Surprise Pass, Lake Louise Alberta

Surprise Pass ski tour, near Lake Louise Alberta, is one of those iconic backcountry tours that deserves a revisit at least once per year when conditions are good. This classic ski tour requires a solid 3-6 hours to complete the approximately 900m of elevation gain over roughly 6km from the parking lot. The first 2-3km ascends nearly 550m to Sheol valley, where you traverse relatively flat terrain (with exceptions) to the final couloir ascent to the pass. The entire circuit is one big loop, approximately 11km long ending with a long flat slog across the lake before wading through hordes of tourists back to your car.

The route travels through significant complex avalanche terrain with many overlapping avalanche paths, so good conditions are mandatory – be sure to check always before you head out!. Learn more about Skiing in the Canadian Rockies here.

The final pay-off for your efforts is a spectacular 700m run from the pass to the west end of Lake Louise, often featuring excellent snow and wide-open turns.

There are numerous options along the way for side laps en route to surprise pass proper. A short walk up to the top of Mt. Fairview provides a few extra turns, and more ambitious parties could tick the boot pack to the top of the dogleg couloir on skier’s left while descending the main slope to the lake.

One of the main highlights of the tour is most definitely the impressive Aberdeen and Haddo glacier looming behind you while you ascend the main Surprise Pass Col. The views of Lake Louise and Mt. Victoria on the descent are further eye candy.

Access & Route Description

Access for this circuit is fairly straightforward. Park at the Lake Louise main lot near the chateau (fees in effect!) and take the well-marked Sheol/Paradise/Saddle trail that wraps around Mt Fairview to the south. At about ~0.25km, take the obvious right forks in the summer trail, following a well-used snowshoe and backcountry skiing trail with a few switchbacks, and crossing a few big avalanche slopes (space out!) before eventually popping out above treeline at the saddle between Mt. Fairview and Saddleback.

Approach track, starting at Lake Louise on the right, and crossing multiple avalanche paths on your way to saddle pass.

Continue to follow the flats through the trees, sticking on the right (north) side of the valley for roughly another ~1.25 kilometers, contouring close to the big south slopes of Mt. Fairview until it becomes obvious to take off your skins and ski a short but scrappy 100m pitch below a big crumbly rock face just past the big low angle skiable bowl of Mt. Fairview. Be careful not to drop left too early as you will end up deep on Sheol valley with a pretty rough and complex climb back to flat terrain.

From here, put your skins back on and continue up the valley, doing your best to take the wider contour on the left side closer to Mt. Haddo/Aberdeen where you can avoid gaining or losing too much elevation and also avoiding the objective hazard from the big slopes on the right.

Finally, you will arrive at the final climb, Surprise Pass itself, appearing at the last moment on your right at the very end of the valley. The climb is actually surprisingly mellow and short, and is often skiable right to the top with just skins (although ski crampons can be a huge help in the spring!).

Continued below….

Ascending the Surprise Pass Col with Aberdeen looming behind
The first drop into Sheol Valley, and three skiers below heading up towards Surprise Pass
The first drop into Sheol Valley, and three skiers below heading up towards Surprise Pass

When to go?

I have personally skied this run multiple times in many different conditions varying from blower powder under calm blue skies, to absolutely horrific sun-affected crud with high winds and low visibility. I can certainly say that I prefer the former to the latter!

This circuit can be in decent condition in early winter (December) on a good snow year, and is usually a decent choice from January through late April or even early May depending on snowpack, avalanche hazard, and snow conditions. Due to the relatively high elevation and location in the heart of the Louise group, it sees a relatively high amount of snowfall over the course of the season, and also seems to stay above freezing level for the most part.

All these factors mean that this is a very popular run, with some weekends seeing several parties making their way to the crowded top of the run, all hoping to grab a few first tracks after a storm. It is most definitely recommended to start as early as possible, both to avoid the crowds, but also to avoid any potential daytime warming in the springtime. From late March onwards, solar warming on the south facing slopes of Fairview are a pretty big risk factor that must be considered when planning your tour.

GPX Track
First turns from Surprise Pass towards Lake Louise

Most of the days i’ve spent skiing surprise pass have been generally awesome, however there have certainly been a few days that have featured some pretty horrific solar affected slopes – very icy or very choppy, specifically on the lower 1/3 of the main run.

In some cases, folks will actually ski up the valley from the Lake Louise side, and ski the lower slopes which offer some very nice low angle terrain with somewhat limited exposure compared to the entire loop.

That said, the lower half of the line can certainly be pretty tracked out – and at the end of a busy weekend, the top half can also be reminiscent of a ski hill rather than a backcountry tour.

Final kick turns to the top of Surprise Pass

For anyone looking for a quick day tour with a near-perfect run, this is an ideal choice. The tour is relatively quick as well as it is only around 11km return and 800m of elevation gain. 4-5 hours at a leisurely pace is completely reasonable, and very fit parties can easily knock this one out in 3.5 hours or less, car to car.

The run down from Surprise Pass proper is not exactly a full-size couloir, however, it does feature some beautiful walls at the top on either side and is a wide gully-like feature with plenty of room to make big turns.

Safety Disclaimer

Even though this tour is popular, it is most definitely a serious backcountry ski tour, and can be quite risky depending on conditions. The circuit features a great deal of exposed, big terrain that you will need to ski through. As with all ski touring objectives in the Canadian Rockies, caution and good conditions are a must. Be sure to visit for current avalanche forecasting. Use your experience, training & judgement to make safe decisions when attempting complex terrain such as Surprise Pass.

The first few turns from the Col on Surprise Pass
Perfect snow for miles
Perfect snow, and the excellent dog leg couloir on lookers right
Nearly to the bottom of Surprise Pass
@alpinebettie getting some amazing turns
The last few turns on Surprise Pass

One thought on “Surprise Pass, Lake Louise Alberta

  1. Pingback: Ogden Bench / Sherbrook Lake Ski Touring - Alpine Journals

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