Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit (Opabin Plateau)

Elevation Gain (m): 500
Round Trip Time (hr): 4-8
Trip Date: October 1 2010
Total Trip Distance (km): 16
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: This is a high line traverse in an alpine setting which requires fitness and many layers of clothing for changing weather.
Technical Rating: TL4; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

After spending one of the most enjoyable and gorgeous fall days of my hiking / scrambling life the day before on Schaffer, McArthur Lake and All Souls Prospect, I woke up on Friday morning, the first day of October ready for another fantastic outing. I was hiking over frost-nipped ground by around 07:30 after breakfast and an excellent cup of Starbucks instant coffee. The air was crisp and cool but the sky was clear and I felt great after a pretty good sleep in the hut. Huts can be extremely noisy and cramped but stuffing my ears with TP combined with being pretty tired after a long day and a wake up time of 04:00 helped me sleep despite the snoring of Bob the artist beside me!

Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit Route Map

My route for the day was to wander into the upper Opabin Plateau area, taking advantage of early morning light and the pools / lakes for photography. After wandering around and visiting Hungabee and Opabin Lakes I would traverse the Yukness Highline trail to Lake Oesa. After exploring that area for a while I would take the Wiwaxy high-line trail to the Wiwaxy / Huber col and from there I would attempt Wiwaxy Peaks (east peak) as a scramble. After that it would be a quick hike back to Lake O’Hara and then to the Elizabeth Parker hut.

Looking back at Mary Lake and Cathedral mountain as I gain height into the Opabin Plateau. The two summits of Wiwaxy rise on the right.

As I wandered around the upper Opabin Plateau area I was struck by two things;

  1. How lucky I was to have the health, time and money to explore areas like this!
  2. How rare it must be to have such accessible, well maintained (trails) and wild scenery and to have this wild scenery all to MYSELF. I was the only person wandering around up there until at least 10:00!
A panorama of the Moor Lakes (distance) and Hungabee Lake (closest) as I work my way up the headwall to Hungabee Lake.
Opabin Lake with Yukness, Ringrose, Hungabee and Biddle (L to R).

There are cairns and an obvious trail working it’s way all the way up to the Opabin Glacier. This is the climber’s approach route for Hungabee and that’s why there is this unofficial trail. Along the way I discovered what I think is a bivy spot containing some sort of waste container. There was nothing in it – so I really don’t know what that container was for. As I approached the glacier I could see that I was probably not going to make the pass.

The Opabin Glacier is tame, but is quite broken and requires crampons to get up and down safely.

The glacier had some surprisingly big crevasses in it and with some fresh snow on the upper part and no partner or crampons in my pack I wasn’t going to fool around on it alone. I thought I’d press on just for fun anyway. I turned back after trying to ascend a bit of Hungabee’s lower slopes on climber’s left of the glacier and have some rocks zing past me from above! This gives me a good idea of the stability of Hungabee for when I climb it – there is none! I reluctantly turned around and hiked back towards Opabin Lake.

The stunning green color of Opabin Lake.
Hungabee Lake reflects Mount Odaray.

Once past the lake I scouted around for the Yukness Ledge route to Lake Oesa and started along it. This is a wonderful hike on some exposed terrain granting sublime views of the O’Hara region. Once again, the route was very obvious with limited exposure.

Gorgeous Lake O’Hara.
Mary, O’Hara and Yukness Lakes. (L to R) Wiwaxy at far right
The ledges high line traverse is one of my favorite hikes I’ve done in the Rockies.

After losing some hard won elevation, I found myself at Lake Oesa. The lake was very quiet and I spent almost an hour at it, snacking and pondering life. Then it was time to get back to ‘work’. I had a peak to bag. The trudge up to the Wiwaxy – Huber col was enjoyable. Most people seemed to be doing it the opposite way (I was doing all my work at the end of the day) but the trail was obvious and the views kept getting better and better. If you’re not used to loose and somewhat exposed hiking you may not love this section of the high-line traverse.

Descending from the Ledge Route to Lake Oesa with Lefroy (L), Glacier (C) and Ringrose (R) looming above.
Starting the grunt to the Wiwaxy / Huber col. Lefroy Lake, Yukness Lake and Lake O’Hara at bottom.
Lake Oesa with Victoria, Lefroy, Glacier and Ringrose (L to R) rising above.

At the col I met Anthony, who was a parks employee from Yellowstone National Park in the USA. He was waiting at the col for better light on Ringrose and Hungabee. I told him my intentions of going up Wiwaxy East and he said he’d wait for me to get back before heading down. I turned my attention towards the mountain looming over the col to the west.

Wiwaxy and the col are now clearly visible with and obvious route towards them. Wiwaxy doesn’t look too easy from this angle!

After successfully summiting Wiwaxy East Peak, I descended back to the col before joining Anthony for the hike back down to Lake O’Hara. In gorgeous late afternoon sun light we descended the very steep trail to the lake.

Oesa, Lefroy and Yukness all dumping into O’Hara at lower right with Yukness dwarfed by Ringrose, Hungabee and Biddle.
An incredible sunset panorama from the shoreline of Lake O’Hara.

The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit route links up a number of popular trails in the Lake O’Hara region and is, in my mind, one of the most mind blowing, reality altering hikes you can do in any mountain environment, anywhere – especially if you do it in late September and have the place almost entirely to yourself like I did.

Sunrise on Odaray (L) and Cathedral (R) looking west from the east end of the lake.

The morning after the circuit hike, I spent some time photographing the views around Lake O’Hara itself, including the lovely Seven Veils Falls on the far east end of the main lake.

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