It's easily accessible and the only hut-to-hut ski trip in North America that rivals the classics of Europe

winter-wapta_map_t270The Wapta is the only hut-to-hut ski trip in North America that rivals the classics of Europe. It boasts easy access, multiple ski-mountaineering objectives, big glaciers, excellent snow, lots of potential for great turns and four huts linking it all together. Plus, the 45-kilometre route saunters back and forth across the Continental Divide between Banff and Yoho national parks, in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. Eat your heart out, Europe.

The Lowdown


The 600-square-kilometre area known as the Wapta is actually made up of two icefields: the Wapta and the Waputik. The standard traverse begins with a climb from the Icefields Parkway to the Peyto Hut. The ascent is gradual, about 1,800 feet over 10 kilometres, in an impressive glaciated valley. The next day, skiing south to Bow Hut, is the easiest, highlighted by an excellent run down to the hut at the end of the day. This is a good day to tag a summit, such as Mount Rhondda South. In the event of bad weather or dangerous avalanche conditions, it's easy to escape from the Bow or Peyto areas, but that changes farther south, so the rest of the trip should only be attempted when the weather is good. The route-finding on the way to the Balfour Hut is more complex, with a must-make col on the south side of Mount Saint Nicholas and crevasses to avoid on the Vulture Glacier. The next day is even more difficult, the crux being the climb from Balfour Hut to the High Col. The terrain is intricate and glaciated with looming icefalls above. But if the conditions are right, this section is spectacular. The last day-beginning at Scott Duncan Hut and ending at the Trans-Canada Highway-is almost all downhill, with some nice pitches of skiing in the alpine and in the forested glades.

When to go

The full traverse is best left until March and April, when the days are longer, the weather is warmer and the crevasses are filled in. That said, the hardcores will ski it from November until June.

Time needed

The entire traverse has been done in a day, but most mortals will want at least five full days, especially if bagging a peak is on the agenda. Some parties will cut time by skipping Bow Hut, pushing from Peyto to Balfour in a day, or will begin the traverse at Bow. For those with time, there are infinite ways to spend more days, such as exploring the Little Yoho Valley.

Accommodation

All four huts are operated by the Alpine Club of Canada (from $25 per night; alpineclubofcanada.ca). Beds must be reserved beforehand (403-678-3200) and the huts do fill on weekends during the busy season, February to April. The huts all have shared dorms with sleeping pads on the bunk beds and a kitchen with propane stoves.

Fitness required

With the huts no more than 10 kilometres apart, daily elevation gains limited to about 2,000 feet, and relatively light packs, skiers can get away with a lower level of fitness than some other ski-touring adventures. Still, the cold weather, trail-breaking and high elevation-almost all of the trip takes place above 7,000 feet-requires decent endurance.

Experience needed

Don't even contemplate taking on the Wapta without excellent navigation and crevasse-rescue skills. The skiing is not difficult, but you should be able to ski powder and wind crust confidently on intermediate runs at the ski hill.

What to take

Telemark or alpine-touring bindings mounted on a lightweight pair of versatile skis is the ultimate set-up. Beacon, probe and shovel are musts for avalanche rescue, and a rope, harness and hardware are required for crevasse rescue. Include an ice axe and crampons if you plan to climb some peaks. Everyone should bring a three-season sleeping bag and the group should have a bivy sack and sleeping pad for emergencies. Stuff them, along with warm and windproof clothing and lightweight food, in a 50- to 65-litre pack.

Resources

The Wapta sits on the border of four topo maps, so buy Murray Toft's Touring the Wapta Icefields, which combines them all into one 1:50,000 topo map with the huts and peaks marked. Chic Scott's Summits and Icefields ($20; rmbooks.com) has thorough directions and descriptions for getting to and from each hut and the nearby peaks.

Guides

Yamnuska Mountain Adventures offers two Wapta itineraries: a four-day trip from Bow Hut to the Trans-Canada Highway and a six-day trip from Peyto Hut all the way through. Both include crevasse-rescue training and the chance to climb a mountain or two along the way. (From $329; yamnuska.com)

Getting there Ideally, your party will be able to set up a car shuttle. From Lake Louise, drive west on the Trans-Canada Highway just past the B.C. border, to the end of the traverse at West Louise Lodge. Leave a car here and drive back toward Lake Louise. Then take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) north. For Bow Hut access, drive 40 kilometres to Bow Lake. For Peyto Hut, continue another 7.5 kilometres until you get to a plowed pull-out.
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