Columbia Icefield: The Twins and Friends
Last month I enjoyed the incredible opportunity to ski from the summit of Mt. Columbia, in a one day push on my first visit to the legendary Columbia Icefield. After an introduction like that, I was fired up to return to what is, in my mind one of the epicenters of Rockies ski mountaineering. On Friday the 13th I did, setting off with Trevor for a four day mission to the northern arm of the icefield – home, most notably to the cluster of four 11000+ foot peaks known a little misleadingly as The Twins.
Nobody likes early starts, and by the time we found our way out of Golden it was around 7:00. No matter, we were still parked and on our way a little after 10:00, and with the added advantage of being able to depart from the lower parking lot – meaning we would get to start a few kilometers closer to the snow than the last time I had been there. Across the toe of the Athabasca we went, then up towards the ever menacing Snow Dome seracs. Although we got word from another party that the alternate route around the seracs was in, we stuck to the climber’s right side and scampered under the overhead as fast as we could. As a party of two, we agreed that we preferred that to onsighting the much more heavily crevassed left hand route. I am, more often than not a proponent of moving quickly and confidently through known hazards rather than messing around in the unknown trying to avoid them.
Once on the icefield, we had some lunch in the sun before setting off down its northern arm, which is absolutely enormous. In what I’ve learned is classic Columbia style, it rolls and undulates as far as the eye can see, with no kind of markers for scale. We trudged our way down there for a good long while, setting a skintrack towards The Twins and feeling like we were going nowhere. Finally, as the evening started to cool we made camp near the base of North Twin, atop a ‘low’ 3300m bump – a position we reasoned would cause us to receive the morning sunlight just a little earlier than the Twins – Stutfield col.
As it turned out, we were correct, our deliberate eastern exposure netting us an earlier respite from the frigid darkness. We were glad too; that first night was seriously cold. After a leisurely breakfast and some time spent melting snow, we headed off towards North Twin. Straightforward route finding up the southeast face had us skinning onto the summit in relatively short order. What a summit it is too, with great views of… pretty much everything. Trevor dismantled a cairn in a fruitless search for a summit register before we turned our attention to Twins Tower.
Just getting there turned out to be a crux of the day, as we carefully descended a steep, broken jumble of ice, complete with a mandatory air or two, unskiable bare ice and plenty of air below to fall into. It was some really cool skiing, and a few of those turns will not soon be forgotten. Once at the col between the two peaks the enormity of the exposure became obvious, but that improbable snow arete is too beautiful not to climb (and hopefully ski), so skis went on packs and we went upwards.
Once at the top, my mind wrestled with a combination of awe at our position and fear at the windcrust and terminal exposure below. Trevor’s stoke was a great help here, and once he had descended to the col I took a deep breath and slowly, carefully clicked in. As it turned out the skiing wasn’t half bad. Factor in the location and it was absolutely a highlight of my ski mountaineering experience thus far. I wasn’t exactly charging – my headspace with exposure like that is a work in progress, but man was it ever an amazing feature on which to be making turns. Not a lot of lines like that around, especially from a major summit with such a history. So stoked!
Skis off again, it took some easy ice climbing to regain North Twin. Credit to Trevor for trusting my relatively untested ice climbing ability enough to simul solo with me. The crevasse hazard was pretty serious here, in between bits of ice. We followed that with a sweet descent from the summit in what could almost have been confused for powder. The technicality of Twins Tower, or more accurately the NE Ridge of North Twin had slowed us down quite a bit, so we made the short climb back to camp to begin refuelling and prepping for the next day. We hoped to make good enough time on West and South Twin to have a shot at bagging Stutfield, Stutfield NE2 and Mt. Cromwell, so we got to sleep before dark in anticipation of a very long day.
Up a little earlier this time, we set off quickly on a traversing route around North Twin before skiing down into the basin from which West and South Twin are generally accessed. West Twin was first up, and turned out to be a bit of a thrash, requiring some slippery skinning to get across the bergschrund on skis before booting to the summit ridge. Once there we scampered across to the summit, which, for a lesser peak compared to its neighbors, offered up an excellent view. A quick, but fun ski down and we were skinning again, headed for South Twin.
Partway up the north ridge we switched to crampons for the steeper slope and blew by a couple of unfortunate guides painstakingly placing ice screws in the 40 degree neve for their client. In no time we were skinning across the summit ridge and topping out on the final Twin. It’s another beautiful summit, with the best view of Mt. Columbia of the bunch. As quickly as we arrived, we were back on skis and reversing the summit ridge. Trevor had his eye on the east face, a steep, imposing line that seemed to roll off into oblivion. Again I battled with my fear of the terminally exposed, and this time it won, though I am at peace with the fact that it did. Ultimately, I deemed the risk of finding glacial ice under the snow on the unseen majority of the face too high and my bag of tricks too shallow to escape from such a situation should it occur. I watched Trevor make his first few turns, which was probably scarier than skiing the thing, before having myself a great run down the north ridge in beautiful boot top powder, as if to support my decision.
I arrived at the bottom just in time to see Trevor finish his burly descent through what turned out to be variable, but solid conditions. It was a strong show of steep skiing ability and a cool line to watch. With the hot afternoon sun beating down at full power, we started climbing out of the basin. I watched Trevor pull away from me with some dismay as I bootpacked at a painfully slow pace. By the time we got to the traverse I wasn’t feeling especially great and Trevor headed off on his own towards Cromwell and the Stutfields. I sat down, drank a lot of water and eventually headed back to camp to find whatever shade I could. I figured I could have gotten at least one Stutfield peak, even both, but in my somewhat sunstrokey state Cromwell was out of the question. With that in mind, I’d have to come back to ‘complete’ this end of the icefield regardless. None of the summits was particularly inspiring, and Cromwell wasn’t even currently skiable, so I got busy resting. Even for Trevor the additional three peaks were an impressive effort, leaving me plenty of time to have a rum fueled spiritual experience of sorts, which I completely enjoyed.
The next morning we were in no huge rush to break camp. Though we planned on bagging two more peaks on our way out, the day would be mostly downhill. We pounded as much water as we could to combat the effects of another day under the hostile sun and headed out, cruising to the Kitchener – Snow Dome col in great time. Here we dropped our packs entirely and enjoyed a quick push to the summit of Mt. Kitchener and back in well under an hour.
Light is right.
Unfortunately our second peak required the packs to come with us, so at a distinctly slower pace, we lugged them up the few hundred vertical meters to the broad summit of Snow Dome. It’s kind of a neat spot actually, so gentle and high as to feel like walking along the roof of the earth. From here it was nothing but a long, fun ski run off the summit, down the Athabasca headwall, quickly under the seracs and along the toe nearly the entire way back to the car.
The descent made for the perfect end to an amazing trip. Six 11000ers summited on a three night mission, and a whopping nine for Trevor – which is flat out impressive. Not to mention an all time highlight for me in a summit ski descent of Twins Tower. Once again the notoriously fickle icefield allowed us perfect weather and skiing conditions, something I feel lucky to have experienced in what can be such a brutal environment. On a personal note, it was cool to be both so successful and seriously humbled by a partner whose skill, fitness and head space all eclipse mine. I’m always stoked to go skiing with Trevor; I learn a ton every time. I highly recommend checking out his version of events, as well as some video over at Perpetual Ski. The video in particular really illustrates the intensity of a few of the lines we were able to ski.