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Summit Elevation (m): 2935
Trip Date: Saturday, March 30, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1000
Round Trip Time (hr): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 12
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Besides the obvious avalanche terrain there is some limited exposure on the south ridge but nothing too serious in good conditions. If doing the circuit over both peaks I recommend ascending the south ridge and descending the headwall.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (Skiing)
Map: Google Maps
I’ve heard of the Observation Sub Peaks for many years as a pretty tame but highly recommended ski objective along the Icefields Parkway near Bow Summit and Bow Lake in Banff National Park. There’s so many bumps and minor peaks along the ridge extending south of Observation Peak to Cirque Peak that I was never quite sure where exactly these sub peaks were. On Saturday, March 30 2019 I decided it was time to find out! Originally we were planning a much larger day on the Wapta but I didn’t trust the weather forecast enough. On hindsight we should have stuck with the bigger plans, but oh well. The mountains aren’t going anywhere soon, even if their coats of ice might be.
There isn’t any rocket science involved with the sub peaks. Once I figured out from various Internet sources which drainage we wanted, the route clicked into place. I also realized that we could do a nice little circuit of both sub peaks which seemed like it might be fun. I decided the south ridge sounded like a good ascent line with the south shoulder and headwall sounding like a fun descent option. Sonny Bou had just done an ascent of the east sub peak so I had his GPS track to follow on descent.
The day started out gorgeous already. Despite there not being a solid high pressure system in place, there were zero clouds and zero wind as we geared up ~2km north of the Bow Lake turnoff at the almost indiscernible start to the drainage leading up between Observation and Cirque Peak. We had a skin track highway to follow so there were no worries about getting lost! I started up the tracks as the others finished gearing up. The only confusion was about 5 minutes from the parkway when the freshest ski tracks seemed to stay unnecessarily low in the creek bed. I knew we wanted to be up on the south side of the drainage so I went hunting for another skin track. I found some old uptracks that were partially snowed over and made my own way up along them until they deviated back towards the drainage higher up – which we followed.
Within about 50 minutes of leaving the highway we were on slightly fresher tracks on top of the packed ski highway underneath and looking to our left at steep south slopes leading up to the south ridge high above. We should have skied a bit further up valley before accessing the ridge, but since we had fresh tracks to follow and the snow was concrete we started bashing our way straight up very steep avy slopes just north of the drainage. Soon Raf and I decided this was too steep without ski crampons and stopped to put them on. Wietse took off his skis and cramponed up since he doesn’t own ski crampons. Dave simply kept skinning up the slopes somehow. I have no idea what skins he’s sporting but they are obviously shag carpet of some kind! 🙂
Once over the steepest southernmost slopes of the ridge we found ourselves in a winter wonderland paradise. Stunning views, no wind and warm sunshine combined with bullet-proof snow conditions resulted in wide smiles all around and even a few loud “whoops”. This is what Spring ski touring is all about! I was growing more and more impressed with this little tour as we kept grinding our way up along a slowly narrowing ridge. We could spot two folks ahead of us – the creators of the fresh skin tracks we’d been following.
Just before a shoulder on the upper ridge we traversed the first narrow section which wasn’t an issue even on skis. The snow slope after this short traverse was steep enough that Wietse again boot-packed it while Raf and I were grateful for our ski crampons which we kept on since the lower drainage. Dave skinned straight up of course… 😉
At the top of the steep snow slope above the shoulder we met the two skiers who were ahead of us. They were waiting for the snow conditions to soften on the south ridge before descending, obviously deciding that they didn’t need to tag the “summit” of a sub peak. Smart folks! 🙂 We invited them to tag along and proceeded up the ridge. They didn’t bother. Shortly, we decided that with no more tracks to follow and fresh snow on top of rock hard slopes we should carry the skis, don crampons and take out our axes just in case of a slip on the steepening and narrowing ridge. I know people who have been up here often don’t even bother taking off the skis, but since this was our first time we had no idea what to expect and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The upper ridge was spectacular on this perfect Spring day! Our views and moods just kept improving with each kick step. Despite limited exposure and some soft snow cornices to deal with, the ridge never got that tedious – instead it was simply good alpine fun. We all remarked more than once how much better this day was turning out than we expected. Dave led us up to the summit and we stopped for a nice long break in the windless, warm conditions with views of a thousand peaks in every direction.
After 30 or 40 very pleasant minutes at the summit of the west sub peak we turned our attention to the slightly lower east one. The traverse was much quicker than expected and soon we were enjoying our second “summit” of the circuit with similar views to the first one. I was especially impressed with the views down Dolomite Creek over Isabella Lake towards Siffleur Mountain and Mount Perren.
Some Siffleur Wilderness giants visible including Quill, Loudon, Siffleur and Perren at distant right – all over 10,200 feet and some at 10,800. Isabella Lake and Dolomite Creek at bottom.
After enjoying a second break of around 30 minutes in the perfect weather we decided we should probably get moving in order to avoid increased avalanche activity in the rapidly warming afternoon sun. We weren’t 100% sure where the route through the headwall was, but I had Sonny’s GPS track from a few weeks previous and there were enough people out and about touring around Cirque Peak that we assumed there’d be tracks showing us the way. The ski descent off the east sub peak was easy but very pleasant. The views of the alpine around Cirque Peak showed why it’s such a popular area – we were very surprised to be the only ones on the sub peaks on this particular day. I remembered there was supposed to be a ‘tricky’ rock band from Sonny’s report and we soon found it. We sneaked through it but on hindsight there’s an easy way around its NE end.
After the rock band we skied delightful slopes to just above the headwall. Lots of tracks led us easily through that too – it provided some of the best skiing of the day. Soaring peaks, blue skies, zero wind and softening snow made for a very memorable trip through this section. Soon we were crossing avy debris on our way down the last of the bigger ski slopes towards the lower access drainage where we linked up with our morning ascent track.
Once we hooked up with our morning track it was time for the survival skiing part of our day. We enjoyed the last break – it was a chill sort of day with all that warm sunshine! – before descending a mix of crust, collapsing snow and tight trees back to the Icefields Parkway.
We all agreed that the Observation Sub Peaks circuit far exceeded our expectations. The perfect conditions were a major factor, of course, but even the terrain, the skiing and the relatively alpine feeling of the upper south ridge are a great warm up for anyone wanting to venture into more serious terrain such as the Wapta Icefields. A highly recommended ski tour in solid avalanche conditions.