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:

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