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 of the Wapta there was three summits that I thought I'd never have the skills (or guts?) to ascend. They were Balfour, Patterson and Collie. Balfour due it's big terrain and the broken glacier to Balfour Col, Patterson due to it's huge avy slopes and Collie due to it's famous summit cornice that has turned back many ascent parties.
Reading the trip reports on Collie and talking to people who have 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 ski across the Wapta. You need solid snow so that you can do the corniced ridge around noon (it takes 6 hours to get there!). You need good snow conditions on descent to avoid a nightmare slog back across the Wapta. 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. The lake was still completely snow covered and the surrounding peaks were wearing their Feb/Mar 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 above us.
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 to Bow Hut]
[Ferenc's skins couldn't ascend the headwall beneath the Bow Hut due to icy conditions so he just boot packed it]
After our brief stay at the hut we headed for the Wapta via the headwall, following some recent up tracks. We stuck fairly close to The Onion, keeping in mind that we wanted to descend closer to Rhondda than to Gordon on our way down to the ice field accessing Collie. As we crested the first section of the Wapta between Gordon and Rhondda we noticed some fresh tracks heading the same way we were. It's always nice to follow some fresh tracks on a glacier so we gradually made our way over and followed them. They weren't coming from the Bow Hut so we figured they must have been from a party staying at Peyto Hut. As we followed the tracks down the icefield between Rhondda and Collie it became obvious that whoever made the tracks was either going for Collie or doing the Bow-Yoho traverse.
[A very familiar sight now but I still enjoy it! Skinning up the headwall to the Wapta]
[I never get tired of this view of St. Nicholas and Olive]
[Collie just starts peaking over a rise on the Wapta as we continue to cross on perfect snow (notice the easy trail breaking here).]
[A pano looking towards Collie (just over Steven's head to the left). From L to R, Olive, Gordon, Collie, Rhondda, Habel, Trapper, Peyto, Thompson, Portal]
[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 south at the Presidents in Yoho National Park]
[Looking at Ayesha - my next Wapta destination. Steven calls the bump at left "Collesha" ;-) Looks like a good ski though!]
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 tracks 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 in Feb. The disadvantage would be the cornice...
[The broken east face of Collie]
[A steep grunt up the headwall to the Collie bowl]
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.
[Looking back from part way up the head wall at our approach route. Baker, Habel, Rhondda, Gordon from L to R.]
[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...]
[Mighty Mount Gordon looks impressive from the north west.]
[Steven with 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.]
[Finally on the ridge after almost 6 hours of steady skiing. Now we just have to go up a bit more!]
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 '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 knife edged ridge top with a lot of air on each side. Of course that was 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 if any of us slipped. 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]
[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 - 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.
[Part of the cornice from the summit]
[A very impressive summit panorama. Way too many peaks to name but I've been on a good number of 'em. 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.]
[Mighty Mount Balfour, king of the Wapta with Mount Temple on the right]
[The Mummery Icefield]
[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.]
[Vern on the summit of Mount Collie - FINALLY!!]
[Mount Laussedat with the huge Sir Sanford just to it's left]
[Mount Sir Donald rises on the left]
[Mount Rogers on the right]
[Giants in the Selkirks, including Mount Dawson]
[Mount Mummery - on my list to do some day!]
[Obviously Mount Forbes is on my list]
[Mount Murchison rises behind Mount Baker. Baker is another steep snow climb but it's cornice is quite a bit tamer than Collie's]
[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]
[This shows the angle of the traverse slope a bit better - but doesn't show the exposure. Photo by Steven Song.]
[Steven comes off the ridge]
[Done the tricky part! Now it's time for a long ski / slog back across the Wapta.]
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 Canyon was quick and icy in the shade which made for a very fast exit.
[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!]
[Looking back from the western flats. Can't believe I finally got her summit!]
This trip was comparable to some of my other 'top' trips such as Twin's Tower, Balfour and Patterson. Steep snow slopes, views forever and some exciting times. Collie is a top 10 for sure. Highly recommended for experienced parties in good conditions. Steven and Ferenc were both wondering how it compared to something like Twin's Tower. It was similar in some respects. I think what we did on Collie was actually slightly more technical than the (awesome) conditions we had on Twin's 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. Twin's 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! :D