Ski Mountaineering

The Wapta Traverse
Apr 4-9, 2005

Reiner Stenzel and Jonathan Meagher

This trip was an outgrowth of our volcano trips to Oregon and Washington, continuing our migration north. It was to broaden the SMS experience beyond our typical Sierra trips. Although not as challenging as the European High Route the Canadian High Route offered wonderful snow on long glaciers along the Continental Divide, peak climbs with spectacular views of mountain sceneries, experience in roped skiing on glaciers, and comfort in huts.

The Classic Wapta Traverse is a six-day ski mountaineering tour in the Canadian Rockies in the Banff and Yoho National Parks. For first-time visitors local guides are recommended since the route is glaciated, avalanche prone and frequently in a whiteout. SMS Leader Jonathan made all the arrangements through On-Top Mountaineering whose owner Jorg Wilz reserved the huts from the Canadian Alpine Club and found us two excellent local guides, Brian Webster and Aaron Beardmore. Announced as an official SMS trip, Jonathan and I got a lot of inquiries and applications. We limited the group to ten and finally had eight confirmed participants at the time of payment. These were Helga Zimmerer, Evelyn Flueckigen from the Bay Area, Steve Stewart from the Sacramento area, and from the LA area Thomas Johansson, Mark Kim, Jim Luick, Jonathan Meagher and myself. Three of us (Helga, Mark, Reiner) were telemarkers, the rest skied on randonnee gear.

On Sat, 4/2/05, six of us flew into Calgary, AB, to be picked up by van and driven to the Rocky Mtn Ski Lodge in Canmore. There we met Mark and Jim who had skied a few days at Lake Louise.

On Sun, 4/3/05, we made trip preparations: An avalanche beacon excercise, a short ski tour to show the guide that we can stand on skis. Then we shopped in town for maps and some mountaineering gear, in the evening had a farewell dinner at the Wilz's home and got the food organized by Heather Wilz. Everyone carried a 15lb bag with food for breakfasts, lunch and dinners. Additional snacks were optional. The huts were stocked with propane and cooking utensils, bunk beds but no heaters (except for the Bow Hut). Thus, we carried sleeping bags and warm clothes. Our packs weighed about 40lbs, skis & boots about 20lbs.

On Mon, 4/4, all of us were driven from Canmore via the Trans-Canadian Highway #1 and the Icefield Road #93 to the Peyto Lake trailhead. There we started our trip by skiing down a narrow bumpy forest trail to frozen Peyto Lake (6,200'). After skiing across the lake (open water at the inlet) we ascended the end moraine of the Peyto glacier mostly on skis, a short section on foot. We had a view of an impressive frozen waterfall from Caldron Lake north of Peyto Peak. At the north end of Peyto Glacier, which is part of the Wapta Icefields, we saw the research station of this intensively studied glacier. After a short run down to the glacier we skinned up again and ascended the gentle slopes to the Peyto Hut where we arrived around 4pm. During our 5-hour ascent the weather was steadily deteriorating and we had intermittent snow fall. Thus a warm hut was welcome, especially since it was all ours.

We had hot tea in the cozy hut. All water was from snowmelt. The hut is well insulated and warm without a stove by a greenhouse effect and the people inside. The restroom is outside, windy and without TP. There is no electricity, but propane lights. Since the weather was poor and it became late, we called it quits for the day and enjoyed an early dinner with hot tea, soup, a healthy pasta dish, a desert and more tea. Mostly the guides prepared the food and the group cleaned up afterwards. A good hygiene practice was that everyone washed hands in water with bleach before touching food. All grey water was disposed at a specific location, all snow for fresh water was collected at a clean place. Thus, nobody got stomach problems on the entire trip. By 8:30pm everyone was in the bunk beds; an hour later it was time to put earplugs in since every group has an expert snorer.

Tue, 4/5, was our planned layover day for making day tours and a peak ascent of Mt Rhondda. But we were in a whiteout with snow fall and high winds. During a weather break we headed up the glacier towards Rhondda, dropped our packs at the top of the icefield for our "ski test" before the weather came in again. The guides were pleasantly surprised and commented "we did not think the Californians can ski that way". We continued up towards Rhondda but abandoned the idea of a summit climb due to bad conditions, skied down a bit towards Mt Gordon into the upper Yoho. Then we skinned in a whiteout across the icefield till we could see the rocks on Mt Thompson. We skied down towards the Peyto Hut in moderate visibility and continued down the Petyo Glacier past the hut. Three of us returned to the Peyto Hut, while the rest of the group did another run in flat light on the lower glacier. After such a grey day, we thought it could only get better.

Helga adds: "On the second day, we returned to Peyto Hut after some yo-yo skiing of the Glacier around the hut. Evelyn and I felt like it was too early to settle down and thought we could burn some extra energy by shoveling a path to the outhouse. When Steve saw us, he commented: "You ladies need to take some Ritalin ......"

On Wed, 4/6, we planned to ski from Peyto Hut to Bow Hut, an easy tour, just right for another stormy day. Once in a while the clouds broke and we had a fine view of St Nicholas Peak and its hanging glacier just west of the Bow Hut. There was a fun ski run down to the hut. Bow Hut is the fanciest of them all: It has two connected buildings and an indoors restroom. One building is the bedroom for 30, the other a large dining room with a nice stove. The hut is scenically placed in a large cirque with views of a serac below St Nicholas Peak, the Crowfoot Mountain and the valley with the Icefield Parkway and Bow Lake. There were several groups in this popular and easily accessible hut. The hut has also two resident black ravens.

After lunch we attempted a ski ascent of Mt Gordon. We started in sunshine, had a wonderful ascent around St Nicholas Peak, and fully enjoyed the mountain scenery. During an extensive break, we took many pictures and then someone started to tell jokes, especially the one with "fog that thick" which triggered more and more. By the time we resumed skiing half the sky was suddenly overcast and when we were close to Mt Gordon it was the usual whiteout, wind and snowfall. Aaron turned us around 200' below the summit since we would not have seen anything different on the top. At least we had a great powder run down to Bow Hut. We had another fine dinner with pasta and salmon, then started the fireplace, and relaxed reading and talking. Each hut has a guest book, and the entries show frequent visits throughout the year by many local and foreign visitors, but no Californians. Our signatures were for sure a first for the Sierra Club or the SMS.

On Thur, 4/7, we traveled from the Bow Hut to Balfour Hut and climbed Mt Olive on the way. The morning was sunny and it looked like a "bluebird day", as the locals say. We ascended toward St Nicholas Pk and contoured around its steep eastern slopes, following travel precautions in avalanche terrain. Then we skied up to the ridge between Nicholas and Olive, dropped our packs and skis and climbed the NW ridge to the summit.

There we were high up on the Continental Divide and had a breathtaking view over a vast expanse of mountains and glaciers. Aaron knew all the names of peaks that were so familiar to him and new to us. The views ranged from Mt Assiniboine in the south to peaks near the Columbia Glacier in the north. Brian talked on his radio to other guides. He kept us a safe distance from the corniced ridge. We all took many pictures and enjoyed the moments of sunshine.

After this fine mountaineering experience we skied with packs down the Vulture Glacier to the Balfour Hut. On the way, Helga's telemark bindings broke but she was well prepared with a spare binding and the problem was solved quickly. Near the hut the snow changed from powder to wet snow. It became overcast and warm. Not long after we arrived (1:30pm) it started to rain! The only correct weather forecast we could make was: "Unpredictable". Another hour later there was heavy snowfall. we settled down in the hut. It was similar to the Peyto Hut and we had it again to ourselves. At the rated capacity of 18 it would have been pretty crowded. Most of the afternoon we were grounded inside due to the storm outside. Later our guide Brian made a long reconnaissance tour toward the Balfour High Col. It was the precarious pass for the next day's tour to the Scott Duncan Hut. The route over this col leads through an icefall, is heavily crevassed, avalanche prone and was in a permanent whiteout. In the evening the guides discussed the options: Unless there is some visibility he would not go over this pass where previous fatal accidents have happended. This time we did not think "snow" but "sun".

On Fri, 4/8, we woke up at 6:30am for an early start. It did not look good. The pass was in the clouds but at least we could see the rocks below it. We waited for two hours, but little change occurred, then Brian decided to give it a go. Before reaching the critical terrain, we roped up in two teams, one guide in the front and four participants behind.

Helga recalls the following moment: While explaining the roping up technique on the glacier, Brian stated: "If you are like me, all you think about on the way up the glacier is sex....." This got him a good laughter from the group, but unless Brian is great at multi-tasking, he did not look like he was only thinking about sex while navigating with GPS and compass in the white-out.

We also noticed that Brian and Aaron frequently probed the snow depth. Helga remembers Brian rejoicing: "Over three meters!" When asked what the snow depth was telling him, Brian casually answered: "It gives me a lot of confidence...." (referring to the fact that there would be good snow bridges over the crevasses). We all skied in a line, ready to arrest if the first would fall in. Only the guides had extra ropes and gear for crevasse rescue, we just brought harnesses and biners. At a common modest pace we crossed over snowbridges and under a big icefall into the clouds engulfing the pass. It was uniform white light in all directions, 4 pi steradians of brightness. Guide Brian had a GPS with waypoints from a previous trips. He followed the waypoints, checking frequently the location on the map, taking compass bearings and using all possible navigation tools. On occasions we could see a rock wall which helped with the navigation.

On top of the pass, which is again the Continental Divide or border between Alberta and British Columbia, the Waputik Glacier forms a plateau and flows out to different directions. The guides steered us into the correct way down toward Lilliput Mountain. Downhill skiing on rope is awkward and requires frequent snowplowing. At some point the the crevasse danger was considered low and we could clip out of the rope. Now it was fun skiing down the wide Waputik Icefield toward the Scott Duncan Hut. The hut is located on a rock outcropping above the glacier, at the north end of Mt Daly. At one moment it was clearly visible, the next moment it was in the clouds. We had to skin up to reach the hut. The door was snowed in and nobody was there. It is a small hut, and we had to move a table to the outside to have more space for ten people.

We prepared tea and had a late lunch, relaxed and enjoyed the occasional views over the snow fields and mountains. Clouds were coming and going fast. When it seemed to clear Aaron took the group on a ski tour across the Waputik Icefield toward the southeast end of Lilliput Mtn. Brian toured more east to the entry to the Bath glacier and joined us later at the entry to the Waputik glacier. We had hoped to ski down the Balfour Glacier but a heavily corniced ridge prevented the access. So we had a run down on our "Wapta Bunny Hill". By the time we were pushing for a second, more advanced run the clouds came back and Aaron herded us back, worried correctly that someone could get lost in a whiteout without navigational tools. In the late evening the clouds broke up and we could see Mt Balfour and our route just to the east of it. At sunset time the clouds turned red and we had a great display in the sky.

On Sat, 4/9, we woke up to a clear and crisp morning. This was our last day and sometimes the best comes last. We had fresh powder and sunshine! Instead of skiing out we spent a few hours yo-yoing down the Daly Glacier north of Mt Niles. Aaron found a crevasse-free terrain down toward a lake at the end of the glacier. It was powder skiing at its best. We had several runs and carved lots of nice turns. A video clip shows some happy skiers. Of course, we had to earn our turns and climb up again. But it was what we came for and we enjoyed it fully. After returning to the packs we proceeded just east of Mt Niles due south. There was a fresh slab avalanche on the slopes of Niles. The scenery was spectacular: High mountains to the south, the rugged President Range to the west, and Sherbrooke Lake over which we would have to ski out was deep below us in a valley. We had a great run down the open slopes until the tree line. Then it was survival skiing again, sharp turns in a dense forest, bumpy narrow trails next to an open stream, but everyone made it safely. We skied across Sherbrooke Lake, occasionally feeling the snow settling down by a few inches, but not breaking through the ice. Then there was a final bumpy, crusty, narrow trail down to the road that would be better luge run than skiing. By midday we had reached the Trans-Canada Hwy at West Lake Louise Lodge. The guides called the van and an hour later we were on our way back to Canmore, except for a lunch break in Lake Louise.

What a treat to shower again after six days. After that we went to town in Canmore and had a great dinner with flatbread (organic pizza) and various microbrews. We celebrated our nice week-long tour together. It gives a great feeling of accomplishment and cameradery which a normal work week rarely produces. Ideas were floating around where to go next: Alaska, Atlas Mtns, New Zealand???

Thanks to Jonathan for organizing this trip, to the professional guides Brian and Aaron for taking us safely across the mountains, for Jorg and Heather to plan for us so well, and to everyone for the fun and friendship on this great ski mountaineering adventure.

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