Pulpit Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 2720
Trip Date: Sunday, March 24 2024
Elevation Gain (m): 1050
Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
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: Moderate rock and snow scrambling and extremely exposed avalanche terrain make this a tricky snow ascent. 
Technical Rating: SC6; Alpine II
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

A million diamonds reflected brilliant morning light back at me as I skied across Hector Lake at 09:30 on a gorgeous, bluebird spring day. Yes, I was back at Hector Lake, but this time would be a little different than my previous few excursions in this area. In 2010 I first skied the lake, while exiting from a winter ascent of Mount Balfour. In 2019 I ascended BowCrow with Mike in winter via the endless expanse of frozen water. I was back yet again in 2022 – twice if you can believe that. First I ascended The Preacher in early March with Wietse and Sara and then I was back six weeks later to ski Turquoise Peak with Sara. On all of these previous crossings, I found myself staring up at the impenetrable east and north faces of Pulpit Peak, wondering to myself when I would finally get a chance to stand on the most accessible and lowliest summit overlooking Hector Lake. That day finally arrived, somewhat unexpectedly on March 24, 2024. 

Pulpit Peak Route Map.

Originally I was planning a late summer or fall ascent, hoping to take advantage of low water levels along the lakeshore for the hike to Lake Margaret. I planned to follow the footsteps of other intrepid Rockies peakbaggers such as Andrew Nugara and Marko Stavrik who ascended challenging terrain from Lake Margaret to Turquoise Lake to the summit. I planned on descending much easier terrain south, to the Pulpit Tarns and back to Hector Lake, which Josee traveled back in 2014, reporting pretty manky conditions at and below treeline with swampy ground, bushwhacking and a tricky crossing of the Bow River.

It was only while researching and subsequently skiing The Preacher and Turquoise Peak that I wondered about a winter or spring ascent on snow. Rick Collier ascended Pulpit via Turquoise Lake from the col between Turquoise and The Preacher in mid-March 1992 after two previous heroic winter attempts. His successful route was convoluted, traveling all the way up Hector Lake and Balfour Creek to the aforementioned col before losing height to Turquoise Lake and trudging up to Pulpit Peak. It took 2 days for Rick’s team to accomplish the first recorded winter ascent. But wasn’t there a much shorter, much more obvious route that could be done in a matter of hours rather than days? I couldn’t figure out why Rick hadn’t simply bashed his way up the SE route that Josee’s team and others have used for descent? Sure! It is severe avalanche terrain, but Rick’s route also involved sun-exposed avalanche slopes down to Turquoise Lake which had to be ascended late in the day after his successful summit. I resolved to wait and see if conditions ever allowed a snow ascent, otherwise I was content to go with the original late summer plan.

Incredible views to Bow (L), Andromache, Hector, Pulpit, Preacher, Temple, Daly and Lilliput (R) from the summit of Turquoise Peak from a 2022 ascent. Rick’s winter ascent route went up north slopes visible here on Pulpit Peak and marked in red.

The winter of 2023/2024 has been a dismal affair as ar as backcountry skiing has been for me. Since I have completed many of the reasonably local ski and winter ascents in the Alberta Rockies, I only want to ski when conditions are relatively safe and relatively fun. I have no interest in skiing repeats on crusty snow or in conditions that can kill me. #notworthit This being said, although YYC seems to have copious amounts of snow, the Rockies to the west have been hit and miss this season. With huge dumps comes high avalanche potential and then with 10-15 degree temperatures comes crust and terrible ski conditions! As I plodded up and down Prairie Mountain on a training grind on Saturday March 23rd, I was joined by Wietse for my 3rd lap. He suggested a better avalanche and weather forecast than I was expecting for the next day and before long we were planning an attempt at Pulpit Peak. Worse case, we’d finally check out the Pulpit Knobs (1 & 2) which have been on our ski list for ages.

Wietse picked me up at 06:00 and by 08:30 we were parking along hwy #93 at a familiar pull-out that I’ve used many times before to access Hector Lake. Air temperatures felt surprisingly warm as we descended old ski tracks to the Bow River, coming across a much fresher track towards Hector Lake (likely following the summer route). Temperatures rose along with the sun and by the time we were crossing a well-frozen Hector Lake, morning clouds were burning off and the day turned bluebird gorgeous. Almost too gorgeous considering our plans for the day.

Pulpit Peak towers over Wietse with Pulpit Knob 1 much lower at left. Turquoise Peak to the right in the bg.
Skiing across Hector Lake with Pulpit Knob 1 & 2 visible under the towering cliffs of the Waputik Range in the background.

We continued on a good skin track through forest before it descended steeply into a drainage. Rather than descend, we cut up to climber’s right, hoping to intersect it again higher up which worked wonderfully. As we popped into the drainage leading up between Pulpit Knob 1 and 2, we were surprised at the great quality of the snowpack. As with the warmth – there was almost too much of a good thing with quite a bit of fresh snow up the steep draw.

We finally topped out to a winter wonderland at a small meadow nestled between the two knobs and took in our surroundings. We were surprised by the quality of the ski conditions and briefly considered bailing on our primary objective for the two smaller ones. Briefly. 

I was delighted to see avalanche debris under the choke of the SE gully – the main gully was out of sight behind a wall of rock. I was less delighted to note the seriousness of the terrain we were about to enter but I was expecting to feel apprehensive as it’s been a while since I’ve traveled in serious winter terrain. There’s always a mental adjustment that has to occur on steep snow, very similar to the transition from hiking and easy scrambling to more serious and consequential terrain. We slowly skied up beside the lower avy debris that slid during the previous week’s heatwave. There was 10-15cm of fresh snow on top of a bomber base which was good and bad. Good for the ski descent, bad for potential sloughing and sliding.

Incredible snowscapes as we get our first views to the SE avy gully (C) and up Pulpit Knob 1 (R).

Originally we were hoping to lug the skis as high as possible – maybe even to the upper west summit ridge, but alas, this wasn’t going to be practical. It was impossible to ski the avy debris and it didn’t seem worth it to carry the snow sticks all the way up the headwall to the upper bowl. I wasn’t bothered by this – I always intended this to be more of a snow mountaineering than a pure ski ascent. Skis had gotten us easily over the Bow River, over Hector Lake lake, up forested slopes, across a swamp and up a large scree slope. That was good enough for me! Hopefully crampons would get us the rest of the way.

We planted our skis in the gully – hoping to heck there would be no large slides to bury them while we were gone. Unfortunately we didn’t have much of a choice at this point – we were in the choke and had nowhere 100% out of harm’s way to store them. We also hoped nobody skiing the knobs would call a rescue if they saw 4 skis sticking out of old avalanche debris – these are things you need to consider but again – we didn’t have a ton of options at this point. Wietse quickly wished his ‘pons had anti-balling plates on them as we started kicking steps up the rapidly steepening gully. IMHO these should be included on every set of crampons that are to be used on snow – they make a huge difference in safety and enjoyment on sticky snow.

As we ascended we were yet again surprised by the power of the spring sun, now sitting high in the sky and focused singularly on our gully. I was quickly finding out why I haven’t heard of anyone else ascending here in winter conditions – there’s more than a little puckering involved. We didn’t observe any signs of problematic instabilities as we continued up the foreshortened and ever steepending SE gully. Thankfully all local cornices had collapsed the week before, and the fresh snow was bonding decently with the hardpack snow left behind. I was concerned about potential smaller slides with the new snow on the rock hard layer beneath, but continued a quick lead to the upper slopes of the gully.

Wietse traverses out of the SE gully above the headwall. We are now far above Pulpit Knob 2 but nowhere near our summit yet.

I led out of the top of the gully near the top of the headwall where the route broke through on a steep convex slope that had me scurrying quickly to get over it. Finally we could relax a little as we started a highline traverse into the back of the upper bowl above the upper Pulpit Tarn. Despite being concerned about a collapsing snowpack in the bowl, we were delighted to have a very supportive base under 15-20 cm of fresh snow. Once again, we were also delighted to see that the south slopes leading to the pinnacles and upper west ridge had slid during the previous week.

Wietse leads into the upper bowl – Pulpit Peak finally visible at upper right.

Once again I led up steepening snow slopes under the pinnacles. (Wietse’s crampons kept balling up which made leading a PITA and somewhat risky with increased potential to lose his footing.) The slope felt reasonably safe until we got under the pinnacles and turned west along the south edge of the west ridge. This is where Josee mentions following scree to a “notch” in the ridge before crossing over to the north side. Instead of messing around on sun-baked slopes with huge runout, I decided to tackle the west ridge proper. It was good fun, exposed winter scrambling along the ridge crest until we reached the notch.

After descending into the small notch, we continued along the ridge – this time on the north side. It was incredible how much cooler it felt here and how different the snowpack was. Instead of sticky snow on a hardpack base, we encountered deep, unconsolidated snow on a much softer slab. It felt trickier than the south slopes had, simply due to the lack of a concrete base. We stuck as close to the handrail ridge as possible in case of a slide, but there were no signs of instability as we wallowed our way upward. I’ll admit that the west ridge was trickier with snow than I was expecting – I thought all the tricky terrain would be the steep south facing slopes. After crossing one last wide snow arete, we were off the west ridge and ascending climber’s left of a massive cornice to the summit.

Summit views did not disappoint despite a cornice blocking views down to Hector Lake. The best view was back to the west towards The Preacher and Mount Balfour looming high above Turquoise Lake. These are the days we live for! My mountain mojo was refreshed as I sat there looking through a Rick Collier register at names that were mostly very familiar. As it turns out, we might have nabbed a first spring ascent of Pulpit Peak, since Rick’s first winter ascent was a week before the official end of winter and ours was 5 days into official spring. Despite zero wind at the summit, we cooled down after 30 minutes and started back down to the west ridge.

Summit panorama includes BowCrow (L), Bow, Andromache, Hector (C), Temple, Daly and The Preacher (R).
Incredible views over Turquoise Lake to Mount Balfour (L), Turquoise Peak, Gordon, Olive, Vulture (R).

Descent along the west ridge went quickly – we stayed on the north side right to the cross-over point under the pinnacles. From there we carefully plunge-stepped south slopes on rapidly softening snow to the upper bowl below.

Descending summit slopes to the west ridge with incredible scenery staring back at us.

Our approach track was holding up nicely and we followed it to the top of the headwall and SE avalanche gully, taking in the sublime atmosphere and huge stone walls soaring high over our little corner of snowy paradise.

Looking down the SE gully put an end to any thoughts of paradise. Despite taking our time and hoping that the gully would be in shade for at least an hour before our descent, we were a little dismayed to see that the top 2/3 was still fully exposed to our relentless home star. The absolute safest move would have been sitting it out for a few hours but considering the stability under the 5-10 cms of fresh snow we decided to descend.

Wietse drops into the top of the SE avy gully atop the headwall which stretches to the right.

A few steps into the gully we found out why we wanted it to be in shade rather than sun. Wietse kicked off a small slide / slough that slowly made its way down the steep slope below, nicely clearing off the fresh (sticky) layer and exposing a firm base that took our crampons much better than the soft layer had. We were delighted by this development but it was a very mixed blessing. Although a nice path had now been cleared for us, a lot of fresh snow remained, potentially ready to slough off while we plunged our way down the gully. It wasn’t a deadly threat but there was enough load to knock us off our feet and not something I wanted to mess with! We increased our pace to the skis and were relieved to arrive without incident.

We quickly transitioned to the snow sticks and made turns down the large scree fan to the meadows below. It felt great to be skiing despite a soft crust forming in the shade of the huge rock cliffs to the west. After a short break under Pulpit Knob 1, we skied the approach drainage and followed our ascent tracks through the forest towards Hector Lake. As usual, the ski descent through tight forest was a mix of control and terror. It sure as heck beat swamp and bushwhacking though. Skiing across Hector Lake we ran into a group returning from Pulpit Knob 1, as surprised as we were by the lack of skiers on this perfect spring day. (Incidentally, they had spotted our skis in the avy debris and wondered what the heck was going on but thankfully didn’t call a rescue on us.)

A quick ski across the southeast end of the lake was followed by a familiar jaunt up the Bow River to join our descent track from hwy 93. It was skins on back up to the highway and so warm that Wietse was down to a short-sleeved t-shirt. We arrived at the car in under 8 hours return trip at a very normal pace – 3 hours quicker than Josee’s group took on the same line in summer. Despite managing a snow ascent and loving almost every moment of it, I would be remiss to leave out the following disclaimer.

Our route involves serious avalanche terrain and a very specific set of weather and snow conditions to ascend (and return) safely. Please DO NOT blindly follow our route! Just because we enjoyed it and survived doesn’t mean you will and doesn’t mean we necessarily made all the safest and best decisions.

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