Twins Tower 9/11/2011 Attempt to climb the North face

Posted on September 15, 2011

Me hiking out from the Twin's Tower under the influence of sleep deprivation, over 1000 meters of climbing and rappelling, and many kilometers of hiking over glaciers, and talus.  An ipod on missions like these is crucial to help cure the pain and feed the stoke!  As my Squamish friends say, you can't put a price on morale.  The line of our attempt is drawn on the mile high face

I don't normally like to write about failures, but this adventure was somehow a little different than a lot of other routes I haven't gotten up, and I suspect that at least a few friends and Rockies locals might be interested…   It seemed ironic going to the Twin's Tower on September the eleventh, but also seemed like as good a time as any as temperatures for this time of year were unusually warm, which meant that rock climbing between 2000 and 3500 meters might be tolerable, and nights cold enough to keep natural rockfall at bay.  We were bang on with that guess.  Six weeks of mostly high pressure had also leant itself well to mostly drying up the rock.  So, at the crack of noon on September 9th, Jason Kruk and I left the car on the side of the Icefield Parkway, and made the 6 hour slog over the Wooley Shoulder to the Lloyd McKay hut, near the base of Mt. Alberta.  Our plan was to have a little siesta, and then hike another 4 hours under the almost full moon, through the "black hole" (also known as Habel creek) to the base of the North Face of Twin's Tower - a satellite peak of the North Twin / the third highest summit in the Canadian Rockies.   

Following the second pitch, by far one of the best on the route

There were many things that attracted us to this face, especially size (nearly a vertical mile high), remoteness, difficulty, beauty and history.  And as its it turned out not surprisingly, the climbing was, steep sustained and quite serious the whole way. There were also mixed sections that required ice gear and mixed climbing.  Other factors included considerable weight to be rock climbing with, cold temps, bad rock, good rock, tricky route-finding, and very limited information.  The sum of all these added up to one of the most complex, difficult, and committing climbs either Jason or I have ever embarked on.  But I knew we were both ready, had the the full kit of rock and ice climbing gear, favorable conditions, and everything felt good.  In nearly forty years, only six men had successfully climbed this face via thre routes.  In our minds, they were legends - the best of the best: George Lowe / Chris Jones; David Cheesemond / Barry Blanchard; Steve House / Marco Prezelj     

Looking for an easier way; one of the many traverses

At 6 a.m. on the 10th, we were racking up in the dark on the glacier and began swapping leads by seven.  We "sort of" tried to follow David Cheesmond's and Barry Blanchard's North Pillar route, but we somehow we always went straight up instead of doing numerous traverses to the left.  In hindsight, I'm guessing that would have been easier and maybe we should have tried harder to figure out where they had gone, despite the wet, choss traversing that it would've required.  There were a lot of pitches - both amazing and horrendous, as well as a little of everything in between.  It seemed as though almost every pitch was 5.10+ give or take, and some may have even pushed upper end 5.11.  Most were run out, yet there was lots of good crack climbing.  You never knew when a hold might break so focus had to always be maintained.  Way too many times, the pull and pray the rock didn't break method had to be used.

Heading for nice rock with some training weight.  When it got too strenuous to proceed with the pack, it was clipped to gear and then hauled.  The boots usually stayed clipped to the harness to help disperse the weight.

It was close to midnight as we neared the final ice ledge that splits the face, just below the headwall, and some 900+ meters above the glacier.  I was seconding the pitch (the third one by headlamp) and just a couple meters below the belay when suddenly a toaster sized rock released right in front of me.  I'm not sure if I breathed on it wrong or the the rope pulling up on my harness dislodged it, but in a split second, it was detached from the cliff and crushing my foot.  I howled in pain and hopped up to the small belay ledge.  Off came my rock shoe only to reveal a huge goose egg already popping out of my arch.  It stung and throbbed for the next hour, while snow packed into a zip lock bag was applied to help to keep the swelling down.  Jason climbed another 25 meters up 5.10 choss in hopes of finding a comfier "sit-down" ledge, but fixed the rope at an ice ledge, and rappelled back down to our stance for the night.  We each had our own little 2 foot by 2 foot ledges to sit on and shiver for the night which was fortunately already half passed.  We had opted to not to bring sleeping bags or pads in order to keep the weight down, although we did have a Jetboil for melting water and making hot soup, a dehydrated meal in a bag, and even some coffee in the morning.  Although we nodded off from time to time, I doubt there was even five minutes of continuous sleep for either of us, and plenty of time to wonder if my foot was broken and all the different scenarios might take place the next day.  It seemed unlikely I'd be able to wear a rock shoe anytime soon.

Instant goose egg after a the loose rock incident.  It got even worse, and eventually turned all colors of the rainbow. 

In the pre dawn, Jason re ascended the rope, and belayed me up, but not before I took some more flying rocks to the head and shoulders that I still hurt from almost a week later.  Luckily the swelling and pain in my foot had decreased overnight, although I struggled up the steep rock in my ice climbing boots.  150 meters of 50+ degree snow and ice comprised the next "pitch" which was a good one for me to lead to get us back into the game, and to test my damaged foot and head space. 

After a few shivery hours later, I'm back on the sharp end, testing a potentially broken foot!

Gunning for the headwall

Jason led a wild overhanging 5.11 off-width / fist crack to get us going up the headwall and stretched the rope out for a full 70 meters before belaying.  It was sure a fun pitch to follow and I was stoked to able to climb in rock shoes without overwhelming foot pain.  I think the cold overnight temperatures had naturally iced my foot, thus keeping the swelling to a minimum.   My next pitch was also of good quality, but ended after 35 meters, at a definite transition point.  When Jason arrived at the belay, none of the immediate options looked like they'd go, at least not without risking a massive / unsafe fall.    We had climbed 100% new terrain to this point and had on-sighted every pitch, and left no trace other than chalk and footprints - all things that were very important to us.  We were really hoping to climb the face without a single point of aid.  Whether or not we were on a new route was less important to us than a free ascent.  

About to start up the last pitch


We made a rappel down and left towards the North Pillar route thus ending our free bid.  Where exactly the North Pillar route went wasn't totally clear, but it sure looked wet higher up.  We discussed our options.  It was noon and at the rate it took to climb a pitch, another open bivi halfway up the headwall was inevitable.  We also had minimal food and fuel left.  We both felt we could do it, but the stakes were high.  Another open bivi would beat us down and reduce our power, before the final overhanging pitches, a place where we'd be better off to be doubling the power.  After the headwall, it would still be a very long way up mixed terrain and then accross the Columbia Icefields before relative safety was reached.  It seemed prudent to rappel all the way back down, so that's what we did.  Maybe the injured foot helped the decision, i don't know.  Or maybe it seemed pointless to continue up, now that we've used the aid of the rope.  We really really wanted the free ascent!

While trying to get my camera out, to take a picture of Jason on rappel with the headwall above him, I fumbled it, and whatched it plummet out of sight.  Talk about adding insult to injury!  I didn't really care that much the camera as it was only an out dated point and shoot, however, I was more bummed about loosing all the photos on the card.  Hence all photos listed here are property of Jason Kruk. 

The rappels went smoothly. I led them all, and managed to do it loosing minimal gear, and ten hours later, we were stumbling back down the glacier which goes all the way to Habel Creek.  Shortly after midnight, we crossed the raging creek and collapsed amongst the boulders on the other side.  Luckily, dry firewood was plentiful and an all night campfire kept the shivering to a minimal.  At fist light, we slogged back to the Alberta hut, swilled half a mickey of Lemon Heart with Gatorade that some kind soul had left behind, and we were back at the car by 3 p.m., 75 hours after leaving it.  Without a doubt, it had been one of the most physical, intense, fun, wild, scary, and educational 75 hours of my life!

As I write this some 5 days later, I finally got my foot x-rayed this afternoon.  It has been bugging me, and unfortunately getting more painful and colorful every day.  I should know the results tomorrow, but either way, I'm pretty sure it won't hold me back for long... 

Fresh green stubbies, caught in the icy waters of the Sunwapta River.  Obligatory after 75 hours on the go, as well as my favorite way to end a mission!!