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Twin Sister Haute Route, Grade V, 4th class, snow/ice 60 degree ascent, 45 degree ski descent. Possibly the first recorded ski traverse of the Twin Sister Range, North Cascade Mountains,
by Mark Allen, Greg Balco, Paul Kimbrough, and Chris Simmons. May 12, 13, and 14, 2006.
post by Chris Simmons
This trip was inspired by a previous climbing trip to the North Twin Sister Peak in February 2005. In the fall of 2005, I started to trace out a possible traverse route on topographical mapping software. During the 2006 winter, I found three other excellent skiers who were foolish enough to say yes; Paul, Greg, and Mark.
Mark and I met a month before the trip to look over the route and peer at a series of photos provided by John Scurlock. The route looked possible. The whole team met again in two weeks before the trip to look over the route, John’s photos, and discuss gear requirements.
We met Thursday night at my house to pack and make some final food purchases at the grocery store. Early Friday morning we cached Greg’s car at the end of the road for the North and South Twin Sister Peak climbs, and my girlfriend dropped us off at the other end near Hamilton. The access information is described below.
Friday, 12 May 2006, Day One:
We didn’t start where we originally intended and we needed to get a view of the range to get our bearings. Low clouds and snow showers kept us guessing until a lucky break in the weather while crossing an “artificial alpine zone” provided us with the view we needed. An hour and a half of skinning gained us the spine of the range immediately below the southernmost named summit, Step Sister Peak. We followed the ridge north, requiring a final boot pack to the summit, earning our first descent of the trip, the North Face of Last Sister Peak. We crossed the ridge to the east again and traversed the glacier on the east aspect of Nancy Peak, crossed a cleaver nick-named the Southern Divide and gained the glacier below the east aspect of Barbara Peak, which we provisionally named the Ripple Glacier. We climbed and skied in a zigzag pattern across the Ripple and Trisolace Glaciers until we reached the Saddle Slabs and Twin Crests where we made camp for the night.
Saturday, 13 May 2006, Day Two:
We got an early start and skied down the eastern slopes of Twin Crests and the Twin Crests Glacier before climbing back up to camp, shouldering our packs, and crossing the Saddle to the west side of the range. We dropped packs again in the bowl underneath the South Face of Little Sister Peak where Mark skied the proudest line of the trip, climbing and descending up the South Face Couloir. We hiked up to the summit ridge of Cinderella and skied the North Face, continuing down the Greater Green Creek Glacier before heading back up to the Little Sister-Cinderella Col and continuing north along the west side of the range linking together the little glaciers and cirques on the west slopes of Little Sister, Hayden, and Skookum Peaks, before finally hitting the ridge wall blocking our access to the Sisters Glacier at 4pm.
This proved to be the crux of the trip. Difficult 4th class and steep snow with heavy packs and skis required us to rope up. We also discovered our first mistake – Mark’s 9mm rope turned out to be 20 meters long, not matching up well with Greg’s 8mm 30-meter rando line. With only one thin rack for both teams, I lead the first short pitch without a pack, belayed everyone up, and then rapped down and re-climbed the pitch with my pack on a top rope while Mark lead a second shorter 20 meter pitch to the snowfield. Since Mark and Paul had the shorter rope, they lead the way as we simul-climbed the following 100+ meters of steep snow to the ridge top. We gained the ridge with perhaps a half-hour of light left.
John’s photos and the map show the Sisters Glacier clearly reaching the ridge top at the lowest notch immediately south of South Twin Sister. Instead we were looking down at 100 meters of rappelling. The ridge terrain was protected by numerous gendarmes, so we opted to rap off the ridge top where we were freezing in the wind, and finding our way down. We had to pull head-lamps out after the first 20 meter rappel to a horn. From there, we tied the two ropes together for a single strand, 40 meter rappel, which Mark down-climbed. Being his idea, and not realizing I was waiting for him to offer “Rock-Paper-Scissors”, he took my silence as refusal and offered to do it himself. Thank God. We were all pretty hammered at this point, and I was not happy.
Another single strand, 50 meter rappel over a blank, verglassed rock wall reached the glacier. We left the rope to collect the next day and stumbled down to the flats of the glacier finally setting up camp at 2:30am. When we finished dinner and hot drinks, we were all nodding off over our bowls and the sky was beginning to brighten.
Sunday, 14 May 2006, Day Three:
We were forced up at 9:30am by the bright light and heat of the day. A hard discussion over breakfast reached an agreement to forego an attempt to retrieve the ropes. As it turns out, the 8mm rappel line was rubbing over two rock edges, and neither Mark nor I were willing to risk jugging back up the line with a Tibloc and Reverso. We looked around to see if there was an easier way to climb up and traverse over using the hanging end of the 9mm strand to belay with, but saw nothing. The rope is still there and both of us expect to return later this year to retrieve it.
At 11pm we skinned and climbed up to the notch we had hoped to reach the day before and discovered why we had missed it. A full 40 meter pitch of 5th class chimney would have been required to reach the notch from the west side. This would not be possible for this team or with our packs. Our curiosity satisfied, we skied a couple of laps on the Sisters Glacier before descending below the North Ridge of South Twin Sister Peak and traversed across the Sisters Glacier to the North Ridge of North Twin. Once again, our intended notch looked good from our side on the east, but was cliffed out on the west. We continued lower down the ridge to the next notch which did prove passable. However, we ended up 1000’ below our intended route and a final skin gained us the bench below the North Face of North Twin Sister. A final descent through mashed-potato snow lead to a clear cut and road beneath the West Ridge where we were forced to take our skis off at 3800 feet. The final 5 miles of hiking in our boots finally ended when we crossed the welded steel of the Middle Fork Nooksack Bridge, and walked over to Greg’s car. It was over.
Conclusions and Lessons Learned:
There are two ways to access the Sisters Glacier which must be reached in order to finish the traverse. We don’t recommend following our route over Mirage Peak. The first possible route is to cross the Greater Green Creek Glacier to the east of Hayden and Skookum Peaks and climb a steep snow couloir that leads directly to the Sisters Glacier. Another possibility is to climb the South Face of South Twin Sister and descend the North Face.
A 60m rope would be ideal. Two 60 meter ropes are necessary if you choose to follow our line.
A speed traverse would probably work best from North to South, because one could descend the Sisters Glacier Couloir to the Green Creek Glacier instead.
We originally had hoped to climb and ski the North Face of South Twin and then ascend the South Gully of North Twin to ski the North Face. Saturday’s climbing over the ridge, our lack of sleep, and the incredible heat that hit us on Sunday put a stop to any of our ideas.
We gave a number of provisional names to a number of features to make conversations easier:
Nancy Glacier – located in the east bowl of Nancy Peak
Southern Divide – the cleaver that forms where the NE Ridge of Nancy and the SE Ridge of Barbara Peaks merge and separate the Nancy and Ripple Glaciers
Ripple Glacier – located in the east bowl of Barbara Peak
Trisolace Glacier – located in the three basins NE of Trisolace Peak
Twin Crests Basin – located NE of the Twin Crests and Saddle Slabs
Little Sister Cirque – located in the west bowl of Little Sister Peak
Hayden Cirque – located in the west bowl of Hayden Peak
Moraine Cirque – located in the north bowl of Skookum Peak
Northern Divide – the great headwall between Skookum and South Twin Sister that separate the Green Creek and Sister Glaciers
Mirage Peak – the 200-foot tall summit of the South Ridge of South Twin, which we climbed up and over at its highest point
Twin Glacier – located in the bowl on the west side of the ridge separating the North and South Twins
North Twin Glacier – located in the basin NE of North Twin
We traveled 30 hours in three days, covered 21 miles, gained 12,000 feet, descended 14,000 feet, skied every single permanent snowfield/ice field/glacier except for the Twin Glacier according to the USGS topo and made significant descents from the North Faces of Last Sister, South Twin Crest, and Cinderella; and the South Face of Little Sister.
Typical backcountry ski and avalanche equipment. Each member carried a transceiver, shovel and probe. Greg was on tele-gear.
1 Megamid tent
2 pocket rocket stoves with four canisters, two pots, and one tea pot
rack: 6 knifeblades, stoppers #4-#10, #0.75-#1-#2 cams, #10 hex, 2 ice screws, 4 shoulder length slings with biners, two double length slings with biners
ropes: 9mm, 20 meters & 8mm, 30 meters
Each: helmet, harness, crampons, ice axe, belay device, three locking carabiners, one cordellete
The Upper South Fork of the Nooksack River is closed by the Forest Service as Critical Elk Habitat from 1 November to 1 July. This effectively eliminates accessing the ridge from Baker Lake. The logging services follow suit on their private land upstream from Hadley Creek.
I convinced the Forester at Sierra Cascade Industries that this trip was part of my studies in Adventure Recreation, contributing directly to my degree and my professor vouched for my academics. We received permission to be dropped off via the roads up Hadley Creek, provided that we were careful around and didn’t interfere with logging operations that were in progress. Crown Pacific sold their land holdings to three different logging companies and they have an agreement to minimize non-business access as much as possible to minimize interference. I don’t expect to get this permission again.
Next time I plan to use our back-up plan, which is to drive as close as possible to the summit of Mount Josephine, hike up and over, drop down to the South Fork and climb back out to Bear Lake. This route is only 3.8 miles as the crow flies, but 9.5 miles of logging roads. The good news is that if you wait for the snow line to be at or below 2000 feet, this could be accomplished entirely on skis. Otherwise, bring a pair of shoes.
Special Thanks To:
Our friends and families who encouraged us, wished us luck, and thought about us while we were out there
John Scurlock for the aerial photography
Sierra Cascade Industries for access into the South Fork Nooksack valley.
Annie at WWU’s Huxley Map Library for the time and hard work making my taped together creation, digitizing it, and reprinting it into a great map.
Patsy for the driving and drop-off.
I’ve tried to keep this as factually as possible. The crazy and funny stories that come with this trip should be heard with a beer.