The Mighty Wapta

By Chris Pedersen

As with many great adventures, this one was born in a corner booth, under dimmed lights, in a local Irish pub. Many ideas are often formed when there is beer in hand, but almost as many fail to become reality. It takes two people who desire adventure for ideas to be realized. Mike Lemmon and I were two such people.

One night, we downed two or three pints of Grasshopper and discussed recent ski adventures. After recounting glorious stories from past trips, the topic of the Wapta territory was brought up. The Wapta Traverse draws in many skiers for its challenging and unforgiving environment as well as its potential for pure back-country bliss. We decided, less than two hours later, that we needed to ski the Wapta this year. I immediately thought we needed a third person, so I called the first person to come to my mind, Mitch Dion, an experienced snowboarder and backcountry aficionado with a penchant for all things lightweight. He agreed to come along and we picked dates.

The classic Wapta Traverse is a backcountry ski tour that begins at Peyto Lake one hour past Banff, along the Ice Fields Parkway. The Wapta involves skiing across a glacier and has numerous uphill sections, crevasses, falling ice, snowy conditions and icy slopes. The traverse is mentally rough. Potential skiers must be prepared for long, tough days of skiing. Almost the entire length of the trip, our group was surrounded by nothing but snow and rock. The snow is windblown and very hard, making skiing difficult. Many days during the trip involved snowy conditions causing reduced visibility and navigation problems.

Because of the scenery and adventure, the trip is extremely popular and has been mentioned in Explore Magazine as one of the top 25 trips to complete in Canada. The glacier route that our group skied is roughly 45 kilometres long and encompasses the Wapta and Waputik Glaciers. Along the way, you can stay at four huts (Peyto, Balfour, Scott Duncan and Bow) or set up your own campsite. The huts are run by the Alpine Club of Canada, and skiers must book them in advance. The coordinates for the huts are provided by the club and skiers use maps and a compass to find them. The majority of skiers rely on their own knowledge to make their way across the Wapta.

People can start at one of either Peyto, Bow or Sherbrooke Lakes and can stay at one of three huts on the first day. Many skiers will stay in only one hut and do day trips from the hut, while others will make their own campsite on the glacier. There are no signs to guide skiers in the right direction, but you can hire guides to lead you over the traverse for about $2,000. For a knowledgeable backcountry skier, or a poor student, the guides aren’t worth the expense.

Day one: the best outhouse in the world

Our adventure began in Canmore where we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to annoying sound of alarm tones violating our ears. Mike slammed his hand down on the snooze button several times in an effort to stop the pain. After 20 more minutes of restless sleep, we woke up and set off for our Wapta adventure.

We arrived at the Peyto Lake trailhead around

7 a.m., took some quick pictures, forced down a quick drink and finally started skiing. The first part of the ski across the lake became a monotonous, wind-ravished race towards the sun, which was shining on the far side of the lake. Soon after crossing the lake, we fought a river, skied across some rocks and came to the base of the moraine that would be our path to the Wapta Glacier. Once the lake is crossed, the path to the glacier veers right and skiers must climb a long snow slope. Thankfully, Mike provided comic relief doing a face plant into a snow bank. Better to get the falls out of the way early.

After the snow slope, the skis came off and we started 45 minutes of climbing a steep, icy rock slope. This is the lower part of Peyto Peak and brings travellers to a long rocky ridge. After coming over the ridge, I set down my pack, grabbed a Snickers and some water and sat down. I was exhausted; my legs were burning and my lungs felt like exploding. Then I looked up and saw the Wapta Glacier. It was massive and beautiful, with mountains rising out of it everywhere.

After a lengthy rest, we reattached our skis and snowploughed down icy slopes on the other side of the ridge to the toe of the glacier. We refreshed ourselves on rope techniques before stepping onto the glacier. The rope is connected to each skier-one person is tied into the middle of the rope and two people to each end-and is used to pull people out of crevasses. When a person falls into a crevasse, the others on the rope hold the fall, then use snow stakes as anchors and set up a pulley system to haul the skier out. After our short refresher, it took two more hours of monotonous, slow skiing without crevasses to reach the hut. Our hard day was rewarded when we arrived at the Peyto Hut. The hut has a fantastic view, as it sits high above the glacier.

The Alpine Club-maintained huts along the Wapta Ski Tour are one-room buildings. On the left side of the room is one long bunk bed, with two levels. Each hut can sleep 12�16 people. The right side of the hut has a kitchen counter that contains propane stoves, sinks, cupboards with dishes, shelves for supplies and all the utensils and cooking equipment a group needs. Beyond the bed and the kitchen, the huts are sparsely decorated with a six-person dinner table, benches and propane lanterns. Visitors can enjoy the view through windows on all sides.

The view from the Peyto hut was awe-inspiring. There were mountains in every direction. That day, the sun was playing among the peaks creating amazing colours in the sky. Our group decided that we had found the most outstanding outhouse in the world-as you are sitting on the toilet, a perfectly placed window frames the colours of the sky and the beauty of the mountains. Night brought millions of stars, and standing on the porch watching them, holding warm mugs of Tang made for a perfect end to a tiring day.

Day two: slogging over crevasse fields

We woke to cloudy weather and a white-shrouded glacier on the second day. This made our travel more dangerous: heading in the wrong direction and falling into crevasses or off a rock cliff were all potential dangers. Right in front of the hut, the glacier rises substantially, making for an exciting first hour of slogging uphill, against the wind and snow blowing in our faces.

Glacier travel on the Wapta requires plenty of mental acuteness because of the hours of tedious, slow, and cautious travel. Crevasses are always a concern. They can be partly covered in snow, making them nearly invisible. Navigation is easy when there is clear visibility, as there are plenty of landmarks. In whiteout conditions navigation gets tricky. That day, we could still slightly see prominent landmarks.

When you are skiing on the glacier, you always have to understand where the rope is and note how fast the others are moving while watching the weather and looking for crevasses. After several hours of slow moving, the group came to the pass between Mount Gordon and Mount Olive. From here, it was a quick ski down through crevasses and rocks to the Balfour Hut. That night, the only night on our trip that we had to share a hut, we roomed with four other people. A sense of camaraderie develops when you share an enclosed space with strangers; food and stories are freely swapped. Stories about New Zealand bike trips, and previous trips to the Wapta were told with fierce excitement. After pleasant conversation and even hotter Tang, we all went to bed with the tunes of an iPod drifting through the hut.

Day three: Balfour Pass and Burt Reynolds’ hair

Described by guide books and Wapta veterans as the hardest and most dangerous part of the trip, Balfour Pass was challenging for our group. The route continues uphill the whole way until the pass is reached. For two hours, the trail took us through a narrow pass under hanging ice chunks called seracs and against 70 kilometre per hour winds. With every step, I felt like I was going to be pushed backwards down the slope and several times the wind almost blew our group back down the glacier. Travellers cannot stop on this part of the trail, in case of serac collapses, thus making the physical expenditure enormous. Every step took a Herculean effort.

After the perilous beginning leg of day three, we hit the better half of Balfour Pass. Getting to the top of the pass was fantastic. The wind died down and the sun came out. The views were postcard-worthy with mountains in every direction. The slopes in front of us were crevasse-free and perfect for skiing. For the next hour we skied the glorious snow under the pass. During the previous two days on the traverse, the snow had been crusty and windblown, not allowing for nice turns. It was time to make up for that. Once the fun was over, we slogged for another hour and a half through flat glacier and another crevasse field, with thoughts of tea and chocolate filling our heads.

Arriving at Scott Duncan hut, we were welcomed by a risqu� centrefold of Burt Reynolds peering at us over the table at the back of the hut-creepy and hilarious, though mostly creepy. Our last night in a Wapta hut was pleasant, with the small hut warming up quickly. We drank huge amounts of Earl Grey and hot Tang and ate a supper of rice and chocolate. We went to bed with Burt Reynolds and all his hair standing watch over us, protecting us from whatever lurks on the glacier.

Day four: snowed-in with Tori Praver

I woke up on the fourth morning with a sense of depression. We were heading back to reality and away from the mountains. Even worse, the hut was snowed-in. Through the hut’s windows, we saw only a blanket of white and were worried that we might have to spend an extra night in the hut waiting for the weather to clear. Our parents and Mitch’s wife would soon become worried. We packed up and readied for a quick departure should the weather clear. After we took a food inventory, we waited. And waited. Burt watched over us as we played cards and meticulously pored over the 2007 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. For the next several hours, our routine involved playing cards, commenting on the hotness of Tori Praver and looking out the window every 10 minutes, hoping that an opening would finally come. During one of our routine glances, miraculously, part of the glacier became visible. Now visible, we could see five skiers skiing right through the middle of a crevasse field. They were oblivious to the danger and lucky that the weather cleared when it did. Mitch, Mike and I debated about how long the weather would be clear, and we decided to ski out.

After we exchanged pleasantries with our fellow travellers once we caught up, we skied without stopping for the next two hours, while worrying about the weather closing in. When we got off the glacier, the trouble was not over. For the next kilometre, we had to travel under a big slope of snow which could avalanche at any moment. There had been reports of this slope avalanching in the past and we were tense as we skied off the glacier and into the trees. I had never been so happy to see trees. The feeling didn’t last long. The journey through the trees down to the trail was perilous and had bone-breaking potential. I snow ploughed as much as a four-year-old learning on the slopes of Lake Louise and Sunshine.

We skied a winding path, side stepped down an icy slope and negotiated a steep gully before we finally made it to the trail. Then Mike lost a ski. He took a head-over-heels tumble and face planted in the snow, much like his face-first dive on day one. But as Mike was attempting to reattach his skis to his feet this time, he let one go and it took a ride down the gully. Luckily, the ski nose mimicked its owner and dived into a snow bank, preventing a long walk for Mike. We snowploughed through the trees down the rest of the trail, where one slip could easily break a leg. Mitch took an accidental one hour detour, and I nearly missed bashing my right leg into a tree. One-by-one, the group emerged from the forest to meet Mike’s parents only three hours after our stated time of arrival-not bad for being snowed in, skiing perilous slopes and through an icy trail dodging trees. Burt Reynolds, Tori Praver and ski bums everywhere would be proud.

The Wapta Traverse is a trip that should be done at least once, if not more, in a lifetime. I left many undiscovered elements of Wapta. There is an ice cave to see, significant mountains to climb and great ski runs to conquer. Wapta holds unlimited knowledge for a person and even the weather teaches lessons freely. From getting snowed-in to seeing a group of skiers move blindly through crevasses, the Wapta weather can be frightful and dangerous. I now feel, however, that I am better prepared to deal with various weather conditions in the future. Never before had I experienced so much white in one place and now, not even three weeks after my first journey, I’m already planning to head back and learn more from the Wapta Traverse.

Mitch Dion skiing up the last part of the col on Mount Olive.

Mike Lemmon roped up on the Wapta glacier on route to Balfour Hut.

Mitch Dion linking some turns in fresh powder above Scott Duncan Hut.

Fighting the wind and exhaustion on the ski up Balfour Pass.

Peyto Hut at night under the blanket of darkness.

A sunset view from the Porch of Peyto Hut.

Mike munching on an apple while lounging on the communal bunks in Peyto Hut.

The most beautiful outhouse in the world, with an even better view from the john.

Peyto Hut soon after the group’s arrival on Day One.

Mitch Dion skiing up the snow slope towards the ridge on Peyto Peak.

Lonely skis after being snowed in during the morning at Scott Duncan Hut.