Summit Elevation (m): 3272
Trip Date: February 20 2010
Elevation Gain (m): 1300
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Reference Trip: Vulture Peak
Total Trip Distance (km): 10
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something. Unless you’re caught in an avalanche or a 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.
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps
Day 2 – Balfour Hut -> Mount Balfour -> Balfour Hut
TJ’s alarm woke up the hut by going off repeatedly every 2 minutes for half an hour as TJ slept blissfully unaware of the annoyance with his industrial strength ear plugs. By 07:00 Ben had the lights on and the water boiling and we reluctantly left our warm sleeping bags for breakfast. TJ finally decided it was time to wake up and shut down his alarm. I barely managed to choke down some Nutri-grain cereal bars and some instant Starbucks coffee while TJ and Ben stuffed themselves with as much oatmeal as humanly possible. Even though there was some hurricane force gusts of wind and some clouds moving over the glacier we decided that we should go for Balfour and hoped the forecast would hold and the weather would improve over the day. We also decided to rope up for the ascent to the Balfour high col, even though there was a clear skin track all the way up. There are some snow bridges to cross and roping up just seemed like a good idea. (Considering the terrain I would not recommend a rope-less ascent here – even though skiing with a rope is a bit of a PITA at times.)
We ascended about 120 vertical meters before getting the rope out and getting it rigged for crevasse rescue. Ben led at a sustainable pace and soon we were passing by the impressive seracs on Balfour’s east face. The track we followed went up the lower route (climber’s left) which is a good ascent route IMHO. The upper route looks exposed to a very active hanging glacier and we noticed fresh debris and small avalanches from cornice failure along the upper route. Balfour looks big from the hut but much bigger when you’re struggling up to the high col. As we passed over some gaping holes near the top of the route we were glad we roped up and surprised by the size of a couple of the slots. This is not an area I would like to be in a white out! On our right side was massive blocks of hanging glacial ice, looking ready to peel off at any second and on our left was a rock face with black holes of blue ice waiting to swallow unsuspecting skiers. Good visibility or very keen route-finding is necessary on this route.
As we approached the Balfour high col, TJ pointed to a steep snow route up to the South ridge from our (the east) side and commented that the snow was probably stable enough to head up it. Ben and I made some discouraging remarks and ended that suggestion but upon returning home and doing some research I realize that this is a route that some folks take on Balfour. This shortcut would certainly save a lot of time, provided you managed to stay out of the obvious schrund and didn’t get avalanched off the east face on your ascent!
I suggested we follow obvious ski tracks up the southeast ridge from the high col. I remembered reading about a party that looked for the descent notch too far south, so I wanted to avoid that mistake by staying high on the south ridge from the col. We gained another 100 meters of elevation before stopping for an energy boost. At this point we still hadn’t found a way down to the glacial bench on the west side of Balfour that was supposed to give us access to the upper mountain. Everywhere we looked off the ridge was hundreds of feet of rocky cliff bands plunging vertically to the glacier below. Ben pulled out his map and confidently stated that we should be further south and much lower to find the notch. After unsuccessfully searching for a feasible way down, TJ finally glanced at the map and ordered us back UP the ridge. We were way too far south. My legs weren’t happy as we retraced our route back to our break spot and about 1 minute further up the ridge to the notch!
I’m not as used to steep, snowy terrain as Ben and TJ and was more intimidated by the steep, snowy, rubbly route down from the notch to the glacial bench then they were. Technically you actually go down just south of the notch, anyway we did. The route looks very steep from above but isn’t that bad once you’re on it. I wouldn’t want too much snow clinging to this slope – it’s exposed to the sun and definitely steep enough to slide. It’s probably a good thing it’s so steep – loose snow won’t stick to it! After descending about 100 meters we decided to put our skis back on for the traverse and re-ascent of the south ridge. We left our skins on since we had already decided to gain the south ridge as soon as possible. Our other option was to ski much further up the glacial bench before ascending the south west face of Balfour under the summit block but given the very strong sun and the exposure and run-out of this slope we didn’t feel comfortable doing it on this particular day.
Ben led us up a short but very steep and sun-exposed slope to gain the ridge. This was probably the diciest snow slope we were on all weekend. The snow pack was shallow and crusty with typical Rockies sugar underneath. We didn’t linger any longer than necessary on it. Once on the south ridge we ditched our skis and proceeded on crampons to the summit. Ben broke trail for us all the to the top. There were a few thoughtful moments along the way when we traversed (climber’s left) onto steep snow or probed carefully for cornices to make sure we were still on rock but the views kept us entertained the whole way. What a gorgeous, gorgeous day in the hills this was turning out to be!! It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced anything quite like this day. Blue skies, a nice cool breeze and peaks and glaciers falling away from us like waves on a white ocean of snow and ice gave us an incredible day of climbing on the Wapta’s highest mountain.
The summit views did not disappoint. Countless peaks in every direction greeted us, including distant ones like Sir Sanford and the Bugaboos. We spent some time relaxing and drinking in the views before descending back down the ridge.
On our way down the summit ridge we met a couple from Revelstoke ascending our tracks with skis on their backs. They were intending to ski down the south face from the summit ridge but as we got lower we looked back and they were coming back down the ridge. Probably a good choice given the exposure of that slope, although on hindsight it probably would’ve held up just fine. I’m pretty sure they didn’t make the summit either which is too bad since they got awfully close.
The ski back down the south facing slope off the ridge was better than expected. I messed it up but Ben and TJ made short work of it. I was sucking wind getting back up to the notch but eventually I huffed, puffed and wheezed my way to the top and we were ready to ski back to the hut. We descended the glacier unroped but carefully and slowly around the snow bridged holes and soon were back at the hut – about 1:45 minutes after leaving the summit of Balfour.
We had some pleasant conversation over supper and afterward TJ, Ben and I had a 3 man game of crib. I let them win again because they were doing such a good job of breaking trail for me. Next time – watch out boys! After gazing at the map for a few minutes, TJ suggested a very interesting trip possibility for the next day. It involved climbing back up to the Balfour high col before ascending little-known Lilliput Mountain and then exiting the Wapta via the Waputik Glacier, Balfour Creek and Hector Lake. This was an intriguing route because none of us knew anyone personally who’d done it before. I wrote our plans in the hut log book and from that point on we were committed to trying it. One interesting side effect of our route off the Waputik Glacier was that we were going to end up 27km from our vehicle. We talked to the group that was sharing the hut with us and asked them to stop for us if they saw us hitching at the end of the day on their way home. Later in the evening I spent some time outside trying to photograph the hut with the brilliant display of stars and sliver of moon lighting up Mount Balfour in the background. I got some decent shots but nothing spectacular. I learned some stuff though, so next time I’ll do a better job.
When I got back inside I was very surprised to find everyone in bed already! By 21:30 the lights were out. One of the best days I’ve had in the Rockies yet.