After summitting the highest mountain completely within Alberta and the third-highest in the whole Canadian Rockies at 12,238 feet high, we were ready to tackle one of the most exposed snow ridges and high altitude snow arete climbs in the Canadian Rockies - Twins Tower. In his book, The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies, Bill Corbett writes;
The sudden view of Twins Tower from the summit of North Twin is one of the most striking and sphincter-tightening in the Canadian Rockies.
I have to agree with Mr. Corbett on this one! My sphincter certainly agreed with his assessment as I gazed over at our next objective from high on the summit shoulder of North Twin!! ;-) The descent slope down the north ridge of North Twin is already a serious undertaking, even before you get to ascending Twins Tower. First we had to descend over a slightly open 'schrund right near the top of the ridge before plunge-stepping over numerous (thankfully covered this year - but certainly still an unseen hazard) crevasses to the col. (NOTE: I have friends who have descended this slope in less ideal conditions and it is arguably the most serious and hazardous sections of Twins climbing.)
[This is what it looks like to descend the north ridge of North Twin to the Twins Tower col. Note Raf's party far below at the col already. Also note the ridiculous amount of air between us an the valley floor. We are off the steep roll already, see other photos for a complete picture of this slope.]
[This photo from Raf more accurately depicts the serious terrain on the north ridge descent from North Twin to Twins Tower col. This is JW, TJ and I on the descent. Most years there are gaping crevasses to deal with here.]
At the col we met up with Raf, Adam and Jay who were preparing to lead the ascent of the tower. We agreed to wait at the col while they broke trail up the sharp snow arete - I think it was Jay who led them up. Amazingly the wind almost died off completely for the short period we were on Twins Tower - except for the odd fierce gust. This was very fortunate.
[Amazing view down the Athabasca River valley - Twins Tower rising on the right.]
[Raf, Jay and Adam start up the arete to the summit of Twins Tower. From L to R, Alberta, Little Alberta, Woolley, Engelhard. ++]
It was quite something to watch the other team inch their way up that ridge with nothing but air on each side! Sometimes it's much worse to watch someone else do something 'on the edge' than do it yourself and this was one of those times. Almost impossibly they inched their way up to the summit. I was holding my breath sometimes watching them, half expecting them to stop completely at some points.
[Jay leads Adam and Raf up Twins Tower in this view from the col. Terrific exposure on each side of the ridge drops right to the valley floor thousands of feet. The sun is also starting to warm the left side (facing) of the arete prompting some urgency to getting up and down ASAP while it was still safe.]
[JW is FREAKING OUT!!! He wants to be as anchored to the slope as possible!! :-) We had a nice break to drink some fluids and goof off while Raf's party ascended Twins Tower - we didn't want to be stuck underneath them for any longer than absolutely necessary. Note how steep the north ridge of North Twin is above JW. Lots of hidden crevasses in this slope, although we didn't find any with the amount of coverage we had.]
[At this point I was totally psyched and ready to tackle the climb. And also a wee bit nervous. This is one of my favorite shots from the whole trip. ++]
[TJ and Vern with Adam and Jay behind us on Twins Tower.]
The biggest danger with Twins Tower isn't necessarily the climb itself. At 45-50 degrees or less it's manageable - its the terrific exposure on each side of the narrow arete that allows for absolutely zero degree of error that makes it a serious endeavor. A snow sluff, avalanche or slip by any one rope member will be an issue for the whole rope team with thousands of feet of air waiting to swallow you on either side.
As Jay neared the summit we started up. Kudos to Jay, Adam and Raf as they made our job technically quite easy. We simply had to take firm steps into their tracks, plant a 'firm' ax (the snow was actually a bit too soft to get a really solid placement) and take the next step up. Concentration was key as we quickly scampered up behind the other team. I didn't look down at the exposure too much on the way up, rather I concentrated on not falling and on keeping the rope between JW and I reasonably snug. Soon the angle got even steeper and Raf was surprised with JW bumped into him just before the angle eased off near the summit.
"You guys are quick", he exclaimed.
"Yeah well, we didn't take the kitchen sink with us", was JW's glib reply.
Raf's team had taken their alpine packs up to the summit while we left ours at the col, reasoning that we wouldn't be lingering on the small summit of Twins Tower any longer than necessary. Of course the fact that we had a broken trail also helped our speed - another big THANKS to those guys.
[A look back down the arete at TJ who is obviously loving it!]
[TJ and Raf congratulate each other on the summit of Twins Tower. This was Raf's last Columbia Icefields summit!]
[JW on the summit of Twins Tower - obviously quite pleased with himself!]
[View of South Twin, Columbia, West Twin (TINY!) and Kind Edward (L to R) from the summit of Twins Tower.]
[Looking over Stutfield (L) and Kitchener (R).]
The summit views were stunning but we didn't take much time to enjoy them. There wasn't really room for the 6 of us and we wanted to get back down our steps before the sun got any stronger. We wanted to get out of there before the south aspect snow slope got any more baked than necessary. TJ led the way down the ridge without wasting time. We went backwards down the slope with the following pattern;
Plant the ax as firmly as possible on the right side of the ridge.
Look down to the right for the next foot hold.
Step carefully and firmly into the foot hold with the right foot.
Place the left hand down firmly into the snow on my left.
Look down to the left for the next foot hold, while still maintaining a firm grip on the ax with my right hand.
Step carefully and firmly into the foot hold with the left foot.
Lift up the ax with both feet and the left hand firmly on the slope.
Repeat a hundred or more times until you feel the angle slack off and you turn around and tramp back to the col - ecstatic that you've climbed Twins Tower.
[Raf's view of the two teams carefully down climbing the snow arete from the summit of Twins Tower.]
[TJ descends the upper ridge on Twins Tower. Note the ridge on North Twin that we have to re-ascend. Still plenty of exposure and hazard, we had to descend Twins Tower facing inward due to the extreme exposure and steepness of the arete.]
I couldn't believe it when we turned forward again and walked across the col to our packs. I had done it! Crazy! I was pumped. I owe TJ and JW for trusting me enough to drag me up something like Twins Tower - probably my most technical snow climb yet and one of the most beautiful I'm likely to ever do in my life. It was a very special moment for me when I realized I could (and did!) do a mountain like Twins Tower. (NOTE: Since climbing Twins Tower, I've done other steep snow climbs including Mount Collie, Ayesha and Trapper on the Wapta Icefield. These are very similar in nature to Twins Tower - possibly even more hazardous then the conditions we had, which were perfect.)
[TJ waits at the col for JW and I to get back to our packs.]
[From the col, looking up at North Twin (L) and the other team still descending Twins Tower (R). ++]
TJ kicked steps up the north ridge of North Tower as payment for Raf's team leading on Twin Tower. It felt so great to be climbing with the cool air, terrific exposure on each side and views over a sea of peaks that for just a minute or two I forgot how tired I was. I can assure you that not once from breakfast to climbing North Twin to Twins Tower and back to camp again did I think about work. Not even once. :-)
[Raf's photo of JW, TJ and I climbing back up North Twin.]
[Vern pops up North Twin from Twins Tower. TJ Nault Photo.]
[JW on the summit of North Twin]
[Vern on the summit of North Twin. ++ - TJ Nault Photograph.]
[JW peers down the east face of North Twin, trying to see into another crevasse right beneath the summit. You can just see the hole that TJ found on the way up, below him to the left of the rope. ++]
Once at the summit of North Twin we snapped a few more pictures and then had a great ski down the south ridge and back to camp. The wind was slowly picking up again as we approached camp and we realized that Ferenc had only just arrived back too.
[We get closer to the ski drop near the summit of North Twin]
[TJ skis the south ridge of North Twin]
[JW's turn for turns!]
[Impressive views of the lower ice fall on the south ridge of North Twin and the impressive summit of South Twin as I re-ascend up to our camp]
[A panorama of Mount Columbia and South Twin from the trip back to camp. ++.]
Ferenc was bitterly disappointed that he hadn't gotten Twins Tower with us, which I can totally understand. It's extremely difficult to get time off work / family at the exact time that friends, conditions and weather are perfect on the remote northern part of the Columbia Icefields. When the dust settled and I didn't get South and West Twin, I was pretty disappointed too! It took me another two expeditions and three years to finally complete South and West Twin and based on Raf, Adam and Jay's trip, we would have easily bagged both those peaks the next day... Oh well!, life throws surprises and you have to roll with them or get swallowed by them.
[Setting up the tent when we get back - the tent pole was made from my ski poles so we had to collapse it during the day when I needed them for skiing.]
We spent Saturday afternoon the same as the day before, Ferenc in the other tent most of the afternoon, not feeling well, and the other three of us building the wall even higher (!) and trying to hydrate and eat as much as possible for the next days effort when we would be going for South and West Twin. I couldn't believe I had gotten Twins Tower - I stayed pumped the rest of the day. Ferenc seemed to be OK with the idea of taking a rest day on Sunday and even talked to Raf about joining his rope team for their trip out on Sunday afternoon rather than wait until Monday for us, to which Raf agreed. I remember TJ making an off hand comment to Ferenc about having altitude sickness but none of us took it very seriously - we weren't high enough for that were we? It didn't seem possible that he was truly suffering from the altitude.
[Hanging out at camp and trying to stay hydrated and healthy. TJ Nault Photograph.]
We turned into our tents around 1930 and tried to get some sleep. TJ fell into a deep sleep by 2100 and I was going in and out - I certainly felt better without all the extra stuff in my sleeping bag! The wind was picking up again and was whipping and flapping the tent furiously, raining moisture down on my face constantly but I managed to drift off for about 30 minutes at a time anyway.
Sleep didn't come for the other tent at all.
I woke up from a weird dream at around 23:30 on Saturday night to the sound of coughing and talking in the other tent. This went on for about 45 minutes before I heard the voices get louder and saw a light come on. This went on for a while before JW started yelling over at our tent that "something's wrong with Ferenc!". I woke up TJ, who was fast asleep and we started to earnestly discuss what to do. Ferenc felt like he had water in his lungs and was desperately trying to get air in between minutes of steady hacking and coughing. It was quite the experience to lay there in a howling wind storm in the dark and listen to someone dying in the next tent. Not good. :(
Soon I yelled over that they should hit 911 on Ferenc's SPOT if they felt the situation was getting out of hand. JW yelled back that it had been going on all night and was certainly out of hand by this point. Ferenc must have felt really awful because he agreed to hit 911 and call for help. He knew what this would do to his wife and he knew what it would do for his future climbs as well but he still hit the button - that's how I know that he knew he was in deep trouble at this point. Of course we knew the rescue wouldn't come until Sunday morning at the earliest so we found ourselves with at least 5 or 6 hours of more coughing and more helplessness as we waited for day light. We obviously couldn't sleep due to Ferenc's condition so we made some warm water and visited in TJ's tent while Ferenc coughed and struggled to breathe in the tent beside us.
[A gorgeous sunrise belies our situation early on Sunday morning. ++]
[TJ sets out marker wands early on Sunday (borrowed from Raf's team) to mark our camp for the chopper]
[Sunrise on Sunday morning from camp. ++]
We had some good discussions and disagreements about our situation. The problem with SPOT is that you send a message and cross your fingers until help arrives - it's a one way conversation. This means you either have to trust in the technology or try to self-rescue anyway. There's good arguments for both positions but at the end of the day we decided to trust the technology and stay warm and protected at camp.
On hindsight the best option (other than a SPOT heli rescue) was to send out two fast skiers (i.e. JW and TJ) to get help from the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre. They could have skied out in 3 hours (in the dark, if necessary) and called for help within 4 hours, whereas trying to sled out Ferenc would have taken many more hours and resulted in much more risk to everyone involved.
[It was extremely windy again on Sunday morning near camp]
We managed to get confirmation of our SPOT signal from emergency dispatch personnel by making a call on Raf's teams' satellite phone before it ran out of batteries. We waited for what seemed like a long time on Sunday morning, trying to reason how we got to where we were and what our options were to avoid this situation again before we finally heard the sounds of chopper blades from the North Twin / Stutfield col. We dashed out of the tent to signal the chopper to our camp.
The chopper landed and within 5 minutes Ferenc was on it, we passed on the numbers of our wives (to let them know we were OK) and Ferenc was whisked quickly off the glacier towards Jasper.
[The rescue guide takes some info from us and asks us to pick up Ferenc in Jasper on our way home]
[The chopper landed in the high winds no problem. It seemed pretty full - our theory is that they picked up some friends for the incredible flight over hwy #93 in such clear conditions. :-)]
Silence settled over camp as we turned to the task of disassembling camp and heading out. We were exhausted - especially JW who'd had a few nights of basically no sleep already by this point. We had some interesting discussions while cleaning up camp. We were disappointed because other than a fierce wind, we had perfect conditions for summiting South and West Twin and we knew that Raf's team were going to climb them successfully. Oh well. Stuff happens and you have to deal with it when it does. It was a LOT of work to get all the way into the north end of the ice fields but we did manage 4 11000er's in 2 days and we will be back for the remaining two or three (Cromwell).
As we were packing up camp we got a nice surprise. Fabrice and Josee from GoldenScrambles.ca stopped by on their way up North Twin! I have never met either of these two and it was great to finally meet them out in the middle of nowhere! They were shocked by our story of Ferenc's situation and eventually they slowly went on their way up North Twin.
[Fabrice and Josee stop by for a visit on their way up North Twin. Note the howling wind in the background!]
[Digging out camp on another gorgeous day.]
The ski out went without any major issues. We met a group going for North Twin on our way out, but their base camp was under Snowdome's west flank - which meant they wouldn't even be on North Twin until late afternoon - never mind Twins Tower. We realized that most teams leave themselves a very long day trip into the Twins area due to not moving base camp close enough to North Twin. This is understandable, thanks to the long approach, but ruins a lot of potential summits, I'm sure.
[Mount Bryce seen from the west shoulder of Snowdome]
[Panorama from the west shoulder of Snowdome showing Columbia, King Edward, South and North Twin. ++]
The run down the ramp and through the ice fall was very quick from high on Snowdome and we weren't alone on it - several other groups were also coming down. Columbia looked like a busy peak to be climbing this particular weekend. It's funny how much bigger the terrain on Columbia is compared with the Wapta.
[Skiing down the ramp off the ice fields, Andromeda at upper right and Snow Dome's seracs on the left. ++]
[Time for the slog back up the snocoach road.]
It was also quite funny when we finally got back off the glacier and up to the snocoach sheds. There was a group of around 75 Japanese tourists waiting for their turn on the snow coach and they were delighted by the sight of 3 tall, stinky guys with skis on their backs and sun burnt faces appearing over the edge of the parking lot! We were forced into the group while many pictures were snapped! It was quite embarrassing for us because we knew that we must have smelled something nasty. After our brief shot at 'fame' we walked down the road to the climber's parking lot and JW's truck.
[Coming up the snocoach road. TJ Nault Photograph.]
[Walking down the road at the end of a good adventure.]
[Walking to the climber's parking lot]
[It felt wonderful to be in the warm sunshine again.]
We ended up driving to Jasper before I could connect with Hanneke via cell phone, and she informed us that Ferenc had been taken by ambulance to Edmonton. We were more concerned now that his health had been seriously compromised and we realized that it was a very good thing we called for help when we did. It was a long ride home with lots of good conversation and big future climbing plans.
A week later as I write this, Ferenc is still recovering. He is probably going to be fine but there was some confusion with the doctors over what he exactly suffered from. It seems obvious to us that it was HAPE but the doctors also found some evidence of pneumonia - which doesn't really have anything to do with HAPE. In the end I guess it doesn't really matter, what happened, happened and we all learned from it.