Thursday, July 14, 2011

The North Twin

I had sent Hayden a link to the weather forecast along with the question: How quickly can you get to Canada?

We had been planning to climb together in the Canadian Rockies since the winter season down in Patagonia. Hayden really wanted to come up north and ‘get scrappy’ as he put it. From Carbondale, Colorado and only 21, Hayden Kennedy is one of the most talented all around climbers I’ve yet tied in with. He makes even me feel old. Not only is he psyched to saddle up to gonzo alpine faces, he’ll onsight your project as his warm up at the sport crag. He has become one of my favorite partners.

The most gonzo of all the alpine faces in the Canadian Rockies is undoubtedly the 1500m North Face of North Twin. It’s big, steep, and remote. Climbed only 3 times in 36 years and by the leading alpinists of the time, tales of ascents and attempts are legendary. I convinced Hayden to come along with Jon Walsh, another of my favorite partners, for an attempt.

Barry Blanchard spoke of the horrifying, ever-present natural rockfall during his and Dave Cheesemond’s first ascent of the North Pillar. I still shudder when I think about the rock that broke Ian Welsted’s arm. He was high, so high on the headwall with Chris Brazeau, attempting a repeat of the North Pillar route. The fracture forced an unthinkable retreat, ‘an expensive and time-consuming thing to do’ according to Braz. They bailed, a feat that took them several days, leaving behind their entire rack which was ‘borrowed’ from Chris’ girlfriend at the time. I was really hoping that wasn’t going to happen to us. That’s why we were trying in the springtime instead of mid-summer. The cold temperatures and ice would hopefully hold the choss together. We would be looking for features climbable with ice tools and crampons, linking together as much ice as possible.

Our trip started well enough. On our first day Hayden, Jon and I skied the coveted NE Face off the summit of Mt. Victoria. I’d eyed this line for years, so we were stoked to poach it right away.

Our spectacular weather forecast disintegrated as quickly as it appeared. It stated snowing and raining heavily in town and didn’t stop. For two weeks it lasted, forcing Hayden and I to the gym and Grassi Lakes, the chossy local sport crag. Mostly though, we ended up at the bar. It looked like the June monsoon had come early this year. We grew restless. They closed the climbing gym for a world cup bouldering event, which further compounded our drinking problem.

Finally, a glimmer of hope arrived at the end of the extended weather forecast. Jon emailed me: he had taken both a chisel and a router to his index finger while working as a finishing carpenter. Two bad finger injuries in one day on the job; he wasn't climbing anytime soon!

The weather was nothing to get excited about, but it was certainly better looking than what we had seen. We packed our bags for a smaller objective, reckoning that an attempt on the Twin would be suicidal after so much snowfall. We drove north from town, our friends Andrew Wexler and Josh Lavigne breathed a sigh of relief when we vacated their couch we had been occupying.

Driving up the Icefields Parkway, Hayden and I were shocked how little snow had fallen up north. It didn't take much discussion to realize we needed to hike in and check the Twin out.

We woke up early from our bivy at the Athabasca trailhead and did a last-minute weather check at the Icefields Centre. It looked marginal, but we were going anyways.

We decided to leave the skis at the car, the snowline looked too high to warrant their use. Making good time on the 15km-or-so approach, we were rewarded with the breathtaking first glimpse of the Twin atop Whooly Shoulder. Immediately we started talking about conditions and route lines, peering through the binoculars. The Lowe-Jones? The North Pillar? I was reticent. Unwilling to commit to a plan then and there. I was reminded of Steve House's words published in Alpinist after his ascent with Marko Prezlj:

Learn something from our climb if you will, but you might be better off without the knowledge. I'm not advocating that you ignore the lessons of the past, but neither can you allow yourself to be chained by the weight of what happened before you. Don't limit yourself by mythologizing the past...
Today might be your day. Go.
This sentiment has become something of a mantra for me. All too often we let otherwise classic routes build in our mind to become much more than we are capable of. I was happier not knowing where Steve and Marko climbed, or where George and Chris went. I wanted to look at the face as if it were a virgin canvass, and simply climb what looked best.
As we descended into the glacial valley below, the weather worsened, forcing an impromptu bivy in the Alpine Club of Canada's Alberta Hut. It was slightly out of the way, and meant we would have to spend several hours approaching the face the next morning in the dark.
I'll let our photos tell our story, but to summarize, we climbed well over half the face our first day. Weather and conditions forced us off the headwall on day two, we managed to avoid rappelling by committing to a grand traverse off the face. We hunkered down on the Stutfield Icecap in a whiteout snowstorm, spending a second night spooning before making the long journey back to the road and our car.
The climbing was continuously very steep and difficult and occasionally very dangerous. The ice on the face was almost all too rotten for ice climbing. I completed the hardest lead yet of my career in the mountains, a real breakthrough for me to be able to lead both physically and mentally difficult climbing in complete control.
In reality, our chance at success was very slim considering the brief weather window and the poor mixed conditions, but I sure glad we gave it a real go. 
I had the best time up on a wild face with a great friend, completely alone in the pursuit of adventure. I can't wait to go back!
The North Face of North Twin, our attempt in green. 1: Lowe-Jones 2: House-Prezlj 3: Cheesmond-Blanchard

Our first glimpse of the face on Whooly Shoulder. HK photo.

Early morning below the Twin. JK photo.

Hayden approaches the Twin. JK photo.

Jason leads the first pitch: steep de-laminating ice and poor pro - much better than coffee! HK photo.

Jason on the mental crux: overhanging M7+ with no pro. The only time I've taken off my backpack mid-pitch and continued without it. HK photo.

Hayden leads quality alpine 5.10. JK photo.

Good rock, good climbing. JK photo.

Hayden leads rotten ice. JK photo.

Steep and rotten. JK photo.

Hayden traverses to start a crux pitch high on our first day. JK photo.

Amazing steep and hard mixed climbing on good rock. JK photo.

Negotiating a 'schrund on the upper face. HK photo.

Another crux drytool pitch. My quote near the top: "this could end poorly, Hayden"... It ended well. HK photo.

Our massive traverse off the face - the hardest snow climbing I've done! HK photo

Moderate trench-foot. HK photo.

HK the morning after our horrendous night on the Stutfield glacier. JK photo.

Hayden adjusting to reality in Lake Louise. It would take a few days of inner contemplation before either of us could function like normal human beings. JK photo.

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