On Tuesday, April 29 2014 I joined Steven and Ferenc on a long desired day trip of Mount Collie on the Wapta Icefield in Yoho National Park. Ever since I first started climbing the peaks on the Wapta Icefield, there were five summits that I thought I'd never have the skills (or guts?) to ascend. They were Balfour, Patterson, Ayesha, Peyto and Collie. Balfour due it's big terrain and the broken glacier to Balfour Col. Patterson due to it's dire approach avalanche slopes. Ayesha due to avalanche approach slopes and low 5th summit block. Peyto due to it's 5th class summit block. Mount Collie due to it's infamous summit cornice that has turned back many ascent parties over the years. Reading the trip reports on Collie and talking to people who have already done it was a bit intimidating. It sounded like you could either get lucky and follow someone else's footprints, or more likely be turned back by the narrow, double corniced upper ridge. I spent 6 or 7 years just waiting for the perfect combination of weather, time and partners to attempt it and that day finally came with an omega block weather pattern and low-low-low avy risks on the first day of the block.
Collie is usually considered an overnight peak. Most people spend at least 1 night in either Bow Hut or in a tent closer to the mountain before ascending it the next day. This is the safer and preferred way, but the peak can be skied in a single day trip from the Bow Lake parking lot with the right partners, weather and avy conditions. The reason you need good avy conditions is rather obvious when you see the photos, but if you're attempting it as a day trip you need a rare combination of factors to come together. You need a clear day so you can safely and quickly ski across the icefield. You need a solid snow pack so that you can do the corniced ridge around noon (it takes 6 hours to get there from the parking lot). You need good late-day snow conditions on return to avoid a nightmare slog back across the Wapta Glacier. Usually a spring sun combined with spring temps will destabilize the snow pack and make for a miserable slog but on the first day of this weather pattern we got very lucky with cool conditions and very good snow all day - even lower down in the approach canyon to the Bow Hut.
I woke up at 02:45 and by 03:00 I was on my way to pick up Ferenc and Steven from Ferenc's house. I drove fairly fast and we ended up at the Bow Lake parking lot at 06:00, which was nice. It was -10 at Bow Lake so we knew we had a good night's freeze. Skiing across Bow Lake, I was very surprised how wintry it felt in the area. The lake was still completely snow covered and the surrounding peaks were wearing their mid-winter coats. I've read trip reports where the lake was seriously melting at the end of April but we didn't see any evidence of this anywhere on the crossing either at the beginning or end of the day. The skin track up and around the bump before the canyon to Bow Hut gave us a hint of the conditions we'd deal with over the next few hours - very icy! This was a PITA on the steeper rolls but was a welcome one because it also meant the snow was locked up tight high above us.
[Crossing Bow Lake with sunrise on Portal and Thompson Peak at right. St. Nicholas and The Onion at left still in shadow.]
The canyon conditions were also mid-winter. Tons of snow coverage, no open stream crossings yet (all bridged) and even towards the end of the canyon where things can get a bit convoluted, there was plenty of snow covering the cliff bands and rocky terrain. It's been a few years since I've seen the canyon this easy to ski up or down. We made good time to the Bow Hut and within 2 hours of leaving the car we were stopping for a quick bite to eat and some water. Good thing we didn't skimp too much on bringing water from the car because the hut was locked up tight with no occupants. I almost didn't carry water up the canyon thinking I could maybe get some at the hut, but I'm really glad I didn't make that decision! There were about 6 cars in the parking lot but they must have all been doing longer traverses or something.
[Skinning up and around the infamous 'bump' at the end of the lake on our way to the Bow Canyon.]
[The Bow Canyon approach to the Bow Hut and the Wapta Icefield is always interesting with open water. Thankfully we had a good snow pack and thick bridges.]
[Still in deep morning shadow as we approach the end of the approach route. The Vulture ice cap at center with the Bow Hut barely visible in shadow at center right.]
[Ferenc's skins couldn't ascend the headwall beneath the Bow Hut due to icy conditions so he just boot packed it.]
[Ferenc looks tiny under a towering Vulture Peak, Little Crowfoot at center left.]
After our brief stay at the hut we headed for the main Wapta Glacier via its headwall near the hut, following some recent skin tracks. We stuck fairly close to The Onion, keeping in mind that we wanted to descend towards Collie from closer to Rhondda than Gordon. As we crested the first section of the ice field between Gordon and Rhondda we noticed some fresh tracks heading the same way we were. It's always nice to follow some tracks on a glacier so we gradually made our way over and followed along them. They weren't coming from the Bow Hut so we figured they must have been from a party staying at the Peyto Hut. As we followed the tracks down the ice field between Rhondda and Collie it became obvious that whoever made the tracks was either going for Mount Collie or doing the Bow-Yoho traverse.
[I never get tired of this view of St. Nicholas and Olive.]
[Collie just starts peaking over a rise on the Wapta Glacier as we continue to cross on perfect snow (notice the easy trail breaking here).]
[A pano looking towards Collie from the Rhondda / Gordon col. From L to R, Collie, Rhondda, Habel, Trapper.]
[Looking back at Peyto, Thompson and Portal (L to R).]
[Skiing down onto the western edge of the Wapta towards Mount Collie. We should have pulled the skins off but it was a beautiful morning and the skiing was easy so we didn't bother. Next time we will. It's over 2km to the base of the icefall leading to Collie even though it looks much closer!]
[Looking at Mount Ayesha - my next Wapta destination and even more technical than Collie. Some folks call the bump at left "Collesha" as it sits between Collie and Ayesha.]
The glacier flats between Rhondda / Gordon and Collie / Ayesha is a wonderful place, tucked away where few people can see it or access it. We had a nice cool breeze, warm sun and excellent snow conditions which made it even better. The views of Collie, Ayesha, Rhondda, the Presidents and other Yoho peaks and even peaks in the Lake O'Hara region were stunning. We should have de-skinned for the descent from the Rhondda / Gordon col but by the time we realized this we were over half done already. By the 4 hour mark we found ourselves looking up at the skin track we were following leading towards an obvious ramp through the ice fall guarding Collie and the Bow-Yoho traverse. For some reason we all thought that we'd be going up climber's right of the ice fall but the tracks followed a nice (and safe) looking line on the left so we did that instead. It sounds like the ice fall is skied left, center and even right depending on the season / conditions. There were a lot of holes in the center of the slope and we went over a few pretty big ones that were well filled and bridged. I guess this is the advantage of going up Collie late in the season - the glacier is safer than earlier in the winter. The disadvantage of climbing it so late would be the size of the summit cornice - but I'm getting ahead of myself now.
(NOTE: The route we followed is now much more popular thanks to the new Louise and Richard Guy ACC hut located at the Collie / Yoho Peak col. Back when we did Collie, this hut was still just a dream.)
[The broken east face of Collie with the summit towering above at center.]
[Looking south towards The Presidents.]
[Looking back at the long SW ridge that is Rhondda and Habel (L) and includes Mount Baker at far left.]
[Following the track as it finally goes back uphill in a large "zig".]
[A steep grunt up the headwall to the Collie bowl, now on a large "zag" in the track.]
Once we were up the headwall we found ourselves in a beautiful alpine bowl between Collie and Yoho Peak. Des Poilus could be seen from here already too - looking pretty darn big I might add! It was here that we finally departed the set of tracks and started making our own again. The snow was still extremely supportive with the cool temps and nice breeze fending off the effects of the warm spring sun. Ferenc broke a good track up the bowl to a low point on the summit ridge. All the way up to the ridge I kept sneaking nervous little glances at the house-sized cornice that was growing bigger and more threatening the closer we got to it! I was delighted that half the ridge had already broken off and slid, but of course that also made me wonder how stable the remaining HUGE part was.
[Crevasses lurk everywhere here! Mount Gordon is impressive from this angle.]
[Looking back from part way up the head wall at our approach route. Habel, Rhondda, Gordon from L to R.]
[Looking north over more of the obviously active ice fall. Baker at distant right.]
[Still ascending the headwall as the angle eases off. Collie now at distant center.]
[Heading into the upper bowl]
[A gorgeous day to be in the mountains, looking back - can't wait to ski this on the way down!]
[No tracks to the summit! Guess we're breaking trail again.]
[Leaving our nice skin track and setting our own.]
[Such a perfect winter day for trail breaking! It doesn't get any better than this for ski mountaineering in Alberta.]
[The vast expanse of snow and ice that is the Wapta Icefields stretched out below us as we ascend higher and higher on Mount Collie.]
[Steven with Olive, Gordon and Balfour in the background.]
[The massive cornice may not look like much from here but that fracture line is at least 20 feet high! And obviously it's thinking of coming down some time. At least half of it is already gone...]
[Mont Des Poilus looks impressive from here.]
[Note the wind loading on this side of the slope? Also, no wonder that cornice is so darn huge.]
[Finally on the ridge after almost 6 hours of steady skiing. Now we just have to go up a bit more. But this will be the hard part.]
The main thing when faced with scary looking terrain in the mountains is to maintain a very positive outward attitude. So when Ferenc asked what we thought, both Steven and I responded that it actually looked easier than we were expecting and it wasn't going to be an issue. In my head I was thinking a few slightly less positive thoughts. But another unwritten rule in the mountains is always stick your face in the problem before letting it turn you around, so after ditching the skis and putting on crampons, Steven took up the lead and we got after it.
The ridge wasn't easy. There were a few factors we had to deal with including some unconsolidated snow on the north side, some really soft, slightly slabby snow on the south (baking in the sun) and a knife-edged ridge with a lot of air on each side of it. Of course that was only the easier first section. After this we had to negotiate a massive house-sized cornice that had several layers and a drop to the north that was steep enough that self arrest was pretty much impossible. We took our time and Steven did a fantastic job of balancing between getting too close to the cornice edge and too far onto the steep north side of the ridge. Crampons were a must on this section. We even found the fracture line in the cornice when our axes plunged into the snow a wee bit too easily - we made sure to stay under that stretch! We roped up for ascent in case of a cornice failure (on descent we un-roped due to the possibility of one party member falling and pulling the other two down with him). I must admit that there were a few sections that had my heart beating a bit faster than usual. The first was traversing the south face on snow that was getting sun baked (but ended up being fairly supportive), the second was while climbing up the massive cornice just under the summit where we knew we were on the cornice (impossible to avoid completely) but didn't know exactly where we were on it. As I told my wife when I got home,
There are a few days in the mountains where you come back and you feel like you're more alive than ever before. Today I feel like I'm really ALIVE!
[Steven leads confidently up the ridge.]
[Easy peasy on the bottom section.]
[Vern and Steven negotiate the ridge, here I'm detouring briefly on the south face while Steven transitions back over to the north. Photo by Ferenc.]
[I didn't have time to take a lot of photos so I'm glad Ferenc got this one showing Steven and I approaching the crux. Notice the straight horizontal line in the snow from Steven's left hand going down? That's a cornice fracture line that he found when his ax plunged in a bit too easily. We wisely avoided continuing on that particular line.]
[Ferenc is delighted to be off the cornice and onto the summit block.]
We were super pumped to finally do the short walk to the summit - we had mind blowing views in all directions. We spent a good 30 minutes photographing a myriad of peaks, many of which we have stood on and many more that we haven't (yet). We knew that we couldn't stay on the summit too long - no use letting that strong sun destabilize things further before we could get off the ridge and back down to the safety of the col and our skis.
[Part of the cornice from the summit with our tracks running across it.]
[A very impressive summit panorama. It was so worth the 6 or 7 year wait to finally stand on Collie's summit in perfect weather conditions. My first Wapta peak, Gordon, was the only time on the Wapta that I was in a complete whiteout. Since then I've bagged every other one in perfect conditions except Rhondda which I'll repeat some day anyway. This is looking west and north and includes (L to R), Des Poilus, Sir Donald, the Mummery Group, Collie Creek, Forbes and Baker among many, many others. ++]
[Looking east (L) and South (R) across the Wapta Icefield at many familiar peaks including (L to R), Thompson, Rhondda, Vulture, St. Nicholas, Olive, Gordon, Balfour, Louise Peaks, Yoho Peak, The Presidents and Des Poilus. ++]
[Mighty Mount Balfour, king of the Wapta with Mount Temple on the right.]
[Mount Olive, Hector and Gordon.]
[Gazing east towards the Willingdon Group.]
[Looking over Mount Rhondda and Thompson all the way towards the distant Recondite.]
[Mount Ayesha at foreground left with Howse and Chephren beyond and Murchison and Baker at center and right.]
[Looking north down Collie Creek towards Mount Forbes.]
[The Mummery Icefield looms over the Blaeberry River Valley and includes (L to R), Lotosky, Poland, Mummery and others.]
[Mont Des Poilus - another Wapta favorite of mine and one of the very few I've climbed in the summer.]
[Looking at the Presidents with the Goodsirs on one side and Mount Vaux on the other. Carnarvon, McArthur and Kiwetinok on the right.]
[The Lake Louise and O'Hara peaks including (L to R), Temple, Victoria, Hungabee, Cathedral and Mount Stephen.]
[Mount Laussedatt with the huge Sir Sanford just to it's left]
[Mount Sir Donald rises on the left.]
[Mount Forbes with the Lyells to the left.]
[Giants in the Selkirks, including Mount Dawson]
[Mount Mummery - on my list to do some day!]
[Recondite has a very distinctive form when viewed from the west.]
[Mount Willingdon (L), Crown and Tower (R)]
[Mount Hector is another glorious ski ascent.]
[Balfour is considered the "King of the Wapta" and rightly so. It's another favorite of mine.]
[From L to R, Victoria, Huber, Ringrose, Hungabee, Biddle and Cathedral.]
[Biddle and Cathedral on the left and Mount Stephen on the right.]
[The presidents are awesome Yoho snow ascents and Mount Vaux (on the right) is also an amazing scramble.]
[The Goodsir's are big and scary peaks. I'm not sure if they're in my future or not at this point.]
The way down was slightly easier than the ascent, mainly because we had tracks and deep kick steps to use. The snow was getting more unconsolidated in places but we made it back to the skis fairly quick. Now it was time to ski all the way back! The snow was incredible as we descended Collie and back down the ice fall section to the flats far below. It took around 12 minutes to descend on a surprisingly firm base with boot-top powder on the surface. It would have been even quicker if we didn't stop to take in the views on the way down.
[Ferenc starts the descent. It's a long way down to the north of the ridge.]
[Vern and Ferenc traverse the north side of the cornice - photo by Steven Song.]
[Carefully negotiating avalanche slopes and cornices at the same time.]
[Much steeper and more exposed than it looks.]
[Steven comes off the ridge.]
[Another narrow spot on the ridge required us to briefly detour onto the sun-baked south slopes.]
[Done the tricky part! Now it's time for a long ski / slog back across the Wapta. ++]
[A moment to relax and take it all in before the long ski out. This is a very good moment on every trip - when you're done the crux and left with an easy albeit long and meditative exit.]
The rest of the day was basically a mindless slog all the way back up to the Rhondda / Gordon col and then finally back down to the Bow Hut. I was very pleasantly surprised by the continued good snow conditions, even the exit canyon was quick and icy in the shade which made for a very fast ski.
[Descending off the ridge. Perfect snow on a supportive base layer.]
[What a day to remember in the hills. The Wapta is my favorite winter playground. ++]
[Skiing down past the crevasses on the headwall. The snow is still perfect!]
[Unfortunately we'll soon be going uphill again.]
[Looking back from the western flats. Can't believe I finally got her summit! ++]
[Slowly gaining height back over the Rhondda / Gordon col.]
[Back at the headwall. Note the tiny figure skinning up under the Vulture ice cap?]
[Looking back at Ferenc and Steven as they start the uphill slog from under the rocky headwall below the hut (which is out of sight at right).]
[A beautifully fresh spring day in the Rockies as we head for the canyon.]
This trip was comparable to some of my other favorite winter trips such as Twins Tower, Balfour and Patterson. Steep snow slopes, views forever and some exciting terrain. Collie is a top 10 peak for me right now. I very highly recommend it for experienced parties in stable snow conditions. Steven and Ferenc were both wondering how it compared to something like Twins Tower. It was similar in some respects. I think what we had on Collie was actually slightly more technical than the (awesome) conditions we had on Twins Tower. The tower didn't have cornices to deal with and the main hazard, crevasses coming down from North Twin, were all filled in when we did it. Twins Tower definitely felt like bigger and more exposed terrain though. Both are exciting winter / spring challenges in their own right. Both will cause some amount of the "sphincter tightening" that Bill Corbett so aptly pens in his book!