Twins Tower Climb
After summiting 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 ridge, high altitude 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. Anyway 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.
[This is what it looks like to descend the north ridge of North Twin to the Twins Tower col. Note Raff's party far below at the col already. Also note the ridiculous amount of air between us an the valley floor!!]
At the col we met up with Raff, 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.
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.
[Do I look a wee bit nervous?! TJ Nault Photograph.]
[Jay leads Adam and Raff 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 Raff'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. Click to view full size.]
[A look back down the arete at TJ who is obviously loving it!]
The biggest danger with Twins Tower isn't necessarily the climb itself. At 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 Raff 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 Raff 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.
Raff'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.
[TJ and Raff congratulate each other on the summit of Twins Tower. This was Raff's last Columbia Ice fields summit!]
[JW on the summit of Twins Tower - obviously quite pleased with himself! :-)]
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.
[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.
[TJ gives me a "sitting belay" :-) as I get off the exposed ridge on Twins Tower and back onto the less-exposed ridge of North Twin.]
[From TJ's vantage, we're almost at the col on descent. TJ Photo.]
TJ kicked steps up the north ridge of North Tower as payment for Raff'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 and even about the whole "situation" waiting back at camp. 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. :-)
[Climbing back up North Twin. TJ Nault photo.]
[Vern pops up North Twin from Twin's Tower. TJ Nault Photo.]
[JW gives a classic mountaineering pose as we pop back onto the summit ridge of North Twin (Twins Tower in the background]
[TJ on the summit of North Twin]
[Vern on the summit of North Twin. Click for full size - TJ Nault Photograph.]
[JW doing a balancing act on Alberta's highest peak!]
[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.]
[So tempting to go for South and West Twin... On hindsight maybe we should have but we didn't like the south face of West Twin in the strong sun...]
Once at the summit of North Twin we snapped a few more pics 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 icefall 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. Click for full size.]
Ferenc was bitterly disappointed that he hadn't gotten Twins Tower. It seemed to me, a little bit illogical the way he kept insisting that he could have made it if we just slowed down a bit more. After talking with him even a week later I think he doesn't realize how utterly spent he was on North Twin! We could not possibly have ski'd up North Twin any slower than we did without going backwards down the mountain and we certainly didn't push any speed records because I wasn't in nearly as good condition as either JW or TJ and even I didn't feel any exertion on the ascent - not even a normal amount of it.
[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.]
To imply that we were somehow "racing Raff" for Twins Tower also doesn't make sense because we took our time on the summit of North Twin and even sat down for refreshments at the Twins Tower col while letting Raff's team break trail for us! :-) If we were trying to "race for peaks" we would have also summitted South and West Twin - we certainly had the time for it. The only reason we had to keep some sort of pace up North and Twins Tower was to safely get back to camp before the strong May sun started de-stabilizing the snow pack - Twins Tower was spicey enough without taking our time and risking soft and unstable slopes on top of the natural hazards of such a climb.
We spent Saturday afternoon the same as the day before, Ferenc in the other tent most of the afternoon 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 Raff about joining his rope team for their trip out on Sunday afternoon rather than wait until Monday for us, to which Raff 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 (yet).
[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 wierd dream at around 11:30pm 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 literally dying in the next tent!
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. Of course we knew the rescue wouldn't come until Sunday morning so we found ourselves with at least 5 or 6 hours of more coughing and more helplessness. We 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.
[TJ sets out marker wands early on Sunday (borrowed from Raff's team) to mark our camp for the chopper]
[Sunrise on Sunday morning from camp (click for full size)]
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.
[Castleguard's summit just peeks out over the icefields as seen from camp. This seemed like a major summit when Ferenc and I did it earlier this year!]
[It was extremely windy again on Sunday morning near camp]
[TJ is holding the shovel in between two fingers and the wind is blowing it horizontal!]
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 ski'd 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.
We managed to get confirmation of our SPOT signal from emergency dispatch personel by making a call on Raff'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.
[Finally! Help is here.]
[Ferenc is escorted to the heli]
[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. :-)]
[Video of the heli resuce]
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 summitting South and West Twin and we knew that Raff's team were going to get them this day. 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.
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 HAPE 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!]
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.
[Mount Bryce seen from the west shoulder of Snowdome]
[Panorama from the west shoulder of Snowdome showing Columbia, King Edward, South and North Twin. Click for full size.]
[TJ with Bryce in the background - we had a glorious day on our exit! The trench is just visible to the right.]
[Can't get enough of Mount Columbia]
[Castleguard looks tiny just to the left of TJ. The west and south shoulder of Snowdome is a lot bigger than you'd think. We're still high above the neve that accesses Mount Columbia at this point. I should have kept my skins on to this point and even a bit further.]
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.
[Looking back at our run down the lower glacier and the other group negotiating it. You can see the seracs hanging from Snowdome on the upper right - we didn't see anything fall during our run down the glacier.]
It was also quite funny when we finally got back off the glacier and up to the snowcoach 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 snowcoach 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 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. It was a long ride home with lots of good conversation and big future climbing plans from Jasper.
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 pnuemonia - 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.
We are all sorting out our actions and feelings towards what happened and why things happened the way they did and I think that's the important part. As long as we are learning we are moving forward. It's only when we think we have all the answers that we are in trouble.
I really hope to go back for South and West Twin some day. The Columbia Ice fields are a special place that still imparts true wilderness on those who venture onto it's cold expanse of snow, ice and glittering summits.