Summit Elevation (m): 2957
Trip Date: Sunday, March 10, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1300
Trip Time (hr): 14
Total Trip Distance (km): 30
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something unless you get caught in an avalanche in which case you could die.
Difficulty Notes: Some moderate scrambling and exposed terrain along with route finding through challenging and severe avalanche terrain make this a serious winter ski trip. Apparently it’s a pretty sweet summer adventure too.
Technical Rating: OT5; YDS (Skiing)
Map: Google Maps
I forget when I first heard of BowCrow Peak but it’s been on my never ending and never shrinking list of Rockies summits for years. Something that was frustrating me was that even though I had a general idea where it was located, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how anyone bagged it! It’s impossible from the Bow Peak side and improbable from the Crowfoot side – although apparently the Crowfoot Glacier has been used to access it. David Jones mentions a north access from the Crowfoot Glacier but also warns that with glacier recession this is an increasingly complex undertaking. Ever since reading Graeme Pole’s terse but intriguing trip report of a summer ascent of BowCrow from Balfour Creek, I’ve wondered why I couldn’t find any beta on anyone skiing it from that aspect. I’m pretty certain people have skied it, I just don’t know who has or from where they have. (Update: Colin Jones contacted me that him and Rob Kozarchuk skied BowCrow via the same line as we did on March 5th, 1999.) I decided it was time to follow Graeme’s route on snow sticks and find out what he meant by “steep slopes”. It turns out we got a bit more than we bargained for and I finally figured out why I haven’t read any reports of anyone skiing this unofficial peak via Hector Lake before.
The first problem with any adventure requiring skiing tens of kilometers off trail and up unknown, likely pretty severe avalanche terrain is getting stable snow and weather conditions. The next challenge is finding willing partners that don’t mind tagging unnamed summits that few people have ever heard of despite their lofty summits and stunning positions. The final challenge is the toughest – getting off my duff and putting one foot in front of the other enough times to pull off the plan successfully without getting into too much trouble. I thought I had the first issue solved with a “Low-Low-Moderate” avalanche rating all over the Rockies for the weekend of March 9th 2019. I managed to sucker Mike Mitchell into coming along, which solved the second challenge. Than, on Friday night, the avalanche forecast was sharply increased to “Low-Moderate-Considerable”, kiboshing the third part of a perfect plan. Or at least that’s what we thought. Then the forecast changed again on Saturday afternoon around 17:00. I noticed the change at my son’s hockey game and quickly texted Mike that the trip was back on if he could make it down from Edmonton in time. I had a feeling that the conditions were perfect for this peak and really wanted to give it a shot so I resorted to pretty much begging him. It’s hard to explain but when a peakbagger gets a peak in their mind and has a trip planned to bag it, it’s very hard for us to focus on anything else. Weird, I know. Mike agreed to drive down to my house Saturday night and I compromised by agreeing to a later start time than usual. Of course with the time change, 06:00 was really 05:00, but we won’t get into that.
After a short sleep we piled into the Taco and drove to the trailhead for Hector Lake along the Icefields Parkway. A ton of folks ski down to this lake in winter and there was even a so-called “Man’s Camp 2019” apparently going on down at the lake shore, but very few of these folks ski the entire lake. I’ve skied it before when we exited from Lilliput via the Waputik Glacier and I only remembered that it was a never-ending purgatorial slog. Because most of the people skiing to the lake are either stopping there or skiing the Pulpit Knobs, I figured we’d be breaking trail across the entire lake and I was right.
After a chilly ski down from the road – much further than I remembered – I started breaking trail down the lake in ankle deep punchy snow. It was concerning how much effort the next 2 hours took considering we were gaining about zero meters of the 1200m+ still in front of us. The weather was gorgeous, warming up from -27 at the start of the lake to -10 along Balfour Creek. As we rounded Pulpit Peak and started up the flats towards Balfour and the Waputik Glacier the views improved until we were looking full-on at the incredible east face of Balfour and the icefalls off the glacier. This back bowl is a special place. Both times I’ve been here I’ve been impressed with the incredible atmosphere of cliffs, icefalls and seracs with peaks towering overhead. Unfortunately unlike last time I was here, I was now almost 10 km into my day and lower than my starting point and had to ascend one of these “towering peaks” via some deep and steep snow slopes that had an obvious line of cliffs running across them. To make matter much worse, there are no skin tracks on this side of the Wapta!
We took a break at the bottom of our first impossible looking slope. I still have no idea why we even bothered starting up this thing! The snow was knee deep powder and the slope was so dang steep at the bottom that I am puzzled why the snow stuck to it at all, but thankfully it continued to stick as we wallowed awkwardly upwards. The next 2.5 hours were probably the toughest time I’ve had on skis. After breaking trail 8 km across Hector Lake I continued to break trail up some of the steepest, deepest avalanche terrain I’ve ascended. A delightful concoction of Christmas trees, tree wells, unconsolidated sections of knee to waist deep snow, exposed cliffs where a tiny slough would send us off into thin air and the chance of getting completely stymied by the complex terrain is just a glimpse of the challenges we faced. Thankfully my route planning on Google Maps ahead of time worked out perfectly and we found a nice ramp leading up through the cliffs (severe exposure once above it – a slip or snow slough would be very unwelcome here).
By the time we finally broke through the cliffs and into more open treed terrain I was thinking we had about a 5% chance of making the summit. My legs were slowly giving up on me and I wasn’t sure I could keep breaking trail. I also knew we still had over 700 vertical meters to gain to the summit which wasn’t even visible yet. Frankly, I was mentally and physically pretty much done for the day. I’d proved that the route would go through the cliffs and was busy convincing myself that I would be satisfied with this result until Mike caught up with me and started breaking trail. I’m not sure where he found his mojo, but thank goodness he did! For the next 2.5 hours Mike paid me back for the first part of the day and broke trail up the endless terrain between Crowfoot’s east cliffs and BowCrow’s impressive southern outliers. Even following his tracks I could barely keep up. I was dehydrated and brutally hungry and spent the time stopping regularly to drink and try to stuff food down my dry throat. Slowly I started allowing myself to think that we might actually bag this silly peak! Slowly – painfully slowly – the summit block got closer and the southern outliers started to shrink a bit. The rolling terrain conspired to add some height gains and losses to our track but never as much as we feared.
Soon we were scoping out lines to the top, agreeing that there was no f’ing way we were EVER coming up here again. We were sucking it up and making this thing happen at this point. There was no turning back. We had several choices for the summit block. I knew we still had around 400m of height gain and liked the option of going straight up the middle on a series of benches that didn’t look too avalanche exposed to me. Of course as we started up them the slopes got pretty big but the theme for the day continued to be a bomber snow pack that was in no mood to travel, so we continued to take advantage. Just as Mike started to fade I found my energy back and took over trail breaking duties up and over a steep roll in the south face towards the summit ridge. We knew at this point that we were going to be flirting with an ‘epic’ – the afternoon light was fading quickly and we still had some distance to the top. We agreed that as long as we finished the tricky descent terrain in daylight, we could slog out of Balfour Creek and Hector Lake via headlamp.
We took the skis off for the final summit slope which was rock hard snow and covered in a thin wind slab that our skins didn’t love. The summit was capped in an enormous cornice and the views were crazy in every direction, especially over Bow Lake and towards the Siffleur and Pipestone wilderness areas. I traversed well back of the corniced ridge to a lookout on the south end of the summit block to get some great views south towards Lake Louise and Mount Temple. The wind was brutally cold and very strong and it was after 18:00 when we started the descent back to our skis.
The ski down promised to be very quick and it was. We were both too tired to ski it properly but it sure as heck beat walking down! We did big looping turns down the formerly glaciated terrain until we were above the cliffs and avalanche gullies we’d ascended. Mike insisted we try to find an alternate descent. He didn’t relish the idea of descending what we’d come up – especially the traverse above exposed cliffs just before the ramp through them. I agreed with him wholeheartedly but worried aloud that we were quickly running out of daylight and had zero energy reserves to handle any sort of route issues descending unknown terrain onto a line of cliffs. I also knew from my research that we’d likely managed to find the only non-technical ascent line through the cliffs and didn’t have much choice when it came to going back down that way. I agreed to give slopes slightly more skier’s right a shot and we proceeded to descend some of the steepest, most exposed avalanche terrain I’ve ever skied. I have memories of looking over at Mike standing at mid-slope and wondering how the heck the snow was even sticking there! It was kind of ridiculous but again, the snow was in no mood to slide and we continued to traverse and descend some pretty steep chutes until we got cliffed out – just like I’d feared.
Despite being completely stuck on top of a line of cliffs, there was a silver lining. If we traversed left we’d end up on top of our ascent line and within striking distance of the ramp through the rock. Mike was extremely doubtful we could get down the steep snow covered slopes just above the cliffs but I knew if we simply geared up properly with crampons and axes we’d be just fine. I told him it would essentially be a walk down. He wasn’t sure he should trust me but we really didn’t have a choice at this point! Darkness was settling in FAST and there was plenty of avalanche terrain to descend to Balfour Creek, still hundreds of vertical meters below us at this point. After donning the ‘pons and wielding the ax, I made short work of the steep slope and ramp – it was quite straightforward despite looking invincible from above. After getting under the cliffs I noticed there was a punch slab forming in the huge avalanche path below. There wasn’t any concerns about it sliding at this point, but skiing it would be adventurous at best. I didn’t have the energy or desire for any more adventure. I just wanted to get down to Balfour Creek, so I kept plunge-stepping all the way down the avy slope. When I looked back, Mike was following my idea. In the thicker trees below the slide path I put the skis back on for a final steep descent to the creek while Mike was so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to switch and simply waded out in waist deep snow! I’m not sure that was saving him any energy but he made it out eventually. 🙂
It was an incredible relief to be off the big slopes with ‘only’ a 2.5 hour slog left ahead of us. I had no idea how we’d have the energy to get all the way back to the Icefields Parkway but it wasn’t rocket science at this point. One foot in front of the other long enough and we’d be back at the truck. So off we went! I went through the familiar exhaustion gamut on that brutally long exit in the dark, including full-on hallucinations and falling asleep and dreaming while skiing. The haunting call of some local owls bounced off the rock walls around the lake while a sliver of moon and a gazillion stars winked down on us from high above. It was serenely beautiful and it was pointedly brutal at the same time. If you’ve ever pushed yourself physically beyond what you should, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Being winter made it worse – we had zero options except to make it back to the truck. Mike was behind me at this point and I made sure to leave arrows in the snow around the exit from the lake up the Bow River since a myriad of tracks made navigating in the dark very confusing. Eventually, incredibly, I saw the snowbank indicating the highway just ahead and the end of one of the toughest 14 hour days I’ve had in the mountains. As we took off our skis and prepared for the drive home a sanding truck stopped to make sure we were OK. I guess it’s not every day he sees two guys skiing in the ditch at midnight along the parkway.
I’m not sure what to think of BowCrow. On the one hand it’s a gorgeous mountain in a wonderful corner of the Rockies, tucked up against the Wapta Icefield with views to make any lover of mountain vistas jealous. On the other hand, it’s ‘just’ an unnamed bump between two much more accessible and named summits that offer similar views and much safer routes. Planning and executing the idea when we had no reason to expect we could feels incredible and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find and execute any sort of unique day tripping anywhere on the planet, so pulling that off will ensure I never forget this little slice of suffering. As someone who hates on his body on a daily basis this trip also made me realize, not for the first time, that my body deserves a bit of credit for surviving the crap I put it through. I still don’t know how it held up but I’m glad it did. There were moments while crossing the lake that I wondered just how far I should continue to push myself physically, but as long as I keep making it back I suppose I’ll likely continue this grand experiment I like to call “LIFE”. 🙂