Wapta Traverse is a classic ski backcountry tour in the Canadian Rockies. With gentle ski slopes, snowy mountain peaks and miles of open glacier for traversing, Wapta Icefields is the perfect playground for backcountry skiers. 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 Classic Wapta Traverse takes 5 days traveling between Peyto Lake on the Icefields Parkway and the TransCanada Highway near Sherbrooke Lake. It is a hut to hut ski tour using 4 of the Alpine Club of Canada’s 5 huts on the Wapta: Peyto, Bow, Balfour and Scott Duncan Huts. The route can be shortened by beginning at Bow Lake instead of Peyto, or by skipping Bow Hut and traveling directly from Peyto to Balfour.
This post is a collection of our many ski tours on the Wapta over the years.
Day 1 – Peyto Lake to Peyto Hut
Distance – 10 km (6.2 miles)
Elevation Gain – 550 m (1,804 ft)
To reach Peyto Lake, park in a small parking lot on the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) 2.5 km north of Bow Pass. The easiest access to Peyto Lake begins on a forestry road 100 m north of this lot. Part way down, follow a marked trail that leads to the lake. Another option is to park at the Peyto Lake Viewpoint and descend through the trees to reach Peyto Lake below. By mid December the lake is usually frozen and can be skied across.
After crossing the lake you’ll reach a narrow canyon. When conditions are safe, the trail goes through the canyon and eventually traverses the canyon’s upper slopes to reach Peyto Moraine. When avalanche risk is high, the hazards on the canyon approach are avoided by climbing up the slope on the right near the beginning of the canyon. This will eventually join the moraine. It makes for a tougher day with extra elevation gain but this approach must be used when avalanche risk is high.
Above the moraine the route travels on the glacier to reach the hut 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.
Alternate Day 1 – Bow Lake to Bow Hut
Distance – 6 km (3.7 miles)
Elevation – 390 m (1,279 ft)
Some skiers will travel to Bow Hut on their first day, skipping the Peyto Hut section altogether. Bow Lake parking lot is situated on Icefields Parkway, 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 ice on the lake 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 occasional 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 first 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.
Day 2 – Peyto Hut to Bow Hut
Distance – 6 km (3.7 miles)
Elevation Gain – 150 m (492 ft)
On the Classic Traverse the route travels across Bow Glacier to Bow Hut. We’ve skied this route several times in both directions. After a short climb above Peyto Hut the skiing is mostly flat as it crosses the glacier. On a clear day the views are spectacular as you ski by rocky peaks like Mt. Rhondda and Mt. Thompson.
We’ve also been here in whiteout conditions and it’s very scary. During one whiteout we could see skiers 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. GPS or compass navigation skills are necessary to safely reach your destination.
If you’re short on time you can skip Bow Hut and ski directly from Peyto to Balfour (see below).
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 without skiing the traverse. Their objective is to ski the nearby slopes or attempt to summit a neighbouring peak such as Mt. Rhondda or Mt. Gordon. On a weekend in the winter, Bow Hut is almost always full.
Even when the skiing conditions aren’t good, it’s worth it to climb above the hut for breathtaking views of the Rockies.
Day 3 – Peyto or Bow to Balfour Hut
Distance – 7 km (4.3 miles) for either route
Elevation Gain – 430 m (1,410 ft) from Peyto; 580 m (1,902 ft) from Bow
Balfour Hut is usually accessed from Bow or Peyto Huts. 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.
From either Peyto or Bow Hut there is a long steady climb up Bow Glacier to reach Olive-St. Nic Col. You’ll be distracted from your exhaustion by spectacular scenery as you pass Mt. Rhondda and Mt. Gordon and ski toward Mt. St. Nicholas. Eventually the route crosses under Mt. St. Nicholas and beside Mt. Olive to reach the Olive-St. Nic Col. It often very windy at the pass as is evident in the bare rocky ground.
After the col, a 430 m (1,410 ft) 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 ski days you’ve ever 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.
Day 4 – Balfour Hut to Scott Duncan Hut
Distance – 10 km
Elevation Gain – 520 m (1,706 ft)
Scott Duncan Hut is very isolated and not often used unless completing the Wapta Traverse. Because of its remote location, the area seems even more wild. The terrain between Balfour and Scott Duncan is quite complex. From Balfour Hut, the route navigates a series of benches on the base of Mount Balfour before taking the glacier to Balfour High Col. It crosses areas with large seracs, exposed crevasses, icefall and avalanche danger so we don’t often stop to take pictures, or even enjoy the scenery. (We included two pictures from the summer.) You must determine the safest route based on the conditions.
If either the weather or avalanche forecasts are not optimal, you should not continue to Scott Duncan Hut. Here are a few photos to give you an understanding of the views that are possible. You can see crevasses 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.
Day 5 – Scott Duncan Hut to TransCanada Highway
Distance – 12 km (7.5 miles)
Elevation Loss – 1,060 m (3,278 ft)
From Scott Duncan Hut there is a complex descent route to get to down to Sherbrooke Lake. After skiing between Mt. Niles and Mt. Daley the route has several avalanche hazards that must be navigated. From there follow a long traverse across a bench above Niles Creek that takes you to Sherbrooke Creek. Do not drop into the Niles Creek drainage as it is prone to avalanches.
Once you reach Sherbrooke Creek, route finding can be difficult due to the undulating terrain. Watch for the trail to descend through a heavily treed slope and lead to Sherbrooke Lake. From the lake it will be easier to find tracks that lead to the parking lot on the TransCanada.
Information for the Wapta Traverse
Do not attempt this traverse if you’re not experienced in glacier travel and avalanche safety.
The best time to ski the traverse is typically March and April when the days are longer.
Huts are booked through Alpine Club of Canada. The huts 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. They are equipped with gas cook tops, dishes, cutlery, outhouses and some, like Bow Hut, have wood burning stoves.
You will need two cars. One is left at the parking lot along the TransCanada beside Great Divide Lodge. Note the parking lot is not always plowed. Check with Parks Canada for its condition. The other car is driven to either Peyto or Bow Lake parking lots.
Check avalanche conditions with Avalanche Canada.
Read our Summer Wapta Traverse.
Coming Next – A Stunning Hike in Jasper’s Tonquin Valley
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