Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park
Hut-to-Hut Ski Traverse
5 Days along the Glaciated Continental Divide
Wapta Ski Traverse Highlights
- THE classic ski traverse in Canada
- Network of 4 fully equipped huts
- Ascent of 5 glaciated peaks en route
- Breathtaking scenery / big glaciers
- Very reliable snow conditions
- Quick access from Calgary Airport
This 5 day ski tour will take you to some of the most scenic and popular backcountry skiing terrain that Western Canada has to offer. In opposite to most Canadian ski touring packages, we will not be based in one lodge for a whole week, but rather cover a large variety of terrain by using four different alpine club huts.
All huts are spectacularly located high up on the Wapta and Waputik Icefields along the continental divide with a large selection of the premier ski touring summits of the Canadian Rockies right in front of our doorstep. Since we have to bring our own food and a sleeping bag, you should be prepared for both, a big adventure and a big backpack!
We will start “The Wapta” at Peyto Lake off the world famous “Icefields Parkway”, which connects the Banff and Jasper National Parks. After five days high up on the glaciers we’ll descend back into civilization to the Trans-Canadian Highway close to Kicking Horse Pass. The peaks to be climbed along the route rise to a maximum of 3300 Meter (10800 ft), which makes for challenging ski mountaineering days. On these peak ascents, backpacks can usually be cached, allowing for some light weight turns.
Wapta Icefields Ski Traverse | Day-to-Day Itinerary
Pre-Trip Meeting (optional)
Your pre-trip meeting will be hosted by the Wilz family on the evening before your Wapta ski Traverse. Meeting in the late afternoon/early evening Canmore AB (1.15 hrs from Calgary International Airport) or for custom trips, we can offer alternative locations and times. Review of the trip itinerary, distribution of rental equipment, food and equipment check. Depending on final timing of the meeting / arrival time of participants, we also do a first avalanche safety exercise in order to expedite the departure the next morning. Airport pick up at Calgary International Airport can be arranged.
Day 1: Approach to Peyto Hut
Drive along the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise where we soon turn onto the world-famous Icefields Parkway direction Jasper to park close to Peyto Lake (From Canmore about 120km = 1.5 hrs). After a short downhill ski, we traverse the frozen Peyto Lake – one of the famous postcard images of the Canadian Rockies. A steep ascent (usually requires some boot packing) leads onto a moraine ridge from where a short descent on skis leads us to Peyto Glacier. With harness on and (depending on visibility at the time and snow coverage on the glacier) sometimes roped on, a mellow climb gets us to the newly renovated Peyto Hut (a.k.a. Whyte Hut) at 8400 ft = 2560 m. Depending on travel conditions, there may be time and energy left for a few turns behind the hut on the Peyto Glacier in the afternoon. Later in the season and in low avalanche hazard, one can also ascend straight up the Peyto Glacier Gorge, which can shave of 1-2 hours of the ascent time in decent conditions.
The Peyto Hut approach usually turns out to be the most strenuous day of the Wapta Traverse trip. Hence arriving a day early for a warm up ski tour based in Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise is not a bad idea!
10 km = 6.2 mi horizontal distance, 670 m = 2200 ft vertical, usually 7 – 8 hours travel time.
Day 2: Traverse to Bow Hut: Peyto Hut – Mt. Habel – Mt. Rhonda – Wapta Saddle – Bow Hut
The traverse to the Bow Hut on the most direct way only takes about 3 hrs (6 km = 3.2 mi, 150 m = 500 ft vertical distance, 300 m = 1000 ft descent).
Given decent weather and avalanche conditions, our itinerary aspires to climb some of the spectacular peaks along the way, which is also where most of the skiing is on the Wapta Traverse. First we cross the Peyto Glacier to the south-west, leave our backpacks and climb Mt Habel (formerly known as Mt. Ronda North 10020 ft = 3055 m), a beautiful view point that shows the vast expanse of the Wapta Icefield. An exciting descent (400 m = 1300 ft) back to our backpacks and on to the summit of Mt. Ronda (3000 m = 9850 ft) just a bit further north. Again, we can drop the backpack a little ways up. For the descent, there are several options on north, east or southerly aspects. The nicest run follows a ramp down the south aspect onto the Yoho Glacier (about 400 m = 1300 ft). A last climb leads to the Wapta Saddle close to the steep rock walls of Mt. St. Niklas. The last run of the day is a classic down the headwall of the Bow Glacier right to the door of the Bow Hut (7700ft = 2347m), the largest of the four Wapta huts. If time allows, we often drop our backpacks and do another lap on this awesome slope before dinner for those who are still keen!
12 km = 7.5 mi horizontal distance, 1200 m = 4000 ft vertical climb, 1460m = 4800 ft), usually 6 – 7 hours travel time.
Day 3: Traverse to Balfour Hut: Bow Hut – Mt. Gordon – Mt. Olive – Balfour Hut
The most direct route to the Balfour Hut only takes about 3-4 hours (7 km = 4.3 mi horizontal distance, 580 m = 1900 ft vertical climb, 430 m = 1400 ft descent) but we try to climb some of the glaciated peaks along the divide on our way.
We reascend the head wall underneath the steep walls of Mt. Saint Niklas onto the crest of the Wapta Icefield. After caching our packs, we continue to the summit of Mt. Gordon (3200 m = 10505 ft) which, aside from a beautiful, north facing descent, offers great views of the remainder of the traverse and further south all the way to the Bugaboos. A short climb leads us to the Olive – Niklas saddle (option to climb Mt. Saint Niklas or Mt Olive), from where we ski to the newly renovated Balfour Hut at 2440 m = 8000 ft. Given good stability and skiing skills of the participants, at times we also ski the steep Vulture Col descent directly to the Balfour Hut.
Depending on arrival time and energy level, there is the option to ski the beautiful Diablerets Glacier, which northern aspect slope often preserve excellent powder well into May.
Depending on which options taken, expect 15 km = 9.4 mi horizontal distance, 1100 m = 3600 ft vertical climb and 1000 m = 3280 ft descent.
Day 4: Crux Day: Balfour Hut – Balfour High Col – Mt. Balfour – Scott Duncan Hut
The steep ascent on the heavily crevassed Waputik Icefield underneath the north face of Mt. Balfour make this day the most exciting of the whole traverse. From a backpack cache at Balfour High Col at 3020 m = 9905 ft, we have an option to climb Mt. Balfour, at 3270 m = 10725 ft the highest peak on the Wapta Traverse. This requires a bit of boot packing when descending from Balfour High Col towards the long, southern aspect summit slope as well as the last 10 minutes to the summit along the low angle summit ridge. After a 400 m = 1300 ft ski run and climbing back to Balfour High Col to grab the backpacks, a long, mellow descent gets us to the Scott Duncan Hut (2710 m = 8900 ft), the highest and smallest of the Wapta Huts.
For those participants who don’t have enough skiing today, there is some short, north facing skiing off the lower part of Mt. Daly available close to the hut. A great descent, but more involved, is the northern aspect run towards Hector Lake off Mt. Liliput.
14 km = 8.75 mi, 1030 m = 3380 ft vertical climb, about 600 m = 2000 ft ski descent if Mt. Balfour is climbed en route.
Day 5: Home Run: Niles Col – Sherbrook Lake – Kicking Horse Pass / Transcanada Highway
We traverse from the hut into Niles Saddle where a long, adventurous descent leads us to Sherbrook Lake. After crossing the frozen lake, we connect with the hiking trail on the southern end. A narrow and windy forest trail eventually spits us back out into civilization at Great Divide Lodge, close to Kicking horse Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway. We usually arrive there around 1PM.. Depending on driving arrangements, we might still have to pick up a vehicle at the Peyto Lake trailhead. Return time to Banff / Canmore is usually around 4 PM For those with a tight schedule, an Airport drop off in Calgary can be arranged for the same evening.
Detail and Logistics
Your pre-trip meeting will be hosted by the Wilz family in Canmore, AB on the evening before your Wapta ski Traverse.
Closest Airport / Transport options
Calgary International Airport is located about 1.25 hrs from our base in Canmore AB, 1.5 hrs from Banff AB and 2 hrs from Lake Louise.
There are several private shuttle services providing hourly transport from the Calgary airport to the Bow Valley – Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise.
Driving times from the trail head at Bow Lake: To Calgary = 2.15 hrs, Canmore 1.15 hrs, Banff 1 hrs, Lake Louise 20min.
Rental cars are also available in Calgary, Banff or Canmore.
Greyhound Bus Service from Downtown Calgary to Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise 4 times a day.
For Airport shuttle services, we can gladly help organizing them.
Best Season, Weather, Temperatures
The Wapta Icefields tend to have a cold micro-climate in an area that can already be considered colder than most ski touring areas in North America with temperatures between 0C (32F) to -25 (-13F).
The best season for the Wapta Traverse is mid March through end of April, when the weather tends to be better, temperatures are warmer, the snow pack is better settled and crevasses are more effectively bridged than in early season. Consequently, the risk of not being able to finish the entire traverse or having to make adjustments to the itinerary is higher in early season (January – Mid March) then in late season (mid March – mid May).
Services Included in the Total Price
5 days guiding by an IFMGA/ACMG certified Mountain, Ski and/or Apprenctice Ski Guide, 4 nights lodging in Alpine Club huts (bunks with foamies) and 4 days of food (professionally prepped and packed, light weight, 3 course dinners, breakfast and lunch supplies), use of avalanche safety and glacier equipment (harness, rope). National Park wilderness overnight fees, pre-trip meeting and all guide expenses.
Not Included (but can be quoted separate)
Transport from Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise to trailhead and back (we can usually car pool or arrange a ride in the guides’ car), Calgary Airport pick up and drop off (CD$ 110 / person return trip), pre and post trip lodging in Canmore (from $ 26 / person), trip lunch on the first day in the field.
Any special meal requests will incur an additional $10 / day.
Any additional cost due to changes in the itinerary, may they be caused by weather, mountain/avalanche conditions or personal preferences.
Can I Do It?
Strenuous backcountry ski tour in alpine, mostly glaciated terrain on alpine touring (randonne) or sturdy telemark equipment. You must be able to ski safely and controlled at all times while wearing a heavy (7kg – 12kg =16lb – 27lb) backpack.
Depending on the conditions, we might have to rope on while skiing both up and downhill.
You need to be in good physical and mental condition, ready to be on your feet for about 8 hrs. on some of the days. If in doubt whether you have the required skills, give us a call!
On a custom basis we also offer a shorter itinerary that avoids the first hut (Peyto Hut) and instead approaches the 2nd Hut (Bow Hut) directly from the Icefields Parkway, an itinerary that reduces the approach time to the Wapta Icefields from 8 hrs to 5 hrs.
What happens if the avalanche hazard is high during the Wapta Traverse
One of the strength of the Wapta traverse is that it can still be done in most cases when the avalanche hazard is “considerable”, at times even when it’s “high”. The two most problematic sections are the moraine on the way to the Peyto Hut on day one and the overall crux of the trip, the climb to the Balfour High Pass on day 4. Should the avalanche hazard be too high, we can either a) approach the Peyto Hut via Bow Hut on day one or b) skip the Peyto Hut and add another night at the Bow Hut. Should the Balfour High Col not be passable, there is no way out other than returning to the Bow Hut and back down to the Icefield Parkway.
Can the Wapta Traverse be done on a split board?
Generally, the Wapta Traverse gets done quite regularly on a split board, however boarding the Wapta Traverse can be more taxing than skiing.
Boarders must be
1) comfortable boarding with a heavy overnight pack,
2) ready to put in additional effort relative to skiers because ascending tracks tend to be established by skiers and thus narrower than split board tracks,
3) able to negotiate low angle descent sections in “ski mode”,
4) well practiced in transitioning fast from downhill to uphill mode to avoid wait times for the skiers in the group.
Additional, Wapta Traverse-specific challenges that tend to be harder to negotiate on a board than on skis are:
1) The final descent to Kicking Horse Pass on the Transcanada highway is a narrow trail that is often icy and it can be tricky on a board.
2) Bad visibility on some of the more rugged glaciated sections may require descending being roped.
In summary, in order to keep up with skiers on the Wapta Traverse, a split boarder needs to be well seasoned in the backcountry and very fit!
How easily can the Wapta Traverse be aborted?
From any of the Wapta huts one can escape down to the Ice Fields Parkway or the Trans-Canada Highway within 3 – 7 hours. However, when exiting from the Balfour Hut the fastest and safest way is to backtrack to the Bow Hut via Vulture – St. Nickolaus Col which requires a 3 hrs ascent.
Do you need a ski helmet for the Wapta Ski Traverse?
Thanks for your patience. Bringing a ski helmet on a ski traverse is a cost – benefit consideration. Generally helmets offer valuable protection against head trauma. On the other side there are relatively few things you can possibly hit on the Wapta Ski Traverse: 1) The skiing is pretty much all above treeline except the 2 hours on the ski out on the last day involves tree skiing with the final trail to the Great Divide Lodge at the TransCanada Highway bring a bit of a luge run if frozen 2) Relative to a ski resort there are few other skiers you could possibly collide with (but it has been done!) 3) There can be rocks sticking out of the snow in wind scoured areas or in times of low coverage and lastly 4) helmets offer protection in an avalanche involvement.
That all being said, the likelihood of needing one is relatively little while it is cumbersome to carry a helmet along with all the other stuff you need to carry on the Wapta Traverse. helmets add another item to the list of things to do when transitioning from climbing to descending. In the end, it’s a decision depending on how risk averse you are and looking around when doing the Wapta Traverse we see very few people carrying helmets.
How is the Wapta Traverse different from other Wilderness Traverses like Bugaboos to Rogers Pass?
Generally, the Wapta traverse is probably the best hut to hut traverse in North America and quite ideal for your first Canadian ski traverse experience. The other Wilderness traverses (Bugaboos to Rogers Pass, Monashees and Selkirk Traverses) are probably amongst the wildest ski adventures one can have anywhere in the world. Bigger backpacks, higher risk to get shut down by weather and avalanche hazard and higher cost due to helicopter access.
In more detail the main differences are:
Terrain: The Wapta traverse travels exclusively through above tree line and mostly glaciated terrain except for the first and last hour of the traverse. On most other wilderness traverses you end up travelling below tree line quite a bit and usually try to camp in the trees to be able to dry out equipment at a fire and hide a bit from wind and weather.
Skiing and snow quality: The Wapta Traverse usually has colder weather than the other Wilderness traverses as it is located in the Rockies, which are influenced by continental climate. The skiing terrain along the Wapta Icefields on the glaciers is relatively easy and low angle, however most of the peak ascents en route offer good skiing. Generally, most of the other wilderness traverses offer steeper skiing, which is often difficult to avoid in bad weather and times of elevated avalanche hazard.
Access: The Wapta traverse is by far the easiest ski traverse to get to. The starting point can be reached by car from Calgary airport within 2.5 hrs while the other wilderness traverses require 3 – 5 hrs of driving followed by a helicopter ride of 15 to 30 minutes.
Other users: Some of the terrain the wilderness traverses travel is used for helicopter skiing and you may occasionally encounter a group of heli-skiers, however most heli-skiing operations shut down in early April (except CMH Bugaboos run until early May) and the core season for the wilderness traverses is from early April to early May. The Wapta traverse is in Banff National Park and therefore no mechanized skiing access is allowed. Given that the huts sleep 16 people (only the Bow Hut mid trip sleeps 32) and often books out during the core season of the Wapta Traverse (mid March – mid May) you can expect to meet one or two other groups during your ski touring days, however given the size of the terrain and the possibility of climbing several peaks each day, you may also not meet anyone until you arrive at the hut in the afternoon.
Peak ascents: On the Wapta traverse there are plenty of opportunities to climb one or even two peaks en route (usually we drop our packs and continue with a lighter pack) between the huts while on the wilderness traverses commonly only few peaks are being climbed en route. This has to do with the difficulty of many of the peaks, more additional time required and the focus of the traverse being to travel from start to end with pretty long traverse days.
Avalanche safety and the likelihood to finish the entire traverse: The Wapta traverse can usually be undertaken in incremental weather with considerable avalanche hazard while for the wilderness traverses good weather and low to moderate avalanche hazard are crucial to manage the traverse safely. About 80% of our groups manage to finish the 5 day Wapta traverse while for the Wilderness traverses the success rate is at about 60%
Transport to/from Trailhead:
Transport is not included in your trip price, however we can arrange it for you.
If you ride with the guide, you can pay the guide in cash directly for 0.55c/km.
If riding with the guide isn’t an option, then OnTop can help organise a Taxi/shuttle from Banff or Canmore to/from the trailhead, please email us for details.
Wapta Ski Traverse –The most scenic and popular backcountry skiing terrain that Western Canada has to offer
References of prior guests: We will gladly put potential clients in touch with previous participants of each trip in order for interested guests to get more personalized references and their questions answered from a more objective point of view than what our office could provide.
“Thanks so much. It was a wonderful trip. Jordy and Leanne did a fantastic job. I really enjoyed them and the other guests. Food was great. Thanks for making it happen. I would definitely recommend On top. 10/10! ”
—Eric S., ID, USA
“Dave’s performance was Excellent. Dave clearly knows his stuff with respect to both the technical aspects of his job, and how to work with people. He is one of the most capable leaders, back country or otherwise, that I have had the pleasure to engage with in the past 30 years or so. Trip Organization and communication was generally excellent and no complaints.
One suggestion: let people know they may be carrying up to 50-60 lbs of stuff at some point in the trip. It wasn’t a problem for me (except for all the huffing and puffing) as I have been training for activities like this, but others may be in for a rude surprise.Itinerary was perfect.Lodging and Food quality was Excellent. Thanks for arranging the night in the Coast for me. The ‘meat-etarian’ in me was well satisfied! 10/10. Already bragging about you to others.”
—Richard E., BC, Canada
EQUIPMENT LIST: BACKCOUNTRY SKI TOURING WAPTA TRAVERSE
1. Technical Equipment
• Telemark or Alpine Touring skis*:Only bring your telemark skis if you are at least an advanced/intermediate telemark skier with backcountry experience.
• Telemark or alpine touring boots*
• Collapsible ski poles*
• Climbing skins (stick-on) that fit your telemark or alpine touring skis*
• Avalanche transceiver (475 Megahertz)**
• Lightweight snow shovel**
• Avalanche probe**
• Large backpack (at least 50 liters)
• Climbing harness for glacier travel (best without much waist belt padding)**
• One locking carabiner**
• Crevasse rescue equipment, if you are familiar with it. (Prusik slings, webbing, pulleys, auto-locking device). Your guide will bring a full set.
• Ski crampons * (required for spring skiing departures)
• Repair kit for your skis (can be shared between several people)
All items marked with ‘*’ can be rented from a rental shop locally.
All items marked with ‘**’ can be provided by OnTop ltd. Please bring your own equipment if you have it.
Temperatures in the Canadian Rockies vary hugely. Early season (December – February) temps can drop as low as –30C overnight, whereas in spring (mid-March – May) it can warm up to above freezing temps and overnight lows are not usually below –10C. The list is meant as a guide line, but we realize that our guests have their clothing priorities and substituting certain items with other equivalent pieces of clothing might be a valid alternative. If you do so, you should discuss it with your guide in the pre-trip briefing.
• Wind and waterproof shell jacket with hood (Gore Tex or similar)
• Wind and waterproof over pants (Gore Tex or similar)
• Warm pants (insulated / fleece/ polypro)
• Fleece or wool pullover or jacket
• Medium weight fleece shirt
• Thin synthetic or wool underwear, top and bottoms
• 2 Pairs of gloves (lightweight and heavier weight)
• Scarf or neck gaiter
• Socks: thick (wool) outer and thinner liners
• Wool or fleece hat, covering the ears
• Gaiters (unless pants lock tightly to your boots or ski pants have integrated gaiters)
• Sun hat, preferably with wide rim
• Bandana (optional)
3. Hut lodging
• Spare underwear, socks
• Down vest or light insulated jacket (optional)
• Light stuff sacs or zip lock bags to keep your backpack organized (optional)
• Sleeping bag and stuff sac (“three-season” sleeping bag is sufficient”). Expect hut temperatures to be below freezing overnight.
• Ear plugs (Optional)
• Very light hut slippers / down booties (optional – socks or boot liners work too)
• Toiletries (Keep to bare minimum – none of the huts has wash facilities or even water other than from melted snow)
4. Other items
• Sun Glasses (with very good UV protection, extra pair is a good idea), goggles optional
• Sun screen and lip protection
• Water bottle, preferably insulated, minimum volume: 1 liter or camelbak (if too cold, bladder tube might freeze up!)
• Light head lamp with spare battery
• Blister kit (optional)
• Snacks (candy bars, dried fruit, sandwiches, nuts, etc.)
• Personal items (Prescription medicine, extra contact lenses and maintenance equipment, extra pair of prescription glasses etc.)
• Pocket knife or leatherman tool
• (Health) insurance documents
• Zip-lock bag for wallet and documents to keep them dry (recommended)
• Camera, spare batteries (optional)
• Compass, maps and GPS (optional)
• Ski wax / skin wax (optional)
Wapta Icefields Ski Traverse
- Up to 8hrs/day on skis
- Big backpacks
- Glacier travel
- Intermediate skiing
- Gentle descents
Any time and duration!
5 days of Touring
Shorter / longer duration may be available on demand
Feb. 4 – 8
Feb. 12 – 16
Feb. 19 – 23
March 6 – 10
March 12 – 16
March 17 – 21
March 19 – 23
March 26 – 30
April 2 – 6 (Easter)
April 9 – 13
April 16 – 20
April 23 – 27
April 30 – May 4
May 7 – 11
May 14 – 18
On request, we can quote you in your preferred currency
Certified guide, guide expenses, 4 x ACC huts, 4 x dinner, breakfast, lunch supplies and snacks, use of glacier and avalanche safety gear, Parks Canada wilderness fee
Extra:Transport to trail heads, rental of skiing gear – all of which can be arranged and quoted separately)