Wapta Traverse: Peyto Lake to Sherbrooke Lake (5 days / 40 km)

Ski lines down the from Mount Habel on the Wapta Traverse

The Wapta Traverse is THE classic Canadian ski traverse. Skiers stay at 4 remote mountain huts over 5 days, passing over the glaciated Wapta and Waputik Icefields in Banff and Yoho National Parks. While I don’t recommend going unguided unless you have significant experience in whiteout navigation, crevasse rescue, and avalanche assessment, with guides this trip, is surprisingly accessible to even strong intermediate skiers with some ski touring experience who have a good level of fitness and don’t mind skiing with a pack.

Completed: April 2022


Trip Summary: Wapta Traverse

Start Point: Unlabeled parking pull-off at Peyto Lake (Banff National Park)

End Point: Sherbrooke Lake Parking Lot (Yoho National Park)

Length: 5 days / 4 nights

Huts: Peyto Hut, Bow Hut, Balfour Hut, Scott Duncan Hut (all managed by the Alpine Club of Canada).

Distance: About 40 km without side trips, up to 50-70km with side trips included (weather and energy-dependent). We averaged about 10km/day, with elevation gain/loss of about 600-1200m each day.

Difficulty: Intermediate if guided / Expert if unguided

Location

This route for the Wapta Traverse starts in Banff National Park and ends at Yoho National Park, in the Rocky Mountains. Banff is the nearest town and Calgary is the nearest major city.

Traditional Territory: The Wapta Traverse takes place on the traditional territory of the Iyârhe Nakoda Nations (Bearspaw, Wesley, Chiniki), the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina – part of the Dene people, Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, Mountain Cree, and Métis (source and source).

Maps & Resources 

Maps:

Permits & Reservations: If not going with a guide, you must book each hut with the ACC. Booking policies during COVID have changed; please check the ACC website for up-to-date information. 

Outfitters & Shuttles

Guides:

It is highly recommended you hire a guide or join a guided tour unless you have expertise in ski mountaineering. 

If you have a group of friends you want to go with, you could hire a private guide through the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), or contact an outfitter. If you are looking to join a group, there are multiple tours available.

Multiple Guiding operations are available out of Canmore or Calgary. I used On Top Mountaineering: and I thought everything was excellent and very well organized. There are also a number of other outfitters available (ex. Yamnuska, ACC, University of Calgary). Our group was 12 guests with 2 guides, which was the maximum capacity at the smallest hut.

Know Before You Go

Personal Equipment Required:

  • Alpine touring or telemark skis/boots, or split-board (I would not personally recommend this trip for split-boarders, as it is primarily a traverse and there is not a ton of downhill skiing/snowboarding, however, it has definitely been done)
  • Avalanche rescue equipment: (shovel, probe, transceiver* (*including knowledge on how to use a transceiver! I would definitely recommend an AST 1 course (Avalanche Skills Training) before you go, although if you go with a guided group it is not essential)
  • Harness, carabiner, +/- prusik cord (often supplied by guiding companies)
  • Sleeping bag, clothes and personal items for hut. Cooking utensils/facilities provided by hut.
  • Food. This is usually supplied by guiding company and carried by participants.

When To Go: Prime time for Canadian ski mountaineering traverses is mid-March until the end of April.

Trip Report: Wapta Traverse

Day 1: Approach to Peyto Hut (10 km)

Distance: 10km, 800m elevation gain

This is the most physically demanding day of the trip. We started out from Canmore at 7:00 am, and completed a car shuttle leaving some vehicles at the Sherbrooke Lake parking lot (exit point) and then driving to the pull-off at Peyto Lake. There is no official trail down to Peyto Lake, so the trip starts with a challenging downhill “ski” through thick forest. (“Ski” is a bit of an exaggeration; really it was survival skiing involving side slipping and stepping down between branches, over logs etc.) At some point, a few participants even took off their skis and bum-scootched down the tricky sections.

Peyto Lake

I have never been so excited to see flat ground! Ahhh, the lake! After a quick break to refuel, it’s now an easy (and flat!) ski across Peyto Lake. We can see the mountains looming ahead of us. The closer they get, the taller and more intimidating they look…

Creek Crossing

At the edge of the lake, believe it or not, there is an open creek, that yes, we must cross in ski boots! I am thankful for my ski poles, because log-and rock-hopping in ski boots is a whole different ballgame…Luckily the creek is shallow, fellow participants are helpful, and no one gets wet!

Bootpacking Up the Peyto Moraine

Skis are back on, now is the trudge up the moraine. In favourable avalanche conditions, sometimes you can scootch up the gully, but it’s above zero today, so the guides recommend we trudge up and over the moraine, which will add 1-2 hours to our trip. It starts with a steep skin, but we soon have to remove our skis because there is a lot of exposed rock on the moraine. We tie our skis up on our packs, bootpack up, and then down the steepest parts of the moraine. It is hot and sunny, and I am wishing I had brought more water. I sure am happy when it comes time to put my skis back on! 

I can see that we have to ski down the moraine to the base of the glacier, where we have to ski up again, higher than we are now, to the hut. I wish there was a cable car to avoid dropping all the way down just to hike all the way back up, but no such luck! We ski down a few hundred meters and guzzle some water before the final grunt up the Peyto Glacier. The clouds are moving in, and there is a cool looking ice cave, but we are all too exhausted to even think about exploring it (plus these are generally not super safe places to be).

Roping Up to Ascend Peyto Glacier

The guides assemble the ropes, and we all put on our harnesses and clip into the rope; there are quite a few crevasses at the toe of Peyto Glacier. Our group of 12 guests and 2 guides separates into 3 rope teams. The idea is that if one person falls in, the weight of the rest of us will prevent them from falling too far, and also allow a rescue. I am not too worried though, as our guides are very experienced. Skiing while roped up requires a surprising amount of concentration; the person in front must keep a constant and goldilocks speed; not too fast and not too slow! Each person must be careful not to go too fast, or risk getting tangled in a loop of rope, or too slow and pull back on the person in front of them. Despite focusing on keeping the perfect tension on the rope, I still admire the huge crevasses we are traversing around.

Peyto Hut

Finally, the hut is in view! I’m totally exhausted, and it still seems so far up the glacier, but before long we’ve arrived! The first hut chore is to start melting snow over the stove for the group’s drinking water; we’re all pretty parched from an 8-hour day of non-stop moving. Snacks are then assembled (and quickly inhaled) while we pick out our sleeping quarters (I sleep cold and so grab a top bunk) and the guides cook dinner. We’re all pretty tired and the hut is small, so it’s lights out just after 9. I’m so glad to be in the cozy hut, and not outside camping, as some groups do!

Day 2: Peyto Hut to Bow Hut (10 km)

Distance: ~10 km, ~1000 m elevation gain with side trips

Direct Distance from hut to hut: 6 km, 350 m elevation gain

Ski Run Down from Mt Habel

We struck gold on the weather today! Our guide says i’s the nicest weather he has ever experienced on the Wapta. Bluebird skies, warm (but not too hot), and no wind! After breakfast and packing up at the hut, we ski down a short way from Peyto Hut and then put the skins back on our skis. We ski up to a saddle, drop our packs, and then just carrying probes and shovels (so light!) we climb a few hundred meters up to the ridge of Mt Habel. It’s pretty windy up top so we don’t stay long, but instead, enjoy a beautiful powder run down back to our packs. It’s such a joy to ski nice fresh powder and without the weight of our heavy packs!

We put the packs back on and keep skinning up the glacier. A group decides to go straight to Bow Hut, while the rest of us decide to summit Mt Rhonda. The views are incredible! 360 panoramas; we can see tracks snaking across the icefield in various different directions where various groups have gone their separate ways. Across the Yoho Glacier, we can see specks of people in the distance ascending towards the Guy Hut, on the Bow-Yoho Traverse (an East-West ski traverse; the Wapta is a North-South traverse). 

Bow Hut

We ski back down, skin up a short way, then enjoy a really fun run down to Bow Hut, the largest and newest of the huts on the traverse. Because of COVID, the ACC has changed their booking policy so we are the only group in this big hut. It’s kind of nice to have it all to ourselves. The Bow Hut is a fairly easily accessible hut, and travel to it doesn’t require the same mountaineering skills as the rest of the Wapta, so normally it’s abuzz with activity.

Day 3: Bow Hut to Balfour Hut (12 km)

Distance: About 12km, 800m elevation gain

Direct Distance Hut to Hut: 7km, 580m elevation gain without side trips

It starts out as another bluebird day today. We ski up the steep slope that we skied down yesterday afternoon back up the icefield; it certainly was a lot easier on the descent! After a brief but steady climb of about 300m, we pop back up to the main icefield. We’ve heard that some weather is coming in later today, so we decide to go for one last peak before the “Wapta Weather” (ie cloudy, snowy, minimal visibility) sets in. We ascend Mt Gordon, a peak that can be ascended on skis. Luckily we are able to drop our packs again and just ski up with our probes and shovels roped to our backs. This makes the ascent (and descent) so much more enjoyable. We pass around a “moat”, an incredible vertical wall of ice. Certainly wouldn’t want to accidentally fall down one of those in a white-out.

Ascent Towards Love / St Niklas Col

The view from the top is even more superlative than that of Mt Rhonda yesterday. We can see all the way into the Little Yoho Valley. Peaks as far as the eye can see; it’s just spectacular! We have a quick lunch and take some photos, before reluctantly descending back down to our skis. We ski quickly across the icefield to the St-Niklas/Mt Olive Col. Our original plan was to summit Mt Olive as well, but by now it’s clouded over and is getting pretty windy. Doesn’t look like we’d get much of a view from the top of Olive, and it’s a boot-pack ascent rather than a ski ascent, so we decide instead to ski down to the Balfour Hut. We had considered going over Vulture Col, which is a steeper, more direct route, but given the warm temperatures of the last few days, the guides are worried the snow might not be great. And they’re right! I’m glad we’ve chosen the lower angle, easier route, as we’re skiing through breakable sun-crust, which is always a challenge. 

Balfour Hut

When we get to Balfour Hut, a few of us are eager to go out and ski on the Diablerets Glacier, but visibility is pretty much nil by this point and the guides recommend we stay in. Tomorrow is “the big day”, and it’s probably better to rest up. We hang out in the hut, drinking tea, telling jokes, and more than a few of us have a nice little nap before supper and bedtime. 

Day 4: Balfour Hut to Scott Duncan Hut, “Crux Day” (10 km)

Distance: 10km, 750m elevation gain

This is the big day. The day that determines if we’re successful on the Wapta Traverse. About 20% of groups are unable to complete the Wapta Traverse and must ski back out via Bow Hut because conditions are too dangerous to ascend the Balfour High Col. Although the first day was still definitely the most physically strenuous, this was definitely the most stressful day for the guides, and the most dangerous day of the trip in terms of mountain hazards.

When we wake in the morning, the low clouds have lifted in some places but linger in others, leaving a mysterious atmosphere, with sun glinting off fog and snow. We get a few glimpses of the dangerous Balfour High Col. There are two routes: the “low route”, which passes by a series of crevasses, and the “high route”, which avoids more of the crevasses, but passes directly under hanging icefalls, which could break off without notice and easily be fatal. In the morning, after getting the avalanche weather forecast, our guides tell us we’ll try to go for it, but we might be turned back at any time.

Balfour High Col

We skin up and ski up a moraine. We pause for a break before commencing the ascent to the col. It’s time to eat/drink/pee/pick your layer, as once we start this ascent, there can be no stopping until we reach the top. We rope up again, in 3 teams. It snowed about 30cm overnight, and as we’re roping up, the clouds roll in again.

Most of the time, when ski touring, as in hiking, when ascending a steep slope, switchbacks are preferred. However, we pretty much straight line straight up the Balfour High Col to reduce time spent under the dangerous icefalls that loom in and out of sight like eerie ghosts overhead. I am in awe of our guides’ fitness, as they are breaking the trail in the deep snow; I’m at the back of the pack on a nice trail and I still find the ascent challenging! 

There are moments of incredible beauty as the sun briefly sifts through the clouds, reflecting off giant icefalls and crevasses, but no time for photos on this stretch. As we get close to the col, the weather closes in and, while I can see those ahead of me, I can only imagine the mountain scenery around me, for it’s blanked out of view.

We finally reach the col, and there is an air of celebration. We’ve done it! We have a brief snack, but it’s chilly and we don’t want to stay long. In nice weather, there is the option of ascending Mt Balfour, the highest peak on the Wapta. One of our guides, who has been here many times, said that despite the numerous times he’s done this traverse, it has always been socked in up here, and he’s never been to the peak.

I falsely thought that the toughest part of the day had passed and that it would be an easy cruise down the glacier to the Scott Duncan Hut. Boy was I wrong! I am humbled time and time again by the Wapta Traverse, as it once again proves to me it’s not a place to be taken lightly. With minimal visibility and crevasses an ever-present threat, our guides rope up one team to ski down first, while the rest of us will stay behind them and stay in their tracks (we are all reluctant to rope up while skiing downhill—roping up while skiing uphill is challenging enough!) We ski down a ways, down a gentle pitch, but it’s challenging skiing in the whiteout conditions (for those of you who have yet to ski in flat light, it’s like skiing with your eyes closed; even though your eyes are open, you can’t see anything; even whether terrain goes up or down). At least the snow is good; we’re higher than the sun crust here.

However, our guides soon stop, and it’s clear that they are a bit disoriented and off-track. Their pace slows to a crawl. Our head guide inches along, and withdraws suddenly when his pole goes deep down into what is probably a crevasse, or possibly even a moat or cliff edge, although we can’t actually see what it is. He yells at us to turn around, which we’re all too eager to do after seeing that! He then tells us to stop, as he wants himself and the rest of the rope team to go first. We end up duck-walking and sidestepping back uphill, which is challenging in the deep powder. I feel like we are all little lost ducklings, just following along very close to the guides nervously, in a tight group. The jokes and chitter-chatter have died down, and we have just the howling wind and blowing snow as a soundtrack. We keep hiking and traversing back up away from where the crevasse was, and I am slightly nervous, but I know the guides are very experienced and will get us where we need to go. 

Finally, they seem happy that we’re back on track, and we slowly slide down the mountain. Too bad for the bad visibility, as with the great snow, if we could see, this would be a really fun run down to the Waputik Icefield. Instead, we slowly snowplow and sideslip behind the cautious lead rope team. 

Mother Nature bestows a gift on us, though. As we continue to descend, the clouds begin to thin. We can see the massive Waputik Icefield. This is the top of the famous and majestic Takakkaw Falls in Yoho. It’s so special to be up here, feels like being in a castle in the clouds way above the earth, a snowy and silent white paradise. 

Scott Duncan Hut

We catch a glimpse of the tiny Scott Duncan Hut across the Icefield. It’s the tiniest of the huts, almost an emergency shelter more than a hut. It’s perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the icefield. Although we arrive in good time, there isn’t too much skiing in the area, as it’s pretty low-angle terrain. And even though the visibility has cleared, I think the guides are probably a bit tired from our stressful day. So we hang out in the hut. It’s so small I pretty much don’t leave the top bunk once I’ve settled myself there. I only head down to run to the outhouse, maybe 50m away, but it’s blasting wind and the dull light makes it hard to tell where the trail is, although when I step off I’m in deep snow, and slippery rocks make it a bit of a perilous, if short, journey.

Day 5: Scott Duncan Hut to Sherbrooke Lake Exit (14 km)

Distance: 14km; 200m ascent, 1000m descent

Last day! When we look out the hut, we don’t see much except white. After skiing off our perch, the guides rope up the lead team again and it’s out of yesterday’s playbook with the rest of us carefully following in the lead team’s tracks slowly down the Daly Glacier as the guides navigate point to point on their GPS. The clouds luckily lift as we’re putting our skins back on to ascend to Niles Col.

Niles Col

From the peak of Niles Col, it’s pretty much all downhill (or flat) to the cars. We are lucky that the snow stability is excellent, and we can exit through the “traditional’ (but less skied) exit; which is through an awesome canyon feature; normally avalanche hazard is too high to exit this way. It’s visually stunning, but certainly not the easiest skiing I’ve done. Although there is new snow overtop, there is a definite hard-baked (but supportive) icy sun-crust just underneath. We ski a steep slope, and then descend into the canyon, a natural half-pipe, filled with “cookies” (a term used to describe balls of ice, ranging in size from a baseball to a kitchen table) that need to be avoided. As the light goes flat, it gets a bit scary, as we know the cookies are still there, but now we can’t see them!! One of our telemark skiers goes down hard as he slams into one of the invisible cookies, and gets all tanged up, but, always the joker, he smiles and says proudly “did you guys see that double-tail grab I did in the pipe?” 

Our adventurous descent isn’t over yet. We still have two icefalls to ski over, one of them still with some open sections! And unfortunately, we’ve descended enough by now that there is no layer of fresh powder overlying the packed ice. We inch our way down the icefall, sideslipping, lurching, and doing stationary 180-degree kick turns (and even some bootpacking with a ski shuttle). 

Finally, we’re at Sherbrooke Lake. We stop for lunch, all too aware that in just a few short kilometres we’ll be back at the cars. A short ski across the lake and we’re at the trail, a “luge track” of ice that will take us the last 3km down to the cars. I feel like a little kid again, whizzing down the icy, twisty, turny track reminiscent of the trails through the woods at ski hills that all little kids seem to love. I’m very glad I’m short and have short skis in this narrow and fast section!

And before we know it, we’re back at the parking lot. The Wapta has been on my bucket list for years. It certainly did not disappoint. This trip gave me all I could ask for and more; jaw-dropping vistas, powder skiing, challenging ascents (and descents!), (slightly intimidating) adventures in the famous “Wapta Weather” (whiteouts) reminding me of the respect that this terrain demands,  all under the watchful eyes of our kind, funny, and very experienced guides. I’ll definitely be back. 

Reflections

Although on clear days, the Wapta can seem beautiful and inviting and easy to navigate, never underestimate the severity of the terrain and weather. Weather can move in quickly and whiteout navigation is HARD. (And we didn’t even experience a true white-out where you can barely see in front of you, which is even more terrifying). We were very lucky with the weather; apparently having 5 days of low-hanging cloud and fog is quite common. Although I would consider myself moderately experienced at ski touring, I would never attempt this trip without a guide.

Although you don’t need to be an expert skier, you should definitely be a versatile skier. We had it all: slush, ice, powder, breakable crust, death cookies, zero visibility/flat light, tight trees, and navigating icefalls with open water. All while skiing with a heavy pack.

Bring your sense of humour. And hand sanitizer. Many huts are small and cramped, especially during non-COVID times when they are booked at capacity. Ensure you have a good system to keep everything together so you don’t lose stuff.

Don’t underestimate the physical fitness required for this trip. Although the horizontal distances aren’t far, the vertical gain can be tiring, especially on skis and when carrying a heavy pack. And don’t forget that this is all high-altitude. Most of our days were 6-8 hours on our feet with minimal breaks. As I don’t currently live in the mountains, I used a program from “Uphill Athlete” to get fit for the trip. It has a variety of excellent training programs for anyone wanting to try trail running or any kind of mountaineering endeavours.

Love your gear. This is not the time to be experimenting with a new set of skis/boots/pack. Like any multi-day wilderness trip, you need to have confidence that you will be as comfortable as possible. While you certainly don’t need to be an expert skier, previous backcountry experience with alpine touring (or telemark, or splitboard) gear is essential.

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