It was September of 2012, and a run of near perfect weather gave rise to the idea of climbing Mt Gillespie, in the Mamquam River Valley of the Coast Mountains. Sitting on a high divide in Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park, it’s a handsome summit that can be seen from afar. It’s also surrounded by several pocket glaciers whose days may well be numbered. So it was that Ted, Denis- also known as “The Retreads”- and I were rolling up Highway 99 at the customary early hour, then turning into the shadows cast by the sheer walls of the Squamish Chief. We would need to travel quite some time on logging roads to reach our destination.
But… “Whoa now, wait a minute!” You’re thinking. “What the heck is a retread?” Well, it’s a term that is, as far as I know anyway, coined by my longtime trail companions for this day. Denis explains a retread as a grizzled, old school, experienced mountain man who drinks beer, likes to joke, and never gives up till the job is done. There’s also an aspect of style to the term: retreads do not resemble today’s metrosexual genre, per se. As I’m fourteen years their junior, I sometimes get called a “pretread”, a retread in training, of sorts. Also, I get to be the expedition photographer, because, you know, I wouldn’t just do that anyway!
These guys have known each other almost as long as I’ve been alive, and their long history makes for a wealth of experience and about as much laughter and tall tales as you can imagine. The stories were flowing freely that morning, so much so that we managed to miss the proper junction for the road we needed. It ended up that we inadvertently explored some newly cut logging spurs. An idle distraction that was, but we then had to double back to cross the bridge we passed, thus wasting about half an hour altogether. I was unperturbed by the delay or by our short attention spans, because it just gave me more time to hear more stories.
At some point on the long drive it occurred to me to ask Ted what the heck the clinking sounds coming from the back seat were. He informed us insistently that some of the beer he’d brought had to be consumed from “proper glasses”. This was a first for our trips, though we later discovered that glass and logging roads would make uneasy partners. When I kidded him about whether he’d next be bringing limes on trips he assured me that would not be happening. “Old school climbers don’t put lime in beers, and they don’t stretch before the hike either!”
Tom Fyles, above, was an old school hardscrabble British Columbia climber also known as The Climbing Postman, and one of Ted’s all time favourites. Ted assures me Tom neither stretched nor did he ever put limes in beer!
What was about two hours sped by as though it were half of that before we reached the trailhead. I had been there several years before and immediately noticed that the alder had reclaimed some sections of the road, but the water bars were still only a mild deterrent. After taking some time to gear up, we began forging our way up the rough route through the lower cutblock.
To my chagrin, I noted that it had now been marked as a logging boundary, but to my knowledge it has not been harvested yet. If so, it would be a shame, as the old growth mountain hemlock forest makes for a scenic walk enroute to the meadows.
The way to Gillespie is relatively straightforward. First you must attain Peak 5700 from the top of the proposed cutblock, and then you need to lose elevation into a gap before ascending to the alpine basin below Peak 6500 (sometimes known as Seed Peak). From there you wind your way through the ancient glacier that will yield the ridge that leads to Gillespie’s summit, at 2018 metres in elevation. There are amazing sights in all directions as soon as you gain the plateau below Peak 5700.
You’ll note in this tale I sometimes refer to elevations in both feet and metres, so I apologize for the confusion. Ted and Denis are only reluctant converts to the metric system, and would be quite happy sticking to English measures. Being typically Canadian, I try to appease all parties!
After a mere half hour of trekking, we climbed a steep hillock that gave us access to the summit of Peak 5700. It was an ideal vantage point, from which we caught our first glimpse of our objective.
This valley has become a welcome place to me, even though my indoctrination to the region some years back with my good friend Chris B. It had been a day of foul weather and fleeing from bears, to exaggerate only mildly on both accounts. The previous excursions I had made there had given me a sense of familiarity, but more than that, the area has always seemed pleasant in nature to me. It’s hard to explain, almost as though there are good vibes there, or something like that. Mt Gillespie now took center stage as it appeared across the ridges.
There were only mild technical difficulties on the next leg of the trip. The trail, if you can call it that, simply uses a high connecting bench that leads you to slopes below Seed Peak. Then, once you manage to arrive in the high alpine bowl above, you can plot your route to Gillespie.
For a number of years I have wanted to make a point of camping here, as it has all the amenities of the finest wilderness campsites. There is abundant drinking water, and a few icy tarns to cool you off on those hot summer days too. The retreads, though, abhor overnight missions, preferring marathon marches, if necessary, to finish in a single day.
Challenges would soon begin in earnest, however. Crossing the bench proved simple enough, but meandering down the granite slabs into the belly of the pocket glacier was next on the agenda.
The photo below illustrates the task well. The glacier is an ancient one that has receded considerably, so we did not have to contend with any crevasses. There were dangerous moats where ice had melted away from the rock faces though, so those had to be walked with care.
I am pretty sure this is the friendliest glacier I have ever hiked. The snow was in ideal condition and was never steep enough to require crampons. We simply strolled across it.
In the now approaching midday sun, the rock took on different tones, changing from pollished greys to browns and pinks.
The glacial ice, too, was fascinating. In this photo you can see it has formed concentric patterns over the years. I’m not totally sure how that process would have occurred, but I guessed it had something to do with melting patterns.
I had first heard of this mountain years before from good friend Simon, who had climbed it back in 2005. His description of the way up was quite accurate. We just climbed up to a broad ledge that gave way to a steep and somewhat loose section of scrambling. This was the key to the ridge. We marked our exit point with a cairn so as to make the trip back less complicated.
The bottom of the ridge consisted of fairly simple hiking, with the odd bit of boulder hopping thrown in.
Once through the large rock garden at the bottom of the ridge, we broke into the clear and were able to see the summit block. It was hard to evaluate the crux from where we stood, but as Denis often says “You’ve got to get a closer look, it never looks easy from afar.”
What next? Eyeing the summit from the clearing, I figured a short walk on snows and then stick to the rock from there, to start with.
The rocky field of boulders below the buttress above posed no issues at all. It wasn’t long after that we found ourselves gazing at the last of the obstacles that kept us from the summit.
What was even better was that the views were opening up more with every step we took. The Mamquam Vallley is a sight to behold, highlighted by glacier clad Mamquam Mountain, which lies within Garibaldi Provincial Park.When we crested the boulder slope, we could see a very nice line up a snowfield that had remained hidden until then. Denis led the way, with the rays of the sun all the warmer.
The crux turned out to be a short, narrow slot with almost no exposure which could be scrambled with ease. This completed, all that was left was to tag the summit.
It was time to break for lunch and enjoy the fine views afforded by the summit. But first, a bit of historical banter…
Ted, as it turned out, had worked with John Gillespie, whose father had been instrumental in lobbying for Pinecone-Burke to be set aside as parkland. The elder Gillespie had passed some years ago, but the mountain we stood atop had been named in his honour. (Edit here: I was incorrect with this information when I published this story in 2019. The elder Gillespie actually passed away in late June of 2021, according to his son, who contacted me a few days later)A worn but well made little sign lay nearby as well. Here are some summit views!
There was a large snowfield and a glacier on the other side of the mountain as well.
Haze from recent forest fires hung over the mountains, but of course the views were still grand.
Of course, we couldn’t stay there forever. Lingering on mountaintops much more than thirty minutes is frowned upon in the retread culture. I suspect this is mainly because the cold beer is back at the truck and, well, that reason’s good enough for me!
The idea was, of course, to retrace our steps from whence we came. On the way back we missed the cairn that marked the way and ended up casting about for alternative routes down to the glacier.
The sight of November Lake brought to mind my friend Martin. He has a burning desire to pack inflatable rafts to alpine lakes, and I think he has his eye on this lake too.
We explored several routes. One was a steep gully that looked loose and unsafe, so that was ruled out, then two more that ended in cliffs. We were about to reluctantly climb up and search for the cairn we had missed when Ted noticed a rocky gully that swung down to a moraine we could cross to get closer to the glacier.
Attaining the glacier was somewhat tricky too, as there were moats to avoid, but finally an easy avenue appeared. We crossed the glacier once again, aiming again for the basin below Peak 6580 .
Under ideal conditions, but as dictated by the objective, one of the chief designs of a retread’s day in the hills is to avoid vertical gain on the trip back. That was not to be possible on this day, as the ups and downs of these mountains meant there’d definitely be some hard work on the way home. Once at the basin we met some hikers with their dog who had climbed Peak 6500. I asked them if they had found the pair of sunglasses Doug had left there when we had hiked there three years before, but no luck there. Somewhere there’s a mountain goat strolling the hills up there with a nice pair of shades, I guess.
The walk back up to Peak 5700 after descending the ridge below Peak 6500 was a bit of a chore for me. I’m not sure whether I managed to get dehydrated or what but I ended up with a sore quadricep for a week after this trip. We were all happy to make it back to the truck and down a few very cold Budweisers after roughly 7 1/2 hours on the trail. Retreads in training are also required to supply chips- plain or ripple but no flavours being preferred. A very rewarding day, good times!
Myriad topics of conversation on the drive home included mountains, more mountains, wine, women, song, still more mountains, barrroom brawling, the NFL, softball, old western movies, beer, chips, more beer, and still more beer.
Since the ride up had thoroughly shattered his beer glasses, Ted included one of these beers below to each of us as parting gifts. Add a total of 5 1/2 hours driving- longer still for the guys- and it made for a solid 14 hour day. If you have never visited this part of the Coast Mountains, you’re missing out on the very sublime experience that is the Mamquam Valley. Get up there soon!