In A Push

Posted on: March 1, 2007

The north face of Mt. Alberta (3619m), Rockies, Canada, showing Lowe-Glidden (VI 5.9 A2, 1000m, Glidden-Lowe, 1972). Brazeau-Walsh (VI 5.11 M6, 1000m). At the time of the establishment of the Brazeau-Walsh, the north face had received six or seven ascents, never free, never without a bivy—and all by the Lowe-Glidden. [Photo] R.W. Sandford

"Hey, Chris—how come you're not at work?" I asked.

My fingertips ached as I held the phone. It was September 5, 2006; the day before, my partner, Chris Brazeau, and I had hiked out of the Bugaboos, where we had spent four days climbing, jugging and scrubbing a new route. Most of the past few months, I'd been away on climbing trips in the Alps and the Karakoram, and I was in the process of getting reacquainted with a relatively settled life. All morning I'd been slowly forcing my cramped muscles to unpack.

Chris Brazeau onsighting the technical crux (5.11b) of the Brazeau-Walsh. The climb was the first Rockies Grade VI to be established all free in a single push. It was also the first time the north face of Alberta had been climbed in more than a decade. [Photo] Jon Walsh

Chris was supposed to be working the entire week and then spending the weekend with his girl, who'd been gone for two months. There was a reason, though, that we'd brought all our ropes and equipment out of the Bugs. For three years we'd been waiting for ideal conditions in the Rockies—and specifically on the elusive north face of Mt. Alberta. I knew what he was about to say.

"Jonny," Chris nearly shouted with enthusiasm. "The weather is supposed to be good for four more days, so I took the rest of the week off. We're both climbing well. We should head up there tomorrow. I'm super psyched!"

The remote north face of Mt. Alberta hadn't been climbed in more than a decade—and it had never been freed or climbed without a bivy. For that matter, we couldn't think of a single Rockies Grade VI that had ever seen a single-push ascent. If we left tomorrow, there would be just enough time to squeeze the adventure in before the weekend; Chris could attempt our climb and see his girl.

"I've got a really good feeling about this," I said to Chris, aware of how absurd that might sound.

"I hate to say it," he said. "But I've got a good feeling, too." That reassured me... until I remembered that Chris usually has a good feeling about whatever he does.

In 1972, before either of us was even born, the prolific George Lowe, with Jock Glidden, had pioneered the first ascent of Mt. Alberta's north face. After seventeen ice pitches, thirteen rock pitches and three days of climbing, they established a Rockies classic, complete with the quintessential Rockies rating of V 5.9 A2.

Lowe described the route as one of his most enjoyable undertakings in the Rockies, but most climbers attributed the modest grade to his ahead-of-his-time talent and vision. Sean Dougherty's notoriously sandbagged guidebook, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, upped it to a Grade VI, and claims it's "perhaps the most sought after of the Rockies grand-cours routes, with a reputation for superb hard climbing on good rock with sound belays." Subsequent ascents, however, have indicated differently. In 1980, while attempting to solo the second ascent of the route, Tobin Sorenson lost his life when all the pitons he had placed on a pitch failed to hold his fall. On the third ascent, by Barry Blanchard and Gregg Cronn in 1983, Blanchard led all the headwall pitches. "The crux of... the Alberta headwall demanded everything I had learned during my 700 days' climbing," Blanchard wrote in this magazine. Indeed, legends of the Rockies generation before us—David Cheesmond, Peter Arbic, Ward Robinson and Alex Lowe, to name a few—had struggled with the face. Every one of the six or seven ascents to date had been by Lowe and Glidden's route, and they had all required at least three full days to get up and down.

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