Mt Bishop, In Tribute to Fred Mills

When people speak of the mountains of Mt Seymour Provincial Park, few if any mention its highest summit. Secluded Mt Bishop, at 1508 metres in elevation, towers high above Indian Arm on one side, and the Seymour River Valley on the other.  The mountain 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 very few 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. That was some 24 kilometres from my house, where my ride had begun. I had heard of a rough track 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. Finally, with some chagrin, I sighted the markers. I wasn’t certain exactly how I missed the conspicuous tree festooned with multiple bands of flagging tape!

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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 bike walk I opted to stash my ride and commence hiking, but it was not long before I 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 vanished. I never determine the source, but I knew it was not a deer or a black bear. I concluded it was most likely a cougar, or possibly a bobcat. My heart rate having returned to some semblance of normal, I continued on.

Several minutes later, I came upon a magnificent grove of Western Red Cedar. The largest of the trees approached four metres in diameter, and two oldest had likely survived over seven centuries! I lingered for a time in the presence of these giants, before hiking once more. I would soon discover the trail presented more than its share of technical challenges. Ropes were fixed on the difficult sections, as the path 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 only 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 certain, I was hooked and vowed to return!

Travel back in time 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 lived in for three decades in North Vancouver was built the year before. The Mills Party made camp at the mouth of Bishop Creek across from Croker Island. They managed to ascend 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 most 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 area, 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 July 30 of 2004, an early start to the for Doug and me, just two weeks to the day from our traverse of The Needles. Would this prove similar? Read on and discover….

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Doug and the giants of the Bishop Grove, July 2004

When we arrived at the trailhead, 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, I had then discovered, was originally been blazed by Denis Blair, Jim Sedor, and Moe Lamothe, avid mountaineers all. In the years that have followed I have been on quite a few expeditions 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 readily apparent to Doug as they had been to me several months before. The ever popular Grouse Grind Trail, also built by McPherson, ascends 890 metres over 2.9 kms, but the Bishop Trail climbs 1268 metres 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 Soon Cathedral Mountain emerged between the trees , and the remainder of the route would be new to both of us from this point on!

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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

Minutes later, we reached a clearing giving way to a broad subalpine basin with several ponds. We knew that the largest of them was Vicar Lake, and that the worst of our battle was complete. 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

It was an ideal place to stop for lunch., and so we lingered for a while, enjoying the lakes. As the morning mist surrendered to the warmth of the sun,  we took to the forest once again.

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Morning mist at the lakes

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The forest now transitioned to a venerable stand of Mountain Hemlock and Yellow Cedar. We managed to locate the previously recorded Bishop Giant, an 800 year old silver trunked specimen which measures close to eight feet in diameter!

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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 views became expansive. The weather was warm, but not as oppressive as it had been earlier that month, so that the hike was quite comfortable.The high alpine meadows seemed a more than ample reward for our efforts, clad as they were with heather in full bloom.

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There was little left to do but scale the granite blocks that led us ever higher. The climbing 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 sections did, as it turned out.

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Me, heading for the summit…photo by Doug
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Easy walking on granite

In twenty more minutes we stood at the apex, and Mt. Bishop was ours to share, if only for a while. We wandered around for some time, and taking a well deserved break. One most unusual discovery was a gnarled and ancient Mountain Hemlock, which seems to serve as a guardian of the summit. I have since discovered that weathered and stunted trees like these are often many centuries old!

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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. Once satisfied by the views, we reluctantly turned homeward, knowing the day was only half done.

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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

We began the trip back down the valley, noting that clouds were rolling in, but fortunately, no rains came with them. There is always that wonderful sense of accomplishment to enjoy as you descend a mountain!

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Tarn near the summit block

In the years that have intervened since Mr Mills led the first ascent, this mountain has not changed substantially. On almost any given day, one would still find it without the company of other humans. In the early 1900s, the wildlife population was supposedly more abundant, but we find the tracks of many deer, mountain goats, and several black bears on our excursion.

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Back at the lakes in the afternoon

It was a scant half an hour before we had returned to Vicar Lake once more, but the trail ahead was a different story. Gravity might make descents somewhat easier, but 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 that same distance uphill. That’s not unusual in the North Shore Mountains, where travel is seldom easy!

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Typical North Shore terrain

By the time we reached the bikes, and then the truck, over ten hours had passed, and it had been a long and strenuous day. We had cycled over 30 kms, in addition to all the hiking. A highly recommended trip, if you ask me!

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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 as we had. It likely took an extra day of travel by horse just to get to Indian Arm, and yet another by boat just to establish their basecamp. Determination was in strong demand back in 1908, when mountain approaches were much more difficult!

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Fred Mills and company on the summit…Photo by Kodiak

For some time, we have wanted to kayak our way up the Indian Arm in an attempt recreate their expedition, and hopefully that day will come. Until then, when I stand atop Mt Seymour or drive the Barnet Highway along the Burrard Inlet, the sight of Mt Bishop will inevitably trigger the fondest of memories.

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