Deep within the heart of the Canadian Rockies lies the Wapta Icefield. This snowy wilderness is home to not one, but two of the country’s most popular hut-to-hut skiing tours—the Wapta and Bow-Yoho—just yearning for your turns.
An infinite white blanket drapes the moraine as I squint through the snow glare discerning the outline of a looming glacier. The GPS tells me the Peyto hut is only a mile off but between my fogged goggles and the sprawling glacial field it seems incalculable.
We close in on the first night’s hut. My breath quickens and aside from the scratching of our skis on the snow there’s nothing but deadening stillness.
Thirty-three years have passed since I first stepped foot onto the Wapta Icefield and each year I feel the same excitement to return. It was while hut-to-hut skiing in the Canadian Rockies, between the vast sky and alpine powder seas, that my love for the mountains was born.
Pros and Cons of Skiing in the Canadian Rockies
Two Adventures, One Idyllic Setting
The best skiing in the Canadian Rockies is preserved in National and provincial parks and only accessible through a network of alpine huts. It figures that you have to earn your turns to get to the legendary pow straddling Alberta and British Columbia, but once you do you’ll find some of the most prized ski mountaineering and touring objectives in Canada.
Smack dab between Banff and Yoho National Park, the Wapta Icefield is cradled among peaks that split the landscape—and weather systems—like a serrated knife. Cut off from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, moisture-laden clouds stack up and eventually billow over the tops of the tallest peaks of the Waputiks to the drier and colder areas of the icefield. Here the snowpack stays solid until the beginning of summer, and it’s why we like to say that we have eight months of winter and four months of bad skiing.
Ah, the skiing! For decades, the Wapta Traverse has been considered a classic tour thanks to its excellent hut system and perfect terrain. Until recently, the Bow-Yoho Traverse lived in the shadow of its neighbor but thanks to the addition of the Richard and Louise Guy Hut, by far the most deluxe in the area, many are now calling this the new Wapta classic. With signature sweeping, low-angle glaciers and snowfields and easy access to notable backcountry peaks, these tours, my friends, are what I’m here to talk about.
A Brief History of Ski Touring, and Huts, in the Canadian Rockies
Mountaineers first explored the Wapta Icefield on skis in 1932, but it didn’t attract widespread attention for decades. When the Canadian Alpine Journal wrote about ski guide Hans Gmoser’s attempt to ski the Continental Divide from Kicking Horse Pass to Jasper in 1960, they let the cat out of the bag.
While growing interest in the region led to wide-scale exploration, many early expeditions were cut short by foul weather. This inspired ski guides to build the first huts on the Wapta Icefield, extending opportunities for penetrating the glaciated spine of the Rocky Mountain Divide (and adding a degree of comfort too).
Since 1989, the Alpine Club of Canada took over maintenance to keep up with increasing demand. Today, they operate the largest backcountry ski lodge network in Canada, including the hut system on the Wapta Icefield, each offering a cooking space, sleeping bunks, and generally much more accoutrement.
Know How to Ski but Never Toured? You’ve Come To the Right Place
In 1995, I founded Sawback Alpine Adventures as a way to bring these unique locales to skiers with less experience. And that’s how we designed our guided skiing tours of the Wapta and Bow-Yoho Traverses—for ascending backcountry skiers who may not have done a prior multi-day trip.
This is no walk in the park, though. You need to be an intermediate-level skier comfortable wearing a heavy pack and skiing 5-7 hours a day. To prepare, we recommend running or hiking with a heavy pack because the fitter you are the better your time in the mountains will be.
Still, a trip like this eases you into bigger objectives as the days aren’t too physically demanding, we handle the logistics and manage many of the backcountry risks, and you can rest up in the comfort of the cozy huts each evening.
Has the pow got you piqued? Let’s talk about each hut-to-hut ski tour.
The Wapta Traverse: A Legendary Skiing Tour in the Canadian Rockies
Ski touring the Wapta Traverse covers 28 miles and gains 6,000 feet in elevation over the course of six days, with stops at four different alpine huts. This tour is more concentrated on traversing than ski mountaineering (if you want that, look to the Bow-Yoho), however, if extra time and good weather allow, we often head out for some skimo in the afternoons before nightfall.
Here’s a day-by-day itinerary of the Wapta Traverse.
Day One: Meet & Greet
The trek begins with a gear check and logistics review over dinner in Field, B.C. at the Truffle Pigs Lodge, one of the finest restaurants in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a good time to ask questions about the impending adventure. Plan to spend the night in Field and embark for Bow Lake Trailhead the next morning.
Day Two: Beneath the Trees
From Bow Lake Trailhead, we travel through a forest of evergreens dusted with powdered sugar snow. An hour’s journey brings us to the edge of Peyto Lake with a sweeping vista of the day’s objective.
Ascending the glacier from Peyto Lake requires 2,000 feet in elevation gain but rewards you with magnificent views. The encompassing peaks are alluring in a way that moves you to climb them, but for time’s sake we must push on.
Our destination is the famous Peyto Hut, considered by many (myself included) to be the most remarkably stationed of all the huts on the Wapta Traverse. If you’re feeling tired after the day’s trek, you’ll be grateful for the porters who help us haul our loads up to the hut. A late afternoon arrival leaves the evening free to rest up for the big day ahead.
Day Three: Adventure Awaits
On the second morning, we continue on to the Bow Hut. It’s a short distance, so you can move at a leisurely pace. Weather permitting, there’s time to climb one (or two, if you’re feeling ambitious) of the spectacular surrounding peaks.
We navigate along the Wapta Glacier, enjoying uninhibited sights of Mt. Rhondda and Mt. Thompson. The end-of-day descent to the Bow Hut gets the adrenaline pumping, and if there’s time and good weather, we can drop off our packs and take an extra lap or two up the surrounding peaks before dinner.
Located below the distinctive hanging ice cliffs on Mt. St. Nicholas, the Bow Hut is the Alpine Club of Canada’s hallmark gem. It’s the largest and most accessible hut, capable of sleeping up to 30 people. With a designated dining area, bathrooms, and heat, spending the night in the Bow Hut feels luxurious after a long day out on the glacier.
Day Four: Room With a View
Our next destination is the Balfour Hut, originally a fiberglass igloo erected on Balfour Pass. Since 1965, it’s been rebuilt and relocated many times. Today’s hut was constructed in 1989 at the toe of the Vulture Glacier just below Balfour Peak.
The navigational challenge of the route is maneuvering a field of crevasses on the Vulture Glacier and ascending the col on the south side of Mount Saint Nicholas. Conditions permitting, you can attempt to summit Mt. Gordon—from the top of which you can see the remainder of the Wapta Traverse and on a clear day, all the way to the Bugaboos. Depending on skill and energy level, we can ski from high up on the glacier down to the Balfour Hut.
Day Five: The Crux
To reach the Scott Duncan Hut, we climb steep, crevassed terrain up to the 10,000 ft Balfour High Col. It’s the crux of the route—especially tough when you’re wearing a heavy pack—but views of the looming icefalls make for a mesmerizing experience.
Once we arrive, there are ample opportunities for ski mountaineering on the neighboring peaks. If it’s a clear night, take a moment to step outside and gaze up at the infinite star-studded sky while you soak in the wonder of this vast wilderness.
Day Six: Alpine Start
Plan on rising before the sun so you can enjoy the best ski conditions on your last day in the backcountry. The pre-dawn cold takes your breath away, but it’s not long before the sun’s rays spill over the distant peaks and start warming the frozen world.
We make our way from the Scott Duncan Hut into the Niles Saddle, listening to the swishes of our skins on the glacier. From the top of the pass, it’s all downhill. Relish your last turns through pristine alpine terrain and forested glades down to Sherbrooke Lake, the end of the Wapta Traverse.
The Bow-Yoho Traverse: A New Wapta Classic
In comparison to the Wapta Traverse, skiing the Bow-Yoho involves more mountaineering. Over seven days we cover 32 miles of backcountry touring, three hut stays, and 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Because of the longer duration, it’s a more flexible tour with plenty of opportunity for peak bagging.
This is what you can expect on the Bow-Yoho Traverse.
Day One: From Glades to Glaciers
Today’s objective is a ski traverse from the Bow Lake Trailhead to the Bow Hut. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Bow-Yoho and Wapta Traverse share this part of the journey.
The route leads us through woods and a narrow canyon veiled with intricate ice fall formations. As we advance towards the glacier, you can revel in some of the most striking scenery the Canadian Rockies have to offer. Exquisite terrain backdropped by an ephemeral icy landscape sets the mood for the rest of our tour.
Upon reaching the Bow Hut, you can unpack your gear and settle in—you’ll be spending two nights here. If you’re feeling spry, set out with a light load to get in a few laps before the dinner bell.
Day Two: Fast and Light
In the morning, take your time sipping fresh coffee and soaking in the panoramic views. Since we’re not traveling, the whole day is free for pursuing ski mountaineering objectives. There are many different nearby peaks to climb and ski. Some of my favorites include Mt. Haybow, Mt. Rhondda, and Mt. Jimmy Simposon.
Leave your heavy gear at the hut so you can move fast and light. Once you’ve had your fill of bagging peaks, return to the Bow Hut for a warm meal and rest in preparation for tomorrow’s traverse.
Day Three: Aerial Traversing
We make our way to the Richard and Louise Guy Hut, situated on a high ridge between the Yoho and Des Poilus glaciers. The Guy Hut is the most modern hut in the Canadian Rockies, a state-of-the-art mountain refuge run on solar, wind and propane power. The journey requires an aerial traverse over the Gordon-Rhondda pass and the Yoho Glacier’s rugged icefall, passing below Mt. Collie.
Once we arrive at the Guy Hut, it’s time to head out for the day’s main objective: Mont de Poilus. This is a fun ski mountaineering ascent that requires bootpacking and carrying your skis up to the summit. It’s too technical to ski off the summit but a great opportunity to brush up on your climbing skills. If you reach the top on a clear day, you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of the Canadian Rockies.
Day Four: Climb a Classic
With no touring on the schedule, the day ahead is free. After a big breakfast in the Guy Hut, you’re welcome to take a rest day to enjoy the quiet remoteness (there’s no cell service here) or pack up your gear and hit the slopes.
The geographical position of the Guy Hut allows for various ski mountaineering ascents. If you’re feeling up to it, you can climb and ski Mt. St. Nicolas, a reigning gem of the Canadian Rockies. Yoho Peak is another option that offers a 200-300 meter (650-985 feet) ski descent and the opportunity to climb and ski various surrounding peaks.
Day Five: A Legendary Hut
On day five, we make our way to the Stanley Mitchell Hut—a storied stop. Mountain guide Hans Gmoser used this as a base for ski camps in the 1960s before he went on to open the world’s first heli-ski lodge.
The approach is one of my favorites on the Bow-Yoho Traverse. You ski down from delicate high-elevation glaciers to the thick forest below treeline, getting the best of both worlds within a matter of hours. We arrive around mid-afternoon to a picturesque cabin tucked away amidst evergreens and undulating snow drifts. Of all the huts on the tour, this one feels the most homey; in part because of the big fireplace you can relax beside.
Day Six: Best in Town
On the last full day of the tour, you have the opportunity to pursue a number of adventures. If you’re looking to bag a few more peaks, you can choose from the Presidents, Mount MacArthur, Isolated Peak or Mt. Kerr—they’re all awe-inspiring climbs paired with memorable descents. Alternatively, you can make some fun loop trips.
If the weather is calling for snow, there are tree skiing options in the Little Yoho Valley right near the hut. Some say it is the best tree skiing in all of the Canadian Rockies. In my opinion, flying through evergreens in knee deep powder is one of the best ways to spend the day—it really imbues the essence of the Wapta region.
After our last full day in the mountains, we spend the night at the Stanley Mitchell Hut exchanging stories of the day’s adventures beside a fire.
Day Seven: The Cherry on Top
To begin our ten mile exit, we wake early and set out on skis into the predawn darkness. Hanging glacier formations reflect a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun climbs the horizon. We stop to take photos as we pass, letting the day’s first light thaw our cold fingers.
When we reach the edge of Yoho pass, depending on visibility and avalanche conditions, we can descend the Emerald Lake Trail to the Little Yoho Parking lot. Also a popular hiking trail, this ski run passes a stunning alpine lake at the base of the glacier—a fitting way to end this epic journey.
Things to Know About Hut Skiing in the Canadian Rockies
Best time to go
February through April is the general season, though I suggest late March to late April as the best time because the snowpack is settled and you can still count on dry powder runs.
How to get there
The tours start in Field, B.C. If you are flying, the nearest international airport is Calgary (YYC), and from there, the easiest way to get to Field is by renting a car. There are buses and private shuttles from Calgary to Lake Louise, however a car rental ends up being not much more money (and a whole lot more convenient) based on my experience. If you do go by other means, you still have to figure out how to go from Field to the trailheads at the start and finish of the trip.
Equipment to bring
This is a technical trip and you will need to bring the appropriate gear.
For backcountry ski touring and mountaineering:
- Alpine touring skis, preferably with tech-style AT bindings, 150-185cm in length and 100 mm+ at waist for powder skiing. Telemark, frame-style AT bindings or splitboards are acceptable as well (and these can be rented)
- Ski crampons (mandatory, can be provided by guide)
- Touring boots and poles with powder baskets (can be rented)
- Climbing skins
- Climbing harness
- Prusik cord and 120 cm sewn sling
- Avalanche safety equipment (can be rented):
- Digital, 3-antenna avalanche transceiver – a modern digital unit
- Lightweight snow shovel
- Collapsible avalanche probe
This is on top of personal items that I recommend: Backpack (at least 65 L), helmet, sunglasses and ski goggles, appropriate clothing and layers, sleeping bag (three-season, rated between -7 and -9°C), water bottle with 1L capacity, thermos for a warm beverage, among other items you want to have on a multi-day backcountry excursion.