Day 3 - Balfour Hut -> Lilliput Mountain -> Balfour Glacier -> Hector Lake -> Hwy 93
I woke the entire hut up at 07:00 on Sunday morning by turning on the stoves and lighting the lanterns. I paid for it by being recruited to help change the outhouse barrel!. I won't go into detail on this except to say that the best way to ruin your morning appetite is to change an outhouse barrel. That is some nasty business my friends...
By 08:30 we were packed up and ready to re-ascend the high col with heavier packs than the day before. I took some medication for my cold, hoping that it would be enough to get me through the day.
The grind up to the high col on Mount Balfour went fairly well. TJ set a nice slow pace so that I could make it without dying. After 2 hours we were once again taking in the fabulous views from the col at over 10,000 feet. Lilliput Mountain looked close - but looks can be very deceiving on an ice field. We decided to un-rope at the col in order to facilitate a 'super G' glacier run towards Lilliput Mountain.
[Gorgeous morning lighting on Balfour from just under the Balfour Hut. ++]
[Looking back from the lower slopes to the Balfour Col.]
[Another gorgeous morning, looking back up the Vulture Glacier - Olive on the left and Vulture on the right.]
[There are some massive crevasses on the way up to Balfour high col - not a great spot to be in a whiteout.]
[It's a steep run down to the Guy Ritchie hut from the col - again not a great spot for whiteout navigation.]
[Ben gestures at our previous days objective, the kind of the Wapta, Mount Balfour. It feels good to have that peak under our belts.]
[Looking south down the Wapta towards Mount Daly at center. ++]
Ben led off and we were surprised to see him straight-line it as he usually does some turns even at the cost of speed / distance. When we looked closer we could see that he was obviously survival skiing, he looked like a crazy mountain man flopping all over the place, almost out of control! This is not how Ben normally skis and as we skied straight down behind him we soon found out why he was looking so off balance; the glacier looked smooth from above but once we worked up our speed (especially with the heavy packs) there was some large sastrugi that were waiting to surprise us! I honestly thought I was going to die. OK - maybe not die but at least break a leg or snap an ankle. We couldn't turn on the hard snow drifts so we had to keep going straight down the glacier at full speed over 12-16 inch high drifts of hard snow. As I flew down the glacier I desperately tried to keep my balance by any means necessary. Having tired legs didn't help but in hindsight it must have looked pretty hilarious. I still don't know how we all made it through but we did. The sastrugi eventually gave up trying to kill us and we all came to a very relieved stop.
[Balfour looks pretty intimidating from the col. Our tracks from the previous day visible on the upper ridge.]
[Time to super G to Lilliput - we're currently higher than its summit at the col - it's the peak at center left.]
[TJ breaks trail up Lilliput, which looks like a mountain from this angle. Hector just peaks out over the ridge.]
To ascend Lilliput Mountain we stayed as high as possible while traversing over a fairly low angled alpine bowl on the west slopes of the ridge leading to the mountain, above the glacier on skier's left. This bowl was being cooked by the sun but didn't seem unstable as we traversed over the upper part of it so we felt OK with skiing down it once we got off Lilliput. Ben decided to ski up Lilliput while TJ and I felt sorry for our ski bases (lots of rock) and hoofed it on foot instead. The summit view was fabulous, once again we were blessed with clear skies, light winds and an endless panorama of peaks. Looking down at our descent route on the Balfour Glacier got us pretty excited. It was a busy weekend on the Wapta with tracks everywhere and most ski-able terrain was tracked out by now but not a single human mark interrupted the acres of snow on the Balfour Glacier - we were certainly going to be the first ones down it in a while.
[TJ and I ditched our skis thanks to the shallow snow pack and rocky nature of the ridge on Lilliput.]
[Looking north off Lilliput's summit ridge towards Olive and Vulture on the left and our exit canyon at lower center. ++]
[Looking east and south from the summit. Hector at center, Daly and Niles on the right. ++]
[An amazing summit break, looking west with Niles and Daly on the left, The Presidents at center and Balfour on the right. ++]
[Our tracks from the Balfour high col with Balfour looming above. Can't believe we were up there less than 24 hours ago!]
[Gordon on the left and the twin summits of Olive at center. Thompson on the right.]
[Willingdon, Crown and Tower at left.]
[Mount Daly looks impressive from this angle - it looks impressive from most angles!]
[TJ on Lilliput]
[Our exit canyon looks interesting! It's the narrow one just right of center at bottom.]
We made short work of descending Lilliput and took turns skiing down the southwest bowl, back onto the glacier. From there it was a plod around the south end of Lilliput and then back up to the Balfour Glacier. The views of Lilliput's impressive west face and pillared ridge along with views of Mount Temple, Daly, the Goodsir towers, Niles and many other peaks surrounding the Scott Duncan hut kept us entertained while we plodded under yet another gorgeous bluebird winter sky. The last time I experienced weather like this in the winter was on the Wapta on February 11, 2006 when I skied Mount Olive and St. Nicholas and I've been waiting for a repeat ever since. Four years was worth the wait - and I was getting three whole days of it!
[Looking back at the ascent slopes of Lilliput.]
[Skiing around the south end of Lilliput under its west face. Daly at right.]
[Lilliput's impressive west face belies the easy north ridge route to the summit.]
[Daly and Niles and the Sherbrooke Lake exit lie to the west.]
[The Goodsir Towers rise over the infamous 'pyramid' that you traverse when doing Daly's scramble route.]
[Rounding the south end of Lilliput.]
Once over the col between Lilliput and the Balfour Glacier we found ourselves looking down at acres and acres of virgin, untouched snow. Ben charged down the white blanket, making nice easy turns and TJ and I followed close behind. This was the best skiing of the whole trip - by far! I tried to link Ben's turns and TJ was off in his own world, carving fresh tracks in the unblemished surface. The snow was perfect - not so deep to slow us down but just deep enough to allow easy turns. The warm sun prevented a wind crust from ruining our fun like it had on other parts of our traverse. (The Balfour Glacier is very low-angle so that's why just a few inches of soft snow was so great.)
[Looking back west from the col at Daly, Niles and Lilliput on the right. ++]
[Another view back along the col, Lilliput at right.]
[Yes! Time to ski down some untracked glacier snow. Lilliput and Balfour on the left, TJ on the right. ++]
[There's nothing like making tracks in untracked powder...]
As we got lower on the glacier, the terrain really started to tighten up. From above it looks like there is no possible way off the ice field. Steep walls of hanging ice and rock conspired to block our way but as the terrain tightened we just kept going, carving turns past the steep walls and into a tight canyon. Generally we stayed skier's left to access the canyon but the terrain pretty much took us there automatically. Once in the canyon we slowed down and admired the incredible scenery. Waterfalls of blue ice poured over the steep rock walls above us and a thin line of snow beckoned us further down the canyon, deeper into it's unknown depths. Across the canyon were towering walls of rock with frozen waterfalls still desperately clinging on to them. Soon the canyon narrowed even more and we were looking down at what is sometimes referred to as "the tunnel".
[Starting to feel small again, under the east face of Balfour]
[Looking back up the terrain at TJ who's waiting his turn to ski down through the tightening terrain.]
[Time to see if our route will go! We had no beta on this exit - thankfully it would work out. In low snow years you could end up rapping a waterfall.]
"The Tunnel" is really a narrow canyon with a waterfall that just happened to have enough snow on it to let us ski right down it. I was intimidated by the steep and narrow gully but TJ and Ben skied it like pros. It was very interesting terrain! If you ever go this way - this is definitely the crux and with warmer weather the waterfall could be pure ice. You will need to rappel this section if it is. Going up could be lots of 'fun' if it's pure ice and you don't have crampons along. You would never get up. That's probably why the guidebook mentions that this is a tougher ascent than descent route. I agree. I would not ascend this way for a few reasons; it's a long way from the highway and there's no way to tell what the crux section will look like 'til you've gone all the way back there. Turning around at the crux would mean a 25km trip that got you nowhere! Even if you bring ice gear there is significant avi terrain all around the lower route from the alpine bowl to the Balfour Glacier and traveling uphill is always much slower than going down.
[Not a good place to be in bad weather or avy conditions but very interesting and complex terrain.]
[Making our way through slot canyon - ice on all sides]
[This could be a series of waterfalls if you time your travel through here wrong...]
In order to sell Ben and I on his crazy idea, TJ took liberty with the map distance reading and confidently declared that we would 'only' have around 7km to go after bailing the Balfour Glacier. I'm here to tell you it's a lot further than that! We traveled out of a very warm and peaceful back country valley and onto Hector Lake at a fairly good pace but even then it took 2 hours of skiing to finally reach the treed shoreline on the southeast end of the lake. Ben and I figured the distance to be more like 10-11km. No big deal. :)
Skiing across sections of the lake was interesting, there was about 1 foot of snow, then 1 foot of slush / water and then some ice! I actually filled my water bottle simply by digging down through 1 foot of snow and then dipping my bottle in 6" of fresh, cold water right beside our ski tracks. Obviously the ice was thick enough to hold us but it was a bit weird to be skiing on water and snow.
[Now "all" we have to do is continue skiing down lower moraines before contouring to the right and exiting via Hector Lake.]
[A long way to go just to reach Hector Lake. At least it's a gorgeous winter day.]
[Looking back at Ben exiting the moraines below the Hector Glacier. Our descent route came in from upper left to center right.]
[Finally approaching Hector Lake. It's very warm in this valley.]
[A last glance back at Balfour as we hit Hector Lake's shore and start the long crossing to Hwy 93.]
[Finding the sun as we cross Hector Lake - Mount Hector rises over 1600 meters above us on the upper left.]
[The lake surface is getting slushy as we continue to plod across it.]
The day was starting wane as we finally made the shore of Hector on a fairly obvious path. From here it still took a while to reach the road - much longer than I expected. It was over 1km through the bush and trees, sometimes on a good trail and other times not, before we finally climbed a steep snow bank and collapsed onto highway 93 - still 27km from our truck! A small miracle occurred when 10 minutes after finally reaching the highway the last car from the ACC group we met at Balfour hut the previous night, drove by and stopped - thank goodness!! TJ did a happy dance for 5 minutes before getting in with them and going back for his truck. 20 minutes later and we bombing down highway 93 back to civilization.
[Ben and I wait along hwy 93 for TJ to get back with the vehicle.]
Dinner in Lake Louise with our two hitch hiking rescuers, Nathalie and Jaime, completed a very good weekend in the mountains.