The French-Robertson ski traverse in the Canadian Rockies takes you through some of the most spectacular scenery that Alberta has to offer. It is a long day where you ski over two mountain passes and across three glaciers. The reward for this hard work is a long, mellow ski descent.
Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, Alberta is one of our favourite mountain playgrounds. It includes provincial parks and wilderness recreation areas in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Much of this mountainous area can only be accessed by foot. The French-Robertson ski traverse in Kananaskis Country takes you far away from the road and into some of the best viewpoints in the area. This post will not be a specific trail guide since there are many available in books and on-line, but rather a pictorial recount of the area over dozens of trips we done over the years.
French-Robertson Ski Traverse
Distance – 20 km; Elevation Gain 1,000 m
Note: Avalanche and glacier travel education and experience is necessary.
The trail begins at the busy Burstall Pass parking lot on the west side of the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail in Kananaskis Country. There are usually many skiers and snowshoers on the trail toward the lake but after only a few minutes on the main trail, the route heads south toward the quieter French Creek drainage.
The route takes you through a pine and fir forest in the French Creek Valley. In the early and late seasons it can be difficult to find the best snow bridge to cross the creek. By mid-winter it is usually frozen and it’s not a problem to cross. As you continue along the valley, the trail opens up allowing you to enjoy views of Mt. Robertson, Mt. Sir Douglas and other Kananaskis beauties.
The terrain in the valley is complicated. You have to negotiate around three waterfalls, a narrow canyon and a few avalanche chutes. We’ve seen avalanche debris cover the ski trail in a few places so always be aware of your surroundings.
The trail finally arrives at a canyon below French Glacier. A steep climb away from the canyon takes you to safer terrain. As you head up the mountain shoulder don’t forget look back for great views toward Mount Chester, The Fortress and Mount Galatea on the other side of the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail. In very stable conditions, it’s possible to travel over the boulders at the end of the canyon and approach the glacier from below, but this is not the usual route.
After climbing and climbing the trail takes you to the toe of the French Glacier. From here there are two different approaches. One climbs on the left side up to the rocky moraine. Strong winds often strip the snow leaving the ground bare and you may need to remove your skies to cross.
The other option is the longer but gentler path around the right side of a rocky out-crop. The wind often howls down the glacier and it can be very unpleasant. Even with this wind it is still better than taking the moraine. If the visibility is poor here, it is safest to turn around and return to your car. This is a difficult choice, but the safest one. We have had to turn around several times due to poor weather or conditions.
The French Glacier is bordered by the steep couloirs of Mt. French on your left and Mt. Robertson on your right. Behind you, the incredible mountain scenery gets better and better, the higher you climb. These views give you a great excuse to rest so you can turn around and soak in the scenery.
After a long slog up the glacier you have to negotiate around a deep, wind-blown moat at the base of Mt. Robertson. After passing it you are on the Haig Glacier and in British Columbia. The weather can be extreme on the glacier. A white-out or winter storm would make it very dangerous to continue. When conditions are good though, this area is breathtaking.
We camped on the Haig one spring in one of the most beautiful spots. We had to go on snowshoes since the snow had mostly melted in the valley. This isn’t a usual snowshoe route and it’s not recommended.
The trail continues toward the majestic Mount Sir Douglas. It feels like an eternity, but is really only 1 ½ km to reach the base of Sir Douglas-Robertson Col. This steep 150 m climb to the top is usually wind blown, resulting in either crusty or icy conditions, but if there’s fresh snow it can pose an avalanche risk. We’ve seen this col in many different conditions and the pictures below show how different it can look.
Some skiers try to cut across the col instead of walking straight up. This is dangerous as it crosses avalanche terrain. We’ve frequently seen avalanche debris in this area. If you look closely at the picture below of the pass in rocky conditions, the closest aspect has avalanche debris.
It’s hard work, climbing straight up to the col on foot while your skis are strapped to your backpack. The view from the top though, makes it all worth while. You can see all the way down the gorgeous Robertson Glacier to Burstall Lakes. Looking behind are the impressive mountains of the Kootenays in BC. You are now back in Alberta.
It’s usually very windy here and there is often a cornice on the top so take care where you drop in. The ski down the Robertson Glacier can either be one of your best ski days of the year, or an awful day of survival skiing over cauliflower-like ridges in the wind-swept glacier. There are a few exposed crevasses near the top and bottom. Once you’re on the valley floor there are many avalanche chutes on either side so keep moving quickly until you reach the trees.
Once you arrive at the Burstall Lakes don’t forget to look back up as its one of the best views of the Robertson Glacier. The black spires of Mt Robertson and Mt Sir Douglas contrast the white glacier and a blue sky above makes it perfect.
The trail joins the busy Burstall Pass trail. It’s usually easiest to go across the lake and then follow the trail through the trees to the parking lot.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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