February 21, 2015
Wapta Icefield, AB/BC
After waiting patiently for a long while weather and condition finally lined up nicely towards the end of February in this past weekend, and Ben, Vern and I agreed to take full advantage of it. The original plan was to ascend Youngs Peak by Rogers Pass but unfortunately Asulkan Hut was fully booked so we switched plan to Peyto Hut on the Wapta Icefield, with the hope of bagging Mt. Baker and Peyto Peak. Speaking our first objective, Mt. Baker is a very prominent peak dominating the skyline on the northern edge of the Wapta and I’ve been wishing to climb it for 2 years already. It’s a major winter mountaineering objective out there – not very difficult but does require a bomber snowpack.
The plan was skiing to Peyto Hut on Saturday morning and making an attempt on Mt. Baker in the afternoon. While Vern has already climbed it he would wait and hang around for Ben and I tagging its summit. Ben and I car-camped by the Petro Canada on Highway 1 and woke up as early as we could (4:30 am) and met Vern shortly after. The highway condition was much better than expected despite the snowfall on Friday and we made to the parking lot and started our trip just after it’s bright enough. The weather was quite miserable at this point (it’s supposed to improve by noon) and the bush skiing down to Peyto Lake was just as ugly as what I remembered from the Trapper Peak trip last year, but at least we didn’t get lost this time. In about half an hour we were all down to the frozen lake, skinning across as fast as we could trying to stay warm in the cold wind and the blowing snow.
After a long slog across we arrived at the opposite end of this lake. Unfortunately we had to remove our skis to cross the creek two times and balance on some slippery rocks trying not to wet our feet. Last year in May we could just ski up and over the climber’s right side but this time we didn’t have enough snow coverage. Upon reaching the infamous moraine we ascended the sparsely treed slope on climber’s right, picked a nice rising traverse line and managed to avoid ascending exposed and steep slope. The moraine sucked as usual as we had to carry our skis and grind hundreds of meters upwards, either trying to kick-step into the frozen solid moraine or post-holing on some soft and deep snow. The deteriorating weather, the cold wind and the blowing snow did not help our mood neither. And the worst part, after cresting the apex we had to lose another 100 m to the toe of Peyto Glacier. Oh well…
At least the visibility wasn’t bad on the glacier. Actually, the weather appeared to be much better on the Wapta than looking back towards the Highway. All of the peaks on the Icefield appeared to be free of clouds and that was strange. We had no complain on that though as it worked just perfectly for us. Since we were doing good on time Ben and I decided to drop our extra gears to the Hut first before continuing towards Mt. Baker. To get to Peyto Hut we had to pick a wide contouring line to avoid the crevasses on the steep roll immediately below the hut. The skiing on the icefield was easy but the elevation gain from the icefield to the hut was surprisingly major.
The hut was nice and cozy compared to the wind we just experienced outside. Ben and I got lazy and spent about 1.5 hours resting and cooking lunch in the hut (and waiting for the weather to improve for just a little bit). Eventually we figured it’s the time to get out again. We ditched most of the mountaineering gears (including a ton load of rock climbing gears which we brought for Peyto’s true summit) as Baker was supposed to be an ‘easy’ snow climb. So with each of us arming with an “red axe” and steel crampons we set off crossing the Wapta Icefield towards the distant Baker/Tilly col. Vern was originally planning to ski to the high col with us but felt lazy as well after staying in the warm hut for more than 1 hour. He decided to just follow us from behind and do some nice and easy turns on the glacier. After dropping down to the icefield proper we stayed fairly to the climber’s left side and managed to avoid any further elevation loss. Terrain got steeper towards the col but not as bad as it looked from afar.
The snow climb on Mt. Baker’s NE Ridge was just as expected – not very difficult but not for the faint of heart neither. Comparing to the ones I did last year (Collie, Trapper, Ayesha) this one was fairly tame but still, there was steep snow and cornices to negotiate and a mistake on this ridge would not be optional. The lower half of the climb felt more like a face climb than ridge. It started easily but terrain got steeper soon. With cornices on climber’s left that we couldn’t tell the boundary we were forced to ascend some steep snow on the N. Face side. The snowpack was indeed bomber though as we had to often front-point or kick very hard step into the snow face.
Upon reaching the top of this triangular snow face we were on the transition zone to the NE Ridge proper. Here was the unexpected crux on this route – a massive cornice on a narrow ridge that we couldn’t tell the boundary. Due to the wet and sticky snow we got in this winter the cornices on these snowy summits were absolutely massive. The room for negotiating this section was very limited as the terrain on climber’s right was snow covered down-sloping rocks. After this bit of excitement we still had to overcome many cornices but the foot placement was fairly straightforward from here on. There was another huge cornice near the summit that we had to traverse onto the N. Face side though. The summit view was great but due to the coldness and the lateness in the day we didn’t linger any longer. The air temperature must have dropped to below -20 degrees and the wind was strong. My camera would fail within half a minute if I forgot to warm it up inside my jacket.
The descent still required extra caution on the foot placements but since we already had a track to follow it went by reasonably fast. In short time we were back to the face and some easy plunging-step brought us back to Baker/Tilly col. It’s apparent none of us was in the mood to post-hole up “Tilly Peak” nor did we have enough daylight time left. The run from Baker Col back to Peyto Hut was described by Vern as one of the best runs on the Wapta Icefield so we were all excited about that. The snow condition was just perfect for cruising down the hills and we made back to the hut minutes after the last bit of evening alpenglow.
Needless to say we were both very satisfied by a successful climb of Mt. Baker in February as it’s one of the major objectives in our radar for this winter. Two other skiers arrived at the hut via the Bow Hut approach and after chatting briefly we found that it took them the same amount of time to get here as us (4.5 hours)… That’s something interesting to mention.. The night was peaceful and apparently the wind had died down so we were all looking forward to a successful climb on Peyto Peak the following day.