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April 2017

Eight days on the Wapta Icefields

Bow Glacier
Bow Hut
Canadian Rockies
Diableret Glacier
Mt Collie
Mt. Des Poilus
Peyto lake
Wapta Icefields
Yoho Peak

Author: Petrouchka Steiner-Grierson, who works at Valhalla Pure Outfitters Canmore.

The Wapta Icefields are a classic ski touring and ski mountaineering destination in the Canadian Rockies. Most people spend four to five days, hut-to-hut, to traverse the Wapta from north to south; another classic trip is to do the Bow-Yoho traverse, from north to southwest. What did we do? Most of both, but all of neither. We booked our trip (eight days) according to which huts were free, and, as a result, ended up covering a lot of ground and had a good balance of days that were between huts and days based out of the same hut. It was a good mix of excellent and terrible weather, peaks bagged and summits unattained. What follows is a summary of our trip: how we prepared, what we packed, where we stayed, ground covered, peaks bagged, gear that worked and lessons learnt.


We are three Kiwis: Tim, Anne, and myself, Petrouchka (left), living in Canada, outdoor instructing / guiding in summer, skiing all winter. Being from New Zealand, we have a solid background in DIY. This, coupled with experience in the mountains, meant that we did not hire a guide; we felt ready to be our own leaders and make our own decisions. We had each done plenty of wild ski trips in the past, but nothing this long. It would be a first for all of us.

The preparation

Eight days is a lot of skiing, regardless of distance covered, elevation gained or weight in your pack. Your legs need to be fit enough to handle day upon day of strenuous activity (both the up and the down), but also your alpine and glacier skills need to be sharp, and you need to be mentally prepared for long days, tough decisions, bad weather, difficult navigation and keeping team morale up.

Tim and Anne skied almost every day during the winter, so they had that part covered, whereas I was working (VPO Canmore) and had to train around that. On my days off I would go for long touring days: If conditions were good, it was a long day traverse, if they weren’t so great it was laps in the trees. At least 10km distance and 1000m elevation gain each day was a good minimum; more was better. I added weight to my pack to get used to skinning and skiing with heavier loads. You also need to know your teammates, their skills and the team dynamic, so I would ski with Tim and Anne whenever I could: we did a tour up to Little Crowfoot Peak a couple of weeks before the trip to refresh our glacier travel skills, and our whiteout nav / bad weather team spirit skills. To keep my legs working and my fitness up between ski days I would get up early and hike or run one of the peaks close to town before work.

Training is an important part of trip preparation, but some planning is also required. We collaborated as a team on what gear we needed (so no group gear was doubled up), organised our meal plans ahead of time (some good backcountry food tip coming up in a next blog post by Valhalla Pure Red Deer!), and sat down around the map to decide on routes, objectives and contingency plans.

What and how to pack

Like anything, practise makes perfect. Now, I’m not saying my pack was perfect, but plenty of experience packing for long trips has taught me a few things that made this time a bit easier. Here are a few rules I like to follow:

1. If you can fit it into a smaller pack, do. It will be lighter, more compact, nicer for day-trips, and you won’t fill the extra space with things you don’t need.

2. You only need one set of clothes. This means that, in the clothing department, an eight day trip is the same as an overnighter. When camping I keep a spare set of base layers, gloves and socks in a dry bag.

3. Use dry bags only for things that need to stay dry — this way you can fill all the gaps with loose items.

What was in my pack? Avalanche gear in the back pocket (easy to access). In the main compartment were: a small sleeping bag and thermal liner, an MSR WindBurner with gas and a lighter (for emergencies), food for eight days and warm layers such as my Patagonia Nano-Puff vest and Incandescent down jacket by OR (super warm, good for storms or emergencies). In the hood I had a small first aid kit, map and compass, warm gloves, goggles and beanie. Under the hood were crampons, ski crampons and the rope, and finally, hanging outside my pack was one Nalgene bottle and one Hydro Flask. All in all (though I didn’t weigh it) it felt like 20-25kg.

Where and when

March 30: the first day was a leisurely 1pm start in the sun, heading into Peyto Hut via Peyto lake. We had heard that this approach was terrible and had received much pre-trip sympathy, but it really wasn’t that bad! Our skis came off only a couple of times: to cross some streams and hike a few minutes of wind scoured ridgeline (my La Sportiva Sparkle 2.0 boots handled the small scrambles almost with the agility of my mountaineering boots). Excitement of the day was watching a cornice failure off Caldron Peak which triggered a size 2 slab. Route finding was straight-forward and we were at the hut by 6pm for a delicious Vegetarian Chilli by Yamnuska Backcountry Kitchen.

March 31: Peyto Hut to Louise and Richard Guy Hut. This was a big day with a bit of everything — hot sun one minute then whiteout the next, downhill roped skiing, beautiful views and interesting route-finding. We started off by staying too high on the side of Mt. Rhondda which meant the drop down onto the Yoho Glacier was steeper than anticipated (but good skiing and recommended when the conditions allow!). After lots of flat, we navigated up a very crevassed slope towards Mt. Collie (saw another cornice failure), crossed lots more flat, and had lunch with our first view of Yoho Peak. We followed neither of the routes marked on the map, and instead skied down the (much safer) ridge that leads directly to the hut with stunning views of Yoho and the surrounding peaks. After a big day I was super thankful for my lightweight G3 Ion 10 bindings and lightweight boots. The bindings were also super easy to step in an out of and adjust on the fly, which was a huge asset when traveling with such a big pack. Arriving late-afternoon gave us some good recovery time that was spent drinking tea and chatting with the other party in the hut.

April 1-2: Two days of storm, based out of Louise and Richard Guy Hut. We didn’t want to waste any of our days, so we summited and skied the Guy Hut’s backyard mountain, Yoho Peak, in a complete whiteout, digging pits and being very careful to stay on the ridge the whole way. Our initial plan was to bag a big summit like Mt. Des Poilus or Mt. Collie, but in marginal conditions it's best to err on the side of caution: when in doubt about a route, change your plans or don't go out. Yoho Peak was followed by an afternoon of skiing laps on a safe slope behind the hut (beautiful fresh tracks every time) and more tea drinking. The next day we ventured out a bit further: we skied two smaller, unnamed summits near Mt. Collie and tried for Collie itself. Upon gaining the summit ridge we decided to turn back due to massive cornices and steep, loaded slopes that had only half-slid. My lightweight jacket (Arc’Teryx Alpha SL) that had, for the first two days, been rolled up in my pack, did a great job of keeping me warm and dry in the near-constant snow and wind that these two days threw at us.

April 3: Louise and Richard Guy Hut to Balfour Hut, bluebird skies. We still had four days to go, but we had eaten half our food and our lighter packs had left us with enough energy to make the most of the gorgeous day. What a long, hot day! We crossed the Yoho Glacier and Bow Glacier, through the St. Nicholas-Olive col (via a Mt. Olive North summit), over to the summit of Vulture Peak, then one long, epic run down the Vulture Glacier to Balfour Hut. Managing a high body temperature on days like this vs. getting a huge sunburn has long been a gear issue of mine, but I managed to get it right this time: a thin Patagonia synthetic t-shirt underneath my airy Arc’Teryx delta LT Zip Neck fleece. Unlike the spacious, new Guy Hut, Balfour Hut consists of a tiny room about the size of Guy Hut’s kitchen… and it was at maximum capacity! Although we had to take turns preparing dinner, we met lots of awesome people. To top it off I saw the northern lights for the first time in the early morning (thanks to Tim for waking us up).

April 4: Bluebird, based out of Balfour Hut. We had heard great reports from other parties the night before about Mt. Gordon and the Diableret Glacier, so we decided to do both. This made for another big day but it was so worth it; Gordon gave us some of the best views of the trip, and the Diableret gave us the trip’s best turns. At the last couple of hundred meters of elevation gain to the top of the Diableret I hit a wall and the last few days’ fatigue seemed to finally catch up with me. It’s times like this that I’m grateful for a pack as versatile as my lightweight Osprey Mutant 38 — I had taken the hood off that morning and stripped it down to just a small daypack. That night we had the tiny Balfour Hut to ourselves and made plans to wake up at 4am to tackle Mt. Rhondda, weather providing. Our original plan was to do Mt. Balfour, but we received a message on the InReach that some weather was possibly moving in, so we scaled our objective down to Rhondda.

April 5: Balfour Hut to Bow Hut, low cloud and flat light. At 4am the wind was howling and the cloud was low, so instead of Rhondda, we went back to sleep. The morning consisted of some more sweet turns on the Diableret Glacier followed by lunch back at the hut. Then we then packed up and headed to Bow Hut. We wanted to get some turns in on the way, so instead of going back through the St. Nicholas-Olive col we skied down along the east side of St. Nicholas Peak then traversed out onto the Bow Glacier. We did get some turns, but it turned out to be technical skiing on hammered wind-slab. My Black Diamond Link 105 skis are not the lightest on the market, but it’s times like this that I’m thankful for the extra solidity they provide while still being light enough to take on these kinds of trips.

April 6: Out from Bow Hut. The weather still wasn’t good enough to go up Rhondda so, for something to do in the morning, we headed up to the Onion for one final summit. The freezing level had risen drastically the day before so the ski out through the canyon was hot and dicey, with small sluffs happening all around us. We were back at the car by 1pm, and reflecting on the trip over coffee in Lake Louise shortly after.

Trip stats

Number of days: eight

Distance covered: approx. 120km

Elevation gained: approx. 5340m

Peaks summited: seven


Black Diamond Link 105 skis

Black Diamond Ascension STS Climbing Skins

G3 Ion 10 bindings

Black Diamond expedition 3 ski poles

La Sportiva Sparkle 2.0 boots

G3 Ion ski crampons

Petzl Leopard LLF crampons

Black Diamond Vector helmet (Women’s)

Arc’Teryx Phase SL leggings

Arc’Teryx Sentinel pant

Patagonia synthetic t-shirt

Arc’Teryx delta LT Zip Neck (fleece)

Patagonia Nano-Puff vest

Black Diamond Flow State Soft Shell (Hoody)

Arc’Teryx Nuclei FL jacket

Arc’Teryx Alpha SL jacket

Arc’Teryx AR-385a harness

OR Incandescent down jacket

Kailas soft shell gloves

Hestra Army Leather Heli-Ski 3-finger gloves

OR Soleil Beanie

Buff x2

Osprey Mutant (38L)

MSR WindBurner

Black Diamond Deploy Shovel

Black Diamond Quickdraw Tour Probe 320

BCA Tracker

Mountain Equipment sleeping bag

Sea To Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme Liner

Beal Cobra 60m half rope

Hydro Flask

Nalgene water bottle

InReach satellite communicator