Friday, April 6, 2018

Rejected by the Wapta

The Wapta Traverse is a classic Rockies ski traverse that I have been wanting to do for a while, but there was always something else going on and it just never happened. This year, it wasn't in the plan but thanks to an awesome friend, we ended up with the Bow, Balfour and Scott Duncan Hut booked for 4 people over the Easter weekend! Unfortunately we didn't get to do the traverse. We didn't even make it into the Bow Hut...

When I think of Easter, my mind conjures up images of bright sunny skies, stable spring skiing and long, warm days with slushy snow. This year, winter is still in full force at the end of March as Kyle, Alan, Adam and I were getting ready to head out on the Wapta traverse. The word "bail" had been tossed around as the departure date neared because the weather wasn't looking super stellar for the weekend. The idea of spending the weekend navigating the glacier with a GPS in a cloud wasn't that appealing especially because the main draw of the Wapta is the amazing views. I was still keen to give it a shot despite the forecast. Maybe it wouldn't been that bad up there and if it was, we could always turn around.
Gearing up to hit the trail to the Bow Hut
Knowing the forecast, there was no rush to get up to the hut so we didn't get a very early start. We met in Canmore at 10 am then hung around Starbucks for a while chatting about the plan. Alan and Adam went on a side trip to pick up a second GPS from a friend (Kyle had the waypoints loaded on his watch) so that we would have another tool in the toolkit for navigating in a whiteout. We dropped one car off at the Great Divide Lodge so we would have a vehicle at the end of the traverse. You can park there for free but have to register your vehicle and leave your keys with the reception staff in case they have to move the car for snow removal. It was 1:30 by the time we started across the lake. The clouds seemed to be thinning and we had good visibility!
Decent visibility crossing Bow Lake
The clouds closed in and it started to snow harder as we were making out way up the canyon towards the Bow Hut. We were making good time and confident that we would make it to the hut.
Starting to get into heavy snowfall
As we made our way out of the trees onto the final approach to the headwall below the hut, we lost all visibility. Having been up to the Bow Hut twice before, Kyle and I knew that the final slope below the hut was the crux of the approach. Two years ago, a group had triggered a slide on that slope and one of the members had suffered some serious injuries. The weather had been bad and it was getting dark so he spent the night out not far below a large icefall and only a few hundred metres from the hut. Search and rescue was able to get him out in the morning but it was a pretty traumatic event for everyone involved. This scenario was something we had discussed prior to leaving and we were all thinking about it as we crossed below the Crowfoot Moraines.
Great visibility on the final approach to the Bow Hut 
Alan and Kyle had stopped up ahead. Adam and I were still chatting as Kyle shouted back to us, "listen, can you hear that?" As soon as we stopped moving, we heard why they had stopped. The roar of an avalanche was echoing across the grey expanse ahead of us. Time stood still as we waited and listened. It lasted for about a minute. We couldn't see a thing. We couldn't gauge how much or how far things were sliding. We didn't have a very good idea of how far we were from the slide. It was probably just storm snow sluffing off the headwall but we couldn't know for sure. That was enough for us. We had a brief discussion but everyone was on board to turn around.
It wasn't a hard decision to turn around
It always sucks to have to pull the plug on a trip but it becomes much easier when its unanimous decision. As we were taking our skins off, we heard the rumble of more avalanches. That provided confirmation that we were making the right call. On the ski out, fresh snow had almost filled our tracks. Sluff and spindrift was pouring down the sides of the canyon.
Fresh powder on the ski out
Sluff and spindrift in the canyon on the way out
Back at the car, we loaded up and drove through fresh snow on the parkway to pick up my vehicle at the Great Divide Lodge. Adam and Alan were heading back to Calgary, but Kyle and I chose to stay on the parkway to do some day trips as the Mosquito Creek Hostel had some space.
A bit of fresh snow when we got back to the car after 3 hours of touring
The next day, the weather was brilliant bluebird and the snow conditions were excellent. It was tough knowing that we could have been at the Bow Hut and that it would have been a great day on the Wapta. The remainder of the weekend was good weather and when we got back to Calgary we saw photos and trip reports from other groups that had been up on the traverse. Chances are, things would have been fine if we had continued up to the hut. But, if something had happened it could have been disastrous. It was late in the afternoon with zero visibility so there was no chance of a rescue. We would have been on our own to self-evacuate. It was the right choice to bail with the circumstances we had. We lost our hut bookings and nothing more. We gave it a shot knowing that we might have to turn around, so it wasn't that big of a deal when we had to change our plans. The traverse will always be there and we came home safe from the mountains this weekend. That's the main goal right?

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