Guide to Ski Touring in the Canadian Rockies

~ By JonnyPublished December 20, 2019


Ski Touring or Backcountry Skiing in the Canadian Rockies is a unique experience, nearly unrivaled anywhere else in the world. We enjoy a long winter ski season, nearly unmatched breadth of terrain, and some of the biggest mountains and glaciers on the planet. This scale comes at a price though. Often difficult access, remoteness, and variable snowpack and conditions make for a challenging experience for even the most elite athletes.

For those willing to persevere comes a reward that few destinations can offer. While some areas in the Rockies have become popular over the years, it is still common to enjoy a day of complete solitude once you get slightly off the beaten path.

In This Guide

Overview guide to Ski Touring in the Canadian Rockies (You are here)
Weather Trends and Overview
Ski Touring Resources

Zone Overview

The Canadian Rockies can be divided into a number of distinct zones, each with their own personality. In the south, you have the South Rockies, Waterton, and north to Kananaskis Country just west of Calgary. Travelling North you find Kootenay National park, Banff National Park, and Yoho National Park. Jasper National Park is a massive area north of the Columbia Icefields, offering endless remote terrain and limited crowds.

I will be focusing on Kananaskis, Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho. I’ve spent the most time in these zones, and there lies most of my ski touring experience. I’ll also touch on Rogers Pass, which is a personal favorite and these areas offer some of the best skiing in Canada.

Most people will break down Banff National park further into the Icefields Parkway, Lake Louise Skoki, and Sunshine Backcountry due to the conditions and terrain unique to each. Each of these 3 sub-zones has its own remote and access factors to be considered.

Canadian Rockies Backcountry ski touring overview map
Overview Map of Canadian Rockies Backcountry (Central)

Risks

The Canadian Rockies are an awe-inspiring place. Unfortunately, these epic landscapes are rife with serious dangers that must be understood and mitigated.

Over the years, there have been hundreds of deaths and thousands of near-misses and injuries across these ranges. The seriousness of these mountains cannot be underestimated, and it is also important to understand that none of these risks can be fully avoided, only managed to a certain extent. The more serious the line, the less these risks can even be managed at all and consequences can be fatal in the case of a misjudgment.

Remoteness

The majority of ski touring objectives in the Canadian Rockies are completely remote with no cell phone services whatsoever. This is not only a significant risk for ski touring but also for driving as both the Icefields Parkway and Kananaskis are subject to extreme weather conditions and it is possible to get stranded.

In addition to the lack of services, these roads themselves are often only periodically maintained, and in some cases, the driving can be more dangerous than the skiing itself. Be prepared to be stranded, and always have extra layers, a shovel, and other emergency equipment.

Most of the worthwhile ski objectives in the Canadian Rockies require some form of approach, and many approaches are significant. Very few objectives are directly off the highway, and in many cases require bushwacking at lower elevations to gain the more open alpine terrain higher up.

Further, many objectives will have you many kilometers from the road, in very remote glacial or alpine terrain. This remoteness means that a serious accident could quickly become fatal, particularly in bad weather.

It is highly recommended to bring a SPOT or InReach transmitter in case of an emergency. However, it is important to remember that carrying a SPOT does not guarantee a rescue, and all parties MUST be prepared to attempt self-rescue in the case of an emergency.

I won’t get into backcountry self-rescue here, although there are many companies in the bow valley that offer wilderness first aid and other outdoor safety courses.

Exposure & Weather

The weather in the Rockies can vary rapidly. In the deepest parts of winter, huge winter storms can blow in, bringing high winds and catastrophic snowfall, sometimes unexpectedly.

High alpine traverses and terrain are subject to high, sometimes extreme winds. Big storms will bring fully “socked in” or whiteout conditions, making navigation extremely difficult or dangerous. Many rely on GPS systems to navigate in such whiteout conditions, but good mountain sense and navigation skills with a map and compass are a must to fall back on.

Temperatures can be extreme in the Canadian Rockies. Temperatures below -15°C can become dangerous, and even a minor injury or equipment failure at -30°C can turn fatal quickly. It is recommended to avoid ski touring in such conditions and always plan to return early while daylight is still available. This will help to mitigate the risk of a small accident becoming deadly.

In the spring, daytime warming and solar effect can be extremely dangerous at times. In some cases, a weak snowpack and a day of rapid warming will send avalanche conditions into Black/Extreme territory, and it is best to avoid the backcountry all together.

Invaluable Weather Resources:

SpotWx Weather
Mountain Forecast
Environment Canada

Avalanches

Avalanches are a constant threat for ski touring in the backcountry and big mountains. Ski Touring in the Canadian Rockies is no exception. In most seasons, the Rockies will have a variable and often dangerous snowpack. Persistent weak layers are a common theme, and it is a normal occurrence to be facing deeply buried facets as late as March or April, waiting to be overloaded by a major storm, wind event, or warming event. These overloading periods will often bring catastrophic avalanche cycles, during which it is best to just hit the resort.

In addition to the often poor snowpack, storm cycles and wind loading bring a constant cycle of variable and widespread avalanche risk, dumping snow on existing weak layers and consolidating into reactive slabs. In some cases, cold temperatures will turn this snow to facets, before being buried and creating even further challenges.

All in all, the Rockies features one of the most complex and high consequence snowpacks in the world. While some seasons bring stable cycles and perfectly bomber snow, it’s more likely to be variable and dangerous.

Fortunately, a huge network of guides, forecasters and community observations are available via https://avalanche.ca where you can find the latest avalanche forecast, learn about problems, and understand the impact of incoming weather.

Objective Hazards

Beyond just avalanches and weather, the extreme geography of the Canadian Rockies means there a number of other dangers lurking. Canadian Rockies Ski Touring requires careful management of these risks at all times.

Crevasses

A conversation on risk would not be complete without talking about crevasses. Some classic glacial runs such as Mt. Hector are subject to crevasses that have claimed the lives of skiers in the past. If venturing out onto glaciers, even in good coverage, it is imperative that you are properly equipped and educated for crevasse rescue. When in doubt, rope up.

Heavy Glaciation and Crevasses on Mt. Hector during the summer – a classic winter ascent with many hidden dangers.

Rockfall

While rockfall is much less common in the winter, it is still a factor. Pay close attention to warming trends and overhead hazards, even when playing in typically solid northern aspects. It is always recommended to wear a helmet.

Cornices

Cornices are a huge risk in the Canadian Rockies. It’s hard to find lines that are not threatened by large overhead cornices in the Rockies. Some of the biggest and best lines such as the Grand Daddy Couloir, Kindergarten Couloir, and many others are subject to huge overhanging cornices that most definitely fail throughout the year.

While it is impossible to completely avoid cornices if you are couloir hunting, it is wise to start early and leave the area before daytime warming has the chance to weaken these looming monsters.

Cornices as seen on Mt. McArthur in the Yoho Backcountry, Canadian Rockies.
Typical leeward ridgetop cornices seen on Mt. Mcarthur. A typical sight in the mid-late season in the Canadian Rockies backcountry.

Sluff

Sluff is a common threat in steep terrain. While not typically significant enough to bury a skier, “sluffalanches” can knock you over in steep terrain, which can in some cases result in a fatal fall if pushed over a cliff or into another feature. Good sluff management requires a high degree of skill, experience, and the ability to manage steeper terrain. It is dangerous to attempt steeper terrain unless you have the requisite skill necessary to manage these risks.

Tree Wells

Just like at the resort, trees and tree wells are a real threat. It doesn’t take long to suffocate if you have fallen headfirst into a tree well. Once in this position, it can be impossible to get out – especially in deep snow.

Always ski with a partner (or two), and always stay within eyesight. Tree wells have claimed lives, and it is a manageable risk with the appropriate skiing skills, riding in control at all times, and maintaining close proximity and constant communication with your partners when skiing in the trees.

Preparation

Check Local Avalanche Conditions

No matter what, this must be your first stop. Use https://avalanche.ca to find out the latest avalanche conditions, and what problems to watch out for if you do choose to go. Conditions can change overnight, so be sure to do one last check before you leave in the morning in case conditions have changed.

Make a plan

With avalanche conditions in hand, the next step is a solid plan. Trip reports, topo maps, google earth, and first-hand beta from others are all great tools to help you make a solid plan to establish where you are going, how long you will be gone, and what you will need.

There are a number of resources available to help you with this. You are already here learning about the area so you are off on the right foot! Check out our ski touring resources page for other great blogs and information from other members of the community.

Also, learn about local weather patterns and utilize the resources on our weather & climate page to plan for inclement conditions. Avoid alpine areas during storms, and watch for mid-late season afternoon rapid warming

Let someone know what your plan is

Leave your plan with a trusted friend or family member. Provide your license plate and vehicle type/color, an expected return time, where you are planning to ski, and a “you should now worry” deadline along with the emergency contact information for either Parks Canada or Kananaskis Country Parks Safety.

In an emergency, the best number to call is 9-1-1



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