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Mount Balfour

Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
A Bit By Sherbrooke Lake
Saturday, February 8, 2014

After looking at the weather and avi forecasts (which were starting to turn for the worse next week) Eric, Steven, and I decided it was time for something big. We chose Mount Balfour, the highest peak on the Wapta Icefield via the Scott Duncan Hut.

Starting and the frigid hour or 4am-ish we set out from the West Louise Lodge parking lot skinning up the trail to Sherbrooke Lake. It was pretty frosty at the trailhead (-22 or so) and became exceptionally frosty above the lake! At the lake we made a navigation blunder following a very well defined ski track which turned out to be from some backcountry skiers yo-yo skiing below Mount Ogden. To get back on track we had to lose a bunch of elevation and contour through the bush to get to the creek. Once at the creek we joined up with what would we our later descent route and closed in on Mount Niles. After gaining the shoulder of Niles and passing the small pyramid shaped peak we were at last on a glacier. The first glacier to cross leading up to the Scott Duncan Hut is quite small (and from Stevens pictures in the Autumn quite free of crevasses) so we decided to save the rope for the Wapta-proper the next day. We knew the hut was just around the bend from the first rockband (climbers right) after passing Niles's shoulder so we aimed accordingly. Not wanting to drop down onto the Wapta and lose a bunch of elevation we carried our skis up a snow/rock slope (which had a cairn so might be the summer route to the hut) and made it to our home for the next couple nights.

The Scott Duncan Hut is the first un-heated ACC hut I've stayed in and with just the 3 of us the first night was pretty chilly (-10 or so). Watching sunset from the hut was pretty great, lovely views from just outside the front door. In retrospect we should have kept the stoves on longer but -10 was much preferable to the less than -30 temps outside so there were no complaints.

Waking up around sunrise the next morning we had out sites set on Balfour and set off following a route taking us close to Lilliput Mountain to avoid the large crevasse fields on this part of the Wapta. Ski penetration was premium making for easy travel and it didn't take long for us to get near the high col and close to Balfour's lofty perch. We aimed for Balfour's rocky lower ridge and booted up a fair bit of elevation before tossing on some crampons and hitting the downclimb to the lower glacier. From the lower glacier (which was marvelously both in the sun and out of the wind) some quick touring took us to a scree/snow slope allowing access to the upper ridge and the summit above.

The last push to the summit was downright chilly. Travel was a combination of kicking steps in hard (and soft) snow along with a couple patches of straightforward scrambling. The ridge does get pretty narrow in places. Eventually the elevation flattens out and the final summit block reveals itself only a few kicked steps away.

From the summit views were tremendous! My only regret is it was too cold to properly take pictures of all the peaks in clear view (probably just the poor circulation in my hands). Windchill on the summit was colder than -50 by some rough calculations so not the best place to hang around for a winter picknick... Steven and Eric snapped a bunch more pictures before we headed back down in search of shelter from the wind. It turned out our summit push had excellent timing as within an hour after leaving the summit clouds moved in engulfing the peak in a whiteout.

The trek back to the hut was frosty and had limited visibility (at least at the start). We followed our vaguely visible ascent tracks as far as possible before Steven caught sign of some new tracks from the Balfour high col towards the hut (put down by some Edmonton section ACC folks we would later meet). These tracks were quite excellent to find and soon we were happily plodding back hutwards in dwindling daylight (which eventually faded into moderate moonlight). We arrived at the hut to find it a tropically cozy 15C inside (apparently they had cranked all the stoves for hours to warm it up) and traded stories with the 6 ACC members inside. This second night was far more comfortable than the 1st and I probably got a better sleep than I do in town most nights!

Waking up (once again around sunrise) the morning after clouds had indeed rolled in and a stiff wind was blowing. After a bite of breakfast it was time to say farewell to the hut and start the ski-down. Snow conditions were kind of rough for the descent. After passing Niles's shoulder the snowpack was powder on windslab which always seemed to crack when you least expect it making for tricky skiing. Long story short to get back down to the lake involved a lot of side slipping and snowplowing, and from the lake to the road was mostly one long snowplow.

Overall an excellent weekend and a fine intro to the southern end of the Wapta. Great views, cold (but not unbearable) temperatures, and great guys to ski with. 3 peaks on the Wapta down, many more to go, have to come back soon!



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