This is a 5300’+/- ascent day. As one of the most accessible of the coveted 11,000’+ mountains in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Hector is a popular objective. What does give it a unique twist is to ascend it during the winter months via skis. Chic Scott, (worked with Clint Eastwood on the Eiger Sanction as a climbing guide-stunt man) local guide book author, calls Mount Hector “one of the great ski ascents in the Rockies.” Mount Hector can be seen from a number of vantage points, Dolomite Peaks, Cirque Peak, etc., but probably the best teaser is the view from the common Wapta Ski Traverse on the Vulture Glacier. This climb is rated an Alpine II in the summer and Alpine III in the winter. The main difference is simply weather and hidden terrain (crevasses).
Park at a small west side turnout (left side heading north) on the Columbia Icefield Parkway approximately 19kms north of the Lake Louise turnoff. This is Hector Creek, but it is not marked with a sign. They do keep this small parking area plowed in the winter. Proceed up the creek on the east side of the road. This area is also used sparingly by powder enthusiasts, so it is likely that you will find the trail breaking fairly easy. Either follow the creek bed on the right by means of a small trail through the trees or follow the creek bed itself. Soon you will emerge from the trees to a short, but fat, waterfall that is approximately WI 3 grade ice. Turn left and ascend the steep snow slope immediately above this waterfall (to its left) making switchbacks until you are right below the rock walls. This is one of the avalanche prone areas for the day, so pay attention to those concerns. On the rock wall above you will observe a very unique and challenging waterfall climb that is not in a published guidebook and is rarely in shape to climb, but obvious just the same.
Traverse right to one of the biggest cruxes in the winter, getting past ice that forms the waterfall below that you turned left at. If there is plenty of snow on the ice, it is not much of a problem. If there is no snow on the ice, you might have to dig out your crampons. I have skied (with skins of course) across it twice with little concern. I have read trip reports where that is not always the case. If there is plenty of snow, some choose to boot it up the ice directly above the waterfall. In any case you are looking to traverse this section left to right and ascend above the headwall at the right corner. Once you reach the large plateau above, the snow is deeper and the going gets easier without the use of switchbacks until you hit a short steeper windblown section with some exposed rocks. Continue through this area and take a sharp right up a steep wind crusted slope (2nd avalanche concern) until you again top out onto a plateau and now have Little Hector in clear view to the right.
Ski to the right and pass between Little Hector on your right and a small heap of debris on your left, your 3rd and possibly most serious avalanche concern. It takes a short amount of time to squeeze through this area and it is best not to mill around. There will be several large hanging snow sections above on Little Hector. As you progress through this narrow area, you will see a huge rock that creates its own cavity in the snow that makes for a good place to apply your harnesses and rope up. This spot represents almost 3000’ of elevation into the journey.
Contour around Little Hector for a bit until you can finally see Hector itself (although both of my visits to this area yielded little in terms of visibility). Then make a beeline for the right part of the summit block. There are several large crevasses that show themselves even in winter. We bypassed the first one on the left and a second one on the right crossing a significant snow bridge between them. For the most part crevasses were hidden. We stayed right but you can ascend the mountain glacier left as well. There is a significant bench below a steep snow slope leading to the summit block mass. This is a good place to rest and study the final ascent.
During our experience, visibility became a serious issue. Looking back at it now that I have a feel for the terrain we could not see, I advise gaining the ridge immediately to your left from the large bench area below the summit block. The terrain in front of you is steep and demanding to ascend with skis. The ridge to the left and/or the ground beyond it (with no visibility one imagines a cliff over there) is better angled for a ski ascent. You are looking to hook into the final summit block by making a sharp right from the top of this ridge and then a sharp left zig zagging on the very last slope. Most would find ski crampons helpful on these sections although I ascended without them. Your goal is to reach a col just 200’ below the actual summit. Beware of a large cornice at this location. There is a significant rock feature to your left. Remove your skis. Depending on conditions, you may want to apply your crampons. We short roped on ascent to the summit without crampons on and descended un-roped with our crampons affixed. No matter what the conditions, you are best served carrying an alpine ax for this section in the winter. The deeper snow is climber’s left with windblown ice climber’s right. Scramble your way to a small summit.
After you descend back to your skis, the best ski descent is basically straight down from the col and if anything stay skiers right close to the massive protruding rock wall hemming the Hector Glacier in to the east. We chose to ski down un-roped as most would do on this glacier, but keep in mind skiing on glaciers is inherently dangerous. This can be one of the more enjoyable glacier ski runs in the Canadian Rockies giving you the opportunity to perfect your turns in the light powdery stuff. After several thousand feet of descent you will want to start veering back left towards that rock where I had proposed you rope up. You will pole it for a ways back to the wind swept slope you ascended. There you will get some more good turns in, but be wary of conditions. The snow gets softer further down. You can basically ski all the way back to the car with little if any stopping except for the traverse back across the waterfall.