Day 2 - Balfour Hut -> Mount Balfour -> Balfour Hut
TJ's alarm woke up the hut by going off repeatedly every 2 minutes for half an hour as TJ slept blissfully unaware of the annoyance with his industrial strength ear plugs. By 07:00 Ben had the lights on and the water boiling and we reluctantly left our warm sleeping bags for breakfast. TJ finally decided it was time to wake up and shut down his alarm. I barely managed to choke down some Nutri-grain cereal bars and some instant Starbucks coffee while TJ and Ben stuffed themselves with as much oatmeal as humanly possible. Even though there was some hurricane force gusts of wind and some clouds moving over the glacier we decided that we should go for Balfour and hoped the forecast would hold and the weather would improve over the day. We also decided to rope up for the ascent to the Balfour high col, even though there was a clear skin track all the way up. There are some snow bridges to cross and roping up just seemed like a good idea. (Considering the terrain I would not recommend a rope-less ascent here - even though skiing with a rope is a bit of a PITA at times.)
We ascended about 120 vertical meters before getting the rope out and getting it rigged for crevasse rescue. Ben led at a sustainable pace and soon we were passing by the impressive seracs on Balfour's east face. The track we followed went up the lower route (climber's left) which is a good ascent route IMHO. The upper route looks exposed to a very active hanging glacier and we noticed fresh debris and small avalanches from cornice failure along the upper route. Balfour looks big from the hut but much bigger when you're struggling up to the high col. As we passed over some gaping holes near the top of the route we were glad we roped up and surprised by the size of a couple of the slots. This is not an area I would like to be in a white out! On our right side was massive blocks of hanging glacial ice, looking ready to peel off at any second and on our left was a rock face with black holes of blue ice waiting to swallow unsuspecting skiers. Good visibility or very keen route-finding is necessary on this route.
[TJ skis towards Mount Balfour in great early morning lighting. It looks fairly intimidating with high clouds swirling and heavily crevassed hanging glaciers on the east face. ++]
[Our route will go up the left hand side of the lower moraines before cutting up under the east face.]
[Looking back at Ben and our approach trail. You can see the terrain is fairly steep already here. The Vulture Glacier in the background with Olive on the left and Vulture on the right.]
[TJ and Ben come up behind me - we have already gained a few hundred meters here.]
[We're roped up now, heading up to the col at upper right.]
[Ben skis up under the heavily crevassed east face of Mount Balfour. This is where we started crossing bridged crevasses. ++]
[Beautiful view over the Vulture Glacier from high up near the Balfour Col. In good weather, this is a special place.]
[Ben stops for a breather. Here you can see the objective dangers of traversing under the east face - hanging serac regularly calve off and plunge onto the bench below.]
[The upper col is much flatter - there are crevasses here and people have gotten lost in white out conditions and even died by wandering too far to the left. The possible shortcut to the upper ridge of Balfour lies to the right, just out of sight in the shaded bowl in front of Ben here.]
As we approached the Balfour high col, TJ pointed to a steep snow route up to the South ridge from our (the east) side and commented that the snow was probably stable enough to head up it. Ben and I made some discouraging remarks and ended that suggestion but upon returning home and doing some research I realize that this is a route that some folks take on Balfour. This shortcut would certainly save a lot of time, provided you managed to stay out of the obvious schrund and didn't get avalanched off the east face on your ascent!
[Ben tries to figure out where the heck we're supposed to go! We ended up descending down the ridge (opposite of this photo) before realizing that we were originally close to the correct descent slope which is about 200m up the ridge in the foreground and bails off to climber's left in front of the obvious rock rib.]
I suggested we follow obvious ski tracks up the southeast ridge from the high col. I remembered reading about a party that looked for the descent notch too far south, so I wanted to avoid that mistake by staying high on the south ridge from the col. We gained another 100 meters of elevation before stopping for an energy boost. At this point we still hadn't found a way down to the glacial bench on the west side of Balfour that was supposed to give us access to the upper mountain. Everywhere we looked off the ridge was hundreds of feet of rocky cliff bands plunging vertically to the glacier below. Ben pulled out his map and confidently stated that we should be further south and much lower to find the notch. After unsuccessfully searching for a feasible way down, TJ finally glanced at the map and ordered us back UP the ridge. We were way too far south. My legs weren't happy as we retraced our route back to our break spot and about 1 minute further up the ridge to the notch!
I'm not as used to steep, snowy terrain as Ben and TJ and was more intimidated by the steep, snowy, rubbly route down from the notch to the glacial bench then they were. Technically you actually go down just south of the notch, anyway we did. The route looks very steep from above but isn't that bad once you're on it. I wouldn't want too much snow clinging to this slope - it's exposed to the sun and definitely steep enough to slide. It's probably a good thing it's so steep - loose snow won't stick to it! After descending about 100 meters we decided to put our skis back on for the traverse and re-ascent of the south ridge. We left our skins on since we had already decided to gain the south ridge as soon as possible. Our other option was to ski much further up the glacial bench before ascending the south west face of Balfour under the summit block but given the very strong sun and the exposure and run-out of this slope we didn't feel comfortable doing it on this particular day.
[Skiing back to the descent slopes, we will descend left just ahead of this spot before contouring around the rock rib in front of Ben and regaining the upper snowy ridge of Balfour.]
[Looking back at the steep descent slopes down the SW slopes from the upper ridge to the lower Balfour Glacier.]
Ben led us up a short but very steep and sun-exposed slope to gain the ridge. This was probably the diciest snow slope we were on all weekend. The snow pack was shallow and crusty with typical Rockies sugar underneath. We didn't linger any longer than necessary on it. Once on the south ridge we ditched our skis and proceeded on crampons to the summit. Ben broke trail for us all the to the top. There were a few thoughtful moments along the way when we traversed (climber's left) onto steep snow or probed carefully for cornices to make sure we were still on rock but the views kept us entertained the whole way. What a gorgeous, gorgeous day in the hills this was turning out to be!! It's been a long time since I've experienced anything quite like this day. Blue skies, a nice cool breeze and peaks and glaciers falling away from us like waves on a white ocean of snow and ice gave us an incredible day of climbing on the Wapta's highest mountain.
[This was the diciest slope we climbed on Balfour. You can see that it's already very sun exposed and definitely steep enough to slide. We didn't take our time up this section either on ascent or skiing down it later.]
[TJ looks down the slope we just came up - the ridge we avoided behind him.]
[Ben leads up the steep ridge - Mount Olive and Vulture glacier far beneath us now to the right.]
[Looking down the steep snow face we ascended (L) and the Balfour Glacial Bench / Rock wall with Daly and Niles in the distance and the approximate route line drawn in.]
[Great views over the south face of Balfour towards The Presidents. ++]
[Towering over other Yoho summits now, looking towards Lake Louise over the Daly / Niles col with Temple, Lefroy and Victoria clearly visible.]
[What a gorgeous summit panorama from the Wapta's highest peak! We were privileged to take in these views in every direction. ++]
[Looking down the ascent ridge over the Balfour col and Lilliput, which looks like a mere bump on the ice field below. The route we took the next day up Lilliput and down the Balfour Glacier marked in red.]
[Vern on the loftiest summit of the Wapta - Mount Balfour! I waited many years to stand on this summit and it was worth the wait.]
The summit view did not disappoint. Countless peaks in every direction greeted us, including distant ones like Sir Sanford and the Bugaboos. We spent some time relaxing and drinking in the views before descending back down the ridge.
[Mount Forbes is the highest peak in Banff National Park. South and North Twin in the distant background on the right, The Lyells to the left.]
[Looking far to the north over Collie (out of sight to the left) towards Rostrum Peak.]
[More distant Freshfield summits including Trutch, Gligit, Helmer and Barlow.]
[Looking over Arete Peak deep into British Columbia.]
[Mount Sir Sanford is impressive from this angle! At 11,545 feet high, it is the loftiest peak in the Selkirk Mountain Range.]
[Mount Vaux is still a favorite summit of mine.]
[Looking over Mount Stephen with the huge Goodsirs looming beyond.]
[Cathedral on the left with Owen at center.]
[Biddle, Niles, Hungabee, Victoria and Lefroy.]
[Mount Temple looms over Aberdeen and Haddo Peak.]
[A slightly wider view of the Glacial bench running down to Niles with Temple in the bg at left and Vaux on the right.]
[Looking down the ascent ridge with tiny Lilliput at center.]
[Looking over the Wapta to the north over Arete, Des Poilus, Collie, Ayesha and Gordon (L to R)]
[Looking over the tiny Balfour Hut (lower right) up the Vulture Glacier.]
[Willingdon, Harris, Crown and South Tower.]
[Mount Hector was another great summit with TJ, Little Hector on the left.]
[The distinctive forms of Douglas and St. Bride at the left.]
[Our exit the next day will be via the flats at lower left to Hector Lake.]
[Howse and Chephren loom over Mount Patterson.]
[The many Murchison Peaks with Mount Cline at right.]
[Mount Cline at left with Corona Ridge, Noyes, Jimmy Simpson and Mount Weed (L to R).]
On our way down we met a couple from Revelstoke ascending our tracks with skis on their backs. They were intending to ski down the south face from the summit ridge but as we got lower we looked back and they were coming back down the ridge. Probably a good choice given the exposure of that slope, although on hindsight it probably would've held up fine. I'm pretty sure they didn't make the summit either which is too bad since they got awfully close.
[A wide spot on the descent ridge.]
[Descent was quick.]
The ski back down the south facing slope off the ridge was better than expected. I messed it up but Ben and TJ made short work of it. I was sucking wind getting back up to the notch but eventually I huffed, puffed and wheezed my way to the top and we were ready to ski back to the hut. We descended the glacier unroped but carefully and slowly around the snow bridged holes and soon were back at the hut - about 1:45 minutes after leaving the summit of Balfour.
[The upper ridge looks intimidating from lower down.]
[Careful down climbing on the ridge.]
[Prepping for the steep ski down to the glacial bench.]
[Climbing back up the steep slope to the Balfour high col.]
[The couple from Revelstoke are barely visible on the massive ridge (right near the top).]
[Descending back to the Balfour Hut.]
[Ben and TJ are skiing quickly back down to the hut.]
We had some pleasant conversation over supper and afterward TJ, Ben and I had a 3 man game of crib. I let them win again because they were doing such a good job of breaking trail for me. Next time - watch out boys! After gazing at the map for a few minutes, TJ suggested a very interesting trip possibility for the next day. It involved climbing back up to the Balfour high col before ascending little-known Lilliput Mountain and then exiting the Waputik via the Balfour Glacier and Hector Lake. This was an intriguing route because none of us knew anyone personally who'd done it before. I wrote our plans in the hut log book and from that point on we were committed to trying it. One interesting side effect of our route off the Balfour Glacier was that we were going to end up 27km from our vehicle. We talked to the group that was sharing the hut with us and asked them to stop for us if they saw us hitching at the end of the day on their way home.
Later in the evening I spent some time outside trying to photograph the hut with the brilliant display of stars and sliver of moon lighting up Mount Balfour in the background. I got some decent shots but nothing spectacular. I learned some stuff though, so next time I'll do a better job. When I got back inside I was very surprised to find everyone in bed already! By 21:30 the lights were out. One of the best days I've had in the Rockies yet.
[A cheery hut under a star-filled cold winter sky.]