20140621: Six Days on the Wapta Icefield

It always feels a little strange coming home after a mountain trip and realizing that the gears of the world have continued to grind on while you were held captive in an alternate universe of endless snow, ice, and rock.

You feel that, while you were inching through the huge terrain, imprinting the snow with footprints, rationing toilet paper, slathering sunscreen every couple of hours, that somehow while performing routine, repetitive, minute actions within an immense landscape, that the ‘real’ world would stand still and await your return.

For some, this melding of fairytale landscape and the pragmatism of earning a living is much more fluid.

“Welcome to my office!” beams Yamnuska guide James Madden, as the 6 of us on course ease ourselves into the Bow Hut perched above the icefields parkway. This will be our base over the next few days, as we consolidate skills and gain practical experience on the Wapta Icefield.

Num-Ti-Jah Lodge on Bow Lake, our starting point
Num-Ti-Jah Lodge on Bow Lake, our starting point
Blue waters of the Bow Lake
Blue waters of the Bow Lake
Trail washed out
Trail washed out
    DAY 1: Start at Bow Lake and hike up to Bow Hut
    DAY 2: “The Onion”, self-arrest, glacier morphology, route planning, navigation
    DAY 3: Mt. Olive, St. Nicholas Peak
    DAY 4: snow and ice anchors, crevasse rescue, self-rescue, trip planning, navigation
    DAY 5: Mt. Rhondda, crevasse rescue
    DAY 6: Hike out

The Wapta Icefield is comprised of a series of glaciers that run along the continental divide from Peyto Lake in the North to the Trans-Canada Highway in the South. Wapta is a Cree word meaning “running water” and it is thought that the name refers to Takakkaw Falls which is the second tallest waterfall in Western Canada. This Icefield is split down the middle by the continental divide and lies in both Yoho and Banff National Parks.

The first recorded exploration onto the Wapta Icefield was in 1932 by McCoubrey, the Neave brothers and Secord. The area was recognized for its ski potential and the first Alpine Club Hut was built in 1965… The newest version of the Bow Hut was built in 1989. — Yamnuska Course Notes

My companions on course are 5 women and 1 guy, the opposite of the usual gender ratio. Yam does run a women’s only mountaineering course but somehow we have ended up together in the co-ed. It proves to be a great dynamic. Finally, people who understand moisturizing lotion, the difficulties of bras and backpacks, and PMS.

  • K from Chicago: confidante, adventurous, says it as it is
  • B from Calgary: generous and ambitious
  • S from London, England: deliberate, patient, gracious
  • J from Squamish, BC: gregarious, hilarious and comfortable in her skin
  • R from Saskatoon, SK: quirky, lively, energetic and strong, avid learner
  • and me, of course.
  • Heading towards the Wapta Icefield
    Heading towards the Wapta Icefield
    Numerous stream crossings
    Numerous stream crossings
    Bow Falls, the headwaters of the Bow River
    Bow Falls, the headwaters of the Bow River
    Bow Canyon on the right
    Bow Canyon on the right

    Over the days we get into a rhythm of divvying chores: meal prep, hauling water from the falls, boiling water, dumping grey water, building the fire, separating waste, dishes and kitchen cleanup. Our meals are communal, pre-prepared and dehydrated by Yam’s Backcountry Kitchen, that cater to James’ gluten free and S’s vegetarian diets.

    Yam hires a porter, Neil, to haul food up to the hut for us on the first day, sparing us 10 to 15lbs each in our packs. One person with whom we are sharing the hut seems to think this puts us in a lesser class of mountaineer and cannot stop commenting on the “Swiss model of mountaineering” (wherein the client shows up with a credit card and the guide and porters do all the heavy lifting), our “training wheels”, complaining about how loud our alarm clock is and how early in the morning it was going off on summit days (5AM, not even that early for alpine days), telling others to let “the students” do the kitchen chores, and “how luxurious” of a situation we have, a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one.

    Well, we were the ones out on the mountains in the rain and sleet and whiteout conditions, not sitting on our bums in the hut in front of the fire.

    The condescension was the only downer of the trip. Everyone else at the hut was fantastic; over the 6 days we shared the hut with 4 other parties including, on the first night, a group of 21 (yes, twenty-one) women having a reunion of sorts. The hut sleeps 30 at full capacity (12 per bunk with six on each level). Most groups stayed only one night.

    Outhouse humour
    Outhouse humour
    Outhouse barrel replacement instructions... thanks to J and James who took that on!
    Outhouse barrel replacement instructions… thanks to J and James who took that on!
    Bunks in the sleeping quarters of the hut
    Bunks in the sleeping quarters of the hut

    Our days are structured as such:

    • Wakeup call (only one of us was wearing a watch so J was in charge of setting the alarm)
    • Breakfast of hot or cold grains or cereal, tea and coffee
    • Instructional ascent with occasional breaks for water, snacks as we please from a personal store of energy bars and gorp
    • Lunch (made last night or that morning) of sandwich or wrap such as salmon, tuna, cheese, hummus, PB etc
    • Instructional in the field or return to hut
    • Instructional with early appetizer of cheese and crackers and a soup (tomato, cauliflower, squash, etc)
    • Dinner of stew with rice or pasta (bison, chili, lentil, etc) and dessert (cookies, Nanaimo bars, Toblerone, etc.) tea, coffee, juice, hot chocolate

    We are highly encouraged to participate in leading, route planning, navigation. That’s what we’re here for, after all. James has a vast store of amusing and tragic stories from the glaciers, and we learn a little bit about calcium carbonate and fault lines from the two geologists on course. No we did not have to lick any rocks!

    J leads team 2 up the toe of the glacier
    J leads team 2 up the toe of the glacier
    For scale, two teeny tiny people and the icefall off Mt Gordon in the distance
    For scale, two teeny tiny people and the icefall off Mt Gordon in the distance
    Alpine flowers (don't know the name of them, but very pretty and a welcome colour amidst the rocks)
    Alpine flowers (don’t know the name of them, but very pretty and a welcome colour amidst the rocks)
    Self arrest: feet first on tummy, feet first on  back, head first. Also just slipping and sliding and having a grand time
    Self arrest: feet first on tummy, feet first on back, head first. Also just slipping and sliding and having a grand time

    s145 - Copy

    s133 - Copy

    Curiously, the icefield surface was littered with big snow spiders, ladybugs and other insects. Apparently this is the hibernating grounds for the ladybugs. They were everywhere and we were all cautious to not harm them!

    Sunrise
    Sunrise
    Team 2 passing "The Onion"
    Team 2 passing “The Onion”
    Rope team 2
    Rope team 2
    Heading up Mt. Olive on the moat ridge of St. Nicholas
    Heading up Mt. Olive on the moat ridge of St. Nicholas

    Mt. Olive: F.A. 1927 Cropley, Gambs, Goodrichh and Lawrence Grassi (Guide). Harold Bailey Dixon (1st ascensionist on Gordon 1897 named this after his wife — Yamnuska Course Notes

    Top of Mt. Olive
    Top of Mt. Olive
    Views, views, views in every direction.
    Views, views, views in every direction.
    View from Mt. Olive looking down Vulture Glacier towards Balfour
    View from Mt. Olive looking down Vulture Glacier towards Balfour
    Descent Mt Olive
    Descent Mt Olive
    James and B
    James and B

    St. Nicholas Peak: F.A. 1930 Thorington and Peter Kaufmann (Guide). Named in 1916 by surveyors on the Alberta Boundary Commission as the rock formations near the summit reminded them of Santa Claus — Yamnuska Course Notes

    Hm, I’m not seeing anything that reminds me of Santa… While downclimbing J spears herself in the leg with the pick of her ice axe. Nothing serious, luckily.

    Heading towards the top of St. Nicholas Peak (that thing that looks like a shark fin)
    Heading towards the top of St. Nicholas Peak (that thing that looks like a shark fin)
    Scramble up to the top of St Nicholas
    Scramble up to the top of St Nicholas
    Storm brewing in the background
    Storm brewing in the background.
    Home away from Home
    Home away from Home

    We built and tested T-slots, snow bollards, pickets (top and middle), ice anchors and v-threads, practiced self-rescue, and did two days of crevasse rescue practice (similar to what we did with K7 at Yamnuska Bluffs back in April). Remember that scene from the Disney animated film “Frozen”? Where Anna and Kristoff are being chased by Ice Monster and they build a bollard and rap down the cliff? Yeah!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORP2FK60TEw

    Digging a T-slot
    Digging a T-slot. A nicer setting than last time I did practice, which was on the side of the Kananaskis highway!
    our not-so-perfect bollard
    American cowgirl lassoing the snow in our not-so-perfect bollard. But it held!
    Self-rescue. James supervising. In sandals, of course.
    Self-rescue. James supervising. In sandals, of course.
    showing off the "alligator fossil", a slab of wind carved rock that looks like a fossil of well.. you know
    showing off the “alligator fossil”, a slab of wind carved rock that looks like a fossil of well.. you know

    Mt. Rhondda: F.A. 1923 Geoffrion, Hickson and Edward Feuz (Guide). Named in 1917 by the Alberta Boundary Commission. Named after Davis Alfred Thomas, Viscount of Rhondda. Prominent member of the British War Cabinet — Yamnuska Course Notes

    Morning, Day 5, on the way to Mt Rhondda
    Morning, Day 5, on the way to Mt Rhondda
    Whiteout. Perfect conditions to practice navigation!
    Whiteout. Perfect conditions to practice navigation!

    ss424

    ss419

    Taking a bearing
    Taking a bearing. “Think you guys can find your way back without me saying a single word?” says James
    Postholing through snow made softer by rocks and the rain/sleet
    Postholing through snow made softer by rocks and the rain/sleet
    No view from Mt Rhondda due to no visibility; why not take a photo of our wet boots...
    No view from Mt Rhondda due to no visibility; why not take a photo of our wet boots…

    s439 - Copy

    In the evenings we amused ourselves with two mis-matched decks of cards and S taught us “500”, a game of Rummy. Also, bouldering skills (sorta, really just party tricks!):

  • Sit on top of a dinner table. Without touching the floor, make your way under and around and back up on the tabletop.
  • Same table. Without touching the floor, make your way around the perimeter of the table.
  • Headaches
    Headaches
    Party Tricks 1
    Party Tricks 1
    Party Tricks 2
    Party Tricks 2

    All too soon it’s time to pack up, clean the hut, and head home… A great week. Legs tired. I’d like to do the Yoho Peaks trip and Louise Classics eventually. Maybe next year.

    J and B crossing the rock bridge across the canyon. Low probability of falling; very high consequence!
    J and B crossing the rock bridge across the canyon. Low probability of falling; very high consequence!
    Marmot on the rock bridge
    Marmot on the rock bridge
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