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.


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!


Avalanche Safety Training (AST1)

After spending the last year resort skiing it seemed like this year would be a great time to try alpine touring.  Without having much backcountry experience (err, ok I have none!), I knew that the first step was to get some avalanche training.  Besides the obvious safety aspects, I was really interested in taking the course so I could learn a little more about the places I play in during the winter.  I signed up for a two day course with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures on December 11-12.

Day 1 – Learning about snowpack, terrain & avalanches

The first day we learned the basics about snowpacks and how to read their signs.  We started with listing all of the factors that you might assess before skiing a certain slope and then moved on to talking about each factor: which ones give you the most information and how you would read each.  In the afternoon we went through a few scenarios where we were given pictures of different slopes or mountains and had to work out the best way up/down.

How much you enjoy the classroom day will depend on how much you enjoy the “school” experience.  My husband is more of a hands on guy so he preferred the field day.  For me, it huge eye opener because I realized how much I didn’t know and what factors go into assessing avalanche hazards.  Suffice to say I never look at snow slopes the same way again!

Day 2 – Snow pits, beacons & rescues

The second day is by far the best day.  When we signed up for the course, our field day was supposed to be in Kananaskis however due to the snow conditions (or lack thereof) we went to Bow summit instead which is up the Icefields Parkway (~240km from Calgary).  Unfortunately for us it had just been snowing so the roads were not in good condition.  I get the feeling the Parkway is not plowed frequently.  We wound up using snowshoes to get around and unless you own touring gear I’d recommend going this route as the day is so packed there isn’t much time for skiing.

In the morning we learned how to work the beacons and practiced and finding them buried under the snow.  After, we snowshoed uphill to dig snow pits.  The day was pretty busy so instead of having a sit-down lunch, we just snacked whenever we stopped.  We saw a lot of cracks forming as we travelled uphill so it was interesting to see how the snowpack looked in everyone’s pits – not every pit showed instability despite the fact the avalanche risk was higher than usual.  We also learned how to do a Rutschblock test.  On the way back down we stopped near a slope that had recently avalanched giving everyone a good chance to check out the fracture lines (where the slab breaks off) and the debris.

Compression test on a snow column - looking for weak layers in the upper portion of the snowpack

The last part of the day involved splitting up into two groups to do rescue scenarios.  Half the group stayed back to bury our “victims” and observe the rescue while the other half coordinated what they were going to do.  This was probably one of the most fun parts of the day.  Even though it’s a completely made up scenario it’s interesting how crazy things get and you get a real appreciation for why these skills need to be practiced.  I really can’t even begin to imagine the stress if it had been a real rescue.

Practising our rescue skills

Final thoughts?

I really enjoyed this course and would recommend it.  Usually I find I learn better one-on-one but I think that avalanche training is something that works really well in groups, especially for the rescue scenarios/beacon practice.  Our guides Steve Blagbrough and Mike Stuart (who joined us on the second day) were both super knowledgeable and friendly.

Some cool stuff we were given was a package from the Canadian Avalanche Association which included an Avaluator card and the book “Backcountry Avalanche Awareness”.  The book is great because it goes in depth on many topics you cover in class (so no need to take notes!).  The Avaluator is this neat little laminated card that has a grid on it. On the back you go through a checklist of questions to come with a rating for terrain and snowpack.  Then you cross-reference the two numbers on the front grid to see what the overall risk level is.  It’s not foolproof but it’s a great tool for beginners to help you remember what you should be looking for and what it means.

Excellent read!

You won’t finish any short course with instant knowledge and ability to assess hazards perfectly, it’s definitely a steep learning curve and the more you keep up on conditions and reading the more it all starts making sense.  Over the holidays we even got a few laughs from parents when we noted the fracture lines on a neighbours snowy roof!