The past few weeks have been a skier and snow climber's dream in the Alberta Rockies with stable snow conditions and good overnight freezes. Steven Song and I had already taken advantage of this with the summit's of two mountains I'd been waiting years to climb - Mounts Collie and Ayesha.
While coming back from Ayesha we had a conversation about the coming weekend and what we could possibly do if the weather / conditions were favorable. Eventually we settled on a day trip of Trapper Peak. The standard email invites went out and when the dust settled it was once again only the two of us left standing - I sense a theme here! ;) Trapper Peak is not well advertised. Other than a report on the old RMBooks forum and a Google Album there isn't much beta out there. The one thing we knew we needed for a safe trip up Trapper was stable snow and a good weather report. Both were in play on Sunday, May 11 2014 with a solid overnight freeze, cool temps all day, low-low-low avy risk and the promise of brilliant sunny skies over the Wapta!
(It should be noted at this point, that my wife deserves yet another huge kudos to being cool with me getting up at 02:30 and coming home at 18:00 on Mother's Day. She truly understands what makes me tick and I love her for it.)
Once again I found myself waking up at the ridiculous hour of 02:30 and bombing down the highway to pick up Steven who was sleeping in his car along hwy 1. Considering the time of day, I took some chances with speeding and we made it to the Peyto approach parking lot by around 05:15! Speed does kill though - in this case a cute bunny rabbit paid for my impatience to getting skiing. :( To be perfectly fair to me though, s/he was a bit dumb. I slowed down and gave it lots of time to turn around but it decided to continue jay walking across hwy 93. Dumb, cute bunny.
We started the day good by avoiding the typical tree bash to the old road from the parking area. I knew that if we walked 200 meters north along hwy 93 we'd be able to drop in directly on the road. This saves a lot of early morning frustration, but on this particular day we were due for some anyway. In our eagerness to start crossing the lake, we followed the first (and most recent) set of tracks off the road bed into the trees. Quickly I realized these folks didn't have a clue where they were going - or at least where the normal winter trail goes! All I'll say is that while we made it to the lake eventually, it involved heavy bushwhacking on skis.
The promised overnight temps provided us with an incredible layer of solid snow both in the trees and on Peyto Lake. Our skins barely gripped the hard layer and we zipped across the lake pretty fast. Not as fast as two others who were ahead of us though! They skate-skied across the entire lake on pretty skinny skis. My theory is that they picked this perfect opportunity of weather / conditions to cross the Wapta in one day (about 45km and LOTS of height gain/loss). The way they were traveling they could easily have done this feat of endurance. I thought I was hallucinating due to lack of sleep when I first spotting them flying across the lake ahead of us!
The Peyto Lake approach to the Wapta is interesting. Looking at that bloody huge moraine first thing in the day - not to mention the looming summits of Rhondda and Habel behind it - is always a little bit intimidating. In some ways I actually prefer this approach to the Bow Lake one, simply because there's a lot more going on and the views are stunning (if you have them...). In other ways I hate this approach because you feel like you've climbed a mountain before you even get to the glacier.
[Starting early - we're already on the lake as the sun starts to rise on Mount Rhondda (06:00'ish)]
[Looking through the narrow gap towards the moraine at the back of the lake.]
[The skis come off as we negotiate around the open stream]
The moraine had excellent coverage. The only issue was that the tracks we were following were frozen so hard that our skis couldn't quite get into the track. This meant a lot of slipping and sliding around, so that eventually I just put the skis on my pack, strapped on my crampons and boot packed to the top! Much easier and safer as a slip would not be fun on some sections of the moraine. We were treated to sublime views from the top of the moraine and soon afterwards found ourselves on the glacier (finally!). It only took us 2 hours to reach the glacier due to excellent travel conditions so we weren't complaining. We kept moving though - the sooner we were on Trapper's steep snow slopes the better. The air temps were cool but the strong spring sun was part of the mix too.
[Looking towards the moraine as Peyto catches the morning sun]
[Steven comes up the lower moraine]
[Time to boot pack!]
[Vern carrying his skis - photo by Steven Song]
[Traversing a steep slope near the top of the moraine. Everything was locked up tight.]
[I love this view from the top of the moraine - except for the fact that it shows height loss to the glacier!]
[Steven comes down past the research station buildings]
We chose a pretty good line up the glacier to the base of Trapper. I was surprised to see ski tracks, both ascent and descent, going right over the heavily crevassed climber's left glacier underneath Peyto Hut. Snow coverage was obviously very good or there would be a few people in those holes! I cautioned Steven that this was not the regular route to the hut. Avoiding the temptation to stay on climber's right of the glacier, we contoured up to the left and eventually found ourselves facing a couple of options to tackle Trapper. Option 1 had us traversing pretty steep terrain, exposed to small cornices the whole time and ending at a col. From there we'd traverse along a ridge to the base of the infamous rock outcrop where we'd traverse onto the steep snow climb to the upper ridge. Option 2 had us ascending a huge snow slope directly up to the upper ridge, exposed to a massive cornice for part of the climb but more direct and quicker than option 1. Both options had risk but given the excellent snow (still frozen up and bonding well) and the fact that option 2 was quicker, we chose that one.
[I was surprised to see all these ski tracks over the heavily crevassed glacier beneath Peyto Hut - but obviously the cracks are well filled this May]
[Steven ascends the ramp with Habel, Baker, Tilly, Trapper and Peyto from left to right.]
[Big terrain - but small compared to the Columbia Icefields. At least on the Wapta you make progress every 1/2 hour! Baker, Tilly, Trapper and Peyto from L to R.]
[Steven with Trapper rising in the background]
[Looking back over Peyto Hut with Thompson rising above]
[Ok - now Trapper is starting to look more serious...]
[Looking back up the Wapta, Olive and St. Nicholas are now showing.]
[Looking up at our intended route. It's much steeper than it appears from this angle - note the cornices.]
We skied as high as possible (it was tough going on the hard surface - ski crampons were required) before ditching the skis and continuing on foot. I should note that leaving our skis where we did was not without risk either. A slide while we were on the summit or coming down would have completely buried them which would have made the trip back out very difficult. Again - we made our decisions based on field observations and you should never just do something because "someone else did". In general you shouldn't ditch your skis under an obvious avy hazard, but then again, in general you shouldn't climb directly up one either! ;)
The boot pack to the summit ridge was like slowly boiling a frog - where we were the frogs of course! The 'temperature' of the slope started out pretty calm but by the time we had about 20 vertical meters to go, the slope was seriously exposed and very steep! The snow was bomber but I didn't like the brilliant spring sunshine on the huge cornice above us. Steven broke trail most of the way and deserves credit for it. We were lucky due to conditions and also due to the fact that the cornice had broken off in one spot and we could access the upper ridge fairly easily directly from the slope. The conditions of the upper mountain were a bit of a surprise though. I guess I hadn't paid enough attention to Kev's comment in his thread about 'exposure' to the summit. We had tons of snow on the north side of the ridge and some of the terrain reminded us of the experience we'd had on Mount Collie. I would say that the conditions we had on the summit ridge were more difficult than the snow climb - certainly any slip or slide would be fatal on this section. The north side also had more of a 'slabby' feel to it which was unnerving.
[We boot packed past this sucker - the 'normal' route goes from the col on the right and over this cornice.]
[I purposely darkened this photo to show our kick steps as we continue to climb the snow slope]
[It's a kick-pause, kick-pause slow motion dance to the top of this slope - all the while giving nervous glances at the overhanging cornices above...]
[A view of the icefields from near the ridge top]
[This was probably the most exposed section on Trapper - definitely didn't want to slip or have bad snow here! Thankfully this is the north side of the ridge, but the snow was a bit less consolidating here which made it a bit spicy.]
By the time we finally perched ourselves on the tiny summit snow drift we were feeling that Trapper wasn't quite as 'simple' as we'd been expecting! We both think that Trapper deserves the same respect and conditions that Collie does. Extremely stable snow and confidence on big, exposed snow ridges / cornices. It took us around 5.5-6 hours to reach the summit from the parking lot in about as perfect conditions as you can get.
[The summit view from Trapper is very good - this is looking north, east and south]
[Looking towards Tilly Peak and Mount Baker]
[Mount Baker is also a steep snow climb, but not nearly as steep as Trapper!]
[Excellent views to the west]
[Mount Mummery and the Freshfields]
[Barbette with Howse in the background.]
[Peyto with Willingdon in the background]
[Mistaya is a fine objective too - especially when you combine it with Caldron Peak as a day trip... ;)]
[Vern on the summit of Trapper Peak - it's VERY bright out there!!]
[This is the terrain near the summit of Trapper that we had to traverse]
We didn't linger too long on the summit, even though the views were sublime. Even though the snow conditions were awesome, we didn't want to push things too much either. The descent of the upper ridge was a bit of a test of nerves. On ascent you can ignore the abyss as it grows below, but on descent you stare right at it! We took our time and kicked solid steps with our crampons - absolutely essential hardware up there. The top of the giant snow slope was hard to down climb - it was so steep you couldn't just step down, but had to awkwardly move your legs to the side in order to lower your other leg to the next foothold.
After descending facing inward for a bit I got tired of that business and started plunge-stepping forward instead. My anti-balling snow plates on my crampons made this possible, Steven's crampons were balling up like crazy and he didn't feel safe turning around until he was much lower. We didn't waste any time at our skis but quickly transitioned them on and blasted off that slope. The skiing was incredible on the still-hard snow surface. Turning was effortless as we swooped down the glacier and out of any avalanche paths before stopping for a well deserved break in the brilliant sunshine. Not a breath of wind bothered us as we looked back at our tracks and contemplated another amazing snow climb on the Wapta. I told Steven he was now ready for pretty much anything on the Columbia Icefields - everything there is just bigger - but the skills are the same.
[The exposure off the tiny summit snow drift is pretty severe - kind of reminded me of West Twin but smaller.]
[The exposure on the other side of the summit isn't much less severe!]
[One of my favorite Wapta shots - Steven surveys the vast ocean of rock, snow and ice from the descent ridge.]
[Not for the faint of heart...]
[You can see our ascent tracks beneath Steven and the rock we drop onto the snow slope beside.]
[Carefull step kicking on descent]
[Looking back up at our tracks to the summit (out of sight)]
[Dropping back onto the snow slope - I darkened this shot so our tracks are visible]
[Vern descends the snow slope - photo by Steven Song]
We took some nice long breaks on the way back but the skiing was fast and the snow held up amazingly firm the whole way. We even managed to once again get lost in the bush between Peyto Lake and the parking lot - following a different set of tracks than in the morning! We ended up south of the parking lot - I'm still not sure how that happened but I was glad to see the car about 10.5 hours after leaving it.
[The fun part! Skiing down on perfect snow - still rock hard and fast.]
[A zoomed in shot of our track up the snow slope - you can see how it gradually steepens near the summit ridge.]
[Tele shot of Peyto Hut]
[Back at the research station on the moraine]
[The weather is still gorgeous and the snow very supportive as we work our way back over the moraine]
[Looking back at the descent of the moraine - ski tracks at center right]
[The canyon would not be safe today]
[Done the Peyto Lake ski! Caldron rises on the right.]
[An interesting building we came across in the bush while getting lost on our way to the parking lot. It even had plastic chairs hanging from the roof! ;)]
Trapper Peak is a wonderful summit to attain. It is yet another challenging / exposed snow climb on the Wapta - it will certainly leave you with a feeling of accomplishment when you finally stand on it's tiny summit with an ocean of snowy peaks in every direction. You'll feel even better when you're safely out of range of it's massive cornices... ;)