Mt Bishop, In Tribute to Fred Mills

Well secluded in a remote corner of Mt Seymour Provincial Park is a 1508 metre peak that towers high above the Seymour Valley to its west, and the waters of the Indian Arm  to the east. That mountain is Mt Bishop. It was named for Charles Joseph Bishop, the first president of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC ), who died in a crevasse fall on Washington’s Mt Baker in 1913. It was first ascended in 1908 via the Bishop Creek Valley from the shores of Indian Arm by a large party of climbers. One those was Fred Mills, a noted explorer of the North Shore Mountains, and also an early member of the BCMC. A place that still sees few if any visitors, Bishop and its slopes offer an authentic wilderness experience, despite the fact that Vancouver’s city lights can be seen distinctly from its lofty vantage. Here then, is a blended tale of a two treks I have made there, and of Mr Mills’ historical  expedition.

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Mt Bishop, the highest point in Mt Seymour Provincial Park

It was April of 2004. I was standing on the pedals of my mountain bike, picking up speed as I worked my way to the Mt Bishop trailhead, some 24 kilometres from my house, where the ride had begun. I had heard of a rough trail that had been blazed from the end of the Eastside Seymour Road in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve to the summit of Mt Bishop. The promises of massive old growth forest, subalpine lakes, and mountain meadows were running through my mind.

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Sunlit forest in the Seymour Valley
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At roadside near the 10 km mark on the Eastside Seymour Road is this huge old cedar tree some call Bigfoot

Soon after reaching the 13 km mark on the road, I came to an abrupt halt. My information had the path beginning at the 12.8 km mark, so logically, I needed to backtrack. Soon, I sighted the markers. I wasn’t certain exactly how I missed the conspicuous tree festooned with bands of flagging tape, but there it was!

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Looking up the trunk of the Eagle’s Nest Fir, near the 11 km mark on the Eastside Seymour Road

After a short bikewalk I opted to stash my ride and commence hiking, but it was not long before I almost froze in my tracks. Something crackled loudly through the underbrush about fifteen yards to my right. It fell silent for a moment, then accelerated quickly through the forest cover with what sounded like a low growl, and then it was gone. I never did see what it was but I knew it was not a deer or a black bear. I concluded it may have been a cat of some kind, possibly a cougar or bobcat. My heart rate having returned to some semblance of normal, I continued onward.

Only several minutes later, I came upon a magnificent grove of western redcedar. The largest of the trees approached four metres in diameter, and two were significantly old specimens, well in excess of 700 years old. I lingered for a time in the presence of these giants, then began hiking uphill again. Ropes were fixed on the difficult sections as the trail was as steep as its reputation!

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700 year old cedar in the Bishop Grove
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The patriarch of the grove, which may be almost 1000 years old
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The lower reaches of the Bishop Trail

My trek was to last but half an hour more, as suddenly it dawned on me I’d be late if I did not turn around. A brisk walk turned into a run, and then a hurried ride home.  One thing was sure, though, I was hooked and vowed to return!

Flash back to the summer of 1908. To me, a year of significance, as my grandmother was born then in New York City and the house I used to live in was built in that year. The Mills Party, for their part, made camp at the mouth of Bishop Creek across from Croker Island, near the turn of that twentieth century. They ascended all the high peaks in the area, including Mt Jarrett and Mt. Elsay. Jarrett and Bishop were both climbers in this BCMC group, though Mills did much of the leading. The region was roadless then, so their method of transport was by boat from Indian Arm. After walking the ancient forest of cedars, they attained a hogback ridge that gave them passage to the alpine and the summit of Bishop. The other peaks were accessed from that region, and all climbers returned to camp that evening before returning homeward. It was, without a doubt, a full and successful day!

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An excerpt from Mr Mills notes……photo credit to Kodiak (Clubtread website), who is his great grandson
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More on the story of the Mills expedition…..photo credit again to Kodiak

Fast forward to 530 am, July 30 of 2004, and another heinously early start for Doug and me, just two weeks to the day from our traverse of The Needles. Would today prove similar? Read on and discover….

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Doug and the giants of the Bishop Grove, July 2004

As we arrived at the trailhead, it was by then 7 pm, and the rising sun was beginning to cast shadows on the fast awakening valley. The bikes having been locked away, it was time to walk through the aging giants that would give way to the upper valley. The Bishop Trail had originally been blazed by Denis Blair, Jim Sedor, and Moe Lamothe, avid mountaineers all. In the years since then I have been on quite a few treks with Denis, who, it must be said has become something of a mentor for me. He has forgotten more about the mountains than I’ve ever known and is still climbing strongly into his seventies, no mean feat here in the  steep Pacific Northwest!

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More old growth forest on the Bishop Trail

Later the trail was adopted by local climbing legend Don McPherson, who improved it while clearing an access route to the Indian Arm Trail, and finally by North Shore Search and Rescue, who planned to use it to evacuate injured hikers.

The jungle gym qualities of this trail were as immediately apparent to Doug as they had been to me several months before. The ever popular Grouse Grind, also built by McPherson, ascends 890 m over 2.9 kms, but the Bishop Trail climbs 1268 m over 3.25 kms, not for the faint of heart.

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It was good clean fun and plenty of effort to make our way up that trail! Once we made it to 700 m above sea level and a fine view of Cathedral Mountain, the route was new to both of us.

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Cathedral Mountain, 1737 metres, as seen from the 700 m level on the Bishop Trail
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Tarn at Vicar Lakes….photo by Doug

In short order we reached a clearing which gave way to a broad basin with several subalpine ponds. We knew that the largest of them must be Vicar Lake, and that the worst of the battle was done. The peak lay another hour above the lakes, and its unmistakably rounded summit was now within sight.

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Mt Bishop, from Vicar Lake

We lingered for a while at the lakes, before taking once again to the woods. It was an ideal place to stop for lunch.

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Morning mist at the lakes

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The forest was now an old grove of Mountain Hemlock dotted with sizable, silvery trunked Yellow Cedars. One in specific, named The Bishop Giant, was over eight feet in diameter,over 800 years in age, and in near perfect health.

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Bark of the Bishop Giant
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Mt Elsay

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As you can see in the two photos above, the upper section of the trail begins at this metal marker on the shore of Vicar Lake, from which you also have a fine view of Mt Elsay.

The next section of the route wound through ever thinning forest along Gibbens Creek until it emerged on the ridge, where the views expanded. The weather was warm, but not as oppressive as it had been earlier that month, so that the hike was quite comfortable.

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This was a beautiful section of the trail. Heather clad meadows and thick, stunted hemlock were the order of the day there.

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Me, heading for the summit…photo by Doug

There was little left to do but scale the granite blocks that led ever higher. The hiking here was not difficult, with only the occasional bit of scrambling to be done. The lower reaches of the trail provided much more of a challenge than the alpine reaches did, as it turned out.

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Easy walking on granite

In twenty more minutes we stood at the apex, Mt. Bishop was ours to share, if only for a while. We wandered around the summit and took a well deserved break!

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Gnarled and ancient Mountain Hemlock guards the summit area. If ever there was such thing an ent, this is it!

We spent a relatively short time on the peak, eating the rest of the homemade pizza (thanks to my wife) and absorbing the absolute quietude, before traipsing back to the bikes again. Here are some summit shenanigans….

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Doug
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Mick

The clouds also made for some interesting photo opportunities!

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Goat and Crown Mountains
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Elsay Lake
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Cathedral Mountain again
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Looking toward the Indian Arm Trail….photo by Doug

As we began the trip back down the valley, more cloud cover rolled in, but no rains came with it. A little reluctant to leave the alpine, we took our time through the meadows.

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Tarn near the summit block

In the intervening years since Mr Mills led the first ascent, this mountain has not changed substantially. On almost any given day, one would find it without the company of humans. At one time the wildlife population was supposedly more abundant, yet we found the tracks of many deer, mountain goats, and of several black bears on our travels that day.

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Back at the lakes in the afternoon

It was about half an hour before we had made it back to Vicar Lakes again. Though gravity always makes descents somewhat easier, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll take less time.

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Steeplechase, anyone?!

What with all the obstructions, ropes, and rockbands the Bishop Trail has, it took us nearly as much time to return to the trailhead from the lakes as it did to make the same distance uphill. That’s not unusual for the North Shore Mountains, where there’s seldom an easy way.

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Typical North Shore terrain

By the time we reached the truck, over ten hours had passed. It had been a lengthy and strenuous day. Over 30 kms of biking and another 8 kms of hiking all told. A highly recommended trip, by my account.

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An overview of the route…photo by Doug…… Overlooking Bishop, with Paton’s Lookout in the foreground

We certainly appreciated that when Mr Mills and his party made their foray, they didn’t have a chance of completing their climb as a day trip. It likely took an extra day of travel by horse and boat just to establish their basecamp. Determination was needed in greater supply in 1908!

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Fred Mills and company on the summit…Photo by Kodiak

For some time I have wanted to kayak my way up the Indian Arm and recreate their expedition, and hopefully that day will come. Until then, when I walk up Mt Seymour or drive the Barnet Highway along the Burrard Inlet, the sight of Mt Bishop will always trigger fond memories.

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