Crossing a deeply crevassed glacier is not a trip for the faint of heart, but it can give you amazing views and a great sense of adventure. Wapta Traverse is a classic winter ski traverse in the Canadian Rockies, but as we found, it is also an amazing place in the summer.
One year when massive forest fires in British Colombia and Alberta caused most hiking areas to be closed, we decided to hike in the one area that was open. The 2020 wild fires that are currently ravaging throughout the western US have filled our skies with smoke and reminded us of this earlier trip.
The Wapta Traverse crosses a large, crevassed icefield in a wild part of the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Yoho National Parks. We had done this traverse a few times in the winter, but this was our first time in the summer.
Bow Lake to Balfour Hut
Distance – 15 km; Elevation gain – 970 m; Elevation loss – 430 m
The hike begins at the picturesque Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. We’re often in this area in the winter, but seeing the landscape in the summer is like being there for the first time. From the lake you can see Bow Glacier and St. Nicholas Peak high above. In a few hours we’d be crossing under that distinctive peak.
With our heavy packs loaded with supplies for the three day crossing we set off on the trail. The hike goes around the Bow Lake following the trail to Bow Hut. After the lake we arrived at a narrow, rocky canyon guarded by steep cliffs. The winter route goes through the tight canyon, but the summer trail climbs above it on a large moraine. Above the canyon are great views of the hanging Bow Glacier ahead.
Above Bow Hut the trail crosses a moraine to reach the glacier’s edge. We are aware of the big commitment we are undertaking as we gear up with crampons, harnesses and ice axes and take our first step on the ice.
Bow Glacier is very convoluted with deep crevasses in an intricate design. Finding the best route takes patience, experience and persistence. We made our way back and forth, weaving between the fissures. Our route looked like a Family Circle comic of the kids taking a circuitous route around the neighbourhood. Eventually we crossed the icefield beneath St. Nicholas and through the Olive-St. Nicholas Col to get to Vulture Glacier. The skies had an eerie smoky haze from the forest fires surrounding us as we walked across the large white glacier.
We worked our way down Vulture Glacier beside the rugged Mount Olive. After a few hours we can finally see our first objective, Balfour Hut, in the distance. The hut is set on a rock band in a glacial valley surrounded by Wapta’s peaks. That night we had a spectacular red, smokey sunset. The picture of the hut below is from a winter trip.
Balfour Hut to Scott Duncan Hut
Distance – 10 km; Elevation Gain 520 m; Elevation Loss 320 m
Between Balfour and Scott Duncan Huts, the route is more complicated as the glacier is even more convoluted. There is also a risk of ice fall where it crosses under Mount Balfour on the way to Balfour Pass. We leave early in the morning to make it safely through the worst area.
Above Balfour Pass, the huge Waputik Glacier lies in front of us with sweeping views of far away peaks. Another day of tricky glacier navigation leads us to the small Scott Duncan Hut perched on the moraine below Mount Daly. As the fires continued in the valleys we had another amazing sunset from the glacier.
Scott Duncan Hut to Great Divide Lodge
Distance -12 km; Elevation Loss -1060m
Our last day involved crossing to the end of Waputik Glacier. In winter the route goes through the pass between Mount Niles and Mount Daly, but in the summer it goes down the steep moraine beside Niles Creek. After a lot of walking on wobbly boulders and loose scree, we can see Sherbrooke Lake far below.
Sherbrooke Lake is a pretty, turquoise lake and is a popular day hike as its close to the highway. We were thankful to end our trip with an easy walk from the lake, through the woods to reach our car.
The Wapta Traverse takes you from Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park to the the Great Divide Lodge on the #1 Highway in Yoho National Park. This glacier traverse should only be attempted by those with experience or with a certified guide. Having said that it is an incredible traverse with amazing views.
On paper it’s only 37 km, but navigating around crevasses on the large Wapta Icefield, the actual amount of walking is much more. Total elevation gain is 1490 m and total elevation loss is 1810m.
Where to stay
We stayed in Balfour and Scott Duncan Huts which are operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. There are three other huts in this area; Bow, Peyto and Louise & Richard Guy. The huts require advance booking, and in busy winter months may be completely full. In the summer however, they are rarely used. The huts have sleeping mats in a dormitory style room, kitchens with pots and pans, dishes, and outhouses. You need to bring your own food. Huts can be booked through the ACC here.
There is a parking lot at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway and one just passed The Great Divide Lodge on the Trans-Canada Highway. It would be very difficult to find a ride that is going between these two access points so either leave a car at each end, or have someone pick you up at an arranged time.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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