Bow Summit off Highway 93 north is the ultimate backcountry ski area for beginners and training. It is also ideal for those higher avalanche danger days. Bow Summit is the highest point (2,070 m) on the Icefields Highway between Jasper and Lake Louise. The ski terrain is the lower slopes of Mount Jimmy Simpson.
Bow Summit is popular for several reasons:
- Easy access – has a parking lot with a washroom.
- Lots of tree skiing because the area was logged way back when.
- Short approach. Depending on where you want to ski, it’s a quick ascent to your first tree runs.
- Enough terrain to spread out.
- Mellow tree skiing. There is a bit of a cliffy area, but that’s easily avoidable.
- Up tracks and haul back lines.
Full backcountry ski set up, including helmet. Full avalanche gear, including transceiver, shovel and probe. A Garmin InReach for emergencies.
For decades, this has been a ski only area. Recently, snowshoers have been coming here. I found a dedicated snowshoe trail this winter, which I commend. Skiers put a LOT of time and effort into creating and maintaining a skin track. All users are welcome here, but please, do not ruin a perfectly good ski track by walking on it.
If you want to be self-sufficient in the backcountry, then make your own trail. That’s the beauty of winter travel. If a skier doesn’t like the skin track, they make a new one. If you don’t see a dedicated snowshoe trail, then make a new one.
You might hear that Bow Summit is a very safe place to backcountry ski, and it is, if you stay in the trees and away from the bowls and open slopes above the bench. There have been many avalanches and deaths at Bow Summit.
Parks Canada has an Avalanche Terrain Map for Bow Summit. Please read, download the map, and be aware of your location at all times. Most of the avalanche hazard is from overhead terrain.
Visit Avalanche Canada for the latest avalanche reports.
The other major danger is getting stuck in a tree well. This area was logged, and trees get knocked out by spring avalanches, so there are lots of small trees buried just under the snow pack. This creates pockets of air that you can fall into. Be mindful of where you stop when transitioning.
There are also big trees wells under mature trees. One time when coming back on the haul back track, I found a snowboarder standing fully upright in a tree well. His skiing buddies hadn’t noticed his absence, so he was alone, and stuck. Mike took off his skis, and climbed down into the tree well to unclip the boarder. Together they climbed out.
From the parking lot, head straight up towards the summit. You will soon pop out onto the summer road. For a leisurely stroll, turn right and continue up the road. For a more direct route, cross the road and start switch-backing your way up the side of the slope. Continue up until you reach the bench that separates the treed area from the open mountain face above. From here, you can farm the treed slopes, or continue along the bench line, heading south, until you find a good line. Ski down, and repeat. At the end of the day, ski down to the valley below and pick up the haul back trail that parallels the highway to ski back to the parking lot. Or, ski back up to the bench, ski back towards the parking lot, and then head straight down to your vehicle.
Parking and Trail Head
The Bow Summit area is blessed with it’s own parking lot. This is mainly a summer access point for people to view Peyto Lake from above, but us backcountry skiers will take it. Most ski locations off Highway 93/95 have no parking lots or facilities. This one was recently renovated with new outhouses. Very nice!
From the parking lot, we skied west through the trees (in the olden days, this was past the old outhouses). We soon popped out onto the summer access road to the Peyto Lake viewpoint. For a leisurely ascent, continue on the road as it winds its way up the slope. For a more direct route, we crossed the road, entered the forest, and begin switch-backing our way up the slope.
Many guides come here for AST 1 training. This means there are some quality skin tracks put in by professionals that go up at the absolutely perfect angle. There are also lots of tracks put in by gung-ho skiers who sacrifice comfort for uphill ascension. The best part about backcountry skiing is, if you don’t like a trail, then make your own!
As mentioned above, mixed trail users should make their own tracks and do not walk on skin tracks. A posthole means the skier can’t get a purchase on the snow while going uphill. This is dangerous and causes accidents.
We continued up through the trees until we hit the bench at tree line. Everything below tree line is ideal for beginner / intermediate skiers.
The tree line bench continues for several kilometres, heading south, paralleling the highway. There are many ski runs down from this bench, all along the slope. Overhead dangers include a good sized bowl. This looks benign and inviting, but it is prone to avalanches. The further south you go, the more avalanche chutes there are.
Be aware there is a deep gully that cuts the Bow Summit ski area in half. If you are on the far (south) side of it, you either have to skin back up, or continue to the valley where it ends, to head back to the parking lot.
Bow Summit Return
Depending on where we end our ski day determines how we get back to the parking lot. If we are fairly far south, we ski down to the valley next to the highway. There is usually a pretty good haul back track to the parking lot. If you are not lucky enough to find it, then this can be a long slow trudge to end your day.
If we are near the north end, then we sometimes skin up to the tree line bench, ski back to the area above the parking lot, and then have one quick run directly back to our car.
Bow Summit is the guide’s choice for teaching the Avalanche Safety Training (AST) 1 course. You will find lots of pits being dug on the slopes heading up above the parking lot. If you want to dig your own pit, please remember to fill it in when done and pack down the area with your skis.
A great place to practice transceiver searches is in the meadows south of the parking lot. As you ski back along the haul back line, there are many open areas. We often throw our transceiver as far as we can (so no ski tracks), and then the other people have to go find it. Depending on how fluffy the snow is, a good toss will also bury the transceiver a few feet deep.
Bow Summit is a family favourite, and we usually come here once a year. It’s ideal to shake off the cobwebs from a long summer, or to take the kids or other people new to backcountry skiing.
Date: Multiple Days
Group: Two to Four (Alisen, Mike and daughters)
Distance: depends on distance and number of laps.
Elevation: depends on distance and number of laps.
Time: depends on distance and number of laps.