There are times when I write about a trip in the mountains that I struggle to find the right words to tell the tale, and then there are the stories that almost write themselves, and this one is definitely the latter! It all began innocently enough, with an email from Doug. He had studied his maps and come up with the idea to traverse The Needles, an obscure group of wooded summits north of Lynn Ridge and deep in the heart of the North Shore Mountains. They were steep, largely unknown to most, and shrouded in mystery. They still are. A look at the maps over an Okanagan Spring Ale or two at Doug’s place was enough to hook me on his idea. In retrospect, I now know I can be talked into just about anything by cold beer, as if there had ever been any doubt about that!
Such a peregrination cannot be undertaken without superb planning, and Doug prepared thoroughly by studying the route in detail. The plan was to begin by biking to Hydraulic Creek, and after stashing our bikes there, to run up the valley to the Paton’s Lookout Trail. This is a trail that leads to Coliseum Mountain from the Seymour Valley. We’d follow it to the Needle/Coliseum Col, and then head down the Lynn Headwaters Coliseum Trail to Norvan Pass, where the bushwhacking would begin. We would then complete the traverse and exit via the Hydraulic Creek Trail to our bikes and the ride home. Sounds simple enough, right? Here it is on a map…
Fast forward to Saturday, July 16, 2004, a day I’ll always remember, in part because it was also my mother’s 71st birthday. The time was 430 am, and I was biking up to Doug’s house where we would rack our bikes and drive up to our ride’s starting point near Rice Lake. I’ll admit here that I despise harsh exercise before sunrise even though I enjoy rising early. This day was no exception, but on the drive I began to catch a little more enthusiasm.
The sun was nearly emerging as we finished the first leg of the journey at Hydraulic Creek, where we locked up our bikes and set aside cold Gatorade for our return. After sorting through our gear, it was time to run about 3 1/2 kms to the Paton Trailhead, where the hiking would begin in earnest. At this point, I recall feeling very fresh, as the heat of the summer day had not reached us yet, which was good because temperatures were expected to rise to well over 30 degrees Celsius that day.
We had a pleasant feeling about our expedition because we had just spotted a young barred owl in the trees near the bridge. “Surely this meant things were going to go well?” I had thought.
We trekked steadily upward after our run toward Paton’s Lookout, a flat topped plateau at an elevation of roughly 1100 m. The trail was in excellent condition and we were packing light and fast. Time was of the essence, as we hoped to be back before 430pm that afternoon, but we were prepared to bivouac if needed. The forest in Paton Creek is an excursion worthy of its own merits, as there are large stands of untouched timber there and it’s not unusual to see a black bear or two.
At an elevation of around 800 metres you pass a huge Douglas Fir and a section of trail that overlooks some beautiful granite cliffs. As I was getting hungry, we stopped briefly here for some snacks, then began climbing again.
The Paton Creek Cliffs can be seen from well below in the Seymour Valley; I’ve used them before as a navigational feature, of sorts. As far as I know, they aren’t a popular climbing objective but they do look rather interesting.
After another half an hour we had topped out on Paton’s Lookout, and now we had to lose about a hundred metres of elevation, then regain that and more to attain the col below Coliseum Mountain. Here are some scenes from the lookout, an ideal camping spot, however, I believe camping is not actually permitted there.
It was clearly evident the mercury was rising as we worked our way toward the boulder field that gave entrance to the col. I began to wonder if we had brought enough water, as there was still a lot of ground to cover, but for now at least, we were going strongly. We could now see far into the Seymour Watershed, an area off limits to hikers.
You can see the haze beginning to build in the distance here as it often does in the mountains on hot summer days.
Had we known that tarn above was the last water source we’d see for some time, we might have chanced to fill up there, despite the risk of giardia, but we chose instead to pace ourselves and conserve our supplies. Another hour passed as we hiked up the boulder field and completed the second link of our journey. We had made the col!
We were surrounded by fields of blooming heather as we hiked toward the pass. The air was calm and still, and the silence was only broken by the occasional buzz of the brilliant blue dragonflies that seemed to be everywhere in the meadows.
Now the task shifted to taking the trail down to Norvan Pass, where a brushy bench would lead us to the foot of the sub peak of the North Needle. This at least went by swiftly, and it wasn’t long before we were confronted with the real challenge of the day.
Of all things, this switch plate ushered the way to Norvan Pass, and we followed. The next ten minutes were the only ones we walked on relatively flat ground. The views were very enjoyable here, and we felt the privilege that only relative solitude affords; this was a rarely visited place.
Shortly, our objective came into focus. For a minute or two we studied the climb from a distance, questioning both the possibilities and the probabilities. Well, that, and our relative sanity, of course. Maybe while you read the next few paragraphs, it might help to have a little background music, so open a separate window, and play this!
The way I remember it was that ascending from the left was not a tremendous idea due to pronounced gullies and cliffs, and the approach off the right side looked equally inadvisable. I’m not sure which of us coined the phrase but the mantra for the day became “Straight up the gut, not left, and not right.” That proved to be true, all afternoon long!
Well now, there we were at the base of the North Needle, and it was now time to get serious. This has always been the kind of terrain that I like to challenge, and so I more or less dove into the forest. Luckily, we also discovered the route was marked with a series of orange tapes, which we added to at several key points. You know that one piece of gear you forget to plan to bring on seemingly every expedition? Well on this trip it was gaiters, and as a result our shins took a constant thrashing from all of the stunted trees, copper bush , and heather that choked our path. Live and learn!
All of the lush greenery you see here is about eye high and just thick enough that you can hardly see in front of you. With practice, though, it gets better. We got plenty of practice.
We just trusted the line we had chosen, heading straight up the middle, over this, under that, around this, through that. By now it was about noon, and we were getting well roasted, as the temperature hit the high thirties in degrees Celsius. Understandably, our pace slowed somewhat, but we kept busy with idle chatting and the more than occasional profanity laced tirade. Having scrapped our way up the North Needle’s subpeak, we followed a short shelf to the next vertical section and continued the thrash.
The orange flagging on the route at least gave us some sort of psychological edge, but did not diminish the fact that we knew we were strictly on our own here. Rescue was a long, long, way away.
Ironically, rescue was among our topics of conversation, as Doug had just signed up with North Shore Search and Rescue at the time. I would have loved to have joined myself, but my life at home raising a son with autism had to take priority then as it does now. Doug has gone on to become an integral member of the rescue team since then and we often work together trying to map trails and/or get photos of remote locations for possible rescue missions.
Better yet though, we now stood atop the North Needle, where congratulations were in order and more curse words were shared profusely. This summit was a mere 1260 metres high, but to this day neither of us has worked harder on a mountain, before or since!
The views were well worth the effort!
In the photo below, the unnamed peak on the Hanes-Wickenden Divide at left here in the foreground is a long time curiosity of mine which I am still hoping to scale someday. It used to be called Forks Peak. Crown Mountain lurks behind kind of menacingly, though maybe I thought so because I had just run out of water! We did not linger long, soon dropping into the saddle in pursuit of the Middle Needle.
Treed and dense, the path from the North Needle became no easier, and the flagging tape became harder to spot. The same basic technique applied, keeping to the middle to avoid the cliffs we knew were there, though impossible to see. The time began to blur somewhat, as the sun beat down on us persistently. I’m not sure how long it took, but soon the Middle Needle, at 1258 metres, was ours!
We were elated to be walking about on these rugged little peaks so rarely seen by people yet so close to home, relatively speaking. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of utter accomplishment, as this was a hike that changed us in ways we may not have understood at the time. It made nearly all the mountains we went on to climb seem ridiculously easy by comparison!
The next link in the chain was a sharp drop of 150 metres followed by scrambling up the north side of the South Needle, which we had stood upon just weeks before. All I could think about was all the food, water, and Gatorade waiting with our bikes, so down we plunged.
As I was leading the way off the Middle Needle in more dense foliage, suddenly I felt something hit my shoe and flash past, so I picked it up, actually, more like stretched out to catch it in midair. Turned out it was a lens from a pair of sunglasses, strangely. What’s more, it turned out to be Doug’s, and at the time he was some sixty feet above me. Talk about lucky!
The fight continued, with us making reasonably short work of the ascent of the South Needle. Now we knew we were within reach of a well marked trail, and chock full of optimism. The forest there would help us chill a little, too, we hoped.
Seen here above, Doug celebrates the culmination of his fine but evil plan at the summit of South Needle, 1160 metres in elevation. The hardest work has been done, and we’ll now descend the Lynn Ridge Trail to the Hydraulic Creek Trail. Thirsty and tired, soon we were on our way, but not till Doug shook hands with the mythical wooden creature!
The ancient forest welcomed us with much needed shade. It was tempting just to take a nap under one of the big cedars but we pressed on, cold drinks now being closer to reality.
At 800 metres in elevation on the Hydraulic Creek Trail, trail builder Gabriel Mazoret affixed this plaque. It reads, from a poem by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) :
“Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn till night, my friend. ”
I could not have imagined better prose to sum up our day.
It was exhilarating to refuel ourselves when we reached the bikes! What a sight we had become as we burst, scratched and soiled, from the woods carrying our bikes, to the audience of many casual afternoon riders. We were bloodied, bruised, scraped… and about as happy as can be. Almost eleven hours later, we were bound for home, already talking about another adventure!
Statistically, there was 5576′ of climbing, 5428′ of descending, and 32.5 kms of biking, running and hiking, all told, and all of it very memorable. A long and rewarding day in the mountains. The owl, it seemed, had been a good omen indeed.