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