Wapta in a Day

Continuing with our recent interest in paring multi day traverses down into one, Luke and I headed out on March 29th to have a go at sending the ultra classic Wapta icefield traverse in a day. The Wapta in a day started as an early season pipe dream for us, but gradually morphed into something frighteningly realistic as the season progressed. After firing the Three Pass Traverse in a day a few weeks prior, we felt pretty confident in our ability to get the Wapta in a reasonable amount of time. With weather looking perfect and my being gifted an extra day off at work, it was time to get it done.

Alarm at 4:00, a nice big breakfast and I headed off to meet Luke at West Louise. His alarm hadn’t gone off and he was running a few minutes late, so I took a much appreciated cat nap in the parking lot. We got the gear organized and headed up the parkway, trying not to think about how far away Bow Summit felt. At around quarter to eight we clicked in and began a fairly unpleasant downhill bushwhack towards Peyto Lake. We’re still not sure if it was any faster than just skinning across the whole thing, but no day is complete without a little impenetrable underbrush, and we got it out of the way early.

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Looking up, Peyto hut out of view on the far left.

Fast travelling conditions got us across the lake and up the moraines relatively quickly, and we made it to the vicinity of Peyto hut in around three hours. There is tons to ski up there, we’ll definitely have to come back on a more relaxed time line.

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Let’s come back and ski that, and that, and that, and…

A little bit of trail breaking was required for a while, but travel was still good and I was feeling great, so it got done quickly. We coasted, skins on towards Bow hut and then beelined it towards Olive – St. Nicholas Col. The day was stunning, windless and bluebird. Neither Luke or I had actually done the traverse before and we both marvelled at the views and lines which surrounded us.

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A lot of flat between our lunch spot near Bow hut and Olive – St. Nick. col (on the left, in the rocks)

As we approached Mt.Olive, my great feeling from earlier waned a little and I found myself feeling the effects of the day so far. Luke was now in charge of the pace and I put my head down, eventually feeling better by the time we hit the col. I guess the prospect of a descent will do that. Skins off, and down we went, straight lining directly towards Balfour Hut. I can’t speak for Luke, but I was meticulous about waxing my skis the night before, pretty much going full race tech on them. It paid off as we just barely coasted to the front door, saving ourselves some annoying flat skinning.

After a fairly long, comfortable break in the sun we grudgingly put the skins back on and headed up towards Balfour high col. Luckily for us, there was a skintrack in and we both felt surprisingly energetic, so we made short work of the climb. The Wapta is, by and large, very flat. It’s spectacular in its vastness, but mostly lacks the rugged appeal of steep, broken glaciated terrain. Balfour high col is the exception. Flows of blue ice crumble into imposing seracs and icefalls all around. The terrain is steep enough for switchbacks, so elevation, and views are gained quickly. Topping out on the col was certainly one of the day’s highlights for me. I practically gave myself a neck injury peering in all directions at the sea of recognizable summits. Eight hours into the day and we were at our high point, just above 3000m.

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Luke and some ice. On the way to Balfour high col.

Another straightline style descent, complete with routefinding to avoid what appeared to be some enormous holes had us in the rough vicinity of the Scott Duncan hut. We were less than thrilled to see how far it looked to Niles – Daly col, but skins on and heads down, it went more quickly than we expected (though still much slower than we would have liked). Sloughs thundered off of the nearby solar aspect on Mt. Daly, providing the sole acoustic counterpoint to our endless footsteps and breathing. Despite its popularity, the Wapta is an amazingly quiet, still place.

One last transition at the col and down we went, cutting a path through thick, isothermal garbage snow towards Shrebrooke Lake. Already despicably flat, the lake had developed a breakable temperature crust at this point in the day, ruling out skating and forcing us to pole along instead.

I can still feel my triceps. It was at this point I left a powder basket-less Luke behind. Sorry Luke.

I’ve never seen a finish line I didn’t want to sprint for, and with a fair bit of energy remaining I did just that. Obviously a fast time was well out of the question by this point, but I was more than happy to settle for a respectable one. I pinballed down the summer trail and back to the car in 11 hours and 13 minutes. Luke turned up some 15 minutes later and that was that. A big goal for the season ticked off, and both of us left wondering what we could do in a full 24 hours. Hmmm….

Both of us were on our usual big day AT gear; Dynafit bindings, 100+mm underfoot skis (G3 Zenoxide 105s for me and, to his distinct credit 4frnt Hoji’s for Luke). Proper boots and nylon skins rounded out the gear list. There’s really no point to such heavy kit up there, but it’s what we had. It’s not as though we’d have been contending with the inhuman times posted by the skimo crowd anyway, and the goal was never to be fast. It was to finish, preferably in daylight. We accomplished that, and I think I can safely say we’re both stoked. It was an awesome boost of confidence heading into the spring mountaineering season, and I’m excited to see what lines up next.

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