The meltwaters from the Wapta feed four river systems: the Bow and the Mistaya on the Atlantic slope, and the Yoho/Kicking Horse and the Blaeberry on the Pacific slope. The eastern slope of the icefield is entirely within Banff National Park. With the exceptions of a few ice tongues along the northwestern and western margins of the icefield, the western slope is in Yoho National Park. Mt. Gordon (3203 m), entirely in BC, is the highest point.
The icefield is centered on the continental divide NW of Mt. Gordon. The principal outlet glaciers and the watercourses that they feed are: Bow Glacier (Bow Lake and Bow River), Peyto Glacier (Peyto Lake and Mistaya River), Ayesha Glacier (Wildcat Creek/Blaeberry River), Yoho Glacier (Yoho River/Kicking Horse River), and Vulture Glacier (Hector Lake and Bow River). Baker Glacier, Glacier des Poilus, Crowfoot Glacier, Crowfoot Mountain Glacier, and the unnamed glacier between Mt. McArthur and Isolated Peak are contiguous with the icefield or with its boundary mountains. Terrain: The Wapta Icefield is readily accessible in summer and winter. The icefield is best known as a venue for ski mountaineering. The popular traverse routes are north-south, from Peyto Lake or Bow Lake to Sherbrooke Lake (including the Waputik Icefield), and east-west, from Bow Lake to the Little Yoho Valley. The traverses have each been done in a day, but most parties take 3-5 days and enjoy some peak-bagging along the way. Most of the peaks on the icefield can be readily ascended in winter and spring, more so than in summer when crevasses and a receding accumulation zone complicate travel. It is possible to top three or four peaks in a good day. The ease of the peaks entices many people to travel unroped. Crevasse danger abounds in all seasons.
The area’s popularity has been enhanced by a series of five huts operated by the Alpine Club of Canada: Peter and Catharine Whyte Hut (often called Peyto Hut) (UTM 313237, 51:39.8-116:32.7), Bow Hut (UTM 354202, 51:38.1-116:29.4, Balfour Hut (UTM 374157, 51:51:35.5-116:27.3), Scott Duncan Hut (UTM 416084, 51:31.7-116:24.1), and Stanley Mitchell Hut (UTM 315083, 51:31.6-116:32.7). Reservations and fees are required for use of all. The sleeping area at Bow Hut is locked. You get the lock combination with your hut fee. (The combination is sometimes scratched on the hut door.) The Stanley Mitchell Hut is padlocked when not in use. The other huts are open on an honesty policy. Although the huts attract people, helicopter traffic, and large guided groups, they do allow for creature comforts during prolonged sessions of the requisite whiteout-sitting.
The hut system was expanded between 1988 and 1991, with the replacement of Bow Hut and Balfour Hut with much larger structures, and the addition of the Scott Duncan Hut. The rationale for the expansion (an increase in beds of over fifty percent) was not driven by any real need and was carried out by the ACC without consulting its general membership. Part of the secret deal between the ACC and Parks Canada was that the ACC would agree to removal of the problematic (ie. expensive and seldom used) Lloyd McKay Hut near the Freshfield Icefield in return for a beefed-up Balfour Hut. This met with stalwart but ultimately ineffective vocal resistance from a few, now ex-, ACC members.
By 1994, a version of helicopter-assisted mountaineering had arrived in Banff National Park, as guided groups took advantage of helicopter flights booked by the ACC to service the huts, using them to fly-in supplies for their clients. This all happened quietly despite assurances in 1989 from Parks Canada that such never would. And as for the needed capacity? Well, if you build it, they will come. And they did. In 1998, the ACC requested approval from Parks Canada for an expansion to the Scott Duncan Hut to meet the burgeoning demand. Chiefly due to safety and environmental concerns, the request was denied. History: Jean Habel made the first exploration of the Yoho Valley in 1897, reaching an outlier of Mt. Balfour and ascending onto the Yoho Glacier. The second recorded foray onto the Wapta Icefield was by the party that included J.N. Collie in 1897. Fresh from the first ascents of Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria, they were in quest of Mt. Balfour. Instead they found themselves climbing Mt. Gordon. Collie, G.P. Baker and guide, Peter Sarbach, also climbed Mt. Jimmy Simpson that year. In August 1901, James Outram, Edward Whymper, and guides, rollicked over the peaks of the western part of the icefield and in the Little Yoho Valley. Further exploration was sporadic, with a few bursts of activity in the 1930s, including adventures by Thorington and Kain, and the first ski mountaineering efforts. The hut system originated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Logging roads in BC opened up access to the western and northwestern aspects of the area in the 1970s. Mistaya Lodge was constructed in the upper reaches of Wildcat Creek in 1988. Amiskwi Lodge began operation just a ski pole’s toss north of Amiskwi Pass in the mid-1990s.