Observation Sub Peak West

Alison Sekera, Zosia Zgolak and I headed out to the Icefields Parkway in Alberta's Banff National Park on 15 March 2020 to ski up the west summit of Observation Sub Peak.  This ski tour is described in Marcus Baranow's guidebook, Confessions Of A Ski Bum--The Icefields Parkway--Lake Louise To Bow Summit.  Zosia and I had skied up the east summit the year before, and although Alison had already previously ascended the slightly higher west summit, she was game for another run to try out a new pair of skis.  As per the guidebook directions, we parked on the side of Highway 93 about 36 kilometres north of the traffic control gate just beyond the turnoff from Trans-Canada Highway.

According to my car's thermometer, the temperature was a chilly -29C as we geared up on the side of the highway, but we quickly warmed up as we followed old ski tracks up the drainage to the east.  One short but particularly awkward step in the drainage gave us a fair bit of trouble.  Somehow, Zosia managed to skin up on her own, but both Alison and I needed some help to get up this step.  Otherwise, the rest of the climb up the drainage went without a hitch, and we were soon making our way into the upper valley.  Where the trees begin to thin out, we started climbing northward up increasingly wind-blown slopes.  Soon after breaking out of the trees, Zosia and I donned our ski crampons, but Alison, who had neglected to bring hers, had to boot-pack the first steep slope we encountered.  At this point, we were momentarily passed by another party of three skiers, and there was another large group not far behind us.  Beyond the first steep slope, Alison was able to strap her skis on again, and further up the ridge, we passed the other party of three who had sat down for a lengthy break in the warm sunshine.  Oddly enough, we did not see the large group that was behind us for the rest of the day.
As I've stated before, they really need to build a winter parking lot here! Observation Sub Peak sits in the background as Alison and Zosia gear up on the side of the highway.
Not the best ascent route! Alison watches Zosia climbing up a short but difficult step in a drainage.
Unfortunately, the best snow is right here in the shady trees. The terrain begins to open up as Alison and Zosia enter the upper valley.  They would eventually climb up the slope to the left.
And the snow is getting more and more crusty... Alison and Zosia approach the first significantly steep slope of the ascent.
These three guys couldn't seem to make up their minds on what they wanted to do up here! Zosia and Alison climb up the ridge alongside another party of three skiers.  Observation Sub Peak's west summit is visible in the distance at right.


The northwest aspect of Cirque Peak provides a spectacular backdrop behind Zosia.


As we approached a second steep slope along the ridge, Alison decided to stop here and wait for Zosia and me.  She saw no reason to struggle up the remainder of the ridge without ski crampons especially since she had already previously tagged the summit.  The party of three once again caught up to Zosia and me as we climbed up the second steep slope, but for some reason, they seemed reluctant to overtake us.  The ridge begins to narrow above the second steep slope, and Zosia did not feel comfortable continuing without an ice axe.  The other party of three also turned around at this point, and had the weather been less than ideal, I would have too.  However, I was still feeling good and had yet to reach my comfort limit, and I reassured Zosia that I would turn around if conditions on the ridge became too dicey.
That ridge is looking more and more challenging... Alison and Zosia approach a second steep slope along the ridge.
Err on the side of rocks! While climbing the ridge, there is a fine line between avoiding rocks and straying too close to dangerous cornices.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Things are starting to get spicy here! The ridge begins to narrow at this point.  Zosia would turn around here.
Not long after leaving Zosia behind, I reached a notch beyond which the ridge was too steep and rocky to ski.  I ditched my skis here and proceeded to boot-pack the rest of the way to the summit.  One particular corniced section of ridge required some care to traverse, and I had to kick steps for about ten metres or so across a steep and crusty snow slope.  In retrospect, the exposure here was probably not too bad, but I still felt a little naked without an ice axe.  Fortunately, I made it through without a slip, and the rest of the climb to the top was straightforward.
Had the weather been less ideal, I would have turned around here too. Sonny continues to skin up the narrowing ridge.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

I wish I had brought my ice axe! After ditching his skis, Sonny boot-packs the remainder of the ridge.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Aaaayyyyyyyy!!!! Sonny stands on the summit of Observation Sub Peak West (2954 metres).
Next on my to-ski list might be Jimmy Simpson Junior... This is looking back down the southwest ridge with Bow Lake and Wapta Icefield visible in the background.

Sensory overload!

Besides Peyto Lake, the most prominent features to the west include Mount Baker (far left), Mistaya Mountain (centre), and Mount Patterson (far right).


Hey, I think that's Mount Forbes on the left horizon! Observation Peak dominates the view to the northwest.
Three peaks that I will probably never climb! Part of Isabella Lake can be seen in Dolomite Creek valley to the north.  The three most distinguished peaks on the left horizon are (L to R) Quill Peak, Mount Loudon, and Siffleur Mountain.
Definitely poor skiing there! The connecting ridge to Observation Sub Peak's east summit appears to be quite wind-blown.
It's always nice to see the 'Boine! Mount Hector stands tall behind Cirque Peak to the southeast.  Mount Assiniboine is visible about 110 kilometres away on the right horizon.
Unlike the uncomfortably cold and windy conditions I encountered on the east summit the previous year, the west summit was balmy and calm on this day.  It is a shame that I could not linger there, but I did not want to keep Alison and Zosia waiting for me any longer than necessary.  I snapped a few requisite summit photographs before promptly retreating back down the ridge.  The aforementioned exposed traverse was actually more unnerving the second time around, but again, I made it across without a slip.  Upon retrieving my skis, I kept both my skins and ski crampons on in order to safely negotiate some of the narrower sections of the ridge, and I only removed them once I reached the top of the second steep slope.

The snow on the upper mountain was a nightmarish mix of hard, unsupportive crusts interspersed with thin pockets of powder.  As such, it was exhausting to try and maintain my balance while skiing on the highly variable snow surface.  I stopped numerous times to catch my breath and even had a few spills before I finally caught up with Alison and Zosia lower down the ridge.  The ski conditions improved somewhat as we got closer to the trees in the upper valley.  While there were some brief moments where my skis appeared to glide smoothly, I just could never get comfortable enough with the snow to feel relaxed.  Ironically, the best skiing of the day was below tree line since the snow here was more consistent and not affected by wind or sun.  Avoiding the drainage we had ascended earlier in the day, we descended the forested slope further to the south, and although weaving back and forth between the trees was challenging, it was also a lot of fun.  We eventually regained our up-track near the bottom and easily cruised back to my car to conclude the trip.

Seriously, the ski conditions were way better on Okotoks Mountain last weekend!

Zosia and Alison ski back down more of less the way they came up.


I should be enjoying this more than I am! Sonny pauses to catch his breath while Alison breezes by him.  Note the crusty snow left in the wake of Alison's ski tracks.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Oddly enough, the best skiing of the day is yet to come in the trees below! Zosia cruises back out the upper valley.
The perfect weather and gorgeous views barely make up for the sucky snow conditions! Total Distance:  10.5 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  6 hours 49 minutes
Elevation Gain:  957 metres

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