Team: Mark Synnott, Kevin Thaw
When: August 2001
Where: Canadian Rockies
Sponsor: The North Face
Kevin Thaw and I have been talking about the north face of North Twin for many years. This 5000 foot limestone face, located deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, is reputed to be one of the biggest and most difficult limestone faces in North America. It has been climbed twice, by two different routes, neither of which have been repeated. Many strong climbers have dreamed of climbing North Twin, but since 1985 the face has routinely turned back all suitors.
Kevin and I arrived in Calgary on August 1st. It was raining as we drove up the Icefields Parkway, but we decided to hike in to North Twin anyway. The approach starts by fording the Sunwapta River. The river is braided into about half a dozen channels, the deepest of which rise up to your thighs. With our 70 pound packs it would not be a good place to lose your footing. The hike into North Twin is the same as that used for its famous cousin Mt. Alberta and the Alberta Hut. The final section of the approach involves climbing up and over Wooley Shoulder, a nightmare pass covered in loose scree. It poured rain on Kevin and I as we crested the shoulder and our first view of North Twin was something less than welcoming. We ended up bivying below the face for two days, during which time it stormed constantly.
To say that the face is intimidating would be a major understatement. The rock is loose, steep, and capped by several hundred feet of slabs covered in snow. Past experience has proved to me that snow covered slabs are usually next to impossible to climb. No way to see the holds, no way to find pro, and this on Rockies limestone which is notoriously loose and runout. It is no wonder that no one has been able to climb this face over the last 15 years. Kevin and I eventually hiked out empty handed but we learned enough about the face to decide that we will definitely be back. Good weather is perhaps the most important ingredient for a successful ascent and this season it was not meant to be for us.
It stormed for our first week in the Rockies but our second week dawned clear with a strong ridge of high pressure moving in from the south. For our next objective we chose the seldom climbed east face of Mt. Babel. Kevin had originally shown me a photo of this face four years ago and ever since its image has burned into my mind. We bivied in the woods near Moraine Lake and woke up at 5am. We were on the first pitch by 10am. The east face of Babel is approximately the same size and steepness of Half Dome (2000 feet tall). We carried one pack containing two liters of water, some Clif shots and rain coats. Our plan was to simul climb as much of the route as possible, but on the very first pitch I was hit in the arm by rockfall. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that much of this cliff is comprised of totally chossy loose rock. Simul climbing was thus particularly dangerous because very often the rope would flick loose rocks off ledges, bombarding the lower climber. Nonetheless, we simul-climbed the first six pitches of the route in about two hours, moving together on steep, runout loose rock up to 5.10 in difficulty. A little over half way up the face I was in the lead when I pulled up onto a shale band/ledge. Above the climb clearly became even steeper and more intimidating and unfortunately despite serious scrounging, I could find absolutely nothing for an anchor. I had no choice but to simply sit on the sloping, decomposing ledge and bring Kevin up. In these situations it is really important to be climbing with someone you trust implicitly. It was a dangerous situation but I felt secure in the knowledge that it would take nothing less than an act of God to cause Kevin Thaw to fall
On the steep wall above I found myself belaying Kevin from a very exposed position. I felt very vulnerable to falling rocks so decided to string the pack across the belay above my head. Sure enough, less than a minute later the pack, with me huddled underneath, was pummeled by a half dozen grapefruit sized rocks. The pack literally saved my life but one rock did manage to land on my foot and break my toe. We were very lucky that it was no worse.
By now the reality was starting to sink in that rappelling off might not really be possible. We were committed, but this is what adventure rock climbing is all about. The weather was perfect and we were moving fast. Still, we couldn’t help but worry about the last pitch, an overhanging 5.11+ off-width that has caused more than one party to become benighted on the climb. I led a tricky runout 5.10 pitch up to its base and was pleased to see a few fixed pieces. By now we had freed every pitch on the route and we were determined to fire the off-width as well. We were both handicapped though, me with my broken toe and Kevin with a finger shralped down to the bone when a lose chockstone rolled over onto his hand. Despite the pain in his finger, Kevin fired the crux pitch in proud style. I also followed the pitch free, pack and all. We finished the climb in an overhanging 5.10+ hand crack. We topped out after 8 ½ hours on route. We still had about four hours until dark, but the descent of the north ridge is incredibly long and complicated. I was also moving much slower than Kevin because of my toe, which hurt a lot more walking down than it did on the way up. We made several rappels and somehow always seemed to make the right choice and as darkness fell, we were safely back at the car. Car to car, all free in day. We had realized our dream of climbing Babel, and we’d done it in proud style.
The weather remained splitter, but between my toe (and knee and arm, which were also hit by rocks) and Kevin’s finger, we needed three rest days, and even then we were a hobbled and gimpy looking team. We warmed back in with an ascent of the classic Kahl Wall (5.10a) on the 1100 foot Yamnuska wall, outside Canmore. We simul-climbed it in about one and a half hours.
For our final day in the Canadian Rockies we decided to attempt a new route on a classic limestone peak called Mt. Louis. According to the guidebook, the steep and intimidating 2000 foot east face was entirely devoid of routes, so this is where we turned our attention. It’s about a five mile hike into the base, but we started early and made good time. We soloed the first 500-600 feet, up to about 5.7, then roped up and simul climbed a long knife edge ridge to the base of the upper headwall. More than 1000 feet off the deck I got my first twinges of that feeling I always get on a big adventure, that delicious but anxious feeling of being committed. Looking down at over 1000 feet of loose rock it was obvious that going up and over the top would be easier than rappelling. I took the lead on the headwall, wandering up steep 5.9 face on bullet hard limestone. Thankfully the rock was not loose so I felt comfortable running it out sometimes 50 or more feet between pro, a lot of which was junk anyway. 200 feet out, there was nowhere to belay, so Kevin began to move with me and in this manner we climbed the entire upper headwall in one long pitch. It was exciting, not knowing entirely if it would go, being way runout, but always finding just enough holds to keep moving up. We met up on the summit only 3 ½ hours after starting the climb. We did find an old piton half way up the climb, and are waiting to hear back from those in the know if it is indeed a new route. Either way, it was a great adventure and a perfect ending to out trip.
Kevin and I have unfinished business in the Canadian Rockies. We plan to return next fall or summer for another look at North Twin. With good weather, I feel confident we could give the face a good attempt. By next year, we’ll be that much more dialed in on the Rockies. The limestone walls of this range are unique, requiring highly developed route finding skills, a mastery of scrapping in protection where none exists, and a willingness to commit yourself to climbs where rappelling off may not be possible. Back home, some climbers have questioned why I would want to spend so much time in this area. Let’s just say that I get that same feeling of intimidation standing below a big face in the Rockies that I used to get standing below El Cap. There is true adventure to be had in the Canadian Rockies, and I plan to choke down as much of it as I can.