May 9-10, 2015
Columbia Icefield, AB
Not to be confused with the “Twin Towers” in Kananaskis, this one has the “s” placed in a different word and is a grand prize of ski mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. Like Bill Corbett mentioned in this The 11,000ers book, “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”. With its sharp snow arete rising cleanly from the col, as well as the 2000+ meters of exposure towards each side, this is gotta be one of the most aesthetic mountaineering lines you can find in this mountain range. And adding to this, the most difficult section is actually the descent from North Twin down to the connecting col, where numerous monster-sized crevasses and steep glacial ice must be navigated around. Ben, Kevin and I did it as the final objective in our grand 4-Twins-in-a-day after successfully summitting South Twin, West Twin and then North Twin, on the 3rd day of our Columbia Icefield ski mountaineering trip.
Since it was pretty late in the day we did not linger any longer than necessary on the summit of North Twin. It took us a while to put crampons on though thank to the fresh sticky snow balling underneath our boots, but soon enough we started the descent. Initially it wasn’t too bad but immediately I was facing against the first major obstacle – the first bergschrund… It’s a gigantic one but looking over the edge I found a nice “ramp” down skier’s left so went for it. The snow was thin there and I stepped through 2 crevasses along the way but we all somehow managed to get down this section with no mishap. And then came the 2nd bergschrund… Here I took a wrong route (which on hindsight would still work) that caused us 1 extra hour. The correct route would be re-ascending a bit to the skier’s right side of the 2nd ‘schrund but I went down left. Around the corner I was facing against a 2-meter near-vertical hard glacial ice with crevasses on top and below. With a poorly placed scree on shitty ice/snow (better than nothing) I just went for and got over with it by some dedicated down-climbing with just 1 tool. Then came Ben’s turn but he couldn’t do it. Kevin didn’t like it neither so I had to re-climb back up the sketchy ice and we had to find another route…
So Kevin took over the lead here and ascended to the top of this 2nd ‘schrund. Looking over the edge towards skier’s right side he did find another “ramp” leading marginally down. It’s not ice, but very steep and thin snow. Kevin carefully led the way down and shortly after we were back to easier terrain. However, the post-holing took over and for every step we’d sink to knee deep. I took over the lead again since I was high on energy and broke trail all the way down to North Twin/Twins Tower col. To save energy and time we decided to ditch backpacks at the col.
The entire descent from North Twin to Twins Tower took us about 2 hours and was much slower than anticipated thank to the marginal conditions. The ascent of Twins Tower was not in the greatest conditions neither. Nobody said but we all knew it’s going to be knee-deep post-holing, if not more than that. I knew if we didn’t want to ski down North Twin in dark I had to kill the Tower fast. For some reasons (I don’t even know myself) I was still super high on energy so kept leading up the arete. The terrain never got super exposed since the ridge was relatively wide and angle never exceeded 45 degrees. It’s just about post-holing. At sections it was more than knee deep, and with a thin breakable crust on the left side it was tough work. I ended up using my knees to break the crust before lifting my legs up. Soon enough, with all the hard work the slope angle started to get mellower, and another 20 minutes later we arrived at the tiny summit. Thankfully the second high point along the ridge looked marginally lower so we didn’t have to traverse there, and my 26th 11,000er turned out to be probably the most rewarding to date!
We were all very tired and fatigued at this point so in order to minimize the chances of a mistake (stepping your crampons on the rope and fall, etc.), we all agreed to down-climb the entire arete facing inwards. It’s a very slow process but at least we got back down fairly easily. Backpacks on Kevin started breaking trail masterfully up North Twin. We couldn’t use exactly the down-tracks so there’d still a fair amount of post-holing involved. Another 1.5 hours later we made back to the summit of North Twin.
Crampons off and skis on, we could see the sunbeams starting to get flatter. In another half an hour or so it’d be sunset time. Thankfully it’s mostly down-hill skiing from here. However, after a few turns down the upper face I soon had to realize the snow quality would be very shitty for skiing. It’s very crusty and had some hard wind drifts/moggles threatening to knock us off balance. I ended up having to take a short break for every 2 or 3 turns. Maybe doing kick-turns would be a better idea but with some slow, but consistent progress I knew we’d able to get down before dark. Watching sunset high on North Twin was a special moment too as I’m sure not many people would get that view. The rest of the way back to camp was a pure slog, but least we had a nice track to follow.
Eventually after spending 15 hours on the Twins we made back to camp where Vern was patiently waiting for us. It turned out that the other CSMC group also followed our tracks up both West Twin and North Twin and they got back about 1 hour ahead of us. For the next few hours we were busy melting snow and re-hydrating. I also ate 2 dinners since we knew we wouldn’t need Day 5 on this trip neither. We were still debating about Kitchener secretly in mind but in fact, neither Ben nor I had enough motivation for another rounded bump on the Icefield. Yes I’d finish all peaks on the Columbia if we went for it but I’d rather get down the Athabasca Glacier earlier in the day, if possible.
We eventually got to sleep at about 1 am in the morning, and knowing we’d be up by 5 or 6 I really didn’t think I’d have enough energy for Kitchener. We did wake up under a crystal clear sky but we also noticed a band of dark clouds moving in from Alberta side (strange given the forecasts)… So after packing up nobody said anything about Kitchener and we all focused getting out before the weather really rolling in, if possible. It clouded over in no time but the weather never got to reach us. (According to pictures taken in the front ranges at the same time by my other friends, we knew we got extremely lucky to be not in a white-out).. The skiing down towards the Ramp and the Ramp itself had some of the worst skiing quality I’d ever experienced. Even the better skiers couldn’t comfortably making any turn, let along me… But I did manage to descend safely. Yes, snowpowing all the way to the Ramp, and then side-stepping most of all the way down…
As usual for my previous two trips up the Athabasca, we’d cruise down underneath Snow Dome’s serac zone. But this time, there’s no way to cruise down it thank to the massive amount of serac debris blocking the entire skier’s route. I don’t know how Vern and Ben managed to ski over them (some were literally car sized). Kevin and I ended up removing our skis and walking down the debris zone. That was surely a freaky section and to be honest, after witnessing how far and big the seracs came down I’m not sure if I’d like taking route again in the future.. Descending the second icefall was as expected, steep so Kevin and I boot-packed down again. And after that, we got to enjoy some awesome turns down the lower Athabasca on corn snow.
There’s a bonus for us in the end. The lower tourist parking lot was open so Kevin decided to just wait for us there. I ditched my loads too while Vern and Ben kept trudging up to the higher parking lot (for more exercise I assume).. Unfortunately Vern’s truck was completely dead when we got back but I managed to give him a boost so it all worked eventually. Overall, this was a very successful trip as usual, and probably the biggest mountaineering trip I’ve done to date. Bagging 6 11,000ers along with a near one (but also the most remote on the Columbia) and still being able to finish 1 day ahead of schedule was a major feat. Special thank to Vern who patiently waited for us tagging other peaks (he only needed Cromwell and South Twin), as well as Kevin who managed to come along, join on all peaks and keep up the pace. Considering his age (more than 2 times of mine) and the fact he hadn’t done any major trip in this year yet, I have no clue how he did it. Like we all said, for a trip like this, your mental toughness is the most important thing and needless to say, 4 of us never had mental problem when coming to major peak-bagging trip, so we succeeded.
In the end, Twins Tower isn’t a very difficult climb, but the descent from North Twin to the connecting col can be very tricky depends on conditions. My advice is that if you want to bag this aesthetic route then do it quick. As soon as the two icy ramps break this route will become extremely difficult, if not impossible. I know conditions were great in 2012 but as from now on, 2 ice axes, a couple screws and maybe the v-thread hook are pretty much a must.