The Northern Rockies know no boundaries and continue uninterrupted through the International Border with Canada; Highway 93 penetrates the heart of this area from Central Idaho to Jasper Alberta.
I headed north in early April to explore and sample some late winter skiing along the Icefields Parkway of Alberta. My friends Ken and Kenny manage and operate the Hosteling International hostels in the National Parks of Banff, Yoho, and Jasper. We started off with two ski area days first at Sunshine Village where a gondola takes you for a long ride into a basin on the BC border and a small mountain village where skiers can stay and ski. It was Ken's son Ryan's spring break and he was eager to ski with his Dad and two friends. At 8 he is the future of skiing and watching how well he skis and the benefits of newer technology gear on his potential development was quite inspiring. We skied quite hard and I was thirstier and hungrier than many a backcountry day. While temps had begun to moderate at home in the valleys and along the Columbia and Kootenai River, along the Bow and Saskatchewan Rivers on the east side of the great divide, winter still held a cool grip. I was feeling lucky as we skied through a 6 inch powder storm and skied hard down steep tree lines looking out over the high border country and its stunning peaks, glaciers and alpine terrain between Bow Valley and the upper Kootenay River highlands.
We began moving north the next day and for the next four days skied different locations north along the Bow Valley and thence to the upper tributaries of the Mistaya and Saskatchewan Rivers. Lake Louise was the starting point where we skied a low light day and made the most of stiffening old powder and flat light. At the end of the day beaten up by difficult visibility and chunky snow, we departed for the Rampart Creek Hostel, set at the bottom of steep cliffs across from a basin of avy paths along the north Saskatchewan River in a lonely quiet place all its own.
Mount Hector was at the top of my list having been recommended by a friend from the Tetons. We found the entrance turn out off the Highway across from Hector Lake on the way to the hostel and returned the next morning for an attempt. Attempts became the name of the game for the rest of my trip as weather continued to roll through the mountains freshening up the powder surface and reducing visibilities to nothing at times and almost always obscuring the alpine zones. Occasionally we would get a small window between clouds for a decent look around and an opportunity to snap a couple photos.
Mount Hector's approach had a skin trail and the initial ascent of the tour was a mild skin through young forest and passed a beautiful flock of ptarmigan. The forest ended at the toe of an avy path and working its way up to the entrance gully which was crusty. The gully was sharply defined by towering cliffs on the southfacing slopes and the initial ridge of Little Hector; the approach required some boot packing and passed through some dangerous wet slide terrain, but the day was cold and firm snow abounded. Hector is a beautiful tour as upon leaving the gully the tourer rolls into a high basin with a few scattered subalpine fir trees and beautiful descent lines of north facing terrain on the right. The approach to the mountain veers towards a sickle shaped ski run descending from the shoulder of Little Hector and we aimed for this.
While we ascended into the alpine the weather continued to move in and we topped out onto a plane of white with Little Hector's rough and weather and wind beaten north face directly opposite. With no rope or crevasse rescue gear we were hesitant of skinning up onto the glacier and we stopped, lunched and took a run on the sickle line just ahead of a group from the CAC who had been shut down on their approach across the glacier. The skiing was quite good with a bit of rock dodging and still low light. We reascended and pushed on across the flats of Little Hector and up onto the glacier. Following the other tracks which were already partially wind swept we skied up and passed a number of big open crevasses to a point where we needed to circumvent a number large open gouges into the glacier. As on descent we would have even less of a view of these monsters, we turned around there and took another lap on the sickle run after schussing the up track back.
The lower mountain was really fun and the exit gully was the most advanced and technical skiing of the route. Busting the last couple hundred of crust interspersed with powder trees popped us out onto the road for an excellent exit to an excellent tour. Back at Rampart Creek we stoked the fire and tried to figure out the next days tour.
The Bow hut is the most popular staging camp for a variety of tours across the vast Wapta and Waputik Icefields and the various other huts in the area: Balfour, Peyto, Stanley Mitchell, and Mistaya. The initial approach to Bow Creek crosses Bow Lake passed the boarded up Tum-Jin-Lah Lodge and enters a truly lovely little canyon.
Enroute to the canyon the peak Jimmy Simpson dominates the north and Crowfoot Peak the south. We chose to head south at the junction to the hut and pursue some more north facing skiing upon the west Crowfoot Glacier and col. We again ascended into the white out and worked a line of morraines and ridges up to within a half mile of the summit ridge to the west. Kenny was tired from our big day on Hector and because of his heavy sidecountry setup. In my little touring boots and Voile Vectors I was packing half the weight per foot and it was showing. While he stopped and deskinned I continued up the final morraine towards the summit ridge until positioned to enjoy a great line down the ramp and back into the basin for the ski out. Skiing without the advantage of sight is a disorienting prospect and requires a real trust of the skis and legs to respond adequately to inconsistencies in the natural terrain. Other ski tracks help immeasurably in the sight department, but I'm a believer in skiing by feel especially when the snow is so good. Descending again to the Bow Creek area, we traversed off the standard return and rolled over into the craggy upper part of Bow Canyon. Careful not ski down on top of any tourers we exited to the out track via a nice open steep bowl that dropped us directly onto the trail through some good NW facing powder.
- Skiing below the Bow Hut
Touring back across Bow Lake in the afternnon light with occasionally sunstreaks rolling over the eastern mountains was an inspiring moment of beauty and I soaked it up as we kicked and glided along effortlessly. We were tired and took a rest day at Rampart with some bouldering and a sauna.
My final day skiing we ventured into less traveled terrain and skied in from Waterfowl Lake, down the Mistaya River and then to Cepheron Lake where we toured alongside wolverine tracks to the head of the lake and a hidden skier's basin tucked up next to 4,000' ice and rock faces. All day the sheer cliffs dropped small to medium sized powder avalanches down the face, making for some beautiful curtains and snowfalls to watch from the moderate ski basin adjacent.
Working our way up into deepest powder that we had skied so far and making laps through the pillow fields was super fun and we pushed deeper and higher into the basin until we were starting to post hole and sidestep up couloirs choked so deep with powder I could not proceed. In all we took three full runs, with a couple short pokes to ski a pillow line or the toe of the moraine adjacent to the basin in anticipation of a different approach in the future.
With the weather forecast predicting warming temperatures, Kenny being tired, and having been gone already from home for a week, I pulled the plug on the trip the next day and drove home through the Bow, Columbia, Kootenay, Flathead, and Clark Fork and Bitterroot Valleys, a wonderfully connected bit of geography full of old trader, trapper, native and explorer history. Highway 93 revisited.