The icefield is centered just south of Lilliput Mountain. The principal outlet glaciers and the watercourses that they feed are: Balfour Glacier (Balfour Creek, Hector Lake, and Bow River); Diableret Glacier (Waves Creek and Yoho River); Trolltinder Glacier (Yoho River); Fairy Glacier (Yoho River); Daly Glacier (Takakkaw Falls and Yoho River); Niles Glacier (Niles Creek, Sherbrooke Creek, Sherbrooke Lake, and Kicking Horse River); Bath Glacier (Bath Creek and Bow River); and Waputik Glacier (Bath Creek and Bow River). Terrain: The Waputik Icefield offers some fine day outings: Mt. Daly and Mt. Niles. But the big prize is Mt. Balfour, which is usually at least a three-day effort. The icefield is best known as a leg of a popular ski traverse which includes the adjoining Wapta Icefield, beginning at either Bow Lake or Peyto Lake. The most difficult ascent is that of Trolltinder Mountain. 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. Crevasse danger abounds in all seasons. Ski and plod in roped parties.
The Waputik Icefield is decidedly less travelled than the Wapta Icefield. Most of the travel that does take place is associated with the two huts operated by the Alpine Club of Canada: Balfour Hut (UTM 374157, 51:51:35.5-116:27.3), and Scott Duncan Hut (UTM 416084, 51:31.7-116:24.1). These huts are open on an honesty policy, with the expectation that you book and pay for your use in advance. 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 on the Wapta and Waputik icefields 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: The quest for Mt. Balfour was pivotal in shifting early mountaineering interest north from Lake Louise. J.N. Collie was captivated by a view of the peak from the summit of Mt. Victoria, during its first ascent in August 1897. Most of Collie’s companions on the earlier first ascent of Mt. Lefroy, including Charles Fay of the Appalachian Mountain Club, then joined him on a trip north in the Bow Valley. They camped at Bow Lake and ascended Bow Glacier onto the Wapta Icefield, setting out for a peak that they thought was Mt. Balfour. It turned out to be what is now known as Mt. Gordon. The summit view showed them a possible route to Mt. Balfour. Three from that party, including Collie, made the first ascent of Mt. Jimmy Simpson on that outing.
In 1898, there were two more attempts to reach Mt. Balfour. Charles Fay was back, this time approaching from Sherbrooke Lake. His party of three made the first steps on the Waputik Icefield, but were defeated on Mt. Balfour by inexperience, deteriorating weather, and the sheer distance of the attempt. As consolation prizes, they made the first ascents of Mt. Niles and of the unnamed peak southeast of Mt. Daly.
C.L. Noyes, C.S. Thompson, and G.M. Weed of the Appalachian Mountain Club made the first ascent of Mt. Balfour on August 18, 1898. Their approach route was unlikely – along the Pipestone Valley to the Siffleur Valley; then across Dolomite Pass to the Bow Valley near Bow Lake; then south to camp at Hector Lake. The horse guide on that trip, Ralph Edwards, reported the following: At last one of the party put the question flatly to me: “Have you any idea where we are?” I replied: ‘I know perfectly well where we are; we are between the valley of the Pipestone and the Bow. What I do not know is where we are going to come out.’ No wonder! The party made the first ascent by fording the Bow River, skirting the north shore of Hector Lake, and then ascending the basins of Lake Margaret and Turquoise Lake to Balfour Glacier. Curiously, on the same day, Collie and Hugh Stutfield made the first ascent of Survey Peak on the North Saskatchewan River; Collie having given up the quest for Mt. Balfour for a bigger lure, the quest for Mt. Hooker and Mt. Brown. Collie, Stutfield, and Weed made the first ascent of Mt. Thompson during their return from the Columbia Icefield in 1898.
The 1901 expedition of Edward Whymper and James Outram, which claimed a number of first ascents on the Wapta Icefield and in the Little Yoho Valley, and which made the first ascent of Trolltinder Mountain, did not even make an attempt on Mt. Balfour – no doubt because a second ascent was not advertising money well spent for their sponsor, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Outram and guides Christian Kaufmann and Joseph Pollinger crossed Balfour Pass on their way from the Yoho Valley to Lake Louise, in a mere twelve hours.
In 1903, Fay was in the party that made the first ascent of Mt. Daly. They reached Daly Glacier from the Yoho Valley via the gully system south of Takakkaw Falls. Gertrude Benham and Christian Kaufmann made the first ascent of the north ridge of Mt. Balfour in 1904. Members of the 1909 ACC Sherbrooke Valley camp made tracks all over the Wapta Icefield. The first ski ascent of Mt. Balfour from the south was made in 1935, and from the north in 1936. For a detailed history of Mt. Balfour and the Waputik Icefield, see “A Mountain Flooded With Ice,” by Graeme Pole, in the 1986 Canadian Alpine Journal.