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Wapta Icefields Traverse Backcountry Ski Tour

Sun., Feb. 18, 1996


Distance: 27 miles

Difficulty: Difficult

Riding time: 4 days

Season: Dec. through April

Maps: Canada topo series: Blaeberry River 82 N/10, Hector Lake 82 N/9, Lake Louise 82 N/8

Info: Yoho National Park, (604) 343-6324, ext.241, and Banff National Park (403) 762-1550


Access: Route requires leaving shuttle vehicle at Wapta Lake (near East Louise Lodge), 7 miles east of Field, British Columbia, on Highway 1. To reach starting point, drive to junction of Highway 1 and Highway 93, north of Lake Louise, Alberta. Drive northwest from junction 22 miles on Highway 93. Park at north end of Bow Lake near Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.

Attractions: Classic ski-mountaineering traverse through 90 square miles of glaciers studded with Canadian Rockies peaks. Begin in Banff National Park, crossing divide to Yoho National Park. Trekkers can reserve space in Alpine Club of Canada huts with bunks and cooking areas. Some avalanche potential and glacier travel experience required. But most of route reasonably safe and ripe with good touring, telemarking and climbing potential.

Comments: Route can be done year-round, but low elevation approaches are snow-covered only late fall through early spring. Ski mountaineering gear required, including climbing skins, avalanche transceiver, shovel, and gear for extreme weather. Bone up on crevasse rescue and map and compass techniques.

Obtain required backcountry permit from Yoho Park visitor center at Field or Banff Park visitor centers at Lake Louise or Banff. Centers also have weather updates. DO NOT begin trip when avalanche risk is extreme.

Travel in whiteout conditions dangerous. Even when staying in huts, carry gear for emergency bivouac. Slather on sunscreen; wear glacier glasses or goggles religiously.

Bow Lake to Bow Hut: Allow at least 4 hours. Ski across end of Bow Lake for valley draining from St. Nicholas Peak. Ski route heads up basin that constricts to tight gorge. Continue above treeline to basin, where route bends to right along cirque headwall (move quickly; stay out from hanging glacier) before heading up steep ramp to Bow Hut. Elevation gain: 1,950 feet.

Bow Hut to Balfour Hut: Allow four hours. Safest route requires climbing skins to go west and south around west side of St. Nicholas Peak to Nicholas-Olive Col. (Avoid steep route through Vulture Col.) Drop down onto Vulture Glacier, heading south along east side of Mount Olive’s twin peaks. Mid-glacier travel avoids rockfall. Balfour Hut is east of Balfour Pass.

Bow Hut to Scott Duncan Hut: Allow three hours. Early start recommended to reduce avalanche and ice fall hazards from Mount Balfour. Cross moraines and head up Waputik Icefield along east slopes of Mount Balfour. Travel quickly, staying to east (left) side of ramp to avoid possible avalanche. Beware of crevasses. Balfour Col, elev. 9,800 feet, is high point of tour, offering stunning view over frothing sea of white-capped peaks. (In good weather, climb Mount Balfour.) Head down southeasterly, where virtually no color other than white extends between you and tiny dot of hut 2 miles across Daly Glacier. Gradual downhill most of way.

Scott Duncan Hut to Wapta Lake: Allow 5 hours. Early-morning travel recommended to reduce avalanche risk. Head south toward Mount Niles, the lone shark-tooth-like peak jutting out of ice at end of Niles Glacier. Ski through Niles-Daly Col and carefully negotiate down through icefall, bearing slightly west and stair-stepping down toward Niles Creek and Sherbrooke Lake. Ski middle of lake and follow trail through timber to Highway near Wapta Lake. Elevation loss: 3,450 feet.

Important pre-trip info sources include:

Alpine Club of Canada, P.O. Box 1026, Banff, Alberta, Canada T0L OCO, telephone (403) 678-3200, for info on huts.

Guidebooks such as “Summits and Icefields,” by Chic Scott (Rocky Mountain Books), for detailed route descriptions.

“Touring the Wapta Icefields,” illustrated map by Murray Toft, indicates travel routes on map and photos.

Maps and guidebooks available in Spokane at Northwest Map and Travel Service, 455-6981. For specific ski mountaineering questions, contact Banff National Park public safety warden, (403) 762-1401. Avalanche forecast, (403) 762-1460.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Wapta Icefields Traverse Backcountry Ski Tour

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN - Routes: Classic Trips in the Inland Northwest

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