Summits and Icefields

I’ve been waiting for the right time to do a big mission out on the Columbia icefield for a while. With this rapidly maturing spring making most peaks with a valley bottom approach an extra slog to get to, the season was right. And after the thermostat was stuck on high for so long, then a crucial cold snap happened, conditions for crevasse bridge trustworthiness were ideal. Then a little storm passed through and the weather went blue, time to go!

Eating, a good excuse to dump the pack

Another part of the reason I’d been waiting so long for the right conditions is the Snowdome seracs. I wanted to get as much done at once to limit the amount of times I need to expose myself to them. It doesn’t matter much how fast you are, the best way to spend as little time under them is to not go past them too many times. After the approach up the flat lower Athabasca glacier though, Matt and I still went as quick as we could up the ice chunk strewn glacier. Then the headwall and then a very long slog to circumnavigate Snowdome and head towards our camp under North Twin, traveling nearly 20km to get to our new home at 3300m.

Epic sunset over Stutfield Col

The next morning, we waited for the tent to be bathed in full sunlight before getting out of bed, to take away the lingering chill of night. Then make breakfast, melt water, the usual routine for camping in winter, which very much still had a hold up at nearly 11,000 feet. Then we started off towards North Twin, climbing the SE face which was still glorious powder. At the summit we were pretty floored by the incredibly lofty perch, with steep rock walls and precariously placed pocket glaciers plunging down to the Athabasca, the singular route to Twins Tower being the crown of snow and ice along the ridge.

Twins Tower poking up beyond North Twin
North Twin summit, South Twin and Columbia behind

So along the ridge we went, coming across an incredible routefinding maze on the broken glaciated north ridge of North Twin. I doubt it’s in good conditions for skiing very often, with the big exposure to incessant westerly winds and cold, tackless snow as you get at such an elevation. However, the last storm was an anomaly, coming in with easterly winds and loading up the ridge, the winds since continuing that trend to maintain the snow in its ideal position. So we skied down, a blind roll to inch up to here, a huck off a little ice cliff there. Awesome skiing, sometimes exposed to the massive, nearly vertical cliff to the west and in sometimes deep pow, sometimes hard crust, sometimes pure ice, incredibly memorable ski. The exposure to the left hid itself well, so Matt also had a good time with it, he hasn’t had his brain rewired in the same way I have, yet.

Matt makes his way down North Twin north ridge
Coming up Twins Tower, North Twin behind

Then we climbed up the south ridge of Twins Tower. I’ve adored this line for a long time, all the pictures I’ve seen of it are a perfect wind spine, nice and steep but not overly, with huge exposure on either side but especially to skiers left over the Black Hole. There are very few lines like it in the Rockies, fewer still running directly off a major summit. However, with the winds being opposite of usual, the recent snow had distributed itself strangely, forming a small cornice on the skiers right lip of the spine. Also, the neverending heat had melted out the skiers left side of the ridge down to ice so close to the spine as to make it only a few feet wide on that side for some sections of it. As I went up, for part of it, the little cornice was still so unconsolidated I could easily knock it off, so I cleared an entire section of cornice to make it closer to skiable. At the top, I wasn’t sure if the close summit or the identical looking one just a hundred feet down the ridge was the true one, so I walked over, just to be sure. Bill Corbett’s “The 11,000’ers of The Canadian Rockies” doesn’t mention so I assume the close one to be the true summit, but I wanted to be certain.

Then ski time. I skied the exposed, but reasonably wide face on the right of the wind spine for a little bit in snow that was starting to corn up. Then the cornice on the spine abated enough, and I jumped on the spine for a few awesome turns. As the spine turned a slight corner I had to get back off, and skied on the face again, but when I got back onto the spine, conditions had changed just enough to make it not worthwhile; the ice on the left was creeping closer and the boot prints on the left were hard enough to worry about catching an edge on, which would be disastrous. So I skied the face on the right for the remainder to the col. Then Matt came down, keenly feeling the massive exposure of the place. He didn’t bother to get onto the spine, which I can’t blame him. Even a year ago I probably wouldn’t have touched it.

Matt making exposed turns on the safer face on Twins Tower

After that we had to climb back up the north ridge of North Twin, so we roped and cramponed up and walked back up. The terrain wasn’t super difficult, and Matt seemed confident enough about it so we simul-climbed it There were enough crevasses to make a rope advisable despite the exposure. I felt more at ease about short sections of moderate ice, so I lent him my more capable axe and used his. If he slipped we were both in danger of going over so it was in both our interests. We got back to the summit of North Twin without incident and skied back down the SE face we ascended before all the way to camp.

North Twin SE face

The next day, it was time to grab the other Twins. We saw another guided party making the traverse around North Twin to Twins Col as we were making breakfast, and caught up to them on the short descent to the col since we were mainly skiers, and comfortable with the crusty snow and they presumably weren’t as they downclimbed. The last big ski descent of South Twin’s east face beckoned, but looked a bit crusty, so we decided to go for West Twin first, to give the sun some time to work. We skinned up the short east face of West Twin, aiming for a reasonably crossing of the bergschrund but ran out of good snow. I decided to keep skinning despite the difficulty until we crossed the schrund, then we booted the rest of the way up, sans crampons. Leaving the skis on the summit plateau, we walked up and back down from the little summit tower. Then a short ski on dust-on-crust back to the col.

West Twin east face from the summit
South Twin’s north face and ridge from West Twin
The other side of Twins Tower and North Twin

After that, we were back onto skins, heading up the north face and ridge of South Twin. Despite a healthy blanket of fresh, we had to crampon up a short steep section of the face before it turned into ridge, at which point it became gradual enough to skin up. Conditions were ideal to skin right up to the summit from there, and after a short summit pow wow we skied back down the ridge to the start of the east face. Poking a pole over the side, it seemed like I wouldn’t need to worry about the stability of the snow, it was all crust. So, no belayed ski cut needed, there was no reason to delay and I dropped in. After hearing the first couple turns, Matt was convinced the conditions were not his bag, and went down the north face. But for me, the face was awesome. At first, I was skiing high above the rocky side of the face, but as I went down I worked left, down a  big wide snow face. The bottom third actually held onto the fresh pow, and it skied beautifully. After the schrunds, I made a quick transition, feeling somewhat endangered by the steep snow and ice above me. Then a short skin, and I was up to Matt. He found great snow on the north side, and we congratulated each other on our respective lines and skinned up and towards the exit from Twins Col.

The final steps to South Twin
South Twin east face
High contrast high consequence

Then Matt and I had a talk. I felt there was just barely time in the day (it was 3pm) to grab the Stutfields and Cromwell, but I didn’t feel that he had the pace left in him to take him along. He took it well, and I dumped any unnecessary gear for the objective and style (crampons, axe, rope gear) and headed toward Stutfield West. I followed the skintrack of the other group to the left of the dying icefall above Stutfield Col and breezed on up the gentle grade to the summit. Then I skied down to between the Stutfields and continued north toward Cromwell. After traversing a glacier NW of Stutfield East I got to the ridge linking it with Cromwell. Boy, did Cromwell look nasty. It had melted down to the scree in most places before the storm, and some parts had filled in during the storm. However, that snow wasn’t supportive enough to keep me off the rock, so there was a lot of swearing as I scraped the scree on a snowpatch I mistakenly trusted on the way to the Stut-Cromwell col. I left the skis at the top of Cromwell’s south face, and walked up the rest on patchy snow. At the top I checked out the summit garbage can, as there is no register in the cairn. Seems fitting for such a windblasted scree pile to have only a garbage can. Then I walked back down and skied the short south face for the last third of the descent to the col. Then back the way I came, and again follow the skintrack to Stutfield East Peak. Another summit, another gentle ski, then back up over part of Stut West, down to Stut col and back to camp, arriving at 8:30pm. Then lots of rehydration from the stove melt and dehydration from well-earned whiskey.

The descent to Stut-Cromwell col, wind and sun blasted Cromwell behind
Stutfield East, north face. Shouldda climbed it first and skied that face instead
Cromwell’s mythical summit trashcan
Woolley and Diadem
Alberta east face
Last sprint to the whiskey
The last epic sunset of the trip, Columbia and South Twin
Ah, so Cromwell does have something worth skiing

This was our last night, and we had a relatively easy day ahead, so we let the sun pack some real heat before rising. An easygoing camp break got us away by 11:30, and we skied off toward the Kitchener-Snowdome col. Once there, we removed packs completely, and made the incredibly gentle ascent to Kitchener. Then we skied back down the skintrack to the col and made our way up Snowdome. At the top, the intention was to ski the south face, rather than make the long circumnav like we did on the way to the twins. We aimed in what I thought was the direction to the lower sneak through the many crevasse zones on the south face. It turns out I didn’t go far enough, and after some deliberation, we decided to make a little climb to go to the upper sneak, which looked to be much easier to hit. After some good skiing on moderate slopes we were skiing down towards the Athabasca ramp, marveling at how gnarly the crevasse zones on Snowdome were, and later how much of a needle thread the lower route is. Down the ramp, past the seracs and down the glacier tongue, past the Brewster monster trucks and back to civilization. Nine 11,000 ft summits, around 80km of exploring, (very roughly) 4500m of ascent, four days.

With all the RATM news lately, here’s some classic Rage to get ya goin’

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