On Thursday, February 18 2010 a group of us lit up the interweb with a flurry of emails regarding the upcoming weekend. The reason we were so excited was the weather forecast's promise of an imminent stretch of bluebird days over the Rockies, specifically in the Wapta Icefields area. The Wapta is like any other ice field in the Rockies. If there's even one measly little cloud in the forecast, chances are very high that you will be experiencing a white out once you get onto the glacier. It's just the way the weather patterns work with large expanses of snow and ice when there's any moisture around. Another bonus was the very favorable avalanche reports - somewhat of a rarity for a February snow pack in Alberta.
I suggested we go for Mount Baker. I had recently read a trip report that for some reason got me interested in that peak. Almost immediately TJ responded with "BALFOUR?!?!". I was instantly in favor of his suggestion over any other objective. For the past 2 years I've wanted to climb Mount Balfour pretty badly. It's the highest mountain on the Wapta and is visible from many other summits in the area. It also has a bit of a reputation around gaining it's lofty summit - many people attempting it get turned back in white out conditions or high avalanche concerns. The infamous "Balfour high col" is an area of the Wapta that has turned back many folks and even resulted in some serious incidents thanks to its elevation and the presence of some massive crevasses. After another 78 emails to find a third person for our rope, Ben Wards agreed to join us and we promptly reserved 3 spots with the ACC for Friday and Saturday night at the Balfour Hut.
Day 1 - Bow Lake Parking Lot -> Vulture Peak -> Balfour Hut
We left the Bow Lake parking lot at around 09:30 on Friday morning - not thinking we'd need too much time to get to the Balfour Hut. The weather was gorgeous, notwithstanding the 10 degree difference between the parking lot and Bow Lake! TJ is absolutely convinced that somehow Bow Lake is the coldest place on the planet and he just may be right about that. The parking lot was -9 and Bow Lake was -19 and it's only 100 meters or so from the parking lot to the lake. Something's up with that.
[Nice in the Bow Lake parking lot - not so nice about 500 meters further across the lake!]
[Coldest place on the planet? Maybe not, but I've spent many winter mornings skiing across Bow Lake and it's usually pretty darn frosty - this day was no exception. Portal Peak looming on the right.]
My pack felt heavier than usual since we were packing food, gear and clothing for 3 days and usually I'm only going on day trips to the Wapta. We still made decent time, 2 hours to the Bow Hut. We could see strong winds blowing off the Vulture ice cap but the sun was warm and visibility was perfect. After a quick break outside the Bow Hut we continued up towards St. Nicholas Peak on a good skin track.
(Warning: The Bow Hut has an energy sucker in it somewhere. If you stop too close to the hut on the way up the Wapta - or even worse go into the hut - you will find yourself without any energy left to continue your trip. This has been verified by many people other than myself, consider yourself warned.)
[Looking back as we start our approach up the Bow Hut Canyon - Jimmy Simpson at upper left.]
[Great skin track up the terrain trap that is the Bow Hut / Glacier approach route. Vulture Peak looms way off in the distance.]
[Near the end of the trail through the canyon, there's a few steep rolls to get up out of it onto slopes to climber's left. These pose the biggest risk of sliding, but on this day they're concrete-hard.]
[The classic shot of a skier approaching the final slopes to the Bow Hut which is somewhere at center-right in the sunshine. The hanging Vulture ice cap threatens the route with serac fall and avalanches and calves off regularly. Vulture Peak is out of sight to the upper left.]
[TJ waits for Ben and I at the Bow Hut with The Onion above to the left.]
It was such a gorgeous day on the Wapta that we hardly noticed our heavy packs once we gained the crest of the glacier and were privy to a panorama of snowy peaks and bluebird skies. We spotted a party of around 10 people going up Mount Gordon as we labored our way up to the St. Nicholas / Olive col. TJ suggested bagging Vulture Peak on our way to the Balfour Hut and it seemed like a good idea given the perfect weather conditions. We also had plenty of time and the peak didn't look like too much work from the col. It took more energy out of me than it should have to go back up Vulture from the low point after the col but I'm blaming my head cold for that! We were very surprised by the age of the register (16 years) and the relatively few entries in it.
Considering how accessible this peak is on the journey to Balfour Hut we weren't even expecting a register. Reading through the entries was a who's who of local climbing legends including Barry Blanchard and others. Apparently not many people consider this peak in their efforts to reach the hut in time. Their loss, because the run down from Vulture Peak to the Balfour Hut is pretty much a glacial Super G run! The views from Vulture were amazing and we were quite excited to see Balfour's awesome summit looking very inviting - and a wee bit intimidating.
[TJ and Ben follow a well-worn skin track up the headwall above the Bow Hut that gives access to the Wapta Icefield. St. Nicholas looms on the upper left. Remember this view as St. Nicholas looks pretty darn insignificant about 24 hours later from the summit of Balfour!]
[Iconic shot of an impressive looking St Nicholas (R) with Vulture Peak at center and Crowfoot on the left. ++]
[I never get tired of scenery like this! Here we are traversing under St. Nicholas' west face with Gordon on the right and Olive at center.]
[Looking back as we ascend to the Olive / St. Nicholas col over the Onion towards Jimmy Simpson and Observation with Thompson and Portal on the left.]
[A gorgeous view of Mount Collie. It took me another four years, but I did end up climbing this fantastic peak in April of 2014.]
[A large group on the lower slopes of Mount Gordon with Des Poilus and Collie in the distant bg.]
[What a day to be alive and in the hills. View west from the Olive (L) and St. Nicholas (oos R) with Mount Gordon at center. ++]
[I have great memories of climbing St. Nicholas Peak along the ridge at left back in 2006 as a two peak day combined with Mount Olive.]
[It's an easy traverse from the St. Nich / Olive col to the summit of Vulture Peak - you can even make out the large radio tower if you look hard enough.]
[TJ breaks trail up Vulture - there was just enough coverage to ski it. This peak catches all the wind howling off the Wapta Icefield to the west and is often windblown scree slopes.]
[Wow! There's the king of the Wapta - Mount Balfour rises dramatically in the distance.]
[Interesting register entry.]
[More interesting names.]
[Summit view looking over Crowfoot and Balfour (L), the twin summits of Olive (C) with Thomson, Portal and Jimmy Simpson on the right. ++]
[Looking up hwy 93 towards Murchison with Thompson on the L, Patterson and Jimmy Simpson at center and Weed, Observation on the R.]
[Mount Hector looms to the east with Little Hector on the left.]
[Balfour in all its glory, presents a somewhat intimidating east face. The high col is just left of center, the only patch in sun light.]
[Victoria, Hungabee, Huber and Biddle (L to R) loom over Mount Daly. Lilliput is at center left - a mere bump compared to the other peaks around here!]
[Mount Temple rises above the Balfour Glacier that we used for our exit - I want to go back there and ski that blank canvas all over again.]
[Mount Forbes with the Lyells to the right of its summit - well, four of the five Lyells anyway! From L to R, Walter, Ernest, Edward and Rudolph.]
[Another Wapta giant, Mount Baker rises to the left (note the skiers at bottom left?) with Tilly Point at center and Trapper Peak just to its right.]
[The double summit of Mount Olive with a major couloir splitting the two summits, that can be skied in good conditions]
[Ben, TJ and Vern on the summit of Vulture Peak.]
As Ben completed some nice, slow turns in the ankle deep snow on the south slopes of Vulture, TJ and I straight-lined it past him at mach 1! We were trying for a glide all the way to the hut and almost made it too. This is the number one reason to bag Vulture Peak. You get a great line down the Vulture Glacier to the Balfour Hut with very little crevasse dangers since you're more in the middle and skier's left of the regular route from the St. Nicholas / Olive col.
[Starting our super G run down to Balfour Hut.]
[Balfour Hut is tiny under the huge east face of Balfour.]
[A clear look back at the twin summits of Mount Olive along with the steep couloir that can be used to access the Balfour Hut in good conditions.]
The hut was very warm, humid and devoid of life when we opened the door. After making supper and getting our packs ready for the next day we heard voices and spotted a group of three coming towards the hut from the Diaberlet Glacier. They were three guys who seemed pretty relaxed, one of them was from Scotland on the tail end of a 3 month post doc break before getting into the real world of J-O-B. A few 'medicinal' puffs and some whiskey and they were very relaxed! ;-)
[TJ nears the Balfour Hut. Click here for our route (red line) up to the Balfour high col the next day. The green line variation is another route that is commonly used but has objective hazards from the east face.]
[TJ approaches the tiny R.J. Ritchie / Balfour ACC Hut.]
TJ broke out his crib board and proceeded to whip Ben at the first game. Ben then proceeded to whip me afterwards - but I didn't get skunked! (I let him win so he'd break trail for me on Balfour - that's my story and I'm sticking to it.) We crashed around 21:00 with some clouds and wind moving in over the shadowy form of Mount Balfour looming over the tiny hut.
[Balfour at sunset from near the hut - Olive at far right. ++]
Day 1 Stats:
Total Distance: 16km
Height Gain: 1350m