A happy Bullock after finally getting off that mountain. That moment when you realise, its in the bag.
Sitting by a fire with a beer in my hand, it seems to be sinking in. But i'd like to say that climbing that line in March like Steve and Vince did is seriously inspiring. They must be made of tough stuff.


  1. Excellent photos showing the exposure on some of the pitches! I always find it hard to take decent photos when I'm just trying to top out. Congratulations!...sweet prize.

  2. Impressive trip report. Amazing photographs. It appears you were put to the test up there. I'm glad it all worked out and you and Nick returned safely.

    On another note: Just finished watching the video of your Alpine accent of Denali's Cassin Ridge and the West Buttress with Jon Griffith and Magnus Kastengren. Best alpine video, I have seen on the web. Look like you had a great time. Sweet soundtrack.

    Anyway thinks for posting. All the best.

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