I have often avoided the Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park during the summer months due to an inordinate amount of tourist climbers seeking the more common objectives i.e. Mount Victoria. My last visit down this valley was not a highpoint of my climbing career, albeit a notorious one.
Mount Collier, Mount Biddle, Mount Owen, Narao Peak, Odaray Mountain, Park Mountain, Mount Huber and the Watch Tower are just to name the objectives viewed via one ski trip. The vast objective list for the Lake O’Hara area is immense, whether climbing or skiing.
Yoho National Park (British Columbia) is one of four connecting national parks that make up the central Canadian Rockies. The Elizabeth Parker Hut is one of the more popular winter huts of the Alpine Club of Canada’s fleet. Elizabeth Parker was largely responsible for the formation of the Alpine Club of Canada, and this hut was thusly named. The hut can be reasonably reached utilizing cross country or back country gear by skiing approximately 11kms from the trailhead located at the north entrance of the Lake O’Hara Road. We prefer to use wax on our back country ski gear for this approach. Some skin up for the slight angled ascent in, still others prefer to use cross country gear and haul their alpine gear. Some pull sleds, etc. The road is typically track set and experiences a considerable amount of day time traffic by Canadian Rocky standards. There is also a maintained commercial lodge at Lake O’ Hara which is served by random snowmobiles. Once you pass the campground on the right, turn right off of the road at the Le Relais Day Hut. Follow the undulating single track trail up to the Elizabeth Parker Hut reached after about a half of a kilometer.
The closest mountains you pass are on your left, Narao Peak (good glade skiing), the Watch Tower, Mount Collier and Mount Huber. Cathedral Mountain dominates the western skyline. There are “100 Year” avalanche slopes that come down from the east, the most prominent being located between the Watch Tower and Mount Collier.
The ski runs are endless however not published. One of the prime stashes is the northwest slope below Park Mountain. It receives little if any sun, but the angle is steep and the powder fresh. The views of Mount Owen and Odaray Mountain basking in the sun might warm you up. Start toward the rear of the cabins and head up small open slopes towards the McArthur Cutoff. Continue south for the north shoulder of Park Mountain crossing a short section of low angled avalanche terrain. Park Mountain has distinct ice hanging on its northwest face. Once you top out onto the shoulder, it is hard to miss. The northwest slope below this ice is your run and can be avalanche prone as any good steep slope is.
You can exit this run into the trees to the north and make an ascent traverse back through the treed slopes of Mount Shaffer and the pristine McArthur Valley that leads to the Elizabeth Parker Hut. Most would prefer to re-ascend this run direct for several runs, as it is wide and spacious, for an entire day of skiing and return the way you came. However, for the best glade ski descent back to the hut, traverse northeast towards McArthur Pass before starting your descent. Enjoy this route as it is part of the McArthur Valley closure during the summer months and is hiked by permit only due to bear activity.
The Trans-Canada Highway runs from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National Parks on its way to Vancouver. Pass through Lake Louise heading westbound and continue on the Trans-Canada on its way to Field, BC. As you pass the Yoho National Park welcoming sign and Mount Bosworth on your right, look for the Lake O’Hara parking lot turnoff on your left. Drive across the railroad tracks and park at the bottom of the road.
You will be required to purchase a national park pass as you enter Banff National Park coming from the east on the Trans-Canada. This pass is good for all four national parks. If you plan many visits to Canadian National Parks within one year, you should purchase an annual pass. There are no permit requirements to ski in Yoho National Park, but all camping is regulated. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the town campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website which is included in the camping section below. Yoho National Park headquarters are located in Field, BC and you will drive through the manned national park kiosks as you enter Banff National Park on the Trans-Canada.
Mountain ConditionsAs with most backcountry ski routes in the Canadian Rockies, conditions vary greatly from year to year. We skied from the Elizabeth Parker Hut in late February and found pristine powder along with moderate avalanche conditions. If you are on holiday or part of a booked trip and avalanche conditions go south, there is plenty of safe ski touring to be had in and around Lake O’ Hara.
There are actually two cabins that make up the Elizabeth Parker Hut, both with wood burning stoves. There is a sleeper cabin and the main cabin which in total sleep up to 24 in the winter (not 20 as mentioned on the ACC website). The main cabin is equipped with a propane system which provides the cooking and lighting. It even has a full-on modern stove/oven. The hut also sports the modern covered sleeping pads. There is a separate double outhouse. Water is best found just east of the cabin via a small creek that is normally so insulated with snow that it rarely freezes hard. Axes are located in the wood shed behind the outhouse and can be used to break the ice. Leave the huts full of firewood when you leave. Dispose of your gray water on the right side of the trail leading to the outhouse.
The closest camp site would be the Lake O’Hara campground which is before the lake on the right side of the road. Its cook hut is the first building you come to on the ski in. It is a bomber cook hut and makes this one of the more lush winter camping arrangements in the Canadian Rockies. In addition there is luxury accommodation at the Lake O’Hara Lodge, fully serviced meals, etc. This is not a grand lodge by Canadian Rockies standard, but rather comprised of small cabins and rooms. The price however is at the same level if not higher than the resort hotels.
You can go on line at Yoho National Park to pick a camp site and obtain your camping permit. You will also be required to obtain your backcountry permit which is separate, but can be obtained simultaneously if you plan on camping at a backcountry site. You cannot camp outside of the marked specific camping areas.
Yoho National Park has weather, wildlife reports, trail closures, etc. Outside of the parks web site, Canadian Avalanche Association is also useful, particularly for winter travel. Canadian Alpine Accident Reports are also extremely helpful.