Diadem and Woolley

Woolley and Diadem

Woolley and Diadem are two peaks northeast of the Columbia Icefield. While neither is particularly technical, the possibility of 40-degree ice in a dry year makes them “big boots” peaks, requiring real crampons and benefiting from two ice tools. I had not done any of that kind of mountaineering in awhile, so the peaks were a welcome change of pace, despite my dislike for stumbling around in clumsy ankle weights. The peaks share the first part of a rugged approach with Mount Alberta, probably the hardest Canadian Rockies 11er at 5.6 on rotten rock by its easiest route. This approach begins with a multi-part ford of the braided Sunwapta River, which is supposedly knee-deep if are lucky, then follows a surprisingly good trail to the terminal lake of the glacier descending from the Woolley-Diadem col.

Woolley Creek falls

After hanging out for the afternoon at the icefield visitor center, I drove back north to a pullout that is inexplicable unless you know that it is the start of the Woolley Creek approach. It was not the quietest place to sleep, but I read one of Eric Gilbertson’s recent trip reports, then got more sleep than he had. By the time it was light enough to see, I was ready to go, stick in hand, crossing the road and heading straight for the first of many channels I had to cross. The first two had rock dams that I was able to balance across without getting more than my soles wet, but that would not last. Knowing that I would get soaked to the knee, I rolled my pants up to the thigh and plunged straight in, resolved to get the unpleasantness over with quickly. The first few braids were obviously shallow, but the larger ones were impossible to gauge with the silty water. In the back of my mind was the thought that I was crossing the streams at the lowest time of day, and that the return would be some amount deeper. There were no cairns, so I made up my own route, looking for signs of shallowness. Most of the channels were no more than calf-deep but I found a couple that were briefly thigh-deep, forcing me to power through quickly. The cold took awhile to manifest, but my feet and calves were painful by the time I was done. I took off my wading shoes, took off my pants to wring them out, then put on pants, socks, and mountain boots. I propped my balance stick up with some rocks, hung my blue shoes from the top, then took off downstream for the mouth of Woolley Creek.

Cascade below gravel flats

I picked up a faint trail along the edge of the woods, then a bit of flagging and a much more obvious one near the creek’s south bank. The creek cuts a deep chasm headed by an impressive waterfall, while the trail climbs near the edge, through open, moss-carpeted woods. Where the stream returns to ground level, the trail stays near the south bank, with a decent tread in the woods, and a line of cairns closer to the bank that I followed on the way in. The trail disappears in a boulder-field below an old moraine, reappears briefly, then turns to a line of cairns through a second section of larger boulders. I failed to hug the stream closely enough here, and briefly took a slower line until I returned to the creek and found the cairns. Back on-route, I followed a clear line past a cascade to a gravel flat. The trail disappeared again here, and for some reason I decided to cross the creek. I found a dry path with a bit of ingenuity, and continued cross-country up past another waterfall to the terminal tarn, where I saw the tent platforms on the other side of the water. My side of the lake looked like a miserable side-hill, but turned out not to be so bad, and before too long I was at the base of the glacier, ready to play “real mountaineer.”

Diadem showing ascent and descent routes

I strapped my real crampons onto my boots, took out one tool, and started walking up the glacier. It started low-angle and rocky, then steepened a bit as it approached the icefall. This had been cooking in the sun for a few hours, but I did not hear much movement or see anything break off; perhaps, with no overnight freeze in awhile, anything loose had already fallen. I wound my way through a few crevasses, then made my way right up the debris fan of the southeast couloir. There are two ways up Diadem: bypass the icefall to the right, then continue to the col and hike the ridge, and climb the southeast couloir directly to the summit. The sensible thing would be to take the former, since I would discover any difficulties on the way up rather than down, but the latter would allow me to experience more terrain and probably better climbing. I had been leaning toward the former, but decided at the last minute to take the latter and figure things out on the descent.

Chute with runnel

The southeast couloir had looked ugly from below, with a huge dirty runnel down low, a possible bare step, and grayish ice up top. The runnel turned out to be a safety feature: I French-stepped up the snow to its right, while bits of rock falling from above and left were channeled harmlessly into the chute and slid past. My strip of snow steepened as it narrowed, and as I began kicking steps and front-pointing, I took out my second tool, more out of symmetry than necessity. I felt like a poser plunging the shafts of two tools into snow as I booted up the couloir: after all, I could have done this with trekking poles. Where the strip right of the runnel disappeared, I turned right into what proved to be the main couloir. With moderate choss-slopes on both sides of a narrow strip of snow, the route felt a bit contrived, but the snow was undeniably more pleasant than the rock. Lacking a runnel to catch the rockfall, I had to pay more attention to what was above me, and look up more than at my hands and feet.

Upper icy bit

The chute I was climbing eventually opened up to a face leading to the summit ridge, and became icier. Several chutes descending from the summit ridge were occasionally spitting rocks, so I picked my route carefully, crossing their paths quickly and resting below small rock outcrops. The final few hundred feet were both steeper and icy, so I got to swing both tools and feel like a real climber for a bit. The top-out was straightforward, with no cornice and solid snow on top, and I reached the summit plateau just short of its highpoint.

Woolley and Alberta from Diadem

After focusing on climbing for awhile, I finally had a chance to look around at the view. Most striking was Mount Alberta, probably the hardest Rockies 11er, its 3000-foot “easy” east face looming behind Woolley to the west. Alberta is hidden from the road and lesser peaks to the east, so few people see it in person. This was my first time, and the photos of this notorious peak do not convey its overwhelming size and menace.

Rock summit from ice one

Diadem is named for its small summit glacier, which was a hundred feet thick when it was first climbed in the early 1900s, probably making it the peak’s summit. It is thinner now, however, so a rocky fin to its east is now higher. A trip report I had found described this fin as exposed and tricky, requiring a bit of a cheval traversing, but I found it straightforward, with a flat ice saddle and a bit of loose scrambling leading to its highpoint. I left my crampons before the ice saddle, visited the highpoint for a minute, then returned to them to begin the traverse to Woolley.

Woolley glacier

After crossing Diadem’s ice-cap, the rest of the route to the saddle was bare rubble, with even a bit of use trail in places. I reached the saddle, then once again put on my crampons to climb the first part of the ridge to Woolley. I had seen an old track in the snow to the left, but stayed closer to the spine myself, following bare ice and dodging a few crevasses, including stepping over a couple that crossed the crest. The ridge turns to rock again where it levels off, forcing yet another crampon transition. The rest was straightforward other than a short rock step with snow on its left side, which I climbed by sort of chimneying between snow and rock.

Alberta looking proud

Woolley’s summit has a panoramic view of Alberta and the northern Columbia Icefield peaks — the Stutfields, North Twin, and Twins Tower. Unfortunately intermittent clouds frequently obscured the icefield peaks, but Alberta was in the clear, the surrounding glaciers and deep chasms now visible. I lounged on top for awhile, fortunate to be enjoying this rare view, then started down. I had been able to see much of the descent route from the summit, and it looked more tedious than difficult.

Death chute

Back at the saddle, I hugged the left side of the glacier heading down between the two peaks, dismounting just above the icefall. The terrain immediately below ended in a cliff, but below I could see the side-couloir normally used to reach the upper glacier. It is described as 40-degree snow or perhaps ice, but was now unpleasant old rock-encrusted ice with intermittent small rockfall coming down. I headed up the side, planning to cross near the top, but stumbled upon a large cairn and decided to cross there instead. I scrambled down to a fairly narrow part of the ice, put on crampons, then crossed as quickly as possible to the rock and mud on the other side. The steep mud was unnervingly mobile, but the wet slabs on the other side were too outwardly-sloping for my liking. Still sort of in the line of fire from above, I used my crampons and ice tool to downclimb the mud to where the slabs were flatter, then exited to safe ground before switching back to boots.

Stone camp chairs

Rather than downclimbing the death-chute, I traversed down a broad talus bowl, aiming for a cairn I had noticed near the side of the southeast couloir on the way up. I meandered through unpleasant choss, appreciating the way my big shit-kicking boots protected my feet and ankles as I… well, kicked shit. I eventually found a line of cairns and a faint foot-path leading back to my ascent couloir from the morning, where I returned to crampons and speed-downclimbed facing in left of the runnel. Below, I mentally relaxed as I walked down the lower glacier, then removed my crampons for the last time to walk around the correct side of the lake.

Sunwapta Peak and River

The return went more smoothly than the hike up. I passed some fine campsites, including one with a pair of stone lounge chairs, then followed a good trail to the lower gravel flat, and found the correct route through the main boulder-field below. My feet were feeling beat up from too much time in boots, but bringing three pairs of shoes for one day (wading, walking, and climbing) would have been ridiculous. Finally reaching the Sunwapta, I saw that the wind had knocked over my shoes-on-a-stick, but fortunately the shoes were bright blue, and I had marked them on my map. Knowing what lay ahead, I took off my boots and pants, put them in my pack along with my phone, put on my wading shoes, and got to it. The first few channels were not bad, and the air was warmer than in the morning, but the larger channels had grown, and the water was just as cold. Whereas before I had only briefly waded thigh-deep, this time I was thigh-deep a few times, and crotch-deep once, testing my balance with two sticks. It was all over soon enough with manageable misery, and I did not bother to put on pants to cross the road back to my car. Let the tourists in their rented RVs think what they may; I had earned it.

2 responses to “Diadem and Woolley

  1. Mark Jiroch says:

    Out of curiosity do you ever wear a helmet when climbing or skiing? Just curious as to your philosophy in this regard . . .

    1. drdirtbag says:

      I wear a helmet when climbing on a rope, and when riding a bike, but otherwise no. I wouldn’t call the explanation a “philosophy”: ski helmets weren’t a thing when I learned to ski, and I don’t draw a sharp line between scrambling and “real climbing.”

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