Little Alberta

Summit Elevation (m): 2956
Trip Date: September 05 2014
Total Elevation Gain – from hwy 93 (m): 2700
Total Distance – from hwy 93 (km): 31
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Related Trips: Woolley, Diadem, Mushroom
Difficulty Notes: Crossing the Sunwapta River is your biggest challenge to the Woolley / Diadem bivy. Don’t underestimate it during spring or summer months. Getting to Little Alberta from the bivy includes loose scrambling, easy glacier crossings and significant elevation gains and losses.
Technical Rating: MN6; SC5
GPS Track: Gaia
Little Alberta MapGoogle Maps
Photos: View Album

I had the whole week of September 1-7 off, but ended up working a couple of days on Tues / Wed due to bad weather. By Thursday I was ready to resume my break. Steven, Ben and I had plans for Fri-Sun so I had an extra day to do something myself. Originally I had a peak in mind but after thinking about it I decided to hike into the Woolley / Diadem bivy area by myself on Thursday and spend an extra night just chilling and reading or taking photos at one of the best bivy sites in the Rockies.

Little Alberta Route Map including the approach to the Woolley bivy from hwy 93.

The Approach

I arrived at the parking area along hwy 93 at 13:00 and by 14:00 I had easily crossed the river flats in my hip waders (knee deep at most) and was ready for the approach hike. The next 3.5 hours were a lovely hike up steep forested hills, along a rushing stream with wild views of snow covered peaks and waterfalls.

I certainly felt alone as I steadily worked my way to tree line and by the time I grunted up the last rise to the bivy area I was ready to drop my rather heavy pack. I couldn’t believe my altimeter watch when it told me I’d done over 700 vertical meters! That explained why I was feeling the approach. There is a clear trail the whole way up, if you pay attention to rock cairns and faint paths through the boulders and rocks higher up. Mostly you should be near a stream running down on your right, but the trail does vary a bit in sections. I walked through the stream bed a few times rather than spend time in the trees, but with high water you couldn’t do that.

The rest of my afternoon and evening were a wonderful few hours of relaxing in my warm tent with an e-book and warm cups of hot chocolate and coffee. Honestly, I’m not sure why I don’t do just this more often. Hike to a gorgeous bivy and spend a few days reading and just relaxing. I might do more of this in the future. As the evening shadows grew long the realization that I was very alone in a wilderness setting became more acute but I was fine with it. As a matter of fact, I loved it! I’ve spent so much time outdoors, sleeping in bivy sacks and tents over the past 10 years that doing it alone didn’t seem that scary at all. I drifted off to sleep eventually and didn’t wake until something started rustling around my tent at 03:00.

I wasn’t scared by the creature, but rather annoyed. I was tired, the wind was blowing quite strong and I just wanted to sleep, so I ignored whatever it was that was turning over rocks and bumping my tent for a few minutes – trying to fall back asleep. Eventually I gave up, put my head lamp on and stumbled out of the tent with my fixed blade knife in hand- ready to do battle if necessary with whatever was out there. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t locate the creature with my head lamp. This told me that it was small or very, very quick. As I got ready to go back into the tent I looked up and noticed the incredible night sky above my tent – it was unbelievable! The Milky Way was lit up over Mount Woolley, kind of reminiscent of my Robson experience a year ago. Since I was up anyway I spent the next 1.5 hours taking photographs of the night sky.

Just as I was about to go back to bed, I heard a creature coming towards me from the empty bivy corral next to mine! I shone my light on a huge pack rat, moving right towards me! I yelled and threw small rocks at it, but it totally ignored me and started rooting around near my tent where I did my cooking. It was getting ready to take my stove or other things of value, when I decided this was getting crazy and went into full battle mode. To make a long story short – I ended the reign of that giant pack rat at 04:30 on the morning of September 5th, 2014. Battle weary, I went back to bed and slept until warm sunshine woke me at 08:00 on Friday morning.

The Plan

In May of 2012 I took a photo of Twins 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 24×48 inch panoramic print. One thing I noticed right away while staring at the 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;

  • Mount Alberta
  • Mount Woolley
  • Mount Engelhard
  • Mount Cromwell
  • Stutfield NE2
  • Stutfield Peak
  • Twins Tower
  • North Twin
  • King Edward

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.

The Ascent

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 by my violent tale of conquest and I think they were a little impressed too. 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.

“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 guesstimated it to be around 2000 meters total elevation gain from the bivy site. This meant that Ben and Steven would be doing around 2700 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 much higher priority) day but we agreed to give it a shot anyway. The weather wasn’t forecast to be a perfect blue-bird day 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.

Great views back towards Tangle Ridge and Sunwapta Peak over Engelhard’s shoulder.

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 Twins 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.

Sidebar re: climbing the North Pillar / Face / NW Ridge of Twins Tower.

Originally this sidebar was supposed to be a one-liner about various climbs of the North Face of Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 Twins 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 LoganJohn Walsh and Josh Whartonfinally 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 Twins Tower, that House and Prezelj did not actually summit Twins Tower in their bid in 2004 but rather they hit the North Twin / Twins Tower col and immediately climbed North Twin.) 

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.

A panorama from just below Woolley Shoulder with Little Alberta in the center, surrounded by giants on every side.

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.

The biffy with the north face of Little Alberta not looking so little anymore. Woolley and Engelhard at center distance.

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.

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 view behind us looking down Habel Creek as we grovel up the southwest slope. Mount Alberta to the right.

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.

Views back down the SW ascent slope to Habel Creek. L to R, Engelhard, Cromwell, Stutfield, North Twin, Twins Tower, Son of a Twin, King Edward, Sundial, Dias.
Summit views from L to R include, Woolley, Mushroom, Engelhard, Cromwell, Stutfield NE2, Stutfield, North Twin, Twins 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.
I love that little tarn that sits beneath the huge north face of Twins Tower. Mount King Edward at right took me three tries to finally ascend.
Views east off the summit showing the depth of the valley between Little Alberta and Engelhard.

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.

Back at the hut, dark clouds are swirling and I’m expecting a snow storm at this point.
Still a grind to Woolley Shoulder at distant mid center as we reluctantly leave the Alberta hut.
H. L. Abrons here from 1966; ‘.So dark, sheer, and gloomy is the North Face of North Twin, like a bad dream.’
A glance back at the brooding Mount Alberta behind us.
An incredible early evening view south and west from Woolley Shoulder, including Little Alberta.

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 but for someone like me it was definitely worth the slog.

2 thoughts on Little Alberta

  1. Hi there,
    I’m curious about climbing over Woolley shoulder to access the headwaters of the Athabasca river.
    You mention in you post that it’s a warm up for climbers going to bag bigger summits, I am not a climber. I am a packrafter, one with very little to no climbing experience, I’ve done a fair few scrambles, and am comfortable right up until it’s a “you slip you die” situation.
    I was wondering if you may be able to offer insight into the climb over the shoulder, should I push the idea out of my head? Or is it something a modest scrambler can do?

    • Hi, a scrambler should be able to get over the col. The trick might be finding the best route down towards the black hole which I believe is between Little Alberta and Engelhard.

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