Sunwapta Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3315
Trip Date: Saturday, April 8, 2006
Elevation Gain (m): 1750
Round Trip Time (hr): Unknown
Total Trip Distance (km): 13
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you might sprain your big thumb
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties – this one is a long, steep hike. When done in winter it can present significant avalanche exposure.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps

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.

Sunwapta Peak Route Map

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. 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.

Just to get to this point involved 700 meters of height gain through the trees. There’s another 800m of gain at this point!

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.

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.

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 avy 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.

Mount Smythe has a distinctive form.

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…

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 grey-out 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.

In one of the strangest 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! (Since this trip I’ve experienced this illusion in similar conditions on the Columbia Icefields a few times.) In another twist, we topped out at the summit cairn almost right after the ‘cliff’ – when we thought the slope still looked enormous.

Sonny makes his way up to the summit under thick cloud cover.

After clicking a few pictures in the limited views 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.

Another panorama on the way up, looking east towards Le Grande Brazeau from the ascent slope. Nigel Peak at right with Stewart hidden in cloud at distant center.

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.

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.

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