Wapta Traverse

I wanted to go on an expedition of sorts. I had some exposure to backcountry skiing but it was just a taste. A simple day outing, skinning up one of the many passes along the Icefields parkway. We’d always find ourselves fireside by the day’s end though in a hostel somewhere, which was a lot of fun, but I was excited to make the feeling last. To go on a trip with a destination. To traverse the expansiveness of the glaciated terrain that was hidden just over these passes that I had only caught a glimpse of thus far. I wanted to immerse myself in blue sky and blanketed snow. To really feel my own insignificance.

One of my first alpine adventures was up to the Bow Hut. It’s a small shack that is separated into two compartments. Two long lines of bunk beds on the one side for sleeping and a kitchen and balcony on the other for eating and trading stories of travel and adventure with like-minded people. It was here that I first heard of the Wapta Traverse. That this hut was actually one of five that dotted this elevated world I had come to love so much. I instantly wanted to do it. The natural beauty coupled with the physical challenge was irresistible. Though it wasn’t until my friend, Deane Goresline, stamped a date and time on it that it became a reality.

“March break, what are you doing?” he asked me.

I told him that I didn’t have any plans but that I  was definitely hoping to get in some mountain time.

“Let’s do the Wapta then. Let’s make this happen.”

Deane is very good at making things happen. I had told him about the traverse, seemingly offhandedly, as I couldn’t remember exactly when or why I had. But through my description he had looked into a guided tour through Yamnuska, gotten a quote, tested the interest of potential partners for it and found a long enough time off work to do it in. In typical fashion, he sent out a detailed timeline, who would be coming, how we could get there, how much to budget, the whole gambit. A short aside, Deane was a combat engineering officer with me in the army and this is what made him a force to be reckoned with. Even his vacations were a mission! I of course was all over it and grateful that a big chunk of the legwork had been done to get things underway.

Fast forward, and we were parked at Bow Lake with our guide and the rest of our group. Deane’s father was one. Deane told me he had taken up skiing in his late thirties / forties which we both agreed was awesome and inspiring. Also in the group was his girlfriend, Dani, a tough BC girl who was packing up her newly purchased skis and boots, ready to tackle anything the trip would throw at her. Filling out the spots in the guided group trip was a Japanese business man and a father who was taking his daughter on a trip for her birthday – incredible gift if you ask me.

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Preparing the Equipment in Bow Lake Parking Area
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Dani strapping on her bag on the outskirts of Bow Lake
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Ready to Cross Bow Lake

The trip starts by crossing the frozen Bow Lake. Strapping your skis on from the parking lot, the boards become extensions of your boots for the remainder of the voyage. Bow Lake is stunning, in both winter or the sunny days of summer. It is a huge body of water that converges into the stream of water that trickles down from the mountains. It was a beautiful day when we began to slide our feet, one in front of the other, as we blissfully made our way towards the hut, sunscreen and sunglasses shielding us from the bright reflected glare on the snow.

We made our way quickly through the canalizing bit of ground that was prone to avalanches and gained the elevation we needed to reach Bow Hut. It was a warm and pleasant day, breaking for a snack most of us stayed in our baselayers. Soaking in the radiating sun. I meditated on the fantastic beginnings of our trip and enjoyed learning about my new travel companions. It didn’t seem very long before we caught a glimpse of our night’s accommodations. The roof peeking over the rock band high above us we made our way up the last climb of the day towards the wood stoked fire inside.

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Our Guide and Bow Hut (barely visible on top right, along the second ridge line below the sky)

 

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Approaching Bow Hut

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Can’t Beat that View. Kitchen window of Bow Hut.

Bow Hut is always filled with the most interesting assortment of people. Skiers from all over not only Canada but the world. We unpacked and re-hydrated some delicious food provided by the dedicated Yamnuska chef, fed our tired bodies and made conversation with our fellow travelers. This also began my education on the logistics of backcountry skiing. Hanging skins to dry, airing out of boot liners, draping base-layers over the clotheslines surrounding the fire. Essentially removing as much of the moisture from everything you owned to make the next day’s trek as comfortable as possible. And this next day came soon enough.

I find there are two types of sleep you can have in the outdoor hut or camp setting. First is the ideal. The sleep of the dead that can only be gained from a total exertion from the day’s activities. If this is combined with a warm sleeping bag in a cool, quiet area with equally tired / exhausted people, it will be the best sleep you’ve ever had. The second type is one of restlessness. Uncomfortable temperature wise or because of the ground or mattress you are on. Loud snoring or constant headlamp light from midnight bathroom seekers can also interrupt your rest. It is an environment of little balance, most people I speak with wake up well rested or feel like dog shit. Luckily, the majority of us had a smile on our face for the beginning of Day 2 so I think we were fairly well rested.

Another good feed of breakfast put away, we went outside, packs loaded and went over crevasse rescue with our guide just outside the hut.

 

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Roping Up for Day 2

This was the part I had been waiting for. I had thoroughly enjoyed the day before but I was excited to ski up the glacier head wall towards Balfour Hut and unseen landscape. Bow Hut is located just below the shark’s fin of Mt St. Nicholas peak (an awesome day climb from the hut for any mountaineers reading this), and serves as a guide rail to your left as you reach the lip of the headwall.

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It is hard to describe what it is like to push past that perceived boundary, the one where you are still kind of tied to the modern world. Even Bow Hut has an outhouse, kitchen and large sleeping mats that maintain this connection. But when we were skiing alongside St. Nicholas and truly coming to face the moon-like expanse of the glacier and surrounding mountain landscape, I got that feeling that I was hoping to find up there. The views and scale of nature never cease to take my breath away and leave me unable to articulate its beauty. I did my best to enjoy this feeling as we stood there, blood pumping from the climb. From here we made the second climb of the day to the col of Mt Olive.

 

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Deaner at the peak of our climb for the day
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Clouds Start to Clear, Revealing the Path Ahead
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The Route to Balfour Hut

Our group then got to enjoy the fruits of the hard, heart thumping labour of skinning up a mountain. Skiing down one. The powder was absolutely incredible and having a wide berth to stay inside, avoiding the hazards of the glacier, we zig zagged our way down reveling in that floating sensation from pure, untouched, deep powdered snow. Far too quickly we ended up at the front steps of the Balfour Hut.

 

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Balfour Hut, Our Home for the Night
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No Space Wasted Inside the Hut

Some of us went out for an extra bit of skiing that night but for the most part we enjoyed releasing our feet from our rigid boots, stripping down and easing sore muscles. The amount of food we were able to pack was greatly appreciated as we had expelled a lot of energy that needed replacing. We sat around eating, reliving the day’s events and shared even more stories that kept us laughing and smiling until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.

Day 3 is the crux of the Wapta Traverse. It involves climbing the 10,000 ft Balfour High Col and is very susceptible to bad weather halting trips early. Visibility is key for navigating this complex piece of ground and so we were all hoping for a clear day. We were then obviously ecstatic to wake up to a blue, sunny sky that morning but reserved as we knew good weather is fleeting up high in the mountains. With no time to waste we snapped on our skis, buckled up our packs and made our way up to this pinnacle spot.

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Start of the Climb to the High Col

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As we gained ground, I looked back for the views I had paid for. Another wave of contentment rolled over me as we were given an even greater perspective of the surrounding land.

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Looking down towards our previous night’s stay, Balfour Hut
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Balfour High Col Selfie
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A better glimpse as to why this is the “crux”, skirting around a massive crack in the glacier to our left – better known as a crevasse
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Testing our radio signal with the other guides
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Bluebird sky greeting us at the top of the Balfour High Col

When we had hit that 10,000 ft marker I let out a big breath. The weather could not have been better for that section of the trip and we were now on the “backside” of the traverse, meaning it was easier to keep going forward than retrace our steps. Happy we would be able to complete the traverse, we sat down for lunch and marveled in the scenery.

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Happy to be at the top
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Lunch is best served on a glacier
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Deane and Dani take a load off

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With one of the harder parts behind us, our guide made sure we had the right path towards Scott Duncan Hut – our final destination for the evening. We started our descent in the same gorgeous weather we had reached the top in. Me being in a splitboard, I was the slowest in the back of the pack. For slight descents, clip in skis were far superior to my telemark style splitboard skis. I fell, a lot. But it was fun and I eventually got used to the gait I had to use to stay upright and go at a decent enough clip.

The weather, which had been our companion thus far on the trip, blew in a nasty slew of snow that reduced our visibility to mere metres in front of us. Roped up again, we paused and made sure our bearings were right under the supervision of our guide. Deane offered to forge ahead in the front of the line as he was directed to shift left or right to stay on track with where the hut should emerge from the blur of white ahead. It was tough work, and I may be a bit of a masochist, but I really enjoyed the strenuous hike. I put myself in the boots of Roald Amundsen, exploring the Antarctic. Braving the elements and discovering new worlds as yet untouched by human hands. This fantasy was broken though once the hut did in fact come into view and we pulled on the door handle and took shelter inside the huts four walls. I’m sure Amundsen would’ve done anything for four walls.

Going through the procedures to dry out our things, which had quickly become mechanical, the wind died down and we were able to really take a look around at this stunning new location.

Resting on the side of Mt Daly, the Scott Duncan Hut truly feels remote. There is a whole lot of distance between the snow blanketed ground and the jagged peaks of the mountains. The howls of the wind in the outhouse speak to its exposed position. I felt especially peaceful here.

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Birthday surprise at Scott Duncan Hut
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Strawberry pastry substitutes a birthday cake high in the mountains

For our last day, we packed up early and pointed the tips of our skis at Mt Niles. We lined up under the huge rock wall of Mt Daly, on top of which sat the hut we had slept in the night before, and plodded ahead to where we would be able to take off our skins and again enjoy the rush of the downhill.

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Mt Niles in the distance
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No more rope, ready for some downhill
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Dani and Mr. Goresline at the base of Mt Niles
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On our way down

We took a break once we hit Mt Niles. Enjoying some food we tried to take it all in. Once again we had a clear view of our surroundings that we did not want to let go to waste and the fact that we had reached our final day was ever present in the back of our mind. After this bit of reflection, we made our way to the bottom of a small down hill portion. Ultimately heading for a lake much like the one we had started on some days ago. We worked our way up and down the small features along the descent.

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A bit more elevation to gain before we really began the ski down to the lake
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Taking off our climbing skins and clipping in
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Deane eager to get down to the lake below

When we started to come up to the treeline I took one last, unobstructed view, of the mountain peaks we had lived and played among for the past few days, missing them already. Turning forward, I focused ahead on the slalom through the trees. Trying to be as dexterous as I could be, I enjoyed this weaving in and out of the way of passing trunks.

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Reaching the valley floor, we switched gears and slid through the trees, no longer reaching us with the speed they had moments ago. We snaked around the flowing water that cut through the snow and would lead us to Sherbrooke Lake.

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Crossing Sherbrooke, we hit a trail cut into the forest that lead out to the trans-Canada highway where a taxi would be waiting to take us back to Canmore, Alberta. The skiing was difficult along this hiking trail as it was so hard pack and twisting that it was easy to skid off course into the trees lining the edges. I was having the most trouble and quickly grew a bit frustrated. I decided to take off my skis, strap them onto the side of my bag and began running on the hard pack snow. My splitboard boots, which are more like snowboard boots than ski boots, gripped marvelously to the slippery surface. They were also far more forgiving in terms in flexibility than a typical, hard plastic ski boot. My frustrations quickly melted away and I had a blast running the rest of the way down to our meeting point – even passing some of the other skiers.

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Sherbrooke Lake

It was a fantastic experience that I will never forget and would gladly repeat. Maybe with the future family that Meg and I will someday have. It is a true escape from daily life and its accompanying worries and distractions. It is immersive, restorative and all together rejuvenating and is the reason I seek out these outdoor adventures time and time again.


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