Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Real Rockies of North America...

Jun 30, 2009 - 06:05am PT
For me the North Face of North Twin all revolves around George. I first saw the face in September of 1982 when Albi Sole and I made the pilgrimage to Wooley Shoulder for an attempt on George and Jock Glidden's route on the North Face of Mt Alberta, which at the time had become the grail for me largely because there was post card sized picture of it in the old, old guidebook (a picture is worth a 1000 ...). There was no picture of North Twin and that is appropriate as a picture can't capture it. It is breath taking to see, dark, brooding, convex. I think that it was Henry Abrons who said it acts like a drug on the mind. It is like the Eiger in that respect, but without the cows with bells and chalets with flowers below it, you get grizzly bears and glaciers instead.

The first winter snows came and Albi and I never left the glacier, but I'd been beneath the North Face of Mt Alberta! The next summer (a far more appropriate time to be there than Sept, but that was before the latest push into winter climbing) Gregg Cronn and I went in and made the 3rd ascent of the NF of Alberta and on the way out, a day late and nearly a rescue short, I saw the NF of North Twin during the one hour of early morning light when the sun illuminates the North Pillar like a brandished sword. I felt like Gregory Peck in MacKinna's Gold, the sun had shown me the treasure. As Marko Prezlj said, "The pillar, that's the route". I was obsessed, along with a dozen other alpinists who had seen it, one of whom was, of course, George, and another was David Cheesmond who had climbed with George on the East Face of Mt Everest in 1983 (the Lowe Buttress).

It all revolves around George. I got to climb with him and Carl Tobin in the winter of 1984 (the crux of the East Ridge of Mt Deborah was led by Carl who climbed a lot with George). We made an attempt on the East Face of Mt Chephren and when I swayed the vote of our team the morning of day two in the snowcave, sitting out a storm, so I could be at an Everest meeting for our 1986 siege expedition because I naively thought that that was important, George wanted to stay and lie out the storm and continue. And he set me straight, although I couldn't hear it at the time, when he said, "this is were its at". And herein lies one of the tenants of George's climbing, and I'd love to know where he got it from, I assume that it was Cassin and Bonatti: George knows that adventure lies in approaching an unclimbed steep mountain wall that is draped in glaciation, brazed with ice, and buttressed with soaring rock walls; and, and this is THE most important part: a rack, a rope, and the pack on your back ... no bolts.

Dave Cheesmond and I planned and schemed and got it together to try the North Pillar in late July 1985, and George tried to scoop us! He came up the week before, and he bought Alex Lowe! (contrary to popular assumption, not related) a mercurial magician on a mountain wall. Thank the lord it rained. Great quote when Dave protested over the phone to George, "George, I've been looking at the Pillar for ten years", "well ya Cheese, I've been looking at it for twenty".

Alex and I went on to become good friends and we got to climb together. We had a discussion about George's commitment at one point trying to understand where George drew the line. It was much farther out there than either Alex and I did, but it is there. George wouldn't be here if it wasn't. For Cassin it seems like Alpinism was the theatre for proving life itself and storms were just part of that, you climbed up through them. It seems like he had to take casualties before he would retreat. Alex and I were good at retreating. George is to the Cassin side somewhere, not all the way there but further than Alex and I. We concluded that George is just tougher and that spending time in that place has allowed him to glean more from the mountain. He knows more than Alex or I knew and this is incredible because, as a professional mountain guide, I undoubtably have more days in the mountains than George ... something to be said for commitment.

Dave and I climbed the North Pillar and it, like George and Chris's route, has yet to see a second ascent. There are some good reasons for that. We had the best chance of success given good rock climbing conditions. To get good rock climbing conditions you need good weather and heat, that combination brings the wall to life. A waterfall forms from the summit rim and it falls free into space, the rockfall on the lower catchment ledges is breathtaking, and it can take your life away. Dave and I felt like we were making a WW II beach landing and we sprinted up sliding plates of shale to get to the next rock band and plaster ourselves against it for protection. No small feat given heavy packs.

Half of the rock on North Twin is good, some of it is even splitter. When you get to the steep rock the rockfall that bombards the lower face screams by a hundred feet out in the air, and it calms down when the sun leaves the face an hour after rising, and an hour before setting. Some of the bad stone is about as bad as it gets for frost shattered rock. Anchoring is often a challenge, some anchors may take 45 minutes for an experienced Rockies trad dad to build, but the security is there. I broke a hold on day two, sprained a tendon in my ring finger, and took a twenty footer onto good gear. Part of Dave's anchor failed on day four while I jumared up his A2 pitch, to quote Dave, "thank god the back up nuts held" (note that we had a number of pieces still in between us). Given my injured finger, Dave took the lion's share and he climbed brilliantly, masterfully, he came up with 'grace under pressure', we got fully committed.

Both Dave and I had been mentored by George. I like to think that I've had some influence on Steve House during all our climbing together and isn't that an interesting connection? The North Face of North Twin revolves around George.

Marko and Steve's ascent was in early April and is a winter ascent despite the rule book on the season. It commonly gets down to -25 celcius on the Columbia Icefield at night in early April. What blew my mind was looking at the pictures of Steve and Marko drytooling 3000 feet up the snow plastered rock of North Twin ... modern alpinism. I'd never seen pictures like that anywhere before. And consider this, no rockfall.

All three routes will be repeated in time. As Steve pointed out you have to go. Even if you never step foot on the face to see that cirque is worth the walk. It is one of the great mountainscapes of North America.

As George knows, you have to commit.

Happy trails,
Barry Blanchard

Jul 6, 2009 - 05:58am PT
Barry sent me this way and it is interesting to see-read how much people have thought about the NF of NT. After Marko and I made the third ascent of the wall (by a variation of the 74 route), Marko, overwhelmed by the maelstrom of response, editors wanting photos and words, people writing him notes, he told me: What is this North Twin? I just want my life back! Something about that face, people just respond to it. 

I have said this before, and I will say it again. The Lowe-Jones route was, in my opinion, the hardest alpine route anywhere in the world at the time it was established. Never mind the storm, the dropped gear, the fact that it was an unexplored wall. Just stick to the technical difficulty, and was the biggest, baddest thing that had been done. I have repeated another route that I once considered contender for that title, the SE (July 74) Buttress (Rowell-Roberts-Ed?) on Mt. Dickey and it was not nearly as difficult as the climbing on the NFNT.

Regarding my own experience on the NFNT I will say this, it ranks among the most rewarding of my life. The atmosphere of the place, the quality of the climbing, the way the route was climbable, barely. 99% of the rock was splitter-good as we found it in winter. The loose stuff Barry talks of must have been buried or frozen when we were there. The steeper it was, the better the rock, just how you would like to find it. As Marko kept exclaiming as we were climbing, the rock is virtually made for drytooling. The cracks are thin (pick-size), and there are many tiny flat edges to front point on. I had the same experience last year climbing another variation to another Lowe route on the North Face of Alberta. The rock back there is great for this kind of climbing. Probably better than in summer, as Barry points out, in summer it is extremely dangerous but in four days on the wall in early april Marko and I never saw a natural rock fall event.

Another aspect of our climb in April 04 that added to the experience was that because of the size and remoteness the NFNT demanded that we go really light. We had one bag, one 5x8 ft. guide tarp, 5 fuel cannisters and not nearly enough food. We each wore exactly the same clothing: a capilene shirt, insulated soft-shell jacket and pants plus a synthetic belay jacket each. That was it. We often led in the parkas and at the belays we shivered a lot. The leader lead with a near-empty pack and the second carried about 25 lbs to start with. 

I know that the CAJ ran an article that Marko wrote and I wrote a piece that appeared in Alpinist. I do not remember the numbers or issues, and as I am currently poaching internet downvalley of Chamonix I am unable to look that up. I also dedicated an entire chapter to this climb in my book that is out in a month or so.

As an aside I just came off guiding the Croz Spur on the Grande Jorasses yesterday. This is a more serious wall than the Eiger Nordwand in my humble opinion. And one thing that struck me was that at least 20 helicopters flew by us each day. I could get weather updates by text on my cell phone. The Alps are great, but the Canadian Rockies they are not.

As I was writing this some one just told me John Bachar died yesterday. That is a fist to the heart. I guess I will post anyway. 
Steve House

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