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Surprise Pass

Lake Louise
Feb 2021
10.9 km
917 m
4-6 hours


A popular classic ski tour in the Lake Louise area near the chateau offers fantastic scenery, a great bowl, and 700m of fall-line skiing down towards the far end of Lake Louise. Although the access is straightforward, multiple avalanche paths need to be crossed. Descending into Sheol valley holds amazing views of surrounding couloirs and Aberdeen glacier. The final ascent up the couloir is steep but can be bootpacked or skinned. With ample space to transition at the top, the following descent is a memorable way to conclude the day.

Route Access

Trail map of surprise pass ski tour in lake louise with avalanche paths


Approach the Lake Louise parking area left of the chateau and park either at the bottom near the guest facilities, or take the path on the left towards the upper parking area. The start of the trail is more or less equidistant to both and begins with a moderate and steady climb.


Follow the signs for Saddleback Pass / Fairview mountain. Be aware of overhead hazard and recent avalanche conditions when crossing the paths. When nearing the third avalanche path a sign will point to an optional shortcut on the righthand side. The shortcut has some steep sections that may cause you to slide backwards. The path to the left follows a long switch back and meets up at the shortcut's exit. Be aware the left path involves crossing the avalanche path an additional two times so the shortcut is a great option to help reduce exposure.

Follow the trail up the saddle until you reach the plateau and the terrain levels out. Continue to wrap around the mountain and you'll eventually see Fairview bowl. A quick detour makes for some amazing turns. Afterwards there will be a steep descent into Sheol valley. You'll notice a series couloirs on the right (north) side. Further towards the back once the glacier is in sight will be a wider chute on the right. It's an easy but steep skin or bootpack up.

From there, the descent is obvious. After enjoying the 700m ski down, follow tracks that take you towards the main hiking trail by the lake. Watch for unaware hikers.

A Classic Ski Tour for a Reason

This iconic backcountry ski tour quickly became one that I'll revisit time and time again. As you emerge from the trees you are greeted with stunning views of the Bow valley and the towering peaks looming over Sheol valley. I was definitely as enamored with the scenery as I was with the fantastic skiing.

As it turned out, ski touring during a polar vortex is a great way to escape the freeze. Wait...what? Why would you even want to go outside when it's -30C? When it's so cold your nostrils stick to itself while breathing? Unexpectedly, after the first 20 minutes of numbness it only gets warmer the higher up you go. The bluebird conditions that come with polar vortexes (vortices?) and temperature inversions meant a comfortable -10C when we reached the bowl.

Backcountry skiier ski touring surprise pass with mount whitehorn and richardson ridge in the background

When crossing the first few avalanche paths, Whitehorn Mountain (with the Lake Louise ski resort) and Mount Richardson (behind) came into view. One thought I had with respect to skinning was that it was nice how you generally stick to a sliding motion and avoid raising your legs very much since the angle of the terrain has to be low enough that you don't start to slide backwards. I quickly regretted this thought as we began our climb up the Fairview bowl. Trudging through 60-70cm of fresh powder meant that my hip flexors had to do some real work. I had enjoyed breaking trail on previous excursions but this experience had my hips screaming for WD40 as it's rusty creaking echoed through the valley.

Descending towards Sheol Valley

When climbing up the Fairview bowl, we erred to the right. The lookers left side closer to the rocks is a touch steeper but more prone to wind loading and had shown signs of some larger sluffs that day. This area makes for a great yo-yo lap if you have the energy!

backcountry snowboarder descending a wide powder bowl behind fairview mountain

This slope provides an excellent vantage point for capturing some drone-like shots with a telephoto. If you position yourself right and face to the east, you can get the bow valley in the background as well. Face west if you prefer a more minimalist approach.

backcountry skiier making an aggressive turn in knee deep powder

The snow that day was absolutely amazing and enabled some fantastically surfy turns. Riding deeper powder came with an unexpected learning curve forcing me to make more conscious use of my legs for smoother carves. Both Allen and Alyson made beautiful S-turns down the bowl slashing the storm from earlier in the week.

two backcountry skiiers touring through sheol valley towards surprise pass in lake louise

After descending into the valley you are greeted by towering walls of rock and snow with the Bow valley behind you. There are some incredible opportunities for photos here where the light helps seperate the subject from the background nicely. I would love to see how this area is lit up during dawn / dusk. Past the looming couloirs on the right lies the objective of the day, a wider steep but skinnable couloir.

Our First (Baby) Couloir

surprise pass couloir (left) and 4 backcountry skiiers at the top of surprise pass couloir (right)

As our first baby couloir we were quite excited to reach the top. We managed to outpace the encroaching shadow creeping up on us from Haddo peak. The skin track made for a solid climb minus the slightly mushy corners from previous groups. While the conditions were nice that day, a passing guide advised us that the climb up the couloir can become quite wind loaded. Be sure to review recent trends and exercise caution if it's been storming the day of.

backcountry snowboarder descending surprise pass couloir with rock faces on either side

The initial section of the descent is littered with little rocks to avoid but there's room on the left to squeeze in some nice turns while doing so. The top section can be more prone to sluffing but there's an island of safety on the right side where you can hide behind some rocks.

The angle of the field below mellows out and provides a few hundred meters of delicious fall-line skiing. If you had energy to spare, you can stop halfway down and bootpack up the dogleg couloir on skiier's left. As you begin to approach the bottom, err to the left. There's a tempting section through some trees on the right but it has much less coverage and descends into an awkward area. Rounding the corner towards the hiking trails there's a small creekbed to avoid falling into.

Making our way down the field of fresh pow was bliss. Cruisy relaxed turns with a view of devil's thumb ahead of you (a gorgeous hike in the summer time). During the return back across the Lake, I realized my cheeks were now sore from smiling so much during the afternoon. All in all, surprise pass was a fantastic outing that I look forward to returning to.

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