Finally the weather, our schedules, and back country avalanche conditions lined up over a weekend, allowing Ben, Steven and I to plan a 2 day excursion to the northern end of the Wapta Icefield. I am rapidly closing in on a long-sought summit list of all the Wapta peaks and only one peak remained for me on the hard-to-access northern end - Peyto Peak. As is usual for us, original plans varied from Young's Peak to Lilliput (I was willing to repeat it for exercise) and finally we settled last minute on the Peyto Hut area.
The plan was to leave Calgary around 04:30 and hopefully arrive at Peyto Hut with enough day light for Ben and Steven to bag Mount Baker on Saturday. Sunday we would ascend Peyto Peak before heading out. For the most part, this plan was executed flawlessly.
The drive to the Peyto Lake winter access parking spot along hwy 93 went quickly due to the lack of traffic. A skiff of new snow threatened to make our approach a bit more work, but we could still follow old ski tracks through the confusing forested ridges before arriving at Peyto Lake. The temperature and snow pack was decent on the lake and we made good time. Crossing the Peyto Lake input stream through the narrows was no problem either and soon we were staring up at the depressing sight that is the moraine energy sucker that must be ascended and then descended to access the Peyto Glacier. I have taken the canyon route on descent before but you need lots of snow and low avy conditions to make this route viable and safe. This was my 5th or 6th time up that dang moraine, and it never ceases to amaze me how much bloody work it is. I found a 'new' route for accessing the lower moraine which avoids ascending really steep avy slopes directly beneath it. I followed what must be the summer access up a ledge (really old road?) on climber's right, starting up fairly soon after the narrows. This route is a nice gentle climb rather than a very steep one and crosses only a few possible avy slopes which were melted too much to be of concern for us. There was flagging and cairns marking the way but it was obvious to see even from below - I've given it long looks on previous trips but there's never any skin tracks going this way.
[Early morning light on a well packed approach trail to the lake.]
[The long lake stretches out before me as I exit the trees.]
[Looking back from the narrows - we just crossed the stream directly rather than getting fancy on approacher's right where there's usually more snow and a good track going up and around the open water.]
[Through the narrows, looking ahead at the moraine (center) and our prize - Peyto Peak rises on the right. To access the moraine I followed a ramp up the right hand side of this valley.]
[Looking back at Steven just approaching the bottom of the ramp which is hard to distinguish in this photo - but it's there!]
[Great scenery around the bottom of the moraine]
The moraine was its usual grumpy self, complete with rock hard scree, ice and snow. We carried the skis up the final 100 vertical meters before threading our way through (and over) rocks past the weather station and finally onto the glacier proper. We made sure to swing wide around the crevasse fall beneath the hut, before heading towards it. Thanks to 5-10cm of fresh snow it took us around 4.5 hours to reach the hut. Not blazingly fast, but we kept a pretty steady pace the whole time. I didn't feel so bad when we read multiple accounts in the hut register of people taking 9-11 hours to do the approach and needing a heli rescue afterwards, thanks to frost bite and exhaustion. Sounds like a good time... ;)
[Ben is the only color showing up in the bleak morning landscape as we trudge up the moraine with our skis on our backs]
[Looking past the research station to the Peyto Glacier.]
[Peyto Hut is warm and empty!]
After a lunch break and some hot drinks, Steven and Ben proceeded to navigate towards Mount Baker. I shoveled a path to the biffy and melted some snow before leisurely following their skin track. I have already climbed Baker and didn't need to tempt her steep snow slopes twice, but I figured a nice ski up to the Baker / Barrel col with a long ski run down would be an excellent way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon on the Wapta. I was right! Even though the wind was cool, the sun and scenery were glorious as I worked my way up to the col. The snow was very supportive with no signs of instability anywhere. The track crossed 1 or 2 serious avy slopes but conditions were perfect and I wasn't too concerned. I maintained contact with the other two guys, thanks to our two-way radios and I knew they were high on Baker by the time I reached the col. The wind was very cold, so I told the guys I was heading back and quickly skied back down to the hut on excellent powder snow.
[Peyto Peak looms over our biffy]
[Mount Baker is a gorgeous mountain. You can make our Steven and Ben approaching it on the left-center]
[Looking back over Peyto Hut at Mount Thompson as I follow Steven and Ben's track to the Baker / Tilley col]
[I think that Tilly (aka Little Trapper or Barrel Peak) is a peak in its own right. Small - but still a peak!]
[This is where we go tomorrow - Peyto Peak's south slopes and summit tower.]
[Baker and Tilly]
[Light playing with the wind and snow]
[The view west of the Baker Col down to Mistaya Lodge. ++]
[Steven and Ben are just visible above me on Baker's upper ridge.]
By the time I got the radio call that Ben and Steven were heading down from Baker's summit, the shadows were long and the sun was busy setting in the west. I joined Richard and Maggie back at the hut, who had arrived from the Bow Lake parking lot via the Bow Hut approach, and started heating up water and melting snow. Apparently a gaggle of snow shoers were partying at the Bow Hut, making us very happy with our empty (and quiet) abode! About an hour later, Ben and Steven walked in the door with stories of steep snow and incredible cornices on Baker. Of course they made the summit and were pretty pumped about their success. It seems like almost everyone who ascends Baker in the winter is surprised with her difficulties. It's not just a "walk up". The rest of the evening was spent eating and hydrating for the next day. We all turned in by 21:00, after spending an hour photographing the incredible night sky.
[The incredible night sky over Peyto Peak]
[Orion's Belt with a lot of other stars too!]
We woke up at around 06:30 and spent a leisurely hour eating breakfast and getting ready for the day ahead. I was a bit nervous as I was aware of Peyto Peak's reputation. We had come very prepared with a full 60m climbing rope, copious amounts of rock gear and some decent beta from the old RMBooks forum. Some readers might be surprised by all the fuss about Peyto's difficulties - after all, isn't it basically just a ski up as per Chic Scott's book? No. It isn't. There is an easy route to the lower, west summit, but this is not "Peyto Peak". Judging by the hut register, not everyone realizes that often the true summit of a mountain is the hardest thing to attain, even if it's 'only' a few meters higher than the false one. The solution for a lot of people seems to be tagging a lower summit that's "close enough" to the true one and calling it the same thing.
We were fairly confident in the snow conditions considering our trip the day previous. There were no signs of instability and the weather was excellent as we made our way straight up the south face of Peyto - between the SSE and S ridges. Eventually we got a bit more cautious and bailed climber's right to the SSE ridge before continuing up loose, snow covered rock on ski boots - the most enjoyable type of scrambling there is. NOT. ;) As we approached the summit tower, the sun got very warm - it felt more like spring than winter but the snow held up well and we kept going. Three hours after leaving the hut we were peering around the NE corner of the summit tower, trying to find a reasonable gully to take us to the top. A narrow ledge forced us to duck around a rock outcrop and gaze straight down the north face of Peyto to Cauldron Lake. The ledge led to two viable, steep and snow-plastered gullies leading upwards to the summit ridge.
[Approaching Peyto with Baker, Tilly and Trapper on the left. ++]
[Gorgeous morning lighting on Baker and Tilly]
[Ben and Steven follow me up the lower flank of Peyto's south face. Thompson looms on the left and Habel on the right.]
[Baker really is a beautiful mountain! Ayesha now showing up on the left.]
[Trapper is much harder than it appears. There's significant objective hazard as you ascend the right hand avy slope under some giant cornices. There's a sting in the tail too - the upper mountain is pretty exposed in places. We always wondered if you could summit via the nice snow slope on the left and then traverse the ridge to the right to summit but I'm pretty sure this is no easier than the regular route.]
[We abandon the skis and start boot packing. ++]
[The sun is out now and we are boot packing up the steepish rubbly south slope of Peyto]
[Looking back over an ocean of snow and ice at St. Nich, Olive and Gordon]
From below - perched precariously on the ledge, these were the only two choices. Ben set up a belay and started up the easternmost gully (the first one we could see). Deep, unconsolidated snow made finding hand / foot holds almost impossible and a smooth, vertical rock wall eventually stopped him. I believe this is the route that TJ's rope got stuck on after their rappel and the route Kevin Barton climbed the following week to retrieve TJ's rope back! Kev found this route to be extremely difficult and now that I've rapped it I can see why. It's certainly over mid-fifth class. Ben was already freezing cold (we were on the north side in the shade and a stiff wind) but he doggedly pushed into the second gully from the east. I believe this is the gully TJ free climbed with Heather in slightly less snowy / cold conditions. Steven and I couldn't see Ben at this point, but we could see ominous snow chunks bailing out of the bottom of the gully and the occasional rock hurtling down the 100's of meters of vertical north face beneath our ledge, reminding us where we would go if our pro didn't hold! After over an hour (he must have been freaking cold at this point!) Ben finally announced over the two-way radio that he was attached to the upper belay station and off climb. Steven started up behind him and soon disappeared into the gully - cursing the whole time due to the crappy snow and apparently nasty conditions. At one point, I overheard Steven and Ben yelling something back and forth that sounded a lot like, "Vern won't like this". It's always inspiring to hear your partner's confidence in you before heading up rope!! ROTFLMAO!
[Steven belays Ben from our ledge perch on the north face of Peyto. Ben is in the first gully here but eventually moved one more gully to the west before finally bashing a route up in full on winter conditions.]
[Looking down Peyto's north face from our ledge.]
[A steep pano from the ledge, looking west north and east. The false summit of Peyto on the far left and the approach to our ledge on the far right. Mistaya and Caldron in the center with Patterson and Peyto Lake in the distance. ++]
Finally Steven was done and it was my turn. Steven had removed the pro so I simply had to climb up - encouraging Ben to take slack while I motored up as quickly as possible. I think I surprised both Ben and Steven by negotiating the route very quickly. I was trying to stay warm and I knew Ben was freezing and we were way over our time budget already so I didn't waste time thinking about things too much. Climbing with a full upper belay inspires a lot of confidence... ;) The climb was tough though. Much harder than anything I've done in winter before. Ben is a hero for pushing up in the conditions we had - loose snow, ice and extremely loose and friable rock with a few desperate moves that would have been impossible without the very tips of our crampons and an ax to grip tiny rock / ice holds. True mixed climbing! And when I arrived at the belay station we weren't at the summit yet. I unclipped from the rope and proceeded up steep, exposed and snowy 4th class terrain before finally topping out on one of my last Wapta peaks and certainly the toughest one.
[Vern has just cleared the crux and now approaches the belay (photo by Steven Song)]
[Vern is off belay and going for the top! There is some tricky moves involved - and obviously some wintery conditions too. (Photo by Steven Song)]
Ben and Steven joined me on the warm and relatively windless summit with absolutely stunning views in every direction. Peyto rewarded our efforts with a sublime summit stay under blue skies and brilliant warm sunshine. Other than Rhondda and Ayesha, I've enjoyed perfect views from all my Wapta peaks. Incredible. I was really hoping to find an old ascent journal in the summit cairn but after digging around I couldn't find any. It's probably on the lower false summit. ;)
[An incredible summit panorama! I've been on a LOT of peaks in this photo. Many great memories as I peer across the ocean of ice and snow and rock. ++]
[Ben comes up to the summit]
[Looking over our tracks to Baker at Des Poilus, Collie, Habel, Rhondda and even the Goodsirs on the far left!]
[Mount Baker with Mount Ayesha to the left. Two of the Wapta's sexiest peaks!]
[Baker looms over Tilly and Trapper on the right.]
[Trapper on the left and Mount Mummery on the right.]
[St Nicholas, Olive, Balfour and Gordon]
[Mount Thompson with Hector in the background.]
[Looking over Peyto's false summit.]
[Mistaya is a beautiful peak. Murchison in the background.]
[Recondite is the pointy peak at left, Willingdon, Crown and Tower on the far right in the distance.]
[Patterson is another gorgeous Wapta peak - the furthest northerly one with some serious avy terrain especially on the lower approach.]
[Vern is happy to sit on one of his last remaining Wapta peaks! And what a glorious day to be up here!!]
[Looking at our depproach (Peyto Lake) with Caldron Peak on the left.]
[Lot's of exposure on the summit!]
Ben happily stayed behind at the summit to warm up in the sun, while Steven and I set about getting the rappel set up. There was a tricky move past two VERY loose boulders before arriving at a small flat spot just above the vertical SE corner of the tower. Steven rapped it quickly and then it was my turn. I went to the lip and froze. I couldn't do it. For some reason the corner rappel freaked me out. I think it's because on Murchison I almost lost control on a corner rappel - almost swinging out into space. I need to practice more of those. Instead, I hauled up the rope and rapped where I'm pretty sure TJ and Heather got their rope stuck - down the north face of the tower and the first gully that Ben tried to ascend. Obviously it was no less vertical than the corner rap, but for some reason I had no trouble going down the face. Oh well. Time to practice more funky 'corner' raps I guess. I could see why Barton didn't like climbing up this face section - it is very near vertical and doesn't offer a lot of holds either. The last 10 feet to the ledge is also slightly over hanging which makes things interesting.
[Steven prepares to rap the SE corner of the summit tower.]
Rather than risk getting my new rope stuck, Ben hauled the rope up and rapped the SE corner, no issues. We felt really good about summiting Peyto. It was a hard won peak and Ben deserves most of the credit. Lead climbing that terrain in those conditions isn't for the faint of heart. Kudos to Ben and Heather for freeing it! They have more stones than I do - that's for sure. ;)
[Ben raps the SE corner]
Now that I've stood on all, or at least most, of the Wapta summits, I've done some reflecting on them vs. the Columbia Icefield peaks and it's surprising how difficult some of the Wapta ones are in comparison. Of course there's difficult lines up many of the Columbia peaks and some giants such as Bryce or Kind Edward which are definitely more difficult climbing. But there are also some surprisingly complex mountains on the "little" Wapta, including Balfour, Collie, Ayesha, Habel, Portal, Trapper and Peyto. Even Baker, Patterson and Olive can have huge exposure and snow slopes to negotiate. The Columbia Icefield is bigger and feels more remote than the Wapta, but if you can climb the Wapta peaks, you are more than ready for most of the Columbia Icefield peaks too. Just make sure you rope up on that glacier - it's not as tame as the Wapta!!
I feel incredibly lucky to be one person who can truly claim to have seen the Wapta and surrounding area from pretty much every peak on or even near her ice fields. I've had mostly perfect summit conditions too. I think technically I may still have 1 or 2 peaks that might be considered "Wapta" but these will be climbed as soon as I feel like attempting them (Trolltinder, Arete). This is one of the most incredible and beautiful areas in the Canadian Rockies and I feel much pleasure in reflecting on all the good times I've had with friends and family skiing, hiking, climbing and bashing my way up many summits to beautiful vistas of sky, rock, snow, ice, trees and water.
We descended the ridge to our skis before enjoying a fast ski run down the Peyto Glacier. Humping back over the moraine sucked, as usual, but eventually we finally made it back to the river flats. I hadn't planned my food properly and ended up only eating a sandwich for breakfast and two packages of energy chews all day. OOOPS. By the time I was slogging across Peyto Lake at 18:00, I was hallucinating a bit. I'm pretty sure I heard continuous "hooting" from the forest, which was freaking me out a bit as I entered the final bit of trail through the darkening woods. I could only assume it was some kind of owl, but I've never heard that sound before. In the still, cold evening air it was very spooky. Ben and Steven were 1-2km behind me so I felt alone with that weird sound reverberating through the gloomy evening shadows.
[Descending sunny, warm slopes with that warm after-buzz of a successful summit.]
[Now the fun part begins!]
[Skiing back down the Peyto Glacier in lengthening shadows]
[Looking down the moraine at the long slog ahead - some of it will be in the dark]
Then again, Steven and Ben never heard it so maybe it was in my head?! Maybe it was the Wapta saying "good bye" to an old friend. Hoo knows? :) As I crossed Peyto Lake to the forest I started noticing a LOT of snowshoe tracks. Like, an unnatural amount of them, complete with sticks placed along straight lines. I think it was some kind of weird exercise thing but now I realize it was snow art done by the artist Simon Beck and his crew. Cool!
Skiing back along the highway was amusing - I'm sure the oncoming traffic had no idea what this "one headlight" was doing tramping up the ditch along hwy 93 in pitch darkness. Every car that approached me, slowed to a crawl, trying to figure out what I was doing. I waited around 20-25 minutes before Ben and Steven arrived. We were all pretty exhausted after an 11-12 hour day.
I can only recommend the true summit of Peyto Peak to folks with a sense of adventure and knowledge of roped climbing. Otherwise, ascend the much easier false summit and enjoy similar views - just make sure you don't think they're the same.