Summit Elevation (m): 2545
Elevation Gain (m): 1250
Round Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 8
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2/3 – You fall you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risks. Learn how to manage these risks and perform avalanche burial rescues before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
After reading a number of trip reports over the years on Emerald Peak in Yoho National Park, I was fairly certain I wanted to ski this summit. A favorite summit shot looking straight down the 4000 foot avy path to Emerald Lake is usually captioned with “can you imagine this on SKI’s?!”. Yes, now I can! And it’s pretty spectacular my friend. Kev Papke, Bill Kerr and myself met Raf and Helen in the Emerald Lake parking lot. By 09:30 Bill and I were skinning along the lakeshore trail, a few minutes ahead of the others. The reason we were in such a ‘hurry’ is that it was -16 degrees in the parking lot and we were freezing cold!! I was expecting a much warmer day and was a bit grumpy with the freezing temps – but we’d warm up quickly once we started climbing.
Soon (less than 5 minutes) we came on the very obvious avy path. It was kind of strange to look up the giant slide path with images of the many warning signs at the trailhead regarding “dangerous slide paths” going through my mind – and we planned on skinning up this thing for 3-4 hours and then skiing back down it! Ah well. Life is short right? (Obviously avy conditions were stable or we wouldn’t have made this attempt. Do not try this route unless you are very confident in your snow stability assessment skills.)
Bill led the way up the obvious skin track. The track started up fairly low-angle and was a pleasure to ski. The bottom of the slope was very skied out, which kind of sucked but you can’t win ’em all. After about 10 minutes of uphill travel we started to warm up significantly. By the time the other three showed up on the bottom of the slope I was wondering why I left my thin finger gloves in the car. We kept a steady pace uphill and soon the sun peeked over Walcott and Burgess across Emerald Lake and we really started sweating!
The cool part about skiing straight up the avy slope is how foreshortened the whole exercise is. When you’re at the bottom of the slope looking up, you think “maybe 2-3 hours”. When you’ve been skiing for 2 hours and the summit still looks far away you start wondering how many hours it’s really gonna take. You also start realizing why this slope can slide BIG when it does let go! You have potentially 4000 feet of snow all channeling down one chute. This baby would make quick a splash in Emerald Lake if it let go in the springtime. I could see it running right to the lodge area if the ice was thick enough to hold the flow. Apparently it’s been many years since the whole slide path went – there’s several benches which catch smaller slides, before they can become monsters.
The skin track up became much steeper once we gained the first bench. It also did some strange, inexplicable side adventures into thicker trees on climber’s right of the slide path. I’m sure whoever set the track was trying to be safer by staying out of the main path on ascent but I kept wondering, if conditions were making you nervous enough to do light bushwhacking on ascent, why bother with this trip? Would you not also be worried about the descent? 🙂 It was very nice to have a solid skin track though, and soon we were approaching the second bench, above tree line and just below the intimidating upper bowl of Emerald Peak. At this point we could see two skiers getting ready for their descent from just beneath the summit – they stopped their upward track before crossing what we later considered the most exposed and dangerous slopes of the day just beneath the summit ridge.
Once at the upper col on Emerald it was time to traverse steep slopes to the summit. I knew that most people get suckered too far to climber’s left so I wanted to angle around to the ridge and then up to the right on the lowest angle possible. Bill thought we should aim more left so we did that. There were a few pockets of really dicey snow – wind slab on top of nothing but sugar. These areas were isolated pockets – most likely on top of rock outcrops on the slope – but they still made me a bit nervous.
We hit the ridge ASAP and took the ski’s off to traverse up the ridge to the summit. On hindsight we should have angled up to the right and either kicked steps or even skied right to the summit but this would have involved some time on wind loaded slopes anyway so probably not as safe as our route was. The summit ridge was engaging and had some fun sections – nothing too exposed or difficult. We topped out to a gorgeous, jaw-dropping summit panorama and almost no wind. The perfect day to be on a Rockies summit in winter.
Eventually the others joined Bill and I at the summit and we enjoyed some moments eating and hydrating before the cool wind forced us to retreat back to our skis. This was Helen’s first ski summit and we were all impressed with her stamina and determination to make it – she’s a real Rockies peak bagger now. We had no issues returning on the ridge except for nearly losing Bill to a moat just past the crux.
The descent was awesome. The snow was a bit sun affected down low and there were a lot of tracks interfering with our turns the lower we got, but the upper 2/3rd’s of the slide path were amazing skiing. Bill and I both want to come back with more powder on the slope – but of course that’s a double-edged sword considering it’s a slide path. Without a doubt, Emerald Peak will go down as one of my favorite ski peaks.
There aren’t many Canadian Rockies summits that can be skied completely from summit to car but this one is amazing! Just be careful if you are heading out to do it – there are other options that are much safer and less exposed to the very obvious avalanche hazard on this route, including Andrew Nugara’s snowshoeing route. But seriously, do you really want to snowshoe this amazing ski run?! 🙂