February 22, 2015
Wapta Icefield, AB
Peyto Peak is one of the few peaks on the Wapta Icefield (together with Mt. Habel and Mt. Olive) that most skiers would only go for the false summit due to the technical difficulty in reaching the true one. The route described in Chic Scott’s Summits and Icefields also brings one to the false summit only. To get there one only needs to pay attention to avalanche hazard on the steep and thin south/west facing slopes but getting to the true summit is entirely a different game. If dry it’s easy belayed climb up to mid-5th class but in winter conditions on ski boots it’s a tough mixed climbing. Vern, Ben and I did it on the second day of our Peyto Hut ski trip after a successful climb on Mt. Baker the previous day. We brought a 60-meter climbing rope, about 10 cams up to size 3, a full set of nuts, a couple pitons, ice tools and steel crampons just for the Peyto’s summit nipple. Psyched! We were hoping for the best.
The weather had mostly cleared up and temperature had risen significantly by the time we woke up at 6:40 am in the morning. The breakfast break took us quite a while and eventually we started our day at just before alpenglow time. The first thing to do was getting to Peyto Peak’s base while losing more than 100 m height (again, via a wide contouring line to avoid crevasses directly beneath Peyto Hut). Ben and I even took off our skins to speed up this process. We ditched our Hut gears at a rocky platform and the ascent began from here.
The terrain on Peyto’s SW slopes is the classic ‘steep and thin’ zone prone to triggering especially given the complex snowpack in this year. However, based on our field observations throughout this trip we were very confident on the condition so decided to ski up the slope for as high as we could. The snowpack was indeed bomber as we never saw nor heard any sign of instability but towards the top as the terrain got steeper than 35 degrees (difficult to even do a kick-turn) we still bailed to the rock on climber’s right. Here we ditched our skis on a sheltered area behind a large boulder. The scrambling was not difficult, but very tedious. At sections we had to deal with very slippery rocks or deep post-holing. It took us much longer than appeared to reach the base of the summit nipple.
Our reference for the true summit climb was from a thread in the Old RMB Forum. It contains a trip report from Kevin Barton as well as a few lines documenting TJ and Heather’s ascent. We were loosely following Kevin’s route since we did the approach/ascent from the South Ridge directly. Around the SE/E corner we came to a key ledge system and the exposure increased significantly. After examining carefully we decided to rack up, ditch our packs and rope up. Ben was the best rock climber among us so he volunteered to lead this 20-meter insane mixed climbing pitch. Long story short within the next 1.5 hours Ben did an absolutely fantastic job overcoming the near-vertical, mid-5th class terrain with loose rock mixed with some 60+ degrees unconsolidated snow and ice, and made to the upper belay station. With a top rope belay Vern and I climbed up relatively efficiently but the task wasn’t over yet. From the upper belay station (a big boulder) to the true summit we still had to “scramble” some low 5th class rock on loose and very exposed terrain. Tough mixed climbing, my 350th summit turned out to be one of the most difficult I’ve done to date.
The summit was nice and warm but we all knew it was getting late and we still had a long way to descend. After snapping some necessary summit pictures we immediately focused on the descent. We all managed to down-climb to the upper belay/rappel station (that itself was quite a challenging job). I was the first volunteering to rappel. For our approach/ascent route (via the S. Ridge and around the SE Corner), the most logistic way would be rapping directly down the SE Corner. The position was very awkward and the rappel was vertical and almost overhanging but I somehow managed to get down relatively quickly. Vern didn’t quite like the corner rappel so recoiled the rope and went down the N. Face side. By doing so there was significant rope drag back-and-forth around the boulders so he informed Ben to rappel the same way as I did.
By the time we all got down it was already 2:40 pm which was much later than expected. Oh well.. Post-holing down to where we ditched skis was fast, but not fun. The skiing down Peyto’s SW slopes was a different story though. We couldn’t ask for a better skiing condition and the run back down to the Icefield and then down Peyto Glacier was definitely one of the best skiing I’ve ever done in the mountains. It was simply a blast!
The rest of the return back to the parking lot wasn’t nearly as fun though. By this time of the day we were all very beat and from now on the terrain became awkward for travelling on skis. One word to describe – Miserable!! Up and over the moraine sucked the most energy out of me and my legs totally gave up on the descent down to the river flats… Thankfully I managed to take a short break at the creek and re-hydrated. The rest of the lake slog and bush slog was still painful but at least went by fast. Vern was way ahead but Ben and I still managed to beat the time and got back to the car just before it’s too dark to see.
The drive back home was long and exhausting but at least we had 3 people sharing the drive. Overall it was a very successful weekend in the mountains again. By now I’ve done most of the peaks on the Wapta Icefield with the exception of Des Poilus group and Lilliput, and Peyto Peak is certainly the most difficult among those. Without Ben’s lead I wouldn’t even got any close..