Josef, Marc, Ben and I leave Calgary at 4am to get an early start on what’s going to be a long day. In the winter it’s 23km in to Stanley Mitchell hut with about 650m of elevation gain, and we need to give ourselves as much time as possible. Plus, starting early means hard frozen snow, making for easier travel. By 6am we’re in Laggans in Lake Louise for breakfast, and the skiing starts at 7:30, where the Takakaw Falls road takes off from the #1 highway. Starting up the road, we are excited, but crushed up the heavy packs, after a couple of hours that excitement wears off and we slowly plod up the road. The snow is in really good shape, not too hard frozen, and we’re able to make it all the way to Laughing Falls before it gets steep enough that I need to put on the climbing skins.
More hours go by, and we ski up the steeper headwall just north of the falls, and into the Little Yoho Valley. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, the feet are very sore and energy levels are dropping as we continue the slog, the trail now running through gently undulating terrain in the beautiful Little Yoho Valley. Finally, after about 9.5 hours, we round a corner and there’s the hut. Hurray!
The Stanley Mitchell hut is a beautiful log building, built in 1939, and has been the site of Alpine Club of Canada ski camps for decades. Inside is a beautiful stone fireplace, no longer used and replaced by a classic cast-iron wood stove that rapidly brings the place up to a comfortable temperature. On the walls are historical notes and photos from the old days. There’s a sense of beautiful timelessness here, and the conversations inside these walls between friends discussing the weather, swapping stories and planning tomorrows trip would have been pretty much the same 70 years ago as they are today. It’s a very peaceful and special building.
The forecast for today is for clear skies, and the morning does not disappoint, with stunning clear blue skies greeting us as we poke our heads outside the door to look about. Today’s objective is President Pass, at the top of a north-facing glacier between the summits of the Vice and President mountains.
The glacier is immediately south of the hut, and it’s a quick ski around the morraines and onto the glacier. The day is gorgeous, with deep blue skies above the heavily corniced ridges coming off the presidents. It’s about 800m up the glacier to the pass between the two Presidents, and we get there just after noon. Climbing the steep but short headwall, we look over the south side of the pass down the valley towards the town of Field and the #1 highway, all surrounded by an ocean of peaks.
There is some wind at the pass, on this otherwise calm day, so after enjoying the views we pop back down on to the north (glacier) side, take off the climbing skins and get ready to enjoy 800m of epic powder skiing back to hut… just kidding! There’s only about 100m (vertical) of soft snow before it becomes windslab and breakable crust. Spring skiing can be excellent, with long days, warm temperature, good avalanche stability and beautiful, soft corn snow. Today, we have the warm temperatures and good stability, but the snow… not so good!
It is challenging skiing down on the crusty, breakable snow, but the scenery and the blue skies make up for that. On warm days in the spring the snow becomes very soft, wet and dangerous for avalanches by early afternoon, so the skiing needs to get done in the morning, leaving the afternoons for relaxing. Down off the glacier, we cruise over and around the moraines and are back at the hut around 1:30 to enjoy a leisurely lunch and then spend the afternoon sunbathing and relaxing outside. Life is good!
Around the hut there are a few chores that need to be done. We need to fetch water from a nearby creek, and the wood for the stove needs to be chopped. The heavy snow that has piled up all winter has slid off the roof, and we decide to clear the fallen mounds away from the windows and walls, which also gives us more light inside.
Light clouds come in during the afternoon, but they disappear by evening. In the afternoon I make a camera tripod out of snow – nothing fancy, just a tower of snow with a bowl-shaped depression at the top to rest the camera in – and after dinner, when everybody else has gone to sleep I go outside to enjoy the brilliant starry sky and do some night photography. Each of these images below covers the full sky – 360×180 degrees, and requires about 12 wide-angle frames to capture. The pile-of-snow tripod works OK, but occasionally the camera moves a bit during the 15-second exposure, resulting in slight star trails that give me grief when putting this together the following week. Hmmm, need to figure out a better solution that avoids carrying a heavy tripod on trips like this.
The Lyrid meteor shower is happening now, and by luck a few flashes are captured. There is also a hint of Aurora, visible in the northern sky behind the hut. A beautiful night!
Marc has to go back to Calgary today, and is planning on skiing out by himself down the road. There is another group in the hut who are are also leaving today, but are planning on going up over a pass and down to Emerald Lake, an ambitious route that requires descending large south-west facing slopes. They get an early start, but are soon back the hut after deciding that the weather is too cloudy to be navigating big terrain like that. Marc joins them, and they all ski out down the road together, leaving Ben and Josef and I in the hut.
Josef, Ben and I head north of the hut, towards McArthur peak. The day is overcast and cool, with occasional snowfall and fog making things very white. The route up McArthur follows a broad glacier, and navigation is sometimes difficult in the white-out weather. We get to the top of the glacier, before the summit ridge, and ski down during a slight break in the weather which gives us reasonable visibility. The snow is hard and crusty, making for tough skiing.
On the way down, we decide to take a slight detour over to Isolated Col, a steep slope which is one of the two crux points on the East-West Wapta traverse. The route up to the col is steep and the snow hard enough that I take the skis off and boot-pack up, while Ben puts on his ski-crampons and is able to get up that way. The weather is now clear enough that we have reasonable views north and east to to the Wapta and Waputik Icefields and familiar peaks like Blafour, Gordon, and Rhonda. Skiing down from the col on the steep, hard snow is exciting, and after that it’s a cruise down the morraines and through the forest back to the hut.
Today’s destination is Mt. Kerr, south and west of the hut. Somehow we’ve all slept in, and we don’t get going until around 9, which is a little late… We ski west, roughly following a set of tracks put down by the other group on Saturday, until coming to a steep slope below the Kerr summit block which has had a fresh slab avalanche. The other group mentioned this to us, and we discuss the safety of the fairly steep headwall to the right of the slide. I go to the base of it and dig a snow pit, while Josef and Ben wait below. There is a slab at the surface, but it appears to have been bonded strongly to the rest of the snowpack over the last two days due to the warm and then cold weather, and we decide that it’s safe to go up.
Once on top of the headwall, we ski around and up a low-angled slope on the SW side of Kerr and then hike the last few meters to the summit through rock. The summit has an enormous cairn on it, and the views in all directions are stunning!
A few photos and a quick snack and it’s time to descend before day warms up and the snow gets dangerously soft. Despite the overcast weather, the heat of the sun is warming the snow rapidly, and there’s no time to waste.
On the way down, the snow is heavy, soft and sticky, so that we need to sit way back on the skis to keep them gliding, and giant slowballs form and rolls down the slopes next to us as we ski.
We are back at the hut before the snow turns completely to mush, and commence another afternoon of relaxing, eating and chores. We did not do much food organization for this trip, other than agree that each of us would bring and cook one meal for four. So being four guys, we ended up with four meals of pasta. Laughs all around when the question comes up so what’s for dinner tonight? Pasta again…
No messing around this morning, and we are up at 5 and are skiing by 6:30 after packing up and cleaning out the hut. Our best guess is that it will take somewhere between 6 and 12 hours to ski out, totally dependent on how soft the snow gets. Skiing down the gentle terrain in the Little Yoho Valley is very quick, as the snow is still fairly hard frozen, and dropping down through the forest to Laughing Falls also goes smoothly. We see that a bear has followed the ski track down the valley towards the falls, and so we stay together and make noise, not wanting to meet up with the guy, hungry, grumpy after a long winter sleep.
The snow is getting softer as we cruise past the campsite and start down the road, but travel is still good and quick. Putting kick wax on the skis gives us enough traction to get a decent kick-and-glide movement, even on these heavy backcountry skis, and progress is quick down the road. We have visions of a pub lunch in Banff if this excellent speed continues!
The bear tracks appear again on the road below Takakaw Falls, two sets of tracks now, very fresh, with clearly visible claw marks in front of the pads of his feet. Clearly the bruins are awake from their winter hibernation! There is also fresh avalanche debris that has come close to, but not crossed, the road, having come down sometime in time past few days. We zip quickly past these large slide paths and continue on down the road.
We are back at the car just after noon, where there’s a note from Marc on my window. The feet are much relieved to be finally free of the uncomfortable, stinky boots! The heavy pack is dumped in the car and we are off to Banff for lunch, where we watch Barcelona play Chelsea while enjoying burgers and beer, a great way to finish this mini vacation. Thanks Josef, Ben and Marc!
©2012, Darren Foltinek, darren (at) frontrange.ca