Monday, March 10, 2008

Wapta in a day: chasing the "A.M.s"

I first went up onto the Wapta Icefields when I was 12 or so. It was a powerful experience; big terrain, cold, warm huts, good people, all the things I like. I've been back up there a half-dozen times over the years and always enjoyed it. For those who aren't familiar with the Wapta Icefields, it's a huge area of connected glaciers just north of Lake Louise. A mega-classic ski tour crosses the Wapta via four nicely spaced huts; most people spend somewhere between three and five days skiing the roughly 55km trip. This is a fairly relaxed pace, and allows time for forays up various peaks and some nice skiing without a pack. The Wapta is one of the reasons I like living in Canada; it's a wild, remote area with burly peaks and fierce weather. I've seen it go from sunny and pleasant to the proverbial "inside of a ping pong ball" in under an hour. If the weather goes sideways route-finding can involve throwing a colored string on the snow in front of you to see the terrain in addition to the usual compass/GPS work. But on a fine day there is no more scenic and stellar place to be than high on the Wapta.
A couple of years ago Josh, Darryl and I skied the whole traverse from Peyto Lake to West Louise in a day. We choose to use light NNN gear we rented from Gear Up; heavy AT or Telemark gear seemed too slow to really move on. We left the car very early in the morning in late March or so and did the traverse in just under 11 hours. We were pretty tired , but I'd been doing a lot of long days in the mountains that year and felt pretty good on the whole traverse, just idling along without pushing too much. Watching that much great snow and scenery go by was fantastic; peaks just visible in the distance are suddenly off your shoulder, and new vistas are always just over the next roll of snow or pass.
Last week I saw my friend Phil in downtown Cannmore. Phil is a certified "AM," or aerobic monster; ex-Canadian Nordic team, regular winner of psycho trail running races, that kind of guy. He also wants to do more mountain sports action, and a plan was hatched to do the Wapta in a day but try to go a little faster. Phil spends a lot of his winter on nordic skis, and I've been out about ten times this season so I was feeling pretty solid on 'em. In retrospect, ten or so trips out on the skis with my kid on my back does not a nordic season make. Another friend, Graham, also wound up on the trip. He's done the Wapta a few times, and is also an aerobic monster. He was one of Canada's top Nordic guys when younger, but opted out of the racing scene. He now works as a ski tech for the Canadian National Nordic team and skis a lot all winter long in addition just generally giving it. So I had two aerobic monsters lined up; I was sure records were going to fall, the AMs would break trail and I'd cruise along in back swigging Red Bulls and enjoying the scenery. Ignorance is bliss.
We left the car at 9:30 and dealt with the initial cruise down and across Peyto Lake. This is when I realized I was in trouble; the two Aerobic Monsters took off like scalded cats with perfect Nordic technique. I chased 'em with less than perfect technique. We were all using gear from Phil's collection of light back country gear (Phil also runs, a nordic demo and race team so he has stacks of good light gear), and the waxless system wasn't gripping too much. No worries, breathe, up the moraine, down onto the glacier, wax the waxless skis (don't argue with the Canadian Team tech about what wax is best for waxless skis, it's blue over purple over fish scales of course) past the Peyto hut, across glacier, over the col, down to Balfour hut. No real stops, going for me pretty hard the whole time while chasing the AMs... A cutting wind from the right blew enough snow to reduce visibility and cause a frosty right cheek but nothing serious. I grooved on the teamwork and blue glaciers and peaks, that's why I do this sort of thing. It was the pace that was killing me!
At Balfour hut we met up with Josh, who I had done the tour with two years earlier and was up on the Wapta training for his ski guide's exam with a bud. Josh had some water sorted for us, thanks! We stopped just long enough to refuel and jury rig some ancient skins to the skis for the climb up to Balfour col. I had a whole box of narrow skins left over from back in the day when I used to tele ski; with some tape they fit perfectly. We'd now been out at it for about five hours, and I was suffering hard on the 2,000 foot climb up to Balfour col. The wind was blowing, and some clouds were moving in. The light went flat enough that the skis glowed against the snow, which was at times about all we could see. But there were remnants of old tracks, and Graham punched it to the top of the col to get a bearing toward the Scott Duncan before the weather totally imploded. I gasped upwards and arrived there a few minutes after Phil and Graham, not so bad considering my leg flexors were screaming and I was upchucking regularly... Luckily the weather relented, and we had a good cruise down to the Scott Duncan hut. By cruise I mean double-poling, kicking, and generally not allowing anything as restful as simply sliding along down the gentle downhill grade...
From the Scot Duncan hut we had a short section of uphill (no reason to slow down any for that though), chase the AMs some more, then finally some serious downhill to Sherbrook lake. The skiing was pretty industrial on a sun-baked breakable crust, but the light gear worked surprisingly well. You can ski just fine on really light gear if you tele and don't mind falling down occasionally. Then it was a pinball-style careen down the creek and onto the obnoxiously flat lake. I sorta thought we might start just cruising as we were no longer in danger of the weather shutting us down and we were relatively close the car, but no, the AMs kicked it up a gear and I chased. Right on the nose of eight hours after leaving the car we were back at Phil's truck. I was crushed physically but stoked on the trip--even though I spent a lot of the time gasping it's still a fine memory of a huge amount of terrain in such a short period of time. I would NEVER have moved that well without Phil and Graham setting the pace out front. It was nice to see they were also at least tired--and even talking about taking a rest day. Just to put things in perspective, Phil did a race and then skied an additional 30 or so K the day before we did the Wapta, and Graham ran up Lady Mac (about 1,000M) and back down. There is "fit" and then there is Fit.

There's a rumour that the Wapta has been skated in under seven hours at night; that would be a cool way to do it. We still had full winter conditions with some light trailbreaking and generally fluffy snow, but maybe if I train a ton for the next month and the AMs are up for it...

I did learn a few things on this trip that I'm looking forward to applying in the future. First, super light gear is the way to go. When I was a kid that's what I skied on, and it always worked just fine. We passed several parties slogging with AT gear, the difference between a light NNN or equivalent setup and that is night and day for really moving. Maybe super-light AT race gear would also work, but that gear isn't double-cambered and doesn't kick as well in general. Second, I'm never using waxless skis again, they don't glide or stick as well. I've tried three different brands, the waxless idea is nice but it just isn't as good as wax and skis for the steep bits. I think we could have cut 20 minutes or more off our time with waxable skis. I'm going looking for the ultimate light backcountry setup. It's temping to use full classic race gear, but the descents would be pretty tough on that with the breakable crust. You could do it, but I'd worry about breaking the skis--or myself. Second, we did not have ideal conditions but still sent the trip in eight hours. What's possible in 24? The possibilities are cool! I can see a reincarnation of an old sport somewhere here. Right now most people are either using super light gear on the tracks, or relatively heavy AT gear. There's a slot in there for moving well over big distances in the backcountry, perhaps much as those who did the original big Rockies ski traverses used. Light is still right.

Thanks to Phil and Graham for a wicked day of it! And I'm going to train some more...

Phil put his version of the trip up here, cool to read it from another perspective.

March 11 note: I wrote the above while still in some sort of aerobic deficit; I maybe should have mentioned that the Wapta is a pretty serious place in general. I live in the Rockies and the power of the Wapta is well-known around here, but for people not from this area the serious nature of travel on the Wapta is maybe not so obvious from my post. The traverse involves a tremendous amount of travel through tricky glacial terrain (think big holes under the snow--walking on the Wapta in the summer can be frightening when those holes are visible!). We choose a day with a good forecast, and we were fully prepared to retreat quickly if the weather wasn't reasonable. We still carried enough gear (shovels, down jackets, food) that if we were benighted by bad weather or something as simple as a twisted ankle we would have been OK if not exactly comfortable. There have been several deaths and a LOT of stressful epics over the years on the Wapta, it's a full-on place that my post above didn't really do justice to. The only place in the world I've ever frostbitten anything was on the Wapta, and the only time I've ever fallen over while standing still (sober ) due to complete disorientation was in a Wapta whiteout. A GPS, map, compass and some common sense are critical items, as is the knowledge to use them.