|2005 Ski Mountaineering/Touring, Wapta Icefields, Banff-Yoho National Parks
|Lat/Lon: 51.627°N, 116.5368°W- CLICK FOR TOPO MAP
The Wapta Icefields are comprised of a series of glaciers that run along the
continental divide from Peyto Lake to the north and the Trans-Canada Highway to the
south. The climbing is diverse ranging from full on ice and alpine climbs to ski
summits. A chain of four Alpine Club of Canada huts makes the Wapta Ski Traverse
the most popular ski mountaineering objective in Canada. The “Wapta Icefields” is
typically used to describe an area of several hundred square kilometers that include
both the Wapta and Waputik Icefields. Wapta means “running water” in Cree and
refers to the second tallest waterfall in western Canada, Takakkaw Falls (1247’),
which drains the Daly Glacier at the southern end of the Waputik Icefield.
These Icefields are split down the middle by the continental divide and therefore lie
in both Yoho and Banff National Parks, two of four connecting national parks in the
heart of the Canadian Rockies.
The first recorded exploration onto the Wapta Icefields was in 1932 by McCoubrey,
the Neave brothers and Secord. It was not until Hans Gmoser attempted a traverse
from Kicking Horse Pass to Jasper in 1960 that skiing on the glaciers became a
popular concept among the local mountaineering community. The first hut was built
in 1965, but the first huts had to be replaced by stronger huts in short order as
wandering wolverines would break in and destroy them.
There are three main access routes to the Wapta Icefields: via the Bow Glacier from
Bow Lake at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge parking lot, via the Peyto Glacier at the Bow Pass
parking area or via the Niles Glacier from the West Louise Lodge parking lot off of
The Trans-Canada Highway runs from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National
Parks on its way to Vancouver. As you pass through Lake Louise heading
westbound, you can continue on the Trans-Canada entering British Columbia for the
Niles Glacier access or exit right and proceed on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93)
towards Bow Lake or Bow Pass.
You will be required to purchase a national park pass as you enter Banff National
Park coming from the east on the Trans-Canada. This pass is good for all four
national parks. If you plan many visits to Canadian National Parks within one year,
you should purchase an annual pass. There are no permit requirements to climb in
Banff or Yoho National Parks, but all camping is regulated. There is also a
backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry
versus the conventional campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website. The
huts are managed by the Alpine Club of Canada versus the Parks. The Alpine Club
of Canada headquarters is located in Canmore, AB, the Banff National Park
headquarters is located in Banff, AB and Yoho National Park headquarters is located
in Field, BC. You will drive through the manned national park kiosks as you enter
Banff National Park on the Trans-Canada.
This is active grizzly country, therefore, you should always have bear spray on your
person during the non-hibernation periods. I advise checking with Parks Canada for
any area and/or trail closures.
When To Climb
The Wapta Icefields are accessed twelve months out of the year. Ski purists
obviously prefer the winter months, despite the extreme temperatures and wind that
inevitably exist on the glaciers. Different hazards are more prevalent at different
times of the years. Crevasse and avalanche rescue techniques and equipment
must be at your disposal at all times once you ascend any of the glaciers.
Most anyone I know uses the hut system if they are attacking objectives on the Wapta
Icefields. As mentioned previously, any one of the four huts can be reserved through
the Alpine Club of Canada. In 2005 the rates were $24 per night. The huts come
equipped with stoves, fuel, sleeping pads, dishes and an outhouse. Only one of the
four huts is heated in the cooking area by a wood stove, the Bow Hut. You will need a
rated sleeping bag regardless. Nights can be bitterly cold even in the huts.
You can snow camp on the Wapta Icefields, but will be required to secure your
camping permit from Yoho National Park or Banff National Park. You will also be
required to obtain your backcountry permit which is separate, but can be obtained
simultaneously if you plan on camping at a backcountry site.
The Yoho National Park and Banff National Park websites have weather, wildlife
reports, trail closures, etc. Outside of the parks websites, Canadian Avalanche
Association is also useful, particularly for winter travel. Canadian Alpine Accident
Reports is also extremely relevant.
Route to Bow Hut
It is 8kms from Bow Lake to Bow Hut with 1250’+/- elevation gain. Start at the Num-Ti-
Jah Lodge parking lot and cross Bow Lake (make sure it is appropriately frozen-
skiers have died on this lake) in a southwesterly direction to gravel flats that contour
around the northern end of Crowfoot Mountain. Follow a creek bed towards Bow
Falls and be on the lookout for a trail heading into the forest on your left. This avoids
a steep canyon section in the drainage. Follow this trail upwards until you come to a
juncture where you can descend back into the creek bed. Skin up this creek (left)
as it winds its way into a canyon trough (aka snow trap). Separate well through this
canyon to avoid more than one party being buried in the same avalanche. Move
through at a steady pace until you come to a steep ice-water fall type section
(approximately 1km). Ascend the left hand slope, possibly having to remove your
skis for a short period and continue due south through the tree line towards a
massive headwall (photo below) between Crowfoot Mountain and St. Nicholas
Peak. Turn right in the cirque (ice cliff avalanche terrain) and ascend a ramp of
snow back north that leads directly to the Bow Hut. Stay right to find the least
strenuous and hazardous terrain.
St. Nicholas Peak
Ascend another 3kms from the Bow Hut to the St. Nicholas and Mount Olive col
(1900’+/- elevation gain). You ascend west from the Bow Hut bending around south
as you circumvent St. Nicholas Peak on your left on wide open ice/snow fields.
Most parties rope up from the Bow Hut through this section. As you approach the
St. Nicholas and Mount Olive col, there is one small steep section that is normally
wind blown. Once at the col, the wind normally picks up.
Turn left and skin up to a small flat area that gives a great viewpoint over the Wapta
Icefield as well as makes a good place to remove your skis. Take your alpine ax and
continue in boots up the south ridge of St. Nicholas. This is a double humped ridge
meaning you need to traverse the first section on the right hand side to get to another
col before starting your final ascent up the main ridge. This traverse can be
extremely dangerous depending on the snow load. There are rock placement
opportunities at the start of the traverse that would allow you to belay out the leader.
Once to the col in the middle of the ridge, you are looking to ascend a snow bench
on the right side of the ridge. Return the same.
From the Bow Hut to the Balfour Hut is another 7kms up to the St. Nicholas and
Mount Olive col (1900’+/- elevation gain) and down the Vulture Glacier (1400’+/-
elevation loss). Contour around Mount Olive on your right in a southeasterly
direction. There are major crevasses below Mount Olive to your right. For this
reason, it is important to stay to the center of the Vulture Glacier as you ski to the
Balfour Hut. In poor visibility, it is best to stay skiers left using an escarpment on your
left as a handrail, moving back right as you near the Balfour Pass.
The hut will not be visible from the top of Vulture Glacier. It will not be visible until you
are approximately half of the way down. It lies at the bottom of the Balfour Pass at the
southern end of the Vulture Glacier. During clear conditions, Mount Balfour will
dominate the southern horizon. Mount Hector to the east will be prominent as well.
From the Balfour Hut, head west through the Balfour Pass staying high to the right to
avoid unnecessarily lost elevation. Circumvent the southern reaches of Mount Olive
for a high point (unnamed peak) northwest from the hut. This is an obvious broad ski
slope that can be viewed easily from the Balfour Hut on a clear day. It is directly
across from the Diableret Glacier and on the south side of Mount Gordon. As you
make your traverse on the lower slopes of the southern extension of Mount Olive you
will eventually ascend to the top of a moraine. Descend into a bowl, cross it and
continue northwest along a ridge line that stays to climbers left as it ascends. You
will come to a small icy bowl that is best circumvented to the right in an attempt to
catch a ramp that takes you to the base of the steeper section of this unnamed peak.
We felt a sizable wind slab settle beneath us at the steep section, so caution is
advised. This last steep section more than likely is wind blown to the point you might
want to take your skies off for the final 100 meters or so. The wind slab I mention is
climbers left while the steeper sections are to the right. It is best to ascend
somewhere in the middle.
On descent, ski directly down the bowl and to the right of the moraine you crossed
previously, then return the same.
50-60 Meter Rope, Alpine Ax, Crevasse Rescue Gear, Some Rock Protection,
Headlamp, Shovel, Probe, Skins, Skies, Poles, Sleeping Bag, Rations, Ample
Clothing for Extreme Conditions, Goggles, Compass, Map
Five of us did a three day ski mountaineering trip into the Balfour Hut. Poor visibility
going in, but a spectacular day coming out. Extremely cold skiing, but decent
conditions compared to Kananaskis backcountry skiing during the same period.
Stepped on a dangerous slab on the unnamed ascent. Fresh snow on top of
windblown slabs persists at the higher elevations. Heavy snow load on St. Nicholas
Not a soul at the Bow Hut or Balfour Hut in December, 2005. Cheers.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS
1. Vulture Glacier-Sunrise
2. St. Nicholas Peak
3. Wapta Glacier
4. Mount Olive
5. Mount Balfour
6. View from St. Nicholas Peak
7.-9. Ascent of Unnamed Peak
10. Mount Olive
11. St. Nicholas Peak Summit
12. Mount Olive-Vulture Glacier
13.-14. Vulture Glacier
15. St. Nicholas Peak
16.-17. Approach to Bow Hut
18. Portal Peak