Day 3 - Balfour Hut -> Lilliput Mountain -> Balfour Glacier -> Hector Lake -> Hwy 93!
I woke the entire hut up at 07:00 on Sunday morning by turning on the stoves and lighting the lanterns. I paid for it by being recruited to help change the outhouse barrel! I won't go into detail on this except to say that the best way to ruin your morning appetite is to change an outhouse barrel. That is some nasty business my friends...
By 08:30 we were packed up and ready to re-ascend the high col with heavier packs than the day before. I took some medication for my cold, hoping that it would be enough to get me through the day.
The grind up to the high col on Mount Balfour went fairly well. TJ set a nice slow pace so that I could make it without dying. After 2 hours we were once again taking in the fabulous views from the col at over 10,000 feet. Lilliput Mountain looked close - but looks can be very deceiving on an ice field. We decided to unrope at the col in order to facilitate a 'Super G' glacier run towards Lilliput Mountain. Ben led off and we were surprised to see him straight-line it, he usually does some turns even at the cost of speed / distance. When we looked closer we could see that he was obviously survival skiing, he looked like a crazy mountain man flopping all over the place, almost out of control!
This is not how Ben normally skis and as we ski'd straight down behind him we soon found out why he was looking so off balance; the glacier looked smooth from above but once we worked up our speed (especially with the heavy packs) there was some large sastrugi that were waiting to surprise us! I honestly thought I was going to die. OK - maybe not die but at least break a leg or snap an ankle. We couldn't turn on the hard snow drifts so we had to keep going straight down the glacier at full speed over 12-16 inch high drifts of hard snow. As I flew down the glacier I desperately tried to keep my balance by any means necessary. Having tired legs didn't help but in hindsight it must have looked pretty hilarious. I still don't know how we all made it through but we did. The sastrugi eventually gave up trying to kill us and we all came to a very relieved stop.
To ascend Lilliput Mountain we stayed as high as possible while traversing over a fairly low angled alpine bowl on the west slopes of the ridge leading to the mountain, above the glacier on skier's left. This bowl was being cooked by the sun but didn't seem unstable as we traversed over the upper part of it so we felt OK with skiing down it once we got off Lilliput. Ben decided to ski up Lilliput while TJ and I felt sorry for our ski bases (lots of rock) and hoofed it on foot instead. The summit view was fabulous, once again we were blessed with clear skies, light winds and an endless panorama of peaks. Looking down at our descent route on the Balfour Glacier got us pretty excited. It was a busy weekend on the Wapta with tracks everywhere and most ski-able terrain was tracked out by now but not a single human mark interrupted the acres of snow on the Balfour Glacier - we were certainly going to be the first ones down it in a while!
We made short work of descending Lilliput and took turns skiing down the southwest bowl, back onto the glacier. From there it was a plod around the south end of Lilliput and then back up to the Balfour Glacier. The views of Lilliput's impressive west face and pillared ridge along with views of Mount Temple, Daly, the Goodsir's, Niles and many other peaks surrounding the Scott Duncan hut kept us entertained while we plodded under yet another gorgeous bluebird winter sky. The last time I experienced weather like this in the winter was on the Watpa on February 11, 2006 when I skied Mount Olive and St. Nicholas and I've been waiting for a repeat ever since. Four years was worth the wait - and I was getting three whole days of it!
Once over the col between Lilliput and the Balfour Glacier we found ourselves looking down at acres and acres of virgin, untouched snow. Ben charged down the white blanket, making nice easy turns and TJ and I followed close behind. This was the best skiing of the whole trip - by far! I tried to link Ben's turns and TJ was off in his own world, carving fresh tracks in the unblemished surface. The snow was perfect - not so deep to slow us down but just deep enough to allow easy turns. The warm sun prevented a wind crust from ruining our fun like it had on other parts of our traverse. (The Balfour Glacier is very low-angle so that's why just a few inches of soft snow was so great.)
As we got lower on the glacier, the terrain really started to tighten up. From above it looks like there is no possible way off the ice field. Steep walls of hanging ice and rock conspired to block our way but as the terrain tightened we just kept going, carving turns past the steep walls and into a tight canyon. Generally we stayed skier's left to access the canyon but the terrain pretty much took us there automatically. Once in the canyon we slowed down and admired the incredible scenery. Waterfalls of blue ice poured over the steep rock walls above us and a thin line of snow beckoned us further down the canyon, deeper into it's unknown depths. Across the canyon were towering walls of rock with frozen waterfalls still desperately clinging on to them. Soon the canyon narrowed even more and we were looking down at what is sometimes referred to as "the tunnel".
Anyway we think this must be where the tunnel used to be, or maybe usually is. It's the only place we came across on descent that even closely resembled a tunnel. It's really a waterfall that just happened to have enough snow on it to let us ski right down it. I was intimidated by the steep and narrow gully but TJ and Ben skied it like pros. It was very interesting terrain! If you ever go this way - this is definitely the crux and with warmer weather the waterfall could be pure ice. You will need to rappel this section if it is. Going up could be lots of 'fun' if it's pure ice and you don't have crampons along. You would never get up. That's probably why the guidebook mentions that this is a tougher ascent than descent route. I agree. I would not ascend this way for a few reasons; it's a long way from the highway and there's no way to tell what the crux section will look like 'til you've gone all the way back there. Turning around at the crux would mean a 25km trip that got you nowhere! Even if you bring ice gear there is significant avi terrain all around the lower route from the alpine bowl to the Balfour Glacier and travelling uphill is always much slower than going down.
In order to sell Ben and I on his crazy idea, TJ took liberty with the map distance reading and confidently declared that we would 'only' have around 7km to go after bailing the Balfour Glacier. I'm here to tell you it's a lot further than that! We traveled out of a very warm and peaceful back country valley and onto Hector Lake at a fairly good pace but even then it took 2 hours of skiing to finally reach the treed shoreline on the southeast end of the lake. (Ben and I figured the distance to be more like 10-11km...)
Skiing across sections of the lake was interesting, there was about 1 foot of snow, then 1 foot of slush / water and then some ice! I actually filled my water bottle simply by digging down through 1 foot of snow and then dipping my bottle in 6" of fresh, cold water right beside our ski tracks. Obviously the ice was thick enough to hold us but it was a bit weird to be skiing on water and snow.
The day was starting wane as we finally made the shore of Hector on a fairly obvious path. From here it still took a while to reach the road - much longer than I expected. It was over 1km through the bush and trees, sometimes on a good trail and other times not, before we finally climbed a steep snow bank and collapsed onto highway 93 - still 27km from our truck! A small miracle occurred when 10 minutes after finally reaching the highway the last car of ACC girls drove by and stopped, thank goodness!! TJ did a happy dance for 5 minutes before getting in with them and going back for his truck. 20 minutes later and we bombing down highway 93 back to civilization.
Dinner in Lake Louise with our two hitch hiking rescuers, Nathalie and Jaime, completed a very good weekend in the mountains.
Gorgeous morning sunrise on Balfour Mountain as we make our way back to the high col from the Balfour Hut (click to view full size):
Snow and ice fall from the glacier on the east face is an objective hazard on the ascent to the high col on Mount Balfour (click for full size):
Massive holes wait to swallow unsuspecting skiers:
TJ looks longingly at the quick access route to the south ridge of Balfour as we get up to the col. It's in the shadows just under the rockband in the center of the photo (you can spot the 'shrund running through the route).
Ben gestures at Mount Balfour.
Mount Balfour from the high col:
Skiing towards Lilliput Mountain with Mount Daly right in front of us (click for full size):
Looking back at Mount Balfour from the ascent of Lilliput Mountain:
Ascending Lilliput Mountain:
Summit panorama including Mount Daly and Mount Balfour (click to view full size):
Mount Gordon, Olive, and Thompson from the summit of Lilliput Mountain:
TJ on the summit of Lilliput Mountain:
Vern on the summit of Lilliput Mountain:
Our exit 'tunnel' off the Balfour Glacier as seen from Lilliput (looking interesting!):
The Goodsir Peaks show up over the 'cone' between Mounts Niles and Daly. This is also the ski route to the Scott Duncan hut from Sherbrooke Lake:
Heading around Lillput's south end (we'll contour skier's left to get to the Balfour Glacier). The Scott Duncan hut is to our right here (out of the picture):
TJ with Mount Balfour way off on the left and Lilliput just to his left (click to view full size):
Looking back at our route onto the Balfour Glacier wind scoop. The glacier is to the right of the picture over the big snow drift. Mount Daly and Niles are on the left. (Click to view full size)
TJ stands on top of the Balfour Glacier. Lilliput Mountain and Mount Balfour on the left and the Wapta stretched out in front. (Click to view full size)
Ben and TJ meet up after a run. Endless, trackless snow and sublime high altitude views. What else do you need? (Click to view full size)
How do we get off this thing?
Skiing one last time under Mount Balfour:
Our escape route!
Incredible scenery that rarely sees humans:
Exiting the Balfour Glacier on a beautiful February afternoon. Balfour towering above.
Skiing out of the bowl:
TJ breaks trail out of the bowl:
Making our way across Hector Lake. It's a looonggggg way!
Looking back at our exit gully. It's even further than it looks... :-)