Two Attempts on Twins Tower

The shadowy, mile-high north face of Twins Tower, as seen from the north side of Mt. Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. Photo by Steve House

The shadowy, mile-high north face of Twins Tower, as seen from the north side of Mt. Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. Photo by Steve House

To my mind, one of the coolest things that happened this year in North American alpinism was a pair of failures. The Canadian climber Jason Kruk attempted the legendary north face of Twins Tower in the Rockies twice, in the spring and the fall, getting high on the route both times. An obsession was hatched: If conditions and partners align, Kruk will be back next spring.

This mile-high wall of limestone on the cold flank of North Twin, the third-highest peak in the Rockies, has only been climbed three times in 37 years, each by a different line, and each an epic. The list of successful parties is a who's who of modern alpinism: George Lowe and Chris Jones (1974), Barry Blanchard and Dave Cheesmond (1985), and Steve House and Marko Prezelj (2004). Hidden from view from any road, the face rises a day's march from the road, and is guarded by notorious rockfall and run-out 5.10 climbing in crampons.

Kruk first attempted the wall in late spring with Hayden Kennedy, the 21-year-old phenom from Colorado. (They'd hoped to climb with Jon Walsh, but he got injured in a carpentry accident, so it was just Kennedy and Kruk who started up unclimbed ground on the left side of the face.) They got about halfway up before bad weather and conditions forced them to traverse left below the final headwall, ascend to the icecap above the route, spend a horrible night spooning in a whiteout, and then escape to the highway.

In Sepetmber, Kruk was back, this time with Walsh. (Kennedy was in Pakistan, doing the first ascent of Hassan Peak with Kyle Dempster.) This time, they tried a line on the right side of the face, in the vicinity of the unrepeated pillar climbed by Blanchard and Cheesmond in 2005. On his blog, Walsh described the long first day of climbing: "It seemed as though almost every pitch was 5.10+, give or take, and some may have even pushed upper-end 5.11. Most were run-out, yet there was lots of good crack climbing... Way too many times, the pull-and-pray-the-rock-didn't-break method had to be used."

Near midnight, as the two approached a lower-angle ledge system about 3,000 feet up, where they planned to bivy, Walsh pulled off a toaster-size block as he was seconding, and it smashed into this left foot. A sitting bivouac on tiny ledges, with no sleeping bags or pads, followed. But the cold night seemed to keep the swelling down in Walsh's foot, and they were able to continue the next morning. After two pitches up the steep headwall, however, the rock blanked out. Up to this point, they had climbed entirely free, on all new terrain, but now they were forced to rappel diagonally to the north pillar route. With the free attempt ruined by the rappel, and facing the prospect of another bivouac on the headwall, they lost their psyche to continue and decided to rappel all the way to the base.

I love seeing climbers get hooked by worthy projects like this, and Kruk's got it bad. "Yep, the North Twin is still at the very top of my to-do list," he said in an email. "I can't say I'm happy to have spent that much time climbing on such a hostile wall without getting to the top."

Here's hoping he'll get another shot at it in the spring.