Summit Elevation (m): 2968
Trip Date: February 12 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 30.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: A short but very steep headwall to the Collie / Chapel col. Be very confident of the snow pack before attempting this one!
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
It took me 8 years but on the 2nd weekend of February 2022 I finally managed to ski a peak that’s been on my list ever since 2014 when I climbed its neighbors, Mount Collie and Ayesha. I knew Chapel Peak as “Collesha” for many years before reading David Jones Rockies West (pg. 55) where the more proper sounding (still unofficial) name comes from. I remember that Steve and I had Chapel on our radar as a backup plan for our Mount Ayesha trip which ended up taking around 13 hours round trip from the Bow Lake parking lot. Since Mount Collie took us around 11 hours I figured worst case Chapel was a 12 hour day with slowish conditions and could be under 10 with fast conditions on the icefield. I don’t have very many new summits to chase that are considered part of the Wapta so this was a special one for me. I waited for years to get the right combination of avalanche, weather and life conditions before the stars finally aligned.
Chapel Peak never looked difficult from my planning beta photos. From the Collie approach it looked easy to gain the col under a gentle south ridge leading to the summit. A few things made me reconsider that opinion. First, distant views of snow slopes almost always underestimate their tilt. Second, I remembered how steep the innocent looking approach slopes on Ayesha were and this could be very similar. I surmised it wouldn’t be crazy difficult because the FRA of our route almost exactly 38 years previous was by John Martin as a solo winter ascent. The weather and avalanche forecasts had me very excited for the weekend and I quickly recruited Wietse and Sara for the effort well ahead of time. We hummed and hawed about axes and ‘pons and in the end we brought a couple of axes just in case we needed to cut steps somewhere but left the crampons behind. We carried crevasse rescue gear and Sara and I each carried a 30m rope which was plenty of extra weight compared to most of our trips.
Because of short daylight hours and a potentially long day we decided to leave YYC at 04:30 and start our approach before sunrise across Bow Lake. Temperatures along the parkway predictably plummeted compared to hwy #1 and by the time we turned off a very icy highway to the parking lot it was -15. Given the warm temperatures of the past week, combined with strong winds and lack of fresh snow we were expecting pretty icy conditions from the parking lot. As soon as we started across Bow Lake we were indeed on a mix of icy and wind-hammered snow. We couldn’t even follow a ski track because they were all literally blown out!
Needless to say we made short work of the lake and were soon starting up the canyon by-pass hill before the main canyon at the back of the lake. Travel continued to be quick and easy up the canyon on well frozen snow and a fresh ski track from the day before. There were no signs of recent slides as we exited the canyon and skied to the back of the valley under the Vulture ice cap (which was smaller than I remembered). It was windy along the whole approach and that didn’t change as we started up steep slopes beneath the Bow Hut. Wietse broke trail on hard snow and soon we were entering the hut for a quick break out of the wind to don our harnesses for glacier travel. Wietse and Sara weren’t taking quite as many stops for photos and video as me and every time I stopped they’d get ahead of me. I felt a bit rushed on the approach to the hut and when we got there in under 1 hour, 50 minutes I knew why! That’s a pretty good pace considering how far we had to travel this particular day. We briefly chatted with a hut guest who was surprised to see us up there that early – some members of his party were still getting out of bed. 😉
From the hut we followed a very icy track towards the Wapta headwall between St. Nicholas Peak and The Onion. There were no visible tracks up the headwall due to the wind so Wietse broke trail on 0.1cm of snow on crust. The sun was coming up over Vulture Peak as we finally hit our first sunshine up the headwall with glorious views starting to open up around us. Many of the peaks were looking very bare which had me wondering what Chapel’s south ridge would be like.
Compared to the Columbia Icefields, the Wapta is a very junior sized glacier. I’m always surprised how quickly a crossing goes and on this particular day we were gliding across the hardpack snow at a very fast pace. It didn’t take long for Rhondda and Gordon to show up and become bigger and bigger as we neared the western plateau of the icefield. I knew from both my Collie and Ayesha trips that it’s worth taking the skins off as soon as the descent to the western plateau starts so we did exactly that. The glide down to the beautiful western plateau between Collie, Chapel and Ayesha and Baker, Habel and Rhondda was quick and very pleasant despite a stiff west wind in our faces.
What a day it was! The view of Mount Collie’s east face icefall with Chapel and Ayesha rising to the north was absolutely stunning. The snow and ice patterns on the plateau were mesmerizing as we skied across glistening fields of windswept snow. We continued as far as feasible without skins until finally stopping to put them on for the ascent ahead. Snow coverage on the glacier was very good and we didn’t bother roping up as we continued towards a steep NE slope leading to the Collie / Chapel col. Not roping up on a glacier is a personal choice that could have very serious consequences. Just because we didn’t feel it necessary on our trip in our conditions doesn’t mean we made a good decision and doesn’t mean things will align like this on your trip.
Already from the plateau below, I noticed that the snow slopes leading up to the col under the south ridge of Chapel looked a bit steeper than I was thinking they’d be. As we slowly approached, the slope started looking steeper and steeper! I really hoped conditions would remain solid, but not so solid that we’d wish for crampons and axes to get up the dang thing. Thankfully the slope was NE facing and seemed to be in shadow for most of its life keeping it relatively stable. One thing I did worry about was the potential for wind-loading. Facing an easterly direction this slope could definitely get very loaded in some conditions and it’s something to keep in mind if you’re heading up it.
Like being slowly boiled, the slope kept getting steeper and steeper until it got serious. It’s hard to capture in photos with a wide angle lens but there were a few “zigs” and “zags” that had me pretty nervous about being there. The snow was absolutely bullet-proof with zero signs of instability so it was the perfect conditions to be in such a place but it was a bit unnerving to look down the 45 degree slope getting bigger and bigger under us as we inched slowly upward! Wietse did a great job with his lead and after a few switchbacks we were already traversing off the NE slope towards a nice gentle snow arete to the south ridge.
After the excitement of the NE ascent slope we enjoyed incredible views and perfect conditions to the south ridge on very supportive snow that promised a heckuva run back down. Once on the south ridge proper the snow became wind-hammered and very icy and we ended up taking off the skis just under the summit and continuing on foot. We almost needed crampons on the rock hard snow but managed to avoid it on rocks before popping out at the summit less than 5 hours from the parking lot. Summit views were sublime on this perfect winter day and other than a stiff breeze the temperature wasn’t even that cold.
After enjoying the summit views we slowly cooled in the steady westerly winds. There was a survey wand at the summit which I now realize is the boundary marker for Yoho National Park. There is an odd “U” shape on the NW side of the Wapta Icefield that is neither in Banff or Yoho and this includes Ayesha Peak and the Ayesha and Baker glaciers which I never realized before. The NW end of the Wapta Icefield drains into Collie and Wildcat creeks before flowing into the Blaeberry River which then merges into the mighty Columbia River north of Golden, BC. We stumbled down the upper south ridge to our skis and strapped in for the fast ride down to the western plateau. After a brief, unattractive stint with wind-hammered, icy snow on the south ridge we rode perfect ankle deep powder to the top of the steep NE access slope beneath the imposing north face of Mount Collie.
From the top of the NE slope the route down to the glacier looked very steep! Wietse took off with Sara following quickly behind. I captured some photos and video of them before starting my GoPro and starting down myself. What a blast! I haven’t skied such steep terrain in a while and by the time I was warming up to it I was already at the bottom. I’ve already made it clear but I’ll say it one last time – conditions must be solid for this slope to be safely traveled! Both Collie and Ayesha are arguably much more technical ascents once you’re off the snow sticks, but neither of those two peaks have ski terrain remotely this steep unless you’re skiing off their respective summits.
From the bottom of the NE slope we enjoyed a long quick glide across the western plateau where the terrain flattened and started angling up between Mount Rhondda and Mount Gordon again. Looking back at the lovely trio of Collie, Chapel and Ayesha I felt deep satisfaction at having all of them under my belt.
From the bottom of the western plateau we put our skins back on and proceeded steadily back up to the east side of the Wapta. We knew we were setting a ridiculous time but we didn’t feel too rushed and even had a 5-10 minute break when we donned the skins. I didn’t eat all day but did drink 200ml of water – I’m extremely proud of myself for staying so hydrated! 😉 We chatted and skied up the wind-hammered Wapta, even stopping to seriously consider tagging Mount Gordon as we passed by. We decided against the idea but it wasn’t a horrible one and we did have plenty of daylight to do it.
Thankfully the headwall above the Bow Hut was very skiable despite being windblown and a wee bit icy. I’ve had it much worse! We enjoyed turns to the traverse above the hut before a short stint of survival skiing on pure ice. We avoided the hut completely on return, skiing a nice line to the SW instead. We noticed a large avalanche / ice fall had come off the Vulture ice cap while we were gone for the day. A large debris field was now clearly visible. Our slopes remained locked up tight as we descended the steep roll under the hut and proceeded out of the valley and back into the access canyon. The hill by-pass to the back of the lake was a PITA as usual. The ski across Bow Lake was quick but painful with very icy and rough conditions. I was very surprised that our round trip time to the western edge of the Wapta and back, including the peak and all breaks was less than 8 hours. I’ve made a personal resolution not to rush my trips more than necessary in 2022 so I’m going to have to learn to slow down a wee bit more and just enjoy the experience of a slightly slower pace. I am super-psyched to finally have completed an ascent of Chapel Peak. I have many great memories from trips on the Wapta and I’ll be back to create new ones soon, I’m sure.