Home > Profiles

The North Face of North Twin is Big, Cold and Dangerous

Some history of the massive wall that hasn't been climbed for nearly a decade

The north face of the North Twin on the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies is one of the most talked about alpine walls in the world of hard alpinism.

When the first ascent took place of the north face proper in 1974 by Chris Jones and George Lowe via their 1,500-metre VI 5.10 A3, it was said to be the hardest alpine route anywhere.

The second route up the face was by Barry Blanchard and Dave Cheesmond in 1985 up the North Pillar, a 1,500-metre 5.10 A2. Despite many attempts, the route only has one repeat by Jon Walsh and Josh Wharton in 2013.

Blanchard wrote after his climb, “A five foot by two foot by one foot thick hunk of rock sheared away from the side of the number-three Friend that I was jumaring on. It roared out over me, a revolving black shadow.”

The north face of the North Twin. Hasn’t been climbed since 2013. From Dave Cheesmond in 1985 after he and Barry Blanchard made the first ascent of the North Pillar VI 5.10d A2: “Due to his expertise on ice, Barry went ahead across the second icefield. About 400 feet long at 60°, and pock marked with imbedded rocks, we were relieved to be across before the sun hit the face. After this it was once more rock shoe time, as hard pitches followed one another in almost monotonous regularity. We were into the main break in the upper pillar, and the rock was some of the best either of us had seen on limestone. Even though it was a serious place to be, we relaxed enough to enjoy gymnastic rock climbing in one of the wildest places.” More in The Bold and Cold book. #alpine #badass #northtwin #climbing #legend #history

A post shared by The Bold And Cold (@theboldandcold) on

The only other complete route up the face, which is a winter-ish variation to the 1974 route was by Steve House and Marko Prezelj in April 2004. “A mountain archetype,” said House in Alpinist 8. “It bursts skyward from the very belly of the earth, gaining breadth with height and then like a stone wave turning concave and slim and sharpening to its bifurcated crest.”

In The Bold and Cold, the wall regarded as the most difficult in the Canadian Rockies. In the early 1980s, Dave Cheesmond and Tim Friesen attempted the 1974 route, but bailed out left and climbed the ridge to the summit. Cheesmond called the route The Traverse of the Chickens VI 5.10.

About the 1974 bad ass first ascent of the north face of the North Twin by George Lowe and Chris Jones, Lowe wrote, “We set up a semi-hanging bivy. I have a block big enough for half my bottom and Chris has one slightly larger, but down sloping. Cooking is done holding the stove and pot between my knees. Once the loose burner falls off into my lap. Ages pass searching gently in the dark before I feel it. We eat our last half dinner and assess our situation. We have only six pitons, some useless nuts, and three ice screws. The rock above probably won’t go, leaving the ice runnel as the only possibility. We may have to rappel 50 meters to get into it. Means of safely climbing that much vertical ice are not obvious especially in our condition. We attempt to sleep. Although somehow I am so adapted to the environment that sitting here doesn’t seem strange, my mind churns through the night. Maybe we can go neither up nor down?” More in The Bold and Cold book. Pics by Lowe and @john_scurlock #climbing #alpine #legend #badass #storytime #banff

A post shared by The Bold And Cold (@theboldandcold) on

Before the north face was climbed, a group of climbers made the first ascent of the North Ridge, a 1,500-metre route above a hanging glacier. The route is called The Abrons route after the leader of the ascent, which took nearly two weeks.

“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,” wrote Abrons in the 1966 American Alpine Journal.

The Abrons route had never been repeated during all of the action on the steep north face until August 2014 when Ian Welsted and Brandon Pullan climbed a new variation to the long ridge.

Pullan traversing from the couloir. Photo Ian Welsted

They left the car and made their way to Woolley Shoulder and down into the Black Hole beneath the face, stopping at the Mount Alberta hut to see friends. They bivied at the base of the ridge and in the morning climbed a 400-metre icy couloir. At its top, they traversed onto the ridge and climbed another 800 metres to the summit of the North Twin.

They then walked 20 kilomtres across the Columbia Icefields to the top of the Athabasca Glacier and slept for a second night. In the morning, they descended back to the highway.

In a story called 10 Years After by Cheesmond and Blanchard, Cheesmond wrote: “Cheesmond: The fourth day on the face turns out to be eventful. First the feeling of impending doom on leaving the security of the cave and then the continuous difficulty and seriousness of the climbing. About two rope lengths up from the cave I’m relaxing in my butt bag while Barry jumars. Suddenly I hear a crash and find myself three-feet lower down with the jug line pulling on my waist. There’s also an intense pain in my left shoulder.

“After what seems like a long time Barry transfers his weight to a point and in between spasms of pain can move back up to see what happened. Dangling uselessly from the crack is the nut that was the main belay; the chockstone that was backing it up is gone. The fracture in the side of the crack tells its own story, the slab that came away hitting me as it started down on the way to the glacier. Luckily, the back-up pin and wire-nut held, which stopped us from following the slab for a ride.

Dave Cheesmond on the North Pillar. Photo Barry Blanchard

“Somewhat shaken I place all the gear I have and tie it all together for psychological reassurance. For the rest of the day we both are haunted by blocks that move and cracks that expand.” Read the full story here.

The north face of the North Twin is on the minds of many strong climbers, but few, if any, will make a successful ascent of the wall. Who will be next?

Jon Walsh on North Pillar Photo Josh Wharton

North Twin

Routes: A: The Lowe/Jones VI 5.10 A3 / B: The House/Prezelj VI 5.10 A3 / C: The North Pillar VI 5.10 A2 / D: The Abrons V 5.7 / E: The Abrons Variation V 5.7 WI3 / F: Traverse of the Chickens V 5.10 / G: The North Ridge Traverse V

North Twin Photo John Scurlock

Check out the latest buyer's guide:

The Best Online Sales on Climbing Gear

Get the gear you need to explore the outdoors at a discount from the comfort of home