Planned for some of the shortest days of the year, and over New Years Eve, my friends and I prepared to attempt the Wapta Traverse. Known to be a world-class “must-do” Rocky Mountain ski tour, we picked dates that worked best for the group’s vacation calendars. Beginning at Peyto Lake we would traverse the glacier over 5 days and 4 nights, staying at Alpine Club of Canada huts each night, including Peyto Hut, Bow Hut, Balfour Hut, and finally Scott Duncan Hut. Not including any ski mountaineering summits along the way, the full Wapta Traverse is about 45km.
I was absolutely thrilled to be taking on this adventure. Ever since first hearing about the traverse and seeing images of vast white expanses framed by jagged black peaks, my curiosity toward beautiful spaces and general enthusiasm for long, difficult sufferfests drew me to this place.
Prior to departure we checked avalanche and weather forecasts. Things were not looking favourable. For our trip dates the avalanche forecasts were meant to be reasonably high, which we justified away by arguing we’d largely be on flat or low-angle glacier on which avalanches are not really a danger. The weather for our dates was forecasted to be cloudy, slightly snowy, and cold – really cold – which we justified away by packing extra warm clothing layers. It was not going to be ideal conditions for heading high into the alpine for a multi-day trip. But it also wasn’t going to be ‘terrible’ conditions, either. Since we’d already booked and paid for it, packed all our gear and planned our route, we thought “what the hell” we’d give it a try anyway, with the option to exit if things weren’t looking good up there.
Day 1 we set out from Peyto Lake prior to sunrise, which, at the end of December in the Canadian Rockies, is not until about 8:30am. We would have light for about 9 hours, until around 5:30pm. With only about 10km of traveling distance ahead of us, it seemed we should have plenty of time. However, travel was slow; much slower than anticipated. Our first real obstacle was rock-hopping over a meandering creek through a passage with high enough walls that we had little choice but to stay within its confines. Our next obstacle was the wind and air temperature; icy cold and absolutely bone chilling. On the barren glacier moraine, nothing could shelter us or slow the fierce wind. As a relatively green team unfamiliar to each other’s styles, we couldn’t move fast enough as a group to stay as warm as we needed to be.
We crawled into the Peyto Hut only 15 minutes before dark and dangerously close to frostbite. Our morale was absolutely torn. We heated as much water as possible and drank hot fluids while wrapped up like burritos in all our clothing layers and sleeping bags until we warmed up.
On morning #2 we awoke in the chilly Peyto Hut unsure of what the day would bring. The weather was forecasted to be more of the same; cold, cloudy, windy. We ate our breakfast, readied ourselves, roped up and set out. Fortunately the morning was clear enough that we had decent visibility across our path, though not clear enough to get much of a view of the surrounding peaks, sadly. Every once in a a while the clouds would clear just enough to expose a glimpse of the famous views over the Wapta and I could see why so many people are drawn to this vast, barren, and beautiful space.
Our team crossed through the great ‘ping pong ball’ slowly but surely. Slow enough, however, that once again we were all freezing to the point of pain, even while sporting all our warmest layers. With the wind chill factor the temperature was somewhere around -34 degrees Celsius. We only had to travel less than 7km to the next hut, though we took the better part of the day to accomplish this task. Nearing Bow Hut we were cold enough that we couldn’t even be bothered to untie from the rope – we just wanted to get to the warm hut. Take it from me that skiing while roped up is probably the least pleasant skiing experience imaginable.
Upon arrival at the Bow Hut we were greeted with a friendly reception by fellow skiers from other groups which warmed our spirits. The pre-heated hut may have helped with that, too. But after two days of struggling against cold temperatures, fierce winds, and slow travel our overall team morale had us leaning away from the prospect of continuing our journey. The forecast was set to deteriorate to even colder temperatures, more snow, and worse avalanche conditions. Overall, the following day’s setting was less than ideal for our planned travel to Balfour Hut, which is a more complicated and longer route. After not too much deliberation we opted for the other option – bailing on the trip and exiting down to the highway from Bow Hut.
After a more comfortable sleep and the opportunity to eat more food from our stock than we may otherwise have consumed, on day 3 we packed up again and began descending to the road.
All in all, we were disappointed that conditions didn’t allow for a successful trip, but we are all keen to try the Wapta Traverse again in the future. In retrospect I know we tried hard to make it happen despite conditions, but truly it’s the kind of traverse which requires ideal weather, timing, etc. We knew we might have to bail and in the end I’m glad we made the decision to do so rather than face the most difficult day during the toughest conditions.
From my 3-day taste of it I know I can’t wait to go back and tackle the traverse again in its entirety and on a nicer weekend! Maybe even as soon as spring 2017……stay tuned…..