Banff National Park

Backcountry Skiing
By Mike Potter
  |  Gorp.com
Page 4 of 5   |  

It's an understatement to say that winters are long in Canada. It's certainly true in the Rockies, where the temperature often drops to 30 below (celsius) or colder and the snowfall over the season can total four meters or more. But if ya can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em. So when white carpets the land, I like to get out to make the most of it.

The Wapta Traverse stands as a classic backcountry ski trip, involving some roped-up travel in glaciated terrain. Our group of four sets out across frozen Bow Lake and up to Bow Hut via an avalanche prone canyon. We check conditions before proceeding, and have practiced using our transceivers beforehand.

Bow Hut is the first of three well-equipped shelters operated by the Alpine Club of Canada that we will use on this trip. It is an oasis of luxury, with all of the necessary cooking utensils, propane stoves and lighting, and a wood stove for heating and for drying gear. The wood is flown in by helicopter, which makes the overnight fee higher than average, but it's still a good deal.

The next day we head up a steep icy ramp and pass below the sheer rocky cliffs of St. Nicholas Peak to join the ominous sounding Vulture Glacier. Today, navigation to avoid crevasses is straightforward due to good visibility, but things can quickly get tricky up here if a whiteout descends. En route to the ACC hut at Balfour Pass, we cruise in sight of the twisted cliffs of Mount Olive, arching and curving like bucking waves: appropriate given their sedimentary origin.

Day three features the crux of the route—Balfour High Col, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. Conditions are suitable, so we rope up to weave through the crevasses and steer clear of seracs, topping out at the saddle with views south to new landmarks such as Mount Temple near Lake Louise. We take a break after the steep haul up, marveling at our luck with the weather, then an easy run leads down to the Scott Duncan Hut. Before supper we enjoy telemark turns in glorious powder as the sunset tinges the snow pink and orange.

The location of the hut, high on a shoulder of Mount Daly, grants a dazzling vista west. The mountain called The President, which I've climbed in summer conditions, stands out in the veritable sea of peaks. We enjoy our last night of camaraderie, then exit on the fourth day via Bath Glacier. This calls for more roped travel and a tricky descent to the highway, yet it only whets our appetite for more adventures in the winter wilderness.

Two others adventures might be: An overnight stay in the cozy log building ambiance of Skoki Lodge near Lake Louise, with stone fireplace, tasty food, and fine touring nearby; and a winter camping trip (usually left until spring with its longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures) to the meadows at the head of Mosquito Creek—don't have to worry about those pesky insects in March!


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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