Summer mountaineering on the Wapta

Back in January I decided to sign up with a friend for a Women’s Intro to Mountaineering course that was offered through Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.  Long story short, the course was amazing and I can’t believe how much I learned! The other ladies on the course and the guides were also great company and we had a blast together for 5 days.

Day 1: Hike in to Bow Hut

I drove in to Canmore for 8:30am to meet everyone at Yamnuska’s offices.  Most of the technical gear we needed (axes, crampons, helmets, harnesses) was already at the hut but we needed to carry up toilet paper and some of the food.  I also chose to bring up my own harness and helmet because I really like the way mine fit.  Those turned out to be worth the weight!  Erica & Merrie-Beth were our guides and they helped everyone go though their pack to make sure they had everything.  Here’s my packing list of what I brought.

Bow lake - looking towards Mt St Nicholas

Canyon we had to cross - the boulder is out of sight on the left

Next, we all drove out to Bow Lake to start the hike tot he hut.  At one point, you have to cross a boulder that’s lodged at the top of a canyon.  It wasn’t too hard but you do get a great view of how far down it would be!  When we finally arrived at the hut we picked our bunks, had dinner and went over knots & how to fit crampons.  One thing I discovered is that regular crampons are made for large feet.  I have a women’s size 38 boot and the bar at the bottom that you adjust stuck out the end of my crampon which is not ideal.

Day 2:  Climbing Mt Olive

View of Mt St Nic on the way up to the Nicholas/Olive col

We woke up to rain, so we took our time having breakfast to give the skies a chance to clear.  On the toe of the glacier we learned to sort the ropes for teams of 5 and how to tie in to the rope including adding a prusik.  Then it was on to the glacier for the trek up to the col between Mt Olive and Mt St Nicholas.  Once at the col, Erica & Merrie-Beth decided that we would climb Mt Olive so we changed our set-up so we could short-rope up the snow slopes on Olive.  Once up the snow slopes, it’s a fairly straightforward walk on rock to the summit.  The views were incredible up there and you could see most of the Wapta icefields.  On the way down, it started to drizzle and turned into a full-on downpour!  I learned very quickly the importance of full length side zips on rain pants.  Without long zips I couldn’t put my pants on over boots so I had to take my boots off first.  It was such a hassle; I would never recommend pants without full length zips after that!  Luckily, by the end of the trip I became really good quickly taking off my boots to get my rain pants on.  When we got back to the hut we had another guide Vanessa join us and she had hot soup waiting!  Since the next day’s weather looked like more of the same, that evening we went over reading maps & taking bearings in case of any whiteouts.

Summit of Mt Olive. It was odd being above everything else and so near the clouds

Day 3: Bow Hut to Peyto Hut

The trip to Peyto was fairly easy.  In any case it was easier than when I did it on skis this winter!  It was also neat to see the scenery in the summer as opposed to the winter.  It’s really a beautiful hike especially when the hut finally comes into view.  I think I even found the crack where we got under the glacier this past winter.  Once at the hut it predictably started raining again so we waited it out and had tea before heading to a large hill to practice self-arrest.  One word for practising self-arrest? FUN!  It’s like a good excuse to launch yourself down a hill and slide down.  I definitely “practiced” more than I needed to :)  We also went over t-slot anchors and how to do crevasse rescue with two rope teams.

Approaching Peyto Hut - you can see it in the distance

Glaciers and watermelon algae near Peyto Hut (which is on the hill on the right side of the picture)

Day 4: Peyto Hut to Mt Rhonda to Bow Hut

View from the porch of Peyto Hut in the morning

On the way back to Bow hut, we were going to stop to climb Mt Rhonda (Mt Thompson was another option but it looked too icy after all the rain/snow).  Also, we were given the opportunity to lead our rope teams if we wanted.  I volunteered and got to lead my team from the hut up to the base of Mt Rhonda.  Rhonda was a fun climb and before long we were at the top with wind gusting around us.  It felt pretty cold and I had all my layers on.  The bottom of my nose also got wind chapped because it had been runny.  On the plus side, the skies cleared and it made for some pretty neat shots.  On the way back, I got to lead our rope team again as no one else wanted to.

Sun & clouds on Peyto Peak. You can see an avalanche that resulted from cornice failure near the peak.

Looking back at my rope team as we leave the hut (it's in the distance on the hill with the outhouse beside it)

It’s such a different experience to be leading your team and I was so proud that I wound up leading almost the whole day.  You’re always looking at the terrain and trying to pick the safest route (i.e., avoiding areas that might be more crevassed) and checking the weather.  There was one time where I had the compass out taking bearings because it looked like we might get caught it a whiteout.  Also, I didn’t realize how hard it is to set good tracks and set the pace.  As Erica so kindly pointed out, I walk like a duck normally so I had to always be thinking about my steps so everyone else could follow.  Overall, this had to be one of the coolest experiences of the trip  At one point when we probed a safe area for the group to stop to eat, I realized I had walked over the snow bridge on a metre wide crevasse!  Thankfully there was still 150 – 180cm of snow on the glacier so the risk of falling into a crevasse was pretty small.

On the way to Mt Rhonda

View of Yoho National Park from the summit

Leaving Mt Rhonda behind us

View as I walked - notice there's no footprints in front of me!

Day 5:  Crevasse Rescue

We started the day going over the rope systems for crevasse rescue in the hut, then moved outside to practice on the foot of the glacier.  I’d taken rock rescue earlier this spring and found that it really helped my understanding of what we were doing.  The main ideas of transferring load, and escaping the belay are similar but how you execute them is a little different.  While we were practicing and I was self-arresting to catch a fall,  I had my face near the snow and noticed that all the red watermelon algae *does* actually smell like watermelon.  Afterwards, we headed onto an area of the glacier where the ice was exposed to check out the crevasses and practice walking around/over them with crampons.  We also went over ice screw placement and Merrie-Beth showed us v-thread anchors.

Crevasses

Last walk back to Bow hut

Sunset at the hut - it took until 11:38pm for it to set completely. I waited.

Day 6: Hike out of Bow Hut

The hike out went well and we all moved pretty fast.  Before long we were back at the van and wondered over to the nearby Num-Ti-Jah lodge to treat ourselves to flushing toilets and running water.  It was heavenly!

Boulder crossing on the way back

Alpine flowers on the hike out

Overall it was such a great trip to learn glacier skills.  I definitely feel confident enough to go back and try some of the peaks in the area.  And while the weather was less than stellar the whole trip it did make for great learning conditions, especially whiteout navigation!  Everyone had rain gear so it didn’t matter too much what the weather was like.    Big thanks to all the guides (MB, Erica & Vanessa) and all the girls who made this such a fantastic trip! I definitely can’t wait to put my skills to use on another climb next summer!

Wapta Mountaineering Pics




Wapta Summer, a set on Flickr.

Wapta icefields ski touring

A few weeks ago, my husband got an email asking if we were interested in participating in a research trip out to the Wapta glacier to help a local guide produce teaching materials on glaciers and glaciation.  I immediately responded with a reserved “EMAILTHEMNOWANDSAYWELLGO!!”.  When I heard back that the trip was on, the rush was on to buy a new backpack, sleeping bag and other miscellaneous items as well as rent and pick up gear and get everything packed.

After a 4:30am wakeup on Saturday, we met our group at 8am at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. The plan was to skin in to Bow Hut (600m of elevation gain over 8km).  Some sections are in avalanche terrain but the risk that day was low-moderate so we felt ok crossing one by one. When we got to the hut  I did some serious tea drinking and leg stretching in my hut booties.  We had a lot of fun chatting with everyone, eating dinner and enjoying the hut views.

Vulture glacier which we passed underneath on the way to the hut - I moved fast! The final uphill after crossing this section is hard. Time slowed and my pack seemed to double in weight. Laws of physics: defied.

Avalanche fracture line we could see from the hut

Sunset from the hut balcony

Sunday morning we left around 8am to ski 6km to Peyto Hut.    The goal was to find and dig out the entrance to an ice cave which ran beneath the glacier.  Oh and we also got to ski some sweet lines :)  After 30 min of digging, we rigged an anchor and slid down the small ice tunnel into the cave.  It so neat knowing that I was underneath a glacier, somewhere that fewer than 20 people have probably ever been.  So many different patterns, formations and textures to the ice.  It really gave you a sense of how old the glacier was and what forces formed it.  After exploring the cave we still had to ski 12km to get back to the cars. In total we were out for 12 hrs on Sunday and skied 20km!  Needless to say I enjoyed my 11pm burger at Wendy’s in Canmore on the way home.

On the way in to Peyto Hut

Entrance to the cave

Neat patterns in the ice

The whole experience was amazing.  There is something that is so peaceful about being high up on a glacier seeing nothing but snow, peaks and blue skies.  No one is around and it’s just you watching one ski move in front of the other as you make your way up a slope.  It’s so hard to describe what it’s like up there, one of those “have to have been there” type of things.  One of the best parts though was getting to do this with friends.

Wapta icefields between Bow Hut and Peyto Hut

Mt St Nicholas which I may get to climb this summer on my mountaineering course

Stopping for a zen moment on the way out

On a separate note, I was especially psyched for this trip because I just signed up for a 6-day women’s mountaineering course this summer.  It’s run by Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and will also be based out of Bow Hut.  The course is geared towards teaching the skills you need to climb some of the local peaks on your own (ie navigation, glacier safety, roped travel, etc).

Bow Hut in the summer - Photo from Meghan Ward

In the spirit of not forgetting what I learnt, I made a list of what I packed (or wish I had packed):

Clothes

  • 2 pairs of socks & underwear
  • synthetic tank top with built in bra
  • light wool long sleeve top
  • medium fleece long sleeve top
  • heavy fleece sweater with hood
  • light wool leggings
  • medium fleece leggings
  • insulated ski pants
  • down sweater
  • hardshell
  • waterproof ski mitts
  • wool hat
  • ski goggles & sunglasses
  • neckwarmer
  • hut booties

Toiletries

  • toothbrush & toothpaste
  • sunscreen (have handy to re-apply while skiing on the glacier – I re-applied twice and still burnt!)
  • quickdry facecloth
  • lipbalm with sunscreen
  • for next time: soap &  hand sanitizer – lots and lots of hand sanitizer.  I might bring deodorant for a longer trip.

Sleeping

  • 0°C sleeping bag (I’d bring a 5°C for the summer)
  • packable pillow
  • earplugs – very important in huts!!

Other

  • I wish I had brought a digital watch – next time
  • for longer trips I’d bring some reading material and a journal
  • camera
  • headlamp
  • first aid kit, tylenol, ibuprofen & blister kit  – this is very important especially with rental boots!
  • 50L backpack
Also, if you leave your car out when it’s snowy and windy, you’ll get snow and ice in your tire wells which will throw off your car’s alignment unless it’s been knocked out.