Mt Alberta, North-West Ridge: with Barry Blanchard


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New Zealand
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 15, 2018 - 01:10am PT
There is very little to be found on this relatively obscure route. (1st Ascent: Barry Blanchard and Jim Elzinga, 1990. Grade V 5.9 A3) After a lot of fruitless searching I decided to go right to the source. Barry was "happy to contribute"

He gave me access to an excerpt about the climb from his forthcoming second book. He devotes an entire chapter about the North-West Ridge climb in it. A new book from Barry will be welcome news to those who are familiar with 'The Calling'.

Excerpt from 'The Recall'(working title) by Barry Blanchard:

The black rock got steeper. Water ran from the summit icefield. We climbed around glistening wet strips and with each pitch the climbing got harder, 5.8, 5.9. Eventually we stood on top of a small pinnacle with the sheer rock of the north face sweeping away to our left for 1500 feet to the northeast ridge. Our commitment felt total - it would be far easier to get over the top and down the Japanese route than it would be to retreat. But the next pitch looked to be the most difficult yet. If we couldn’t get up it, we’d have to retreat our route and the immensity of that scared me. I’d been down the Japanese route, I knew I could get down there and that knowledge granted me some confidence.

“F*#k, is that a sling out on the wall to the left?” I asked. A foot-long piece of white webbing lay against the black rock undoubtedly tied through the eye of a piton that we could not discern.

“Yes, yes, it is. Sh#t, someone must have been here before.” Second ascents are not first ascents. There is little accolade bestowed on the second ascent, Jimmy and I loved accolade.

“I guess, but I’m not going out there. It looks like no man’s land out there.”

Cracks lead to a higher pinnacle that I tied off with a prussic cord and clipped both of my ropes in. A left leaning diagonal crack lead to a shallow corner and the promise of a groove, and chimney, leading off of the face. The rock was running with water and within 15 feet my chalk bag had turned into white mud and my toes were numb with cold inside sodden rock shoes. Reaching for an etrier, I stepped into aid.

“You got this brother!” Jimmy shouted from the belay, “I don’t know anyone who can climb this stuff like you can. You are the man!”

The next 50 feet took an hour for me to stitch together. A3, if I’d ripped any of my placements I would have been going for a long fall as a number of pieces would fail as they became weighted with more than bodyweight. Water, cold, frozen fingers, wet feet, I fretted over blowing a placement and tried to be as careful and weightless as possible each time I stood up in my etriers. And like all aid climbers I stopped breathing, then swore, every time the carabiners I weighted stacked onto each other and settled with a “SNAP!” and a jerk. That always scares the hell out of me. I stepped off of aid and free climbed to the snowline. Jimmy jumared with both of our packs and a backup belay on the second rope.

“I don’t know how the hell you climbed that.” He panted at my anchor.
“Oh, you know, courage, determination, skill, cunning, all that crap. Plus, the fact that I HAD to.”
“Well I’m bloody GLAD you did.”

One rope length of ice that laid back and we untied, coiled the ropes, and kicked steps up pure white snow to the summit of Mt Alberta.
Jimmy looked happy on top, the Athabasca River flowing out to merge with the Chaba just over his right shoulder, 7000 feet below and twelve and half miles away.

“There you go! The northwest ridge. Too bad it might have already been climbed.”

“Ya, who knows, that sling might have been a lower-off point.”[1]

We hightailed it for the rappels down the Japanese route.

Thanks to Barry Blanchard
Delhi Dog

Good Question...
Nov 15, 2018 - 02:06am PT
Hey Avery!
Hope you're doing well.

Nice to see you back...remember...keep yer thick skin handy.
Chris Jones

Social climber
Glen Ellen, CA
Nov 15, 2018 - 10:06am PT
Relatively obscure is correct - but then it is on an epic mountain!

In early August of 1970, at the wonderful but dreary Banff club house of the Alpine Club of Canada, I ran into Denny Eberl and Gray Thompson, who like myself had been washed out of the Bugaboos. They were in low spirits, having climbed nothing. But a common interest in Mt. Alberta and Mt. Columbia soon fired them up, the sodden Bugaboos forgotten.

Denny and Gray had already been into Mt. Alberta by fording the Sunwapta River and crossing Woolley Shoulder, and did not relish repeating the experience. The alternative hike up the Athabasca River caught our imagination as the classic approach, having been used by the 1925 Japanese first-ascent party to Alberta. After two days of fair going, in magnificent scenery, we camped on the river flats below where Mt. Alberta should be, if only it was visible. For our first climb Denny and Gray had the northwest ridge of Alberta in mind. It did not sound too exciting, but in our view was the best option from the west side. We toiled up scree to a bivouac near a saddle, and a sinister note jammed in a tin can left by a 1963 Vulgarian Club party: “Go back, go back to the pass, you will all be killed.” The next day was miserable; a stiff wind kept us cold all day while we probed for a route route on Alberta’s black and evil rock. Unable to make an adequate belay, in fact any belay, I said I’d rather unrope than continue. In the end I stayed tied in, but was way too anxious as Denny boldly attempted an unlikely rib. Nervous and discouraged, we threw in the towel. Denny retreated, possibly leaving the white sling spotted by Barry Blanchard and Jim Elzinga. We had no bivouac gear and seemed to be on the wrong route - or at least a route above our commitment level.

The photos above bring our attempt forcefully back to mind. The real climbing lies around the other side of the defining pillar seen in the photos above.

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
Nov 15, 2018 - 02:36pm PT
Well there you go, straight from the horses(s) mouth.

Nov 15, 2018 - 03:46pm PT
Love stumbling onto your threads, Avery!


Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Nov 15, 2018 - 04:54pm PT
Strong work, Avery! You da MAN!

Nov 15, 2018 - 05:13pm PT
Thank you

Nov 15, 2018 - 06:01pm PT
good to see you back Avery! nice work as usual...

and thanks to blanchard for the goods and jones for the [likely] rest of the story! quality.

finally domngo: don’t think i’ve seen a shot of alberta from that angle... super sweet to understand both the north and west faces in the same shot... what were you up to when you took those shots and/or what was the vantage point?

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Nov 15, 2018 - 07:45pm PT
Avery...I’m in NZ. Slde shoes in Christchurch on 11/21 (Patagonia) and 12/5 (Latok). How do I reach you...dinner is on me.

Nov 16, 2018 - 04:10pm PT
Vantage point was a Piper PA-23... We were flying ~12'500 & 9'500 ft across the rockies in between survey projects.

more here!

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Nov 16, 2018 - 04:45pm PT
Hope you were in a PA-23 Aztec and not an Apache.
Apaches at that altitude take two to pedal.

Cool shot.
Bad Climber

Trad climber
The Lawless Border Regions
Nov 16, 2018 - 05:07pm PT
Canadian Rockies badassery bump. I love those peaks, but they're piles of crap and take a certain type of person to handle the loose, often unprotected climbing. Looking forward to Blanchard's second book. I loved the first one. Go read it if you haven't.

Thanks, Avery.


Trad climber
Nov 16, 2018 - 06:12pm PT
Sometimes choss is fun in its' own way.

The Good Places
Nov 16, 2018 - 09:12pm PT
I like dis

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Nov 16, 2018 - 09:24pm PT
Sometimes choss is fun

It ain’t supposed to be. Yer girl friend is.

New Zealand
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 25, 2018 - 06:03pm PT

Canadian Alpine Journal 1995
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
Nov 26, 2018 - 09:57pm PT
" And like all aid climbers I stopped breathing, then swore, every time the carabiners I weighted stacked onto each other and settled with a “SNAP!” and a jerk. That always scares the hell out of me."

Hee hee. Definitely not an aid climber.

That climb looks absolutely horrifying.... no thanks!

Dom n go? Is that like a girl in leather with a whip at a drive-thru window? [Great photos, buddy - when are we doing another wall?]
Hurtin Albertan

Mountain climber
Canmore, Alberta
Nov 27, 2018 - 01:30pm PT
Wow, great to hear from you, Chris, and good to know who it was up there after all of these years, although if I had had to guess ... Tim Auger told me of a conversation he had at the Elephants Perch with one of you three fine gentlemen and "Tell Barry he made the first ascent" got passed onto me by Tim. Good work on getting down from there.

I hear good things, well mostly good, about the NE ridge, although I haven't climbed it. Raphael Slawinski climbed it twice, if memory serves, and if it does that is saying something.

I'll edit my manuscript to "all bad aid climbers".

Happy trails,

Barry Blanchard
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Nov 27, 2018 - 04:56pm PT
This thread is gold.
Thanks for your great work, Avery!
Chris Jones

Social climber
Glen Ellen, CA
Feb 8, 2019 - 12:28pm PT
After posting my mid-November response above, I began to wonder who among the Vulgarians might have left the cheeky note we found in 1970. Even though the note was left 55 years ago, somebody must know. I also forwarded a link to my partner Gray Thompson, knowing he would be interested in Barry Blanchard’s account. For the Vulgarian angle I contacted Claude Suhl, who responded: “So I seem to recall that one summer or over several summers Art Gran with Pete Geiser and John Hudson did several major Canadian Rockies climbs.” Soon I heard from the legendary Art Gran, who filled me in on the 1963 attempt and who in turn led me to George Whitmore. And so it went. Three months, and many contacts later, the story has pretty much emerged - or at least enough of the story that we’ll be posting it up. Of course, there may well be other tales yet to uncover.

One could certainly say that the Northwest Ridge on Mt. Alberta is not the hottest topic in alpinism. But on the other hand Mt. Alberta is one hell of a mountain.

First is the allure of Mt. Alberta itself. Discovered in 1898, and described as: “a superb peak, like a gigantic castle in shape,” having “a grim air of inaccessibility about it,” it was to become a major challenge for years to come. It was only in 1925 that a strong Japanese team, with two Swiss guides, made the ascent. It was probably then the most demanding alpine climb in North America. Over the following years the story of this legendary climb, and of the ice axe left on top, assumed mythic proportions. Frank Smythe, then one of Britain’s leading alpinists, said of his 1947 rebuff: “I know of no Alpine peak so difficult by it’s ordinary route, and but one or two Alpine routes to compare with the pitiless limestone slabs with no belays and few resting places.” The second ascent by Fed Ayres and John Oberlin was only made in 1948. As with other singular peaks, such as Mt. Waddington, Mt. Blanc and The Moose’s Tooth, they catch climber’s imagination. Here is where they want to make their mark.

Second is the fact that it took years of attempts to even establish a second route on such a charismatic peak. Attempts that were unknown to myself, even though I knew several of the protagonists.

Third is the quality of those making the attempts; they were stars back in their day. Although the names of most who will be mentioned in the accounts to be posted were once well-known around climber’s campfires, a brief word about them some 50 years later is in order. As far as practical, what follows are the participants words. The story begins in the 1950s.

George Whitmore commences: “I started climbing in 1953, and immediately became fascinated upon learning that there was a mountain in the Canadian Rockies which was so difficult that it had been climbed only twice, and by essentially the same route each time.  I have to thank Dick Irvin for making me aware of this.  He and George Mandatory were living in a house in San Francisco which I moved into, and it was they who got me started climbing.

In any event, I became fixated upon Mount Alberta, and was determined that there must be another way up it.  Study of the Boundary Survey map, and the few photos which could be found, suggested that the northwest corner might be worth checking out. It appeared that one could get quite high relatively easily, but the final five hundred feet or so might be another matter.

I rendezvoused with Dick Irvin in the Rockies that same year, 1953. (The high point of that trip was an attempt on the then-unclimbed central peak of Mount Bryce---"the last unclimbed eleven thousander.") I returned with Wallace Wood in 1954. I remember having Alberta in mind, but the weather in 1954 was atrocious, and Wally was not the right partner. A stint in the military killed a couple years, and then I made the mistake of getting a job. After a few years of that I finally came to my senses, chucked the job, and headed for the mountains. Mount Alberta was at the top of the list.”

After writing these words, Whitmore searched his book collection and located Frank Smythe’s book, “Climbs in the Canadian Rockies,” - the very book where he had first seen pictures of Mt. Alberta’s western side.

“Frank Smythe was in the Rockies during World War II, involved with training the Lovat Scouts (a military unit) in winter mountaineering; (their mission was to be a proposed invasion of Norway).  It was apparently during this period that he saw the west side of Mount Alberta, as he mentions having seen the mountain from the air in 1944.

The book contains a beautiful photo of the west side of the mountain from the air. The photo clearly shows both the northwest ridge and the flying buttress in profile.  Both lines are obvious lines of attack, so it is not surprising that ultimately each was finally climbed.  I remember studying this photo intently in the years prior to my trips.

Both during the Lovat Scout time, and during his postwar trip, Smythe associated with Rex Gibson.  Smythe states that Gibson had led several attempts on Alberta.  So it appears Gibson also had a special interest in the mountain. It seems to me likely that Gibson and Smythe were in the same airplane when Smythe took the photo which appears in his book.  And thus Gibson's advice to Oberlin and Ayres that any attempt on the west side was likely to prove fruitless.”

Whitmore of course was on the 1958 first ascent of The Nose, and in October of 1961 made the first ascent of the Leaning Tower with Al Macdonald and Glen Denny. A couple of years later, Denny was in the party that made the 3rd ascent of the Nose.

“In 1961 I was there with Jerry Dixon and Glen Denny. The higher we got the more difficult it became.  We finally reached a blank wall which separated us from a chimney which probably would lead to the summit ridge. We did not have the gear to deal with the blank wall, so turned back.  On the descent we bivouacked quite high. At first light it started snowing, so we made haste to get off the mountain before conditions became worse.  It continued to snow, and the descent turned into quite an epic.  I consider ourselves fortunate to have survived the descent.  It is perhaps just as well that the climbing was so difficult that we turned back.  Had we been able to continue toward the summit, we would have bivouacked even higher, thus making the descent even more difficult.”

Ed Cooper certainly had the momentum in those years. Together with Art Gran, he accomplished the first ascent of the East Face of Bugaboo Spire in 1959, and was to climb El Cap’s Dihedral Wall in 1963. Whitmore continues:

“I returned in 1962 with Ed Cooper.  We got weathered off after just getting started on the difficult portion.  (Weather in the Rockies was bad that year.)”

East Coast climbers were then also buzzing around in Canada. In 1963 leading Shawngunks pioneer Art Gran joined John Hudson and Pete Geiser to climb the East Face of Mt. Chephren; one of the boldest Rockies climbs of that era.

Whitmore writes of his 1963 attempt: “I met Art Gran in Camp Four.  There were some things I really wanted to do, so I was always hustling for partners, as most people were not interested in the things that interested me.  My description of Mount Alberta interested Art, and he enlisted John Hudson and Doug Tompkins.   (I'm not certain that they considered themselves to be Vulgarians.  I do remember their commenting that the Vulgarians were not really vulgar.)

Art led the final pitch to the previous high point.  When I got up there I was dismayed to see that my memory had played tricks on me.  The blank wall was much farther across than the fifteen feet which had stuck in my mind.  Art agreed  that it would be very time-consuming to deal with it, and did not object when I suggested that it was perhaps time to give up on the project.”

In Gran’s recollection he noticed a storm gathering, and insisted they go down; twenty minutes later it was upon them as they fought their way down to their campsite.

Finally, we had solved the riddle of the enigmatic 1963 note left by the Vulgarians. Knowing his sense of humor, John Hudson is considered the likely writer of the note. “Go back, go back to the pass, you will all be killed.”

“I had given it a good shot, and decided it was time to move on to other things. So what I was on in 1961/62/63 was perhaps more properly called the west face, albeit the northern end of it.   I had always assumed that the northwest ridge would be the place to try, but when we got to the saddle at the base of the ridge and studied what was above us, it appeared that the flying buttress had possibilities.

Not too many years after that Gary Colliver (I don't know who was with him) was there with the same idea---put up a route on the northwest corner.  They diverged from our route before the difficulties began, and veered to the left.  I had noticed the line they took as being worth investigating.  The rock work they did turned out to be easier than what we had done, and they reached the lower edge of the summit ice slopes.  They had not taken crampons, and Gary said it would have taken too long to cut steps all the way, so they turned back.

Thus ended my quest for a new route on Alberta.  I have always wondered whether someone else came along and completed a route on the northwest corner.”

With such a long western flank, with so many ribs and walls, naming features is confusing. Whitmore noted: “The buttress in its entirety is such a prominent feature that it perhaps should be referred to as the "west buttress."
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