The North Pillar

Tags: Posted on September 15, 2013

The North Pillar

There are less than a handful of people I know who have expressed interest in climbing the Twins Tower.  The ones that live within a day's drive were unavailable.  Not wanting to miss what I suspected were nothing less than exceptional conditions on the the North Pillar, thanks to a low snow year / hot summer, I went out on a limb and asked Josh Wharton if he had time and interest to give it a go with me.  I have to admit I was surprised when he said yes and immediately bought a Denver - Calgary plane ticket.  The alpine stars continued to align themselves as a perfect high pressure system settled into place as he stepped off the plane.  The next morning, we headed up the Icefield Parkway, and hiked over the Woolley Shoulder with light packs, expecting to have a food / fuel cache waiting for us when we got to the Lloyd McKay hut that Josh had left there in 2011.  A friend had confirmed it was looking good two weeks prior, and had even donated a few items to it.   Tragically, the latest entry in the hut logbook dated September the 1st said "thanks for the grub, Josh", and only slim pickings were left of it.  As Josh's note in his bag had said he'd be back in 2012, we could hardly blame anybody but ourselves that most of the bars and freeze dried dinners were missing, and accepted the fact that light and fast just got lighter and faster!  

The next morning we left the hut with 8 bars and 8 gels each, and a couple of recovery and electrolyte drink mixes as personal food.  For shared food, we had 6 packs of instant oats and couple hundred grams of granola + a small bag of trail mix that would be our breakfasts.  For dinners, we two Knorr soups packets (unfortunately onion flavoured), one pack of Threshold Provision Salmon jerky, and one 100g chocolate bar.  We also had 8 packets of Starbucks "Via" instant coffee!  It was about 5000 calories each, and we knew we'd be spending at least the next two nights out (it turned out to be 3.5 days)!  Hiking back to the car for more supplies didn't make a lot of sense, so we just accepted the fact that we'd be getting pretty hungry, and enjoyed carrying the lighter packs.

On the second pitch Josh wasn't sure if he was psyched anymore, but accepted the fact that I didn't want to slog back out the way we came.  A lot of the climbing was chossy, and a lot of the gear was marginal, but there was just enough of it was good enough to continue pushing upwards.  We cursed the first ascentionists, both for not cleaning it better and for talking the route up so much!  It was mind boggling to us, that the only three parties to have climbed the face previously had done so in 1974, 1985, and in the winter of 2004.  All parties had been pushed to their mental and physical limits, including ourselves.  It seemed like we were right on the edge of our risk tolerance levels the entire time, and perhaps even crossed the line.  Staying on that edge for such an extended time was exhausting!   

The headwall turned out to be impressively steep and we began to haul the packs more than climb with them.  It was so steep in fact, that they often hauled cleanly without even touching the rock.  Fortunately the rock quality improved.  1985 5.10d - which many of the pitches were rated, seemed sandbagged to say the least.  Continuous crack systems, often connected by gymnastic face moves, led through vertical to overhanging terrain for 13 pitches, to a wild climax at the top.  With only about 15 meters left before hitting lower angled summit ridge, a few meters of straightforward aid climbing up a knifeblade seam had to done above a ledge, to gain a series of big, run-out jugs that traversed the lip of a big overhang!  It was the only aid on the entire route for us, and it would probably go free at 5.12-, however dangerous fall potential put risking the free ascent out of our reach (despite being both quite comfortable at that grade).  It was no place to be taking chances as retreat would be practically impossible at that point, especially with the state our ropes were in.

The rest of the route was fairly straight forward, but worked out, despite making a couple minor route-finding decision.  One was thinking we'd save time and energy taking a short cut across the north face of Twins Tower right below the summit, in order to avoid some cornices, and the second was opting for the standard descent off of Mt. Cromwell to reach the valley, rather than hike across the Columbia Icefileds.  

Climbing the Twin's Tower was in hindsight, a great and satisfying experience for both of us, despite not always being fun in the moment.  It would be hard to recommend it to anyone, although if you're really psyched for a huge physical and mental adventure, it could be as good a place as any!              

Our conditions were absolutely perfect.  I don't think we saw a single cloud for the three days on the face, and maybe only a couple small ones on the fifth day.  Visibility was unlimited - On the summit we could see from Mt. Robson to the Bugaboos. Temperatures were perfect too, with reported freezing levels over 3500m the entire time, and there was virtually no natural rockfall, except in a couple of expected places like gullies below ice ledges.  Even there it was quite small, and mostly on the lower part of the route.   The rock was generally very dry.

Hardest route in the Rockies???  maybe…  

The itinerary we followed went like this:

Monday, Sept. 9th: Leave car at 1 pm, arrive at the Alberta hut at 6
Sept. 10: Leave hut at 5 a.m., approach N. Twin.  By 10:30 we are finally belaying on the first pitch.  Arrive at bivi site on "ice ledge", just below headwall at about 9 as it's getting dark.
Sept. 11: Climb 12 pitches of headwall and bivi one pitch below the top of it.  
Sept. 12: Climb last pitch of headwall, and the summit ridge above it.  Traverse a few meters below the double corniced summit ridge of the Twin's tower, and traverse the summit ridge of the North Twin (3731m).  Stand on the summit around 4ish.   Cross the Columbia Icefield toward to the Crommell / Stutfield col, and bivi slightly below it as it got dark.
Sept.13: Rappel and down-climb cliffs / hike out to the road which takes 6 hours.  Arrive at car at 3:30.   

Summary:  Second ascent of the Twins Tower via the North Pillar - Josh Wharton, Jon Walsh Sept 10-12, 2013 (F.A.: Barry Blanchard / David Cheesmond 1985, 5.10d A2, 1500+meters from bergshrund to summit).   2013 grade: 5.11b r/x, A1 (about 4 meters of aid climbing) on the last pitch of the headwall.  I suppose the r/x grade is irrelevant, as what else would you expect getting on an alpine limestone face of this size?

Sunrise on the Twins Tower and the line of our ascent.  photo Josh Wharton

JW on the headwall.  photo Josh Wharton     

JW getting into mixed climbing onthe upper ridge.  photo Josh Wharton

On the summit of the North Twin. photo Josh Wharton

Some of my B-roll:

Josh on pitch 2

Packing after the first bivi


Looking up at the headwall


Josh's 1st block, pitch 4 of the headwall

Pitch 5

Pitch 9


the end of Pitch 10 on the Headwall

The morning after the second bivi. Coffee time! Yes we"slept" here!


Morning light on Mt. Alberta

Finally above the headwall!  Only a few of hours of lower angled terrain to the top