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:


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