Finally, on May 9, 2015 I managed to summit South Twin Peak on my third attempt of this beautiful mountain. I have some history with the north end of the Columbia Icefield, and with South Twin in particular.
In 2012 I joined forces with TJ, JW and Ferenc where we managed to summit both Stutfields, North Twin Peak and the spectacular Twin's Tower. On our third night Ferenc developed a lung condition that necessitated a heli-evac the next morning and our push for the northern peaks of the Columbia Icefield was over for that year. In 2013 we were back. This time we had a larger group with more objectives, but due to a late start on day one we camped too far from the northern peaks to realistically spend more than one day on any attempts. We managed to ascend West Twin but due to icy conditions on South Twin and the lack of proper ice climbing equipment, the lead climber ended up in a crevasse when he tried to avoid the ice. Our summit bid was over and after a complicated rescue we trudged all the way back to camp, some of us swearing off South Twin for good!
2014 was an interesting year for the Athabasca Glacier approach to the ice fields. Most people avoided the approach thanks to a nonexistent ramp and dangerously open crevasses through the lower ice fall. I know several people who did manage to make it through the area (several times) but I avoided it too. I managed to get up some of the more difficult Wapta peaks, so the spring of 2014 wasn't a complete write off. :) I knew I was coming back some day though - I still had a few peaks that I really wanted to get including Columbia, South Twin and possibly even Mount Cromwell - a rumored near-11000er.
2015 was another interesting winter in the Rockies. Many ski resorts had to close early, thanks to low snow and temperatures that soared above normal. Calgary didn't even seem to get winter at all! In a strange twist, however, we started to notice that the glaciers and mountains along the Divide had plenty of coverage - even though valley bottoms were completely melting out. I'm still not sure what caused this, but one theory is that the snow that fell, stuck - more like a coastal snow pack than a regular Rockies 'crap' pack. Whatever the case, when Ben, Steven and I traveled up the Athabasca Glacier and to the summit of Mount Columbia in late April we were delighted to discover great coverage and a fully formed ramp to the main glacier. When schedules lined up and the weather started to look good for the second weekend in May, we made plans for another trip to the northern peaks of the Columbia Icefield.
[My ski track for the 2015 ice fields trip includes approach, Stutfield, Cromwell, South Twin and Egress. ++]
After a long approach to camp on May 7th, followed by an ascent of Stutfield Peak and Mount Cromwell on May 8th, we awoke to a clear, cold morning on Saturday, May 9th to give the Twins a shot - starting with South because that was the only peak I'd be joining the team on since that was the only peak remaining for me in the area.
I always hate trying to stuff down breakfast in -15 degree weather while my feet are crammed into my still-frozen ski boots, but instant Starbucks coffee helped with the task immensely and before long we were skiing the humps between camp and North Twin. Instead of climbing most of the way up North Twin before descending to the col with South Twin, we followed an obvious bench traversing North Twin's south flank and leading eventually to the col. I remembered this bench as being quite exposed but in the conditions we had (i.e. ankle deep snow) it was dead easy. The traverse actually intersects North Twin's south ridge about 200 vertical meters above the col with South Twin. We descended to the col on foot but there was clearly much more snow here than last time we descended this ridge on scree.
[Ben skis towards North Twin with South Twin on the left. The bench along North Twin's east face is obvious. ++]
[Steven and the huge east face of North Twin.]
[Looking back at Kev as we traverse the bench on North Twin. Stutfield behind him.]
[Traversing an easy part of the bench. With good snow, this traverse is very straight forward.]
[Descending to the South Twin col on North Twin's south ridge. Last time I was here, this was all scree.]
From the col, Steven led our group up a steep snow slope to the lower NW ridge of South Twin and up to the small flat area near a rocky outcrop that I remembered well from 2013 since I stood there for over 2 hours while Anton was rescued from his crevasse-prison. At this point we were already at the same height as West Twin. I wasn't nervous as I glanced at the 40 degree slope above, since I was looking at snow instead of bare glacial ice. I took the second rope up, just in case and we even took out our second ice tool, but as soon as I started up behind Ben and Steven I knew that on this particular year South Twin was in perfect condition. I simply used my alpine ax and side stepped up the steep slope, feeling very safe and confident on the firm surface. Other than a very short patch of bare glacial ice, this section was far easier than I thought it would be based on our experience in 2013. I think part of the reason is that since 2013 I've done many very steep snow climbs including Collie, Ayesha and Trapper on the Wapta Icefield and this has greatly increased my confidence on very steep snowy terrain. I actually look for this type of terrain now! ;)
[There is a steep snow slope from the North Twin col which is definitely avalanche terrain. Twin's Tower at far right here.]
[Kev skis up behind me with North Twin's south ridge in the background]
One bit of advice on the initial slope is to trend up and slightly climber's right. If you go too close to the left edge, you will find crevasses. After the 40 degree slope above the outcrop the angle eased back and we continued up to the summit ridge on ankle to knee deep snow. We stepped over (and in!) several crevasses on the way up - so be aware that they are everywhere on this ascent. Steven continued his excellent lead and soon he was groveling onto a knife-edge ridge that lead towards the summit. When I joined Ben and Steven on the precipitous ridge I was shocked by the exposure on our left! There was at least a vertical km of air underneath us and the knife edge ridge required extremely delicate steps with the crampons to ensure we didn't snag our pants and trip right off the mountain! We dipped climber's right off the ridge where I've seen a large cornice on other climber's photos, before regaining the ridge and finally arriving at the summit of my last Twin peak and last northern summit of the icefields for me.
[Skiing up the lower part of South Twin's north ridge. Great conditions with lots of snow.]
[Off the skis and onto the 40 degree slope. Snow this time - makes things much easier.]
[Spectacular views off the ascent slope! West Twin already looks tiny and we're not close to the summit yet. ++]
[This was the only section where I thought we might have some difficulties - the steepest part just before the upper ridge. But it was fairly easy on crampons and we even descended facing outwards. If this section is glacial ice you may have to protect it and rappel on descent.]
[It's tempting to think the peak is "in the bag" at this point but it's not quite.]
[Gaining the upper ridge by ascending this small roll on the north ridge.]
[The views keep improving as we traverse to the final ridge. King Edward at center. ++]
[Not going to be as easy as it seemed about 3 photos ago, but the summit is in sight now. ++]
[Here we go! This is a nice wide section - the narrow ones were even more fun. ++]
[It may not look very exposed due to the wide angle lens, but trust me - it is.]
[We traversed on the west side of the ridge wherever it made sense.]
[Steven points the way! We're all pretty psyched at this point.]
[This is what it's all about! Great fun on the final ridge to the summit of one of my favorite peaks of all time. ++]
[Caution is paramount on the summit ridge. A slip - or more likely a crampon snagging trip - could pull the entire party down - but you need the rope thanks to crevasses and possibly anchoring in case of a slip.]
[This is what it looked like when I looked at my feet on the ridge. There are people who are considering skiing this face. I'm not one of those people! ;)]
It felt surreal to finally be on top of South Twin. I have to say that I'm kind of glad it took me so many years and so much effort to finally stand on that small patch of snow. In a culture that wants everything right NOW, it was good for me to be forced to fight for this one. There are very few summits that I haven't managed to bag on my first try - South Twin taught me something about patience, humbleness and respect. After taking photographs and enjoying the beautiful morning from one of the most beautiful peaks I've been on, it was time to head back down. The other guys had more peaks to climb, while I was looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation and wall construction in a warm, cozy camp!
[WOW! Summit views from South Twin looking across the trench to Columbia and King Edward. ++]
[Looking back along our approach tracks up the north ridge - now you can see the exposure a bit better.]
[Very exposed off the summit looking wayyyy down to the SE.]
[Looking at (L to R), Alberta, Twin's Tower and North Twin, Stutfield, Kitchener and Snow Dome from the summit of South Twin. ++]
[Vern on the summit of South Twin - finally!]
[A view I've been waiting for. Columbia and Kind Edward on the left, Alberta, Twin's Tower and North Twin on the right. ++]
[Mounts Brown and Hooker - the infamous "17,000ers" of 1827.]
[Tusk and Clemenceau are high on my "hit list"]
[Tsar Mountain is another beautiful 11,000er]
[The Adamants show up clearly on this gorgeously clear morning.]
[Even the mighty Sir Sanford shows up! This is also high on my "want" list. My list never seems to shrink. ;)]
[Another favorite - we ascended Mount Columbia only 3 weeks previous. The ridge in the foreground is a proven route to the summit.].
[Looking south, west and north (R) off the summit over some pretty pristine and wild parts of the Canadian Rockies. ++]
[The CSMC group traverses North Twin's bench.]
The descent went well and soon we were back at the skis. A short while later, Kev and I watched Steven and Ben blaze up and down West Twin in knee deep snow in about 45 minutes before trudging back up North Twin's south ridge to the bench traverse. Here I bid the boys adieu and wandered on my own towards camp under a warm spring sun. (The other guys made the summit of North Twin and negotiated a complicated descent to the Twin's Tower col before wading through deep snow to its summit. They stumbled back into camp around 22:30 after a very long and successful day on every summit of the four twins.)
[It's Kev's turn to lead the delicate north ridge balancing act.]
[What a gorgeous mountain and perfect spring day to be on it. ++]
[Believe it or not, people ski down this face!]
[Kev leads the ridge on descent. ++]
[The easy upper shoulder of the north ridge - note West Twin just left and below us here.]
[Ben skis down towards West Twin (out of sight to the left) with Twin's Tower looming above.]
[Steven and Ben tempt fate on West Twin's steep east face... ;) At least it's short.]
[The area between the Twin's is a gorgeous place to sit and watch others tackle the steep slopes. Spot Ben and Steven on West Twin. ++]
[Ben and Steven on the summit of West Twin.]
[Steven and Ben work their way over to the North / South Twin col. ++]
[Kev follows me up North Twin. ++]
[The CSMC group following our tracks high on South Twin's north ridge.]
[The Columbia Glacier dumps into the lower trench just above Columbia Lake.]
[Lovely Columbia Lake - I want to camp there someday.]
[Ben, Steven and Kev approach the summit of North Twin as I work my way back to camp. They still have hours of climbing to descend to Twin's Tower and then re-ascend North Twin. They joined me at camp about 7 hours from this point.]
[Lots of time in camp allowed me to build the great wall of China around my mid. I also got to sleep in the warm sunshine and dry my gear.]
The next day we spend 5 hours descending to the toe of the Athabasca on crusty, crappy snow and in extremely warm weather. :( I especially didn't like the open crevasses we skied past near the serac fall zone and the mountains of fresh ice blocks we had to ski over, where our ascent track used to be. Many parties were taking the climber's left path up the ice fall, but that path is not without its own hazards - especially on descent. Personally, I feel lucky that I've been through this area so many times without incident. With only Andromeda left for me to climb on the icefields, I may never have to travel this dangerous path again - and while I'll miss the beauty of the remote ocean of ice, snow and rock, I won't miss the objective hazards that protect it. (Update: I did travel the Athabasca Glacier headwall again in April 2016 on a one day fabulous ascent of Andromeda in perfect conditions.)
[A gorgeous sunrise on our exit day.]
[One last glance back at this wonderful area from camp. I don't know if I'll ever go back here due to all the hazards involved but hopefully someday.]
[Skiing towards the CSMC camp from ours. Note how small Castleguard looks?! (Lower left).]
[Kev skis from camp with South Twin in the distance.]
[The terrain is huge here. You can just spot the two camps in front of North Twin.]
[We passed another camp just before the one steep climb on the way out. Here I'm looking back over it as Kev skins up. South and North Twin or the Stutfields are at least a 2 hour ski from this point - to their bases. Many people set up camp here and regret it the next day when they realize how far away the 11,000ers still are.]
[Ben poses on the way down the Athabasca ramp.]
[Looking back at the seracs on Snow Dome (R) and Andromeda (L) with the ice fall in the middle. ++]
[Icefall on the Athabasca Glacier.]
[Kev and Steven descend the last steep roll next to the icefall before a nice cruise down to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.]
[The best part of the walk back to the upper parking lot was that the Sunwapta Lake parking lot was opened while we were gone skiing.]
The Twins are an interesting set of peaks in a remote and beautiful area but they should not be underestimated just because they're not technically that difficult;
North Twin is a 'simple' ski up almost right to the summit but there are many unseen crevasses around the route and some holes right on the summit itself.
Twin's Tower is complicated terrain with a very steep and heavily crevassed descent from North Twin and then a very exposed snow climb on a narrow arete to the summit - but with enough snow it's not too bad.
West Twin is certainly not simple terrain, given the massive cornices overhanging the entire route and the fact that you're on a severe avalanche slope with full exposure to the sun. There is also a bergschrund to negotiate that seems to split the entire east face.
South Twin is complex in different ways depending on snow cover. With lots of snow, it's easier to gain the summit ridge but then there are cornice issues to the summit. With little snow cover (like we had), it's tougher to gain the ridge but an easier walk to the summit with little or no cornice issues. With no snow cover it's an easy ice climb but obviously the hazards of crevasses increases.