American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Northwest Ridge of North Twin

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Henry L. Abrons
  • Climb Year: 1965
  • Publication Year: 1966

In one of the more remote valleys of that sub-arctic rain forest called the Canadian Rockies, there is a mountain wall which acts like a strong drug on the mind of the observer. So dark, sheer, and gloomy is the North Face of North Twin, like a bad dream, that I shall say very little about it. However, Rick Millikan, Pete Carman, and I approached the north side of North Twin last summer on the theory that where there is a face, there is a ridge.

The northwest ridge is both visually dramatized and overpowered by the awesome face. But its direct steep line attracted us, as well as the fact that nobody had attempted any route on the north side of the mountain or apparently ever considered one seriously. In addition, we had a chance to study firsthand what must become one of the great face problems for the next generation.

With our friends, Charlie Bickel and Ernie Carman, we left the Banff- Jasper Highway and crossed the Sunwapta River opposite the little canyon which lies in a direct line between Tangle Ridge and Mount Woolley. The route over the south shoulder of Mount Woolley is definitely the easiest to the basin north of North Twin, south and east of Mount Alberta, and west of Stutfield Peak. In two short rainy days we were camped in view of some of the highest and most spectacular peaks of the range. Here, our objective came into focus, and we decided that the northwest ridge of North Twin was a realistic route.

After a few days spent contemplating, reconnoitering, and waterproofing everything we owned, we placed a camp in the meadow between Little Alberta and the icefall which flows to the northwest off Stutfield Peak. Seen from there, the northwest ridge forms the right skyline of the north face. The ridge is almost four thousand feet high, very straight, and about as steep as the north ridge of the Grand Teton. The route appeared to present three problems. First, Canadian Rockies rock is notoriously rotten. The ridge is stratified in the typical many-colored horizontal bands — some more solid than others (and the others atrociously loose). Second, most of the ridge was plastered with snow. Since it snowed nine days out of ten, we would have to wait a long time for good conditions. Third, there is no safe way to get onto the ridge, for it terminates in hanging ice about six hundred feet above the glacier. From the color of the snow, the mountain was obviously quite talkative, and we wondered whether any of its messages were meant for us.

At dawn on July 17, we stood outside our tents watching a rainstorm make up its mind. But it was apparent that the weather would never commit itself. It was up to us to choose between our sleeping bags and the gloomy black mountain which promised little of dryness and warmth. Soon we were chugging up the glacier, as the first rays of sun touched the icefall below the ridge. Realizing that the couloir we hoped to use to reach the icefall was risky, we hardly spoke as we entered the chute. Rick led first, working his way up a series of ice ledges, and he brought Pete and me up at the same time to the base of a steep wall. Since I was end man, I got the next lead and climbed out to the right, cutting little nicks in the slushy ice. A slot between the wall and a large sérac offered an approach to a flat expanse of snow above us. I chimneyed about forty feet between the two faces of ice and reached a point where the width of the slot made it necessary to climb on the wall alone. As I swung across on a handhold of ice, oblivious to the fact that over a hundred feet of rope were out and no pins were in, I had a weird adventure.

My handhold suddenly turned to slush — and in the next instant, as my body swung free, the slush turned back to ice under the compression of my fingers. Instead of a fall, there was a flash of pain, and I found myself hanging on my left arm. I was so haired up that I did not realize until a minute later, after my frantic feet had found their old holds, that my shoulder stuck out at an odd angle and would not move. "#?*!” I thought, "Your shoulder is dislocated and you are really up the creek. Looks like this is where you get off!” With some fatalism, I slowly found an ice piton, jabbed the tip in, and gave it a careful tap: not careful enough, however — for it popped out and fell. Forgetting my shoulder, I instinctively made a desperate lunge to trap it with my chest. The movement brought another stab of pain, and immediately my shoulder popped back in place. I got out of the chimney as fast as I could, and a minute later I lay in the flat snow above the ice wall, feeling scared and very stupid and thinking how incredible it was that two accidents could turn out better than one!

With my shoulder effectively out of business, I did not know whether Rick and Pete would want to go on. They would have to lighten my pack and do all the leading. In a tough spot, I could be a serious liability to them. On the other hand, a retreat down the couloir in the heat of day was nothing to look forward to. All my fears were academic, however, for when they came up, they expressed no desire to back off. What a privilege it is to have friends you can lean on!

Above us, the icefall was split across its width by a great crevasse. Pete used a buttress of powdery snow to place himself as high as possible, where he was able to hack a cleft in the vertical wall. He finished the lead with a steep and delicate snow move which required every art to retain balance. In quick order, we reached the base of the rock and found a way over the bergschrund. The rock was loose and every hold was a gamble, but the climbing was quite easy. With Pete and Rick alternating leads, we put two thousand feet betwen us and the glacier by midafternoon. Occasionally there were steep pitches or tricky moves, and a few pitons were placed for irony. But for the most part, it was as easy as climbing a rickety staircase.

The beauty of our bivouac boosted the joy we felt over our encouraging progress. Snuggled against the rocks, we gourmandized the gorp and tasted the luxury of hot tea. Our feast of the senses was complete with a song on the harmonica and the spectacle of a mountain sunset. The shadow of Mount Clemenceau fell across the silver threads of the Atha- baska River far below, and to the north, the sunlight left the summit of Mount Alberta, and was replaced by a cloud.

The temperature rose during the night, and the next morning there were saturation slides from the slabs above us. Our chief concerns were the deep notch near the top of the ridge and the approaching storm. Thus we had no trouble keeping our optimism under control. We reached the notch just before the storm broke, and although it was steep and loose and held together by verglas, Pete and Rick lost no time in discovering the key to each tricky pitch. When the violent lightning and hail storm hit us, as we perched on minute ledges close to the summit, we wondered whether the axiom that safety equals speed was true, for the lightning was very close. Nevertheless, it was not prudent to wait too long while wet snow was blanketing the rocks. As we climbed toward the summit, it was pleasing to think that we had completed an eventful climb ahead of schedule and without serious mishap. It was a fine adventure, in the good sense of the word.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Canadian Rockies, Columbia Icefield region.

Ascent: First ascent of Northwest Ridge of North Twin, 12,085 feet, July 17 and 18, 1965 (Millikan, P. Carman, Abrons).

Personnel: Richard G. C. Millikan, Peter T. Carman, Henry L. Abrons, Charles E. Bickel, Ernest W. Carman.

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