West Ridge of North Twin Sister

It was near the height of the heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest. Just a few days later, a town in British Columbia, Canada would reach an all-time high of 117 F. A few days after that, it would burn down in a wildfire. Foreshadowing the future of the Earth? Definitely.

I wanted to climb a peak this weekend, but after seeing wet slides near Shuksan a few days earlier, I decided to stay off snow. The West Ridge of North Twin Sister is a long and sustained class 4 scramble on unique rock. To add to it, it would be a multi-sport adventure: The approach and first 3,000 feet of gain can be bicycled.

The night before, I reached the trailhead at a logging road off of Mosquito Lake Rd., near Bellingham. The road was locked at a bridge that crossed over a roaring river. Roaring, because all the snow and glaciers were melting en masse.

I packed my bag — a running vest; and prepared my bike for the approach. Before going to sleep, I hung out a bit with a local from Sumas in the lot who was checking out the river. He told me about his time in prison for drug trafficking, and about how good the weed in Washington is. Interesting stuff. He offered me some home-grown weed too. I don’t remember if I took it or not.

The next morning, I woke up around 6 a.m. I packed 3 liters of water, since this was only a half-day trip. I started riding the first few miles of logging roads to gain 2,000 vertical feet. This completely drenched me in sweat. It was in the 80s and near 100% humidity. The ride up, easy as it was, was miserable.

I soon reached the turn-off at Dailey Prairies. This leads to 1,000 vertical feet of single-track. Some people ride it, other people leave their bikes here. I brought a fatbike and I rode up this easily. With a gravel bike, it would be tough with all the loose ground. Most mountain bikes with 2″+ tires should likely do fine.

Soon, I reached the end of this trail. There’s a climber’s path here that approaches the base of the ridge. I left my bike in some trees.

Now, the remainder of the climb would be on foot. Some fun root-scrambling up a brushy herd path brought me to treeline. Now, the west ridge was visible.

From here, it’s straightforward. I started to hike towards the base of the ridge. When I reached the ridge, I followed the path of least resistance to continue along with it. There are a couple of use paths along the bottom portion of the ridge. Some are scrambly, some are brushy — just pick whatever’s easiest.

I soon reached solid rock, 1,600 vertical feet short of the summit. The rock is olivine. I don’t know the science behind it, but it’s of volcanic origin and is solid and grippy. The rock felt like sandpaper, which made for very secure scrambling.

For the scrambling, I followed the ridge crest most of the way. It’s a vast ridge, with numerous variations to make it as easy or hard as one wants. Sticking far to the right is loose, insecure class 3 on a use path. Staying on the crest keeps it as solid class 3 and class 4 with some 5.easy to 5.moderate steps. I stuck to the crest most of the way, but I avoided some towers by dipping a few feet to the right. There’s a little bit of down-climbing too if staying on the crest.

The exposure is never immense unless I was on top of one of the bumps. Make no mistake, a fall would result in serious injury or death. But, it’s not a free-fall to the deck.

As I scrambled, the sun was high in the sky. Even though I was 4,000 feet higher in elevation — it was miserable and hot. I was consuming my water rather quickly. Today was a sick combination of heat and humidity.

Near the summit is some interesting route-finding around, and/or over a false summit. Lots of interesting blocks and boulders to navigate through. This was the coolest part of the scramble and required some fun gymnastics.

Soon, I topped out on the summit. Views of Mt. Baker and South Twin rewarded me. They were looking rather grim thanks to the heat wave.

Mt. Baker, South Twin, and the Sisters Glacier.
South Twin and the Sisters Glacier.

By now, I’d run out of water. I’d consumed 3 liters of water in just a few hours. But, there were some snowfields off the summit here. The snow was so saturated with melted water that I could rehydrate easily. I stuffed some snow in my mouth and filled my entire hydration pack with snow to melt.

The standard descent route off the summit of North Twin Sister is a glissade down the North Face snowfield. But, I could see that the snow cover was shallow. There was a substantial moat guarding the entrance too. There would likely be moats or hidden boulders within the snowfield itself. I didn’t plan to glissade anyway, and this confirmed my choice. Sketchy snow.

I down-climbed the West Ridge, which was engaging. It was a great way to practice the mechanics of sustained down-climbing on bomber, friction-ed-up rock. The alpine rock quality in Washington is generally bad, especially on the volcanoes. There are exceptions, but the rock quality here was awesome. It made for a secure, non-sketchy day.

While down-climbing, I veered to skier’s left to stay on easier terrain and avoid some steps. However, the class 3 route is rather loose. I preferred to stay near the ridge crest again. It’s slower and more involved, but the secure rock makes it safer.

Soon, I reached the part where the ridge eases in steepness and the class 4 scrambling ends. There were some snow patches here. Once again, I ate some snow and tossed some in my hydration pack to melt. I even put some snow down the back of my shirt — it was that hot.

I hiked the rest of the way until treeline. From there, some steep overgrown hiking and class-3-down-root-scrambling brought me to my bike.

I was a little dehydrated now, but guess what? I had wheels! I rode down 1,000 vertical feet of single-track in a few minutes, catching air on the various rollers. Then, I reached the logging roads and bombed the remaining 2,000 vertical feet down to my car. I reached a top speed of 40 mph according to Strava. It was an awesome end to an awesome day. What other peaks let climbers do most of the elevation gain on a bike? Not many. The multi-sport aspect is an absolute novelty.

I chugged some much-needed water when I got to the car. Then, I drove to the nearest shower: the Planet Fitness in Burlington, Wash. I’d lost at least 3 liters of water to sweat, and I was disgusting head-to-toe. Maybe I’ll swim rather than climb during the next heat wave.

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