Vulture Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 2957
Trip Date: February 19 2010
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 15.25
Reference Trip: Mount Balfour
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something. Unless you’re caught in an avalanche or crevasse – then you could die.
Difficulty Notes: Glacier route includes crevasse issues and steep snow slopes. Don’t minimize these risks and learn how to manage them before attempting this trip.
GPS Track Download (APPROX)Download GPX File
Technical Rating: MN6; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps

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.

Bow Lake to Vulture Peak to Balfour Hut Route Map

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.

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. 

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 above with Vulture and Crowfoot at left. Remember this view as these peaks will all look pretty darn insignificant about 24 hours later from the summit of Mount Balfour!

(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.)

Skiing up beside St. Nicholas with Thompson and Portal in the background.

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.

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.

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.

Summit view looking over Crowfoot and Balfour (L), the twin summits of Olive (C) with Thomson, Portal and Jimmy Simpson on the right.

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.

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.

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! 😉

Balfour at sunset from near the hut – Olive at far right.

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.

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