Ski Ascent - March 10 2018
Finally on March 10 of 2018 I managed to ski a peak that's been on my hit-list for many years. 13 years ago, I'd scrambled Mount Field in Yoho National Park from a weird approach (the Stanley Mitchell Hut) with the infamous Dave Stephens. Since then a lot of my mountain friends had skied the peak from the opposite side and highly recommended it to me. Of course, because I'm a peakbagger I don't normally like to repeat summits, but if the mode and route of the peak being bagged is completely different, it can be worth a second trip. In this case it was certainly worth it.
[The ski route up Mount Field is much different than the summer scramble route - and much more fun to descend! The "Ski Chutes" and "Crux" should only be attempted in stable avalanche conditions by experienced parties. ++]
Wietse and I knew we wanted to finally get out on the snow sticks again on the weekend of March 10. I've only been backcountry skiing a few times this year, my highlight so far being the rather insignificant Quartz Hill / Ridge. Between resort skiing, my son's hockey games, bad weekend weather (very cold) and a rejuvenating trip to Cuba, I simply haven't had the time or desire to head out into the mountains for the past few months. By the time March rolled around, however, I was more than ready to ski something off-piste again. The avalanche forecasts were fluctuating as the weekend approached, so we made sure we had backup plans. Our two top choices were Niblock and Field but even as we met with Robin and Brad early on Saturday morning, we were still undecided. The forecasts had shot up from "moderate" to "considerable" at all zones for the Little Yoho area, but the fine print called for "low" risk in the morning. A typical Spring avalanche forecast - but one that requires an early start and careful evaluation of conditions as the daytime temperatures increase rapidly and destabilize the snowpack.
Since Mount Field supposedly has a pretty tame lower 2/3, we decided to at least attempt that part of the route. If conditions allowed, we'd continue up to tag the summit. I was the only one in the group who'd already stood at the summit cairn so I knew I wouldn't be pushing the safety envelope. As we passed through Lake Louise, we briefly considered changing objectives to Little Temple (which I'd also already skied), but I remembered some pretty big terrain up there, including objective hazards from Temple's seracs which could become active with daytime warming. Most of Mount Field's ascent slopes are directly facing the sun at this time of the year, and I'll admit I wasn't too confident we'd make the summit when I first saw our route from hwy 1. We were committed to at least get our noses into it at this point. We parked near the Monarch Creek Campground and proceeded up the Little Yoho Road on a well-worn skin track. Be warned - this road is surprisingly flat until the switchback section. On approach it wasn't an issue as we were chatting and full of energy. On egress the road sucked once we were down the switchbacks. We passed a group loaded for an overnight stay at the Stanley Mitchell Hut and soon after the top of the switchback section we noticed the skin track for Mount Field peeling off to our left and followed some fresh tracks up through light forest. It seemed like we were not the first up this popular objective, but we didn't see anyone else in the vicinity, which was unexpected but welcome.
[Looking back along the approach road as we ski towards the switchbacks. It's still about -12 at this point.]
[Finally we start gaining height on the road at the switchbacks.]
[A gorgeous winter day in Little Yoho, this is looking back over our approach from the top of the switchbacks.]
[The group pauses on the road before heading left up the Mount Field skin track. Wapta Mountain looms above us here and the obvious chutes ahead of us have ski tracks.]
From the start of the lower ascent slopes the track led quite steeply upward, first on a fairly tightly treed rib and then up a shallow gully before skirting the edge of a slide path. There are obviously multiple routes up the lower avalanche gullies and treed terrain on Field, but I liked the fact that ours preferred staying out of the obvious avalanche terrain, sticking to occasionally thick trees on climber's left of the lowest angled path. We could see multiple options for descent, especially as we worked our way higher. Knowing that we had over 1400m of height gain helped keep expectations under control - the view to the summit is very foreshortened from below! I knew that Field was pretty much the same height as Mount Ogden which loomed across the Yoho River Valley behind us and which I'd scrambled in August 2017.
[The lower approach to Mount Field which is still mostly hidden left of center. This photo shows the steeper avalanche chutes that can be skied on descent at right of center by traversing skiers left once you're off the summit block. We descended tamer terrain at left here. ++]
[We ascend a shallow draw towards thicker trees beside the avalanche paths.]
[There was a short section of fairly thick 'whacking that was avoided on descent by skiing directly in the avy path beside it.]
[As we transition out of the trees and into the avy chutes the views open up towards Mount Collie and Baker. The Yoho Valley road visible at lower center.]
[The 1400m vertical is non-stop once you get to the switchbacks down on the Yoho Valley Road. We still have hundreds of meters to ascend as we finally start breaking the lower treeline and get into the open avy chutes.]
[Now we're cooking with gas! What a view and what a glorious day to not be anywhere but here. The summit is still a long way off at upper right.]
As we approached the alpine, the snow continued to hold up really well despite being fully exposed to the morning sun. The temperature stayed cool with a cold breeze blowing into our faces as we climbed higher and higher. It was a perfect winter day to be out on skis and I was ecstatic to finally be enjoying another glorious ski day in the Rockies. It had been way too long since my last bluebird ski day in such great conditions! We worked our way up another shallow draw that looked perfect for descent, before working up and over some rolls and drifts towards the obvious crux above and slightly to our left.
[This shallow gully was a great ski line on descent.]
[Looking back at the shallow gully and the Yoho Valley. Mount Ogden rising impressively across the valley and Wapta Mountain at left. ++]
[We got lucky with a great skin track on ascent and few tracks on descent.]
[Entering into the alpine and more obvious avy terrain. There is safer and shallower terrain to our right (oos) but in the stable conditions we had, we weren't too concerned. There were some huge cornices overhanging the more northerly line too (see at upper right).]
[This is staring to look like a mighty fine descent line! For the slightly more adventurous, you can traverse skier's left (north) here on descent to find some steeper avy chutes down to the road. ++]
[A small roll in the slope that again, could be avoided by swinging wider to the right (north) on ascent. I thought it was a good chance to test conditions on a smaller consequence slope and they proved to be pretty solid with an obvious soft wind slab (you can see where it slid a bit) sitting on top of a bomber base.]
[On large open snow slopes the terrain can sneak up on you. This is that "small roll" from the previous photo... :)]
[Robin comes up the small roll behind me as the day continues to not suck. Note how much higher Ogden still is at this point (left)? We have to ascend to at least that height. ++]
[Robin asks, "Are we there yet?!". Uh - "No"...]
The fresh skin track cut the slope high above us and it did look fairly steep - we still weren't sure we were following the track across it or not. Interestingly, the crux on Field isn't fully exposed to the sun thanks to being somewhat north facing on its steepest aspect. BUT - on the downside, it is also somewhat prone to windloading - thanks to its aspect. There was an obvious soft slab buildup as we continued to ascend to the crux, but it wasn't reacting very easily, and we felt that conditions were still safe enough to make a quick dash (one at a time) across the steep snow slope. As usual, once I got my nose into the crux it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked when Wietse was inching his way across it ahead of me. Soon we were all across and looking up at the summit, still a few hundred vertical meters above, on somewhat tamer terrain but still steep enough to slide in certain conditions. I would be especially leery of wind-loading at and above the crux and make sure you tackle it one-at-a-time just in case.
[We finally start approaching the crux beneath the summit block. It follows the obvious ascent line from right to center left - thankfully entering the shade before the steepest part. ++]
[Things start steepening quickly at the crux.]
[Don't linger here! This is the crux slope and should be taken seriously. We had a soft slab that wasn't too reactive but on descent I did trigger a small sluff in the gully at left. Click to view another shot of Wietse on the steepest part of the crux.]
[Looking back over the crux slope as Brad and Robin start across. We'd descend another steeper gully right beneath us here at center.]
[The final few hundred vertical meters above the crux to the summit are still steep enough to slide in the right conditions and are very fine ski slopes too.]
As we grunted our way ever higher, a skier suddenly appeared over a roll in the slope and zipped down just off our path! He made the steep upper section of the mountain look absolutely effortless. Upon chatting later I found out that he's skied this mountain many times - and it showed. Two more skiers eventually followed him down - they were obviously the ones laying down the fresh skin track we'd been following all day.
[We're even catching up on Wapta's summit now. And those VIEWS! Damn!]
[One of the three skiers who were ahead of us showing fine downhill form with the impressive Presidents (R) and Mount Carnarvon (L) in the background.]
[The skier with Wapta looming above.]
[This slope was interminable. Honestly, it never seemed to end! Brad is pretty much at the summit above me here.]
[Wietse and Robin follow me up the last few vertical to the top with the Little Yoho (L) and the Bow Valley (R) stretched out behind us. ++]
Finally, about 4.5 hours after starting our day, we topped out to some pretty kick ass views off the summit. I was pretty pumped to finally be up this classic Rockies ski ascent and was really looking forward to the descent on boot top powder. After the obligatory summit shots and a brief break in the cool breeze, we decided to take a longer break further down and get ourselves off the crux before any further warming or destabilizing could take place.
[Incredible summit views over the Kicking Horse River towards Cathedral, Stephen and Vaux. ++]
[Cathedral Mountain and Mount Stephen (R) loom across the Kicking Horse River.]
[Mount Stephen is an impressive beast of a mountain! As you'd expect, there's some gnarly routes up this thing too...]
[The Goodsir Towers loom over Odaray (L) and Owen (R).]
[Mounts Chancellor, Vaux and Hurd loom off in the distance.]
[A slightly wider view SW over the tiny town of Field, BC and towards the Ottertail (L) and Van Horne (R) ranges.]
[The Van Horne range includes Mounts King and Hunter amount others.]
[The Presidents are a very fine mountaineering (and / or skiing) objective.]
[Mount Balfour - king of the Wapta Icefield!]
[Gazing over the upper Yoho River Valley towards the Wapta Icefield with Mount Baker, Habel, Rhondda, Gordon, Olive and Balfour (L to R) visible.]
[Mount Niles and Daly.]
[Divide Peak, Mount Niblock and Narao Peak rise over the TCH to the east of Mount Field. ++]
[The easy southwest slopes of Mount Bosworth and Paget Peak at left with Redoubt and Mount St. Bride in the distance.]
[A panorama looking south and west off the summit from Cathedral Mountain at left to Mount Carnarvon over Emerald Lake at right. ++]
[Mount Carnarvon looms impressively over Emerald Lake. The obvious avalanche chute at center rises to Emerald Peak and is a classic ski line which I did in 2013.]
[Mount Burgess and Walcott Peak rise sharply over Emerald Lake which is OOS at bottom right here.]
I was a bit disappointed in my poor skiing form off the summit - thanks to very tired legs. I haven't skied much this winter and didn't give myself enough food or drink at the summit to recover from the ascent. Oh well. It was still a blast! We passed another group of four just above the crux. I chatted briefly with Alex Reid (I recognized him from Facebook but not until I got home and saw his post) before continuing down over the crux section. Everyone was enjoying this perfect winter ski day immensely - we were all surprised at the stable conditions given the stern avalanche warnings. As I followed Robin down a steep gully bypassing our ascent crux, I was a bit concerned to note a small slab break up beneath my feet. I really didn't want to kick the slope off on top of Robin who was far below at the bottom of the slope, so I took care to tread as gently as possible down the steep gully before traversing out of it back to our ascent line. On hindsight our ascent line probably would have been slightly safer on descent but the line we followed is a nice one and is tempting.
[A quick photo as I enjoy the ski run down. There was one group behind us as you can see.]
[Robin stops just above the crux.]
[Brad heads towards the crux slope which was a short but steep gully to skier's right of the ascent crux. Note the tracks far below us at lower right which are the exit of the steep upper slopes.]
My legs continued to feel quite tired on the descent, even after a few very nice breaks where we enjoyed the warm (but not too warm) sunshine and incredible views towards the valley and Mount Ogden. Lower down they finally recovered somewhat - just in time to ski the Christmas trees in the avalanche paths back to the Yoho Valley road. Once on the road it was a surprisingly long trudge back to the vehicles - I didn't realize it was so flat before the switchbacks.
[Brad enjoys boot top POW.]
[Brad and Wietse pause on descent to enjoy the big views.]
[Robin enjoying the excellent ski conditions.]
[There are lots of options for the lower part of the descent. In general anything north of the safest ascent line is game for descent - just don't get cliffed out near the bottom!]
[Skiing Christmas trees is always fun.]
[Brad made it look easy.]
[Back at the road, looking up at potential lines for next time - located further north than the lines we skied.]
[Brad demonstrates his cliff descent skills - he made it look easy!]
I really enjoyed skiing Mount Field and highly recommend it for reasonably stable conditions and experienced Rockies skiers. Don't underestimate it just because people do it in 5-6 hours round trip. Most of that time is on the ascent and a good chunk of the upper route is definitely in avalanche terrain. The bottom 2/3 of the route is quite well protected and could be yo-yo skied in slightly elevated avalanche conditions, but is still obviously within the runout zones for big slides coming from high above.
Scramble Ascent - July 6 2005
Late on Saturday night as I was moping about only bagging one new peak on a three day trip, Sonny suggested that those of us who hadn't climbed Mount Field yet should try to get this summit on the way off the Iceline. Once the suggestion came up the group spent the next hour or so trying to decide which option would be best for summiting Mount Field.
Option A was to hike all the out on the Laughing Falls trail and then drive to the Burgess Pass trailhead and hike Mount Field from there. Option B was to hike all the way out to Burgess Pass via the Iceline trail, drop our heavy packs, bag the peak and then walk out on the Burgess Pass trail where Sonny would pick us up. Option C was to hike to Yoho campground, drop the heavy packs, bag Mount Field via the Wapta Highline trail and then come back, pick up the heavy packs and continue down the Iceline. We decided to sleep on it and decide in the morning.
Sunday morning was a beautiful morning so we packed up and quickly headed out over the Iceline Trail to try option 'C' from the night before. It became apparent early on that Dave and I would be the only ones to try for Mount Field so we forged ahead. We almost kept going down the Iceline once the rain started again but since neither of us wanted to be the one to wimp out we trudged on down to the Yoho Lake campground. Once at the campground Dave and I dropped our packs and began the long walk down the Wapta Highline trail to Mount Field.
[The Presidents from the Iceline. I would finally climb both the Vice President (L) and President (R) in 2008.]
[The group hikes out over the Iceline Trail.]
[Hiking out on the Iceline - a spectacular highline traverse above tree line for a lot of the way.]
[Mount Gordon from the Iceline - my first Wapta ski mountaineering objective that I did with Dave in 2006 and repeated again in 2012.]
[Mount Rhondda and Habel from the Iceline.]
[Mount Niles from the Iceline Trail.]
We almost thought the trail from Yoho Lake was closed when we encountered a huge Closure sign, but thankfully it was only referring to a section off the trail further ahead where ancient fossil beds are protected. The funniest thing happened when we caught up to a large group of guided tourists on a very narrow section of the trail. Since we were behind them I guess they didn't really realize how fast we were walking and assumed we would just 'fall in line'. After about 2 minutes I started clearing my throat and sighing really loudly. Then I starting making as many rude noises as I could think of. Finally I asked very politely if we could please pass on the right. Two people kindly let us pass. The next 7 just ignored us. I was getting really impatient now and I think Dave was getting worried about what I would try next so he spoke very loudly and asked if we could please pass the group. Finally we were allowed to pass!
[Dave walks beneath imposing cliffs on the Wapta Highline trail.
After first thinking that Mount Burgess was our destination and then very briefly considering Mount Stephen (!!) we realized that Mount Field was going to be quite a bit easier than the previous two options looked from our vantage! We headed up obvious scree slopes on the west slopes, till we finally reached the skyline ridge and headed toward a line of cliffs up above. As we got closer to the cliffs we spotted a way through and after a brief bit of scrambling we were on the final summit slopes. We summitted in the sun for the first time that weekend and after taking in the view and snapping some photos we headed back down.
[Dave ascends the crux.]
[Dave ascends the final slopes under the summit of Mount Field.]
[Dave on the summit of Mount Field with the impressive summit of Mount Stephen in the background.]
[Panorama from the summit of Mount Field including (L to R), Narao, Cathedral, Stephen, Dennis, Vaux and Hurd. ++]
[Panorama from the summit of Mount Field towards Emerald Lake and Wapta Mountain, including (L to R), Carnarvon, Emerald, President, Vice President, Wapta, Rhondda, Gordon, Balfour, Niles, Daly and Hector among many others. ++]
[Mount Burgess and Walcott from the summit of Field.]
[Mount Stephen's impressive north face from the summit of Mount Field.]
I don't remember much of the long walk back to the Iceline except that it was very long and my feet were getting very sore. Eventually we did make it out to a very patient Sonny. All in all it was a fantastic trip with 3 peaks, 2 nubs, good times and good friends.
[Views off the Wapta Highline Trail towards Carnarvon (C).]