Summit Elevation (m): 3095
Trip Date: April 30 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1825
Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 34.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Some steep avalanche slopes must be traversed if following our route direct to the col between GR284269 and GR290275.
Technical Rating: MN6
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
On Wednesday, September 17 2008 I scrambled Mistaya Mountain and Caldron Peak in a long day trip from the Peyto Lake lookout along hwy #93. Fourteen years later, with a new lookout over the lake and a much better conditioned Vern 2.0, it was time to try again on skis. The tail end of winter and spring of 2022 has seen me complete some long sought ski adventures including Hector South Peak, the Chick-a-boom traverse, The Preacher, Storm Mountain and Turquoise Peak. Mistaya Mountain was another long time repeat destination to attempt on the snow sticks rather than hiking boots. My route choice was always planned out to be the route outlined in Chic Scott’s “Summits & Icefields” but after returning from the trip I realized that the Delta Creek approach is likely a bit smarter in stable avalanche conditions. Delta Creek is the same approach as Mount Patterson and lobs a hundred meters of elevation and 10km of distance off the totals we had for the day. Since Sara had never experienced the Peyto Lake approach to the Wapta Icefield and Wietse had never done the moraine route before, I am still happy with our chosen route for the day.
Wietse and I left my house at 04:30 before picking Sara up in Canmore and proceeding up a very empty hwy 1 and even quieter hwy #93. We were counting on a 12 hour day given the planning stats and were hoping for a similar overnight freeze to the conditions Sara and I had a week previous while crossing Hector Lake to Turquoise Peak. As we prepared to leave the car at 07:15 I wondered if maybe we should have stuck with the original plan to leave YYC at 03:30. The air temp was already warm as we slipped and slid our way out of control on a terribly icy skin track down towards Peyto Lake. I’d forgotten all about the manky approach from hwy 93 to the lake! The last time I’d done this approach to the Wapta was 7 years previous in 2015, when Ben, Steve and I climbed Peyto Peak. I guess there’s a reason I waited this long to go back. All the bad vibes were soon forgotten as we crossed Peyto Lake in beautiful morning conditions. Compared to Hector Lake it felt small and cozy and within 25 minutes of starting we were already exiting to the Peyto Creek flats at the SW end of the lake.
As we approached the Peyto Creek choke we could see a group of skiers taking a break after the creek crossings. We balanced carefully over slick and loose rocks in the shallow creek – crossing it three times in a short stretch – before bidding them a “good morning”. They had large packs and were headed into the Wapta for 3 or 4 days of peak bagging and camping. We wished them luck before continuing to the north end of the Peyto Creek canyon bypass moraine and the start of our elevation gains for the day. Fearing a very icy skin track we donned our ski crampons before continuing up the track towards the north end of the moraine. Back in 2012 Wietse and I used the Peyto canyon to access the glacier, but this requires very good snow coverage and stability.
The skin track up the moraine was in good condition. We didn’t really need our crampons but they added some stability to the top of the moraine before the track mellowed out and started the traverse to the old research station. The day was shaping up beautifully and I was glad that I didn’t back out – a real possibility only 12 hours earlier when the weather forecast started looking iffy for clouds and limited views. I don’t mind repeating the odd peak or two but doing it in worse conditions than the first time would be foolish as heck, wouldn’t it?!
As we skied past the research station towards a distant Peyto Glacier I was shocked at the changes I could see in the glacier since my last visit 7 years ago. I had seen that a giant ice cave had opened at the toe of the glacier on my social media feeds from other groups traveling in the area but what those photos didn’t show was the dramatic loss of ice on the glacier itself. Not only was the toe now broken up, it was at least 4-500 meters retreated up the valley towards the Wapta Icefield. It was also rather anemic looking – obviously a lot of its surface mass was missing and it was much thinner than I remembered.
Doing some internet searching when I got home verified my initial reactions to the Peyto Glacier – it is indeed shrinking very quickly, even compared to other ice sheets in North America. Most people get upset about melting glaciers and the effects of humanity on the earth and its climate but I tend to be much more pragmatic about these things. It’s likely best that I stick to writing about ski trips but suffice it to say I’m not holding my breath for the longevity of our species and I don’t think the earth will mind…
Over the next decade or so it will be interesting to see how the ski approach up the Peyto Glacier to the north end of the Wapta Icefield develops. Based on what I saw there is a distinct possibility that the route may have to traverse steep snow slopes off the glacier on the north side or possibly navigate a fairly serious icefall. On this occasion we followed a good skin track up climber’s left of the ice cave and over several slots before angling up between Thompson and Peyto Peak.
Near the top of the Peyto Glacier Wietse set a new track off the main one, heading NW onto moraines south of Peyto Peak. We weren’t exactly sure what the best line on the moraines was but we didn’t stray too high or too low towards the broken edge of the Wapta Icefield below.
After spotting an obvious rock cairn on the edge of our bench, I led us in a sweeping arc towards a perfect transition to the glacier and an obvious line towards a distant ramp that presumably led up to the high col at GR290261 that Chic mentions.
The snow held up perfectly on the glacier as I slowly led up to the col. I was surprised to see old ski tracks halfway up the slope and followed them for a bit before straightlining to the col. Wonderful views were waiting for us, including a distant looking Mistaya Mountain which we all commented, “didn’t look as far as we expected”. Funny how perspective can change an hour after making statements such as these…
When researching the trip I’d come across an old report from the Rocky Mountain Ramblers from Feb 2011. They seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time fussing around the two GR’s blocking direct access to Mistaya’s south ridge. They thought a direct approach to the col between the GR’s was too steep and after ascending GR284269 as recommended by Chic, they thought the descent to the col looked too rocky to bother with. After then ascending GR290275 they descended to the col and proceeded up Mistaya, taking 9.5 hours return to the Peyto Hut. Just as Lida suggested on their trip, we thought that there was a very obvious direct line to the col between the GR’s and unlike them we all agreed to give it a shot.
Traversing the east face of GR284269 proved to be exceedingly easy and quick, albeit exposed to some avy and cornice hazards. In elevated conditions I wouldn’t recommend it but for us it was a no-brainer. Wietse took over the lead for a steep, but short ascent to the col. From the col we followed an obvious line under the west face of GR290275 to the distant south ridge of Mistaya Mountain.
Transitioning to the south ridge of Mistaya was a bit of a pain on steep slabs and loose snow but we managed to stumble and bumble our way through the rocks before continuing up the gentle ridge. The summit was still high above us at this point but we finally felt like we were actually getting somewhere!
Wietse and I lagged behind Sara as she took over the lead, following old ski tracks up the rocky south ridge. Despite clouds slowly moving in from the south and west our views from this 3000m+ peak were absolutely spectacular. Just as the first time, I was not disappointed in the panorama that presented itself as we took the last few slides to the summit and finally reached the high point of our day. It took us roughly 6 hours of steady moving to get from hwy 93 to the summit in perfect spring conditions.
The spring sun was intense as we snapped the last few photos before starting our descent. Due to the number of “sharks” on the south ridge we decided to keep the skins on for the first part of our descent. I hate skiing downhill with ski skins on – it’s very hard to maintain control this way. Obviously it was quick despite the skins and soon we were traversing back to the GR col and from there to the first major height gain of the return route. Near the GR290261 col I decided to take a straight line up towards the rounded “summit” of “False Peyto”. I figured we weren’t coming back any time soon so we might as well check out the views. We wandered on ski boots to the summit where we took in great views of the north Wapta and of course the false summit of Peyto Peak.
We returned to the col and our snow sticks, ready to finally ski down our ascent route without skins. The descent was spectacular on perfect spring snow. Some of the best turns of the year, no doubt. It’s always a mixed bag of feelings for me on descent. I love it of course, but it’s over so darn quickly sometimes I slow down a bit just to enjoy it a little longer. We skied past a tent on the glacier, spotting some folks ascending towards Mount Baker.
Peyto Glacier skied nicely and soon we were rounding the toe to check out the cool ice cave at its toe. Swooping down the glacier with views of giant snow covered peaks – every one of them a familiar sight – I reflected how freaking lucky we are to live where we live and have the fitness and health to enjoy this sport.
The ice cavern at the toe of Peyto Glacier is having its moment on social media right now, and there’s a good reason for it. The brilliant blue color along with the spectacular setting does make for intriguing photos that have been the annual theme of several of Banff’s premier photographers. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned a lot when folks head out to these places is how high the objective dangers are. There were huge ice chunks littering the entire floor of the cavern, obvious signs of the dangers lurking above. On a warm spring day with melting going on, we weren’t going to linger very long and after about 5 minutes I got spooked and got the heck outta there!
We continued on rapidly warming snow, up and over the moraine bypass and across the Peyto Creek flats to Peyto Lake. Crossing the lake was fast and pleasant. Ascending deteriorating and very wet snow back to hwy 93 was significantly less pleasant, especially for yours truly whose skins kept coming completely off the base of my left ski thanks to being soaked right through!
Our round trip time was just over 11 hours as we arrived back at the car. The very next day a few friends skied Mistaya via Delta Creek and the upper route that Raf and I scrambled, shaving 2 hours, 10kms and 100m off of our stats. I am not disappointed in our route but would likely suggest theirs in stable avalanche conditions just due to the much shorter distance and good skiing down from Mistaya’s south ridge. Obviously our route is the way to go if you’re staying at the scenic Peyto ACC Hut or camping on the icefield to bag more Wapta peaks. I enjoyed the day immensely, even managing to once again consume exactly zero calories, resulting in a 26 hour fast by the time I got home at 21:00. Just as on Turquoise Peak the weekend before, the trick with me seems to be drinking enough water to fool my stomach into thinking I’m eating. I never felt weak or too hungry but I was very surprised that my body could handle a day of this length and effort with absolutely no food or caloric intake. I’m sure I’ll hit the proverbial “wall” someday soon but for now I will keep my OMAD ways and hopefully keep shedding the pounds for summer adventures.