Third Night on the Wapta
“The route is not technically difficult, but can be challenging to follow in white-out conditions”. Kyle and I had noted this advisory as we prepared to head out from the Peyto Hut for our third day on the Wapta Icefield traverse. Our goal for the day was the Balfour Hut, six miles and one pass to the south. The conditions were, inevitably, white-out.
The Wapta Icefield traverse is a popular backcountry ski route in the Canadian Rockies. The full traverse covers 25 miles, beginning at Peyto Lake and ending at Kicking Horse Pass, west of Lake Louise. It is typically done in 4/5 days. Nights are spent at four backcountry huts maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada: Peyto, Bow, Balfour, and Scott Duncan. For those who can spend an extra day or two however, there is a seemingly limitless expanse of glaciers and peaks to explore. From any of the huts, day trips can be made to nearby bowls and passes which offer inexhaustible options for skiers to "earn their turns". Many of the peaks are also accessible for ski ascents under the right conditions.
Our plan was to ski into Peyto Hut on the first day and spend 2 nights there, using the layover day to ski the bowls below Mt Rhondda to the west. On the third day we would cross over the col between Mt St Nicholas and Mt Olive and descend the Vulture Glacier to Balfour Hut. Day four would again be a layover day with a plan to ski the Diableret Glacier. The fifth day would be the crux of the traverse, the crossing of Balfour High Col. The route carefully skirts between crevasses and icefalls on the Mt Balfour side and cliffs to the other, and should only be attempted with good visibility. From the col, another easy descent leads to Scott Duncan Hut. On day six we would ski out via Sherbrook Lake to Great Divide Lodge at Kicking Horse Pass, where we had left Kyle’s car.
I had first come to the Wapta ten years earlier with a group from the Seattle Mountaineers, and had long planned to return with my sons, Kyle and Owen. This year Kyle and I had finally coordinated our schedules and gotten the hut reservations (typically done at least 6 months in advance). The only uncertainty would be the weather and snow conditions. Two years earlier, we had the plan in order, but decided to bail when the avalanche conditions became too dangerous. March weather in the Canadian Rockies is always variable and unpredictable, but even more so on the Wapta Icefield which can create its own local weather variations, often including white-out conditions.
Day one had been physical, but uneventful. A short descent through forest from the trailhead to Peyto Lake was icy and difficult to ski. As I knew from my previous trip, that boded ill for our last day, when the conditions on the descent from Sherbrook Lake to the car would be at least as bad, but that was nearly a week away. The route crosses frozen Peyto Lake and then ascends a moraine to the right of Peyto Creek. This section passes through some avalanche terrain, and would have been dangerous during the period of warm weather the week before. In fact, we passed debris from numerous wet snow avalanches that had occurred during the warm spell. Fortunately, temperatures had cooled since, allowing the snow pack to resettle, and the avalanche danger had dropped to acceptable levels. Another result of the warm spell was that the snowpack had thinned and we were forced to carry our skis at several points along the creek and on the moraine. From the top of the moraine there is a short descent to the Peyto Glacier and then a climb up the glacier onto the ice field and to a rock outcrop where Peyto Hut is located. We slowly skied up the glacier under overcast skies and occasional snow flurries. The climb was more strenuous than I remembered, a natural result I suppose, of being ten years older.
The next day was our first layover day, which was to be a day of skiing without our heavy packs. We woke however, to snow and wind which continued through the day. Eventually we conceded that we would take a rest day and socialize with the other groups of skiers who were also spending the day snowbound in the hut.
Now, on day three, we needed to make a decision. Our hut reservations for that night were at Balfour Hut, a full day’s ski away which included the crossing of the col between Mt St Nicholas and Mt Olive. The snow and wind had ended, but the icefield and surrounding mountains were enveloped in cloud; if we chose to travel we would be navigating in a white-out. We had two options: stay put and wait for an improvement in the weather, or head out and trust our navigational skills to get us to Balfour Hut. The first option would cost us our second layover day and would depend on the availability of space for us for a third night in Peyto Hut.
By mid-morning we started to see occasional glimpses of rock on the peak behind the hut. We took that as a sign that the weather might be lifting and decided to give it a look. The first part of the day’s route would ascend to the upper part of the icefield and would take about an hour. Our hope was that the cloud cover would continue to break up, or that the additional 1000’ of elevation would get us above the white-out. If we could get a look at Mt St Nicholas we could take a bearing and follow it to the col. If conditions remained hopeless we could return to Peyto Hut or divert to Bow Hut, which is larger and was more likely to have extra space.
As we reached the upper icefield, we could see the south-west ridge of Mt Thompson on our left and the east ridge of Mount Rhondda on our right. Ahead, in the direction of St Nicholas however, all was still in cloud. Since we were pretty confident in our position, and my GPS app agreed, we took a map bearing to where St Nicholas should be and decided to continue. Some time later, we were encouraged when a further break in the white-out revealed a mountain ahead of us, surely Mt St Nicholas. When I checked my GPS to confirm however, it was not able to generate either a location or a sensible altitude. As the weather was continuing to clear, we proceeded and began to pass cliffs on our left, which corresponded to cliffs marked on the map on the west side of St Nicholas. Soon we could see a broad snow ramp leading up to a col. Surely, our faith in our navigation skills was vindicated. This must be the col that would lead us to the Vulture Glacier and a straight-forward descent to Balfour Hut. Our optimism was not dimmed even when I checked my GPS again and it put us on the Yoho Glacier, a mile west of our presumed position. Since this made no sense, we ignored it. After back-to-back nonsense readings, I concluded that my app was not reliable in this particular area and closed it for the rest of the day. The weather was clearing quickly now and we took a break to enjoy the views that we had been anticipating for months. Directly in front of us was the broad expanse of white that is the western lobe of the Wapta Icefield, ringed by the 10,000’ peaks of the Waputik Range.
An hour of hard climbing later, we reached the col… and a puzzlement. Ahead of us was not the expected easy slope onto a broad glacier sweeping to the south, but a steeper slope leading to the east and out of sight. Since visibility was now good, we decided to drop part way down the slope and investigate further south to see if things made more sense. They didn’t. We were able to make our way for a short distance traversing more steep slopes but soon we found ourselves blocked by cliffs. We were finally forced to conclude that we were off track. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we also quickly resigned ourselves to spending a night out. Fortunately, we were in a relatively sheltered, more or less flat spot, better than anything we had passed since crossing the col. We dropped our skis and packs and began to prepare for a night in much less hospitable accommodations than we had been anticipating.
Flashback, circa January 1966: a group of skiers from the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club wax their wood skis, put on their leather boots, fasten their cable bindings, and set out on an overnight trip across Johnson Pass in the Chugach Mountains. Among them is a 14 year old boy and his dad. It was not our first winter overnight, but it was probably the coldest; temperatures of -30 degrees during the day, -45 at night. At Johnson Pass we stopped to camp, but when we opened our packs almost all of us pulled out shovels instead of tents. Our plan was to try a technique we had just learned for winter bivouacs, snow caves. I was dubious, especially while I stood in the snow for “hours” while my dad dug our cave, possibly the coldest I have been in my life. Once inside the cave however, with a sleeping bag, dry socks, and a hot drink, I was quickly converted. The night was long, but at 30 degrees inside the cave instead of -45 outside, it was pleasant.
Since that trip I have spent a number of nights in snow caves, and several in snow trenches (a quicker, but less cozy snow shelter), but always on trips where the intent was to practice and teach winter survival techniques. At our bivouac spot on the Wapta however, the snow was not nearly deep enough for either a cave or a trench, we would be without effective shelter for what promised to be a cold night.
In packing for a multi-day trip in the mountains, especially during the winter, a mountaineer must make a number of decisions and balance a number of requirements. One consideration is weight. How much can I carry? How can I reduce the weight of my pack? Since we planned to spend our nights in the huts, we had the option of dispensing with some of the usual equipment such as tents and cooking equipment. Another consideration is the possibility of an unplanned bivouac. What is the minimum that will allow me to spend a night out without shelter, in the snow, with temperatures in the teens? Since unplanned bivouacs occur infrequently, there is always the temptation to cut down on items such as insulation and extra clothing. We were about to find out if we had successfully balanced the competing requirements.
The history of mountaineering provides numerous examples of parties who found themselves in situations where they had no option but to spend a night or more in extreme conditions with limited equipment. Two notable examples are Willie Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein who survived a bivouac while descending after the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest, and Art Davidson and his team who were caught in a blizzard on the first winter attempt on Denali and spent multiple nights in a snow cave.
Our situation on the Wapta was challenging, but nowhere near desperate. The only histories that would record this night would be our own. Nevertheless, for those who would travel in wild and uncertain country, there is value in having a variety of challenging experiences in their personal histories. Now, it might be reasonably expected that an accumulation of the types of experiences that wilderness travel inevitably provides such as being cold, wet, hungry, and the like, would provide most level-headed people abundant reason to seek out alternative pastimes. Some however, will remain unpersuaded, and will inexplicably continue to seek a route up the next peak, the view from the next ridge, the route down the next couloir. For these, a past history of discomfort and inconvenience may just about provide them with the confidence and skills to outlast the consequences of their folly.
Of course, none of this was on our minds as we began to prepare for the long night of discomfort and inconvenience that awaited us. Fortunately, we had made the call early enough that we had ample daylight left to make what preparations we could. Since we had been traveling on glaciers and in avalanche terrain we were both carrying shovels. Kyle set to work excavating a depression in the snow deep enough to provide some protection from wind. One of our main concerns was water. We had set out that morning with two liters each, enough for the day, but not for a night and another day. One decision that we had debated at the trailhead was whether to bring a stove (we would not need one at the huts). Fortunately for our current circumstances we had decided to bring the stove along with a pot and one small canister of fuel. This allowed us to melt enough snow to rehydrate and refill our water containers. We did not have enough fuel, however to cook a meal or prepare hot drinks. As we generally do, we had brought enough lunch food to last an extra day, so food was not yet an issue. The primary remaining concern was how to stay warm through what promised to be a cold and perhaps windy night of around 12 hours. Kyle had a sleeping bag and bivy bag, but no pad. I had a sleeping quilt, a half length foam pad, and an emergency foil tarp. The quilt is open on the bottom and is designed to be used with a full length pad. I have used it for winter camping in a tent, but not in a bivouac situation. Since it is a three-season bag, I routinely use extra clothes to add warmth. For this trip I had brought both a hard shell and a soft shell jacket and a fleece vest. I am not sure why, it is more than I would routinely carry, but in this instance I was glad to have all three. I added rain pants, dry socks, my ski boot liners and a fleece hat and prepared to wait out the night, not expecting to sleep. I managed to wrap myself well enough in the quilt to minimize gaps for cold air to get in, but quickly realized that any movement such as rolling over or checking my watch necessitated extensive rewrapping. Overall, once my feet warmed up in the boot liners, I was as warm as it was reasonable to expect. After dark, the wind picked up a bit and was moderately gusty through the night, blowing snow over us and tirelessly seeking out gaps in my quilt wrap.
Our bivouac site faced south and east, offering a panoramic view of the peaks and deep valleys that surrounded us. Normally, such a promising location would have me up well before dawn taking pictures, but on this morning the cold and wind kept me buried in my cocoon. The fact that we had used all of our stove fuel to melt snow and now had no way to heat water for coffee and hot breakfast did nothing to moderate my lack of resolve. Eventually however, the wind died and the sky lightened. I finally managed to will myself into motion and got my camera set up in time to catch the first sun on the peaks to the south. It did not take long for the sun to work its way to our perch and we began to prepare for a day of uncertainty. The morning was clear and the day promised to be warm. We would have good visibility, but if the snow warmed too much we could have wet snow avalanche issues on the steeper slopes.
Our first priority was to get ourselves to a known location. The previous day, on our traverse from the col to our eventual bivouac spot, we had made repeated efforts to match our map with the peaks and terrain that we could see. We had been unable to construct a picture that was convincing enough to lead us to commit to a route. Our first step for today was clear. We knew that we could not go any further in the direction we had been heading at the end of the previous day. But we could retrace our route back to the col and give it another look. At worst, we could continue to backtrack from there and reach the upper ice field between Peyto and Bow Huts, where we had originally gotten off track. We quickly packed up our camp and soon were back at the slopes below the col. A fresh look at the terrain was no more enlightening than it had been the day before.
We knew that Balfour Hut was downhill and east. But, by now we also were certain the col that we had crossed was not the one that would put us on the Vulture Glacier and the standard route to Balfour Hut. Ahead of us, to the east, was a skiable slope. If we chose to descend, it was possible that we would end up near the toe of the Diableret Glacier. From there we should be able to find the hut. The problem was that the slope eventually curved to skier's left and out of sight. We could only guess at what was around the corner: another easy slope? a steep slope? cliffs? If we hit a dead end we would be stuck with a long climb back up and possibly another bivouac, this time with no water and no stove fuel. We finally conceded that the only sound option was to retrace our route from the day before. Once back on the upper icefield, we could make for Bow Hut, the largest of the huts, and hope that there would be room for us.
The day was clear and warm and we had excellent views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers to the west and north. By mid-afternoon we were back on the upper icefield. Now, with good visibility, we could clearly see Mt St Nicholas and the route up to the col that we had meant to cross the day before. Although Kyle could undoubtedly have made the climb to the col and the descent to Balfour Hut, it was clear to me that my aging legs did not have another climb in them that day. We turned east and headed down hill to Bow Hut and hopes of a warm bed and a hot meal.
At the hut, we were met by a caretaker from the Alpine Club of Canada who listened to our story and assured us that they did indeed have extra bunk space that night, and that we were welcome to stay. Once we had organized our gear, much of it still wet from frost that had settled on it the night before, and put on dry socks, we made our way to the kitchen/common area. Among the other groups of skiers at Bow that night were two parties we had previously encountered at Peyto.Their surprise at our unexpected appearance at Bow Hut prompted several more retellings of our story and a group speculation about where, in fact, we had spent the previous night. Thus inspired, the evening then flowed into a spirited sharing of experiences, such as inevitably accompanies a gathering of mountaineers at an alpine hut.
As it happened, one of the groups was heading out to the highway the next day via Bow Lake and then to Lake Louise. They kindly offered us a ride to Kyle’s car, which we had left at Kicking Horse Pass, a short distance west of Lake Louise. We knew that there was no realistic prospect of us reaching the Scott Duncan Hut, where our next night’s reservations were, in one day’s travel from Bow Hut. Realizing that we were not going to be able to complete the traverse this trip anyway, we took the most sensible option, to cut the trip short and accept their offer. Thus our trip ended the next morning with a ski down the valley to Bow Lake and across to the Icefields Parkway. We capped it off, as is traditional, with a night at the hostel in Lake Louise, preceded by an evening of beer and elk burgers at Bill Peyto’s Cafe.