I've been eyeing on Ben Nearingburg's website (http://www.ualberta.ca/~benn/Outdoors/#) for a while, and he eventually decided to update his contact information. Ben has done quite a few interesting ascents in Jasper area, namely Roche De Smet, Hardisty, and O'Hagan, and that's why I came across his site. We're both from Edmonton and we have similar peak-bagging style, so we should schedule a trip together. After throwing back and forth the possible objectives we decided to set our goal to the Heart Mountain - Grant MacEwan Peak - Twin Towers traverse. So we left Edmonton at 8pm on Saturday, and slept in car at trailhead.
The wind was crazy when we arrived at trailhead and if it wouldn't die off, Twin Towers wouldn't go. Our alternate plan was Mount Charles Stewart South, a 1400 vertical meters of scree slog... Fortunately the wind died off completely on Sunday morning, and we kept our original plan. I did Heart Mountain on Christmas Day in 2011, so I had some memories about the route. Apparently I forgot how slabby the route is at certain sections.. It was unusually dry last winter season (until March storms), so even with little scrambling experience I could get up Heart without much issue. But this time, there was apparently more snow on the ground, and we found the ascending to be more energy consuming than expected. Still, we didn't encounter any real difficulty until the Heart Mountain crux. Alan Kane gives this mountain a rating of easy scramble, but I would say, even if dry, this step can be very challenging for easy-scrambling-seekers. It's a 2m solid moderate to difficult step. For us, we had to deal with the new snow which made holds extremely slippery. After this bit of fun, we proceeded up overcoming moderate scrambling sections hear and there, and soon we arrived at the 1st summit - Heart Mountain, 1 hours 40min.
Both Ben and I had done Heart before so the next destination, Grant MacEwan Peak would be the 1st peak. Since we haven't gained our first peak, we didn't do any break and immediately started the traverse towards Grant MacEwan. The traverse is generally straightforward even for hiker's standard. There was several treed bumps along the way and treed backbone is a perfect place for holding snow (I learned this on Hawk Mountain). As a result, we encountered knee deep post-holing hear and there. It wasn't too tiring and we could maintain a generally fast pace. As we approaching the last push up Grant MacEwan Peak, we could start to see the clouds rolling in, and soon after that, the forecasted snow finally arrived. The visibility suddenly reduced to 100m or so. We checked the summit register and it was in a really bad shape. It's basically pieces of paper sheets, and we didn't even bother to sign, and apparently it was full anyway.
A quick water break, we started the traverse towards Twin Towers. I have to mention that Twin Towers is a difficult to climber's scramble even if dry. Compared to Fisher Peak and Wapta Mountain, the crux on Twin Towers is definitely shorter but I found the it's more technically difficult. That is, more vertical, less holds, and the holds are down-sloping. Under this condition, if all the holds are covered by a layer of new snow, than it becomes a climb. I fully knew this before even thinking about this peak so I brought up rope and some basic climbing gears. I thought this is just "in case", but man, I was so wrong.
There's about 100m elevation loss from Grant MacEwan Peak to the crux. Viewing from top, what we could see was drop-off. Following So's description we descended towards skier's left side and then turn sharply right's left and traversed on a horizontal ledge. The ledge gets narrower and narrower and with the new snow we had to use extreme caution, making sure we wouldn't accidentally step on snow covered down-sloping and exposed slab.. Eventually the ledge becomes less than 1 feet wide, down-sloping, and very exposed. There's a bigger tree nearby and I started to consider taking out the rope. At this part, the band is about 5-7m high, vertical. Probably due to the lack of confidence on rappelling, we decided to traverse further down the ledge for a short distance, aiming for the shortest down-climb. Squeezing under, using the tree as holds, and crawling over with several awkward moves, we arrived at another tree, a much smaller tree. The down-climb at this point is about 3m high, but again, vertical. The small tree was strong enough to give me a good hold and I tried to down-climb this part but I couldn't. All the holds are slightly down-sloping and covered by the new snow. Okay, sitting on the exposed ledge, I took out the rope and set up (probably the simplest rap station). Obviously the tree was too small to be an anchor, but at this point, I had no choice. I slowly rapped down this step, and now it's Ben's turn. His strategy was to use the rope as hand holds to assist his down-climb. It worked! We left the gears behind for later use.
Under the reducing visibility and the light snow, we started the trudge up Twin Towers. Looking back at the crux, it doesn't feel that hard though. At this point there was already about 1cm of new snow from the day, and the entire ridge line got covered by this layer. The wind was almost zero so all the snow could stick to the slabs. The ridge gets fairly exposed at places and needless to say, extremely slippery. We carefully moved uphill, sticking to the ridge crest until about 50m short from the summit. We descended the snow slope on our right hand side and then slogged up the tedious scree to the summit of West Tower. Under dry condition, you should probably want to stick on the ridge all the way up, and use the scree to descend. According to So's trip report, the East Tower was the actual summit. To get there, we had to descend snow on skier's right side to the connecting saddle. Then it was merely a rubble slog up the east summit. There's even a register on this rarely visited peak. The last entry was from Dan Kim, in 2011... There was little hope for the weather to improve and we didn't linger any longer on the summit.
Slogging back up the west tower was very energy consuming due to the slippery nature of the terrain, and then we took the scree line down which was fast. We carefully descended the snow covered ridge line and it didn't take us long to arrive at the base of the crux wall. Both of us simply used the rope as hand holds to assist the up-climb and it worked pretty well. Sitting on the exposed ledge, I packed the rope inside backpack, and then the next 2min or so was definitely one of the difficult moments in this year. We both managed to squeeze over the extremely exposed and slippery ledge, and then one more slippery section, we made back through the crux section. If I do it again with the same condition, I will rap down from the first tree, and prussik up the rope on the way back.
Slogging up Grant MacEwan Peak, I started to feel the elevation regain. I had to slow down quite a bit, and now I just realized I hadn't eat anything except for half a muffin.. Well, let's take a break on the summit of Grant MacEwan then. Looking up, we could see the weather starting to improve, and Mount Baldy and Barrier Lake started to show up. There was a piece of blue sky above Midnight Peak, and that's motivating enough. We stayed on the summit for about 15min hoping the weather could get even better, and it did. As we descending towards Heart Mountain, more and more pieces of blue colour showed up and the visibility was getting better and better. Topping back on Heart Mountain, wow, we could see the low clouds covering the prairie, and part of the Bow Valley corridor. Looking straight across Bow Valley, I could recognize the lengthy Jura Creek approach (Morrowmount). Exshaw Creek and Jura Creek was actually hidden behind the low clouds and the scenery was spectacular. The sun was also low enough to provide some orange colour towards Grotto Mountain and Canmore corridor.
Now with the new snow during the day, Heart Mountain was way different from what we'd just experienced in the morning. We had to hands-down regularly on some slabby sections, and the descent was much slower than anticipated. We also stopped regularly for photos. I must have taken more than 200 photos while descending Heart Mountain... The Heart Mountain crux also provided some challenge to us. Ben found a less steep (but more slabby) line further down, and he managed to down-climb it somehow. I tried several moves and decided to just jump down the crux. Further down the mountain, we constantly slipped and fell because we couldn't see where's slab and where's dirt or scree. It's kinda fun though.. Round Trip Time: 8 hours 20 minutes.