Bow Hut Backcountry Ski

Numerous Times

Bow Hut is the quintessential backcountry ski. Everyone has done it at least once, and usually more. I’ve done it so many times I’ve lost count. Why do I go so often? It’s a beautiful, easy ski tour that takes you to the base of the Wapta Ice Field. The hut is huge and heated (a rarity on the Wapta), and it’s a great jumping off point for many mountains in the area.

Even if you don’t stay at the hut, it’s a fantastic ski tour. The first time I went was on my first wedding anniversary in early December. We skied up with our light touring gear, stopped at the hut for a bit, and then skied back down. We were spending the night at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge where we got married. The inn keeper was a friend, and as night began to deepen, he put on the big outdoor light to guide us back across the lake.

A note to hikers/snowshoers. This is a SKI route. Please do not posthole the ski trail. You are causing major damage to the trail, and putting skiers in danger. Please be self-sufficient and break your own snowshoe/hiker trail.

Avalanche Danger

While many people take the trip to Bow Hut lightly, there are several avalanche risks. The trail is in a canyon with an overhead environment, which is especially dangerous during the spring melt. The AST 1 Manual uses an avalanche in this canyon as part of their training.

While the avalanche was small, the canyon is a terrain trap. Risk of drowning in the small creek below is also a hazard.

There are also hanging glaciers above the trail at the base of the final headwall. We skied the debris field from a collapsed glacier in 2017. It was staggering in its breath and length, filling the entire basin.

We skied the debris from this avalanche a few days after it came down. It was stunningly terrifying. Photo Credit: Mountain Conditions Report.

Finally, there have been skier triggered avalanches on the headwall itself. When I examined some of these reports, it seems the skiers were off course a bit, but still, the headwall can be avalanche prone.

Gear

Full backcountry ski gear, plus all avalanche equipment like transceiver, probe and shovel. Quality training in AST 1 as a minimum. If you are going onto the glacier, you need a crevasse rescue course, rope, harness, and all associated gear.

Overview

From the parking lot, head towards Bow Lake. After crossing the lake, enter the trees. Head up this slope, and across to the top of the moraine. Ski down, and head towards the canyon (which is not the summer route). Near the end of the canyon, climb the obvious switchback to gain the ridge on climbers left. Continue through the trees, gaining elevation as you go. At the tree line, cross the open expanse. Keep your elevation while curving around to the right, towards the base of the headwall below the Bow hut. Climb the headwall, and ski the final distance to Bow hut.

Trail Head

Park at the Bow Lake parking lot, which is the turnoff at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This is a fairly large parking lot with several outhouse buildings. Do not park on the highway pull out.

The trail head starts from the south end of the parking lot. This area gets enough use that the trail towards the lake should be in. If not, then enjoy your early season ski as you break trail towards to the lake.

The start of the Bow Hut trail at the far end of the parking lot. If in doubt, head towards Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.

Crossing Bow Lake can take forever, especially if there is a sharp wind. The middle of the lake is usually wind-scoured, with no discernable trail or track. However, it is good fun to see the tourists on the lake, usually bundled up as if they were on an arctic expedition.

Crossing Bow Lake. Behind the last skier is the domed roof of Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Use this as a heading when crossing back across the lake if there are no discernable tracks. As you can see, the lake is wind-scoured. We are using wax to give us just enough grip to keep going forward.

Main Trail

At the end of the lake, things may be a little mushy, depending on the time of year. Be prepared to skirt around open pots of water, and keep an eye out for your skis sinking in slushy ice. Or, this area may be completely frozen over.

The difference between snowshoes and skis on the mushy ice. The skiers hit the ice, but stayed afloat and dry.

Head over to the trees at the base of the initial climb. This is where I usually skin up. I am a big proponent of ski wax on the flats. There is no sense burning out my hip flexors on the flat Bow Lake.

This section of the trail is a lovely, curved path that gently starts the elevation gain. On the way out, it is a super fast luge track, so keep your eyes open for downhill skiers if you are coming in later in the day.

We skied out of the trees and into an open area. This area used to be thick trees, but a massive avalanche did some major logging. It is growing back now, but be aware.

Behind me is the top of the ‘luge run’ in the trees. My father-in-law Franz Dopf has skied here since the early 1950s, and it was always treed. Franz and my husband Mike skied up over twenty years ago and were shocked to find the entire area wiped out from an avalanche.

Skirt around to the right, and continue across until you reach the top of the moraine. This is a short drop, but it’s steep and on a major sidehill. Skiing it with skins is an exercise in side grip. For the amount of trouble this little hill has given me, I unfortunately do not have any photos of it.

At the base of the moraine is the entrance to the canyon. This area is absolutely gorgeous, and I always tell my friends from out of town to take lots of photos.

The entrance to the canyon. It starts out wide, and then gets narrower the deeper you go.

It is a gradual ascent as we head up the creek bed, avoiding the gaping holes and rushing water beneath. The trail will cross back and forth across the water, depending on what looks good. Sometimes the trail can be very narrow, or on a steep side hill. If you don’t like what you see, go ahead and forge a new trail.

As the canyon narrows, keep some distance between skiers to avoid being buried in a terrain trap. Also be wary of the holes leading to open water. There are also lots of dips with narrow, ski width bridges.

You do not ski to the very end of the canyon. Instead take the switchback ramp that leads to the ridge on the left hand (east) side.

Looking back as my daughter Mackenzie climbs out of the canyon and onto the ridge. Kayla and Alisen are below.

Once on the ridge, it’s another trek through the trees on a narrow path. This route changes slightly every year, depending on who first put in the trail.

The treed area above the canyon. On the return trip, stay higher than this trail to avoid uphill skiers, and to give yourself a few extra turns.

This is a spot where post-holers are extremely dangerous. It is too narrow for skiers to herringbone, and big holes in the snow pack means we cannot get purchase. If you are a winter hiker/snowshoer, then cut your own trail either above or below the ski trail. Skiers break trail every single time we go out. Snowshoers need to take responsibility for breaking their own trail.

At the end of the treed section, the whole panorama of the basin opens up ahead. It is a glorious sight! On the left is the route to Crowfoot Mountain. Straight ahead is the impressive headwall of Vulture Peak, and directly across on the right is Bow Hut, sitting on its shelf.

This view is looking back towards the treed section, as seen from the top of the headwall. The treed area is on the far left. Follow the spaced out skiers (look like small dots) to trace the route.

Without losing elevation or being accidentally drawn into the drainage basin, curve around to the right, following the base of Vulture Peak. Do not ski too close to the wall. This is the danger zone as the hanging glacier will calve off, setting off a massive avalanche that fills this entire basin. Move quickly through this area, and stay well spaced out.

View of the route after we made a big sweeping right hand turn. The cliff above has hanging glaciers that calve off. We are almost below the headwall ascent area, which is past that big rock outcrop.

At the base of the headwall, avoid going straight up the wide middle gully. This is the descent route. Instead, do a big switchback to the left, and then one big traverse to the right that will pop you out on the far right ridge. You should be able to look down on the skiers below.

This shows the initial shallow left switchback, followed by the long traversing switchback to the right.
The skiers on the ridge mark the end of the long traversing right hand switchback. The next photo shows the same skiers, but from the top.
Please note the ski tracks below (foreground) go past the rock outcrop. Do NOT ascend the initial slope shown here. It avalanches frequently, and one party recently spent the night outside due to someone breaking a leg in the avalanche.
This is the view from the top of the long traversing switchback. See how close to the edge you end up. This is ideal.

From this spot, avoid the temptation to beeline it for the hut. There are some big swales here. Instead, do a big switchback to the left, and another large switchback right.

Looking back at the skin track heading way climbers left, before turning back towards the hut on the right. The reason for the ‘detour’ is the large swales between the hut and the ridge. This route avoids the swales, which can be exceedingly deep and steep with wind loading. I’ve hit a few of these in whiteouts, and I much prefer the detour route.

Ideally, you will end up at the wood pile and the grey water dumping station, just below the hut.

This is right outside the Bow Hut. The wood pile is straight ahead. Fantastic view of the route to Crowfoot Mountain.
This is the backside of the Bow Hut. The area closest is the sleeping bunks. The extension off the back is the double outhouse (which is now fully enclosed and connected to the rest of the hut). Photo Credit Alpine Club of Canada.

Distance to Bow Hut is about 6 km, with an elevation gain of 459 m. We ski it in about 3 to 4 hours, depending on how big our packs are. If we are doing one of the glacier traverses, we will be carrying full gear plus food for several days which naturally slows us down a bit.

Our buddy Callum’s pack is twice the size of Mike’s. For the same trip… Depending on how well you want to eat, your pack can be light or heavy.

Bow Hut Etiquette

The Alpine Club of Canada has an entire section on hut etiquette on your receipt when you book. However, as the Bow Hut is usually absolutely packed, and has a high percentage of new hut users, I thought I would outline some basic rules.

  • Leave the hut nicer than when you found it. No one is cleaning up after you – only YOU! Do your part to keep this place clean. Wash the counters and sinks. Wash the table tops. Wash the stoves. Sweep and wash the floor. It won’t kill you to help out, and it will fill a few hours of idle time.
  • Wash your dishes properly. People get upset tummies and food poising every year at huts because the person before them didn’t wash properly. Wash with HOT water and dish soap. Then rinse the dishes in a water solution with a few drops of chlorine bleach. Leave the dishes to air dry on the rack. I have seen people use a bowl and spoon, rinse it in cold water, and then put it on the rack. Disgusting!!!
  • Refill what you use. If the water is running low, go outside and fill up the snow buckets. Do NOT stack the snow buckets because the floor is filthy. That filth then gets inside of the stacked buckets, which is the drinking water. If the wood is getting low, then chop up some more and restock the wood pile. Kindling is also appreciated.
  • Change the outhouse barrel when it is full. Do not wait for someone else to do this job. Just grab some dish gloves, and head on out.
How many people does it take the change an outhouse barrel? Five. Two to do the work. One to look busy, one to take photos and the fifth person to scream EEEWWW!
  • In the winter, keep the stove going in the main lodge as it’s the only way to melt snow. Do not melt snow on the propane stoves as that is in limited supply.
  • Heating the sleeping area is a touchy subject. Even in winter, do not overload the stove and smoke out everyone trying to sleep. If you are cold at night, grab a bunk close to the stove, or sleep on an upper bunk. If you are a hot sleeper, then get as far away from the stove as possible.
  • When hanging up skins to dry, please fold them sticky side in. Otherwise, the entire room turns into a giant fly trap.
You KNOW you’ve been to the Bow Hut a lot when you start showing up in other people’s photos! This picture belongs to http://sverdina.com/wapta1.asp from their trip in 2002. All my Bow Hut photos show an empty hut, but I wanted to find a shot of the busy hut. The man sitting down on the left with white hair is my father-in-law Franz Dopf. My husband Mike is standing with the red pants, and his brother Tony is reaching up.
Anyhoo! Note the SKINS all folded with the sticky side in.
  • Big groups need to be respectful of others using the hut. One time a large group from the Vancouver Island ACC Section set up crevasse rescue in the main hut. At night, they hogged the fire. When a group straggled in after dark and shivering from cold, they refused to budge from in front of the fire. Another time, a big group used every single stove burner in the morning. We are all trying to get ready at the same time, so be respectful.
  • Try not to be a know-it-all jerk. I have met so many great people at the Bow Hut, and have garnered excellent beta as a result. Unfortunately, I have also met the opposite. One person accused another of not knowing how to use a compass because they didn’t want to attempt the route over to the Guy Hut in a whiteout. Turns out, that group had been to the Guy hut several times, and just wanted to actually ‘see’ it in good conditions.
  • Finally, the hut is for paying guests only. No hut poaching – ever. It is very cheap to stay here, so just pay up and do your part to help out the Alpine Club. Maintaining these huts takes money and lots of volunteer hours. Don’t be a drain on the system.

    This includes bailing on the Wapta Traverse. No one cares if you have four more days booked at other huts that you cannot get to because of weather. The Bow Hut is not your hunker down alternative. If you cannot move to the next hut, then you have to pack up and descend to the parking lot.

Bow Hut Return

To ski down from the Bow Hut, take the wide middle gully that you avoided on the way up.

As you near the base of this gully, take a look at your route across the flat expanse. The idea is to swoosh down from the gully with enough speed to ensure you get a good way across this flat expanse. No one wants to skin up for this short section. Be aware of the fairly good “whoop-di-do” divot at the base of the gully, which has caused more than one garage sale.

As you enter the trees, stay as high as possible. This allows you to stay out of the way of the uphill skiers on the narrow track. It also means getting in a few turns on the descent. You will cross a few open slopes ideal for a few turns.

Ski past the uphill switchback track that gains the ridge. Instead, go a little way further until you find the wide slope down to the canyon, marked by a rocky wall blocking your way forward. This is the down track to the canyon.

Again, eyeball your route in the canyon, because the dream is to keep enough speed to propel yourself a good distance down the canyon. A little bit of grip wax underfoot goes a long way to keeping you moving in the right direction.

The big decision point is at the end of the canyon and the base of the moraine – to skin up or walk up? I will tell you now from experience, the fastest way is to skin up. Why? Once you reach the top of the moraine, there is a slightly uphill traverse that requires skins. One time we did a race between skinners and walkers. The walkers got the early lead, but the skinners soon overtook the walkers on the traverse. Trust me. Skin up.

After the short traverse, whip off those skins and enjoy a short but fun trip down the 20+ year old avalanche path. This leads into the luge track (watch for those uphill skiers), which spits you out at the base of Bow Lake. Your pure euphoria after a fun ski out should be enough to propel you back across the frozen lake in record time.

If you found this post useful, please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, follow me on Instagram, or join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers.

Alisen

Totals – Tracked on Strava

Date: Too many to count
Group:  Two to six, depending trip
Distance:  ~6 km
Elevation:  459 m (1,514β€²)
Time:  3-4 hours

On my most recent trip, I didn’t start my tracker until I was already across Bow Lake, so add in an extra 500 or 600 m.
This is one of the most gentlest approaches. Even the headwall below the hut isn’t that steep if you take a good line.
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Posted in Adventures, Skiing
23 comments on “Bow Hut Backcountry Ski
  1. Amazing photos! It sounds like very hard. You must be super fit!

  2. What a great post! Plenty of info and really nice photos.
    Also, nice to share the Bow Hut Etiquette. Well done.

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you very much! The etiquette really is the hard part. However, it’s all about education and helping people learn. I was once a newbie up there too and had to learn the ropes. Unfortunately, I had to learn to not stack the buckets more than once πŸ™‚

  3. This is funny – we got married at Num-Ti-Jah too!! Except it was June and the manager was our witness, maybe it was your friend! We love Bow too and have been so many times, I have experienced every one of your good and bad examples too. I guess we won’t see you there this year since you have to book the whole hut, but maybe next year. Great post with great info.

    • alisendopf says:

      Oh! That’s fantastic. We were married when Lee was running the Lodge. He and his wife were there for some time, but they have since moved on.

      I was telling someone else that I’ve never been to the Bow hut in the summer. I hear it’s beautiful πŸ™‚

      I was thinking of booking the Bow this winter for a few days and just hitting some peaks in the area, but I think it would be so lonely up at the hut without all the hustle and bustle. 😦

  4. K. Joseph says:

    Enjoyed your blog. Interesting to hear the Num-Ti-Jah lodge being metioned. Even though I do not live in your part of the world, I have at least been to the place! We stayed there one night during a Jasper to Banff bike ride in 2017. We walked to the falls one morning before starting the ride for the day.

    • alisendopf says:

      That’s a great ride – good for you. Do you do a lot of cycling? I love that old Lodge. I hear the falls are beautiful. It may surprise you to know that I’ve never been to this place in the summer!

      • K. Joseph says:

        The falls are great, and worth the walk from the lodge. I do not ride that much – perhaps once a week when the weather is OK. I am an amateur. Took up biking once again only in 2016.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed cross-country skiing, but cross-country skiing in the mountains takes it to the next level! This looks like such a fun (and challenging!) adventure. I’ve always wanted to do something like this where you ski / snowshoe to a cabin to spend the night.

    • alisendopf says:

      It truly is a grand adventure. There are many cabins in Alberta that you can cross-country ski to without any avalanche danger. Once is Elk Pass or Elk Hut. It’s in BC but the track starts in Alberta so it’s fun to cross the continental divide. Another is Cameron Lake in Waterton National Park. For the luxury winter traveler, I highly recommend Skoki Lodge. It is Canada’s first backcountry ski lodge and pre-dates the Lake Louise ski resort. It is expensive, but the food is amazing and the location is outstanding. I’ve been five times!!! There are many more winter huts and lodges to explore – I could go on forever!

  6. You all are so braveπŸ’•
    It made me scared already by watching pictures πŸ˜†
    But I miss the beautiful snow mountain β„οΈβ˜ƒοΈ

  7. asthaisha says:

    Amazing post 😍

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