Summit Elevation (m): 2724
Trip Date: Sunday, April 24 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1050
Trip Time (hr): 8.5
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 rock and snow scrambling and exposed avalanche terrain make this a fairly long and involved winter ski trip.
Technical Rating: SC6; MN6; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I knew what would happen as soon as Sara, Wietse and I made the decision not to tackle Turquoise Peak on our way past it in early March 2022. The peak would sit high on my priority list until it got done, and I was pretty keen on getting it done in spring conditions and in 2022 if at all possible. Wietse was pretty sure that he’d had enough of Hector Lake for at least a year so it was up to Sara and I to tackle it on a weekend when Wietse was otherwise occupied. That weekend turned out to be the last full one of April. When Alex Privalov initially posted a trip report earlier in 2022 for what he called “Hector Lake Peak”, he mentioned that the west face looked to be skiable with more snow than he had. Although we didn’t consider it likely, we were really hoping that a spring snow pack might give us a chance to nab this descent on the snow sticks, at least justifying another lengthy slog up Hector Lake.
Speaking of the slog up Hector Lake… Since meeting and chatting with Sara on several ski trips this year I’ve learned of a group of local cross country skiers who wait for spring conditions in the Rockies to get out to some wild places to fly around on light ski racing gear. Hector Lake is one of the places that attracts these skiers who wait for a predictable melt-freeze cycle before skating across the lake in the early morning hours before the “melt” part of the spring cycle fires up around noon. Because of her experience seeking out these conditions, Sara has a good system for predicting when they will exist and she predicted this for our day out on Sunday, April 24th. I sincerely hoped she was correct!
Right from the parking spot along hwy 93, the route down through light forest to the Bow River inlet at Hector Lake gave indication that Sara’s prediction of solid “freeze” conditions were bang on. Our skins made a racket in the absolute stillness of the morning, likely confusing the local bird population in the process. It felt, sounded and smelled like Spring as we skinned easily across the Bow River and onto the endless surface of Hector Lake under a deep blue sky. It was going to be one of those days – I could feel it already.
With amazing conditions across the vast expanse of Hector Lake, it only took us just over an hour to ski from the Bow River inlet at the SE end to the Balfour Creek inlet at the NW end. And we weren’t racing either – just skiing side-by-side and chatting every once in a while over the sound of our skins on the icy snow. After skiing the entirety of this lake 5 times before, I can confidently recommend that you wait for spring melt/freeze conditions. Tackling it in the dead of winter with 6-12 inches of fresh snow only means a slushy undercoat (no matter the air temp) which will clog up your ski poles and annoy the heck outta you. Not to mention breaking trail across the lake gets old after an hour of seemingly no progress. 🙂 By 10:00 we were skiing up Balfour Creek staring at the always impressive Balfour Icefall dead ahead.
As we skied across some grizzly tracks and ascended the moraines at the head of Balfour Creek under the icefall we wondered what the lower choke in the access canyon would be like. Earlier in March we’d gotten very lucky with an exposed little traverse atop the choke via the left hand route. Would that traverse still be viable this time around? Should we take the right hand option this time? We skied up to the bottom of the route and once again decided that the left hand option seemed smarter.
Our reasoning for once again taking the left hand option was pretty simple. We didn’t have to take the snow sticks off for it and we’re lazy like that. Making decisions in the mountains based purely on laziness seems to work out a surprising number of times and once again it didn’t let us down. Despite being the best choice for us, the left hand option wasn’t quite as slick as our previous ascent in March. Sara ended up kicking steps across a semi-exposed bit of snow in order to get us across to the main channel again and we had to take the skis off to do these few moves. I noted how exposed the right hand option is to a huge snowdrift / cornice that seems to build above it in the canyon and wondered if the left hand option should always be given a bit more consideration.
From the lower canyon choke the ski up the next section went quick and easy on an icy top layer of snow before I led slowly left (east) up and out of the canyon to the east lateral moraine high above. Looking up at the crest of the moraine we could see that the strong spring sun had been at work melting off the snow we’d enjoyed a month previous. Thankfully the sides of the moraine and the access bench off the glacier looked to be holding plenty of snow.
The day was absolutely perfect as we continued up to the moraine following the same route we’d used for The Preacher. I always forget just how darn pleasant spring ski tours can be compared to winter ones. I could have been in a t-shirt already at 11:00 in the morning but I didn’t want to burn my arms so I kept my fleece jacket on and just went a bit slower. I never tire of the way a glacier resembles a white ocean and the blue ice of the seracs overhead glistened like gems in the strong sun. We managed to keep our skis on as we gained and crossed the NE moraine and continued to the south ridge of our objective rising impressively to the east.
As soon as Sara saw the south ridge and west face of Turquoise she wondered aloud if we could possibly ski most of it, rather than scramble it in ski boots as Alex’s party had done. Obviously the goal is to use the skis as much as possible on these trips so we decided to give it a shot. We spotted a clear snow line just under the bare south ridge that we could use for ascent to the summit block. The west face had plenty of rocks showing through but also looked reasonably snowy compared to last time we’d seen it and we knew the snow would be very supportive. It was almost too supportive as we started up from the col. I mentioned to Sara that we should don ski crampons just to keep things easier. She’d never used them before so this was a perfect practise scenario. And wouldn’t you know it?! For some dang reason my ski crampons weren’t in my pack. Happy Sara continued easily up the traverse on hard snow while grumpy Vern tried desperately to maintain my edge without slipping down the west face behind her!
As I predicted to myself it didn’t take long before I was really struggling without the ski crampons. Spring is the one time of year you don’t want to leave them at home – or in my case the boot bag in the back of Sara’s car. :O I reached the point where I was struggling not to slide down the west face and decided it was time for the boot crampons which thankfully I did not leave behind. Things were much easier and safer with the crampons and soon I was matching Sara’s pace as we inched closer and closer to the upper choke under the summit block over the west face.
We weren’t sure what to expect from the upper mountain. After ascending along some neat snow scoop features along the summit block over the west face I joined Sara just under the obvious break in the low cliffs above. I kept my crampons on as I led up some moderate terrain with incredibly loose rock but Sara didn’t seem to need them. Soon we were above the choke and trudging to the summit in dead calm conditions with million dollar views. Sara opened a summit register to find the name “Turquoise Peak” from Colin Jones and Paula Rondina 22 years previous (which agrees with bivouac). There were no other entries since then. Obviously Alex’s team has been up here and the FRA is from 1987 by Reg Bonney and Bob Saunders but I’m guessing there hasn’t been many others up here over the years. Interestingly we found the views to be better than from The Preacher despite the fact that Preacher is clearly higher. Maybe it was just the sublime conditions that made us feel this way.
We really wanted to linger on the summit. The views were as good as they get, as were conditions. There was a gentle, cool breeze and some puffy white clouds floating lazily overhead but we knew that underneath it all there was trouble brewing. We’d already commented that we’d likely left YYC a little late given the intensity of the spring sun and decided we’d better get down the west face sooner than later before the sleeping giant that is a collapsing snowpack started to come alive. We descended the summit block to the skis and started gearing up for a fantastic descent of the west face below.
Despite starting off very firm (almost icy), the west face skied extremely well. We had lots of room so we did big turns, avoiding rocks poking through the surface in several locations. Part of me wanted to go as fast as possible but another part of me wanted to enjoy the incredible feeling of skiing down the large face with giant views of Balfour and the Wapta Icefield to the west. Nothing other than personal experience can explain just how incredible the feeling of swooping down a mountain on a perfect spring day can be. Seracs were crashing off the Balfour Glacier below as we descended down the face, choosing lines that would link up with the NE moraine and hopefully eliminate any need to skin back uphill.
Sara picked an excellent line and we ended up only having to bootpack a short section down from the NE moraine before skiing to our ascent line to the access canyon below. The snowpack was starting to show signs of collapsing as we gingerly bootpacked across the lower choke and skied down to Balfour Creek below.
As we skied the final descent line from the moraines down Balfour Creek the snowpack started to go. I first noticed it when the back of my skis suddenly sank a couple of feet behind me! I started “water skiing” to prevent a crash but was on high alert. A bit further down Balfour Creek I saw Sara sink to her knees and decided I’d better join the bear tracks in the shade south of the creek.
We were delighted to find perfect ski conditions on Hector Lake. There wasn’t enough surface snow to collapse and travel was extremely quick and easy despite the inch or two of slushy snow on the ice below.
It felt really good to ski out along Hector Lake in t-shirts under a blue sky with a gentle, cool breeze at our backs. I cannot stress enough how much more pleasurable this day on Hector Lake felt in comparison to my previous 5 crossings. The snow bridge we used to cross the Bow River inlet to the lake collapsed behind me as I crossed it, signifying some perfect timing on our part! The trudge back uphill to the highway wasn’t as bad as I was expecting and our round trip time of 8.5 hours was totally reasonable. I never felt rushed all day and the conditions were so good that I didn’t feel my usual exhaustion at the return lake crossing either. And this was all while in the middle of a 25+ hour fast too! I guess conditions really do affect mood and energy more than we think sometimes. Turquoise Peak will sit among my favorite ski tours of winter 2021/22 for a great many reasons.