For my last weekend off at the end of the summer holidays, I was joined by Ben and Steven for a shot at some peaks in the Woolley / Diadem area just north of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. Obviously Woolley and Diadem were the main objectives for us, but we also had some other summits in mind - naturally!! :)
Planning the Trip
In May of 2012 I took a photo of Twin's Tower with a party inching it's way to the summit. This is one of my favorite photos and hangs above my kitchen table in a glorious black and white 24x48 inch panoramic print.
[One of my favorite photos of all time - a party ascends Twin's Tower just before we do it. Little Alberta is clearly visible to the right of Mount Alberta. ++]
One thing I noticed right away while staring at this photo as I sat at the kitchen table was an easy looking route to the summit of Little Alberta, the peak just to the east (right) of Mount Alberta in the photo. I couldn't get this summit out of my head, I figured the views from it must be absolutely mind blowing considering it's massive neighbors. The mountains around Little Alberta include 7 impressive 11,000ers and others including;
How could one go wrong with a list of neighbors like this?! Immediately this minor summit blasted near the top of my "list". It took a few years for everything to come together but when we started chatting about a Woolley / Diadem attempt while descending Smith Peak, I immediately brought up Little Alberta as another objective in the area. Steven and Ben were interested so we agreed to try it.
(Click here to read the approach TR to the Woolley / Diadem bivy site)
I had time to relax and have a leisure breakfast (bacon and eggs, if you can believe it) before Ben and Steven finally poked their heads over the final rise of the approach trail to our bivy site on Friday morning around 10:00. They didn't believe my pack rat battle story so I had to show them the evidence. They were kind of surprised I think. ;)
After setting up their tents it was time to decide what to do with the rest of our day. We had three choices. Woolley and Diadem were relatively free of clouds but had quite a bit of fresh snow, a good thing for the couloirs but not the rock cliff traverse between them. Mushroom Peak was an obvious choice but we were worried about it being too short and wanted to save it for Sunday morning before heading out. So that left Little Alberta.
[And then there was two tents sitting under Woolley and Diadem.]
"Little" is not an apt description for what it takes to summit this relatively minor (compared to its neighbors) peak. We did some rough calculations in camp and guestimated it to be around 2000 meters total elevation gains from the bivy site! This meant that Ben and Steven would be doing around 2600 meters total height gain the day before attempting Woolley and Diadem - another 1500 meter day. I was quite nervous about doing almost 2000 meters of height gain before another big (and higher priority) day but we agreed to give it a shot anyway. The weather wasn't forecast to be a perfect blue-bird day (which would be ideal for Little Alberta) but Saturday was, and a clear sky was even more important for views from the 11,000ers.
The approach from our bivy site over Woolley shoulder was much more rustic, crappy, loose and steep terrain than we were expecting. Don't underestimate this route! Of course, most people going over the shoulder are hard-core climbers attempting the mighty Mount Alberta or other massive routes near the Black Hole, so Woolley Shoulder is nothing more than a warm-up for them. It reminded us of Quartzite Col except you go up the crappy side first, rather than down it on the way in. As we slogged up the shoulder we were all wondering what the heck we were doing this for, just before a day climbing two 11,000ers! While approaching the gully it's not marked where to go. There's no cairns until near the top and it's too loose to form a permanent trail so we simply slogged up to the obvious weak point up the center until we spotted a cairn above us and went for it.
There's a pretty easy (technically) route through the upper cliffs to the top of the shoulder if you're careful about route finding. Simply bashing your way up is not a great idea as there's rock fall danger if you end up in the wrong gully. I think the height gain from camp was around 600 vertical meters to reach the top of the shoulder. We also noticed that we weren't much lower than Little Alberta's summit at the col, but had hundreds of meters of height loss before we could even think of her summit! The views were stunning as we crested the col! Mount Alberta was covered in a cloud cap, it's massive black east face towering over the Lloyd MacKay Hut. North Twin and Twin's Tower's north faces rose impossibly steep into the heavens out of a deep, dark valley beneath, known as the "Black Hole". The Stutfield peaks and Mount Cromwell also impressed with their glaciers diving down steep north and east aspects. Mount Engelhard rose directly above us to our left, while Mount Woolley surprised us with a nice couloir running steeply to it's cloud covered summit on our right - this is the South Face route and is rated alpine II.
[Looking back at Woolley Tarn and our bivy area from the moraines above camp as we head for the Woolley shoulder. From L to R, Woolley, Diadem and Mushroom Peak. ++]
[Ben and Steven look pretty small in the huge terrain under Mount Woolley. The route to the shoulder is at center distance.]
[Steven comes up the moraine behind me with Mushroom Peak towering over him. Diadem to the left, you can see the fresh snow plastering the rock we need to traverse between the two couloirs. Tangle Ridge is clear of snow in the distance at right. ++]
[An unexpectedly rough slog up to the shoulder - and where the heck does the route go anyway?!]
[Looking back down the loose approach to the Woolley Shoulder - Sunwapta now showing up with a fresh coat of snow at her summit.]
[Rock fall kept us alert - especially coming down from the gully to our right.]
[Traversing to find the best line up - we could see a bench traversing through the cliffs above us.]
[Ben and Steven checking out the views and wondering why we're expending all this energy the day before Woolley and Diadem.]
[Great views back towards Tangle Ridge and Sunwapta Peak over Engelhard's shoulder.]
[We're through the bench and getting closer to the crest of the shoulder now.]
[It's steep near the top! Engelhard towering over us here.]
[Views from Woolley Shoulder are incredible! Little Alberta at center. Engelhard, Cromwell, North Twin, Twin's Tower, Son of Twin, King Edward and Mount Alberta from L to R. ++]
[Mount Alberta looms over a tiny, insignificant Lloyd MacKay Hut and biffy.]
[Twin's Tower and North Twin rise thousands of feet from the deep valley beneath them, known as the "Black Hole". Believe it or not, these impossibly steep and dangerous walls have been climbed a handful of times over the past 40 years! The prominent tower to the right of Twin's Tower is known as "Son of a Twin" and was first climbed (via the west ridge) by Al Spero and Dane Waterman in 1979 (they also made an FA of the east face of Central Howser in the Bugaboos in 1974). Mount King Edward is on the far right of the photo.]
Sidebar re: climbing the North Pillar / Face / NW Ridge of Twin's Tower.
Originally this sidebar was supposed to be a one-liner about various climbs of the North Face of Twin's Tower but as I dug I came up with more and more articles and discussions on this amazing wall of rock and ice. So have fun browsing these links and be warned - there's a few hours of serious armchair mountaineering here! ;)
You can read about Jason Kruk's two attempts on the North Face of Twin's Tower on his blog here or Climbing Magazine's summary here. You can read John Walsh's account of their attempt in 2011 here. Following are the various routes and ascents of the North aspect of Twin's Tower;
Abrons Route V 5.6 A0 | 1965 by Henry Abron et al. This was the first ascent from the Black Hole to the summit of Twin's Tower and was done via the Northwest Ridge. The 2nd ascent of this ridge was done in May of 2012 by Brandon Pullan and Ian Welsted (2014 NatGeo Adventurer of the year). The route and other discussions about the various ascents of Twin's Tower from the Black Hole is detailed by Brandon in an interesting write up on his blog. (Welsted almost climbed the North Pillar route up Twin's Tower with Chis Brazeau in 2005 but a rock shattered his elbow near the top and they had to rap the entire route back down on a single 50m rope (it was cut on ascent) and a 5mm pull cord! Ian writes about this experience in the 2005 CAJ in an article dubbed "Dead". Slawinski also writes an excellent article on Mount Alberta in this issue.)
Lowe-Jones VI 5.10 A3 | 1974 by George Lowe (Lowe also completed a first ascent of the North Face of Alberta in 1972) and Chris Jones over 6 days from August 6-12. This is the first ascent to the summit of Twin's Tower via the North Face. I've archived the first hand accounts from Ascent Magazine and the American Alpine Journal. Also read this awesome mountaineering discussion thread at supertopo.
Traverse of the Chickens VI 5.10 A? | 1982 by Urs Kallen, Tim Friesen and Dave Cheesmond. The party had to bail due to wet conditions part way up the Lowe / Jones route but still completed their climb to the summit of Twin's Tower via a ridge rather than the face. Cheesmond himself possibly did not consider this a successful ascent of the North Face. Afterwards he wrote: "We believe this is the most difficult face yet climbed in the Canadian Rockies. It still awaits a second ascent eight years after the first."
North Pillar or Blanchard-Cheesmond VI 5.10d A2 | 1984 by Barry Blanchard and Dave Cheesmond. This is the first ascent of the North Pillar that runs down the steep North Face of North Twin. Read a trip report and first hand recollection by Barry on supertopo in 2009. Cheesmond died in 1987 while attempting the Hummingbird Ridge route on Mount Logan. John Walsh and Josh Wharton finally completed a second ascent of the humbling North Pillar route in September 2013. Read more about this ascent here.
House-Prezelj VI 5.10 A3 | 2004 by Steve House and Marko Prezelj in winter conditions via a 5.9 A2 variation to the first half of the Lowe-Jones route. Read their account of this first ascent in these conditions. (Brandon Pullan notes in his blog on his climb of the Northwest Ridge of Twin's Tower, that House and Prezelj did not actually summit Twin's Tower in their bid in 2004 but rather they hit the North Twin / Twin's Tower col and immediately climbed North Twin.)
[Another view of the north face of North Twin and Twin's Tower.]
After sucking in some of the most awe-inspiring views anywhere in the Rockies, we reluctantly started down the obvious trail in the snow covered scree over the Woolley shoulder, heading towards the tiny Lloyd MacKay hut in the far distance. The key word here is "down" the trail. We lost at least 350 vertical meters to the hut - all which had to be regained at the end of the day. The route to the hut from Woolley shoulder is pretty straightforward, but be forewarned, there is some crevasse issues if you're not careful. We had a number of ankle biters along the way.
[Traversing the glacier on the north side of Woolley - there are holes in here. ++]
[A panorama from just below Woolley Shoulder with Little Alberta in the center, surrounded by giants on every side. Note Steven and Ben traversing the snow bank? ++]
[Huge terrain in the area around Little Alberta - it's hard to put into photos. Here Ben and Steven trudge up the final glacial bump just before the hut with Mount Alberta looming in the background being all moody, as usual.]
It was cool to spend some moments in the Lloyd MacKay hut before continuing on to the business of summiting Little Alberta. Ben and I were both questioning our motivation at this point anyway, so we stopped for some food in the hut and ended up reveling in some of the history surrounding it. We tore ourselves away from the comfort and relative warmth of the hut but hoped we'd have some more time to browse the register on the way back through. At this point we only had 5 or 6 hours of daylight left and had no idea if our proposed route to the summit of Little Alberta would even go. I have to admit my levels of enthusiasm were low and I was remembering how pleasant my book was the day before. But the views were stunning and kept me going.
[The Lloyd MacKay Hut with Little Alberta looming over it and the Stutfields in the background.]
[The hut sleeps 6 but one person is on the floor!]
[The biffy with the north face of Little Alberta not looking so little anymore.]
[A lot of world-class climbers have stayed here on their way to conquer the nearby giants - Mount Alberta being the most sought after of course.]
[How many nervous feet have gone out this door on the great adventure that is climbing Mount Alberta? Hopefully mine will join that group some day.]
[Interesting plaque in the hut.]
[Stunning views towards Warwick Mountain over the SE shoulder of Mount Alberta from the hut.]
We knew the scramble route on Little Alberta would involve traversing scree slopes on her west aspect before contouring around the south ridge and up easy scree from there. What we didn't realize (and never seem to!) was how far this traverse was, how much height loss it involved or how tired we'd be while slogging it out!! To make a long story short - it's a long way from the hut all the way around to the south slopes of Little Alberta and drops at least another 300 vertical meters (remember the 350 we already dropped to the hut!) before finally ascending again. I can see why Alberta is a 22 hour (or much more) slog from the hut - it's a bloody long distance and many vertical meters gained and lost just to get to the upper 5.6 climbing sections.
After almost giving up several times (remember, we're planning on climbing two 11,000ers the next day) we finally broke through the cliffs guarding the west aspect and came around the south end of the mountain. From here it was simply one foot in front of the other to the obvious summit block. It was too bad that the clouds thickened throughout the afternoon, but it did make us glad we weren't on the 11,000ers and our views were still mind blowing in every direction. Thankfully the register was in the first summit, the two summits on Little Alberta are the same height. The register was busier than I expected but by no means was it "busy". We were only the 9th or 10th party to sign it in over 34 years, it's probably only seen a few more ascents than this ever. After snapping obligatory summit photos and cramming some food, we started the long journey back to the Alberta Hut and from there, our bivy site under Woolley.
[The terrain right under the hut was surprisingly difficult - certainly no simple walk due to slabs and loose rock.]
[We've already lost hundreds of vertical meters from the hut at this point and are traversing on the west aspect of Little Alberta]
[The Japanese Route (FA 1925) goes somewhere up this east face. I suspect the roped climbing probably doesn't start until the ledge just under the clouds on the left side - that's where the walls rise up pretty steeply but until that point it looks 'scrambly'. I know a lot of parties start climbing too early and end up spending way more time on the mountain as a result. This usually means getting trapped by bad weather because at almost 12,000 feet, Alberta easily generates or attracts clouds, rain and snow.]
[I ended up going right to the bottom of the valley between Little Alberta and "Big" Alberta rather than traverse scree. I hate traversing scree - mostly because I've done WAY too much of it over the past decade! Note the cliff band we're trying to get around on the upper left.]
[The dark and scary north face of Twin's Tower and Son of a Twin.]
[Traversing high above Habel Creek to the south end of Little Alberta now.]
[Finally around to the more southerly aspect. Giants to the clouds next to us!]
[Staring the Black Hole and NF of Twin's Tower straight in the face from the south ridge.]
[The view behind us looking down Habel Creek as we grovel up the southwest slope. ++]
[I have never stepped on or seen so many Trilobite fossils in my life. They were everywhere in the area including Little Alberta, Woolley Shoulder, Mount Woolley, Diadem Peak and Mushroom Peak. It was nuts. And I only noticed Trilobites - no other soft bodied fossils or even plants.]
[Lots and lots of dinner plating on the south ridge. I suspect this crappy rock is the main thing holding Mount Alberta up too.]
[The views from the south aspect of Little Alberta were some of the best I've ever had. From L to R, Engelhard, Cromwell, Stutfield NE2, Stutfield Peak, North Twin, Twin's Tower, Son of a Twin and King Edward. ++]
[Grinding up the summit block.]
[Register, page 1]
[Register, Page 2]
[Register, Page 3]
[Register, Page 4]
[Summit views from L to R include, Woolley, Mushroom, Engelhard, Cromwell, Stutfield NE2, Stutfield, North Twin, Twin's Tower, Son of Twin, King Edward, Sundial and Warwick. ++]
[Too bad Mount Alberta is covered in cloud, but hopefully we can see all her glory tomorrow from Woolley - a better vantage point anyway. ++]
[The entry to the Black Hole goes under the impressive North and West faces of the Stutfields]
[Mount Engelhard (L) and Cromwell (C) are very near 11,000 feet with Cromwell possibly just sneaking into the 'club'. I have a friend who measured it at only 1 meter shy of the magical 3353m, but that puts it at the same height I measured Harrison so who knows?]
[The south couloir route on Woolley is rating Alpine II and looks fun.]
[Mushroom Peak is no slouch either at over 10,500 feet.]
[Impressive glaciers plunge down from the Stutfields towards the Black Hole]
[I love that little tarn that sits beneath the huge north face of Twin's Tower.]
[Looking west towards Warwick (L) and Sundial (C).]
[Dias Mountain shows up west, over the south shoulder of Mount Alberta.]
[Thorington Tower and Mount Smythe show up over the west shoulder of Woolley.]
[Ben and Steven on the summit of Little Alberta with Woolley and it's South Face route in the background.]
[One more view east off the summit showing the depth of the valley between Little Alberta and Engelhard.]
[Descending the south ridge of Little Alberta with Twin's Tower in the background. Note the tarn at the base of the north face?]
The descent down the south ridge went really quick, the long traverse along the west face and back up to the Lloyd Mackay Hut didn't go quite as quick. We spent some time in the hut again, this time we read some very interesting entries in the hut register. I need to spend a few hours going over them all! Alas, we still had a lot of distance to go and wanted to beat darkness, so we didn't linger as long as we wanted to.
The grind back up to Woolley shoulder wasn't too bad thanks to a good track in the snow but it seemed to take forever to get back down to the bivy from there. We dragged ourselves into camp around 21:00 after a long day of over 2000 meters height gain for me and over 2500 meters for Steven and Ben! All-in-all, Little Alberta is a pile of crappy scree in a mind-blowing scenic area of the Rockies. Does this make the long and tiring trek worth it's rarely visited summit? Only you can decide that!
[More impressive views of the 1500 meter north face of Twin's Tower and Son of a Twin to the right.]
[Traversing ledges around to the west aspect on our way back.]
[Back at the hut, dark clouds are swirling and I'm expecting a snow storm at this point.]
[This is what it's all about! The register is a fascinating read. ;)]
[Still a grind to Woolley Shoulder from near the hut.]
[My favorite shot of the Black Hole and the North Face of Twin's Tower. What a magnetic pull this wall has! I have to quote H. L. Abrons here from 1966; '.So dark, sheer, and gloomy is the North Face of North Twin, like a bad dream.']
[Looking at the bottom of the South Face / Couloir route on Woolley]
[Grunting up the shoulder in fresh snow.]
[A glance back at the brooding giant behind us. ++]
[OK - not quite there yet. Shadows are growing long as we crest the Woolley Shoulder.]
[An incredible early evening view south and west from Woolley Shoulder, including Little Alberta. ++]
[The sun sets on Woolley and Diadem as we arrive back at our bivy.]