Monday, March 16, 2009

Wapta Traverse (March 2009)

Saturday, March 14th (2009)
Drove up from Lethbridge and met Shannon at the Calgary airport.

We had reservations at the HI Banff Alpine Centre and drove straight there from the airport. By the time we left Calgary, it was after 10 PM. Driving into Banff late at night, I unfortunately got lost and drove aimlessly around Banff townsite for 15 minutes or so and had to ask directions from a taxi driver. We finally got to the hostel at 11:30 PM and met Chris at the check-in. The main building was rocking as there is a basement bar in the hostel (complete with karaoke on Saturday nights, as we discovered).

We found our room in the next building over and discovered we were sharing with another fellow who was already in bed. We got our stuff together and sat around for a few minutes in the common area. Chris had a bottle of whiskey that he kindly shared with us. We discussed our route whilst dodging pillows and toques (rowdy kids were having a pillow fight of sorts in the common area). We decided to go for it and enter via Peyto lake, as early as we could muster the following day.

Day 1 (Sunday) 9.5 hrs.
Peyto Lake to Peter and Catherine Whyte Hut (Peyto Hut) crossing Peyto Glacier

Left HI and parked a shuttle (my rental car) at Wapta Lake in the parking of the closed-for-the-winter West Louise Lodge. The lodge was closed but the parking area was cleared of snow for skiers. We arrived at Peyto Lake trailhead around 9:15

Skiing from the car, we skinned up and followed a rolling trail through the trees and arrived at the lake in about an hour. After skiing across the lake, we arrived at one of the most difficult parts of the trip at 2:30 PM – the ascent of the moraine, which required crossing a dicy slope, one-by-one for 30 feet or so. We had hoped to arrive a bit earlier but conditions were quite cold and stable, although the sun came out just as we got to the crux. We had all studied this part of the trip extensively and had discussed the Peyto Lake entry with Percy Woods, public safety warden for Banff/Yoho parks. Chris lead us up.

The crux itself looked quite bad from afar, but the closer we got, the more reasonable it looked. There is an avalanche slope that can be avoided by taking off one’s skis and hiking on the interconnecting ridgetop. Unfortunately, at the junction of the ridge and the avalanche slope, there is a bit of exposure. Percy had described about 30 feet of exposure to potential avalanche danger and suggested going up one at a time over this piece, as quickly as possible. Once we got to that junction, we saw that others had switchbacked up. Chris took a more direct approach and climbed straight up. Once above the chute, we were greeted with wind blasts and steep climbing on thin, slippery snow over rock, but little avvy danger. We broke out our ice axes for a few minutes and made it above the steep climbing quite quickly.

Finally we reached the glacier and continued skiing. When we reached Glaciology station I thought incorrectly that we had arrived at the ACC hut. Wishful thinking... Talk about disappointment! We crossed the Peyto glacier following a number of long aluminum poles that were sticking out of glacier. The ‘beacons’ are part of an ongoing glaciology research project, though at the time I thought that the park wardens had placed these as poles as guideposts.

Finally we caught sight of the hut and we slogged up the final ramp. Chris said he witnessed a natural release (powder avalanche) coming off Mount Thomson as he arrived at the hut. Chris and Shannon motored on up the final slopes and awaited me inside. By this point I was quite bagged. I took several breaks over the final 500 metres and arrived inside at 7:30 PM, just as sun was setting over mountains to the west, completely exhausted. It took me over 1 hour to cover last 500 metres. Peyto Hut was very nice, but colder than I imagined… no wood stove. On a clear day I am sure that there would be some amazing views, but by the time I got to the hut, all I could see was white.

Day 2 (Monday) 4.5 hrs
Across Bow Glacier to Bow Hut

Slept ok. Awoke to a fairly decent whiteout. Wintery outhouse (buttcheeks froze on toilet seat!) We ate breakfast and sat around until 11 AM. We finally headed out into the whiteout around noon. It took a lot of time to ascend the 150 metres elevation gain to glacierfield above… it felt like a lot more than 150 metres. We used our GPS route find our way between the Onion and St. Nic.

St. Nic looked different afar from the west, not like the distinctive shark tooth that I recalled from memory and we disputed whether we were descending at the right point for a few minutes. We went higher (south) a little more than we needed to, but it made little difference…

Had a fun but slow ski down from the glacier to the hut. Bow Hut was pretty packed. There were all kinds of interesting folks milling about the hut and it was fun chatting with the different groups.

Later on Shannon and I practiced an avalanche beacon rescue (around 9:30 PM). Shannon and I were both under 4 minutes, but mind you, we only buried the beacons about a foot or two deep.

Day 3 (Tuesday) 5.5 hrs
Bow Hut to Balfour Hut via St. Nic – Olive col via Vulture Glacier

Some kids were partying in the hut kitchen (where I unfortunately chose to sleep) until 2 or 3 AM. All part of the Bow Hut experience. Had stomach issues for the second day in a row.

We got up at 7AM and after a slow start, left the Bow Hut by around 10 AM. Some older gents passed us on their summit attempt of Mt. Gordon. We made it easily over the col between St. Nic and Mt. Olive but had a short boot pack. We resumed skiing and finally got out of the wind and we took a break. As we sat and ate a quick bite, a couple of dudes appeared out of thin air - Chewie and co.! Chewie and his friend were going the opposite way (these were a couple of Banff dudes we’d met at Peyto hut – they’d bypassed Bow Hut the previous day, going directly from Peyto to Balfour in the whiteout). It was quite funny to meet them; they really appeared out of nowhere. They had quite the adventure the previous day, having some trouble with route finding. They’d accidentally gone ‘to the right of Rhonda’ and ended up having a 10 hour day.

Daunted by yet another whiteout that morning, they wisely chose to turn around, rather than foolishly risk traveling up Balfour col in poor visibility. These two gents were fast buggers – they had managed the ski-in to Peyto Hut in only 5.5hours, so I can only imagine how much ground they had covered in a 10 hour day. We followed their ‘up’ tracks back down to the Balfour Hut and didn’t worry about any crevasse issues.

At the hut, there was another group of 6 who had arrived the previous evening. They had had an even bigger adventure than Chewie and co.! Leaving Bow Hut at noon, they only arrived at Balfour hut at 11:30 PM! The group was spotted by Chewie when he was out for a pee late at night… must’ve been strange sight to spot a train of headlamps in the darkness of the glacier coming towards the hut.

The sky cleared up somewhat as we skied the final kilometre to Balfour and I finally broke out my camera to take some pictures.

We arrived fairly early in the afternoon and had some time to practice roping up with the other group and discussed the route in detail with them. They were a group of 6 (5 dudes, 1 gal). Some members of their group were experienced back country enthusiasts including a couple that were ski patrollers at (at Big White near Kelowna, if I recall correctly).

Day 4 (Wedsnesday), 8 hrs
Balfour Hut to Scott Duncan Hut via Bafour col

Awoke at 7AM. Restless night. Kept thinking about the route and potential hazards over and over. Good news, though! Clear weather... No whiteout, just what we had been hoping for! If there had been a whiteout, we had planned to wait one more day at the hut… We had decided that if poor visibility (whiteout conditions) persisted, than we would retreat back to the highway via the Bow Hut approach.

I made an unfortunate discovery as I placed my climbing skins. My right binding was ripping out of my ski... It was a terrible feeling, knowing that my binding was potentially on the verge of breaking right off. Balfour hut is basically two day’s hike from any ski shop! The binding was beyond just ‘tightening up’ the screws with my leatherman, since the screws were pulling out. One of the member’s of the other group had some twine, which we used to basically tie my binding tightly to my ski. It wasn’t pretty and didn’t exactly improve my skiing, but I was (and still am) very grateful that he had the twine and helped me to repair my ski.

After much screwing around, we headed out by about 9 AM. The other group proceeded to gear up, but after heading out a short ways they decided to back off. They wished us luck and in particular, they thanked Chris, who had lent his extensive back country experience to the group. He had lead the previous day’s discussions regarding the route over Balfour col, discussing potential hazards and mitigative measures; he had also coordinated much of the the roping up/crevasse rescue practice we had done in the hut the night before.

Multiple hazards are present on this leg of the traverse. Planning-wise for me, this was the crux of the trip, (although in retrospect, ascending the moraine the first day by the Peyto approach was probably also pretty risky). I had obsessed particularly over the ascent of the Balfour col and had read over the various route descriptions over and over. A huge crevasse (viewable from the hut) has to be crossed; the crevasse is boxed in by a rocky cliff to the east and basically extends to the edge of Mt. Balfour to the west. On the high side (close to Balfour) there is danger of serac-fall. Indeed, a huge nugget the size of a mini van is planted in the crevasse about two-thirds of the way across. The guidebook generally describes the ‘lower route’ as less risky but more exposed to avalanche danger. We decided on this day that the higher route was the safer option.

We proceeded west towards a huge rock that we thought was the old hut (it was just a big rock) and turned left/upwards at an opportune time, heading towards the wide ramp that leads straight and true like a four lane highway. The ramp leads up to the crevasses below the cliffband and from the hut looks somewhat exposed to avalanche danger.

My concerns about avvy slopes on the ramp were quickly allayed. It was indeed wide and flat and there was little danger of triggering anything. If there were some natural trigger -cornice failure etc. it would take a huge slide to reach the bench. I put away any further thoughts of pulling my veto card and concentrated on keeping up.

As we ascended towards the col, the route started to disappear in front of us into a snowy fog. As we got nearer to the big crevasse we roped up and continued. We switchbacked a couple of times as we neared the crevasse and it started to feel like a whiteout. Trailbreaking in the powder was once again taken up by Chris, and for the first time I felt like I could have gone faster. (Chris was a real machine when it came to the trailbreaking, happily agreeing to set tracks 90% of the time while still traveling faster than I could honestly follow in his wake!) I assumed that Chris was taking it easy on us, conscious we were all roped up and had to travel at the same speed –although later he said that was not the case.

We passed over the crevasse easily and quickly. Soon after, we crossed over some fairly recent avalanche debris from the mountain above – an unwelcome surprise. As we crested the top of the pass, we were greeted by a complete whiteout.

For a few minutes at the top of the Balfour col, the whiteout navigation became suddenly quite intense. It was completely disorienting – I, for one, could not tell up my ass from my elbow. Shannon and Chris had their GPS’s but I had ditched my unit in the car to save weight and relied on their route finding. At one point in our struggle with route finding, Chris noted that something was wrong as he felt we were headed towards a potential cornice and he did not want to ski down the slope blindly in the whiteout. We retreated away from that area and Shannon figured we were backtracking. Chris eventually got us back onto our GPS route and took a bearing and navigated by compass. The wind was whipping the snow violently against our faces and we all had snow and ice building up on our bare skin which lead to a bit of frostnip, which we’d learn later on (I was the worst affected with my sensitive skin, even though I had a neoprene mask on).

We arrived at the base of the hut by 6PM. The Scott Duncan hut is positioned a couple of hundred feet above the base of the glacier and there’s a wee bit of a climb to get there. A real kick in the teeth at the end of a long afternoon’s whiteout travel! I had issues with my skins and duct-taped one on and worked my way up the final slopes with my climbing skins on a single ski.

1. The route taken (up the ramp from the hut towards the col) wasn’t exactly as per Chic Scott’s description; but sort of shown on Murray Toft’s map.

2. Chris mentioned there some avalanche danger (possibility of triggering) on the slope passing the crevasse but generally the risk was low... this was my main concern –triggering something. Once up there, I did not feel much danger of this at all and was surprised that this was the case; I could see the possibility from icefall above on the mountain. Have to keep up my avalanche safety education, for sure.

Day 5, Thursday March 19, 8 hrs
Scott Duncan Hut to Wapta Lake

We were quite happy about our previous's day's epic to Scott Duncan and had the small hut all to ourselves. The door kept intermittently locking us in or not closing at all unless you slammed it! During the night it got crazy windy and when I had to go out to use the outhouse at night, I thought I was going to blow away.

We got up early (6:45) and dragged out asses getting ready. We finally left the hut by 10 AM and started to ski down to the glacier. It was a mistake to leave so late, as we’d find out later on in the day. The light was very flat and we had no depth perception.

My skins were no longer sticking so I had duct taped them on at the hut and was anticipating not taking them off until I got over the high point... unfortunately, I took them off too early and when we reached the avalanche slopes under Mt. Niles there was a bit of climbing required, so I made do with what I had and used ‘grip tape’ (a product which is basically grip wax in a roll) and was able to climb up. I could not quite following the other's tracks, but I was able to cut a slightly more conservative line. We were exposed to some danger from above for about a km or so, skiing across debris that had recently released (the debris was not covered by snow and it was lightly snowing, so it had to be pretty new).

We stopped for lunch at a safe point past Mt. Niles, but to our dismay, we still had to ski though a bit of a gully with some sketchy cornices and slopes above. The slopes were not exactly part of Mt. Niles proper and I was surprised that there was still avalanche risk that we had to contend with. Chic Scott's book didn’t mention the gully, nor did any other references (Murray Toft's maps, correspondence from the park warden Percy).

Chris clearly identifed the risk to Shannon and I and they started to take off their skins. I had mine off an hour earlier, skiing with the grip tape, and suggested that I go ahead. Chris said, don't fall, whatever you do, ski it fast and wait in the trees in the safe zone. About half of the slopes had already released and it was tough skiing as there was strange, flat light, holes and variable snow conditions (hard packed avalanche debris versus fluffy powder a few metres over). I wiped out and got snow on my sunglasses and fogged up. I immediately got up and wiped out a second time... this time my ski released and I had to take my ski off and put the binding back together and put my ski back on. I did so proficiently but forgot to do up my binding and I fell again as my stupid ski came off and I had to stop again underneath the avalanche hazard. Finally I made it to the bottom and took off my pack and awaited Shannon in the trees.

Shannon caught up and we awaited Chris, who skied just a bit higher up on the avalanche debris. He skiied quickly down and as he cleared the final slopes a slow moving avalanche released; about 80 metres wide at the top and 200 metres wide at the base. It was about 100 metres high, give or take. It was a slab avalanche that was probably caused by sun crust; about a foot depth. It didn't make a huge thunderclap but the sound was more like a big whoomphing.

Shannon yelled avalanche and Chris skied past us and stopped a couple of dozen metres away and yelled at us to hoof it... Shannon tried to help me get my bag on and eventually hauled it back a few metre as I proceeded to fall down (instinct kicked in and I guess I tried to run, rather than ski away). Finally I got to my feet as the avalanche stopped a few dozen metres away.

It was a surreal experience. I never thought the avalanche would reach us as it was so slow moving, but it was still a dangerous situation as Shannon and I had stopped in an area where the trees were pretty short, indicating they had been wiped out by the same avalanche chute at one point or time. The entire mess took about 30 seconds or so to come to a complete stop.

I was a bit freaked out – I think we all were, but there was lots of skiing left to do to get down to the lake. Skiing through the trees to get down to the drainage out was steep and predictably difficult. Shannon’s GPS was used to get us back onto route – we had drifted a bit too far towards the gully to the west, but we figured it out.

Descending into the thick, tall trees, we were out of imminent avalanche danger but conditions were not completely safe. It was quite warm and we did not take it for granted that there were still unpredictable conditions. We skied one by one and I fell a million times, but we got to the lake around 4:30ish. We skiied accross the lake and heard some fantastic cracking noises. Shannon said actually he sank down at one point but we made it accross without falling in.

We arrived at the car by 6:00 PM. We packed everything in the rented mazda, which briefly got stuck in the parking (!) and shuttled over to Peyto Lake to retrieve Chris's car. We had beer and a nice meal at the HI in Lake Louise!

Links to Chris and Shannon's websites:

Shannon's trailpeak entry:


Anonymous said...

Your account is a keeper Trevor! Great to relive an awesome trip through somene else's take.


Chris said...

Wow, that really describes the details as well as the feel of the trip. It took me right back there as I was reading. Nice write up!

Many people have asked me, after I describe the trip, if I had any fun. There were some definite challenges, eh, to do with the difficult conditions (deep, heavy snow, poor and flat light, higher than preferred avalanche risk ...) but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I'll keep thinking back to this trip for many years to come. Great company on an awesome trip!

Anonymous said...

Great to hear you made it through okay. Was nice to hear details of the leg we decided not to do. I'm sure glad you completed it, but I've got no regrets for turning back either. We had enough of a scare having had a natural class 2 come close to us right below the Bow hut on our return to Bow Lake. It visually divided our group. I'll sign up and post some photos of our adventure.
Big White Ski Patrol

trevbo said...

Great to hear from you Steve. Yeah, I think you guys made the right call in turning around.

Yikes about your scare below Bow Hut - but considering how bad conditions were for us that same day -I guess it shouldn't be a surprise. Avalanche conditions were definitely high!

trevbo said...

And big thanks again to your friend for giving me some twine and helping me keep my ski binding together for those last couple of days...

Anonymous said...

Great story,it feels like I was there with you Trevor!