As I inch closer and closer to that magical 100th summit of my illustrious (!!) scrambling career that started with Ha Ling peak about 6 years ago, I am realizing how unique each and every one of those peaks has been - and at the same time how similar they start to get!
Case in point is Sunwapta Peak. Most people wouldn't dream of attempting the second highest (to Temple) peak in the Kane book in early April but then again, Sonny and Vern are not most people! ;-) I was originally planning to tangle with Tangle Ridge but Sonny 'forced' me to reconsider since he's just completed that one. It didn't take much to convince me and apparently Kelly Smith is also a sucker for punishment because he was in the parking lot at 05:00 along with Sonny when I got there.
[This is the first wolf I've seen in the wild. The funny part is he just laid down and looked at us after we stopped along hwy 93 to look at him.]
Sunwapta reminded me mainly of two other peaks. The lower part reminded me a bit of Mount Stephen but mostly it really got me thinking about Mount Sparrowhawk. If you've climbed Sparrowhawk you'll realize that this isn't necessarily a compliment to Sunwapta.
For anyone considering a ski ascent of Sunwapta I would have to say, "Good Luck with that"! I wouldn't even try it with less than 10 feet of fresh snow at the highway level and even then good luck with all that snow on the slopes higher up. We were quite surprised by the roughness of the initial trail through the trees. There must have been a wicked wind storm in the recent past because like on Sparrowhawk, whole sections of the trail were completed covered with a huge mess of fallen timber.
Sonny and Kelly set a good quick pace up the steep section of trail and soon we were passing by an impressive frozen waterfall set in a narrow, deep canyon. After snapping some pictures we continued up the trail, it was so warm I was in my t-shirt. Eventually we started to crack tree line and the massive open slopes of the mid and upper mountain were staring back at us. It looked like there was quite a bit of snow and I started to wonder if we'd make it.
[Every trailhead is different. Every trailhead is a place of anticipation.]
[Kelly poses beside the beautiful waterfall on the way up the trail beside the creek.]
As we started out of tree line I became even more doubtful. We were going through pockets of snow that swallowed us past the knees and I knew there was no way we could do 1000+ meters of that! We pushed on and surprise! The snow began to hold our weight! I think the snow still slowed us down a bit because we'd sink a couple of inches with every step and sometimes I'd still plunge past the knee.
I picked a small notch on the ridge high above and started angling over to the right (east) to some exposed scree on the skyline ridge. On hindsight we should have gone straight up the broad slope but since I didn't know what the avi conditions were above it and since the angle was right around 33-37 degrees I played it safe on the way up and cut across the slopes to a thinner snow base further east.
[Just to get to this point involved 700 meters of height gain through the trees. The notch on the ridge near the label is what I kept concentrating on. I didn't realize that I had 350 vertical meters from there yet!]
[Can you find Sonny? The open slopes above tree line are quite vast. You walk for half an hour and you're no closer to the goal...]
[Sonny is a bit more obvious in this picture! Doesn't he look happy? ;-)]
This is where it would've helped to have a clear blue sky. The temps where fantastic and there was no wind but that slope is bloody long! Honestly, it seemed to go on forever. It took so long to finally reach that small notch on the ridge I could hardly believe it. Then I made the mistake of looking at my altimeter. We still had 350+ meters vertical to go!! I asked Kelly at this point if he wanted to break trail for a while but he politely turned down what I thought was a very generous offer...
[The views off the ascent slope towards Mount Kitchener were very nice - even with sub-par weather conditions.]
From this point to the summit is kind of a blur. We all turned around as the roar of an avalanche filled the air but none of us spotted anything. I noticed a very dark and thick band of clouds coming at us from the south and figured we had about 45 minutes to greyout conditions. My estimate was bang on and soon we were trying very hard to determine where ridge ended and cornice started. It was actually kind of scary for a bit because the clouds were really thick. Upon a momentary thinning in the fog, Kelly are I were in disbelief as we realized that our 'summit' was really another false bump and the real summit looked to be miles away yet! We cramponed up because some sections were becoming icy. A little bit further on and optical illusions started to fool us.
[Looking the other way off the ascent slope reveals more lurking giants ready to be climbed!]
[Tangle Ridge is another scramble along the parkway. It's only 1100 meters height gain.]
In one of the weirdest illusions I've ever experienced in the mountains, Kelly and I had a long discussion about a cliff band that appeared far up on the slope and wondered where the ridge ran and how to break through it. I started to walk up the slope and about a minute later our 'cliff' turned out to be a rock about 2 feet high! This experience gave me a healthy respect for climbing in foggy / whiteout conditions - i.e. try not to! ;-) In another twist, we topped out at the summit cairn almost right after the 'cliff' - when we thought the slope still looked enormous.
[The first false summit on the way up held some beautiful cornice scenery.]
[A panorama on the way up, looking over the Icefields Parkway includes from L to R, Tangle Ridge, K2, Kitchener, Cromwell, Mushroom, Diadem, GEC, Nelson, Smythe, Gong and McGuire. ++]
[Another panorama on the way up, looking east towards Le Grande Brazeau from the ascent slope. I couldn't get any pictures from the top since it was buried in clouds. ++]
[An impressive view from the ascent slopes looking at the north face of Diadem.]
After clicking a few pictures (no view at all due to the clouds) and placing a new register we started back down. This is where the trip got more fun - anyway for Kelly and I! Sonny's pants wouldn't slide because the angle of the slope was almost not enough to glissade and the snow was not quite hard enough, but Kelly and I could just get enough speed to make it worthwhile. Kelly and I proceeded to take a ride down about 2,500 feet (at least) of Sunwapta - the longest glissade I've ever had, and the slowest!
[Sonny makes his way up to the summit under thick cloud cover.]
[Kelly, Sonny and Vern at the summit of Sunwapta Peak.]
[I look back at Sonny as I leave the summit - again, in very thick clouds.]
After waiting for Sonny at the bottom of the open snow slopes we proceeded back to the car on a muddy / slushy trail and arrived back at the trailhead about 8 hours and 15 minutes after starting out. I would seriously recommend making Sunwapta an early season object IF snow / weather conditions permit. That endless slope is not too bad to kick up and it certainly is among the longest glissade you'll ever get. It does have potential to avalanche but I would think it's pretty low - especially in the conditions we had. I would not recommend skiing this mountain unless there's a pile of snow because you'll be carrying your skis up at least 700 meters through pretty thick tree cover first, followed by marginal skiing.
[Kelly descends the trail back though the trees.]
[One of many broken and twisted trees that make the lower trail of Sunwapta a veritable tangle to navigate through. Have fun in this section if you attempt to ski this mountain! About 10 feet of the white stuff will help!]
[Sonny celebrates the victorious scramble by emphatically stomping on the trailhead cairn.]
One regret I have is that we didn't have clear weather for such a lofty peak. The view was good but it could have been incredible with clear skies.