The last week of April and first few weeks of May, 2014 were a ski mountaineer's dream in the Alberta Rockies with stable snow conditions and good overnight freezes. Steven Song and I had already taken advantage of this with the summit's of two mountains I'd been waiting years to climb - Mounts Collie and Ayesha. While coming back from Ayesha we had a conversation about the coming weekend and what we could possibly do if the weather / conditions continued to be favorable. Eventually we settled on a day trip of Trapper Peak. The standard email invites went out and when the dust settled it was once again only the two of us left standing - I sense a theme here! Trapper Peak is not well advertised. Other than a report on the old RMBooks forum and a Google Album there isn't much beta online for this mountain. (Note: Since our trip, more beta has become available including a new route that avoids some of the technical snow climbing that we had.)
The one key thing we knew we needed for a safe trip up Trapper was stable snow and a good weather report. Both were in play on Sunday, May 11 2014 with a solid overnight freeze, cool temps all day, low-low-low avy risk and the promise of brilliant sunny skies over the Wapta. Sometimes the conditions are just way too good to ignore. It should be noted at this point, that my wife deserves yet another huge kudos to being cool with me getting up at 02:30 and coming home at 18:00 on Mother's Day. She truly understands what makes me tick and I love her for it.
Once again I found myself waking up at the ridiculous hour of 02:30 and bombing down the highway to pick up Steven who was sleeping in his car along the TCH. Considering the time of day, I took some chances with speeding and we made it to the Peyto approach parking lot by around 05:15. Speed does kill though - in this case a cute bunny rabbit paid for my impatience. To be perfectly fair to me though, it was a cognitively challenged creature. I slowed down and gave it lots of time to turn around but it decided to continue jay walking across Hwy 93. Natural selection is a cruel mistress.
We started the day good by avoiding the typical tree bash to the old road from the parking area. I knew that if we walked 200 meters north along #93 we'd be able to drop in directly on the end of road where it starts in the ditch. This saves a lot of early morning frustration, but on this particular day we were due for some angst anyway. In our eagerness to start crossing the lake, we followed the first (and most recent) set of skin tracks off the road bed into the trees on our left. Quickly I realized these folks didn't have a clue where they were going - or at least where the normal winter trail goes! All I'll say is that while we made it to the lake eventually, it involved heavy bushwhacking on skis which is always less-than-pleasant first thing in the morning.
The cold overnight temps provided us with an incredible layer of solid snow, both in the trees and on Peyto Lake. Our skins barely gripped the hard layer and we zipped across the lake pretty quickly. Not as fast as two others who were ahead of us though! They skate-skied across the entire lake on their skinny skis. My theory is that they picked this perfect opportunity of weather / conditions to cross the Wapta in one day (about 45km and LOTS of height gain/loss). The way they were traveling they could easily have done this local test of endurance. I thought I was hallucinating due to lack of sleep when I first spotting them flying across the lake ahead of us in the early morning light.
[Starting early - we're already on the lake as the sun starts to rise on Mount Rhondda.]
[A telephoto shot of the access moraine rising steeply in front of Rhondda (in sun) and Habel. Everything is very foreshortened in this shot.]
[Looking through the narrow gap towards the moraine at the back of the lake.]
The Peyto Lake approach to the Peyto Glacier and Wapta Icefield is interesting. Looking at that bloody huge moraine first thing in the day - not to mention the looming summits of Rhondda and Habel behind it is always a bit intimidating. In some ways I prefer this approach to the Bow Lake / Canyon one, simply because there's a lot more going on and the views are stunning on a clear day. In other ways I really freaking hate this approach because you feel like you've climbed a mountain before you even set skis on the damn glacier. I remember my first time doing this approach back in 2007 with Raf and Josh on an attempt at Mount Jimmy Simpson from the north. We struggled with the moraine in crappy weather and I actually ended up turning around I was so exhausted. I thought for years that I'd missed out on a summit, but it turns out that they didn't actually make the summit at all! In 2010 I finally bagged Jimmy Simpson the proper way - from Bow Lake. There is a route directly up the Peyto Creek Canyon to the left of the moraine but his route is very hazardous and exposed to avalanche slopes throughout. I've only descended it once and although it was very fun and scenic, I realized pretty quickly why most folks avoid this route.
[Avoiding wet feet in the narrows at the back of the lake.]
The moraine had excellent snow coverage. The only issue was that the tracks we were following were frozen so hard that our skis couldn't quite get into the track. This meant a lot of slipping and sliding around, so that eventually I just put the skis on my pack, strapped on my crampons and boot packed to the top. Much easier and safer as a slip would not be fun on some sections of the moraine (think cheese grater). We were treated to sublime views from the top of the moraine and soon afterwards found ourselves on the glacier. It only took us 2 hours to reach the glacier due to excellent travel conditions so we weren't complaining. We kept moving though - the sooner we were on Trapper's steep snow slopes the better. The air temps were cool but the strong spring sun was part of the mix too.
[Looking towards the moraine as Peyto catches the morning sun.]
[Steven comes up the lower moraine.]
[Time to boot pack!]
[Vern carrying his skis - photo by Steven Song.]
[Traversing a steep slope near the top of the moraine. Everything was locked up tight.]
[I love this view from the top of the moraine - except for the fact that it shows a lot of height loss to the Peyto Glacier!]
[A nice ski run down the moraine to the Peyto Glacier.]
We chose a pretty good line up the glacier to the base of Trapper. I was surprised to see ski tracks, both ascent and descent, going right over the heavily crevassed climber's left glacier underneath Peyto Hut. Snow coverage was obviously very good or there would be a few people in those holes! I cautioned Steven that this was not the regular route to the hut. Avoiding the temptation to stay on climber's right of the glacier, we contoured up to the left and eventually found ourselves facing a couple of options to tackle Trapper Peak's summit. Option 1 had us traversing pretty steep terrain, exposed to small cornices the whole time and ending at a high col. From there we'd traverse along a ridge to the base of the infamous rock outcrop where we'd traverse onto the steep snow climb to the upper ridge. Option 2 had us ascending a huge snow slope directly up towards the upper summit ridge, exposed to a massive cornice for part of the climb but more direct and quicker than option 1. Both options had risk but given the excellent snow (still frozen up and bonding well) and the fact that option 2 was quicker, we chose that one.
(As it turns out, we had a 3rd, even safer and quicker option to the summit. We could have cut up the east face sooner, further south than option 2's line. This would have put us on an upper snow bench when can be followed almost directly to the summit. At the time this route was unproven and we didn't know if it went to the summit so we didn't consider it. I would highly recommend this route and will show later where it goes.)
[I was surprised to see all these ski tracks over the heavily crevassed glacier beneath Peyto Hut - but obviously the cracks are well filled this May.]
[Steven ascends the ramp with Habel, Baker, Tilly, Trapper and Peyto from left to right.]
[Big terrain - but small compared to the Columbia Icefields. At least on the Wapta you make progress every 1/2 hour! Baker, Tilly, Trapper and Peyto from L to R.]
[Steven with Trapper rising in the background. You can clearly see the route up the snow bench that we didn't consider - the red line. We took the green line which is more direct but much steeper as a consequence.]
[Looking back over Peyto Hut with Thompson rising above.]
[Ok - now the alternate route is looking much easier than the one we took! To be fair, we didn't think this route connected easily to the main summit and nobody had tried it that we knew of.]
[Looking up at one of the Wapta's toughest ascents - Peyto Peak which I climbed a year later with Ben and Steven.]
[Looking up at our intended route under the rock outcrop. It's much steeper than it appears from this angle - note the cornices.]
We skied as high as possible (it was tough going on the hard surface - ski crampons were required) before ditching the skis and continuing on foot. I should note that leaving our skis where we did was not without risk. An avalanche while we were on the summit or coming down the slope would have completely buried them, which would have made the trip back out very difficult. Again - we made our decisions based on field observations and you should never just do something because "someone else did". In general you shouldn't ditch your skis right under an obvious avy slope, but then again, in general you shouldn't climb directly up one either!
The boot pack to the summit ridge was like slowly boiling a frog - where we were the frogs! The temperature of the slope started out pretty low but by the time we had about 20 vertical meters to go, the slope was seriously freaking hot. Thank goodness the snowpack was bomber but I didn't like the brilliant spring sun beaming down on the huge cornice perched precariously above us as we sweated up that steep-ass slope. Steven broke trail most of the way and deserves credit for that. We were lucky due to conditions and also due to the fact that the cornice had broken off in one spot and we could access the upper ridge fairly easily directly from our ascent slope. The conditions of the upper mountain were a bit of a surprise. I guess I hadn't paid enough attention to Kevin Barton's comment in his thread about "exposure" to the summit. We had tons of snow on the north side of the ridge and some of the terrain reminded us of the experience we'd had on Mount Collie. I would say that the conditions we had on the summit ridge were more difficult than the snow slope below - certainly any slip or slide would have been fatal on this section. The north side also had more of a slabby feel to it which was unnerving for me.
[We boot packed past this sucker - the 'normal' route goes from the col on the right and over this cornice.]
[Looking down our kick steps as we continue to climb the snow slope.]
[It's a kick-pause, kick-pause slow motion dance to the top of this slope - all the while giving nervous glances at the overhanging cornices above.]
[A view of the Peyto Glacier and Wapta Icefield from near the ridge top looking back over the slope (note the angle) towards Peyto (L), Thompson (C) and Habel (R). ++]
[Once on the NE ridge, we got a brief respite from really steep, exposed snow. But it was brief.]
[This was probably the most exposed section on Trapper's NE ridge - you definitely didn't want to slip or have bad snow here! Thankfully this is the north side of the ridge, but the snow was a bit less consolidated here which made it a bit spicy. ++]
[Plodding up to the summit along the NE ridge on a glorious spring day.]
By the time we finally perched ourselves on the tiny summit snow drift, we were feeling that Trapper Peak wasn't quite as simple as we'd been originally expecting! If doing our route up the NE ridge, I think that Trapper deserves the same respect and conditions that Collie does. Taking the east slope direct route is much safer and much more recommended. To climb the NE ridge requires extremely stable snow and confidence on big, exposed snow ridges and cornices. It took us around 5.5-6 hours to reach the summit from the parking lot in about as perfect conditions as you can get. I would think that most parties might take closer to 7 hours on approach unless they share our perfect conditions. The views were, not surprisingly, mind-blowing.
[The summit view from Trapper is very good - this is looking north towards Mount Forbes (L), east towards Mount Willingdon (C) and south over the Wapta Icefield (R). ++]
[Looking towards Tilly Peak and Mount Baker. ++]
[Views west to the Mummery Icefield and north up the Blaeberry River Valley towards Barbette and Breaker (R). ++]
[Mount Mummery and the Freshfields.]
[Looking over Peyto Peak towards Recondite (L) and Willingdon (C-R). ++]
[Mistaya with Murchison at distant left.]
[Barbette with Breaker in the background.]
[Looking south along the summit ridge, you can see why the easier route isn't obvious. The key is that it joins the NE ridge lower down, NOT from this rock slab section in the foreground.]
[Vern on the summit of Trapper Peak - it was extremely bright up there!!]
[This is the terrain near the summit of Trapper looking back along the NE ridge.]
We didn't linger too long on the summit, even though the views and conditions were so sublime. Even though the snow conditions were holding up well, we didn't want to push things too much. The descent of the upper ridge was a bit of a test of nerves for my. On ascent I could ignore the abyss as it grew slowly larger below me, but on descent I was staring right at it! As you probably are aware - when you gaze to long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back. We took our time and kicked solid steps with our crampons - absolutely essential hardware on this day. The top of the giant snow slope was hard to downclimb - it was so steep we couldn't just step down, but had to awkwardly move our legs to the side in order to lower our other leg to the next foothold.
After descending facing inward for a bit I got tired of that business and started plunge-stepping forward facing instead. The anti-balling snow plates on my crampons made this possible, Steven's crampons were balling up like crazy and he didn't feel safe turning around until he was much lower. We didn't waste any time at our skis but quickly transitioned them on and blasted off that slope. The skiing was incredible on the still-hard snow surface. Turning was effortless as we swooped down the glacier and out of any avalanche paths before stopping for a well deserved break in the brilliant sunshine. Not a breath of wind bothered us as we looked back at our tracks and contemplated another amazing snow climb on the Wapta. I told Steven he was now ready for pretty much anything on the Columbia Icefields - everything there is just bigger - but the skills are the same.
[The exposure off the tiny summit snow drift is pretty severe - kind of reminded me of West Twin but smaller.]
[Our tracks along the NE ridge.]
[One of my favorite Wapta shots - Steven surveys the vast ocean of rock, snow and ice from the descent ridge. ++]
[Not for the faint of heart.]
[You can see our ascent tracks beneath Steven and the rock we drop onto the snow slope beside.]
[Careful step kicking on descent.]
[Looking back up at our tracks to the summit (out of sight).]
[Dropping back onto the snow slope our tracks barely visible under Steven here but suffice it to say that it's a long way down!]
[Vern descends the snow slope - photo by Steven Song.]
[The Peyto Glacier awaits our skis!]
[Tiny figures in huge terrain. Skiing here is fast and fun.]
We took some nice long breaks on the way back but the skiing was fast and the snow held up amazingly firm the whole way. We even managed to once again get lost in the bush between Peyto Lake and the parking lot - following a different set of tracks than in the morning! We ended up south of the parking lot - I'm still not sure how that happened but I was glad to see the car about 10.5 hours after leaving it.
[A slight uphill section on exit, looking back at Trapper.]
[A zoomed in shot of our track up the snow slope - you can see how it gradually steepens near the summit ridge.]
[Tele shot of Peyto Hut with Thompson towering over it.]
[Skiing down the Peyto Glacier headwall.]
[Back at the research station on the moraine.]
[The weather is still gorgeous and the snow very supportive as we work our way back over the rocky moraine with its usual thin snowpack.]
[Looking back at the descent of the moraine - ski tracks at center right.]
[The canyon would not be safe today!]
[Steven exits the moraine with Peyto now towering above him.]
[The narrows is melting out quickly.]
[Done the Peyto Lake ski! Caldron rises on the right.]
[Skinning up to the hwy again.]
[An interesting building we came across in the bush while getting lost on our way to the parking lot. It even had plastic chairs hanging from the roof.]
Trapper Peak is a wonderful summit to climb and stand on. It is yet another challenging and exposed snow ascent on the Wapta Icefield - it will certainly leave you with a feeling of accomplishment when you finally stand on it's tiny summit with an ocean of snowy peaks visible in every direction. You'll feel even better when you're safely out of range of it's massive snow slopes and summit cornices. If you're smart, you'll take the safer line up the east face too.