Today I woke up from the Wapta Coma. Although I'm still a little fuzzy around the edges, I actually feel like I can process things and get back to the daily grind. I look back at our little adventure and smile - I love chasing records...
A couple of days ago, Will Gadd (aka Captain Adventure), Graham MaClean (NST Tech) and I teamed up to ski the 'classic' Wapta Traverse. We didn't really have a goal in mind, but we knew we wanted to ski it fast - if anything, I just wanted to use this trip as a bit of a recon mission to check out the terrain and see if we can really set a record later on this spring - I'm such a rookie sometimes...
I have never skied the Wapta before, and would rely on Will and Graham's experience to lead me through the mountain landscape - both of them have a ton of 'mountain' days under their belts, and there are no better partners I would have chosen to do this little 'adventure' with.
I've heard epic stories and tales of the Wapta ever since I moved to Canmore. The Wapta Icefields is a huge area of interconnected glaciers just North of Lake Louise. Four huts pepper the glaciers, creating a variety of ski tours via different access points that offer anything from a 1-day outing, to multi-day links. The 'classic' Wapta route is approx. 55km long and goes from Peyto Lake to West Louise, bypassing all four huts (Peyto, Bow, Balfour and Scott-Duncan).
In order to cruise along at a good pace, I suggested we use some of the light Salomon touring gear I had used for a ski tour around the Bowron Lakes a few years back. I tend to have a lot of gear stashed in my basement, so after a bit of digging, I found 3 complete sets to outfit the crew: Salomon X88 skis, XAdventure 7 boots and XADV Raid backcountry bindings. I filled a light pack with my avi gear, skins, a warm jacket, some Buffs, a 2-litre bladder filled with sports drink, some honeystinger bars, gels, a couple bananas and of course...some beef jerky!
Off we go! Graham and Will head off on Peyto Lake
Graham 'post-holing' his way up the first ridge - Peyto in the background
Skins VS Hiking...Skins won this battle!
We quickly realized that the waxless base on the skis weren't the best for wind blown snow so as soon as the terrain turned upwards on the Bow Glacier, we stopped for a quick wax job. I'm glad Graham had suggested to bring some wax so I cracked out the Swix purple applied it directly over the waxless base. We covered it with what else...Extra Blue - I love this wax! From that point on, we were cruising. As we climbed up the glacier, the wind increased considerably, gusting very hard at times, forcing us to bundle up with added layers. We put our heads down and pushed on...
Wax of the day: Swix Purple covered with Swix Extra Blue!
What you can't see is the wind tearing at our skin!
The pace continued on until Balfour Hut where we stopped in for a quick pitstop to top up the reserves. From that point on, the terrain turned up and up again to the top of Balfour Col, so on went the skins and off we went...again. After 4.5hrs of skiing, I was starting to feel my legs quiver. The fact that I had raced the day before in the Rocky Mountain Ski Challenge, a 30km skate event at the Canmore Nordic Centre, didn't help much either...Graham had his aches and pains to deal with too, he had run up/down Lady Mac the day before...(If you don't run much in the winter, you know what running downhill will do to your legs when they are not used to the motion...). Regardless, we pushed on with the col in sight.
About halfway up, Graham looked up nervously at a nasty cloud pattern developping...he didn't like what he was seeing, and went on to describe his last experience at this exact spot where the weather had changed in less than an hour to white-out conditions. Their party had been forced to 'ping' their way along the cliff bands for 3hrs to the Scott Duncan Hut. He looked at me, then looked back at Will who was plugging away a hundred metres back urging him on silently...and made the decision to push on to the top in order to get bearing in case the weather turned. As we crested the 3,000m col, the view in front of us was bliss. The threatening clouds seemed to hold to our right behind the nearest mountain, and a clear path opened up down to the SD Hut. We pulled on the parkas, and after another quick bite, took off down the slope.
Balfour Col @ 3,000m - Windy and cold! It's all downhill from here!
For the first time all day, we had some decent snow under us and were able to crank a few turns (and leave a few craters) before hitting the flats leading up to the hut. The snow was awesome here and we were actually able to classic ski very well with the gear setup. That's the beauty of going with with light gear - If a record is going to be set on the Wapta, then you have to have the speed on the flats and rollies. There just aren't enough big downhills to warrant heavy AT gear. Then again, you don't want to be caught out there with nordic 'racing' gear that can easily break under a bad fall...a tough choice.
The last part of the trip was mostly downhill, as we made our way off the glacier, and down into the valley. The snow was brutal - a thick wind crust prevented us from doing any type of turns so I pretty much straightlined it until an inevitable crash stopped me...and repeat all the way down. It was the best I could do with the noodle legs I had under me. As we entered the forest, the luge run got better, but it was hold-on-to-your-balls-and-squeeze downhill...at best. I laughed at Will's first comment as we stopped for a breather: "That was VIOLENT, just %#$&!#@ violent!
Happy skier - almost done...
As I made the last turn into the parking lot, my legs screamed at me...I was fully worked and humbled. I looked at the clock: 8hrs...on the button! Not a bad day.
Can it be done faster - Yes, absolutely. Our gear was good but we could speed it up by going with wax right off the bat. A waxable ski might be better but the conditions would have to be good for hard wax and/or klister. The waxless base is a good 'backup' to have under your wax, and actually worked quite well. The skins are necessary on the steep bits - and make for more efficient climbing.
I've heard rumours of someone doing the traverse in skate gear in approx 6.5hrs! After having skied it now, I can believe it...Timing, ideal conditions, good fitness and a bit of luck will all come into play if the record is to be set...I guess there's only one way to find out.