OverviewThe Wapta Icefields are comprised of a series of glaciers that run along the continental divide from Peyto Lake to the north and the Trans-Canada Highway to the south. The climbing is diverse ranging from full on ice and alpine climbs to ski summits. A chain of four Alpine Club of Canada huts makes the Wapta Ski Traverse the most popular ski mountaineering objective in Canada. The “Wapta Icefields” is typically used to describe an area of several hundred square kilometers that include both the Wapta and Waputik Icefields. Wapta means “running water” in Cree and refers to the second tallest waterfall in western Canada, Takakkaw Falls (1247’), which drains the Daly Glacier at the southern end of the Waputik Icefield.
These Icefields are split down the middle by the continental divide and therefore lie in both Yoho and Banff National Parks, two of four connecting national parks in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
The first recorded exploration onto the Wapta Icefields was in 1932 by McCoubrey, the Neave brothers and Secord. It was not until Hans Gmoser attempted a traverse from Kicking Horse Pass to Jasper in 1960 that skiing on the glaciers became a popular concept among the local mountaineering community. The first hut was built in 1965, but the first huts had to be replaced by stronger huts in short order as wandering wolverines would break in and destroy them.
Getting ThereThere are three main access routes to the Wapta Icefields: via the Bow Glacier from Bow Lake at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge parking lot, via the Peyto Glacier at the Bow Pass parking area or via the Niles Glacier from the West Louise Lodge parking lot off of the TransCanada.
The Trans-Canada Highway runs from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National Parks on its way to Vancouver. As you pass through Lake Louise heading westbound, you can continue on the Trans-Canada entering British Columbia for the Niles Glacier access or exit right and proceed on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) towards Bow Lake or Bow Pass.
Red TapeYou 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 climb in Banff or Yoho National Parks, but all camping is regulated. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the conventional campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website which is included in the camping section below. The huts are managed by the Alpine Club of Canada versus the Parks. The Alpine Club of Canada headquarters is located in Canmore, AB, the Banff National Park headquarters is located in Banff, AB and Yoho National Park headquarters is located in Field, BC. You will drive through the manned national park kiosks as you enter Banff National Park on the Trans-Canada.
This is active grizzly country, therefore, you should always have bear spray on your person during the non-hibernation periods. I advise checking with Parks Canada for any area and/or trail closures.
When To ClimbThe Wapta Icefields are accessed twelve months out of the year. Ski purists obviously prefer the winter months, despite the extreme temperatures and wind that inevitably exist on the glaciers. Different hazards are more prevalent at different times of the years. Crevasse and avalanche rescue techniques and equipment must be at your disposal at all times once you ascend any of the glaciers.
CampingMost anyone I know uses the hut system if they are attacking objectives on the Wapta Icefields. As mentioned previously, any one of the four huts can be reserved through the Alpine Club of Canada. In 2005 the rates were $24 per night. The huts come equipped with stoves, fuel, sleeping pads, dishes and an outhouse. Only one of the four huts is heated in the cooking area by a wood stove, the Bow Hut. You will need a rated sleeping bag regardless. Nights can be bitterly cold even in the huts.
You can snow camp on the Wapta Icefields, but will be required to secure your camping permit from Yoho National Park or Banff National Park. 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.