Monday, 11 January 2016

Mount Gordon & St. Nicholas Peak - Banff National Park, AB    January 9-10, 2016

This trip was done with the ACC. It was a great group of people, very patient and supporting. We had two beautiful bluebird days with low avalanche conditions, which is something of a rarity on the Wapta Icefield. It was a quite cold but there was nothing else to complain about except some wind affected snow at the top of the ski slope. 

As we left the parking lot it was around -25 degrees. It was so cold the glue on one of our group members skis was not sticking to his skis and he ended up having to use electrical tape on them. The end of the canyon was not properly covered, and the track went up and around a very round about way to get to the final slope and out of it. Then was the treed side-sloping section and finally we were out in the open below the hut.

Out of the trees and into the flats before the final steep ascent to the Bow Hut. Above the hut in the sun is St. Nicholas Peak.

After getting to the hut we ended up spending far too long there trying to get into the kitchen. We thought that we had the wrong code when the lock wouldn't open so someone radioed through to Parks and got relayed to the ACC office. After about an hour attempting to find the right person, with a different code than the one we were given, someone on the other end finally suggested that the lock might be frozen and to use a lighter to heat it up. Sure enough as soon as someone put the lighter under the lock some drops of water dripped out, and the combination we were given worked again. After that we quickly got off despite the lateness of the day.

Onto the Wapta Icefield at last looking over at Mount Thompson and Portal Peak below it.

Heading up the initial slopes of the icefield. Roped up of course.

Looking back at down at the Bow Hut area and across to Crowfoot Mountain. 

Looking across the large expanse of the icefield to Mount Collie. 

Looking over at St. Nicholas Peak. Looking slightly less impressive already.

Finally getting a good look at Mount Gordon. It doesn't look like much from here, but its the highest of the peaks around the Bow Hut. 

Looking over at Mount Rhondda to the left and Thompson to the right across the icefield to the north.

Looking back again at our ski tracks. Its hard to tell from here but we went close to some large holes in the glacier on the way up. The icefield is immense and the peak is a lot farther away then it looks at first. Of course everyone who had completed it before, had already told us that and I was mentally mostly prepared for this.

Looking over at Mount Olive. To the far left is the Olive / St. Nicholas col, which we will ascend tomorrow on our way to St. Nicholas.

Selfie on the glacier. Its pretty cold up here. I'm wearing my merino baselayer, softshell, a puffy vest, then this new hardshell. All while skiing uphill, and I barely sweat on this day with all that on it was so cold. Can't beat the conditions though, the cold was worth it.

Looking at the icefield again.

Going around the wind scoop. You can see the other rope team ahead of us gaining the top of this slope.

Heading up along the wind scoop. I was very tired at this point. I was relieved to hear that my other rope-mate behind me was also very tired. But not as relieved as both of us were to hear that we were only 20 minutes away from the summit from some people skiing back down.

Looking west. That is Mont Des Poilus to the left of center. I went up that peak back in 2013.

After curving around the slope and wind scoop we gain the final summit ridge.

And quickly (thankfully) the summit comes into view.

Summit looking northwest.

Summit looking west. Mount Des Poilus in the center again.

Summit looking southwest. Yoho Valley below. The sun is just above the sea of peaks. It was about 4pm at this point. This time of year the sun sets around 5pm. So we were pushing daylight for sure. As we took off our skins and set up our skis for the downhill run we also put on our headlamps just in case.

Summit looking south at Mount Balfor, the king of the Wapta. 

Summit looking southeast with Mount Hector the highest point to the left.

Summit looking east.

Summit looking northeast. That rocky bump in the sun below us St. Nicholas Peak. Looking much less impressive now.

Summit looking north.

Most unfortunately my camera froze up at this point and refused to go back into picture mode but kept loading something or other and I couldn't get a summit photo. It was just too cold and late to wait for it to finish up whatever it thought it was doing.

The first rope team started down and skied down to the hut in about half an hour. It took me (and therefore my long suffering rope team) about an hour. We got to the hut just as the sun was completely setting and dark was setting in. It was a great day. The skiing was even quite good (not that I had the energy in my legs to appreciate it much) with just a few inches of powder on top of the snow-pack. There was some wind affected snow that was hard to ski on, at the top of the slope above the hut. Thankfully the crust was not breakable.

The next morning we roped up to attempt our next peak. The entire time skiing up and across the icefield I was very tired and often wished I could turn around. I kept wondering how I would make it up the scary summit ridge of St. Nicholas Peak if I was so tired. Once we made it to the col and took off our skis to put on our crampons, I was ready to give it a try. It still looked terrifying though. When I had admitted my fear at the hut, the leader of the trip volunteered to short rope me up the ridge. So since I was so tired, and I knew if I got freaked out it would be terrible and I would be super slow, I accepted and we went up the ridge together. In theory if I slipped he would be able to catch me and arrest my fall. On the other hand there is a small chance we could both fall of the ridge if I slipped.  It helped my confidence on the tricky parts, kept me going at a good pace so I couldn't think too much and start to freak out, and was very nice of him.

The view from the St. Nicholas / Olive col along the ridge towards the summit. If it looks scary to you, well that is correct.

After going over the initial bump it is all going along the right hand side of the ridge. The slope below us gets steeper and steeper. On the left is the same rock cliff that was in the photo near the beginning. There were already tracks along the ridge when we got there so we more or less followed them. The snow was incredibly good. The steps created along the ridge were large and very stable. The ice axe placements for self belay were also generally very good.

Still going along the ridge. There were three places were we had to go below rocky sections. The first that we just crossed was the worst.

This is looking back at that section. It doesn't look too bad but you had to either take a very big step, or take a step on a rock to go along the path already carved out. All without much placement for the ice axe. We went slightly lower to stay on snow instead which was better. Going back you got to go up this section instead and we could go over the rock. Going up is always easier.

Selfie while waiting on the ridge to continue on. The group leader was helping someone else come down from above briefly, who had gone up there to avoid the same section.

Going along an easier part.

Looking back.

Looking down at the Bow Hut area. You can actually see it from up here but its hard to tell in the picture. Bow Lake, the start of the approach to the Bow Hut is to the far left.

Summit of St. Nicholas Peak. Mount Olive behind me. It was a bit crowded with all 8 people in our group up there. So glad we all made it. Such great conditions, and the temperature wasn't too bad on this day either up high. I'm only wearing my puffy just in case. I actually didn't need it. But we left our packs at the col, so we had to take the extra layer  just in case so we wouldn't get cold.

Summit looking northwest. Mount Thompson to the right, and Mount Rhondda to the left. 

Summit looking west towards Mount Collie. See all the open holes on the icefield? The other people who had been up here before told me they aren't normally this bad. The low snow last winter caused them to open up over the summer, and they still haven't filled in this year. 

Summit looking east towards Vulture Peak, then behind it Crowfoot Mountain, and further behind to the left is Mount Hector.

Summit looking south back along the ridge towards Mount Olive. The one problem with my better fear blocking abilities is that when I get to the summit I know I am only half-way done. So it is hard for me to turn the blocking off, and fully appreciate the view and the summit like I would on a much easier peak. I know I have to still get down so my mind is still in 'get this scary $#!& done with' mode. I have to work on that. Still it is a great view isn't it?

Summit looking southwest towards Mount Gordon from yesterday. In person you could see most of the skin track we used going up tot he col, and two people below us skiing down who had been up Mount Olive. It is hard to tell in this photo though. The two people are just tiny black dots.

Heading back down the crux just below the summit. Terrifying right? I was glad for excellent bucket steps in good snow, good ice axe placement, and short roping. The snow was so good I'm sure I could have done it alone though. It would have been much harder to block the fear though, and it would have been more likely for me to start a bit of a panic attack when I had to turn from facing in to back out. I always hate that transition. One day I will get even better though, and be mostly fine through terrain like this. I already am so much better.

Looking back after descent along the ridge as the sun now hits it. 

We then skied back down to the hut, quickly packed and re-hydrated, and then skied off down the approach to the hut. I always think that part is going to be so awful - and it isn't much fun - but its never as awful as I think. I almost enjoyed the luge run before the flats and the lake. The side-hill skiing is always much easier than I think, just got to ride those edges. I had to side step to get down into the canyon, but so did two other people so I didn't feel too bad. For the final part, I almost think I'm getting the hang of gliding along without skins on and heels not locked in.

What a great weekend. Nearly the whole time I thought I wouldn't make it up both peaks that were planned, but I did! I worked through my tiredness thanks to the excellent pace that was set. And I worked through my fear of heights thanks to the patience of our group leader, and the encouragement of everyone else. A very successful weekend. I hope I have improved my skills. I certainly am enjoying winter a lot more this year than I normally do. The Wapta Icefields is a great place, and I am glad I got to experience it on such a beautiful clear weekend. Such great views!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Purple Mound Peak - Banff National Park, AB    January 4, 2016

First new summit of the new year! I would say off to a good start, but as I did this solo, not everyone would agree (in regards to safety).

I already ski toured up a peak solo last spring, when I ascended Heather Ridge after Heath turned around. Only one tiny slope looked steep enough to avalanche and the rating was low/low/low that day. The ascent was great and it made me wonder what else was of a similar nature, but at the time I couldn't think of anything.

I've wanted to do this trip (including Lipalian Mountain) for several weeks. I'd decided on going up Wolverine Valley instead of ascending above the larch chair based on Nugara's snowshowing book and Vern's trip report. I had originally looked for partners but failed. Then Heath decided it was unsafe for me to go alone and we rented skis for him. However as we started up the Lake Louise ski out Heath already got hot spots on his right foot, and within 15 minutes he gave up and left to return the gear in Canmore and get his money back. I continued as I'd already decided I could do this trip alone. I had seen another trip report of a solo ascent as well.

I'd spent hours looking at the avalanche report which was low/low/moderate, the recent conditions reports, and MCR digest emails (guide condition reports). I'd gone onto and used it to analyze the slopes of the entire ascent after the ski out, and it said that they were no more than 22 degrees. Avalanches usually happen on slopes 30 degrees or more, and rarely on 25 degrees to 30 degrees. Even with a margin of error, the entire ascent looked safe. Wolverine Valley, which you ski up after leaving the trail to Skoki, is wide enough that you should be be able to avoid anything dangerous near you that you don't have to ascend. I'd even looked up in google "should i ski tour alone" and came upon an article about just that. I wasn't the only one contemplating this.

There were only two avalanche problems listed in the report for Banff. Isolated wind slabs that no one had reported recent activity on, and an inversion that was breaking up that had caused a few sloughs off of steep south facing aspects. So I was only worried about the slopes off of Mount Redoubt you had to ski under at the beginning of Wolverine Valley, and any slopes I might need to go near that could be wind affected. Despite the low rating on hillmap the trip reports stated there were some steep rolls on the way to the Wolverine Ridge / Purple Mound Peak col. Also the final ascent looked steep. 

I decided I would give it a try and turn around if anything concerning came up. So off I went:

 Looking back at Mount Temple at the first steep section. I've seen this few more than a few times but it doesn't get old when your there slogging up the slope. I guess the first boring 30-40 minutes help, but it is a pretty good view anyway.

 Skiing into Wolverine Valley. So far so good.

 Still good.

 And then out in the open beside Mount Redoubt. While I am still up a little ways from the low point off all the avalanche paths on the left, it is obvious that very rarely snow slides this far. If it was going to happen it would have been in the last two days when the inversion caused the temperatures to be around or above 0 in the alpine. In fact, the avalanche book you get at AST 1 (which I re-read the day before this trip) states that after a warming period the snow re-freezes and becomes more stable.

 Heading out into an open flat section. Many trails here as people go left into the avy paths of Redoubt or right up Wolverine Ridge for turns. I will continue straight (a bit left in this photo).

 The avy paths of Mount Redoubt. There was evidence of very tiny avalanches on these southern slopes originating at there steepest (highest) point and going (narrowly) down a few hundred meters or so (less than a 1/4 of the whole path). Also pinwheeling, which again according to the book is evidence of temps near 0, that would indicate when the temperature then decreases (like on this day), stability rather than instability. So I noted to keep an eye on the temperature but did not worry.

 Looking back as I ski further into the valley. Unlike a few popular ski trails in the Rockies this one lacks a lot of the rolling terrain that is so tedious on the way back. Even though this is barely downhill there are only two tiny rolls that require side shuffling back up them. That is way less than my last tour (a failed attempt on Cirque Peak). 

 Looking ahead. 

 And further ahead. Slightly concerning now. Some people went far left under Unity Peak's slopes to avoid a mild terrain trap. The trail today went right through the terrain trap. I measured the slopes on the ascent and they weren't more than 2o degrees (I love my new toy!).

 In the terrain trap. Obviously above it the slopes are not very steep, and since they are largely tree covered they must not regularly avalanche. The only concern is the slight cornice on that rubbly hill up there. Once I got near it I saw there were two trails going around it. One to the left and one to the right. Since left seemed to make the most sense route wise for getting onto the Wolverine / Purple col, I assessed whether it looked safe to ascend. By doing so I would not get near enough to the cornice for it to be a danger, considering the lack of snow below it for it to trigger if the cornice fell, and I could go quite far left out of the way if I wanted. So I continued on again. The sun had only just started to touch the cornice and it was a pleasant -10 degrees outside.

 At the top of the terrain trap looking back. I gainws a fair bit of elevation on the last slope but its still well below 30 degrees.

 Then I got out into the open rolls of the Wolverine Bowl. This is where the steep rolls were and the wind affected terrain could be. As I skied on I notice that there was indeed a 1-2 inch soft slab above sugar snow. What I also noticed was the nice band of obviously windswept ridge coming off the summit of Purple Mound Peak in the distance. Since that would make the last steepest slope not avalanche terrain I continued cautiously onward, picking the safest route and hopefully not get onto anything anywhere near 30 degrees. I did have to go over a roll to make it onto the col in the next photo. I checked the slope angle twice quickly as I was a bit nervous about it, it looked steep. It was about 25 degrees at its very worst. 

 Looking over at Lipalian Mountain. I'd already decided that I wouldn't be making it up this peak as well today. Once above the roll I noticed when I dug into my ski pole hole, that not only was there the 1-2 inch thick soft slab on the very surface of the snow, there was a 2-4 inch thick layer of sugar than another 2-4 inch thick soft slab above yet more sugar snow. So much for wind slabs being isolated. Unless it meant very hard wind slabs?

 Looking over at the Lake Louise area from the col. I would also like to mention I was wearing my SPOT device (turned on) over my left forearm for easy access as soon as I got into the alpine.

 Looking ahead. I was correct in thinking at this point that if I stayed along the ridge I wouldn't be on anything too steep. Also it was pretty windswept.

 Close up of the valley below me. As you can see to the far middle left, you can see the top of the larch chair from here and several of the ski runs. Annoyingly (or is it supposed to be good?) you can see some of these runs (the mogol one and the straight part beneath it for instance) for most of the way up the ridge from here. I saw people (little black sticks) all the way up as well. I wondered if they noticed me (the little pink stick) all by myself and they worried about me.

 Close up looking over at the backside of Lake Louise with Mount Hector behind.

 Looking up at the windswept little section of scree again. The slopes around it look steep.

 Looking down at Lake Louise again. Wolverine Ridge below. Still can see the end of that ski run.

 After leaving the skis behind I slogged up the thinly covered scree. As you can see it is very wind affected here (the wind was quite high that day, especially in the morning). I measured the slope several times and it measured at its steepest 3o degrees. Despite only being at the very edge of avalanche terrain I wouldn't have wanted to be out on the slope to the left on skis. Even if Heath was with me, but especially without him.

 Looking back.

 After slogging up that steep slope I get up here. The summit still a tiny step above right below the sun.

 Almost at the summit, just passing a random survey marker on the way.

 Summit looking northwest at Lake Louise ski resort.

 Summit looking southwest at Lipalian Mountain. So close but yet so far. I did have time to go for it, but I wanted to get back earlier rather than later for avalanche conditions, and to get back to Heath quickly, who was buying boots in Canmore at the time I was on the summit.

 Looking south.

 Looking west.

 Looking northeast at Mount Redoubt and Unity Peak. 

 Looking east. The Pumpkin Traverse (which starts from the Larch chair rather than the way I went up here) continues on down to the right of Unity Peak then to the left into Skoki.

 Summit looking southeast.

 Summit selfie. 

 Summit looking southeast at the northern end of the Castle Mountain massive.

 It's purple? I'm sure the scree is supposed to be purple, hence the name.

 Heading back along my tracks. Not much daylight at this time of year. Still -10 degrees out even in the sun on the summit, so everything should still have been safe. What then followed was a sad attempt at skiing downhill that I don't want to talk about.

 At the end of the Skoki Trail looking back up the trail.

Same place looking the other way as I sip scotch looking at the crowds (I swear there were crowds, they just didn't snow up for this photo!). Annoyingly as soon as I got on the piste I could ski again! So much for resort skiing being good for my backcountry touring skiing..... Strange to have to cross these busy slopes after being alone for several hours in a socially unacceptable activity. All in all it was a good a trip. Going solo ski touring isn't all bad, but don't worry I won't be getting complacent any time soon! I will be as wary as always so I can spend many more days alone or with others in the backcountry... winter, spring, summer or fall.

And no I don't recommend doing this, please don't do so yourself unless you have lots of training and experience etc. and can assess the dangers correctly.