Ski Touring on the Wapta Icefields

Wapta Icefields is the perfect playground for backcountry skiers. It has gentle ski slopes, snowy mountain peaks and miles of open glacier for traversing. Its location on the Continental Divide means there is plenty of snowfall to make any skier happy.

Covering an area of 600 km², Wapta Icefields includes Vulture, Bow and Peyto Glaciers and is connected to the Waputik Icefield. It is a part of both Banff and Yoho National Parks . The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) operates 5 huts on the Wapta. They are not like huts in Europe. At these huts you need to bring your own food and sleeping bags, but the huts provide a warm refuge for overnight trips. The huts are equipped with gas cook tops, dishes, cutlery, outhouses and some, like Bow Hut, have wood buring stoves.

This post is a collection of our many ski tours on the Wapta over the years.

Note: Due to the coronavirus ACC has altered their hut policy. Until further notice you must book the entire hut for at least two days instead of booking one bed per night. Unfortunately this means we won’t be staying at any of the huts this year.

The most common entry to the Wapta is from Bow Lake which is situated on the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) between Lake Louise and Jasper. Usually by mid-December Bow Lake is frozen and it’s possible to ski across. While crossing the lake you get to stare at the incredible view of Bow Glacier, Mt. Thompson and the unmistakable St. Nicholas Peak. Sometimes the shifting lake ice makes a loud groaning sound. We know it’s safe, but it is very unsettling to be in the middle of the lake when it starts to make noise.

We have also done this trip in November and have had to take the longer trail that goes around the lake. It makes for a pretty scene, but we’d rather be able to take the short-cut across the lake.

One of the prettiest parts of this approach is going through Bow Canyon. The narrow canyon is bordered by rocky cliffs and gives only occaisional glimpses of the mountains ahead. The route navigates around a partially open creek that runs through the canyon.

After Bow Canyon you see a wall of cliffs in a cirque with a small hut high up on a ledge. Bow Hut is placed on the edge of the Bow Glacier with St. Nicolas staring down from above. If you look close you can see it in the last picture below. At the end of the cirque the trail passes near a tall headwall. Attention needs to be paid here because of the threat of avalanches and ice fall coming from the headwall.

The slopes above Bow Hut often provide excellent skiing as they are at the perfect angle for a ski run. Many people come to Bow Hut for one or two nights. Their objective is to ski the nearby slopes or attempt to summit a neighbouring peak such as Mt. Rhonda or Mt. Gordon. In a usual year, Bow Hut is almost always full.

Even when the skiing conditions aren’t good, it’s worth it to climb above the hut for the views of the Rockies.

Another longer and trickier approach to the Icefields is from Peyto Lake. Its parking lot is just a little further up the Parkway from Bow Lake. There are two options when taking this approach. When conditions are safe, the trail goes through a canyon and eventually traverses the canyon’s upper slopes. When avalanche risk is high, the hazards on the canyon approach are avoided by climbing up Peyto moraine. It makes for a tougher day with extra elevation gain but this approach must be used when avalanche risk high.

Peyto Hut is on top of a small moraine outcrop on the edge of Peyto Glacier. After this long approach, the hut always appears to be higher and further away than you remember.

An easier approach to Peyto is to ski across the glacier from Bow Hut. Once above Bow Hut the skiing is mostly flat. On a clear day it’s an amazing place, surrounded by rocky peaks like Mt. Rhonda, Mt. Thompson and others. We’ve also been here in whiteout conditions and it’s very scary. GPS or compass navigation skills are necessary to safely reach your destination. During one whiteout we could see skiiers on the hill above us, but we couldn’t distinguish the white snow from the white sky. It appeared as if they were flying! These conditions can really trick your brain.

The small hill on this approach to Peyto Hut can also have awesome snow for skiing.

Balfour Hut is usually accessed from Bow or Peyto. There is an approach from Hector Lake on the Icefields Parkway, but we’ve only ever met one group who completed it. Their account of the route was less than appealing as it crosses very technical terrain.

Crossing the Wapta on the way to Balfour Hut takes you by spectacular scenery. The route crosses under Mt. St. Nicholas and beside Mt. Olive to reach the Olive-St Nic Col. From there, a 300 m ski descent takes you almost all the way to Balfour Hut. As with many places on this Icefield, it can be a great run or one of the worst days you’ve had on wind-blown, crusty snow. The views on the descent are unmatched with Mt. Balfour in front and Mt. Olive and Crowfoot Mountain on either side.

Scott Duncan Hut is very isolated and not often used unless people are completing the Wapta Traverse. But because of this remoteness, the area seems even more wild. Access is from Balfour Hut or Sherbrooke Lake on the TransCanda Higway. The terrain between Balfour and Scott Duncan is quite complex. The route between Balfour and Scott Duncan crosses areas with seracs, crevases and avalanche danger so we don’t often stop to take pictures, or even enjoy the scenery. Here are a few photos to give you an understanding of the views that are possible. You can see the crevases in the pictures below.

Note – We always wear harnesses and are roped together in the section of the trip. The rest of the Wapta does have hidden crevasses and safety equipment should be used if you’re not familiar with the Icefields.

After Scott Duncan Hut there is a complex descent route to get to Sherbrooke Lake on the TransCanada Highway. This area has a lot of avalache hazards which are even more dangerous if approaching from Sherbrooke Lake as uphill travel is much slower.

ACC added a new hut on the Wapta. Louise and Richard Guy Hut was built just before we went on our trip to Asia and we haven’t had a chance to visit it yet. Something for next winter I suppose.

Coming Next – Seven Summits – Climbing Mt Everest (Part I) – Island Peak

For extra pics from Canada go to Gallery/Canada. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about our other trips around the world go to Destinations.

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