White Pyramid

Summit Elevation (m): 3275
Trip Date: May 1 2009
Elevation Gain (m): 1650
Trip Time (hr): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 19
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something – unless you’re caught in an avalanche in which case you could die
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risks and some glacier travel on the summit ridge. Learn how to manage these risks and perform avalanche burial rescues before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps
Photos: View Album

When JW and TJ invited me on a weekend ski trip either up White Pyramid or Cathedral Mountain I was more than ready to join them. We decided on May 1 2009 for a White Pyramid ascent. I didn’t know a lot about this mountain, but I did know that it was a lot of height gain since it’s next door neighbor, Mount Chephren has been on my “to do” list for while, and it’s almost 2 km vertical gain and not much higher! We started bright (OK, not so bright) and early, leaving the west end of Calgary at 0:400. The drive was a bit slippery but other than one near death experience while going around a tight curve near Dead Man Flats we didn’t have any issues. About 5km past “the lake” we spotted a large pull out off the highway. Since the book doesn’t mention a pull out we knew we were technically not in the right spot but foolishly decided to go anyway. In my experience this kind of thinking rarely pays off and it didn’t really pay off for us either.

White Pyramid Route Map

We knew, based on a trip report from a colleague from the day before, that there was one snow bridge still spanning the Mistaya River and that this snow bridge would not be lasting much longer. We probably should have spent more time trying to find the tracks from this group because we ended up having to push over a tree and very gingerly cross a very open and unbridged river! This wasted about 30 minutes right off the bat. Another problem was that we ended up gaining about 75-100 vertical meters of ridge before heading back down to Epaulette Lake. Oh well. We needed the exercise anyway.

After Epaulette Lake we were on the tracks from Al’s group the day before and an ACC group from a couple of week previous. This helped immensely as we didn’t really have to route find and could concentrate on simply putting one foot in front of the other. Alpine ski touring is an interesting pastime. It’s a lot of work. The equipment is quite heavy and the terrain is generally steep and unrelenting, especially if you’re on a day trip and not simply crossing an icefield. Usually you also end up walking in your ski boots in order to actually attain the summit and Ski boots are not the most comfortable walking boots ever made. But it’s usually also worth it and today was no different.

We gained height very quickly after getting to the back of the valley and butting up against the north end of White Pyramid and turning climber’s right up the access moraine to the high col underneath the towering walls of the traverse to Epaulette Mountain. Further up the access valley we could see where Al’s party turned climber’s left and gained the ridge high above, snaking through boulders and scree to get there. Al had given us the suggestion to go right to the end of the valley instead of following their ascent tracks, so we followed their descent tracks further up towards the end of the valley rather than try to gain the ridge early. This was great advice and I would suggest that if snow conditions are stable enough you should do the same.

Eventually the skiing became so steep that we could hardly make the switchback turns! We had to lift our skis so high while turning that we were in danger of losing our balance each turn! TJ called out that he was going to go the rest of the way on foot and we peeled off the boards and headed up a very steep snow slope to gain the ridge above. About 75 vertical meters higher and we popped out on the ridge to some fabulous views of Howse Peak and the Blaeberry River valley. We decided to head up about another 30 vertical meters before roping up for the rest of the ridge – there are crevasses near the summit.

A spectacular spot for a coffee break on the west ridge of White Pyramid before we rope up and head for the apex. Howse Peak on the left.

As we stopped for a quick break and to harness up we looked around at the wonderful world around us. There wasn’t a breath of wind on the ridge and the sun was shining brightly and glistening off the world of white beneath our feet. We didn’t do much talking but rather sucked in the incredible views and enjoyed the moment of peace. Thanks to our altimeter watches we knew that we still had 600 vertical meters to go and it wasn’t going to be easy. We should have tracks to follow part of the way but since Al’s party skied part of the ridge we knew we wouldn’t be following tracks the entire way and we didn’t.

JW did a great job of leading up the soft slopes to the false summit. We looked for solid snow, solid rock or anything ‘solid’ but only ended up on soft, steep slopes of knee deep snow. We gained the summit of the bump by negotiating a narrow, steep gully that broke through a small cliff band. This was probably the only terrain that felt like it had the potential to slide on this warm spring day. The cliffs beneath Epaulette Mountain were thundering in the background from already early in the morning, dumping their winter coats noisily on the slopes beneath.

Howse and the Wapta Icefield at left, Blaeberry, Mummery, Freshfields and Forbes and Lyells at R.

What a spectacular day! There continued to be no wind whatsoever, and the views just improved as we got higher. Eventually JW turned over the lead to me and I slowed the group down considerably until we finally arrived at the summit of White Pyramid. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment on reaching the summit of this mountain – even more than Mount Hector a couple of weeks before. White Pyramid feels like a much bigger excursion than Hector and even though Hector has one of the best ski descents in the Rockies, White Pyramid isn’t far behind! For us, given our snow conditions it was actually better.

Chephren at left, Howse at right with the Icefields Parkway far below.
Views towards the huge Murchison massif with Saskatchewan crossing at distant left with Wilson rising above. Mount Cline just visible at distant center. Bison Peak at foreground right.

After 30 minutes or so on the summit in perfect spring conditions (slight breeze with clear blue skies and views to infinity) it was time to reluctantly head down. We made short work of the decent and soon were back at the skis. The ski down was nuts. I mean, I’ve caught good ski conditions before but this was the most fun I’ve had in a while on the planks. The snow was about ankle deep and in great condition, no slabby stuff at all. The sun was warm on our backs as we whooped and hollered our way down – at times like this you definitely don’t want the day to end. Swooping down the rolling terrain we felt young and free – a great feeling that brings a smile to my face as I remember it.

Reascending the notch on the west ridge.

All too soon we were down the fun part and back at Epaulette Lake. The rest of the trip out was uneventful. The creek was just like Hector with dead fall and tricky sections. We managed to avoid isothermal snow and the track was firm enough to hold us all the way out to the Mistaya River where we followed Al’s tracks to the snow bridge over the river. After crossing the river we strapped out skis to our packs and bush whacked a short distance to the icefields parkway.

A short 0.5 km walk brought us back to our car where we surprised a couple from the Netherlands catching some afternoon rays. When we told them where we had just gone I don’t think they totally believed us. The fact that JW was walking barefoot down the middle of the parkway with his skis on his back didn’t help our credibility too much!

Tramping down the Icefields Parkway in bare feet with skis on our backs and out summit impossibly far away at upper right.

What a great day out. It’s gonna be hard to beat this one this year but I’ll do my best to try.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.