Ski Mountaineering

The Wapta Ski Traverse
Apr 25-29, 2012

Sung Byun and Don Ralphs



The 2011-2012 season has been disappointing in High Sierra, CA. Although this area is known for rather reliable snow fall, we got the lowest snow fall this seassn since staring the recording. So this trip has grown out of frustration. Sure enough, this Canadian "High Route" had a lot of snow on huge glaciers along the Continental Divide. Reiner and Jonathan did this Wapta Traverse in 2005 through On-Top Mountaineering. We ended arranging our trip though the same company, and I am glad we had two expert guides for this trip espicially when it is our fir time. The route is glaciated with many large crevasses, and some routes are very prone to avalanche, and we had three all whiteout days along the route.

The Classic Wapta Traverse used to be a six-day ski mountaineering tour but it has changed to five days when we did it. We had a large group of 7 participants: two from LA(myself and Don), one married couple from Calgary(Patrick and Jessica), one young dude from Calgary(Matthew), one medical doctor from Kelowna, BC(Howard, originally from South Africa), and another Canadian guy(Bryan, originally from Czech). Since it was a large group we had two excellent local guides: Thomas Exner and Louis Mario.

On Tue, 4/24/2012, Don and I flew into Calgary, AB, and took a shuttle service to Canmore, AB, and stayed at Radisson Hotel. In the evening one of the guides, Thomas, picked us up and drove to Jorg Wilz's, the owner of OnTop Mountaneering, house. We met all other participants and another guide, Louis, there. We introduced ourselves and discussed the logistics, and more importantly about food.

On Wed, 4/25/2012, we all met at Radisson hotel and drove to Lake Louise in two vans and Howard's car. After having a quick breakfast at Lake Louise, we dropped Howard's car at West Louise Lodge which is the end point of the one way Wapta traverse. Then, we all drove to Peyto Lake trail head via Transcanada Highway #1 and Icefield Parkway #93. After dividing up our food and sorting our group gear we were ready to go.

All huts are equiped with built-in bunk beds with pads, and cooking tools and stocked with propage gas by helicopters, Although we still need to carry our own sleeping bags, our backpacks were lighter than typical Sierra trip of the same length. After a short downhill skiing through a narrow bumpy forest trail we arrived at frozen Peyto Lake (6200'). After crossing the lake we started rather strenuous ascend. Along the way we had to cross a few streams, and also had to walk on our boots a few times. Then, we reached Peyto glacier which is part of the Wapta Icefields, and soon after we saw Canadian glacier reserch station. Then, we had a chance to do short down hill skiing, and we started ascending again toward Peyto Hut. We all arrived at Peyto hut (8400 ft) between 5pm and 5:30pm. The distance tracked was in total 10 km with 1804 ft elevation gain. This Peyto hut approach turned out to be the most strenuous day of the trip partly due to the elevation gain, and partly due to the heaviest pack day.

There were already two Canadians in the hut when we got there, and we of course shared the hut. After unloading our pack, we had some hot tea in the hut. All water was from snowmelt, and the propanes gas tanks are suppliled by a helicopter regularly. The hut is well insulated with double glass window, and it was warm enough without any heater due to green house effect during the day time, and well insulated cooking heat and also heat from people. It has a detached outhouse with replacable barrel system. There is no electricity but the hut is equiped with propane lamps but we never used it during the entire trip. (Actually, I turned it on once to see how that works.) Two guides prepared dinner for nine and we did dishes later. At some point after dinner, two other people not in our group said they would go out for some skiing. It was already past 6pm and I thought it was a bit too late. But it turned out that we are at very high latitude around 52N, and it was only two months away from summer solstice. So we had day lights well past 10pm. In fact, I could go to the outhouse without using a headlamp around 10pm.

On Thu, 4/26/2012, is the traverse day from Peyto hut to Bow hut. We traversed the Wapta Icefield toward the south. During the traverse the weather started deteriorating, and at some point we had total whiteout condition. No more beautiful sceneries to see. Our guide Thomas kept his compass bearing tight, and followed his compass heading.
I have tried to take some photos during whiteout conditon, but it was very hard to take decent photos under this kind of condition. I have experimented with many different camera setting, and was able to get a few good photos. Under total whiteout condition, it was also very hard to ski. Since there is no reference point to focus, we can get easily disoriented and loose balance. At a ski resort they usually place bright colored poles along the trail with frequent whiteout conditon to help skiers orient themselves. But you cannot expect things like that in backcountry.

After some moderate climbing and gentle descent we were led down to the Wapta Saddle. And after a short climb we got to ski down the steep headwall of the Bow Glacier right to the door of the Bow Hut (7700ft). This hut is the largest among four Wapta huts. It has two connected buildings and two attached restrooms for both man and woman. One building had bunkbeds for 30 people, the other building is a very large kitchen which can easily accomodate cooking for 30 people. This hut has two woodburning fireplaces, one at each building. Since firewoods were nicely stacked near the firepalce, we started fire. The hut is very well insulated and it quickly become very warm and cozy. Since the weather was very wet and bad, nobody wanted to leave this cozy hut and we just called it a day.

On Thur, 4/27/2012, It is the day to traver to Balfour hut. We started with rather gloomy weather. It was colder than the day before and the snow condition was better. We reclimbed along the steep walls of Mt. Saint Nicholas onto the Wapta Icefield. Near Mt. Olive and St. Nicholas saddle we dropped our packs and did some yo-yo skiing. It was the first time doing skiing without a pack and it was really nice. Most people made about three runs. I was the only tele skier in the group, and I got to drop my knees when skiing (something you do not want to do with a heavy pack).

After picking up our pack we continue to skin up near Mt. Olive. Soon after we dropped our packs again, and started booting up to Mt. Olive. The climbing was not that challenging. But there was one section with more exposure and the snow was very deep. The weather started deteriorating as we climb. By the time we reached the summit, we could hardly see anything. Although we missed the opportunnity to see the Wapta icefield at high point, I was glad that we at least could summit.

After picking up our packs again, we continued to traversing to Balfour hut. During the traverse The weather got better and we were beginning to see blue skies. Another opportunity to appreciate the beauty of this Wapta icefield area. After some downhill skiiing, we reached Balfour hut at 8000 ft in the early afternoon. Our trekking distance from Bow hut was 15 km, and we made 2950 ft elevation gain. The hut was not as big as Bow hut, but about the size of Peyto hut.

Since we got there a bit early, some people went out again and did some yo-yo skiing near the hut. By the time people went out again for skiing, I had already taken off my wet socks and my feet were already dry. I didn't feel like to wear my wet boots again, and decided to stay in the hut and chill out. We shared this hut with one Canadian couple from Canmore, AB.

Just like any other hut, this hut has a beautiful window view. But unlike any other hut, I could see many large crevasses from this hut. Tomorrow will be the most important day. It will be the most dangerous section of the traverse due to many crevasses. The area is also most prone to avalanche. If the weather condition is very poor, it is not uncommon to abort traversing from Balfour hut to Scott Duncan. If that is the case, then we need to go back to Bow Hut and ski down to TransCanada Highway ending up at a different trailhead not the one we started.

On Sat, 4/28/2012, the luck was on our side. We woke up around 6am as usual, and I could see sunshine all around the hut. I have not seen this much blue sky since we started traversing. But on the other hand I could see crevasses around the hut vividly and that really reminded me that this part of traverse should not be taken lightly.

The traversing day from Balfourt to Scott Duncan hut is considered as Crux day: the most scenic part. We started skinning up gentle slope toward the north face of Mt. Balfour. Before reaching the critical terrain, we roped up in two teams. Each guide was at the front of each rope tem. Although we had been wearing our harness most of the time during the trip, it was the first time we actually got to use our harnesses. Once we roped up the climbing got steeper and along the way we could see several large crevasses. It would be easy to fall into these crevasses if you attempt the traverse under bad visibility, and that would be very treacherous. I am sure there are a lot more covered under the snow.

I would say this steep ascent on the heavily crevassed Waputik Icefield underneath the north face of Mt. Balfour was probably the most memorable part of this trip. On top of the pass, which is the Continental Divide or border between Alberta and British Columbia providence, we had a lunch break. In the past I heard about skiing down while roped up during Wapta traverse. But our guides did not want to do roped skiing. They collected ropes right after lunch. Thomas is very familiar with where large crevassese are. As long as visibility is excellent, he made safe ski run first, and then asked us to follow his track as much as possible (no large deviation from his track). After the pass it was a long and mellow descent toward Scott Duncan hut. The scenery was truly spectacular. Soon after we reached Scott Duncan hut at 8900 ft. Our trekking distance was 13 km with 3380 ft elevation gain.

Scott Duncan hut is located on a rock outcropping above the gracier. This is the highest and the smallest of the Watpa huts. Thanksfully we were the only group staying for the night in this small hut. Although we started with a large amount of food, we pretty much ate up most of it. Since this is our last night we tried to eat up whatevers left, and we eneded up having dinner three times. Louis, one of our guides and main chef, was busying keep cooking, and Thomas mentioned that it was his record in terms of the number of dinner he had in one evening in his entire guiding career.

On Sun, 4/29/2012, This is our last day of the traverse. The weather started with gloomy sky in the morning. We traversed from the hut into Niles Saddle. Reiner's Wapta trip report from yhear 2005 describes the beauty of this section, but the luck was not on our side this time. It was not a white out condition but we could not see much other than people in front of us. Along the way we could see relatively recent mediume scale avalanche area.

After some downhill skiing and losing more elevation, we reached tree line and the visibility got a lot better at tree line. But due to low elevation, the snow was very icy early in the morning. The skiing was challening in a sense that it was icy, we had overnight packs, it was tree runs, the slope was steep and bumpy, many times there was an open steam right next to us. So surviving skiing kicked-in in my case. No facy turns, just conservative survival skiing.

During our ski break, Thomas and two other guys continued to ski down so that they can go back to Peyto trailhead and pick up the vans earlier. After a long and adventurous descent we reached frozen Sherbrook Lake. After crossing the lake, we were on the summer hiking trail on skis on the southern end. A narrow and winding forest trail eventually took us back into civilization at West Louise Lodge which is located righ next to TransCanada Highway around noon. We walked into the lodge and ordered some beer and lunch while waiting for Thomas to come back to the lodge. I vividly remember how great the beer tasted after five days of ski traversing. Soon after Thomas arrived with two vans. Howard who lives in Kelowna, BC said good-bye to us and drove staight to home from there. The rest of us all drove back to Yorg's house in Canmore. After returning group gear we said good-bye to everyone. I and Don went back to Radisson hotel again for one more night. After taking long awaited shower, we spent the rest of day hanging out in Canmore.

The next day shuttle picked us up to Calgary, and we flew back to LA. During the flight, I looked outside and I could see High Sierra and Mono Lake. What a familiar scenery! Although I went to all the way up to Alberta in search of good snow, seeing the High Sierra really soothed my mind. This is our home base to cherish no matter how low the snow level is. It is a bit strange to end this trip report with High Sierra sentiment, but that was my honesty feeling at that time. Peace!

Thanks to Don for joining this trip. It was good to meet new people during the trip. But it was great to have a buddy from the same town during the trip. Thanks to Thomas for excellent guiding. Without you I may be deep down in the crevasse by now. Thanks to Louis for great dinner every night. Your half-french heritage really shined during the trip. Thanks everyone else for great companionship and many good laughs during the trip. Thanks to Jorg and Heather for planning for us.


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