Hut-to-Hut Skiing, Canadian Style
The Wapta Traverse, Alberta/B.C., Canada
Originally published in Away.com, May 2004
Photos by Josh Steinitz, DSK
We skinned onward, upward, through a blanket of new-fallen snow and into windy sheets of billowing whiteness. On the limits of visibility great heights above hung massive seracs of blue ice and even higher rose the signature jagged, rock-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies. And, most importantly, somewhere up there lay the Bow Hut, our final destination for the day. With a last push up a steep pitch, soon enough we were sitting in the hut basking in the warmth of a roaring wood stove. A sip of hot chocolate later and I knew it had all been worth it.
The Bow Hut marked the first stop in our quest to complete the Wapta Traverse, Canada's flagship hut-to-hut alpine ski tour through some of the most scenic high peaks, glaciers, and icefields in the Canadian Rockies. Lying mostly in Banff National Park, the Wapta Traverse runs along the Continental Divide on the Alberta/British Columbia border.
The most commonly traveled variant of the traverse starting at Bow Lake covers approximately 37km (22 miles) and reaches a max elevation of 10,000ft. A network of three mountain huts maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada lines the route, each spaced roughly a day's ski apart (two other huts lie off this variation). The huts range in size and amenities from the one-room, unheated Scott Duncan Hut to the multi-room, wood-stove-heated Bow Hut (rumor has it that there's even a hot tub hidden in the Bow Hut's Custodian quarters). Typically, the full traverse from Bow Lake to its terminus at Kicking Horse Pass takes four days if you spend a night at each hut, although many prefer to add an extra day or two to allow time to summit some of the nearby peaks and get in extra powder turns.
The Bow Hut, the first hut on the Wapta Traverse
Our skinning ascent to the 7,700ft Bow Hut had taken about four hours, and we easily made up for any caloric burn with a monster hut dinner, reminding ourselves that the more food we consumed, the less weight we'd have to lug around the next few days. Our group consisted of Dave Begg, our guide and president of the local Yamnuska mountain school and guiding service, his wife and fellow guide Maria, photographer Josh Steinitz, and me. Collectively, we polished off thousands of calories in a multi-course meal including mussels, chicken, green peppers, and several pounds of rice. Looking back, finishing the rice that night ranks as one of the most challenging parts of the trip.
As veterans of hut-to-hut trips know, the period after dinner and before bedtime is almost always the most defining part of the hut experience. Within this carefree window hut-goers forget their fatigue for awhile and the distinct nature of hut culture' emerges. The remoteness, physical effort required to get there, and just plain lack of much else to do inevitably causes a hut to foster a plethora of interesting conversation. After dinner in the Bow Hut that night, all of the groups circled around the wood stove and listened to hut stories'. Chic Scott, long-time Canadian mountaineer and writer, related the spooky story of a drunken man who had wandered up a nearby peak and died of exposure in the night (Now I call that peak Dead Man's Knob, he said.) Dave contributed a sleep-disturbing tale of changing the outhouse barrel (I could hear splashing but it wasn't coming from me.) Finally, Mike, a Canadian geology student, closed down the session by describing his greatest fear involving outhouses and packrats (Ouch!).
The next morning bluebird skies greeted us as our group of four roped together and skinned up under the profile of Mt. St. Nicholas onto the Wapta Icefield. What a sight strong winds whirled snow wisps across the vast white expanse of the Wapta while impressive, jagged peaks of the uniquely Canadian Rocky form surrounded all sides.
The route took us over the 9,500ft col between Mt. St. Nicholas and Mt. Olive, a place Dave claimed was the windiest in the Rockies. After experiencing the reverse of getting the wind knocked out of me on top of the col, I believed him.
Fighting upwind on the Wapta Icefield
Maria bearing down into the wind on the Wapta Icefield
A long, moderate ski descent across the Vulture Glacier at times got the better of Josh on his split snowboard, so Dave hooked up a rope system and literally pulled him along. Unbelievable! Dave must have seen the look of amusement on my face. This is not part of the standard service, he said.
Not part of the standard service
We arrived at the 8,000ft Balfour Hut by midday and wolfed down a quick lunch. The Balfour Hut is a one room, heated hut, much smaller than the Bow Hut but quite cozy. The most impressive feature of the hut, however, is its location all views are dominated by the vertiginous façade of 10,375ft Mt. Balfour rising abruptly from the moraine.
Approaching the Balfour Hut
The weather looked like it was going to take a turn for the worse in a few hours, so we decided to press on over the 10,000ft Balfour High Col before conditions deteriorated. Dave made sure we were onboard. Are you guys up for this? I don't want any macho stuff here. We all agreed and another group of three in the hut decided to join us to help break trail and increase everyone's safety if the weather got nasty.
Climbing up to Balfour Col
Climbing the col added another 2,000 vertical ft of climbing to bring our daily total to around 4,000ft a big day. Dave and a couple guys from the other group took turns breaking trail through deep snow and route-finding through Mt. Balfour's crevasse-riddled slopes. By the time we reached the top of the col we found ourselves in true whiteout conditions. Using GPS, compass, and prior knowledge of the route, Dave navigated us down and across the Waputik Glacier. At times we skied roped together, definitely one of the more awkward manifestations of skiing I've experienced.
Finally, the Scott Duncan Hut emerged from the clouds. Perched on a rocky shelf on the contours of Mt. Daly, the Scott Duncan Hut is the final hut of the Wapta Traverse, and perhaps also the coldest, dampest, and smelliest. A full-capacity crowd of 12 probably had something to do with the smell as well as the hanging sock lines criss-crossing the air, and lack of wood stove made us remember the Bow Hut like it was a Four Seasons Hotel. Even hut culture was muted here due to some early sleepers, although Dave and Josh did drink some scotch. However, for me, after a 10-hour day out in the snow and ice, the Scott Duncan Hut approximated a mother's womb, and I promptly passed out and slept as hard as a diamond.
Our third day of the traverse was the day of the big descent 4,800 vertical feet of powder. After successfully navigating through continued whiteout conditions under the bulks of Mt. Daly and Mt. Niles, we stood perched at the top of great powder heights. It was the moment I'd been waiting for time for some turns. I locked down my AT bindings and blasted off into the powderfields, passing all three wiped-out telemarkers from our companion group. Josh on his splitboard had some trouble getting enough speed due to the deep powder and occasional traverses but powered it out and got in some nice turns. Dave had a big fall early on but recovered with some good glade rhythm, while Maria breezed down even the tightest treed-lines with expert backcountry form. Everyone, even the slightly battered telemarkers, was all smiles by the time we reached the bottom.
The long traverse out to Kicking Horse Pass brought us sequentially down a river, over a waterfall, and then over a lake, all frozen of course. The strong winds gusting over the lengthy Sherbrooke Lake were easy to endure after the Mt. St. Nicholas col. Then it was an easy, gradual descent through dense evergreen forest all the way down to the pass, a perfect way to end our quest.
The ruggedness of the Canadian Rockies and the first-rate hut system make the Wapta Traverse one of the top ski tours in existence. Compared to other popular ski tours such as the Haute Route in the French & Swiss Alps, the sense of remoteness and pristine conditions found amidst the untainted stretches of Wapta's icefields, glaciers, and peaks is unequaled no towns, no chairlifts, and very few people. The robust hut culture we encountered and the excellent guiding services of Dave and Maria from Yamnuska made this an especially rewarding experience. In just a few days, the Wapta Traverse provided enough adventure to fill a season.
Heading up to the Bow Hut along a frozen creek
Inside the comparatively luxurious Bow Hut
Those climbing skins can be sticky on a cold morning...
Our great experience on the Wapta would not have been possible without the exceptional services of Yamnuska, based in Canmore, Alberta. In addition to guiding services, Yamnuska handled all hut bookings, meals, and backcountry park fees. Also, Yamnuska provided required avalanche and glacial-travel safety equipment such as avalanche transceivers, ropes, harnesses, shovels, and probes.
Backcountry Ski Gear Rentals
If you don't have your own AT skis, boots, or skins, you can rent them in Canmore at Gear Up, or in Banff at Mountain Magic Equipment. The AT equipment I rented from Mountain Magic was high quality with Fritsch Freeride Diamir bindings.
In terms of pre- and post-trip accommodations, it makes the most sense to stay in Canmore to be close to the Yamnuska center, where you will need to meet before and after the trip. Some recommended Canmore accommodations include:
Canadian Rockies Chalets, two and three bedroom units just minutes from Yamnuska and downtown Canmore. Very spacious and good for larger groups.
Mystic Springs Chalets & Hot Pools, high-end chalets with communal hot tub and heated pool facilities. We stayed here after completing the Wapta and hitting the hot tub was the grand finale to the entire trip. A few hundred yards away from Yamnuska as well.
Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, is perfect if you're looking for standard hotel accommodations. Room service from the on-premises Vic's Steakhouse & Bar is a nice perk for the traverse-weary. There is also an indoor pool, whirlpool, and fitness center. A one minute drive from Yamnuska.