As you examine the peaks of the North Shore Mountains from the north shore of Burrard Inlet, the highest mountain visible is one whose name escapes most of the people of Vancouver. That mountain, and its broad, accompanying ridge, is called Mt. Burwell.
Once named White Mountain, by a member of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club who was in the first ascent party, it was renamed in 1927, as follows:
“Named by Greater Vancouver Water Board, after Herbert Mahlon Burwell (1863 – 1925). Born and educated in London, Ontario, where he received a commission as a Dominion Land Surveyor and an Ontario Land Surveyor . Arrived in Vancouver in the fall of 1887, and in the spring of 1888 joined the firm of Gardener & Hermon, which had been established in late 1886. In the spring of 1906 Mr. Burwell’s firm were employed by the City of Vancouver to take charge of their water supply. Mr. Burwell had personal charge of the new joint main on Capilano Creek, from the intake to the first narrows (sic), and built the intake and settling basins. In 1913 Mr. Burwell retired from the firm of Hermon & Burwell, but continued to practise as a consulting engineer until his death 30 July 1925, age 62. A great lover of the outdoors, Mr. Burwell wrote many articles about fishing on the streams and lakes of BC; he was an authority on that branch of sport.”
(Source: United Empire Loyalists Assn. of Canada…http://www.uelac.org)
For years I had long wanted to wander this inviting granite playground at the furthest reaches of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. Thus it was that in early August of 2005 that Doug and I found ourselves stalking past the Lynn Headwaters gatehouse at the inhospitable time of 430 am and crossing the bridge over Lynn Creek. Hiking as briskly as that early hour allowed, we made swift work of the first seven kilometres, then turned uphill onto the Coliseum Mountain Trail. The plan was to ascend Coliseum and explore the ridge of Burwell to its end, then to return via the same route.
The trail, up to that point, had gained just 220 metres in elevation over seven kilometres, but that was soon destined to change markedly, as over the next five kilometres we would be rising over 1100 metres. It was time to wake up in earnest, as the sounds of Norvan Creek murmured in the background.
At about 650 m in elevation, we could begin to see the forest change from second growth cedar and hemlock to a rare grove of high altitude Western Hemlock. This tree, at lower climes, has a much shortened lifespan and therefore limited size, but in the ideal conditions of higher altitudes it can grow much larger. In the 1990s avid tree enthusiast Randy Stoltmann had stumbled upon a record hemlock here, and we hoped to pay it a visit ourselves. Fortunately, it was not too difficult to find, not far from Norvan Pools. We marvelled at the tree, called Norvan’s Castle, which is over nine feet in diameter and hundreds of years old!
Leaving the hemlock grove we climbed upward and across a rocky gully toward Norvan Meadows.
Norvan Meadows are somewhat deceptively named. They are not meadows in the true sense of the word, but rather an area razed clean by a considerable avalanche in 1998 that tore out a large section of forest. It was followed by a massive flood that took out the old Norvan Creek Bridge far below. Nature’s power can be devastating at times! The results though, are picturesque, if you ask me.
The track into the subalpine region continued, as we neared the turnoff for Norvan Pass, a familiar stop for us.
Some of the Mountain Hemlocks near the pass were definitely in the ancient category, perhaps older than five hundred years. The sun, too, had now burst into prominence and was doing its best to slow us down on that ideal summer morning.
Nevertheless, we kept up our pace, bolstered by a snack or two, in hopes we could attain the ridge as early as possible.
The sight of The Needles up close and personal brought us plenty of laughter as we recalled our scuffle of the year before. In real comparison, our hike today, though lengthier, would be nowhere near as trying.
Above the pass the terrain opened up considerably, giving way to great blocks of granite and far less vegetation as we approached Coliseum Mountain.
Our alpine start had certainly paid dividends, and meant we would see the summit of Coliseum Mountain at just 930 am!
Awaiting us was a sweeping field of etched granite slabs which dropped sharply into Coliseum Creek, well hidden below. This is the “snowfield” in the first photo I posted in this story, and it’s visible from many places in Greater Vancouver.
As a destination on its own, Coliseum is well worth the walk, with stellar views all around. To the east there are the peaks of the Fannin Range, Meslilloet, and the Five Fingers Group. You can also catch glimpses of the mountains of Garibaldi Provincial Park and Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park. To the west and south are the North Shore Mountains and even distant views of Mt. Baker sometimes. A northwest glance has you looking toward the Britannia Range, where Mt Brunswick holds court, at 1786 m in elevation. The northern vista is of course, dominated by Cathedral Mountain with Sky Pilot Mountain hovering over its shoulder. Here are some of my favourite images from on and around the summit of Coliseum Mountain.
Soon enough, though, we decided to press on, as there was a lot of ground yet to be covered. Next up, the summit of Mt Burwell, only another hundred metres or so higher but we would need to do some meandering to get there.
We opted to try descending a bit off the east side and contouring up some beautiful blocks that would yield the next plateau. The rock here ranks among the best anywhere for scrambling, in my opinion. Routes are numerous, and you can make things as simple or as complicated as you like, really.
This was certainly the highlight of the day. I think I would have appreciated bringing overnight gear there so we could spend more time rock climbing but camping is not actually permitted there.
You actually did have to concentrate on the ascent, though, if only because of the distracting scenery. I really have come to love my home on the North Shore and these mountains are among the main reasons for that.
The rock formation in the photo above was almost parabolic, much like a skateboard bowl or half pipe for snowboarding. There were a great variety of shapes and sizes in the differerent outcroppings.
This tarn was particularly appealing too, with its view of Cathedral and a distant Mamquam Mountain.
The trip from Coliseum to Burwell’s summit took only half an hour, yet seemed longer, somehow. Once on the ridge, you have unobstructed views into the watershed of Capilano River and the sheer south face of Cathedral Mountain, with its rows of steep, vertical couloirs and cliffs. Were it not for my strong desire to leave places such as these unchanged as possible, I could envision building a cabin there and sequestering myself from the world.
Since we were hoping to get as far along the ridge as we could, we soon departed for the west summit of Burwell. At the same time, I was searching for a source of water because I knew I’d run out before we made it back to the valley below.
To get to the west summit it was necessary to descend slightly to the north before scrambling back up to the ridge again. That diversion chanced to reveal a mossy creek where I was able to stock up with the refreshments I needed.
The photo below features a fascinating rock formation that really intrigued us at the time. My friend Drew, who is an accomplished geologist, was able to explain what this actually was, as per his thorough explanation below…
“That’s an aplite dyke in granite. Aplite is a mix of feldspars. When granite solidifies, the feldspar stays liquid the longest. The quartz, mica, etc crystallize out, and solidify, and the solid granite has a smaller volume than the liquid granite, so the solid part cracks. Then the liquid aplite runs in and fills the cracks and cools and solidifies last. The aplite, because it cools last, solidifies fairly rapidly and so has small crystals, and is most resistant to weathering as a result so the aplite dykes tend to stick out of the granite like in your photo.”
The western summit summit of Burwell, at 1499m, had long been a fixation of Doug’s, as he could see it from his driveway at home. Naturally he was pleased to finally stand atop it, but no, he was not able to see his house from there!
Some time was spent lingering here, but not a great deal, as we knew the trip back was going to be a long one. In a perfect world, it might have been ideal to complete the traverse and exit via the Lynn lake Trail but there wasn’t adequate time for that. We settled, instead, for exploring a bit more of the ridge.
What goes up must come down, to borrow a saying, and the hike back followed a nearly identical track, with some very familiar views. We were now in the heat of the day, and I recall our pace slowing somewhat as we trudged along the ridge.
I confess sometimes to being no fan of downclimbing. I always savour the satisfaction of reaching a summit but occasionally I’d settle for a helicopter ride to get home. This was just such a day, but it was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and plenty of cold beer was waiting at home.
I can recall the absolute quietude of the afternoon; the silence was broken only by the calls of ravens and once the distant whine of a small plane’s engine.
From the open land of the alpine we decended into subalpine forest as the Norvan Creek Valley welcomed our return, the trees providing some much needed shade.
In deference to the not so subtle marker on the tree above, getting home took us somehow longer than it had taken to make the climb, despite the fact that it was mostly downhill.
On the walk back from Norvan Falls, we encountered an eclectic folk singer on the trail, complete with guitar, then this still unidentified action figure at the signup board you see in the photo below. You never who or what you will meet on a hike these days!
Tired legs marked the end of our marathon trek, some 33 kms and 2000 m of elevation gain later. It will be a decade this summer since this story unfolded, and it’s incredible how the time has flown by since then.
*** I’d like to dedicate this tale to the late Ben Mostardi, an athletic young man (of special needs) who met with a fatal accident in the Norvan Creek drainage in 2005. He had been on his way to a meeting with his running group but somehow took a wrong turn. He was 33…***