Back when I first got into climbing, it was all about the big Canadian Rockies Peaks. In May, I had my first introduction to roped climbing with an ACC course, learning the ropes with a few dozen other intermediate and beginner climbers. I was learning to climb so I could (someday) climb 5.10a (my big goal). Little did I know that this journey would take me into big granite towers in the Bugaboos, and sending 5.13 almost a decade later.
At the ACC learn the ropes day, I had met a few people who had similar interests and goals, and through facebook I had hooked up with them for a few trips.
My very first alpine climbing trip (that was more than a scramble) was the AA col route on Athabasca only a few weeks earlier than this Whooley/Diadem trip. At the time, I didn’t know I had asthma, and the cold air and high output had lead me to crumple only about 50m or so from the summit, unable to take another step and barely able to breath. It was terrifying, and I honestly had no idea what was going on. I chalked it up to the cold or something. Now I know it’s a healthy dose of Asthma, and can take the necessary precautions.
A few weeks later, the group of us had expressed our interest in climbing the twin 11,000′ peaks of Mt. Whooley & Mt. Diadem in the Canadian Rockies, just North of the Columbia Icefields. The season so far in 2012 had been… well pretty wet honestly. The rivers were flowing pretty high, and the weather wasn’t looking amazing at the time. We had to make a crossing of the Sunwapta river, which after a short call with Parks Canada sounded like it might be a rather bad idea.
But you know what happens when you put a group of inexperienced optimists together… they get a rubber boat and use a little creativity and wishful thinking to get the job done.
The team included myself, and 5 others. Yet another sign of inexperience, something about a 6-member team was probably not a good idea, particularly due to the fact that our cumulative experience was extremely low.
Regardless, we met at the parking lot overlooking the Sunwapta, and it was pretty obvious that the river was running extremely high, fast, and well, it was time to figure out if it would go at all.
We had a single Wal-mart special inflatable boat with us, and Tyler had a much sturdier double-walled inflatable raft. At first a few of us tried to wade across the shallowest section we could find, however it was obviously much too deep… particularly with heavy packs. We decided to try the boats. We pumped up the Wal-Mart Explorer 200, but the fact it flipped the second we put it in the water was a pretty clear indication we would die trying to cross with that one. We decided to try to use the double walled raft to get the job done.
After some… antics… we managed to get the raft across the first go, and using a rope, were able to ferry ourselves and the gear across to the other side of the Sunwapta.
The crux of the trip behind us, we started the long hike into the glacial moraines below Mt Whooley/Diadem where we would set up camp for the night. Aside from some rain and wetness, we made it to our destination with no surprises.
The campsite itself was absolutely stunning. A beautiful high plateau or valley nestled between high, glacier covered peaks. Whoolly and Diadem were clearly the stars of the show, rising dramatically to the west. Not much further and we could have reached the col towards Mt. Alberta and a view of the Twins, Columbia, and the other massive peaks of the west columbia icefields.
We had dinner and went to sleep early after a bit of scoping our line for the next day. Things were obviously wet and not in good shape, but we hoped for the best as we passed out for a short night with little sleep.
2:00am – a massive crack and the sound of a freight train woke us all. Avalanche. Sweeping out our entire intended route for the day. Not the sound you want to hear 15 minutes before your alpine start is intended to begin.
We all stumbled out of our tents, and peered up towards the face in the dim dark that only July 1 can give us. The trip was over. Back to bed.
The rain started a half hour later, and didn’t let up for 14 hours straight. Stumbling out of our tents in the early afternoon, we made the decision to ride the bail bus back home. Too much water, too warm, everything was clearly pointing to high risk and the smart choice being to leave.
We packed up and hiked out in the rain. Of course, all the rain and late afternoon run-off had raised the Sunwapta even further, presenting an extremely intimidating crossing it in our crappy little raft. Fortunately, our previously gained experience from the trip in made this relatively painless, if not a little bit wet. We arrived at our vehicles, none the worse for wear. We were bummed we failed, but happy we made the right choice, despite our lack of experience and the always risky prospect of group dynamics forcing an attempt in bad conditions. Fortunately, we were all on the same page. Happy to bail and live to see another day. The mountain will always be there.