My parents were a little surprised to see me arrive in Portland on December 24th with two checked bags and a 40-liter pack. I apologized, as my mom tried to hoist a 48.5-lb duffel packed, 'sadly, it's not all gifts'. I handed her my roller ski bag instead.
After spending the holidays with my family, I hopped on a plane to Calgary, where I met up with a merry band of semi-employed Canadians. The plan wasn't much of a plan. We had a 4WD rig and intentions to ice climb in the Ghost Wilderness and Banff National Park with the vague goal to celebrate New Year’s somewhere in a hut.
While we couldn’t find a heated hut with bunk space available on New Year’s, we discovered the un-heated huts dotting the Wapta traverse to be ripe for the picking. We sketched out a quick three day tour where we would hit two of the four huts. After a quick phone call to the Alpine Club of Canada where I discovered they honored American Alpine Memberships, we were set. On the 30th of December we divided up glacier ropes and set off to spend 2 nights sampling a section of the Wapta traverse. After three days of ice-climbing in solidly negative temperatures the prospect of switching to skis sounded really, really appealing.
The Wapta Traverse
The Wapta traverse is Banff National Park's crowning ski hut traverse. The standard route zig zags across the Alberta/British Columbia provincial border, covering approximately 45 kilometers of the 600 square foot Wapta and Waputik ice fields with stops at 4 huts. The largest and most popular Bow Hut functions as its own destination altogether and boasts wood stove heating. While the other three insulated, but unheated huts (Peyto, Scott Duncan and Balfour) are much smaller and butted alongside the ice fields. All huts have the necessities to keep your pack light; propane stoves, plenty of pots and pans, lanterns and bunk mattresses.
The current record stands at around 6 hours and 37 minutes1, however most parties complete the traverse in four to five days, staying at 3 or 4 of the huts to access to endless ski-able summits bordering the ice fields. And boy are there fun objectives around. We entered at the traverse’s midway point and traversed out ‘backwards’. We summited and skied Mt. Rhondda en route from Bow to Peyto Hut. The view from the summit ridge provided an endless landscape of the Canadian Rockies.
The Wapta delivered everything a mountaineer raised on Pacific Northwest volcanoes misses when they move to Utah. Crevasses, glacier travel, even 35 degree slopes and sastrugi powder pockets. However, winter on the Wapta was not forgiving. Windpacked snow and a firm skin track gave us a sense of just how much ground you can cover with good conditions. However, the windchill alone kept us moving. We waited for sunrise each morning and even in direct sun we didn’t linger over tea breaks.
Fast n Light: 1 day
The wind buffed ice fields are to rando racers as buff, loamy trails are to mountain bikers; utter perfection. Even with my 40 liter pack stuffed to capacity with down pants and parka, a -5˚ F sleeping bag and a pound of lentils, I found the grade of ascents to be perfect for efficient skinning.
Peter Knight and Travis Brown set the current record of 6 hr. 34 min. in May 2011.1 And the current record holders suggest that with the right team and conditions the Wapta could go sub-6 hours.
With good weather, fresh off your Grand Traverse training and enjoy this sort of thing, it could be a reasonable (full) day objective. Over the course of 42 km with 2200 m of gain (7200 ft. in 26 miles) you’ll get to see a wide array of the Rockies. There are several turn-around points. Bonus, if you live at altitude, you’ll be right at home at 7000 – 9000 feet, so you’ll have an advantage over the Vancouver-ites. J
- Go in spring when the days are longest
- Prepare to be exposed and above tree line. The icefields are known for wind, white outs and potentially serious navigation.
- Read recent trip reports on navigation up Peyto as the glacier has receded and we didn’t follow the guidebook route. You could burn a lot of time route finding on rock here.
- Rope and crevasse rescue gear and skills are not optional, you will be crossing some monsters.
Ski Mountaineering on the Wapta: 3-5 days
The huts are spaced 6-14 km apart and stocked with everything you need to keep your pack light. With clear weather and good navigation you can move quickly and may not need full days, leaving time for summits within the trip. Alternatively you could skip one hut (go direct to Balfour from Peyto, skipping Bow) and spend a full day ski touring and mountaineering.
- Alpine Club of Canada honors the American Alpine Club membership and gives you the same AAC discount ($10 off the $40 nightly rate). I was able to email over a screen shot of my active membership. But you already have one for the international rescue insurance, right?
- Three season sleeping bag or lighter should be fine in the unheated huts.
- Huts are fully stocked (pots, pans, propane stoves and lamps, etc.) But bring your own toilet paper
- Pick up a copy of Summits & Icefields Vol. 1: Alpine Tours in the Canadian Rockies for a run-down of nearby summits and ski descents.
Bringing the whole gang: Expedition style
Bring a varied group, maybe even a few newbies who haven’t yet seen a glacier and are still on Duke’s or a splitboard. Skip the first leg of the traverse and approach Bow Hut via Bow Lake (what thousands of people do each year). This avoids crevasse danger (however the route does cross avalanche terrain), but still offers access to the inner Rockies.
The Bow Hut is a zoo compared to the unheated ones and its location doesn’t have the remoteness as the smaller huts, but it’s also perfect for a crowd. The sleeping quarters (sleeps 30) are separate from the main cooking area, so groups can coincide.
- Day trip from Bow for ski tours or summits (Mt. St. Nicolas, Mt Rhondda)
- Bring a summer weight bag if you’re not going to any other hut, replace extra weight with whiskey, there’s a wood stove in the sleeping quarters.
- There’s a bunch of ice on the approach…
Citations & Resources