Summit Elevation (m): 3015
Trip Date: Thursday, April 26, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 7.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 26
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
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: MN6
Map: Google Maps
Most of my Wapta summits have had brilliant blue skies and views to die for. Mount Rhondda was not one of those peaks. When I first ascended it back in April of 2007 we had very windy conditions with limited views. I set out to rectify this injustice on Thursday, April 26 2018 on a brilliantly sunny and warm Spring day. I was joined by Liz and Alison, both of whom had not done this central icefields peak before. I am surprising myself a bit the past few years, by repeating peaks – something I was very opposed to earlier in my peakbagging career. I think as I approach 600 unique summits, I’m fully appreciating how little the number of summits actually matters, and how much more important the enjoyment and experience of said peaks is. Don’t get any ideas though. I’m not repeating anything that I feel lucky to have survived the first time (mentally or physically)…
Rhondda is one of the easier peaks on the Wapta, having fairly gentle slopes to its long summit ridge off the icefield below. I wasn’t at all nervous about the summit as we planned our trip, but I was slightly more apprehensive about the approach. Although there was a glorious high pressure system setting up over the Rockies for the last full week of April 2018, it was accompanied by soaring temperatures and a snow pack that was still more “winter” than “spring”. Liz and Ali agreed to meet at the Petro on hwy 1 at the early hour of 04:30. I drove from there, and by 06:20 we were pulling into the Bow Lake parking lot with the temperature showing -5 and two other trucks busily unloading ski gear. Already the day was much warmer than I thought it would be – SpotWX had predicted temperatures of -9 overnight. We shrugged into our gear and started across a solid snow crust crossing Bow Lake, well ahead of the other groups who were burdened down by overnight gear for the Bow Hut.
I was smiling to myself as I crossed the lake. It’s so familiar to me now after dozens of crossings over the past decade or so since my first few trips here. I started my Wapta adventures with an ascent of Mount Gordon with Dave Stephens, Blair Piggot and Jason Wilcox way back in January of 2006 with a bitterly cold and unpleasant adventure that for some reason got me hooked on ski mountaineering. This was to be Liz’s first time on the Wapta and she had picked a helluva day for it! I remembered how the lake, the approach canyon and the icefield itself all used to seem so big and intimidating. I miss those earlier days of unknown conditions and lack of beta. Nowadays there’s so much information available that it can take away from the pure adventure of it all. Does all the available beta make it safer for the average weekend warrior? I’m not entirely convinced. I think it can make us lazy, the result being that we tend to analyze too much on our smart phones and too little in the field where it matters most. I digress.
The Wapta changed drastically for me after my first few trips onto the Columbia Icefield in 2012. After experiencing the sheer scale and size of the Columbia hazards, including the Athabasca headwall approach, the distances involved, the size of the crevasses, the seracs and the total isolation (i.e no huts), the Wapta became a nice cozy place with a much friendlier feel to it. It’s funny how perception changes with experience. Bow Lake skied quickly in the cool morning conditions and soon we were up and over the annoying hump at the back of the lake and gazing up the most hazardous feature of the Bow Hut approach – the narrow terrain trap of the canyon. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were crossing very recent avalanche debris in the canyon. We were the first tracks across a lot of the debris, which had obviously let go the previous afternoon / evening. This was in the back of my mind the rest of the day, as we’d be coming back out in much different conditions than we were going in with. It was frozen concrete on approach, but would be slushy concrete on egress, which was not ideal.
As we negotiated a higher-than-usual amount of snow into the impressive alpine bowl under the Vulture ice cap, we encountered full sun for the first time and it was WARM! Ali’s thermometer measured over 10 degrees as we started up the headwall beneath the Bow Hut. Once again, I was concerned about our exit. The snow was holding up just fine for now, but what about in 3-4 hours? The headwall was skied out and felt pretty safe. It wasn’t as steep as I remembered it being either. I’m not sure if it was the huge snowpack or if I’ve just gotten more used to snow slopes, but it felt pretty darn tame to me as we sweated our way up to the hut. We didn’t linger long. After a quick bathroom / water break we donned harnesses and followed the skin track up towards the glacier. We didn’t bother roping up but I was carrying a rope in case we wanted to at some point. There are certainly sections of the Wapta that should include roped travel, and I would never suggest traveling on any snow-covered glacier without one at least easily available. Everyone has different risk tolerance, but believe me when I say you don’t want to fall into a crevasse unroped! (Or even roped if you can help it, for that matter.) When traveling in a group, the entire group should be asked about their tolerance and there should be no peer pressure to cut corners, IMHO.
Liz is in excellent shape, and quickly led us up the headwall to the Wapta glacier above the Bow Hut. It was awesome to see her grinning from ear to ear as she started taking in the incredible views that are only enjoyed by first hand experience. Thank goodness she started taking lots of photos so that I could keep up to her and Ali! We followed various skin tracks up and over the steepest part of the headwall, with more and more familiar friends showing up all around us including Portal, Thompson, Peyto, Trapper, Tilly, Baker, Habel, Rhondda, Collie, The Presidents, Gordon, Olive, St Nicholas, Vulture and Crowfoot Mountain. I have great memories of every single one of these peaks – I consider myself a very lucky human to have had so many wonderful adventures with good friends in this special area of the Rockies. We set an excellent track towards Rhondda, losing very little height in the annoying dip that runs off her lower ridge towards Mount Thompson. Throughout the approach to Rhondda’s lower east ridge Liz’s smile only grew bigger and bigger. Of course Alison and I were enjoying the views too but it’s never quite like your first time when you get to experience a bluebird day up there.
As we approached the mountain, we could see two skiers high above us, skinning up the steepest roll coming off the east ridge. They looked pretty small, which helped modulate expectations around how close we really were. When we looked back towards Thompson, we spotted a group of tents set up in an ideal location – they must have spent the day suntanning because we never spotted skiers coming from that camp. Rhondda’s east ridge to the summit is much longer than it appears at first – something I remembered from my first time up it in a whiteout. We made our way up the steep roll on the ridge before skinning up and down a series of annoying bumps – each one slightly higher than the previous but still out of sight of the summit. Good thing the views were jaw-dropping or it might have been more annoying. Finally around 5 hours after leaving the parking lot, we could see the summit – an ocean of snow and rock surrounding us on every side. The two skiers dropped past us as we skinned the last meters, and proceeded to put nice tracks down the north side of the ridge towards the Peyto Hut.
The views from the summit of Rhondda were, as I suspected, some of the best I’ve had on the Wapta. Being a centrally located peak on the icefields, it offers fantastic views of almost every Wapta summit and of course views of countless other peaks from the Purcell giants in BC to the remote Recondite in the eastern Rockies. Despite being in a wee bit of a hurry to get down, we still took at least 30 minutes on the summit to suck up the incredible views and take a well deserved break. I relived many great adventures as I stood there pointing out peaks to Alison and Liz – upping their stoke to come back for many more adventures here!
All too soon we had to leave. Conditions were positively nuclear and we were growing increasingly on edge about the canyon exit. We made short work of Rhondda’s east ridge, descending quickly on good snow to the glacier below. From there it was the familiar slog to the top of the Bow headwall above the hut, but thanks to our good uptrack, we barely had to do any ascent on the traverse. The skiing down to the hut was “interesting” with pockets of great skiing interspersed with melting pockets that grabbed our skis and threatened to throw us flat on our faces. Which may, or may not have happened to one of us at the bottom of the slope at about 40 km/h.
We didn’t pause long at the hut, choosing to hurry out of the canyon as quickly as we could. The headwall under the hut skied quickly and easily on melting snow. We approached the canyon with trepidation, which only grew when we saw clear evidence of recent activity. With some slopes still loaded above us, we didn’t linger here either! It was a race to get out of there before things really started going off. By 13:30 we were exiting the canyon and breathing a lot easier. After a quick water / food break at the open stream before the lake, we enjoyed a nice fast ski in summer-like temperatures back to the parking lot.
I had a fantastic day out on Rhondda for my second time on her summit. Thanks to Liz and Ali for putting up with the old, slow guy and I wonder if Liz has stopped smiling yet?
April 28, 2007 Ascent
On Saturday, April 29 Jason (JW), TJ (TJ), Ferenc and I headed out to ski Mount Rhondda via the Bow Lake approach to the Wapta Icefield. As we drove through pouring rain around the towns of Canmore and Banff we wondered if we really should have gotten out of bed at 4am for this! Of course I was wondering that even earlier in the day when I locked my keys in my car at the parking lot but that’s another story for another day… 😐
The rain started changing to snow as we drove along the Icefields Parkway and we breathed a bit easier as we pulled into the parking lot amidst tons of snow and about 3-5cm of fresh fluff. The lake also looked pretty safe with a pretty white blanket covering it, so at least we would feel safe skiing across! We geared up and JW led us at a good clip across Bow Lake. Towards the end of the lake the snow turned isothermal and we began to sink to our knees in places. This was sort of uncomfortable because we were still on the lake and it just felt very unnatural to be sinking through slush in the middle of a lake… But there was firm ice about 2 feet down so we trudged on.
The canyon approach to the Bow Hut went without a hitch and within about 2 hours of leaving the parking lot we were munching on various energy boosters in a nice, warm ,cozy shelter. We didn’t stick around long but rather headed back out into the blustery wind and began the ski across the icefield to Mount Rhondda. We followed another party up the headwall but soon JW split off their trail and we continued on our own towards our destination.
It never ceases to amaze me how little depth perception you have when the clouds are white, the ground is white and even the mountains are white! Whenever we could spot Rhondda it looked like it was right in front of us, but it never was! To make up for this, we had excellent views in between white-outs and eventually we started climbing the lower slopes of Rhondda. I was dragging my tush a bit on this trip but I tried to force myself to keep up some sort of pace behind the others. JW climbed a steep snow slope and we headed up after him. Once on top of this slope the angle eased considerably.
Once on the final ridge to the summit you still have about 600 meters to go (horizontal). We thought we were at the summit once but a quick GPS check showed over 400 meters to go. You’ll know you’re at the summit because you will literally fall off the mountain if you don’t stop! (So if you do fall off, you went a bit too far…) I’d like to say the views from the summit were stunning but if they were (and I’m sure they are), they were hidden from us this day. We could make out Mount Habel and Ayesha through the cloud and snow but not much else. Oh well. Time for a good ski down!
The ski down was awesome. At the bottom of the steep slope accessing the summit ridge I was caught in a small sluff. This gave me a feeling for what an avalanche would feel like. It was kind of peaceful in a way because when I stopped I just kept moving on a slab of snow! When I realized that I might be caught in an avalanche I became slightly more concerned but by then it was over already and all was good. We made the trek back to the hut and after nearly deciding to spend the night there we skied crud down the headwall below the hut and made it back to the cars around 16:30. It was a great day with great company, highly recommended as a spring ski trip.