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 www.hillmap.com 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:
Skiing into Wolverine Valley. So far so 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).
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.
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 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 looking southeast at the northern end of the Castle Mountain massive.
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.