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A Wapta Traverse (With Tents not Huts!): With Ramblings Up Saint Nicholas Peak and Lilliput Mountain

Moderate Ski Touring (Glacier Travel)
YDS Difficulty: 
None, Yay For Glaciers!
Friday, April 15, 2016

For a month or so each year around April the Wapta (and Wapituk) Icefield(s) become very popular places mostly due to The Wapta Traverse, a well-documented route traveling from the northern edge of the Wapta Icefield near Peyto Peak to the trans-Canada highway in the south near the Great Divide Lodge.  The route is supported by 4 ACC huts along the way which are nicely spaced to allow for scenic day-tours from hut to hut (without having to haul all the extra camping and cooking gear normal for spring in the Rockies).  

A while ago Liam had mentioned a plan to a Wapta Traverse following the standard route but not using the huts.  This seemed like kind of a neat plan and I tossed my hat in the ring.  We would be joined by a merry crew of five other folks and start out along the (soon to be not so frozen) shore of Peyto Lake.  Due to a scheduling snaffu I ended up having to actually join the trip a day later (pesky end of semester teaching schedule) so we agreed to meet up the next morning on The Onion (the rocky dome perched above Bow Hut).
Getting to The Onion worked out fairly well, with three or so places where I had to take my skis off but otherwise it was a quick way up (a little over 3 hours from car to Onion).  The Wapta was a busy place and from my seat on The Onion it took a bit of guesswork to find out which of the black specks in the distance was the rest of my group!  Eventually a crew with the right numbers crested the ridge from Peyto-wards and I rambled over to join them.  One of the nice things with being on the Wapta at this time of year is that there are enough fresh tracks to follow that you can be less worried (even solo) by following a highway laid down by 10s or people infront!  The first folks I came across were Josh and Raquel who were facing some gnarly boot problems.  It seemed that they would ramble down Bow rather than have problems start to worsen.  After a quick chat we parted ways and I met up with the rest of the crew.

Setting off from the parking lot at Bow Lake, soon this will start to be 'summer-busy'!


Bow Lake itself still made for decent travel.


Looking up towards Mount Olive from the gully on the approach.


Looking back towards Mount Jimmy Simpson.


Up on The Onion, Saint Nicholas Peak is the black fang on the left.


It was getting pretty toasty on the Wapta and by the time we got to the Olive/St Nick col Liam could go up 15 degree slopes without skins!  I had always thought that the normal route to Balfour Hut was via the lower col to the southwest of Mount Olive, the route over Vulture Col is much more gentle!  Once atop Vulture Col we had a quick moot to see if any peaks would be on the menu.  Saint Nicholas Peak is a short but steep snow bash from the col whereas Mount Olive is a longer but less steep ridge ascent.  A quick show of hands pointed the way to St. Nick and I set off kicking a trail over to the peak.

Nice place to stop for a chat.


Setting off from the col towards Saint Nick.


Saint Nicholas Peak is a very aesthetic mountain, especially when viewed from Bow Hut where it rises like a rocky fang (much more angrily than one might expect for a peak sharing its name with Santa Claus!).  From the col we followed near the ridgecrest, kicking past the false summit before following a set of recent steps up snow and scree to the summit.  Views were not the greatest, but did still give a sense to the scale of the terrain on the Wapta.  After snapping a whack of pictures the crew rambled back down and made our way down towards Balfour Hut (the skiing part of which was somewhat complicated by flat light, intermittent snow squalls, and then some very slushy slopes!).  Eventually we made it down to Balfour Hut and then carried on a wee bit further to a rocky patch that would make for a good camp location.

The ants go marching on and on hurrah, hurrah!


Not the greatest views from the top looking down towards Bow Hut but the hut is visible-ish.


The crew kicks back down the steep part of Saint Nicholas Peak.


As usual when we start to descend visibility improves.


Looking back at the ridge route from the col to Saint Nicholas Peak.


Down beside Balfour Hut, quite a nice viewpoint.


Nice to have some clouds to give variety to the views.


Nina and Chris saddling up for the rest of the trek to camp.


Not a bad place for a camp at all.


Mountaineer-poses are an important part of camp-life.


The next morning we set off on what can be the most navigationally challenging part of the traverse, the ascent up to the Balfour High Col through an intervening icefall.  Thankfully the groups that were using the huts that we had been leapfrogging with had already laid down a track and we didn't have to leap over any crevasses or other funny business.  The top of the high col has some pretty fabulous views and is certainly worth a trip in its own right.  From here we could scry our next objective, Lilliput Mountain a highpoint on the ridge heading southeast towards the Scott Duncan Hut.  There were a fair number of rocky patches heading up to Lilliput (and a decent sized cornice on the summit) but sure enough we all made it up and had a solid ski back down.  From Lilliput it really isn't that far to the Scott Duncan Hut (yay for ski gliding) and we opted to make our camp on the flats below the hut.  This was likely the best camp for views and in terms of viewpoints might be the highlight of the route.

Setting up breakfast by the ol' cooking rock.


Not a bad place for morning grub.


Looking back towards the 'direct gully', the other way to get down to Balfour Hut from below Mount Olive.


Time to start packing up camp.


Looking over towards the icefall that guard the Balfour High Col.


Onwards and upwards we go.


The seracs are quite pretty this time of year.


From higher up looking back at the valley.


At the highpoint (and on the provincial border), very bright!


A while later a summit panorama from Lilliput Mountain.


Down at our camp, a stellar viewpoint.


Quite an early night today.


On the morning of the last day we packed up camp and got 'on the road' just as the hut crew was also rolling out.  Liam and I managed to get up to the col below Mount Niles without skins and then took a quick break to get into downhill mode.  A common mistake to make at this section is to not stay high enough and traverse west to the proper descent valley before aiming for Sherbrooke Lake.  The snow was pretty crusty but a bit of sun and warmer air lower down started to soften it up and made for some excellent skiing down to reach treeline.  From treeline things got a little trickier with tight turns and narrowly avoiding arboreal-attacks being the name of the game but eventually we made it down to the shore of the lake (with the distant roar of truck traffic echoing over the area).  The lake was nicely skate-able (Kelsey like it so much she even went back for another lap!) making for much quicker travel than I was expecting.  The last patch of the route down the trail to the road was a little soft in places, a little bare in other places, and a little deadfall-laden in other places.  Once particular tree ended up splitting our group with some folks going around and then back on the trail while others set course straight down for the road.  Eventually everyone made it to the parking lot and the car shuttling to and fro could begin.

Packing up camp for the last time.


Great glow on Mount Daly.


Looking towards Mount Balfour, Trolltinder Peak just barely visible.


About to start the fun skiing down, nicer weather towards the west.


Kelsey enjoying the ski down.


Nice rolling terrain around here.


Good views towards Lake O'Hara.


The crew taking a break down at the flats before the lake.


Still a wee bit of time left before the lake is swimmable.


Back down at the parking lot, very much feeling like summer down here.


Nice to link up the Wapta Traverse after having been on each end before (but never down to Balfour Hut).


All in all quice a nice trip.  It was fun to camp rather than use the huts (though I was a little envious at a few times at the last camp of the limitless water supply the fat cats in their ivory tower, err more metal-cladded shed than a tower I suppose, perched above us).  Quite a cool crew!

Average: 5 (1 vote)


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