Summit Elevation – North Twin Peak (m): 3730
Summit Elevation – Twins Tower (m): 3627
Elevation Gain (m): 2500+
Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 42
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2/3 – You fall you break something – unless it’s a crevasse or off the snow arete on Twins Tower. Then you could definitely die.
Difficulty Notes: Columbia glacier route includes crevasse issues and steep snow slopes. Don’t minimize these risks and learn how to manage them before attempting this trip. While North Twin is one of the easiest of the Columbia Icefield peaks to ascent, Twins Tower is another beast altogether thanks to crevasses off North Twin and a very exposed snow ascent to its summit.
GPS Track Download: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (II)
Map: Google Maps
After 2 full days of constant wind in the 50-80km/h range we were ready for a calmer day on Saturday, May 12th. Luckily when we woke up around 0600 the wind had indeed calmed down somewhat, probably in the 30km/h range. Due to the constant wind threatening to tear apart our tent all night and my cramped sleeping bag I was more than ready to get out and stretch my legs when the sun started peeking into our front door on Saturday morning. I resolved to try not sleeping with so much gear the next night. Sleeping with wet gear works wonderfully to dry it out but I’m 6 feet tall in a 6 foot mummy (not barrel) bag so there’s not a lot of extra room in there. I ended up having one boot liner near my feet, one liner tucked in my stomach – yes, I’m spooning with my boot liners – one heavy winter mitt behind me and one in front of my chest. Add a few finger mitts and my down booties along with the fact that I’m sleeping in most of my clothing (i.e. 2-3 layers) with my avy beacon and camera battery in my chest pockets to keep the batteries warm and some granola bars (so that they’re thawed enough in the morning for breakfast) and you may understand why I was getting restless sleep and slightly claustrophobic at night…
Another trick I have yet to master is the “pee bottle”. The pee bottle is a technique whereby you don’t have to get up (or even out of your sleeping bag if you’re any good at it) to pee at night. Because high altitude is a diuretic, pretty much no matter what you do, you’re going to have to pee several times at night. This gives you the wonderful opportunity to get out of your warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night in a raging wind storm, trying not to lose any of that crap you’re sleeping with, put on the down jacket, stumble to the biffy and do your business. Then you have to re-assemble your sleeping bag with all the aforementioned stuff in it and try to fall asleep. Hopefully your partner has ear plugs or is a good sleeper or you just woke them up too. So the pee bottle is a nice technique to master. JW was ticked off because he took a Gatorade bottle of fuel for his pee bottle, hoping that we’d empty it the first day and he’d get to use it after that. Instead, we were consuming so little fuel that he had to wait until the 3rd night to get his precious pee bottle.
North Twin Peak
Ferenc didn’t seem to be doing well at all on Saturday morning. As we skied out of camp Ferenc prompted a hilarious moment (that I’m sure he didn’t think was very funny at the time) when he insisted that we “go around the 50 meter high bump” in front of us rather than over it. The funny part was that we could easily see over that “50 meter bump” – meaning it was around 6 feet high at most! Obviously he was in for a rather long day.
Interesting Facts North Twin Peak
Named by J. Norman Collie and Hugh M. Stutfield in 1898. “The Twins” is a double headed mountain, the northern one known as North Twin Peak and southern as “South Twin Peak.” Official name. First ascended in 1923 by W.S. Ladd, J. Monroe Thorington, guided by Conrad Kain. Journal reference CAJ 14-40.
Raf’s team was just ahead of us on the slope. TJ insisted, to my slight dismay, on breaking his own trail up the south ridge. I do have to admit that TJ’s track certainly switch backed far less than Raf’s and was probably less work as a consequence. TJ set a very slow pace up the south ridge which made for a nice easy ascent in the thin, cold air.
Ferenc simply couldn’t maintain any sort of pace and by the time we reached the summit shoulder he was hyperventilating while trying to catch his breath. TJ emphatically stated that Ferenc was too spent to continue to Twins Tower and almost too spent to even make the summit of North Twin. Ferenc must have been a little bit delirious at this point. He began un-clipping from the rope to “walk the rest of the way”, but we were only 100 meters (horizontal) from the natural ski drop point and definitely standing on more than one crevasse. Finally he seemed to grasp that he could ski 20 seconds more to the ski drop and walk from there. As TJ, JW and I prepared for the final 150 meters along the summit ridge and an ascent of Twins Tower, Ferenc lay over his skis, completely blown out.
As we began to the summit I noticed that Ferenc didn’t have crampons on. I asked him about it and he said we could take a break after the summit to put them on. I responded that he wasn’t going to be joining us to Twins Tower, and that his day was over after the summit of North Twin. He seemed a bit surprised by this. “All I need is 10 or 15 minutes to breathe through it and then I can continue”, he insisted. We looked at each other and TJ once again asserted in very clear language that this wasn’t going to be happening. “This always happens at high altitude to me”, was Ferenc’s response. Say wha’ now?!?! “When I climbed the Colorado 14ers I would lay there gasping for air and then continue on. Climbing high mountains was always quite the tough experience for me because of this”, he continued.
This was surprising news and I thought that maybe Ferenc should have shared this breathing issue of his with altitude before the trip, or at the very least before leaving camp that morning when he was obviously not feeling 100%. Three full days above 11,000 feet including the exertions of our approach day, now climbing a 12,000+ foot peak and two 11,000+ foot peaks the day before was obviously having a very negative effect on him. Ferenc mumbled something about “going home tomorrow” to me. Notwithstanding a bit of gloom among the team, the views from the highest peak completely in Alberta were simply outstanding! We had clear conditions, not too much wind and an endless sea of snow clad summits in every direction, the vast majority of them underneath us. One of the most amazing summit views I’ve ever had.
Ferenc untied from the rope at the summit and turned back to wait for us at the ski drop while the TJ, JW and I started down the very steep north east slope of North Twin to the Twins Tower col.
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 bridged, crevasses to the col far below. (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.)
Interesting Facts on Twins Tower
Named in 1984. This tower is adjacent to “The Twins.” Official name.
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.
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.
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 slough, 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.
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. 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 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! 🙂 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.
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 freaking 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 very next day if the “situation” hadn’t occurred… Oh well!, life throws surprises and you have to roll with them or get swallowed by them.
Rescue and Egress from the Columbia Icefields
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.
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.
We had some good discussions and disagreements about our situation. The problem with SPOT (previous versions – newer ones can do direct messaging now) 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.
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.
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.
Note: I managed to climb West Twin the following year (2013) before a crevasse incident on South Twin delayed that peak again! Finally, in 2015 I managed to finish off the northern Columbia Icefield peaks with ascents of Cromwell and South Twin. On the same trip, in 2015, Ben and Steve managed to blitz ALL the northern icefield peaks in a mere 3 days, demonstrating what we could have done in 2013 already with better luck! C’est la vie.
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.
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 Snow Dome’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 successful summit bids, I’m sure. The run down the ramp and through the ice fall was very quick from high on Snow Dome 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.
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.
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 in the end hopefully some lessons were learned and some future issues avoided.