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South Twin Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3581
Trip Date: May 9 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2100 (from parking lot)
Round Trip Time (hr): 10 (from high camp)
Total Trip Distance (km): 44 (from parking lot)
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Glacier travel over many crevasses followed by a steep snow or low-angle ice climb to a spectacularly exposed ridge to the summit.
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (II)
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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 StutfieldsNorth Twin Peak and the spectacular Twins 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.


Interesting Facts on South Twin Peak

Named by J. Norman Collie and Hugh M. Stutfield in 1898. “The Twins” is are a pair of high mountain adjacent to the Columbia Icefield., the northern one is known as North Twin Peak and the southern as “South Twin Peak.” Official name. First ascended in 1924 by F.V. Field, W.O. Field, L. Harris, guided by Edward Feuz jr., J. Biner. Journal reference App 16-147.


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.

Ben skis towards North Twin with South Twin on the left. The bench along North Twin’s east face is obvious.

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.

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 CollieAyesha 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.

Off the skis and onto the 40 degree slope. Snow this time – makes things much easier.

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.

Spectacular views off the ascent slope! West Twin already looks tiny and we’re not close to the summit yet.
The views keep improving as we traverse to the final ridge. King Edward at center.
Here we go! Shit gets real on the summit ridge.
We traversed on the west side of the ridge wherever it made sense.
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.

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.

Summit views from South Twin looking across the trench to Mount Columbia and King Edward. Kitchener and Snow Dome at left.
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.

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.)

What a gorgeous mountain and perfect Spring day to be on it.
Steven and Ben work their way back over to the North / South Twin col.
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.

Skiing towards the CSMC camp from ours. Note how small Castleguard looks?! (Lower left).
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.
Icefall on the Athabasca Glacier.

(Update 2016: I did travel the Athabasca Glacier headwall again in April 2016 on a one day fabulous ascent of Andromeda in perfect conditions.)

South Twin Peak
Leaving camp on a clear, cold morning.
Leaving camp on a clear, cold morning.
Ben skis towards North Twin with South Twin on the left. The bench along North Twin's east face is obvious.
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.
Steven and the huge east face of North Twin.
Traversing an easy part of the bench. With good snow, this traverse is very straight forward.
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.
Descending to the South Twin col on North Twin's south ridge. Last time I was here, this was all scree.
There is a steep snow slope from the North Twin col which is definitely avalanche terrain. Twin's Tower at far right here.
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.
Kev skis up behind me with North Twin's south ridge in the background.
Skiing up the lower part of South Twin's north ridge. Great conditions with lots of snow.
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.
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.
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.
This was the only section where I thought we might have some difficulties - the steepest part just before the upper ridge.
It's tempting to think the peak is "in the bag" at this point but it's not quite.
It's tempting to think the peak is "in the bag" at this point but it's not quite.
he views keep improving as we traverse to the final ridge. King Edward at center.
he views keep improving as we traverse to the final ridge. King Edward at center.
Here we go! This is a nice wide section - the narrow ones were even more fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Caution is paramount on the summit ridge. A slip - or more likely a crampon snagging trip - could pull the entire party down
This is what it looked like when I looked at my feet on the ridge. There are people who are considering skiing this face.
This is what it looked like when I looked at my feet on the ridge. There are people who are considering skiing this face.
WOW! Summit views from South Twin looking across the trench to Columbia and King Edward.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
A view I've been waiting for. Columbia and Kind Edward on the left, Alberta, Twin's Tower and North Twin on the right.
Mount Bras Croche has a very distinctive summit.
Mount Bras Croche has a very distinctive summit.
Tusk and Clemenceau are high on my "hit list".
Tusk and Clemenceau are high on my "hit list".
Tsar Mountain is another beautiful 11,000er.
Tsar Mountain is another beautiful 11,000er.
The Adamants show up clearly on this gorgeously clear morning.
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. ;)
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..
Another favorite - we ascended Mount Columbia only 3 weeks previous. The ridge in the foreground is a proven route to the summit..
Leaving the summit of South Twin.
Leaving the summit of South Twin.
What a gorgeous mountain and perfect spring day to be on it.
What a gorgeous mountain and perfect spring day to be on it.
Believe it or not, people ski down this face! Ok - one person did it anyway... (Trevor Sexsmith).
Believe it or not, people ski down this face! Ok - one person did it anyway... (Trevor Sexsmith).
Kev leads the ridge on descent.
Kev leads the ridge on descent.
The easy upper shoulder of the north ridge - note West Twin just left and below us here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ben and Steven on the summit of West Twin.
Steven and Ben work their way over to the North / South Twin col.
Steven and Ben work their way over to the North / South Twin col.
Kev follows me up North Twin.
Kev follows me up North Twin.
The CSMC group following our tracks high on South Twin's north ridge.
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.
The Columbia Glacier dumps into the lower trench just above Columbia Lake.
Columbia Lake.
Columbia Lake.
Seracs and South Twin Peak.
Seracs and South Twin Peak.
The exposure down the east face of South Twin is severe.
The exposure down the east face of South Twin is severe.
Ben, Steven and Kev approach the summit of North Twin as I work my way back to camp.
Ben, Steven and Kev approach the summit of North Twin as I work my way back to camp.
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.
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.
A gorgeous sunrise on our exit day.
A gorgeous sunrise on our exit day.
Leaving camp.
Leaving camp.
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
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
The terrain is huge here. You can just spot the two camps in front of North Twin.
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.
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.
Ben poses on the way down the Athabasca ramp.
Ben poses on the way down the Athabasca ramp.
Icefall on the Athabasca Glacier.
Icefall on the Athabasca Glacier.
Beautiful danger.
Beautiful danger.
Kev and Steven descend the last steep roll next to the icefall before a nice cruise down to the toe of 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.
Looking back at a place full of special memories.
Looking back at a place full of special memories.

Final Thoughts on The Twins

The Twins are an interesting set of four lofty 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 right to the summit itself, but there are many unseen crevasses around the route and some holes right on the summit itself.
  • Twins Tower is full of 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. Provided that snow isn’t in the mood to carry you 2km straight down to Habel Creek…
  • West Twin is 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 (south facing). There is also a bergschrund to negotiate that seems to split the entire east face. As the smallest and most uninspiring of the Twins, it’s the most likely to kill you via it’s easiest route.
  • 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 along the very exposed ridge to the summit. With little snow cover it’s tougher to gain the ridge (glacial ice) 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 falling into a crevasse increase.

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