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Skiing the Wapta Traverse

A hut to hut ski trip along the crest of the Canadian Rockies
By Gordy Skoog - May 27th, 2006

No bones about it, I like skiing and climbing around Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. The Rockies here make for wild country, big and beautiful. And it has something the States in general doesn't have- huts. It's like going to Europe without having to pay for it. The Canadian Rockies are not only reachable, but practical enough on a budget to consider visiting a couple times a year.

When my friend Dan asked whether I wanted to go on a backcountry ski traverse of the Wapta Ice fields that he was putting together I hesitated only for a moment. You see I've poked my nose into a number of areas along the route via the Stanley Mitchell, Peyto, and Bow approaches, but I had never experienced the Wapta hut to hut. If you're a backcountry skier you likely know about the 'Haute Route' (high route); a European ski traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt. There are others, but the 'Haute' is the quintessential line that defines the essence of mountain skiing; moving day to day, hut to hut, in effect staying high, rarely giving up altitude, and thus keeping an expansive mountain view sharply in focus. Imagine driving a never ending coastline or spinning 360 degrees on a highest point while always in the seat of luxury and you've got the idea. Well, the Wapta is arguably the North American's 'Haute Route,' and when you're given the chance to go, you do the Wapta, especially if the opportunity begins via a private plane ride across some of the most magnificent mountain geography along the Canadian/US border. "Yeah, I'll go," was my response to Dan.

In short order Dan and I had connected with our hosts, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures (www.yamnuska.com/yamnuskaguides.shtml) in Canmore, Alberta. Over dinner our group of 10 pulled out the maps talking over the route and expectations. For me a guided trip was out of the ordinary. I typically craft my own adventures and would be quite comfortable doing the Wapta with some close backcountry ski buddies. However, there are advantages to being lead by Yamnuska. The Wapta is their back yard and therefore they know how to avoid the traps and pitfalls that can suck up time and temper the experience. Besides who wouldn't like being pampered by cooked meals and guides who know where the best powder stashes are to be found. Even so, I couldn't help leaning toward my usual tag a summit - ski its flanks tendencies by asking whether we could saunter over to Mt. Collie (an Edward Whymper first) and Mt. Balfour (the highest on the Wapta Icefield at 11,000 feet). These are just two of some dozen reachable peaks along the route. Some I had gotten to, but not these and I was motivated. Steve our co-lead guide said, "Balfour maybe, but Collie is really an alternative Wapta route that was too far off the 'Classic Traverse' we planned to do. However, everything is possible." On guided trips you need to be flexible, give respect, relinquish decision-making and some independence, but the benefit is that they take very good care of you.

One hour and 15 minutes from Canmore we roll into the Num-Ti-Jah lodge on the shores of Bow Lake off the Jasper Highway. It is the first venture that was developed in the late 1800's long before the Highway was imagined. It's easy to picture what life was like back then as literally nothing has changed in 100 years... a charming, functional rustic log structure, literally in the middle of nowhere. With gear soon sorted, packs hefted and skis clicked we were off across the Bow. At that point, I pulled out some prior experience trickery. While others skinned, I lengthened my poles and began to skate. You can really make tracks on a solid crust when using Nordic technique. At the end of the 4 kilometers start it didn't take long for the scheming to unfold, as Dave our lead guide would declare, "You guys don't have enough weight." I guess sometimes you're better off keeping those tricks in the bag.

The approach to the Bow Hut takes you past an area favorite ice climbing patch, Bow Falls, and then portals through an amazing slot canyon with the Ice cliffs ramparts of the high Waputik looming, like a fly swatter, ever present. A quick wrap of the Bow headwall and you're at the Bow Hut. A comfy refugio, it sleeps 30 and due to its comparatively easy proximity, isn't always respected and valued. I've come here numerous times to make turns. It always seems when conditions are questionable in Rockies there's a powder stash to be found on the Bow Glacier under the promontory of St. Nicolas Mountain. just ski strides from the hut door. This trip was no different and we soon added our tracks to the plethora of zealous slashers on the classic 1200 foot slopes. After a cozy international rasped (it seems the Europeans are now finding this place) we were off near first light. The Bow Hut is uniquely positioned in the core of the Wapta. From here some 7 summits are reachable singlely or by linking-up, never having to leaving your skis. Ski up mountains are way cool; because it's obvious, what skis up, skis down. We first skied up Rhondda Sur with its mile long ridge on firm neve. On the descent, itchy toes hung us left, sniffing out a 2,000 foot powder stash on the NE face. Skinning back to Rhondda's south flanks we changed it up on high-altitude spring corn for another 1,500 feet. Then on to Mt.Gordon where at 11,000 feet there is one of the most stunning 360 views anywhere on the planet. After our peak-top repose it was the best of the best; a summit plateau glide to a north face powder shot, hang a Northeast right and follow impending ice cliffs for 3,500 feet across the Wapata icecap right to the front door of the Bow Hut. Nice! It just doesn't get any better than that.

Next morning our group was off at the crack of dawn, intending to cross over to the Balfour Hut. The Wapta often serves up epic whiteout conditions, which typically present themselves at this section, and the forecast was calling for a change. However, as time would show, we were the lucky ones. Nearly perfect conditions throughout the traverse in all regards. Being in vacation mode, launching from the Bow Hut, I quickly found myself lagging off the pace by some 20 minutes. At the juncture below Nicolas I continued heading for the Nicolas-Olive Col thinking the group heading around to the east was the French or Italians. I chose wrongly. In fact I was following nobody's tracks and in time found myself called up short by our guide, Steve. We ended up in a humorous test of wills while in the throws of correcting my mistake; I with my "never give up altitude" stance against Steve's thinking, "the group went that way, we should stay together." I pleaded my case as I held my ground, pointing toward the Nic/Olive col and hoping Steve would acquiesce. Steve finally said he would get his pack and come up, knowing that the route logic I was proposing ultimately reached the same location the group needed to go. A guide's concession is not easy to come by, so I cherished our temporary foray of solitude from the group as the two us made quick tracks over some 3kilometers distance to a perfectly timed rendezvous high on Mt. Olive's shoulder. Here was the virgin terrain my skis had been itching for, the Vulture glacier. Its wide-open expanses were what I had come to explore.

To my surprise what lay before was some 4 kilometers of easy gliding, barely enough grade to make a turn. However, this was a place where you could lay back and watch the picket fence of mountains morph into view, a sense of time standing still, in particular an impression of 'flow' right up to the front door of the Balfour Hut. The Balfour hut is more typical in stature, holding a roomy 18, which stands in a wide-open expanse under the nose of Mt. Balfour. During lunch we got familiar with it's cracks and creeks, then headed off for an afternoon ski on the Diableret Glacier on the east flanks of Balfour. A casual ski, it presented once again 1500 feet vertical of delightful powder in a magnificent setting. The beginnings overlook the President and Vice/President Mountains and the little Yoho Valley, where yet another hut of historical reputation, the Stanley Mitchell, resides.

Next day presented the skiing crux. Winding up through the crevassed Balfour Glacier, under giant hanging ice cliffs, we gained the Balfour High Col.. The Wapta cuts a line within 1,400 feet vertical of the true Balfour summit. At this point we took a serious look at tagging it. With respect to our guides, Steve and Dave, I stood back in gusting 30 mph winds watching a plum of snow jetting off the summit while they considered our options. It was not to be. Backs were soon turned against a Balfour attempt as Steve defined the trip in that moment: "Why would anyone want to go up there when it was nice down here." I suggested it would be sporting, but the decision was made.

We continued our turning ways and within a kilometer, at the encouragement our lead guide Dave, our group was sucked over the north couloir of Lilliput Mountain to farm for more turns. Another 1,200 feet of pillowy delight and we were on the Balfour Glacier. A semi-glacial trench made an excellent back door and pleasant departure to the standard traverse, where its upper reaches allowed for an easy crossover and subsequent gliding descent across the Day Glacier to the Scott Duncan Hut.

The Duncan is the smallest, holding 12, of the Wapta Huts, but well thought out to optimize space. Its position is worth the effort as it overlooks a sweeping mountain landscape from Mt. Niles to the Goodsir Mtns, to the Presidents and west, to the summit of Balfour and back across to Lilliput. With the western abutment of Mt. Daly as a backdrop as alpenglow laid its color on the landscape, the place spoke to me as an appropriate setting to leave some ashes of my brother, Carl, who had recently perished on Cerro Mercedario in Argentina. He would love The Wapta as it fit his rambling style. Here was a good place to rest.

Sadly, our last day had come. We exited on firm neve out the standard Sherbrooke Lake route that takes us down to West Lake Louise. This could easily have been a torture descent; wallowing in breakable crust to bottomless isothermal conditions. However, we were the benefactors of a cool clear night, early start and crafty guides. The conditions were lightning fast past Niles and its open east slopes, down the narrows of Sherbrooke creek; however, not without the impending hazard. One misstep on the near boilerplate in a few unfortunate places and it would have been a quick ride like a pinball off of a well-placed tree to a helicopter rescue. Upon reaching Sherbrooke Lake the race was on. It seems that everyone had filed the jackrabbit skate from the first day on the Bow in the back of their minds and were making short order of the firm lake surface. What a hoot! It only took minutes for the crossing. With a long traverse (typically a luge run throughout the winter) and a few log bunny hops we blasted out of the Sherbrooke forest like a Death Star to an almost perfectly timed van pick up.

Cold drinks all around the week's mountain images flashed across the big grins of sunburned faces. Yeah, I really like the Huts of Canada. They are unique, comfortable, and foster a like mind community. Thanks for the opportunity to do the Wapata, Dan, I'll be back!

Gordy Skoog is a member of the Altrec staff.


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