Summit Elevation (m): 2650
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 28
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: The route passes under some severe avalanche terrain on Mount Redoubt and involves significant distance and height loss / re-gain. Be prepared for variable snow conditions too.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
On Sunday, January 24, 2016 I was joined by Mike Mitchell for a long ski tour up Unity Peak in the Skoki region of Banff National Park near Lake Louise. Due to a ‘considerable’ avalanche rating, specifically around ridges and wind loaded, faceted slopes, we had to be very choosy with our choice of ski tour. Originally I was planning to ski Mount Turner, but the weather forecast was calling for snow flurries and essentially 100% cloud cover for most of the day which defeated the point of ascending a peak with great views! For some reason, Lake Louise had a better forecast with some chance of views, and since both Mike and I have done multiple Skoki peaks before, we weren’t desperate for views off Unity – they would be a nice bonus for all that work though. So why was our tour almost 30km when most folks manage a much shorter day on Unity Peak? Simply – we wanted to avoid as much avalanche terrain as possible. The normal routes up Unity either involve a sketchy avalanche slope from the Purple Mound (as part of the infamous Pumpkin Traverse – which does exit our approach route), or a scree / thin snow pack scramble up steep slopes between Unity and Redoubt from Wolverine Valley. Avoiding thin, rocky, windblown slopes was a no-brainer so we choose to do the last half of the Pumpkin Traverse as both our approach and exit on Unity Peak. Now I’ve done the entire traverse – minus the sketchy part between Purple Mound and Unity – only I did it over 2 years via 2 separate trips. 🙂
Our day started off well with warm temps at the parking lot of around -3 degrees and a partially clear sky, which was totally unexpected until the afternoon. Mike set a furious pace up the Lake Louise ski-out and by the 2 hour mark we were grunting up the final ascent slopes to Boulder Pass with great views of Mount Temple opening up behind us. It helped that we had a great skin track the entire way to the pass – as usual, thanks to the Skoki Lodge snowmobile track set. From Boulder Pass we knew that the next 6km back around Redoubt’s steep east face, across Redoubt Lake and into the bowl on Unity’s northeast side would involve heavy trail breaking. We were right. We took turns breaking trail for the next 2.5 hours from ankle to boot top deep faceted and unconsolidated snow. The few times we encountered a firm snow pack, it would settle on us with an audible “oomph” and visible cracks. This encouraged us to seek out the safest terrain possible. We gave the steep avalanche slopes on Redoubt’s east face a wide berth by hugging the east side of Redoubt Lake as we crossed it in deep snow.
As we approached the end of the lake we had three choices for routes on Unity – which still looked a long ways off! We could descent 200m down the drainage from Redoubt Lake so the southeast. This would not be fun on return and would involve a long plod across more deep, unconsolidated snow towards Unity’s east ridge. A second option involved traversing some pretty serious avalanche terrain to our right, intersecting Unity’s northwest ridge and the col between Unity and Redoubt. This option was sketchy and we couldn’t even see the entire route from our vantage point.
The third route – and the one we ultimately chose – involved a slight descent and traverse of a snowy bench running south towards the Unity bowl, eventually dropping all the way down steepish, bouldery, treed terrain to valley bottom. The advantage of this route over the first one was the chance to lay down a fairly gradual descent track that we could skin up on return without blowing a heart valve. The tour was starting to feel long by the time we reached the gorgeous larch valley between Unity’s east and northwest ridges. The trail breaking was tough and I was feeling a distinct lack of energy thanks to being three weeks into a post-holiday diet. Mike thought it was at least 2pm and was shocked when I told him it was only 12:30! Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) we still had lots of time to make the summit. Here we had route choices and again, it was between the east and northwest ridges. To our right, we could ascend scree / snow slopes to the northwest ridge and join the ‘normal’ scramble route to the summit from there. The skiing didn’t look appealing with all that rock though. Across the larch valley, the east ridge looked skiable and easy to the summit, so that is the route we ended up choosing.
Crossing the larch valley was a bit tedious as we were feeling a bit tired, but before long we were trudging up gentle slopes to the east ridge. We had experienced no more instabilities in the snow pack since crossing Redoubt Lake and we were feeling pretty good about our route choices to this point. The views as we broke onto the east ridge of Unity were absolutely mind blowing – something we certainly didn’t expect given our cloudy forecast. The views of Bulwark Mountain, Armor Peak, Avens Peak and Pulsatilla to the east were especially great. We skied up the east ridge until the snow became very hard, where we ditched the planks and started up on foot. This section was tiring! Between kicking steps in rock hard snow, falling in rock / snow crevasses and plowing up knee deep snow drifts, by the time I finally popped out near the summit boulders I was more than ready for the top. The summit on Unity is an interesting, easy scramble on top of two large boulders. Our views were spectacular, including Lipalian and Purple Mound to the west and the immense Protection Mountain massif to the east. After hydrating and eating something we started back down for the long journey to our car – which ironically enough could almost be seen from the summit! 🙂
The slog back out was much easier than the slog in, thanks to a broken trail. We made about 15-20 nice turns down the east ridge of Unity before skiing back across the larch valley and up our descent track to Redoubt Lake. The stretch to Boulder Pass was made a bit shorter thanks to great lighting on the Skoki summits and before long we were taking off our skins for the 8km (mostly) downhill run to the parking lot from Boulder Pass. The ski out was fast, as usual, and we were very surprised to make it back just before dark with a round trip time of just under 9.5 hours.
As much as I enjoyed the ski tour and summit views off Unity Peak, it’s probably better done as part of the Pumpkin Traverse (in very stable avy conditions) than as a single day trip like we did. That being said, we did get some good exercise and managed to ski and summit safely in elevated avalanche conditions – something that’s not always easy to do.