Wapta Ski Traverse

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

The 5-day Wapta Ski Traverse will take you to one of the most scenic and popular backcountry skiing destinations that Western Canada has to offer. Unlike 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 of Canada huts.

All huts are located high up on the spectacular Wapta and Waputik Icefields along the continental divide. We will find a large selection of premier ski touring summits in the Canadian Rockies right out of each hut’s doorstep. The peaks we will climb along the way rise up to 3,300 meters (10,800 ft), making for challenging and rewarding ski mountaineering days.

We will start “The Wapta” at Peyto Lake, off the world-famous Icefields Parkway which connects Banff and Jasper National Parks. After five days high up on the glaciers we’ll descend back to civilization on the Trans-Canada Highway just west of Lake Louise. 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 usually be able to cache our packs while we ski up the peaks, allowing for lightweight turns on the way down.

Itinerary

Wapta Icefields Ski Traverse | Day-to-Day Itinerary

Pre-Trip Meeting (optional)

Your pre-trip meeting will be hosted by the Wilz family in Canmore, AB on the evening before your Wapta ski Traverse.
Canmore is located 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

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 Apprentice Ski Guide, 4 nights lodging in Alpine Club huts (bunks with foamies) and 4 days of breakfast and 3 course dinners (professionally prepped and packed, light weight) 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), lunches and snacks.
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.

FAQ

What happens if the avalanche hazard is high during the Wapta Traverse?

One of the strengths of the Wapta Traverse is that it can still usually be done when the avalanche hazard is considerable, and at times even when it’s high. The two most problematic sections are the moraine on the way to the Peyto Hut on Day 1, and the overall crux of the trip — the climb to 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 1 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 Icefields Parkway.


Can the Wapta Traverse be done on a splitboard?

The Wapta Traverse gets done quite regularly on a splitboard, 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 uptracks tend to be established by skiers and are thus narrower than split board tracks,
3) able to negotiate low angle descent sections in “ski mode”, and
4) well-practiced in transitioning quickly.

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 on a narrow trail that is often icy.
2) Bad visibility on some of the more rugged glaciated sections may require that the group is roped together on descent.

In summary, in order to keep up with skiers on the Wapta Traverse, a splitboarder 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 Icefields Parkway or the TransCanada Highway within 3-7 hours. The fastest and safest way to escape Balfour Hut is to return to Bow Hut via a three-hour ascent to Vulture-St. Nicholas Col.


Do you need a ski helmet for the Wapta Ski Traverse?

Bringing a ski helmet on a ski traverse has pros and cons. Helmets offer valuable protection against head trauma, however, there are relatively few things you can hit on the Wapta Ski Traverse. The skiing is almost all above treeline except the final two hours of descent on the last day. This final section descends a narrow trail in the trees which can be icy in spring. Relative to a ski resort there are few other skiers you could possibly collide with (but it has been done!) There can be rocks barely hidden by snow in wind scoured areas or in times of low coverage. Lastly, a helmet could offer head protection in an avalanche.

That all being said, the likelihood of needing one is relatively small. It is cumbersome to carry a helmet along with all the other stuff you need to carry on the Wapta Traverse, and helmets add another item to the list of things to do when transitioning from climbing to descending. In the end, it’s up to you whether you want to bring a helmet or not.


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. They involve bigger backpacks, a higher risk to get shut down by weather and avalanche hazard, and higher costs due to the necessary helicopter access.

In more detail the main differences are:

Terrain: The Wapta Traverse travels exclusively above tree line and on glaciated terrain except for the first and last couple of hours of the traverse. On most other wilderness traverses you end up traveling 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 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 the continental climate. The snow can be light powder or wind-packed. The ski terrain on the Wapta Icefield is relatively easy and low angled, however, most of the summits en route offer steeper, fun skiing with light packs. Generally, one must ski steeper terrain with a heavy pack throughout most of the wilderness traverses. This terrain can be difficult to negotiate in bad weather and at times of elevated avalanche hazard. The snow quality can range daily from isothermic to powder depending on the elevation change.

Access: The Wapta Traverse is by far the easiest ski traverse to get to. The starting point can be reached by car from the Calgary airport within 2.5 hours while the other wilderness traverses require 3-5 hours of driving followed by a helicopter ride of 15-30 minutes.

Other users: Some of the wilderness traverses travel through heli-ski terrain, however, most heli-skiing operations shut down in early April (except CMH Bugaboos, which runs until early May). The core season for the wilderness traverses is from early April to early May. The Wapta Traverse is in Banff and Yoho National Parks and therefore no mechanized ski access is allowed. Capacity at the huts is between just 12 and 30 people. We will probably meet one or two other groups during the day, however, given the size of the terrain and the many options for summits, we may not meet anyone else until we arrive at the hut in the afternoons.

Summits: On the Wapta Traverse there are plenty of opportunities for us to drop our heavy packs and climb summits along the way. Summit attempts are less common during the wilderness traverses due to the difficulty of the peaks, the additional time required, and the necessity to focus on mileage.

Avalanche safety and the likelihood to finish the entire traverse: The Wapta Traverse can usually be undertaken in inclement weather with considerable avalanche hazard. The wilderness traverses require good weather and low to moderate avalanche hazard in order to get through the traverse safely. About 80% of our groups complete the classic 5-day Wapta Traverse in its entirety, compared to about 60%  for the wilderness traverses.


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 organize a shuttle from Banff or Canmore to/from the trailhead. Please email us for details.


Do we need boot crampons for the Wapta Ski Traverse?

We don’t usually carry boot crampons on the Wapta Traverse as neither the hut to hut parts nor the peak ascents usually require the use of boot crampons.


Feedback

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.


Guide: Great. Mike and Jen were approachable and full of knowledge and experience and were totally helpful. Mike’s judgement allowed us to safely complete the WAPTA – hoorah!
 Itinerary: Spot on.
Lodging/Food quantity and quality: The Huts are in a great location and much better than camping.
10/10″ Guy S., Australia


“The Wapta trip was pretty much everything I hoped it would be (except for the blisters); challenging, scenic and enlightening. Overall, a memorable experience. I’d definitely recommend it to someone who is looking to complete a real journey through the mountains.
Guide: Mike was excellent. Very cautious and set a reasonable pace on the hill. He was happy to share his knowledge and was a great leader throughout.
Itinerary: The Wapta is what it is – a traverse and I appreciate that is the overall objective – decent downhill skiing is only a bonus so I wasn’t bothered that we didn’t get too much of that on this route. We didn’t seem to have the time or weather to make as many of the side trips as the online itinerary suggests. Reflecting on that itinerary, seems to me you’d have to have a very fast group and perfect conditions to get it all done.
I am definitely keen to do more trips with OnTop. If I have any friends looking for a genuine Canadian Rockies experience I will be strongly recommending you. Say an 8/9 out of 10.” Steve T., Hong Kong


“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


Wapta Traverse Gear List as Downloadable .PDF



Technical Equipment
Bring the following, or rent from Gear Up or Calgary MEC.

 Alpine touring (or telemark*) skis and ski boots
 Collapsible, lightweight ski poles
 Climbing skins (stick-on), fitted to your skis
 Ski crampons (required for trips in March, April, and May)
 Large backpack (50-70 liters). You will also have to carry some group gear.

*Only bring telemark skis if you are an advanced telemark skier with backcountry experience.

If you do not have one or more of the following items, OnTop can provide them. Please book in advance.

 Avalanche transceiver (modern, 3-antenna, 475 Megahertz)
 Lightweight snow shovel
 Avalanche probe (two to three meters long)
 Harness for glacier travel
 One locking carabiner

Bring the following:

 Crevasse rescue equipment, if you are familiar with it. (Prusik cords, webbing, pulleys, auto-locking device). Your guide will bring a full set.
 Repair kit for your equipment (can be shared between several people)

Clothing
Temperatures in the Canadian Rockies vary hugely. Between December and February, temperatures can be well below 0°C during the day and drop as low as –30°C overnight. Between March and May, it can be above freezing during the day with overnight lows not normally going below –10°C. Having several clothing layering options is important.

 Wind and waterproof shell jacket with hood (Gore-Tex or similar)
 Wind and waterproof over-pants (Gore-Tex or similar)
 Warm pants (eg. lined Schoeller fabric)
 Thick fleece or wool pullover, or PrimaLoft jacket
 Medium weight fleece shirt
 Thin synthetic or wool underwear, top and bottoms
 Two pairs of gloves (lightweight and heavier weight)
 Scarf or neck gaiter (eg. Buff)
 Socks (synthetic or wool, thick outer and thin liners)
 Wool or fleece hat that covers your ears
 Gaiters that fit over your ski boot (unless pants seal tightly to your boots)
 Sun hat, preferably with a wide rim
 Bandana (optional)

Around the hut

 Spare underwear and socks
 Light down jacket or vest
 Three-season sleeping bag with stuff sack. Sleeping rooms are unheated
 Earplugs (optional)
 Light hut slippers or Crocs (optional – socks or ski boot liners work too)
 Toiletries (keep to a bare minimum – the huts have minimal washing facilities)

Other items

 Sunglasses with high UV protection
 Ski goggles with high UV protection
 Sunscreen and lip protection with high SPF
 One-liter water bottle with an insulator. Water bladders not recommended
 Thermos (optional)
 Headlamp with spare battery
 Lunch and snacks (eg. sandwiches, candy bars, dried fruit, nuts, etc.)
 Personal first aid kit and other needs (eg. blister kit, prescription medicine, anti-inflammatory, contact lenses, prescription glasses, etc.)
 Pocket knife or Leatherman (optional)
 (Health) insurance documents
 Light stuff sacs or Ziploc bags to keep your backpack organized and important items dry (optional)
 Camera, spare batteries (optional)
 Compass, maps, GPS (optional)
 Ski wax / skin wax (optional)

Meeting Point

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.

For Airport shuttle services; Banffairporter.com

GROUP SIZES
Client / Guides

3 – 7 participants

Our minimum number to confirm a trip departure at our advertised is 3 people. If you are less than 3 people, please contact us directly as we may be able to confirm the trip date sooner with a premium cost of CD$300 / person.  This premium is not payable if we reach the minimum number prior to the trip departure date.

DIFFICULTY
Wapta Icefield Ski Traverse
  • 5-8 hours per day on skis
  • 12-16 kg backpacks
  • Glacier travel
  • Intermediate skiing
2019 DATES

Custom trips:
Any time and duration!

Scheduled Trips:
5 days of Touring
Shorter / longer duration may be available on demand

Feb. 4 – 8
Feb. 11 – 15
Feb. 18 – 22
Mar. 4 – 8
Mar. 8 – 12
Mar. 15 – 19
Mar. 19 – 23
Mar. 26 – 30
Mar. 31 – Apr. 4
Apr. 5 – 9
Apr. 11 – 15
Apr. 15 – 19
Apr. 19 – 23

PRICES

CA $1340

On request, we can quote you in your preferred currency

Inclusions:
Certified guide, guide expenses, 4 x ACC huts, 4 x dinner, breakfast, 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), lunches and snacks