Woolley and Diadem are two of the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies and sit just north of the Columbia Icefields. Moderate mountaineering objectives, they promised stunning views of big peaks, including Mt. Alberta, and have been on the list for a while!
The first obstacle is crossing the Sunwapta River, a rather chilly exercise in mid July as it’s flowing fast with thigh-deep, freshly melted glaciers. The river is heavily braided, and to keep the water depth at a minimum, we choose the widest channels, some perhaps 20m wide, and carefully wade across, using hiking poles for stability. After each of several channel crossings there’s a brief break to thaw out the numb, frozen feet before crossing the next channel.
That bone-chilling task done, we hike up through the forest along the creek on a decent trail until breaking out of the forest into boulders and glacial moraine for a while, eventually reaching the bivouac site near the toe of the glacier between the two peaks. The weather is overcast and chilly, and we hunker down, enjoy a warm meal, and discuss the route options for tomorrow.
When we wake up 3 for the alpine start it’s raining, and we agree to cancel the climb and go back to sleep. Around 5 Nigel wakes up and declares that the rain has stopped and the sky is clearing, so we quickly get up, grab a quick bite and get going, slightly annoyed at ourselves for sleeping in so late. It’s always way too easy to make the the “go back to sleep” decision when it’s cold, dark and rainy out!
Our plan is to head for the SW gully (couloir) route, which cuts diagonally across the face and goes directly to the summit of Diadem (on the right), then descend to the col and go up the ridge of Woolley (on the left). The snow conditions in the gully are excellent and we make good progress up the glacier and gully until we get to some very deep, steep-walled runnels in the snow, caused by wet-snow avalanches coming down earlier in the year. They are quite large, almost 2m deep, with near-vertical walls, and we work our way up and down and across them to get to easier and safer ground on the other side, realizing that we will likely need to cross them again to exit the couloir. There are some small cornices at the summit ridge overhanging the couloir, and we are careful to climb near the edge in case anything comes down. The patches of blue sky that we had earlier in the morning have disappeared, and the sky is now fully overcast, keeping the temperatures down and the snow solid.
At the end of the couloir is some moderate rock leading to a small cornice that should put us on the summit plateau. The climbing is not difficult, but the exposure, down 100s of meters of steep couloir, is stunning. A few very careful moves up and over the solid cornice and we are top, just below the cloud level.
After a quick water and food break on the summit and we descend easy scrambling terrain to the col and start up the ridge to Woolley, putting the rope back on when we get back on to the snow-covered glacier.
The weather stays overcast, with the cloud ceiling just over our heads, unfortunately shrouding the summit of the stunning blade-like Mt. Alberta.
There is nothing complicated about the summit ridge of Woolley, mostly just a snow walk, except for one narrow section with exciting exposure. Amazing views all around, when the clouds choose to lift over our heads for a bit. We work our way up there, pose for some summit shots, and then turn around and descend the ridge.
Back to the col, we descend down the normal route, a couloir that runs parallel to the edge of the glacier rolling off the col. The lower part of the couloir is covered by icefall from seracs at the edge of the glacier, and so before we get to that point we break to (climbers) right on to the rock, and pick our way slowly and carefully across rubble-covered ledges until we get back to the lower part of our ascent couloir.
Thanks, Nigel and Josef, for a spectacular weekend!
Darren Foltinek, ©2009