John Prater on Mt. Alberta's summit ridge.

Canada 2003

By Bill Wright (
Photos by George Bell (

Written August 2003; Trip dates July 25 - August 3, 2003

[Click on any image for the full size version]

The North Face of Edith Cavell.

Mt. Athabasca from the Sunwapta River Crossing.
Taken the day before during a reconnaissance.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
To me it seems that "alpine" climbing is the most adventurous type of climbing one can do. It also seems that no beginner or even intermediate climber would refer to themselves as an "alpinist" like they might call themselves a trad climber or a sport climber. No, it seems that the moniker, the title, actually, of "alpinist" seems to be reserved for the upper echelon. Hence, I don't refer to myself in such terms, but I do like to dabble in the alpine realm occasionally.

Mark Twight wrote "Alpinism defines mountain climbing reduced to its purest essence." This from a man who typically eschews summits. So what is alpine climbing? It is climbing up mountains, as opposed to just on cliffs. It is climbing while carrying all your gear and not using fixed camps and other people to assist you. The mountains we sought in Canada were mountains that we'd typically need more than a day to climb, but there are always options to compress things. How long is a day? In Canada there was currently 17.5 hours of daylight. That would be useful.

The Canadian Rockies are home to countless beautiful, interesting mountains. Even narrowing the choices down to ones with routes I could manage would still leave a lifetime of routes to choose from. Hence, I used Fifty Classics Climbs to narrow the field further. I've done thirty of these routes and really enjoyed all of them. The final requirement was that no one in our party (myself, the Trashman, Loobster, and Homie) had done them before. The only hurdle here was the Trashman's prodigious climbing record in Canada. We were left with just three choices: Mt. Alberta, Mt. Edith Cavell, and Mt. Robson. The latter is a monstrous mountain, the largest in the Canadian Rockies, and one that is rarely climbed. It frequently goes a year without a successful ascent. Plus the Trashman had attempted the 50CC route on it and thought it was horrible.

The Loobster flew out to Colorado from the Bay Area on Thursday morning so that he could join us for the RV trip north. The Trashman was already in Canada, having gone a week earlier with his wife. We made a plan to meet him at Sunwapta Pass at 7 p.m. on Saturday night. We drove 24 hours straight to meet him, rotating drivers every 2-3 hours. We'd sleep most of the time when we weren't driving, but eating and reading also occupied us. The Loobster was driving when we crossed the border. He'd make a great smuggler because he's such a smooth customer. The border patrol asked him, "Are you carrying any alcohol or firearms?" The Loobster hesitated in his answer, knowing about the refrigerator stocked with beer, and then said, "No." There was another pause and he thought better about lying and then said, "Well, a couple of beers, I think." He had personally bought and placed a case of beer in the RV. He must have looked harmless though, as they waved us through.

Mt. Alberta

Wake up call crossing the Sunwapta River.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Mt. Alberta is a gorgeous, historic mountain with no easy route to the summit. The 50CC route is known as the East Face or the Japanese Route since a team of Japanese climbers made the first ascent. It is rated 5.6, but if you think "only 5.6?" then you know little about alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies. Alberta cannot be seen from any road, and I doubt it has ever seen a one-day ascent from the car. Most parties spend at least four days on the roundtrip.

In order to approach Mt. Alberta, one first has to wade the Sunwapta River. This river isn't very deep, but it is wide and fresh from a glacier. When we crossed it at 7:15 on Sunday morning, it was frigid and my idea of crossing in a simple water moccasin and no socks was a bad one. Blessed with sensitive feet and little tolerance for discomfort, this was a near religious experience. I say near, because there was a heck of a lot of cussing involved. It was estimated that I said twenty cuss words per braid crossing. On the return trip, I'd get smarter. I crossed in my mountain boots with my wool socks. It was also in the afternoon and the river was quite a bit warmer. It was also a bit deeper then, but the only part of me that got chilled was my calves.

Crossing under Diadem Peak
on the endless approach march.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
After crossing the river, changing shoes, and stowing our soaked pairs in the trees, we re-shouldered our packs and trudged up the well-defined climbers' trail leading up Woolley Creek. This trail started with a very steep climb through a moss-floored forest. Afterwards we hiked right next to, over, and sometimes in Woolley Creek. We kept our feet dry on this section, but lots of rock hopping was involved. Eventually we got to the moraine coming off of Mt. Cromwell. We hiked over endless, giant talus blocks and through numerous spider webs. On the way out, we'd read the route description better and hug the creek through this section, finding a reasonable trail.

We entered a box canyon below Mt. Woolley and Diadem Peak with huge glaciers and their ice falls above us. The mountains up here are so awe-inspiring and beautiful. We now had to make the horrific trudge up to Woolley Shoulder. When I first heard "Woolley Shoulder", I figured it was called "Woolley" because it was covered in trees. It wasn't. In fact, for the last three hours of this hike there is no vegetation taller than about six inches and mostly there isn't anything growing except lichen. This is a very stark place consisting of talus everywhere. The hike to the shoulder was the most unpleasant part of the entire trip, made more so by a terrible route finding decision I made when I started up the final slope too early. As a general rule, one should follow the talus gullies and not the talus ridges, hoping to find at least some snow in the gullies.

At the Shoulder, which is really a pass between Woolley and Mt. Englehard, we met a group of eight climbers on their way out. They had stayed in the hut the night before and had just climbed the snow gully route on Mt. Woolley. They were headed back to the highway and informed us that the hut was empty. Our original plans of continuing on beyond the hut to the high bivy suffered their first blow. The final blow came after we stumbled down the talus on the opposite side and slogged across the glacier to the hut. Here a vicious case of Hut Lassitude struck down all four of us. It had taken six hours and over 4000 feet of climbing to reach the hut, and I didn't want to carry these heavy loads any further. I proposed a one-day ascent from the hut, going as light as possible and taking advantage of nearly 18 hours of daylight. It was accepted and we lounged and slept some more. Then we ate and ate and drank in an effort to store enough fuel in our bodies for the long push the next day.

Mt. Alberta from the hut, composite image [click here to see our route marked].
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell

The Loobster contemplates our fate.
North and South Twins behind.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
The alarm went off at 3:15 and we moved about slowly. I stayed in my bag for another fifteen minutes, as I wasn't going to cook anything for breakfast. I just nibbled down two Pop-tarts while lying in my bunk. The previous evening the Loobster and I scoped the approach from the hut. The hut is perched on a rib of rock next to a mountain called Little Alberta. From here we had to drop down 700 vertical feet, cross the rock-strewn glacier and then start up Mt. Alberta. The previous night the Loobster and I scoped the best way to get down off the ridge upon which the hut is perched. We could have dropped down on rock slabs directly from the hut, but that would have deposited us on an ice patch of the glacier and would have involved lots of talus walking. We had decided that it was easier to head out onto the glacier immediately from the hut as the going on the snow was so easy on our bodies, at least while headed downhill, and the footing would be easier in the dark. This involved making a large semi-circle towards the Northeast Ridge of Alberta, staying on snow as much as possible.

We weaved through some crevasses, unroped, and down onto some rock slabs. We connected up snowfields whenever possible, but hiked a lot on a glacier of pure ice that was covered in a thin layer of rocks. Whenever we were careless and placed a boot on the ice itself, we slipped immediately. Making a beeline for the far left side of the East Face, we trudged up an increasingly steep snowfield. Without crampons and kicking very marginal steps, things soon got pretty dicey and I traversed back down to the talus below the snow.

Bill leads us through the lower cliff bands.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Alberta is made up horizontal stratums of cliff bands interspersed with steep, loose talus slopes. We needed to get through two or three bands before we traversed far back to the right to start the roped climbing. How to do this wasn't obvious and no guidebook or even trip report described it very well. Perhaps it is just too difficult to describe. We passed through the first cliff band via 3rd/4th class scrambling just left of the snow slope. Once through that a giant cliff loomed above us. We had assumed from the photos marking the route that we had to traverse all the way to the left skyline and probably go around the corner onto the southern exposure where we'd find a passage through this cliff.

We traversed just a bit, around the prow of the cliff and were daunted with the long talus slope and big snowfield leading way up and left. We knew our route was up and right from our location and the prospect of going so far left did not excite me. I wanted to climb up the mountain more directly. I told the others to wait a second while I scrambled up a diagonal ramp and back around the corner to the right. I climbed up a couple hundred feet and it looked like the route would go. I called down for the others to follow. I certainly hoped I hadn't made a mistake. If we got cliffed out an hour above us, we'd have seriously impacted our chances of success.

We made continuous progress up the cliff band without having to rope up. Short, talus sections broke short, steep sections. Here the rock was layered in two to three inch plates and we all became very adept at the pinch move. We'd pinch a layer above us and step up onto the flat edges. It was fun scrambling and we gained height rapidly, eventually coming to a low 5th class chimney adjacent to a snowy couloir. We climbed up, still unroped, and crossed the top of the couloir via more steep climbing. We found a huge, elaborate rappel anchor here consisting of a section of climbing rope leading from the rappel ring fifty feet up the slope to a shiny new bolt, the only bolt we saw on the mountain. Above here was one of the only cairns on the route. Apparently climbers knock down any cairns on this route as they descend. Maybe it is part of the same brotherhood that restricts any useful information about the lower section from escaping to the general public.

Scary unroped scrambling below the "elephants asses".
Arrows point out 3 climbers. Taken on the descent.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We were now on the talus ledge system below the major cliff band leading to the summit ridge. This cliff band is over a thousand feet tall - taller than the popular Yamnuska cliff near Canmore. This was the meat of the route, but finding the right location to start up was difficult. The guidebooks told us to look for three bulbous buttresses of gray limestone that resemble elephant asses, complete with tails. Finding three of these things takes the creativity of interpreting Rorschach ink blots. We found one elephant's ass and, yes, it did have a tail on it, but it took some imagination. The other two couldn't be found by us. My son Daniel can see all sorts of things in the cloud formations, and I'm sure he could have recognized a couple more asses up here.

Traversing the ledge here was not trivial. The talus is very steep and very loose. There is also quite a bit of snow up here that needs to be avoided and all of this is above a thousand-foot cliff. We traversed looking for what we thought was another key landmark: the high bivy spot. We never found that either. Eventually, I climbed straight up the steep, loose slope and then up 65-degree, soft snow. This was a bit dicey and I slipped down a couple of times. I was headed for a fixed anchor at the base of the cliff band and as soon as I got there, I clipped in and geared up. I called down to the others to don their harnesses and I'd throw down a rope from my perch.

Soon the Loobster had joined me and put me on belay. We were planning on climbing as two teams of two. I'd pair with the Loobster. I was below a weakness in the wall and quite probably the start of our route, but I was troubled by not seeing any rappel anchors above me. The description said that the correct gully to climb would have rappel anchors at regular intervals. Since we were climbing up the easiest route to the summit, we'd also be descending the exact same path. As it turns out that wasn't completely true. We'd retrace our steps exactly except for the first three pitches of the route and this caused us some consternation.

Homie following the gully crossing pitch on the upper cliff band.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Not sure that I was in the right spot, I traversed a very steep snowfield to the right and then further right on steep, loose ground, trying to see what was around the corner. I came face to face with a dead vertical wall of limestone and knew no route existed up that precipice. I retreated back to the gully above our belay and started up it. I could get in a piece just before leaving the snow behind and climbing up onto steep limestone. The climbing demanded care for it was steep, loose rock with long runouts between gear placements. Just before I ran out of rope (each team climbed on a 9mm 50-meter rope), I got to a ledge with some cracks for an anchor. I brought up the Loobster. The Trashman led up, closely following the Loobster, and pointed out a six-foot arch above us on the left. We all thought, "What a prominent feature. If this is the correct start, that should at least be mentioned somewhere in print, yet it is not." The Trashman noticed some hanging tat on the left, so on the second pitch I made a 60-foot, unprotected traverse across a rounded buttress and into the adjacent gully. I didn't start up this gully originally since it was a waterfall at the base of the cliff band. Up higher, I could step over it and then up into a corner system with another crack for a belay anchor.

While the Loobster followed the second pitch, the Trashman climbed directly above our first belay. He reached the same ledge upon which I belayed, though much further to the right. Unfortunately, he couldn't find any anchors that would even hold body weight. As he traversed along the ledge looking for gear he rained serious rockfall down upon Homie. Thankfully, Homie could duck out of the way behind a steep wall. Finally, with purely decorative anchors but using a hopefully secure stance on the large ledge, the Trashman yelled down, "Okay, you're on belay, but don't fall. Ha, ha, ha."

On the summit ridge!
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
At the base of the roped climbing, the Trashman had said to Homie, "I don't know if I want to lead every pitch," and then he appended his characteristic laugh: "Ha, ha, ha" that he does when he is nervous or scared. If you didn't know him better, you'd guess he was kidding. Homie, not nearly the technical rock climber that the Trashman is, wondered, "Then what am I doing roped to you?" Later Homie would say that he'd have been fine leading any pitch on the route, although not as quickly and efficiently as the Trashman. He's obviously getting much more comfortable leading rock in the mountains. Homie did in fact lead a few of the easier pitches up the gully.

While I led a short, steep pitch up to the top of the prow, the Trashman traversed over to join our route. We were all pretty concerned about the lack of rappel anchors and figured we shouldn't go up higher without confirmation we were on route. We could still get down, though, by leaving our own gear and I was reluctant to retreat.

The climbing on the third pitch was 5.6/7 and full, steep stuff. I was elated to find ten slings wrapped around the top of the pillar and equipped with a rappel ring. Homie remembered something about the rappel route not exactly following the climbing route for the lower section and our confidence grew. I followed my nose for the next four or five pitches and always found a rappel anchor from which to belay. We were definitely on route.

Rockfall on the route was an ever-present issue. We tried to minimize it, of course. I climbed as delicately as possible. I'd be in front the entire time, so I was relatively safe from rockfall, but I was acutely aware of my responsibility to the others. Another frequent and unsettling occurrence was the regular serac falls from the glacier on the North Face of North Twin. This sounded exactly like thunder whenever it occurred and I'd anxiously scan the skies for signs of a storm before realizing what it was. The view over to North Twin was staggering. What a face!

Homie on the spectacular summit ridge.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
As I neared the crest of the ridge, I knew we had to start traversing to the right. We needed to cross the snow gully that led to the notch in the ridge. To this end, I led out to the right across 4th class terrain and then up to another anchor. The next pitch would be the crux of the route for me. I traversed over and looked into the couloir. It appeared to be ice and not snow. I debated about crossing right there, but decided to head up the rock a bit further. Not a minute later, the couloir was swept with tremendous rockfall. By a lucky decision, I had narrowly avoided serious injury or death. I looked down at the belay where the Loobster and Homie were watching me carefully. Homie said, "Good decision, dude."

I climbed up a bit higher and placed two solid pieces of gear on the near side of the couloir. I then climbed down into it and found that I was right about it being ice. I tried to kick a step and my boot just bounced off without even making a dent. I could have retreated and put on my crampons, but then everyone would have to do the same. The couloir wasn't that wide. If I could just chop some steps across it, everyone would be able to pass it quickly. I pulled out my axe and got to work.

Chopping furiously between furtive glances up the couloir, I raced against the next volley of rockfall. I was nervous and knew I was directly in the line of fire. I couldn't linger, but I didn't want to fall either. I made the steps big enough so that I was secure. I climbed across and up, heading for a steep weakness in the far wall. I chopped probably fifteen steps before I was across. Making the transition to rock climbing was a bit tricky and I only managed to place one small nut, which would eventually be pulled out because of the pull of the rope. After only twenty feet of exciting climbing, I emerged onto a nice ledge with yet another rappel anchor. I was so relieved.

Myself, Bill and Homie at the summit cairn.
Copyright © 2003 by Lou Lorber
The others followed easily, using my steps. I led one more long pitch and we had gained the summit ridge. We simul-climbed the entire ridge, most of which was pretty easy, but fabulously exposed. There was quite a bit of snow on the ridge and it was bottomless for one brief twenty foot section where I was reduced to swimming up it. There were occasional steep steps, loose slopes, and even walking along a rib of snow a foot wide with drops of 3000 feet on both sides. On this latter section, I took baby steps.

Once we had gained the ridge, we had views of even more mountains, the most striking being the view of Mt. Columbia. This incredible mountain rises up from the river valley on one side and the Columbia Icefield on the other side. The north ridge of that mountain pointed directly at us and I knew this to be a beautiful and serious route, though rated only 5.7 WI 3. I eyed the seemingly desperate traverse across the northwest face to the start of this route and shuddered.

It seemed forever until we finally got to the Step in the ridge. Here it was 25 meters down a 70-degree rock and ice slope. Typically a rope is left fixed here to facilitate return. We all dug in the snow for ten minutes in search of first a fixed anchor and then any solid cracks at all. We eventually rigged something up from two #2 Camalots, an Alien twenty feet away, and a sling. We fixed one of our ropes and I was the first one down, rappelling to the notch and then keeping myself on rappel, as a belay, while I crossed the notch and gained solid ground on the far side.

Slow going on the summit ridge.
On the way down before (above) the step.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Once we were all across, we all roped together with our remaining rope and simul-climbed to the summit. We made the top in 10h40m. I was a bit concerned about running out of daylight before we found our way down the intricate descent. I was not prepared to spend the night out and desperately wanted to make it back to the hut. Once off the technical ground, it would be relatively easy to march across the talus and up the glacier. We only stayed 15 or 20 minutes on top before starting our descent. While up there we ate, rested and took some summit photos. The summit register consisted of a few small film canisters and from a quick glance at the register and the conditions on the route, we figured we had made the first ascent of the year. We also found a Japanese parasol and posed with it. What a striking contrast to this stark and dangerous place.

We traversed back to the Step and I batmanned up the line, using a prussik to protect myself. Once on top, I belayed the others up. Here we divided back into two roped teams for the tedious, but spectacular ridge traverse. We did one single-rope rappel down to a ledge. Here the anchor consisted of an old pin and a fixed hex. I put in a #2 Camalot as a back-up and waited for the others.

Time was of the essence if we were to make it down through the technical portions before it got dark. Leagues of climbers have been benighted on this descent and forced to bivy. I wasn't prepared for that and was determined not to be one of them. Unfortunately, rappelling with four climbers is a slow process. I was anxious and chastised the Loobster and Homie for moving slowly. Homie bit back hard, going on a bit of a tirade. I remained mute and let him play it out. He argued correctly that he wasn't moving slowly at all, but doing the necessary tasks that had to be done: re-racking the gear and giving it to Trashy in order to back-up the anchors and coiling our second rope for this first single-rope rappel. I was overly anxious and failed to think of this, pissing off my friend with my unjustified impatience. I was too urgent here and not helping matters. Thankfully I settled down and the rest of the descent went smoothly and as fast as we could, while still making things safe.

I leaned back on the rappel anchor, heard a "ping", and was immediately dropped two feet. The Loobster was already grabbing at me, but I wasn't falling any further. "What happened?" I asked. "The pin pulled!" said the Loobster. Thank goodness for backups. We ended up leaving behind a new sling at this anchor. The hex seemed good and three of us tested it. The Loobster was the last one down and he pulled the backup Camalot before coming down.

Alpenglow on North Twin, it's getting late!
Copyright © 2003 by Lou Lorber
We continued down, reinforcing rappel anchors as we saw fit. We left a couple of new slings and even one big stopper. We didn't want to take any chances of an anchor pulling. At one station we used seven or eight slings to backup the existing anchor for the first three down. The last guy down, Loobster once again, pulled the backup and retrieved all the slings. I was usually the first man down, searching for the next anchor and getting the ropes to fall. Trashy was our anchor inspector and reinforcer. Homie specialized in pulling the ropes and they never got stuck, even on the diagonal, couloir rappel. We all feared the prospect of having to re-climb a pitch to retrieve a rope.

One rap anchor had attached to it a 20' section of cord, clearly intended to keep the ropes from catching on, and pulling off a large pile of rubble just under the main anchor. However this cord was sun bleached and we didn't use it. Instead the Trashman tried to stabilize the rubble, since everyone was above he simply shoved the loosest rocks off. These bounded violently down the gully with tremendous force and noise, it was a sobering demonstration of how dangerous rockfall was in this gully. Fortunately our ropes did not snag the remaining rubble while pulling.

We made it back down to the talus and then reversed our path down the mountain. We did a single-rope rappel at the elaborate couloir anchor at the top of the next rock band and then we did a final double-rope rappel at the bottom of the penultimate rock band. On this last rappel, I only clipped one of the rope lines into my device. Thankfully, Trashy noticed this mistake and yelled out, "Stop!" before I could weight the anchor. We then picked our way through the last rock band and down talus to the rock-strewn glacier. It got dark then and we trudged the last 45 minutes back up to the hut, arriving at 11:15 p.m. after just over 19 hours on the move.

The morning after, everybody's psyched!
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We got water and cooked up a bunch of noodles to eat, not getting to bed until 12:30 a.m. Despite the late night, I was up at 7:30 the next morning and heading over to greet our neighbors. Another party had arrived while we were climbing on Monday but had slept in their tent instead of the hut because they knew we'd be arriving late and would disturb their sleep. They were headed for the same route, and I gave them all the beta I could remember. Today they were just headed for the high bivy so they wouldn't summit, if at all, until their third day out. I think this is a more typical ascent. I was a bit concerned that they only had one 60-meter lead rope and a 30-meter line to fix at the Step. That meant they could only do 30-meter rappels on the way down. One of them said to me, "I just figured it would be set up for 25-meter raps." What did this joker think he was heading for? A sport climb? Supposedly they were experienced and we found out later that both times made the top and got back down.

We lounged around the entire morning. The weather was absolutely perfect, better than our summit day. We laid everything out to dry and there was hardly a breath of wind. This time here was maybe the best of the trip. The scary climb was over and successful, we were in the midst of awesome, beautiful, tremendous mountains, but with no agenda to go anyplace scary. We just enjoyed the views, the weather, and the company. I think we also dreaded the hike out and wanted to put it off as long as possible.

By 1 p.m. we were starting across the glacier, heading for the highway and, for Trashy and Loobster, some cold beers. We pounded up to Woolley Shoulder, only 45 minutes into the hike, and took an extended break. Apparently we still had some trouble getting motivated. Loobster had been dreading the descent but it went nicely and easily by keeping on our mountain boots and doing an extensive amount of scree surfing. This was non-trivial scree surfing because so many of the blocks were pretty large - up to basketball size and you had about twenty or thirty feet of scree moving around you. I had to be very careful so that nothing rolled up onto my ankles. We also stuck to the gullies down below and took advantage of any snow we could find. Still, it was long and arduous and I was glad to finally reach the RV. We took about 4.5 hours to hike out.

Mt. Edith Cavell

North Face of Edith Cavell in Profile, route follows approximately the left skyline (composite image, taken during the descent)
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell

Once back at the RV, we headed further north towards Jasper and Mt. Edith Cavell. We found a very tight camping situation up there and after getting rejected from one campground, we tried another despite the sign that said it was full. The lady at the check-in initially confirmed the campground was completely full so we turned around and started to head out, but when we asked about a shower somehow it came up that they had a site, but "it was by the garbage." Lady, can you let us decide if we want the site or not. We turned around again to check-in and now she said, "Oh, a better site has just opened up." No one had come by the kiosk, so no new information had come to her, yet now, sixty seconds after we initially were told there were no spots, there are at least two. This was my first experience with a rude and somewhat incompetent Canadian and, yes, she was a FRENCH Canadian. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Recon the day before, finding a route to
the Angel Glacier left of this waterfall.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
On Wednesday morning we moved a bit slow. After first waiting in line to get an electrical site at the Whistler's campground, we eventually drove into Jasper to see if the guys at Gravity Gear could give us a current conditions report on the North Face. Trashy was acting a bit reluctant to get on this face, and I didn't need anyone giving me an out. The North Face of Edith Cavell is 5400 vertical feet from the parking lot and almost all of it is technical. It is a dark, icy, forbidding place from which there is no escape but up. It is easy to find excuses not to get on such a face, but the weather was great and if ever I was to do this route, I needed to get on it now.

The owner of Gravity Gear proved to be a bit recalcitrant with route and condition information. He warmed up eventually, but wasn't very enthusiastic about talking about climbing. He had done the route before, but only once and knew of no one that had done the route yet this year. His one recommendation was to bring a picket to protect the final moves through the cornice on the summit.

From there we headed up to check out the initial rock buttress of our route. We had decided to attempt a one-day ascent of the route and that would require us climbing the lower buttress in the dark. We needed to be across the Angel Glacier and over the bergschrund before the rockfall started to heat up. Hence, we wanted to climb the crux section of the buttress to familiarize ourselves with it.

Trashy and I were planning to team up for the North Face while Homie and Loobster would do the East Ridge. So while Trashy and I scoped out the lower buttress, the other two checked out the climber's trail that led into the moraine and from there up to the saddle below the East Ridge. Trashy and I hiked up a well-defined climber's trail for twenty minutes to the base of the lower wall. We scrambled for a couple hundred feet and then pulled out the rope as things got steeper. I led up a couple of full rope lengths, noticing the lack of fixed rappel anchors (at least for single rope raps), but not overly concerned. Once atop the technical difficulties we unroped and while Trashy relaxed and studied the face, I continued up the 4th class climbing to the top of the wall and up the talus until I was looking down on the Angel Glacier. I was pleased and surprised that it had only taken me 90 minutes from the car to get to this point. Granted I didn't have my boots on and I wasn't carrying a full climbing pack, but we were told this took 2.5-3 hours. My confidence grew.

View of the Face from the
Angel Glacier at 6 AM
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
I descended back down to the Trashman and we rappelled off, leaving gear at three of the four rappel stations. We'd be back early the next morning to retrieve the gear. We all regrouped at the car and headed into Jasper for an early dinner. Back at our campsite we packed for the next day. We decided to take a single 60-meter 8.1mm rope. We'd climb on it doubled up most of the time. Our pitches would be shorter, but we'd be traveling light. I put together a rack of nine Aliens, a full set of stoppers, two #1 Camalots, and one #2 Camalot. We also carried seven ice screws of varying length and Homie's picket. We each took only two liters of water and GU's and bars for food. I took two pairs of clothes, expecting wet conditions on the ice and snow.

We set the alarm for 3 a.m., much too early for Homie and Looby, but we'd all just ride in Trashy's rental car up to the parking lot so they'd have to live with our schedule. They'd also get down a lot earlier than us, so they packed books and drinks to occupy their time.

We left the car around 4:20 a.m., each party going our separate ways right from the car. The Trashman and I headed up familiar terrain to the base of the lower buttress. We doubled our thin rope and I took the lead. We simul-climbed the steep section and retrieved all our gear from the day before. I led us up the upper 3rd and 4th class section and over and down to the Angel Glacier. We had taken only 80 minutes to get here from the car.

Crossing the bergschrund,
maximum rockfall danger!
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We changed into our mountain boots and crampons and pulled out one axe to climb the glacier. I was doing the entire climb in a thin pair of running tights. I had some cheap shell pants, but I'd never put them on. The Trashman's attire consisted of shorts covered in Gortex bibs. The Trashman took the lead and we roped up for the glacier. Trashy fell in a couple of crevasses up to his crotch, but other than that we moved steadily up to the bergschrund.

Trashy found an easy crossing of the 'schrund, then climbed twenty feet of rock before encountering solid ice. He pulled his second tool and front pointed up forty feet of ice to more rock and a belay. I followed and had the ice bridge at the bergschrund collapse down four feet on me. My heart skipped a beat, but it was over before I knew what had happened. I moved quickly over to the rock and up to the ice.

At the belay, I stripped off my crampons and just clipped them to my gear sling. I led up 4th class rock, unbelayed, while the Trashman stripped off his crampons and stowed them and his axes on the pack. We reversed this procedure at the next belay, trying to always keep the leading moving. Trashman led a long, ledge traverse to the left. He was slowed by some ice and difficult protection. I simul-climbed when he ran out of rope.

Our route as seen from the parking area.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
When the Trashman belayed, I took over the lead. I climbed up steep, low 5th class rock and soon we were simul-climbing again. With our doubled rope, we could only go a hundred feet before simul-climbing became necessary. With the Trashman simul-climbing below me, I climbed right up to the major ice band that traversed the entire face. There were no rock anchors here and I had to continue. It was hard ice, so, in the middle of the pitch, I pulled off my pack and donned crampons and two tools. Before doing so I yelled down, "Trashy, are you in a good spot? I need to switch to ice climbing gear." He was at a good stance and patiently waited.

Once armed for ice, the crossing was easy. I nearly made it across before the Trashman had to don his crampons. I did manage to get in a single good piece at the start of the rock band, but we had no gear between us for at least forty or fifty feet of climbing. Once at the rock band I climbed up to a good, protected stance and belayed. When the Trashman joined me, we stripped off the ice gear once again and stowed it on our packs.

The next pitch was a 5.6 chimney/slot with a few fixed pins. The Trashman led up this, saying he wouldn't want to simul-climb it. When he ran out of rope, I didn't want to bother him with stressful details. I pulled the belay and started simul-climbing. I was feeling very solid climbing on this rock in my boots. I stemmed most of the way up the pitch, while adjusting the slack in the line. Trashman yelled down at one point, "How much rope do I have?" I responded, "Enough."

Trashy set up a belay before the "thin traverse" and I was up the slot below before he had me on belay. I started leading the thin traverse right over to a pedestal below the main rock buttress. This was a bit delicate as it was steep, sparsely protected, and running with water. The climbing wasn't too hard, though, and I took the time to be solid. When the Trashman followed he informed me that he'd rather not lead any of the steep rock pitches in his boots as he wasn't feeling that confident in them. I was feeling great and agreed to lead the rest of the rock on the route. Trashy was our designated "Ice Man", because he was a much better and more experienced ice climber. I wanted him to arrive at the thousand-foot summit icefield feeling mentally fresh and ready to go.

Bill casually cruising the crux rock pitches.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Just like on Mt. Alberta, Trashy and I were retreated to the cacophony of regular serac fall. This time it was the Angel Glacier below us that calved off every couple of hours. Rockfall was also a danger and rained down upon me a couple of times down low, before we got up tight to the steepest features, and a few times on the upper mountain when debris rained down the weaknesses we climbed.

We were now below a very steep buttress. The rock on Edith Cavell is not the crumbly limestone that we found on Mt. Alberta, but is very solid quartzite that fractures into very flat, positive edges. The climbing for the next four pitches was nearly dead vertical, but was peppered with numerous great hand and foot holds. The climbing here is rated 5.7 and we mostly agreed. We thought one pitch was about 5.8. The cruxes on each pitch seem pretty short and then you get a great rest, frequently standing on a three-inch foothold to place gear. In fact, I never was stressed placing gear as I always had a good stance. We still climbed on our doubled rope, as the pitches here are pretty short. Clearly we could have combined them by using just the single line, but belays set-up quickly and we moved well, covering these four pitches in just over an hour.

Above the buttress was lots of mixed climbing. I'm sure most climbers would switch to ice gear here and stick to the ice, but I'm a rock specialist, and I pieced together rock islands for three or four more pitches up to the final rock buttress. I stemmed across ice sections, sometimes cut a step in the ice, and kicked up a small snow section to avoid putting on the crampons. At one point, I climbed through some very loose rock and had to run things out fifty feet or more to a marginal belay. We simul-climbed a lot of this section, but re-grouped for gear a few times.

The crux slimy rock moves.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
At the final rock band, I led up one pitch to the base of a very intimidating wall. It was dead vertical, mossy, wet, and with limited protection possibilities. A fixed pin at the start was evidence that we weren't the first to run into this obstacle. I brought the Trashman up to give me a good solid belay. Our belay anchor was just wrapping our lead rope around a huge spike of rock on our sloping stance. I climbed up steep snow, trying not to crush it down too much since it would serve as my last good foothold, and clipped the old pin. I could reach up and get my hands on a big edge that sloped up and left. It also sloped out a bit and wasn't very positive. I basically did a pull-up on this hold and put my right boot on a quarter-inch edge. I then hand traversed a bit up and left and then hung from my hands as I swung over to the left and a good foothold for my left foot. I jammed in what I thought was a marginal Alien, but I'd find out later that the Trashman aided off this piece. I had to do one more fairly intense climbing move to get up to easier ground. This climbing was at least 5.9 and the Trashman thought it was 5.10 (certainly felt tough with boots and pack) before he decided to aid it.

I continued up easier rock searching for a decent belay anchor, but never finding one. I eventually got in three marginal pieces and braced myself in loose rock to hold the Trashman. I was very relieved that he didn't come off climbing this section and when he joined me at the belay, we switched to ice gear for the last thousand feet of the climb.

Trashy led out right into a prominent, broad couloir. The ice surface was covered in 6-8" of wet, slushy snow. The snow generally wasn't enough to stand on and we'd have to use frontpoints and two axes to gain ground, but occasionally we'd be able to stand flatfooted in the snow and it provided a welcome rest. The angle was about 55-60 degrees, considerably steeper than we had anticipated.

Looking down the final snow field.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Trashy went out about fifty feet, now climbing on a single line, and got in a piece of rock protection at an outcrop. Fifty feet higher, he put in an ice screw and fifty feet above that, more rock gear. After he ran out two hundred feet of rope, I started climbing behind him. Trashy was working hard on the front, breaking trail and setting all the screws. He was stressed about snow conditions and fearful that it would slide. After about five hundred feet, he looked down to see a single ice screw between us. The void tugged at his mind and he was not comfortable with the situation. I wasn't that stressed out. I had Trashy leading the way and doing a great job. I felt there was no chance I'd fall and if I did, the forces would be low and the screws would hold. If the entire slope slid, we'd be in trouble, but we had no choice in our route and worrying about that was not productive for me.

Trashy was now in deep snow, a foot and a half deep, and he couldn't find any ice for protection. Finally he dug down deep into the snow and placed two bomber screws. I climbed up to join him. He wanted me to lead a pitch up to near the summit. We had probably 300 or so feet to go. I took all the screws and set off up the slope. I found an ice runnel and followed it for a long ways, heading straight for the forbidden shale at the top. I followed this route because it was pure ice and I didn't have to excavate placements and I didn't have to break trail, but I knew I'd have to go left around the shale. After two hundred feet and using all the screws, save two for a belay, I stopped to bring Trashy up.

When Trashy arrived and looked up at the intimidating shale and vertical top- out, he hesitated a bit. I could tell he didn't want to lead any more. He had done more than his share of the ice climbing. I offered to take the lead and, somewhat relieved, he accepted. He then said, "How come, after your accident, you didn't become more fearful of climbing?" It was a curious thing to say at a time like this, but he followed it up with: "I find that as I get older, climbing scares me a lot more than it used to." I wanted to reassure him and answering honestly did so. "Trashy, my accident was a mistake. Actually, a whole series of mistakes. I understand what I did wrong and I've learned from it. I know climbing is dangerous, but I'm fitter now, I'm more experienced now, and I'm more confident in my abilities now. Hence, I fear less."

The final pitches up to the shale band.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
I took off on the final ropelength, placing screws every forty feet of so. I placed my last one maybe thirty feet down from the summit. I knew it would be my last piece. I had a picket strapped to my pack, but I wouldn't bother pulling it off unless nothing else worked. I followed ice to within ten feet of the lip and then it turned into vertical snow. This section was the most precarious of the climb for me and I slipped down a few heart-stopping times, before catching in the snow. I finally hammered on of my axes into the hard snow as a picket and then mantled onto it, rolling onto the summit. We'd done it.

My hands were completely numb from being in the wet snow for so long. I put in a piece and stripped off all my gear. I managed to get Trashy on belay before the agony of defrosting hit me. For the next ten minutes I cussed silently in tremendous and all-too-familiar pain. This was one of the reasons I don't ice climb anymore. This pain is horrific. I like alpine climbing, though, and I'll continue, but I need better gloves for this stuff. I figured it was a warm summer day and didn't think of the obvious: wet snow is cold, no matter what the season.

Trashy soon joined me on the summit and we were both elated. I gave him a hug. What a great partner and companion he is. I'm lucky to have done a number of my biggest climbs with him. This was our sixth 50CC climb together and that list included The Titan, Direct South Buttress of Mt. Moran, the North Face of the Grand Teton, Shiprock, and now Mt. Alberta and Edith Cavell. He's rock solid. I walked over and tagged what looked to be a higher summit to the east. Of course, from there, the true summit a bit to the west of our top-out looked higher. We signed the register and noticed the entry for Homie and Loobster. I was a little disappointed that they hadn't left us a note, maybe with the summit time so that we'd know how far behind we were.

On the summit!
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
A father and son team had just topped out on the East Ridge and while we relaxed and ate, we watched them flail on the descent. They obviously started down the wrong way and after a hundred feet of descending, then climbed back up. They started down the correct way, but peeled off too soon and were downclimbing some horrible loose section when we went by them. They had done a number of good mountains while up here on vacation from Georgia, though, and I wondered how they pulled it off.

The West Ridge descent is best left unmentioned, but I'll make a few comments. It starts by descending 3200 feet of mostly nasty talus and scree. Most of it moves and most of it is far too large for any scree surfing. Tired from our ascent, we had to be careful not to injure ourselves, but we also wanted to get down and get back to the car without delay. Once off the unpleasant upper section, we found a beautiful climber's trail that led us all the way down to the Tonquin Valley trail. Once down on this nice flat trail, I set a motivated pace, mainly to end the hiking as quickly as possible. Only thirty minutes from the car did we finally switch out of our boots and into our sticky-rubber shoes. I decided to hike fast until 15 hours had elapsed and if I wasn't done by then, I'd take things easier. I finished in 14h59m. Things just worked on this climb.

Homie and Loobster had been down for 2.5 hours, but they still seemed in good spirits and we traded stories about our climbs. They had taken things easy and slow, knowing speed would only grant them more waiting time down at the car. They ascended in 6.5 hours, spent over an hour on the summit, and completed the roundtrip in 12.5 hours. They remarked seeing that someone claimed a 3- hour ascent of the East Ridge. They enjoyed the descent route every bit as much as we did. Homie remarked that he was a bit disappointed by the lower part of the ridge, as it was trivial Class 2 climbing. The upper section redeemed the route for him and he enjoyed the fun, exposed scrambling. They had brought a small rope and rack, but used neither. The crampons and ice axe were only used briefly as well, so they were more heavily burdened than necessary.

We headed back to the campground for a revitalizing shower and a hearty meal. On Friday morning we slept in until 8 a.m. and then unpacked the gear and stowed it away. By 9:30 a.m. we were headed into Jasper for breakfast and shopping. We managed to kill most of the day lounging around Jasper. I like this little town. This would be our one complete day of rest on the trip, besides the drive up and back, of course, but those aren't all that restful when you never stop moving.


A month ago, while celebrating my tenth anniversary up here with Sheri, I climbed my first and only route at Yamnuska, the storied limestone cliff twenty minutes west of Canmore. Most of the luminary Canadian alpinists have left their mark on this thousand-foot precipice. Sheri and I had hiked to the top of the mountain and then I scampered up a 5.5 route called Easy Street in my running shoes. The climbing was fun and I wanted to go back for more. We planned on climbing at the cliff until noon on Saturday and then heading for home.

Fires were raging all over the Canadian Rockies. In addition to the fire near Jasper, we encountered one near Lake Louise on our way back south and then the worst smoke was around Canmore. We could barely see Yamnuska as we drove toward it that afternoon because of the smoke in the air. We noticed the "No Camping" signs as we pulled into the parking lot, but hoped that no one would check on us. We tried to get a site in Banff, but they were full and told us everywhere else would be full as well. Just before midnight a conservation officer banged on our door and rousted us. Still half asleep, I opened the door prepared to give our sob story of no campsites. He said, "You guys are illegally camping here. I'd write you a ticket, but you're from Colorado so I have two options: arrest you or get you guys to move. I prefer the latter." "So do I," I said. He told us the campground just down the road still had some sites and in less than a minute we were driving out of there.

The next morning we were treated to a drunken woman screaming obscenities of the vilest nature nearly non-stop at her male companion. I half expected it to end with gunfire, but, apparently and luckily, neither was armed. We racked and packed and headed for the cliff parking lot. We were hiking by 7:15 or so and I was setting a hard pace to make up for lost time. The pace was hard enough and the trail steep enough to blow apart the peloton. First to drop off was the Trashman. After a thousand vertical feet, the Loobster cracked, let Homie pass him, and fell off the back. Homie and I dueled up the hill like Armstrong and Ullrich. I hiked as fast as I could, but still Homie was breathing down my neck. He wasn't even breathing hard. I was huffing and puffing, but trying to minimize the noise and being in front helped this effort. I'd consciously breath slowly whenever rounding a switchback so that he wouldn't know I was working so hard, but the sweat streaming off me was a telltale sign.

We did the 1500-vertical-foot approach in 38 minutes and threw down the packs directly under our chosen route: The Grillmair Chimneys. This 8-pitch, 5.6 route was the first one done on the cliff back in 1952 by Leo Grillmair, Hans Gmoser (later CMH heli-skiing founder), and three others. This was a 2-star (out of 3) route, very popular, and I was sure we could climb it quickly.

Loobster following and Homie leading the crux pitch.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We should have climbed around the loose scrambling directly below the route, but I just headed up instead, dragging the rope behind me and knocking down some rocks. I roped up with the Loobster and Homie and Trashman followed us as a separate team. I led quickly up the first pitch, placing a single piece and brought the Loobster up. The next pitch up behind a giant pillar was considerably tougher and probably the crux of the route, at least the way we did it. I climbed up a steep crack to the left of the huge chimney and then traversed into the chimney and up to the top of the pillar. Homie led this pitch in the same fashion and was slowed by the steep crack, falling behind the Loobster and I. I climbed a bit fast here as I had all three of them waiting on me as I led the second pitch. I don't like to be holding up so many people, so I worked to get a bit of a gap and reduce the stress on me.

I ran up another couple of fun pitches. At the top of the fourth pitch I yelled down to Homie, "Nice job," as he topped out the second pitch, but got no response. At the time I thought he was either pissed, stressed or both. I figured my pace might be adding to his woes and the Loobster and I continued at a much slower speed. As it turns out he probably just didn't hear me or I didn't hear his response. Homie was happy and psyched about the route when he got to the top, so I probably worried needlessly. The climbing was all fun and mostly easy so it went quickly no matter what I did. We took lots of photos and moved casually the rest of the way.

The final pitch is by far the best on the route. From the start of the pitch, things look intimidating. A chimney leads steeply to the top of the wall , apparently finishing up a steep headwall. Fortunately, we knew the route burrowed into the chimney and topped out via a hole in the back. Even the initial chimney didn't really require any chimney technique. We all stemmed up the outside of the chimney via great hand and footholds that were unseen from below. This pitch is festooned with fixed pitons, more than the rest of the route combined, so it was well protected too. I could barely squeeze through the hole at the top with my Camelback on but once I did I was on flat ground. What a cool finish to a climb. This route is highly recommended as a fun romp.

Both this route and the Japanese Route on Mt. Alberta are rated 5.6 and both ratings are accurate, yet the former feels like a very serious endeavor while the latter is just a casual romp. Using just the technical rating to compare these climbs is a joke. The technical climbing on the Japanese Route is at least 50% longer than this route, the protection is considerably worse, the rock quality is much worse and the rockfall danger much greater. These two routes greatly contrast the differences between alpine climbing and cragging and competence at a particular cragging rating does not imply competence at the same alpine grade.

Homie leads the spectacular final pitch.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Loobster and I waited for Homie and Trashy at the top, taking photos of each one as they popped out the hole at the top like a couple of prairie dogs. Homie had swung leads with Trashy all the way up and just by chance had led most of the harder pitches. Homie could be a lot better rock climber if he cared enough to do it more. I guess it's enough to be the intercontinental mountain champion.

We hiked down the trail to the east end of the cliff and then along the base towards where we left the packs. I wanted more. Loobster had been concerned about getting back to Boulder pretty early on Sunday, but he was game for another quick route. Homie was content with having done the one route and was feeling "grumpy," which I now know means he had to dook, so he headed back to the trailhead. I actually thought he was truly grumpy. Homie gets real quiet and uncommunicative when he's unhappy. Trashy decided to placate his wife and forego the drive home with us and another route. He booked back to his pack and headed for the airport to catch a 3 p.m. flight.

The Loobster and I headed up a route called Dickel that is three pitches long and rated 5.7/8. Looking up from the base at the crux second pitch was a bit intimidating. A vertical corner was split by a crack and the climbing looked sustained. I pulled on my slippers, tied into the rope and made my way up the first pitch. The guidebook gives this route one star and says that it deserves more traffic. We'd soon readily agree.

I climbed up and right beneath a roof and then up steep rock to a tricky move back to the left and the fixed belay. I thought this move was 5.7, but the pitch was only rated 5.6. The Loobster followed quickly and I headed right on the 5.7 traverse that starts the second pitch. I clipped one fixed pin and then moved up into the steep corner. The climbing here was fabulous, the best of the day. Very steep climbing was protected nicely by the accommodating crack. Four-inch footholds providing good rests and pro-placement stances interrupted steep challenging climbing. I clipped a few pins and placed a couple of pieces before getting to a nice stance. I threw in four pieces of gear, expecting the Loobster to have some trouble on the pitch, but I needn't have been so cautious. The Loobster waltzed up the pitch easier than I did. His decades of rock experience can compensate for nearly a year without much rock climbing.

The last pitch was easy and I was on top in only a few minutes. The Loobster followed and we both made the top in less than an hour from the base. Fifteen minutes later we were back at the base of the route and thirty minutes after that we had retrieved our packs from the base of the Grillmair Chimneys and were back at the RV, driving toward home.

Getting around and through Calgary was the usual mess. Why a city of over a million people doesn't have a highway through it is either a testament to their love of traffic lights or their lack of wanderlust. We simplified matters this time by just biting the bullet and taking Highway 1 East right through town to Highway 2 South. This was slow and annoying, but relatively simple, except for the monkey business on 2 South.

The drive home was long and hot, but thankfully uneventful. Loobster again panicked at the border crossing. This time he lied about the value of the goods that he bought. Having purchased a $500 Ammolite gem for his wife Martha, when asked by the border patrol for the total value he said, "Ah, $35?" What a Loobster.

I wrote this trip report when it wasn't my turn to drive. These trips are great because you're excited to go on them and have lots of fun anticipation; they are fun to do with all the nice climbing and great companions; and, finally, they're great to come back from as I missed my buttercup and my two boys.

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