Summit Elevation (m): 2643
Trip Date: Saturday, March 10, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 1450
Round Trip Time (hr): 7
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: As a ski trip this outing involves traveling through and in some serious avalanche terrain – take normal precautions. Otherwise this is an easy scramble on a good trail almost the entire way – note this is a completely different route!
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
Ski Ascent – March 10 2018
Finally on March 10 of 2018 I managed to ski a peak that’s been on my hit-list for many years. 13 years ago, I’d scrambled Mount Field in Yoho National Park from a weird approach (the Stanley Mitchell Hut) with the infamous Dave Stephens. Since then a lot of my mountain friends had skied the peak from the opposite side and highly recommended it to me. Of course, because I’m a peakbagger I don’t normally like to repeat summits, but if the mode and route of the peak being bagged is completely different, it can be worth a second trip. In this case it was certainly worth it.
Wietse and I knew we wanted to finally get out on the snow sticks again on the weekend of March 10. I’ve only been backcountry skiing a few times this year, my highlight so far being the rather insignificant Quartz Hill / Ridge. Between resort skiing, my son’s hockey games, bad weekend weather (very cold) and a rejuvenating trip to Cuba, I simply haven’t had the time or desire to head out into the mountains for the past few months. By the time March rolled around, however, I was more than ready to ski something off-piste again. The avalanche forecasts were fluctuating as the weekend approached, so we made sure we had backup plans. Our two top choices were Niblock and Field but even as we met with Robin and Brad early on Saturday morning, we were still undecided. The forecasts had shot up from “moderate” to “considerable” at all zones for the Little Yoho area, but the fine print called for “low” risk in the morning. A typical Spring avalanche forecast – but one that requires an early start and careful evaluation of conditions as the daytime temperatures increase rapidly and destabilize the snowpack.
Since Mount Field supposedly has a pretty tame lower 2/3, we decided to at least attempt that part of the route. If conditions allowed, we’d continue up to tag the summit. I was the only one in the group who’d already stood at the summit cairn so I knew I wouldn’t be pushing the safety envelope. As we passed through Lake Louise, we briefly considered changing objectives to Little Temple (which I’d also already skied), but I remembered some pretty big terrain up there, including objective hazards from Temple’s seracs which could become active with daytime warming. Most of Mount Field’s ascent slopes are directly facing the sun at this time of the year, and I’ll admit I wasn’t too confident we’d make the summit when I first saw our route from hwy 1. We were committed to at least get our noses into it at this point. We parked near the Monarch Creek Campground and proceeded up the Little Yoho Road on a well-worn skin track. Be warned – this road is surprisingly flat until the switchback section. On approach it wasn’t an issue as we were chatting and full of energy. On egress the road sucked once we were down the switchbacks. We passed a group loaded for an overnight stay at the Stanley Mitchell Hut and soon after the top of the switchback section we noticed the skin track for Mount Field peeling off to our left and followed some fresh tracks up through light forest. It seemed like we were not the first up this popular objective, but we didn’t see anyone else in the vicinity, which was unexpected but welcome.
From the start of the lower ascent slopes the track led quite steeply upward, first on a fairly tightly treed rib and then up a shallow gully before skirting the edge of a slide path. There are obviously multiple routes up the lower avalanche gullies and treed terrain on Field, but I liked the fact that ours preferred staying out of the obvious avalanche terrain, sticking to occasionally thick trees on climber’s left of the lowest angled path. We could see multiple options for descent, especially as we worked our way higher. Knowing that we had over 1400m of height gain helped keep expectations under control – the view to the summit is very foreshortened from below! I knew that Field was pretty much the same height as Mount Ogden which loomed across the Yoho River Valley behind us and which I’d scrambled in August 2017.
As we approached the alpine, the snow continued to hold up really well despite being fully exposed to the morning sun. The temperature stayed cool with a cold breeze blowing into our faces as we climbed higher and higher. It was a perfect winter day to be out on skis and I was ecstatic to finally be enjoying another glorious ski day in the Rockies. It had been way too long since my last bluebird ski day in such great conditions! We worked our way up another shallow draw that looked perfect for descent, before working up and over some rolls and drifts towards the obvious crux above and slightly to our left.
The fresh skin track cut the slope high above us and it did look fairly steep – we still weren’t sure we were following the track across it or not. Interestingly, the crux on Field isn’t fully exposed to the sun thanks to being somewhat north facing on its steepest aspect. BUT – on the downside, it is also somewhat prone to wind-loading – thanks to its aspect. There was an obvious soft slab buildup as we continued to ascend to the crux, but it wasn’t reacting very easily, and we felt that conditions were still safe enough to make a quick dash (one at a time) across the steep snow slope. As usual, once I got my nose into the crux it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked when Wietse was inching his way across it ahead of me. Soon we were all across and looking up at the summit, still a few hundred vertical meters above, on somewhat tamer terrain but still steep enough to slide in certain conditions. I would be especially leery of wind-loading at and above the crux and make sure you tackle it one-at-a-time just in case.
As we grunted our way ever higher, a skier suddenly appeared over a roll in the slope and zipped down just off our path! He made the steep upper section of the mountain look absolutely effortless. Upon chatting later I found out that he’s skied this mountain many times – and it showed. Two more skiers eventually followed him down – they were obviously the ones laying down the fresh skin track we’d been following all day. Finally, about 4.5 hours after starting our day, we topped out to some pretty kick ass views off the summit. I was pretty pumped to finally be up this classic Rockies ski ascent and was really looking forward to the descent on boot top powder. After the obligatory summit shots and a brief break in the cool breeze, we decided to take a longer break further down and get ourselves off the crux before any further warming or destabilizing could take place.
I was a bit disappointed in my poor skiing form off the summit – thanks to very tired legs. I haven’t skied much this winter and didn’t give myself enough food or drink at the summit to recover from the ascent. Oh well. It was still a blast! We passed another group of four just above the crux. I chatted briefly with Alex Reid (I recognized him from Facebook but not until I got home and saw his post) before continuing down over the crux section. Everyone was enjoying this perfect winter ski day immensely – we were all surprised at the stable conditions given the stern avalanche warnings. As I followed Robin down a steep gully bypassing our ascent crux, I was a bit concerned to note a small slab break up beneath my feet. I really didn’t want to kick the slope off on top of Robin who was far below at the bottom of the slope, so I took care to tread as gently as possible down the steep gully before traversing out of it back to our ascent line. On hindsight our ascent line probably would have been slightly safer on descent but the line we followed is a nice one and is tempting.
My legs continued to feel quite tired on the descent, even after a few very nice breaks where we enjoyed the warm (but not too warm) sunshine and incredible views towards the valley and Mount Ogden. Lower down they finally recovered somewhat – just in time to ski the Christmas trees in the avalanche paths back to the Yoho Valley road. Once on the road it was a surprisingly long trudge back to the vehicles – I didn’t realize it was so flat before the switchbacks. I really enjoyed skiing Mount Field and highly recommend it for reasonably stable conditions and experienced Rockies skiers. Don’t underestimate it just because people do it in 5-6 hours round trip. Most of that time is on the ascent and a good chunk of the upper route is definitely in avalanche terrain. The bottom 2/3 of the route is quite well protected and could be yo-yo skied in slightly elevated avalanche conditions, but is still obviously within the runout zones for big slides coming from high above.
Late on Saturday night as I was moping about only bagging one new peak on a three day trip, Sonny suggested that those of us who hadn’t climbed Mount Field yet should try to get this summit on the way off the Iceline. Once the suggestion came up the group spent the next hour or so trying to decide which option would be best for summiting Mount Field.
Option A was to hike all the out on the Laughing Falls trail and then drive to the Burgess Pass trailhead and hike Mount Field from there. Option B was to hike all the way out to Burgess Pass via the Iceline trail, drop our heavy packs, bag the peak and then walk out on the Burgess Pass trail where Sonny would pick us up. Option C was to hike to Yoho campground, drop the heavy packs, bag Mount Field via the Wapta Highline trail and then come back, pick up the heavy packs and continue down the Iceline. We decided to sleep on it and decide in the morning.
Sunday morning was a beautiful morning so we packed up and quickly headed out over the Iceline Trail to try option ‘C’ from the night before. It became apparent early on that Dave and I would be the only ones to try for Mount Field so we forged ahead. We almost kept going down the Iceline once the rain started again but since neither of us wanted to be the one to wimp out we trudged on down to the Yoho Lake campground. Once at the campground Dave and I dropped our packs and began the long walk down the Wapta Highline trail to Mount Field.
We almost thought the trail from Yoho Lake was closed when we encountered a huge Closure sign, but thankfully it was only referring to a section off the trail further ahead where ancient fossil beds are protected. The funniest thing happened when we caught up to a large group of guided tourists on a very narrow section of the trail. Since we were behind them I guess they didn’t really realize how fast we were walking and assumed we would just ‘fall in line’. After about 2 minutes I started clearing my throat and sighing really loudly. Then I starting making as many rude noises as I could think of. Finally I asked very politely if we could please pass on the right. Two people kindly let us pass. The next 7 just ignored us. I was getting really impatient now and I think Dave was getting worried about what I would try next so he spoke very loudly and asked if we could please pass the group. Finally we were allowed to pass!
After first thinking that Mount Burgess was our destination and then very briefly considering Mount Stephen (!!) we realized that Mount Field was going to be quite a bit easier than the previous two options looked from our vantage! We headed up obvious scree slopes on the west slopes, till we finally reached the skyline ridge and headed toward a line of cliffs up above. As we got closer to the cliffs we spotted a way through and after a brief bit of scrambling we were on the final summit slopes. We summitted in the sun for the first time that weekend and after taking in the view and snapping some photos we headed back down.
I don’t remember much of the long walk back to the Iceline except that it was very long and my feet were getting very sore. Eventually we did make it out to a very patient Sonny. All in all it was a fantastic trip with 3 peaks, 2 nubs, good times and good friends.