Distance: 10.5 km
Elevation gain: 1735 m View map Download GPS track
Sunwapta Peak is the highest summit in the Rockies accessible via easy scrambling and as such has been high on my list ever since I realized a few years ago that I was capable of the 1735 m of elevation gain required to reach its summit. With an estimated trip time of 7-12 hours and reports of domestic meltdowns
on the never-ending scree slog, coupled with Sandra's announcement that today was our 10-year meeting anniversary and her propensity for picking fights on such arbitrary occasions, I can't exactly say I was looking forward to those 1735 m of ascent, however.
We used the directions in Alan Kane's scrambling guide
to find the correct parking spot along the Icefields Parkway. An official signed trail also started at this point and we initially followed it a short distance before realizing that we were supposed to head directly east into the forest. There wasn't a good trail through this short section, but very shortly we encountered an old road bed and picked up the trail on the northern bank of a drainage, nearly due east of where we parked.
The trail was obvious from this point forward, and while there was a significant amount of deadfall for the first few hundred meters it was nothing difficult to go around, over, or under. About a kilometer from the road the ascent steepened considerably as the drainage entered a deep canyon and remained steep for the rest of the trip. Knowing how much continuous elevation gain awaited me I settled into a slow and steady plod rather than my usual faster pace, hoping to avoid burning out before I reached the summit.
We reached treeline after about 700 m of elevation gain and were greeted by the foreshortened view of the remaining 1000 vertical meters of scree and rubble we'd need to slog up. A cairned trail trended to the right at this point, but as it appeared to travel over loose scree we continued straight up on solid mud and rock. It was strenuous, but the footing was firm and the travel very easy. I was quite surprised to check my GPS and realize that we'd covered 1000 vertical meters in exactly two hours!
Around 2800 m the ascent steepened somewhat and the easy travel on solid rock and mud was replaced by slightly less easy travel over larger rubble, and we contoured to the right to intersect the summit ridge at this point. We encountered fresh snow and old cornices near 3100 m, but the snow was only a few inches deep and soft enough that it was easy to walk on. While I'd been keeping track of my progress on the way up I was still very surprised to reach the summit after just 3.5 hours; apparently my slow plodding pace wasn't so slow after all!
A large cornice blocked much of the view to the east, unfortunately, but by standing on the large summit cairn I was able to get a fairly nice view. Clouds to the west also obscured many of the more distant peaks, but standing at 3315 m (10,875 ft) we still had some pretty darn spectacular views! A moderately strong and cold wind drove us down after a too-short summit stay and we retraced our steps along the ridge, sheltering behind a lone boulder for lunch. On the way back down I trended to the left (north), utilizing patches of loose scree to ease the descent before connecting back up with our ascent route at the cairned trail I'd seen on the way up. Sure enough, hundreds of vertical meters of it were on loose scree, so I'd been right to avoid following the trail on the way up.
With a few short breaks on the way back down we arrived back at the truck after just 6h40 min, a significantly shorter time than the 7-12 hours the guidebook suggested. I generally don't care for such statistics, but it was very nice to see that our effort to get in shape is actually paying off!