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Surprise Pass

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


A popular classic ski tour behind the Lake Louise chateau offering fantastic scenery, a great bowl, and 700m of fall-line down towards the opposite end of Lake Louise. Although the access is straightforward, multiple avalanche paths need to be crossed. Descending into Sheol valley provides amazing views of surrounding couloirs and Aberdeen glacier. The final ascent up through the col is steep but still skinnable. 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
Click for .gpx and additional details


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 slide paths. Continue up the saddle until you reach the plateau and the terrain levels out. Wrap around the mountain and you'll eventually see Fairview bowl. Afterwards there will be a steep descent into Sheol valley. Further towards the back once the glacier is in sight will be a wider chute on the right (south aspect). It's a straightforward 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 a favourite that I'll revisit time and 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 as enamored with the scenery as I was with the fantastic skiing.

As it turned out, ski touring during a polar vortex was a great way to escape the freeze. Nervously following the weather forecast for the week, I was mildly tempted to cancel the trip. Unexpectedly, after the first 20 minutes of numbness it only got warmer the higher up we climbed. Despite a frigid -30C start at the trailhead, the bluebird temperature inversion yielded 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.

When nearing the third avalanche path a sign will point to a shortcut to the right. The path to the left follows a long switch back and meets up at the shortcut's exit but involves crossing the avalanche path an additional two times. The right shortcut is a great option to reduce exposure.

With limited skinning experience, I had thought it was convenient how good form meant you generally stuck to a sliding motion and avoided raising your legs as much as possible. I quickly regretted this line of thinking as we began our climb up the Fairview bowl. Breaking trail through 60-70cm of fresh powder meant that my hip flexors were working overtime. In retrospect, this was because my glutes were laughably conditioned and forced my hips to overcompensate (do your clamshells!).

Descending towards Sheol Valley

When climbing up the Fairview bowl, we decided to avoid the steeper lookers left slope as it had shown signs of larger sluffs that day. When descending, stick towards skiiers right to round the shoulder and drop into the valley avoiding the gully in the center.

backcountry snowboarder descending a wide powder bowl behind fairview mountain

This slope provided an excellent vantage point for capturing some aerial-like shots with a telephoto. If you position yourself right and face to the east, you can get the bow valley in the background.

backcountry skiier making an aggressive turn in knee deep powder

Reminiscient of a shuffleboard, the snow was almost grainy sounding and supportive underfoot. It rewarded unweighting my legs and pumping through turns to get a surfy rhythm going. Meanwhile, 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 and storm 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 drop in is littered with little rocks to avoid but there's room on skiier's 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 skiier's left. The right has less coverage and descends into an awkward treed area. Round the corner towards the hiking trails but avoid falling into a small creekbed.

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 throughout the afternoon. All in all, Surprise Pass was a fantastic outing that I look forward to returning to.

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