I’ve just come back from five incredible days up on the Bow Glacier in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. I had the chance to dabble in actual ski mountaineering and discover one of the most beautiful alpine landscapes I have ever seen. It was tough, it was rewarding, it was sunny, it was fun, and it lit a fire in me to keep pushing into alpine climbing and mountaineering. I got a taste for them this weekend; a taste so good that I want more of it – just like chocolate (which tastes way better in the mountains, by the way). Since the experience and memory of this trip is etched so vividly in my mind, I have decided to allow myself to transform it into a long article, and to post it as two separate blog posts in order not to overwhelm you guys too much. Well, here it goes.
Really, as much as I’ve been in the mountains many times before, no matter the season, I have never had much experience with glaciers and actually summiting peaks through more extensive means than simply lacing up a pair of hiking boots and going for it. So, when my good friend and mentor for all mountain-related matters, Finbar O’Sullivan, said that we could go on a backcountry skiing trip for a few days, as a sort of thank-you gift for having helped him run his AST (Avalanche Skills Training) courses for two years now, I wanted to go to a place where the usual, simple ski-touring gig wouldn’t cut it.
The Rocky Mountains, I thought, were a good choice.
Initially, we had planned to do the Wapta Traverse, a Canadian ski-touring classic from the Bow Summit, over the Wapta and Waputik icefields, down to Sherbrooke Lake, together with Scotty – Finbar’s other apprentice and good friend of mine. However, life had decided to show off her volatility and unpredictability and thus, our trio got reduced to a duo and we set off a week later than planned. Furthermore, the warm spring weather had come unusually early this year, even in the Canadian Rockies, where late-season backcountry skiing is the norm. We reckoned we should keep our options open and adapt our trip to the conditions.
In the end, we ditched the idea of the traverse altogether. Instead, we opted for a classic Bow Glacier mountaineering adventure which, really, was absolutely perfect for the conditions and a good preparation for attempting the Wapta Traverse again in the future.
The main reason we changed our opinion on our initial plan was the rather horrendous approach on the first day. Usually, one skins across Peyto Lake and then up the valley in order to reach the Peyto Hut. However, both the aforementioned and Bow Lake had started to thaw. And there were only patches of snow left at valley bottom. Since Finbar knows the area, he decided that we would head to the Bow Hut instead – easier approach, especially with little snow. We had to walk, skis on our pack, around Bow Lake, up along the summer hiking trail above the first canyon, then straight through the second canyon until finally scrambling out of it and into the trees, where we were able to mostly advance on skis (except for the many rocky sections where the snow had already gone). At last, the hut came into view on a rocky outcrop below the very prominent Mount Saint Nicholas.
In the end, we stepped into the cabin at 8:30PM PST; the sun had set and, to our surprise, we were the only people there. For a Saturday night, that was most unusual. Eerie, even. The Bow Hut is one of the Alpine Club of Canada’s biggest and most popular huts. Accommodating roughly thirty people and very ideally located at the base of the Wapta Icefield, with many popular mountaineering objectives all around it, it is not a place you expect to be empty.
We woke on Sunday morning to gorgeous blue skies. Breakfast and coffee on the deck overlooking the valley was in order. Fully endowing my coffee snobbery, I had brought an ultra light, re-usable drip coffee filter and some Kicking Horse coffee that I had ground at home prior to the trip. What can I say; I enjoy being fancy about that stuff no matter where I am roaming about.
We skinned up to the glacier in bright sunlight, with only some high cirrus clouds covering the sky in very faint stripes. It is a fairly long slog with considerable elevation gain to actually make it onto the plateauing Bow glacier. But once I finally laid eyes on it, I was stunned. This place was absolutely gorgeous and, it some ways, almost too good to be true. It seemed like something out of a fantasy world. The Bow glacier was rimmed to the east by Saint Nicholas and Mount Olive. Mount Gordon, a great white wall of a mountain covered by its own glacier, stood defiantly to the south. The Peyto glacier could be seen to the West, framed by Mount Thompson and Mount Rhonda.
We decided to go straight across the glacier and climb Mt Gordon’s main face instead of going the usual route up the snowy spine on its western flank. I was later told that Finbar had decided so on purpose. He put me on point to test my skin-setting skills and, well, I passed his test. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable setting skin tracks across steep slopes, but with his good advice and encouragement, I set a beautiful zigzag of a skin track to the plateau-like summit of the mountain. From the top, the views extended westward into the Purcells, their jagged, steep and pointy granite peaks contrasting sharply with the all-encompassing, wide Central Rockies. At this point, we also stood on the Great Divide. Needless to say, I felt like I was standing on the roof of the world.
But one needs to eventually come down from the roof. And what better way to do so than on skis? The quality of the snow was surprisingly good on the face we had ascended – it was facetted and did not possess any mashed potato qualities, despite the warm temperatures. We knew the skiing was going to be good. It was so good, in fact, that I consider this line to be one of the best of my entire season. Looking back on the beautiful lines we had carved in the snow, I felt utterly satisfied and was ready to kick it back at the hut. We crossed the glacier once more and skied back to the hut. Was it going to be deserted again?