Friday, April 19, 2013

Wapta Icefields Ski Traverse - Part 2

 Wapta Traverse, April 6 – 12, 2013

Wednesday, April 10 – “The Crux”

Day 4:  Balfour Hut to Scott Duncan Hut

10km, 2000 ft El. gain 

Gearing up at the Balfour Hut

Heading to the High Col

On Day 4 we woke up to snowing, cloudy and windy weather. The weather had deteriorated from the night before and it looked as though we would be attempting to traverse the Balfour High Col, the crux of the route, in a white-out.  It was a bit concerning since this was the same place on the traverse where a man from Abbotsford had sadly perished in a crevasse just a few weeks earlier. 
Tom and Mike climbing to the Balfour High Col

We left the hut in the winter weather at 8am and after a short downhill ski we were at the base of the 2000ft  climb. At this point we pulled out the ropes, harnessed up and split into two rope teams, with Tom, Mike and Deon leading the way.  
Stef leading our rope team to the Balfour High Col

 The crux of the route involves climbing up a moderately steep slope through a narrow constriction between some rocks and serracs with overhead hazards from Mt. Balfour, as well as crevasses to be aware of along the glacier.  To limit our exposure we spread out the two rope teams along the slope and stayed tied together in case of encountering an unseen crevasse.  I was a bit worried that I would be too slow and tired to move efficiently roped together since I had never skied more than 3 days in a row before, but we maintained a steady pace and everyone fared quite well through the entire climb.

Tom and Stef Navigating
Luckily, Tom and Stef have both skied the Wapta before and had a strong understanding of the route; that knowledge combined with their GPS track, Map skills and mountain know-how got our team safely to the top of the Balfour High Col. Once at the top we regrouped, had a bit of a break (in the blasting wind and white-out) and came up with a plan to ski down to the Scott Duncan hut.

Lunch Break

 The ski down the glacier was interesting, to say the least.  We stayed roped together to stay safe amongst the crevasses, which made for a less than stellar downhill skiing experience. It was interesting to downhill ski with a rope on; It’s been a while since I’ve snowplowed my way down an entire ski run. Stef led the charge in this section by following a GPS track through the whiteout while watching out for hazards along the way. 
Final climb to the hut

The white-out was intense enough that it was difficult to see the features of the terrain so Stef tied a cord on the end of her ski pole and moved it around in front of her to have an idea of the steepness of the slopes she was encountering. Once we arrived to the vicinity of the hut the weather broke a bit and we finally had a view of our destination.  We worked our way across the last couple km’s and made the final short climb up to a bench on Mt Daly where the Scott Duncan Hut awaited.

Scott Duncan Hut on the flanks of Mt Daly
The Scott Duncan Hut is the smallest of the four huts we stayed in and only sleeps 12, but our group had it to ourselves the first night, so it was more than adequate. We had some humidity issues in the hut, but with some probe work and hammering on the exhaust fan it seemed to be solved. The door also kept getting iced up and snowed in, so it was on ongoing battle to shovel snow and chip away ice to keep the door closing properly.  

Scott Duncan Hut
  Once we arrived at the hut we enjoyed some Tea, smoked salmon and crackers while Tom taught us about Maps and GPS’s and showed us some tips on how to use them and how he had used them to get us through the white-out that day. That evening after a tasty dinner we entertained ourselves with a full on Charades battle. 
Scott Duncan Hut - Inside

Thursday, April 11 – “Rest Day”

Day 5:  Scott Duncan Hut, Mt Daly Attempt, Lilliput Col-Balfour Glacier Ski Tour

Climbing Mt Daly in less than stellar conditions

Type 2 fun at its finest
 The 5th day of the trip was an extra day we built in for contingency.  We had thought it’d be a good chance to try to climb a nearby peak, such as Mt Balfour, go for a ski tour or simply have time to rest or wait out weather if necessary.  Tom and Stef got up to check the weather at 6am and it was still socked in so the attempt to climb Balfour was scrapped and we went back to sleep for another hour or so. 

Weather's Clearing!

When we got up shortly after 7am the weather was still questionable, but we figured we might as well go outside and do something useful with the day.  After a leisurely breakfast we headed to an area just above the hut on Mt Daly and did a mini-snow school with Tom where we dug a test pit, discussed the snow and avalanche conditions and recorded all the info properly in our snow pit logbooks. A good refresher for the AST-2 course Mike and I took a couple months ago.
Tom Climbing to Lilliput Col
Once we were done with our pit we decided to make and attempt to climb Mt Daly. The weather was still mediocre, snowing fairly heavily (1.5cm/hour) and the wind was picking up.  We boot-packed about ¼ of the way up the snow slopes and rocks and Jen and I decided that the high winds, heavy snow and no views were really not a lot of fun and that the summit would not contain many rewards, so we retreated back to the hut.  
Skiing down the back side of Lilliput Col

 As we worked our way down it was shocking how quickly our uptrack had filled in and we were struggling a bit to find the path back down. Tom ended up coming down to help us out and guide us back to the hut, which ended up being very useful as we got onto some slopes that were sluffing and we had to down-climb some of the areas with stiffer snow and rocks; it was a bit of a relief to be accompanied by a strong climber and have some guidance in those sections. Stef, Mike and Deon were going to make a push for the summit, but a few minutes after we turned around, Stef got hit by a small sluff coming off the rocks above so they turned back too. In the words of Stef, that experience was definitely “Type 2 Fun”.   

Powder turns on Balfour Glacier
We ended up back at the hut just in time for a warm lunch. As we were making lunch for the day we realized that all those "extra" sandwiches we'd been eating all week maybe weren't "extras" after all.... Looks like we're having trail mix and granola bars for lunch tomorrow; oops! Good thing the last day shouldn't be too long of a ski.
Climbing back up the Balfour Glacier
That afternoon the weather cleared so we re-packed our gear to get out for a tour. We climbed up to the Lilliput Col, skied a steep line off the backside and accessed the Balfour glacier. After traversing some flat/low angle sections, we hit a steeper portion of the glacier and enjoyed a 2000 ft powder run down the Balfour Glacier, some of the best skiing of the trip! So much fun!
Heading back to the Hut
 From there we had to climb back up to col and then we traversed to a steeper face on Lilliput to make some epic powder turns back down onto the icefield. Another hour or so brought us across the icefields and back to the hut where we had 5 more people join us for our last night of the trip.  It made for a crowded hut, but a highly amusing night of charades.

Friday, April 12 – “Descent Day”

Day 6:  Scott Duncan Hut to West Louise Lodge (Hwy 1) Trailhead

13km, 4800 ft El. Loss

Traversing Below Mt Niles

 Friday marked the 6th and final day of our traverse. It was exciting that we had almost accomplished this amazing journey, but also sad that it was coming to an end and we would be returning to reality.  We hit the trail at 7:30am with much lighter packs (all our food was gone) and made the final climb of the trip up to the base of Mt Niles. 
Enjoying the Views
 The views on this last day were to die for, looking across the valley at numerous 11,000ft peaks: Victoria, Lefroy, Huber, Hungabee. We all spread out for the traverse along the slopes of Mt Niles as they are known avalanche paths and we cruised along quickly with no issues. After 6 days in the alpine surrounded by nothing but rocks and snow, we skied down some fun runs, quickly losing elevation, and began to enter the forest. 

Lakeside Picnic

 At this point, Stef, Deon and Mike headed out for a steep tree line while the rest of us went with Tom to find a more moderate run through the trees.  The ski down through the sparse trees was actually quite fun, which is kind of exciting as I think it shows a slight progressing in my skiing; I used to despise skiing anywhere near trees.  Once we reached the bottom of the tree run we started a traverse which weaved through a creek and through the forest until we emerged at Sherbrook Lake.   
Sherbrook Lake

We met up with Stef’s group at the lake and enjoyed a picnic in the warm sun before continuing on. Once across the lake we traversed an undulating trail for a while longer before we began to lose elevation and made quick work of the ski out, survival style, along the Sherbrook hiking trail.  We emerged into the West Louise Lodge Parking lot at around 12:30 pm, officially marking the end of our 6-day adventure. 

We made it! West Louise Lodge Parking lot/Trail head

The trip across the Wapta Icefields turned out better than I could have imagined. Until this year I have always had a bitter-sweet relationship with ski touring, I love being outside and traveling through the mountains in the winter, but the downhill skiing aspect of always felt like a “necessary evil”; I never really understood the enjoyment that most other seemed to get out of it and it always seemed a constant struggle to ski down through deep snow, variable conditions and trees.  This season I spent 40 days on my skis and took some backcountry specific lessons last year, determined to increase my skiing abilities and my fitness in the backcountry.  I feel like the sport of ski touring has finally started to come together for me, with a couple of yo-yo skiing days this year that felt like pure bliss and now wrapping up the season with an epic traverse;  I’m finally hooked.  
View from Bow Hut
I started the week on the Wapta excited, but apprehensive about the trip. Would I be able to keep up with everyone? Am I a strong enough skier to get through the downhills? How about this 40lb pack I have to carry, on my skis, for 6 days? I haven’t skied with an overnight pack since the Garibaldi Neve Traverse in 2008, and that was only a 3 day trip! I haven’t ever skied for more than 3 days in row, what was I thinking signing on for this!?!
Sunrise on Mt Balfour

 The trip had it its challenges, but it was nothing that couldn’t be handled and thanks to our wonderful group with all of their positive energy, patients and comradery, we all managed to help each other out and make it through our individual challenges. Any time we were beyond our comfort levels, Tom or Stef was right there teaching us new skills and providing guidance.  Overall, the trip was better than I could have ever asked for, with the magnificent  atmosphere and landscape all while traveling with a fabulous group of people and learning non-stop along the way. It was an excellent way to wrap up the 2012/2013 ski season and did a great job of improving my self confidence with regards to ski touring and winter backcountry travel. It opened my eyes to all the epic trips we could consider in the future; maybe I’ll even consider trying a ski traverse where we have to sleep in tents..... :)
A big thank you to Tom and Stef for all you hard work. Everything from organizing the trip  (we didn’t exactly make that simple with the revolving door of participants), to planning food, prepping meals en-route, to sharing your backcountry skills and knowledge with us by not only getting us safely across the traverse but by taking us on several exciting side trips and teaching us new skills along the way.  And a shout out to everyone else I spent the week skiing with, I couldn't have asked for a better group of people - Thanks for the fun trip and I hope to get together again soon on future adventures together!
The Team: Al, Tom, Stef, Jen, Mike, Amber (Deon is taking the Photo)

Trip Participants:
Tom Wolfe (ACMG Mountain Guide)
Stefanie Falz (Tail Guide)
Amber McMinn
Michael McMinn
Jennifer Coffman
Deon Molloy
Al Tinholt

MCR Report:


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wapta Icefields Ski Traverse - Part 1

Wapta Traverse, April 6 – 12, 2013


Tom Wolfe (ACMG Mountain Guide)
Stefanie Falz (Tail Guide)
Amber McMinn
Michael McMinn
Jennifer Coffman
Deon Molloy
Al Tinholt

The Team

On Saturday, April 6 Mike and I left Vancouver to head to Field, BC to commence our journey across the Wapta Icefields.  We’d been planning, training and looking forward to this trip for months and we’re stoked to finally be on our way! It all started back in the fall when our plans to ski in Roger’s Pass fell through. I suggested to Mike that maybe this would be a good year to try something different and longer, maybe a Traverse instead of day trips. How about the Wapta? It’s a classic, right? Some emails back and forth with Tom, figuring out some logistics and pulling together a team and it was all coming together. 


We left Vancouver at 7am and after some traffic on Hwy 1 leaving the City and a 20 min road closure for snow removal on the Coquihalla, we were cruising to the Rockies.  As we travelled along the Coquihalla, we suddenly remembered that there was a time change between Vancouver and Field, and we had a Team meeting at 6pm.... Oops! Good thing we left early! The drive was fairly uneventful; we stopped along the way to try and find a Wapta icefields map, which are apparently impossible to come by, and made it into Field by 5pm.
Sorting Gear

We checked into our room at the KickingHorse Lodge and went down to the Truffle Pigs Bistro to meet the group we’d spend the next week skiing with. After the initial introductions we enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Truffle Pigs as we talked about the trip and got to know each other. Then we sorted our gear and food and got a good rest for the upcoming adventure.

Sunday, April 7 – “The Slog”

Day 1:  Peyto Lake Trail Head to Peyto Hut

9km, 2200 ft Elev. Gain

We got up at 6:30am and after a quick breakfast at Truffle Pigs, we loaded the car and hit the road for Peyto Lake.  We got geared up with our fully loaded (i.e. heavy) packs and headed for the trail through the trees and down onto Peyto Lake.  We quickly found that the conditions on the trail to the lake were horrifying with a breakable crust and steep icy sections.  We managed to ski parts of the trail and boot pack the rest to get everyone down to the lake without injury, which we later learned is more than can be said for other unfortunate groups . 

Crossing Peyto Lake

Boot Packing

Once on the lake we continued along with relative ease, enjoying the views and the sun. The snow was settling around quite readily with constant “Woomphing” on the flats; it’s an unsettling sound and feeling. Once we reached the end of the Peyto Lake we had to take off our skis and boot pack along the creek to gain the moraine  leading to Peyto Glacier. The moraine started out reasonably mellow, but quickly steepened and involved some more boot packing in several places to reach the top.

Climbing the Morraine

Almost there....

After a small break at the top we headed downhill for about 100m, past the Glaciology huts and to the toe of the Peyto Glacier. Since we were gaining the glacier and the snow seemed thin in places, we roped up and ascended to the Peyto Hut. The Peyto Hut was quite spacious and bright with all of its large windows and was probably my favorite hut of the trip.  We spent the night relaxing and getting to know each other over a 4-course dinner of soup, veggies and dip, curry noodles, dessert bars and tea. Yes, we ate like rock-stars on this trip; no boil-in-a-bag food for us! 
Peyto Hut

Monday, April 8

Day 2:  Peyto Hut to Bow Hut

 6km, 900 ft Elevation gain + Climbing Mount Habel (10,083 ft Elev)

Skiing towards Mt Habel

On our second day, we awoke to fairly clear conditions and after our coffee and breakfast burritos, we packed our gear and continued on our way.  We started the morning with a beacon practice and avalanche safety refresher session and then headed out to bag a peak.  The day’s objective was Mt. Habel (aka Mt Rhondda North), a 10 083 ft high peak.

Climbing Mt Habel

Boot packing up Mt Habel's ridge

 It was the first time up this peak for everyone, including Tom, so we weren’t 100% if it would go. We skied to the base of the peak, cached our extra gear in the snow and began to climb.  It turned out that we could follow a ramp with minimal difficulties almost directly to the summit.  We ditched our skis on the false summit, and avoiding the cornices, boot packed to the summit where we had a summit celebration and enjoyed the views over our lunch.

Summit Party

After Lunch we enjoyed a glorious 1000 ft of powder skiing down from the false summit, collected our cached gear and carried on towards Bow Hut. The ski from Mt Habel to the high point on the icefield was fairly casual and we ended our day with a fun ski down into Bow Hut, located below St Nicholas Peak.

Skiing Down Mt Habel

Bow hut is huge! Two rooms with separate sleeping quarters and living space, room for 30 people and even indoor “out”houses. Pure backcountry luxury! 

Bow Hut

That night we enjoyed a Mexican taco dinner and entertained ourselves by getting to know our fellow hut mates and watching Deon and Stef ski an extra lap and jump cornices outside of the hut. 

Bow Hut -inside

Tuesday, April 9 – “Arctic Exploration Day”

Day 3:  Bow Hut to Balfour Hut

 8km, 1800 ft El. gain + Climbing Mount Gordon(10,510 ft El.) and St. Nicholas Peak (9,639 ft El.)

Bundled Up
Today was the cold day of the trip. We woke up to a beautiful, clear sky, but -16c and high winds. We were all bundled up in a laughable amount of layers and looked like we were heading out for an arctic expedition. We started the day by climbing back up to the icefield from Bow hut and wrapping around to avoid any looming crevasses while gaining the flanks of Mt Gordon. At the base of Mt Gordon we cached our extra gear again and started the climb.

Heading to Mt Gordon
 I was dragging my butt today,  a combination of it being day 3 mixed with the cold and the increasing altitude, but  luckily my awesome teammates waited for me before gaining the summit ridge and with a short break to catch my breath I was able to step it up and carry on.  The views from the top of Mt Gordon were amazing, we lingered for a bit to take some photos and have a snack on the summit before continuing our adventure to ski down Gordon’s NE face.

View from Mt Gordon's Summit

Mt Gordon Summit Shot
 As we started the descent, Stefanie went ahead to take a look and asked us all to stop due to hazards ahead.  It turned out we would need to traverse  to avoid some cliffs and crevasses, but that would put us directly into a 45  + degree  slope with a convex roll containing a potential wind slab.  Tom skied down onto the face to check it out and with a calculated ski cut he set off a size 1.5/2 avalanche. Everyone was safe and it was done in a controlled manner, but it was still a bit of a tense moment.  I’ve never experienced an avalanche on a ski trip before or had someone in my party set one off. Since the slope was obviously unstable, Stef led the rest of us back up the face where we traversed to a mellower line and enjoyed some fabulous powder turns down onto the icefields. 

Skiing Mt Gordon's NE Face

Skiing Mt Gordon's NE Face


 From there we collected our gear and started the journey up onto the St Nicholas-Olive Col (9500 ft El.).  The wind was really blasting on the col and we weren’t keen to linger, but both Mt Olive and St Nicholas Peaks looked impressive and were just begging to be climbed; we made a group decision to go for the summit of St Nicholas. We ditched our skis and with minimal difficulties boot packed up to the summit.

St Nicholas-Olive Col

Climbing St Nicholas

Climbing St Nicholas

 The last 100ft or so felt a bit spicy, I’m not used to climbing steep, exposed snow without crampons, especially down climbing, but it was secure enough to be do-able and with Tom’s guidance it felt reasonable to carry on. And it turned out to be worth every bit of energy with the crazy awesome views from the top and the accomplishment of having climbed such a cool looking route. 

St Nicholas Peak Summit Party


Once we came back to the col we collected our gear and enjoyed some more turns down the glacier towards Balfour hut. There were great views of Mt Balfour along the way and an overview of the next days route up to the Balfour High Col. Accessing the hut required some mandatory air and the snow on the slopes near the hut was a bit crusty and difficult to ski, but it was all manageable, even with burning, tired legs. 

Almost there.....

Balfour Hut

To Be Continued.......
(Click here for Part 2)

Here is the MCR report from our trip: