By Scott Kendall
We skinned onward, upward, through a blanket of new-fallen snow and into windy sheets of billowing whiteness. At the limits of visibility high above hung massive seracs of blue ice, and even higher rose the signature jagged, rock-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies. And, most importantly, somewhere up there lay the Bow Hut, our final destination for the day. With a last push up a steep pitch, soon enough we were sitting in the hut basking in the warmth of a roaring wood stove. A sip of hot chocolate later and I knew it had all been worth it.
The Bow Hut marked the first stop in our quest to complete the Wapta Traverse, Canada’s flagship hut-to-hut alpine ski tour through some of the most scenic high peaks, glaciers, and icefields in the Canadian Rockies. Lying mostly in Banff National Park, the Wapta Traverse runs along the Continental Divide on the Alberta/British Columbia border.
The most commonly traveled variant of the traverse starting at Bow Lake covers approximately 37km (22 miles) and reaches a max elevation of 10,000ft. A network of three mountain huts maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada lines the route, each spaced roughly a day’s ski apart (two other huts lie off this variation). The huts range in size and amenities from the one-room, unheated Scott Duncan Hut to the multi-room, wood-stove-heated Bow Hut (rumor has it that there’s even a hot tub hidden in the Bow Hut’s Custodian quarters). Typically, the full traverse from Bow Lake to its terminus at Kicking Horse Pass takes four days if you spend a night at each hut, although many prefer to add an extra day or two to allow time to summit some of the nearby peaks and get in extra powder turns.
Our skinning ascent to the 7,700ft Bow Hut had taken about four hours, and we easily made up for any caloric burn with a monster hut dinner, reminding ourselves that the more food we consumed, the less weight we’d have to lug around the next few days. Our group consisted of Dave Begg, our guide and president of the local Yamnuska mountain school and guiding service, his wife and fellow guide Maria, photographer Josh Steinitz, and me. Collectively, we polished off thousands of calories in a multi-course meal including mussels, chicken, green peppers, and several pounds of rice. Looking back, finishing the rice that night ranks as one of the most challenging parts of the trip.
As veterans of hut-to-hut trips know, the period after dinner and before bedtime is almost always the most defining part of the hut experience. Within this carefree window hut-goers forget their fatigue for awhile and the distinct nature of ‘hut culture’ emerges. The remoteness, physical effort required to get there, and just plain lack of much else to do inevitably causes a hut to foster a plethora of interesting conversation. After dinner in the Bow Hut that night, all of the groups circled around the wood stove and listened to ‘hut stories’. Chic Scott, long-time Canadian mountaineer and writer, related the spooky story of a drunken man who had wandered up a nearby peak and died of exposure in the night (“Now I call that peak Dead Man’s Knob,” he said.) Dave contributed a sleep-disturbing tale of changing the outhouse barrel (“I could hear splashing but it wasn’t coming from me.”) Finally, Mike, a Canadian geology student, closed down the session by describing his greatest fear involving outhouses and packrats (“Ouch!).
The next morning bluebird skies greeted us as our group of four roped together and skinned up under the profile of Mt. St. Nicholas onto the Wapta Icefield. What a sight – strong winds whirled snow wisps across the vast white expanse of the Wapta while impressive, jagged peaks of the uniquely Canadian Rocky form surrounded all sides. The route took us over the 9,500ft col between Mt. St. Nicholas and Mt. Olive, a place Dave claimed was the “windiest in the Rockies.” After experiencing the reverse of getting the wind knocked out of me on top of the col, I believed him.
A long, moderate ski descent across the Vulture Glacier at times got the better of Josh on his split snowboard, so Dave hooked up a rope system and literally pulled him along. Unbelievable! Dave must have seen the look of amusement on my face. “This is not part of the standard service,” he said.
We arrived at the 8,000ft Balfour Hut by midday and wolfed down a quick lunch. The Balfour Hut is a one room, heated hut, much smaller than the Bow Hut but quite cozy. The most impressive feature of the hut, however, is its location – all views are dominated by the vertiginous façade of 10,375ft Mt. Balfour rising abruptly from the moraine.