Category Archives: Exploration

Tree hunting, charting, and mapping trails

High Country for Old Men!

Maybe some of you have seen the movie No Country for Old Men? Well, uhhh, this is definitely not that. Not even close, really. I’m just hijacking and paraphrasing the catchy title of a fine film. Rather than a tale of intrigue over a battle for ill gotten gains, this, instead, is about a day out climbing in the Cascade Mountains of southwestern British Columbia.

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Good flick

High in the Eleven Mile Creek Valley lie a number of rugged peaks west of Manning Park and north of the Hope Slide. That slide, incidentally, in 1965, calved off the flanks of Johnson Peak and dammed a lake, causing a terrible loss of life and burying Highway 3 at the time. It is remembered as one of Canada’s notable natural disasters.

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Morning smoke from distant fires descends on the 11 Mile Creek Valley as our hike begins in earnest

But I digress. Mt Hatfield, at 2227m in elevation, sits in a high bowl not too far from Johnson Peak and nearby Mt Macleod. It is at the north end of Manson Ridge, with a commanding view of Mt Outram. The mountain was named for Penticton based conservationist Harley Hatfield, who contributed mightily to preserving the Skagit Valley. The principles for this excursion? Good mates Ted and Denis. It’s worth mentioning again that these guys have known each other since high school and have hiked together in six different decades so far, going strong into their seventies now! Who does that?

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My favourite picture of Ted and Denis (with mustache) taken some years ago near Joffre Lakes

 

At any rate, recently we had seen that our friend Simon had done a pair of hikes in the 11 Mile Creek Valley and had reported the new logging road was in decent condition. On that note, we decided to give it a go!

After picking up Ted in Vancouver at 530 am, soon we were sailing along Highway 1 toward Langley to meet up with Denis. As bad as traffic can get in B.C’s Lower Mainland, it’s never too difficult when you’re up early enough. Sometime around 730 am we arrived at the 8 Mile Creek turnoff, and then soon turned onto the 11 Mile Creek Road. This trek was nearly over before it began, however. After a few kilometres on the road, which requires high clearance 4X4 due to some very nasty waterbars, we ran into some boulders blocking the road. Right out of an episode of MacGyver, we ended up having to find ourselves a lengthy log and with the aid of that, rock wedges, and brute strength we managed to pry a four hundred pound rock off the road. We hadn’t exactly counted on that kind of workout to begin the day!

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Old school MacGyver! Dude had better hair and plenty of brainpower to go with it. Trivia: His show was co produced by none other than The Fonz, Henry Winkler

 

With that nonsense out of the way, we set out again on the road, driving roughly another six kilometres to where we decided to park. Ted, who prides himself on negative banter in the old British climbing tradition, offered us some Haterade, as he likes to call it, for the walk up the logging road. He says it inceases bitterness up to 20%, and Ted knows bitter! As far as I know, there’s absolutely no truth to the rumour that he sleeps on a bed of nails, at least not as far as I know!

 

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To understand Ted you need to read up on hard drinking, hard brawling, sarcastic English climbers, like the late Don Whillans, pictured here

Anyway, we were approximately four kilometres from Mt Hatfield as the crow flies according to my GPS, but our success hinged on finding the right creek valley to ascend. Well, Simon’s directions were quite accurate, but as it turned out I chose a creek about 1.5 kms west of where we needed to be. It was an excellent line of ascent had we been climbing neighbouring Mt Macleod, since it more or less led us right to the foot of its west ridge, which begins on beautiful granite. This meant that we would need to traverse over steep ground and sidehill for a while to gain the correct valley. Seeing as how there was no other alternative, on we went, because sometimes that’s  just the way it goes in the hills. We distracted ourselves with a lot of obscenities,  a few inane conspiracy theories, as well as keeping an eye out for marmots as their burrows were everywhere on the brushy mountainside.

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Arnica amidst slide alder. You take the good with the bad
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Lupines
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Taking a break from the punishment. That’s Johnson Peak in the background

Once we broke out into the open Mt Hatfield appeared in the distance. It was clear that we now needed to aim for the col that separated it from a high knoll on the adjacent ridge.  Somehow we managed to find ourselves in a sizable gully strewn with immense granite boulders. We chose to follow that upward on easier ground that led to a bench near Mt Macleod. A half an hour of meandering northeast and a brief encounter with a pika brought us to a broad meadow beneath our destination. I traced the path of a stream that braided its way toward us and eased downhill. Surely this was the creek Simon and Justin had followed here! Denis suggested we ought to try that out later on the descent. It seemed a good omen at that point that he spotted a marmot shuffling across the rock debris beneath the mountain.

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Mt Macleod is basically straight ahead as I look left from the gully to take this shot
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Much easier than side hilling low brush!
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This gully turned out to be very friendly ground to walk
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A rare moment when the sunlight managed to break the haze
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The creek we would later follow on our descent
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We are aiming for the saddle at centre right in this shot

 

I had first seen Mt Hatfield years ago on an attempt on Tulameen Mountain from the adjacent Sowaqua Creek drainage. Below here are some photos I took of the mountain from that neighbouring valley. It had looked much more dramatic than it appeared from our vantage point, as near vertical cliffs drop precipitously off its north side into the basin below that contains Kippan Lakes. The mountain’s first ascent- it was then simply called Peak 7200- happened back in 1956 and featured some twenty more kilometres of hard bushwhacking up from Highway 3. That was one long and punishing day I am sure!

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Hatfield as you see it from the north, with the col we are aiming for at centre here. It’s a far more dramatic peak from the Sowaqua Creek side
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Left to right, Outram, Manson and Hatfield from high across the valley to the north
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A zoom on Kippan Lakes, which lie in the bowl beneath the cliffs of Mt Hatfield

Another half an hour brought us to the foot of the south ridge of Hatfield, where we geared up. It seems like we always end up carrying some gear strictly for pack weight, usually that’s snowshoes but in this case, for Ted and I, it was ice axes.

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Arriving at the col we were aiming for, and seeing our first snow patch of the day

The ridge we were to scramble was rated a steady Class 3, and its start seemed obvious as those aforementioned cliffs were to our right, and thick krummholz barred the way on our left. Krummholz, by the way, meaning “bent wood” in German, refers to tightly growing stunted trees you find near the timber line. Said trees are quite effective in slowing down climbers, especially in the Cascade Mountains. They also cause random bursts of foul language!

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Here it is, the south ridge of Hatfield. We begin on that dusty brown patch of dirt in the middle.

There seemed to be an intermittent path to follow as we worked our way upward, and we took our time negotiating a few exposed steps here where a fall would have been dangerous.

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Hands on section along the ridge, exposure is to the right of Denis
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Onward and upward
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Working toward the crux above

 

We then broke into something of a clearing below a rock face where the reported crux of this climb came into view. There was a loose gully to deal with and a narrow tree lined chimney that would give passage to the summit block above.

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Since I didn’t take a photo of the crux on the way up, here’s Ted scrambling it on the way down

 

In my estimation, the exposed step below the crux I mentioned before was somewhat more difficult than this, but of course Simon and Justin were dealing with snow on their trek, which always changes the equation. We also encountered two spots where remaining snow overhung the Kippan Lakes Valley, and I recommend staying well back from the edge should you encounter those.

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Looking down into the Kippan Lakes basin below!

From there it was easier strolling, and Ted took the lead as I scanned the horizons. The smoke from distant fires blanketed every valley as far as one could see, and its acrid smell hung faintly in the air despite the wind.

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The summit horn is finally visible on the last 75m of ascent

Minutes later we were on the summit, with its crafty wooden sign, and broke for lunch. While we were there I opened up the summit register and made an entry, and read a few more. This year had quite a few more visitors, I guess because the road is so much more accessible.

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Hammer meets Hatfield
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Hatfield summit, 2227m according to Bivouac, 2217m according to my GPS
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Recent summit log entries. Thanks for the directions, Simon!
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Our summit entry
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Summit flower
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Hanging out on Hatfield

On the summit, Ted was chiding me over twisting his grumbling into too much optimism, saying “You need to stop that positive stuff, I have a reputation to uphold.” I responded with “Okay, how’s this…we’re in a helluva lot of trouble here and I don’t like the way this is going. My name’s Ted and all I gotta say is now we’re f****d!” He really liked that, musing that those would be the perfect three words for his epitaph, whereas Denis figured his would  be “Hold my beer!” Not sure what mine would be, probably something like “We’re really having trouble getting through to this guy.”

Now it was time for us to head down, Denis was already giving me heck about spending more than the maximum twenty minutes on the summit, as per retread rules. I’m guessing that’s to maximize beer time back at the truck! The trip down to the col went reasonably well, save for me leading us through some more annoying brush and getting off route, but no major complications. Here’s a few photos from the scramble down…

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Looking back at the summit and the smoky haze beyond
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Such a great view from up here!
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You can barely see Mt Outram through the haze
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A carpet of rock phlox
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Ever present purple penstemon
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Roaming the ridge
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Closer view of the horn of Hatfield

 

From the col it was an easy walk down to the stream, where we replenished our water supply and moved down into the basin below. Had I been thinking straight, I’d have heeded Simon’s words about keeping the creek on climber’s right on the ascent, or climber’s left on the way down…but….

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Water, giver of life
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The creek and Mt Macleod, before the hike down

…what we ended up doing was coming down the opposite side, which presented plenty of route finding challenges and an eventual crossing to the other side below a canyon. I also had to contend with an annoying leg cramp for about half an hour but that seemed to improve as we got closer and closer to the beer below! It was quite steep for a spell until some relief came in the form of a nice flat subalpine meadow.

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The meadow. We were back down at 1680m in elevation by now, but our work was far from done!

 

Unfortunately, before we could make it down we still had to negotiate that tricky canyon! Dense brush and spindly trees were the order of the day until we finally emerged on the logging road below. From there it was a couple of kilometres back to the truck after retrieving some beer from the creek. By then the stoke was about as high as it gets. This had been a fine day in the mountains!

Soon we were hanging out on the tailgate of Denis’ Toyota, sorting gear, and downing a few cold ones. In the ensuing discussion, we identified most of the world’s serious problems, and solved basically none of them, but of course the banter was priceless. Another Cascades classic in the book, as Denis said, and a helluva way to spend a Monday!

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Tailgating!

 

 

 

Hunting for The Spearhead

The last day in July found Doug and I riding the Solar Coaster Chair up Blackcomb Mountain for the third time in three years. At ten in the morning the temperature was already hovering around 25 degrees, and light winds were keeping the smoke from distant fires away, at least temporarily. We were headed for The Spearhead, a lofty peak at the confluence of three sizable glaciers and not far from the summit of Blackcomb Mountain, which we had visited two years ago. In winter and early spring, it marks the start of the well known Spearhead Traverse, which is a popular ski mountaineering route.

As treks go, this one was not among the most punishing, as you save well over a thousand metres in elevation gain by riding the chairlift up. You do, however, have to move quickly in order to be on time for the last ride down. Basically, you walk a well groomed track until you get to Blackcomb Lake, then swing your way into and up a long and steepish gully between Blackcomb Mountain and Disease Ridge to gain the basin that contains Circle Lake. From there, you scramble up to the col between Blackcomb and Spearhead, and then it’s a reasonably short scramble to climb The Spearhead. Despite my title for this diatribe, The Spearhead is not really all that difficult to find, truth be told.

 

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Shimmering waters of Blackcomb Lake

 

As we rode up the chair we couldn’t help but notice how dry the lower valley was, as of course there had not been much rain for weeks on end. At roughly 1030 am we were on the trail, at over 1800 metres in elevation, and reached the lake and boulder fields around an hour later.

 

 

 

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Our approach via heather and the treeline can be seen here

On our previous expedition to Blackcomb Mountain we had taken to the rock too soon, which made gaining the gully more time consuming. This time we resolved to follow heather and treeline until it became absolutely necessary to hop boulders, which turned out to be a better approach.

 

 

 

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Working up the gully

Once you’re in the gully, there is a beaten track which runs up the shoulder of its left side, which made for easier travel until we could move toward the middle. Views of Whistler Mountain, the Overlord Group, and Black Tusk helped to distract us from the hard work involved. Inevitably, though, there was plenty of loose rock we knew we had to deal with, and soon we were battling through fields of blocky granite and patches of snow.

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Getting closer, this is looking at Whistler Mountain et al from the gully
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Here we are reaching the top of the gully!

 

 

On this excursion, our strategy  was much more well thought out, and in no time we reached the basin above.

 

 

 

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Arriving at the basin, with Circle Lake below

My memories of this place were still quite vivid, yet somehow managed to exceed my expectations. Circle Lake was a shining shade of blue in the basin below, and the newly formed lake at the foot of the Trorey Glacier definitely seemed to have grown since we had last seen it. The air was clear, and you could see sharply etched crevasses on the glacial ice.

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We lingered for a while, then continued on to the col above, grinding our way up still more loose rock. The skies were a nearly impossible blue.

 

 

 

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Mt Decker looming above the basin, with the Overlord Group in behind at right

 

 

 

Arriving at the col, we could  see the route we had walked up Blackcomb Mountain two years before, and the summit of Decker Mountain, on which we had stood with good friend Denis the year before.

 

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Flowers greet us at the Blackcomb-Spearhead Col

 

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The ridge, summit of The Spearhead at left

 

 

Now we focused our attention on the ridge leading toward The Spearhead, which seemed fairly straightforward.

 

 

 

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Looking back at the basin, with Pattison, Trorey , and Decker left to right. Below them the Trorey and Decker Glaciers with Circle Lake in foreground. The lake at left is newly formed and not named

 

 

 

First it was a matter of hiking over the top of the first section, then looping behind and to the right to bypass a gap.

 

 

 

 

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Crossing above the Horstman Glacier, with Rainbow mountain and Ipsoot Mountain among the sea of peaks across the valley

 

 

 

From there it was necessary to drop down to the left and traverse below the crest of the ridge so that we could cross a snowfield above the Horstman Glacier.

 

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The objective in sight

In a matter of minutes we stood a hundred metres or so below the summit of The Spearhead, which, not surprisingly, consisted of, well, more loose rock!

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On the summit, looking toward Mt James Turner at right

 

 

 

As we ascended I noticed something of a left to right trending ramp, so we followed that upward. Finally, there was nowhere higher in sight, and we spied an inconspicuous cairn.

 

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The Wedge Group with Wedge Mountain front and centre, high above the Wedge Creek Valley and the Spearhead Glacier

 

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Crevasses on the Spearhead Glacier

Views were spectacular, with mountains in all directions! The other side of the mountain dropped sharply to the massive Spearhead Glacier, with the unmistakable bulk of Wedge Mountain staring us down. Cook, Weart, the Armchair Glacier, The Owls, and Lesser Wedge could also be seen as well as Mt James Turner.

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Panorama of the basin from the summit of Spearhead, 2457 metres in elevation

Looking back down into the basin, the Overlord Group was also visible in behind Pattison, Trorey, and Decker, with the icefall of the Cheakamus Glacier in the distant haze. As I looked down the Horstman Glacier I could see all the way down to Green Lake. Blackcomb Mountain, and part of the Mt Currie massif loomed large, while Rainbow Mountain and Ipsoot were almost hidden in the smoke. One could also see the mountains  of the Squamish and Elaho Valleys, with the sharp spike of Ashlu being most prominent.

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Ipsoot Mountain through the distant haze

 

 

 

 

 

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Mt James Turner, up close

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By now you may have figured out I enjoy this view a lot

 

This was an outstanding place to stop and break for a satisfying lunch. Even cellular reception was strong, so that Doug was able to contact his wife in the valley below so she could ride up and join us for refreshments. It was now time to begin the race to the beer garden!

 

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Well, maybe just one more look…

 

Much as we imagined the thought of cold beer giving us wings, which it usually does, the long, shifty, and convoluted route back to Blackcomb Lake and beyond still took us a couple of hours.

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Tiny phlox among the rocks, at 2400 metres

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Horstman Glacier with Squamish-Cheakamus Divide and much, much more in the background

 

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Doug back at the col

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Doug back at the boulder field, Blackcomb Mountain summit block in the background

 

As we reached the lake and looked back toward Blackcomb Mountain, we could just make out a large group of hikers tackling the west face of Blackcomb Mountain. It’s a tricky and exposed route with plenty of rockfall, but the group was all over the mountain and seemed like they might get into some trouble. It turned out they were just fine in the end, so we continued on with our quest for beer.

 

 

All in all, it was another fine day in the hills. This area is well known but still seems underrated, if you ask me. The hiking is decent, and camping possibilities in the basin are even more enticing.

***As always, a note of thanks to Matt Gunn’s descriptions in his fine book “Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia”***

Coquihalla Dreamin’

As everyone here in British Columbia knows, there have been numerous hot summer days to go around this year. More accurately, the midsummer weather began early in May, and Southwestern B.C. has  had one of its most active forest fire seasons.

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Coquihalla Mountain, an old strato volcano, as I saw it for the first time in 2008 from Jim Kelly Peak

For several weeks, Doug and I had been planning a trip to the mountains, but the smoke from the fires had been changing our plans. Finally, I came up with an idea. Seven years ago, on a cold, clear, and windblown day, I’d had the chance to visit a sweeping alpine plateau in the Bedded Range and hiked up Jim Kelly Peak and Illal Mountain with a new group of friends. I had wanted to return for another look in warmer weather, and this July seemed the perfect opportunity.

The promise of a decent trail with relatively reasonable elevation gain to an ideal  basecamp was enough to convince Doug of the possibilities. So it was that we set off early on a Friday morning, headed for Hope.  Doug grabbed a coffee at The Blue Moose, and we made our way to the Britton Creek Rest Area on the Coquihalla Highway. There we stopped to organize our gear and eat an early lunch. Half an hour later we were driving up the Tulameen Forest Service Road, and, after crossing Illal Creek, rocked and rolled our way up a rough logging spur to an excellent parking spot around three kilometres in. This was the maiden logging road voyage for Doug’s new Toyota Tacoma and it passed the test with flying colours!

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Illal Meadows and Illal Mountain, as you reach the meadows

All that settled, it was time for the hike in. Our packs were heavy with overnight gear and refreshments, and the temperature, though hot, was offset initially by adequate shade and brisk winds. Insects, sometimes more than notorious there, were few and far between, as we steadily trekked up to the plateau. Most of the wildflowers had already bloomed, which is unusual for mid July, but the meadows were still quite lush and green.

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Near camp, below Jim Kelly Peak

Soon enough, we arrived at a shining tarn beneath Jim Kelly Peak, and stashed our overnight gear. It was a relief to doff the heavy packs and relax for a while. There was at least some, no, wait, plenty of temptation  to sprawl out and take a nap, but we’d come there to hike and so instead began analyzing our options for the route up Coquihalla Mountain.

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Illal Mountain, 2020 m, in October 2008. That’s Yak peak n the Coquihalla highway in the background

Conditions were ideal , and contrasted sharply with the frigid day on which I’d climbed Jim Kelly Peak and Illal Mountain.

 

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Coquihalla Mountain. We would be going around to the left and into the valley beyond. Why? Probably because we thought it was the hardest way….

The route we had chosen was the south flank, which involved a long traverse around the mountain, over half of a circumnavigation, one way. There were limited reports about the route but rumour had it that at one time, in the boom days of Coalmont, there was even a once popular trail there that had now fallen into disuse. To begin, we needed to drop from the Illal Meadows into the col between Jim Kelly Peak and Coquihalla Mountain and follow a well worn path that supposedly accesses a popular lake below the pass. Here, on the way in, we spotted several of the biggest marmots we’d ever seen, and on the way back also saw a weasel hunting among the rocks. The next series of photos illustrate the approach step by step…

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Dropping into the Jim Kelly/Coquihalla col, shoulder of Coquihalla at left and hiking toward the left here…
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Looking up at Coquihalla from the pass, at the beginning of the “Endless Traverse”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You must then lose elevation from the pass. No worries, it’ll just hurt more on the way back 🙂
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Getting closer. Travel is deceptively tough beyond here and it’s best to lose elevation and travel just beneath unstable rock fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking back from whence we came. That’s Jim Kelly Peak and the col/pass. Easiest line to follow here on the way back is at the base of this rockfall then through krummholz, which was roughly what we did
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When you see this aspect you can begin to gain all the elevation back and head for the south flank, out of shot at left…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That traverse proved to be as endless as its reputation, and you had to be creative in order to avoid difficult ground. We did that by losing elevation and following easier ground through bands of stunted trees, also known as krummholz. It was a lot like finding one’s way through a maze, and on more than one occasion we did find remnants of that old trail, albeit accidentally. There was plenty of scenery to enjoy, especially as the towers of the Coquihalla massif loomed high above us.

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What you need to do now is find your way onto the low end of the rock at left then pass through the shoulder where you will see your next obstacle….

 

With more than a little persistence, we just kept on scuffling, and finally the south flank came into view. It was a welcome sight, to be sure!

 

 

We knew that the summit was  close at hand now, and that all we needed to do was find a way up the flank. This we did by walking an obvious path through fields of scree right to left in second photo below, then clawing our way almost directly up several partially loose sections of rock including a chimney or two and a lot more krummholz.

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Our view as we ascended, just below the last 100 metres of climbing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Final countdown!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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But not before we check the summit waypoint, which showed that we were only fifty metres away….

Finally, we broke through and topped out on yet another band of rock, but from this one the summit cairn could be seen off to our right. Success was near!19659649148_1e18e519cb_z copy

Immediately, however, my eyes were drawn to to the left, where the slopes dropped sharply off the other side of the mountain. You can never really relax in the mountains! This hazard was easily avoided, of course, but it sure got our attention.

 

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Needle and Markhor Peaks, with Yak Peak in the background and Highway 5 to its right

 

Scanning about, one could now see the other summits of Coquihalla as well. Views of the Hidden Creek Valley, Tulameen, Needle and Markhor Peaks were especially rewarding.

As we walked to the summit cairn I felt compelled to holler “Oh yeah! Earned!” Normally, I’m not given to that kind of expression, but on that day we were both pretty stoked to be there. It had been almost seven years since I had seen this mountain, and it was compelling to see the other side of that view ( see the first picture in this tale).

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Charming summit shot, all smiles and no pain, brother!
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Truthful summit shot, thinking about the descent!
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What I believe to be Bedded Lake across the valley

 

 

 

 

 

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A view of what I call the Illal Plateau, with Illal Mountain at centre and Spiral Peak in behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking more than our usual twenty minutes on the summit, at 2157 metres in elevation, we snacked for a while and then left for camp.

 

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Starting back for camp, bring it on!

 

The way back was almost as lengthy, but we were able to make somewhat quicker work of it.

 

 

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Doug descending toward the boulder field, where the traverse home will begin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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But, well, there was this all too familiar view…

We did, as on the hike in, have to gain and lose elevation frequently but before long we were grinding up to the col we had left a couple of hours before.

 

 

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Lupines

All that was left then was a  somewhat tired walk up to the meadows, dinner, and icing down some beer in a snow cooler we had built. About as good as it gets, if you’re asking me.

 

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Back at camp, under Jim Kelly Peak again!

The evening hours featured  fine sunset views in all directions, and on the plateau below we could see the tents from several other campers who had arrived to enjoy the meadows. Here are some of my favourite photos from sunset time…

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Trees aglow
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Illal mountain looking like something out of Utah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interesting clouds

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coquihalla just plain showing off!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunset over camp

 

After all the rambling about taking photos and setting up camp, darkness came quickly and the beer was gone all too soon.

 

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The plateau and Coquihalla Mountain, in October 2008

We turned in for the night, which turned out to be reasonably warm, and slept well. I was even happier that I had not tried camping here on that first excursion some seven years back!

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The view in the general direction of Merritt

Invariably, I’m an early riser on mountain trips, and I was up before five in the morning wandering around the plateau. Here are a few shots of the sunrise, which was well worth waking up for!

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Alpenglow on Coquihalla Mountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunrise clouds over camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunrise glory!

 

 

 

 

 

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My favourite photo from the trek
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If you don’t know what krummholz is, it’s stunted groves of tightly growing conifer typical to cold alpine regions. Growing low and densely helps it to thrive in snows, wind, and other such harsh conditions

 

All that remained was to break camp, enjoy some coffee and breakfast, and talk about our return to a place where one visit is simply not enough!

 

 

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Paintbrush

 

The walk back was leisurely, with plenty of time for more photography and to closely examine the geology of the region as well as the plant life.

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Not sure what this is, but it thrives near water
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Jim Kelly and Coquihalla reflected

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fields of aster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Doug walking around another tarn

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Conglomerate
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One last glance at the meadows and this cool boulder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at the truck, we decided to drive out first as we were concerned there might be a lot of vehicles driving the narrow road in. That turned out to be very true, it was a veritable thoroughfare! As we exited the logging road there was a group of backpackers milling about, and I later found out that one of them was someone I knew, though not until later on. Small world, as they say!

Credit the 1966 song ” California Dreamin’ ” by The Mamas and The Papas, for the somewhat paraphrased title of this tale. All day that tune had happened to be running through my mind, for whatever reason. This was, to sum it up, one the more enjoyable trips I’ve been on the last few years,  and highly recommended.

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Illal Mountain October 2008… Photo by Silvia Bakovic

Thanks also to my good friend Gerry, whose indomitable spirit and determination to get people into the mountains to discover new friends and experiences was largely responsible for my introduction to this part of the world seven years ago. This one’s for you, buddy! Dig this old school video!

Canyoneering 101: An Afternoon in Looper Creek Canyon

 

It was September of 2012 when I received a message from my good friend Chris: Was I interested in joining him and a group of friends to do some canyoneeering on Vancouver Island?

First, a brief explanation, of sorts. For those of you who have never heard of canyoneering, it’s a sport in which you don a wetsuit and dry pack and make your way down a creek canyon as best you can to hopefully emerge in one piece. I kid, really. Actually, it is generally a very safe pursuit when you consider that you make use of a plethora of mountaineering gear, if needed, and take all the necessary precautions while making said descents.

It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative. Chris had been telling me canyoneering tales for years and I’d been intrigued for quite some time. His description of the Looper Creek Canyon’s beautiful polished rock and verdant limestone gorge sounded fantastic to me, and so more plans were made.

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Morning on the deck of the ferry

 

Since Chris was on a tour of some Pacific Northwest canyons and already on Vancouver Island, I’d be taking the ferry over to Nanaimo to meet him in Departure Bay. Riding the boat with me was Vlad, a long time climbing partner of Chris whom I’d only had the chance to meet briefly before. Also in on the trip were Kevin and Francois, aka Fix, who were also on “The Island” and had been descending some other canyons there. The sun was just beginning to come up as my wife Jan dropped Vlad and me off at Horseshoe Bay. We were in luck, it looked as though it would be another warm and sunny day.

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Looking back at the city, Island bound again!

As the ferry steamed toward Nanaimo, Vlad and I  sat out on the upper deck enjoying the scenery and sharing hiking stories. Soon the boat was docking, and we met Kevin and Fix on the other side. They were still recovering from the previous day’s adventure but other than lack of sleep they were none the worse for wear. I had known Kevin from sites online for years, so it seemed, strangely, as though we had already met. Fix, who was entirely new to me, was a real canyon enthusiast with a strong interest in photography and filming.

But, where was Chris? He’d left his transplanted home in Utah some days ago and as far as I knew had last been somewhere in Washington state. In another fifteen minutes, his well used Jeep Cherokee rolled into the parking lot and Vlad and I jumped in for the ride. With Fix and Kevin following in Kevin’s Jeep, we all set out for Lake Cowichan, where we would begin a long drive on logging roads bound for Looper Creek. “Don’t mind the dust, chips, the box of blueberries and whatever else you find.” Chris warned, jokingly. “Just move whatever so you can sit down!” Many diatribes were detailed along the way; this was to be the sixth canyon in six days for Chris, one of his busier weeks ever.

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Peering into the “abyss” from the Looper Creek Bridge

 

We continued to Lake Cowichan where there was a stop to fuel up, and then hit the logging roads for at least another fifty kilometres. Finally, Chris pulled over abruptly at an inconspicuous looking bridge. We walked over and stood about for a minute. “Well, that’s the canyon down there,” Chris said. I peered down into the deep gorge, but I couldn’t see much of anything in the midday shadows.

Seconds later Kevin and Fix arrived and the next half hour was taken up with both idle banter and the important task of outfitting everyone with the necessary gear for the trip. Then there was an important discussion regarding the possible technical challenges. In canyoneering, teamwork is paramount, because once you’re in the canyon, you’re pretty much committed and it can often be difficult to reverse your direction. Since this was summer, high water flows were not expected. If we were lucky, the whole trek might be able to be done in wetsuits and of course the mandatory climbing helmets, but nevertheless we would be ready for anything!

I was of two worlds on this trip. Firstly, I was the oldest person in group, but secondly, I was also the least experienced, as this was to be my first canyon. Since Chris has been one of my best mates for years and I’d heard so many stories, I did have a good idea of what to expect, however. As for the others, Vlad had been in a number of canyons with Chris, while Kevin and Fix were both seasoned veterans.

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Kevin dropping in!

Once we had packed up, it was time to make our way up the logging spur near the bridge for about a kilometre and a half to where we would drop in to the canyon. Being the ever eager rookie, I’d already put on my wetsuit and tied it off at the waist for the walk uphill. The result of that was an uncomfortable stroll in the hot sun, though I was glad to have the leggings on when we bushwhacked down into the gorge.

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Vlad gets ready
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Chris is pretty relaxed, he’s been here before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some very cool rock

 

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Monster Bigleaf Maple specimen, probably 300 years old

No sooner had Fix led the way down the steep, brushy slope, we were all on the banks of Looper Creek. Huge Bigleaf Maple trees towered above us as the creek ambled quietly by. I could tell almost immediately that this was a special place, quite unlike any I had been before. As a youngster one of my favourite things to do was to find a creek and explore it, so this seemed like another chapter of my youth, in a sense.

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An otherworldly place

 

 

We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.

 

 

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Vlad and Kevin taking it all in
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Fix leading the way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another huge Bigleaf Maple tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kevin contemplates the day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Walking downstream

 

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Pretty soon we reached a clearing with deep emerald pools and a series of small cascades, so it looked as though we’d now be doing some swimming. It was there that everyone else got into their wetsuits.

 

 

 

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I also got a tutorial on how to stash your camera in a dry bag. Kevin and I were using waterproof digital cameras whereas Chris and Fix had digital SLRs. They had ample suggestions about how best to keep your camera dry but that was something I’d just have to get the hang of, apparently.

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Vlad in the very first pool

We moved on, walking through narrows, hopping on rocks, and swimming through pools. It was just a lot of good clean fun!

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Kevin finds one of the locals

 

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Into the mystic

Canyoneering is a very unique experience. I found it similar in spirit to exploring forests, one of my favourite pursuits, in that you envelop yourself in the surroundings. The walls help to enhance that feeling. It is very different from mountaineering, my other passion, where you may begin in forest but you work your way ever upward into the open terrain of the alpine. Each  pursuit has its own enticing qualities, I believe.

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There was but one demanding section, as depicted above, near a confluence of huge fallen trees. Chris had thought we might need to break out the harnesses and rappel down to the waters below, but as it turned out it was able to be circumvented using a simple hand line. For good measure, though, Chris and Kevin took the time to practice setting up some gear. The rest of us were either taking photos or clowning about jumping into pools.

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Chris testing his line

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The canyon was a place of truly phantasmal beauty, and it seemed that everywhere one looked caused the fascination to grow stronger.

 

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There were the walls. Sheer, unyielding, granite, limestone. Sometimes they were smooth and polished, other times rough, even somewhat sinister, and enclosing.

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Then there were the fallen trees, interlocked to create obtructions, or perfectly placed to aid our path. It rather reminded me a life sized version of the kids game “Kerplunk”, as we manoeuvred our way over, under, down, and around  their hulking skeletons. Whenever it seemed we had reached an impasse, nature seemed to provide an avenue of escape.

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The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.

 

Last but far from least were the pools. Clear, green, shimmering, sometimes travertine. Some were shallow, others deep. Some you walked, some you swam, others you floated through.

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Fix setting up the ideal shot, an artist at work
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Deep inside the canyon walls

 

 

The journey continued on down the gorge. Eventually, we arrived at the crux of the trip, a large pool surrounded by rock walls that canyoneers sometimes wryly refer to as a “keeper pothole”. The name derives from the fact that they can sometimes recquire a grappling hook to escape. This one had no such issues, though I scuffled briefly because for whatever reason my hands had gone numb. Here’s a short video Kevin took of the resulting shenanigans, where, if you ask me, Vlad steals the show by repeatedly leaping in and climbing out again.

 

After a few more laughs and a lot more photographs we moved on again. Just when it seemed the trek might never end, or simply wasn’t meant to end, we reached the grand finale.

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Suddenly, the creek virtually vanished, its flow now subterranean. Our path bent sharply to the right, then to the left before the water reappeared in a succession of swims that finished in a cavern like chamber underneath the bridge we had begun at. It was high above us, and partially obscured. From the road above one could never have known that such magic was so well hidden from sight!

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We lingered there as long as we could, reflecting on the day. I later discovered that my friend Karsten had once rappelled off the bridge to the place we now stood admiring. Now that is what I call making an entrance! This is Karsten after the rappel into the gorge (check out his Flickr site by clicking on the photo, it’s well worth the time)….

Looper Creek Canyon

We left reluctantly, scouting for the exit trail nearby. It was well rigged with a series of ropes to aid us in our ascent. In another ten minutes we were at the trucks, sharing the stoke of a truly unique adventure. Amid all the camaraderie, a few beers were drank, thanks to Kevin, and we stowed away a lot of wet gear for the ensuing ride homeward.

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Ship in the night

 

 

We then parted company with Fix and Kevin, who were bound for Duke Point, and set out for Departure Bay. The ride back on the ferry featured an epic sunset to craft the ideal ending to what was, in every way, a near perfect day.

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Texada Island from the ferry deck

 

 

 

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One last look….

If ever you’re looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend you give canyoneering a go. You won’t regret it! My only misgiving was that I had waited so long to try it myself!

Cheewhat to Carmanah, a Journey Back In Time

 

When I first found myself on the west coast of British Columbia after arriving from Quebec in the late 1970s, the very first thing that captivated me here in British Columbia were the towering conifers. The very scent of the forest was something unknown to me, and I can recall spending an inordinate amount of time looking upward in admiration. It was that sort of awe that kindled my interest in hiking, and it remains strong even today. I have spent countless hours in search of the province’s remaining old growth trees.

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Coastal B.C. forest

Years later, when I began to research the whereabouts of these remaining giants, I began to follow the exploits of legendary B.C. big tree hunter and conservationist Randy Stoltmann. Through his book Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, I learned of numerous amazing finds. Two particular areas captured my imagination more than most others. One was Cheewhat Lake, and the other was the Carmanah Creek Valley, both on Vancouver Island. Cheewhat is notable for the discovery of the world’s largest Western Red Cedar, perhaps as old as two thousand years. Carmanah features great stands of ancient Sitka Spruce, and is among the last intact valley bottom ecosystems to escape the saws of logging. The Cheewhat Cedar is now protected within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, while Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park serves to protect the Carmanah Valley.

It was not until the autumn of 2012, however, that the right opportunity to visit these forests would present itself for me. It was on a late October afternoon that Doug and I would finally see ourselves enroute to the west side of Vancouver Island. Naturally, the trip began on the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, bound for Nanaimo. The goal, from there, was to make our way to Cowichan River Provincial Park where we’d camp the first night. The rains persisted right up until the time we arrived at the campground.

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Bigleaf Maple on the picnic table

We’d been listening to the World Series on the radio while we drove, and so the drive seemed to fly by. That night, clutch hitting by Pablo Sandoval and a gritty pitching performance by veteran Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants was enough to down the Detroit Tigers and their ace Justin Verlander, if you’re a baseball fan.

More showers ushered in a somewhat gloomy night, but to us that hardly mattered. We were armed with plenty of tarps, and Doug’s sturdy MEC Wanderer tent, which has served as basecamp for many of our adventures. Add to that steak to barbecue,  a cooler full of beer, and an ample supply of firewood, and we had the makings of a fine evening. The next day called for improved weather, so our fingers were crossed for better fortune on that front. We spent a great night in camp, reminiscing about past exploits and bantering about future plans. As we turned in, the night descended into a world of silence, broken only by the sounds of rain striking the tent and the hiss of our campfire being quietly extinguished.

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Coleman stove, eh

 

Wanting to get as early a start as possible, we awoke in darkness to get breakfast straightened away. Ahead was the rest of the highway to Lake Cowichan, followed by a lengthy drive on logging roads to the Rosander Main and the Cheewhat Cedar.

 

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Lake Cowichan and unexpected autumn colours

We soon realized that sunshine was upon us, and that it was going to be a bluebird day. After a stop for fuel, we took to the gravel, aided in no small part by a work crew which had newly graded much of the road surface. It was still early in the morning when we parked beside a small roadside cairn. Beyond that cairn lay a rough track that would hopefully lead us to the legendary tree.

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Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

 

Radiant morning sun filtered through the forest canopy as we passed the sign that let us know we were within the national park reserve.

 

 

 

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Overturned cedar and its roots, now home to many forms of life

 

A massive fallen cedar immediately captivated our attentions. A giant well over 15 feet in diameter, its massive root ball and trunk had become host to a vibrant community of new life. The understory was very biodiverse, and the further we hiked, the larger the trees became. The trail itself was  a somewhat indistinct path, and aside from the occasional marker, close attention was needed to stay on track.

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The trunk of the fallen giant

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After walking through a clearing in the forest we stumbled upon the gnarled mass of a very large cedar which was well over fifteen feet in diameter. It was easy to tell that it was very old, likely over six hundred years old. Doug figured we were on the right track, and I agreed. It was as though we had landed in another world as the forest grew more fascinating with each step!

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Ancient tree just uphill from the Cheewhat Cedar

 

Soon the trail took the sharp bend to the left that we were looking for, and we were led to an absolute giant of a tree. As massive as it was, at nearly eighteen feet in diameter, we knew that it wasn’t the Cheewhat Cedar. The entire grove, in fact, was a true old growth stand, so rarely seen nowadays, yet once so commonplace on Vancouver Island. Before moving on we stood still, not speaking much, but simply absorbing the atmosphere.

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Doug with the champion of all champions, the Cheewhat Cedar

 

We knew that the monarch could not be far away, as the map indicated it was only yards downhill from where we were, and so we continued hiking. Suddenly, and somehow almost surprisingly, it appeared in the clearing below. I could now understand the feeling its discoverer must have experienced.

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A true giant

This tree was a true leviathan, spanning twenty feet in diameter. Since the time this tree had begun its life as a seedling, two millennia had passed, give or take a decade or two. Two thousand years. That was almost beyond comprehension, though by no means could it compete with, for longevity, with the world’s oldest trees. That is a topic for another time, of course.

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Sign of designation

 

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Wall of wood!

The next hour was spent eating lunch and rambling about the tree taking photographs from every conceivable vantage point. The Cheewhat Cedar is truly a remarkable exhibit of nature at its finest. I highly recommend visiting it if you ever get the opportunity.

Wanting to make our way to Carmanah, we hiked resolutely back to the trailhead and continued up the logging road, accompanied by the midday sun. The morning had given way to a beautiful autumn afternoon, as we rolled into the parking lot. It seemed a deserted campsite, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.

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That’s a Marbled Murrelet on the park sign

We decided to take advantage of the clear skies and take to the woods, as more rain was predicted for the evening. The park trails were comparatively well developed in contrast to the Cheewhat Trail we had just walked.

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Spruce, shadows, and greenery

 

In fact, in the early 1990s it had been the centre of a very well organized lobby to protect this valley. Randy Stoltmann, among many others, had been integral in spearheading that movement at the time. It was the year before before his untimely passing in a ski mountaineering accident in 1994 that the valley finally attained designation as a provincial park. Miles of boardwalk had been built by scores of volunteers to raise awareness of this rare forest. The campaign was also supported by many artists of worldwide acclaim.

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Doug on the Carmanah boardwalk

 

In just twenty years, these paths have begun to fall into disrepair, but the dream they represent  still burns brightly.

 

 

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Tracks

It was a triumph to preserve this special place. Our hike down the valley continued along Carmanah Creek. On the sandy gravel banks the tracks of animals could be seen clearly, and our necks craned trying to find an elusive Marbled Murrelet nest.

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Marbled Murrelet… Image from Wikipedia

A shy, retiring creature, this bird has the habit of nesting in the tops of old growth Sitka Spruce trees. Much of its habitat on the west coast has been destroyed or altered, and its southern population has dwindled over the years. In Canada’s north, where apparently it is a ground nesting bird, it has far more abundant numbers, I understand. Unfortunately, we never did see one.

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Carmanah Creek

 

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Clear and still waters

We visited the Heaven Tree, among the largest spruce in the valley, and admired the vast garden of hanging mosses it presented. This tree is definitely one of the park’s star attractions.

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The Heaven Tree, a huge old growth Sitka Spruce
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The biggest tree in the Stoltmann Grove

 

Then we walked down to the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove, home to several massive specimens. We felt immense pride in following in Randy’s footsteps, as we have done on many hikes. He also lived on Vancouver’s North Shore, as we do, and spent hours in the forests we have walked.

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Doug reads the sign at the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove

 

 

That Carmanah survives well would be satisfaction enough for him, I imagine. Still, Randy left us way before his time.

 

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Walking the grove

The route toward the ocean is officially closed beyond the grove, but I’m told it’s actually somewhat intact if riddled by deadfall in some stretches . It follows Carmanah Creek to its intersection with the well known West Coast Trail, which one needs a permit to hike.

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The Three Sisters

 

After a short stay we hiked back to walk some of the northern section of the trail and to visit The Three Sisters. The forest there was equally enchanted. We lingered for a while but since skies were darkening we headed back to the truck to get camp set up.

 

 

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Pool alongside Carmanah Creek
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Spruce and moss

 

It turned out we did have the whole park to ourselves and the only firepit in sight as well. Amidst eating dinner while the rains began to fall we listened to the faint and crackling radio feed of the second game of the World Series, where the Giants Pablo Sandoval was once again terrorizing Tiger pitching.

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Carmanah Camp

This day also ended with cold beer and a decent campfire! Darkness came early, and when the beer was gone we turned in, with the distant sounds of Pacific surf drifting in the wind. The sound of rain drowned out all consciousness, and the next thing we knew morning had dawned.

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Carmanah forest panorama

 

Breakfast came first, and all that remained was the long journey home. A relentless downpour chased us all the way to the ferry terminal at Departure Bay. It had been two memorable October days.

Randy
Thanks Randy, we couldn’t have seen it all without you!

 

 

 

Hunting the Forests of Yesteryear: The Old Mines of Lynn Headwaters

 

Last Saturday, March 7th, Doug, Alex, and I  set out to search for some of the hidden mines in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park.

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View of Barrier Creek Valley from Third Debris Chute

While not strictly a secret, it’s not commonly known that during the period of 1900- 1940, a number of claims were prospected in the Lynn, Norvan, and Hanes Creek drainages. From what I have read, it was mostly iron, copper, and zinc that were discovered, but no doubt more precious metals like silver and especially gold were the real objectives.

Doug had obtained a map from fellow North Shore Rescue companion Wally, who had visited the area some years ago with mountaineering legend Howie Rode. Our plan was to hike the Headwaters Trail to the bridge at the 5 km mark, check out the camp near that location, and then climb up the creek draw east of the bridge in search of whatever we could find.

The first part of our trek was easy enough, a five kilometre hike on mostly flat ground. The trail was alive with dozens of runners on their way up to Norvan Falls, a popular weekend destination. Most of them would have little clue that the trail they were running on was once a thriving lifeline for both logging and mining operations. Today, Lynn Headwaters, a former watershed until 1981, is one of the jewels of Greater Vancouver’s wilderness parks.

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Ore Cart

The ore cart you see above is one of easiest artifacts to locate in the area. I stumbled upon it years ago while hunting old growth trees in the area long before I even knew about mining in Lynn Valley. It is only about ten metres off the trail at around the 4.7 km mark. All that remains are the axles and some attached hardware, as the decks have long since returned to the earth, so to speak. There  is a nearby pile of ore tailings and supposedly a mine adit too but we were unable to find the actual minesite.

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Doug, putting navigational skills to use

 

 

Within sight of the ore cart is another guilty pleasure of mine; one of the most unusual trees in the entire park! It’s a tree with a legend, too, as the story goes a group of loggers were in the process of falling it and another nearby tree, when an accident occurred that took a man’s life. It was decided that they would leave the tree to stand, with all its cuts, and it still survives today. It’s well over 500 years old now, and truly defies adversity.

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Sometimes when I look at it I can’t believe it hasn’t toppled just yet, and I hope that day never comes.

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A true giant

 

There was a time when Western Redcedars between twelve and sixteen feet in diameter and up to a thousand years old were commonplace here. When the Cedar Mills Logging Company plied its trade here, the fallers were very thorough. I have hunted almost all of the park’s drainages on the east side of Lynn Creek and found very few ancient trees.

Now, back to our quest for the mines! We crossed the bridge upstream and began climbing up the south bank. The terrain was typical of the area; we needed to gain but a couple hundred metres but the grades were unforgivingly steep. You also had to be careful not to cliff yourself out, trap yourself in a sharp ravine, or get stuck climbing over deadfall. All good clean fun of course.

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Not far up from the trail we found quite a few relics, like this shovel head, piping, and old gas can. The men who worked these slopes were tough and dedicated. Packing cast iron up mountains like this was no easy trick.

11025831_358471364361267_3235867521783952709_nThe hook we found, here at left, was I think used for logging purposes as you can see some wire rope cable is buried beside it. I thought it would make an amazing movie prop for a Halloween movie of some kind. What do you think?

 

 

Next we traversed north toward the next creek drainage at about the 500 metre level in search of a possible camp.

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Stove plate

Some coal burn remains were found as well as a number of cast iron rails and stove parts. Again, the act of lugging all those parts uphill and assembling them must have been an onerous task indeed!

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There were also cast iron pipes found here, and some apothecary bottles. Alex, also a North Shore Rescue volunteer, regaled me with tales of his youth in England that included digging for artifacts under cover of darkness. Hunting for hidden history had long been an avid interest of his. Europe, of course, offers centuries more to discover than our reasonably short recorded heritage here in North Vancouver.

Doug’s thought was to cross the next creek canyon because the map indicated several finds on the adjacent cliffs. This involved fighting our way up another steep spine and making a careful crossing over slick rock. We were all glad that there had been very little recent rainfall.

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Warning!

Less than five minutes away, we knew we were on to something when we saw this sign. While the guys approached from above, I climbed up from below, and saw what I thought was either a work platform or a cabin base.

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The platform had long been covered by trees and dirt but there was a mound of tailings beside it. From above, Doug and Alex announced with excitement that they had found a mine!

Alex was the first to have a closer look. he discovered that there was a shaft opening beneath the floorboards that went down quite a way. This was not a place to trifle with, as by dropping a rock inside we guessed that it was water filled and well over ten feet deep!

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The ground above the mine was extremely steep. We wondered aloud exactly why this spot had been chosen, of all places. It must have been those dreams of untold riches that drive men to prospect. It was something well beyond the modest possibilities found here, we were certain.

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The timbers were in amazing condition, considering how long they had been abandoned, and you could see that they had been notched, perhaps to accomodate some kind of pulley system and or a winch to bring the ore up. Deep in the mine opening, on the right, there was even a partly finished scupture of a face.

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It was, at the end of the day, some time very well spent. It was soon that we departed, recrossed the creek, and tried to work our way south to the creek canyon we’d started in. We gave up that venture when we realized we would not have the time to explore any more, as we wanted to be back by 1230 pm. So we plunged downhill, reaching the trail and hordes of humanity in just minutes, heading homeward on an ideal spring afternoon.

 

The Retreads Grapple Gillespie

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 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.

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Ted and Denis, clowning it up on the trail, on one of our other trips!

 

 

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, Ted and Denis. 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.

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Tom Fyles. Old school B.C. climber also known as The Climbing Postman. Ted assures me Tom neither stretched nor put limes in beer….

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!”

 

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.

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The Mt Garibaldi massif, 2687 metres high, as seen from above the 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.

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Sky Pilot Mountain, 2031 metres in elevation, highest in the Britannia Range

 

 

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!

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Mt Judge Howay in the Stave River drainage

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ted geared and ready for the alpine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Meslilloet Mountain, 2000 metres tall, and home to the closest glacier to Metro Vancouver

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. had been a day of foul weather and fleeing from bears, to exaggerate mildly. The previous excursions I had made there had given me a sense of familiarity, but more than that, it 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.

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Mt Gillespie
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Sharp drop into an adjacent valley. We would be weaving our way down into a gap, then up to the basin at upper right

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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The bowl below Seed Peak aka Peak 6500

 

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.

 

 

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Denis and Ted reaching the basin, Gillespie at right

 

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.

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The guys heading down to the glaciers

 

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Walking the glacier

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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Afternoon sun on the granite

 

In the now approaching midday sun, the rock took on different tones, changing from pollished greys to browns and pinks.

 

 

 

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Circular patterns

 

 

 

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.

384892I 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.

 

 

 

 

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Denis on the ridge, where the walking got easier for a while

 

 

 

 

The bottom of the ridge consisted of fairly simple hiking, with the odd bit of boulder hopping thrown in.

 

 

 

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Me, with the summit now in sight

 

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.”

 

 

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In the home stretch now.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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In the rock garden getting nearer to the summit block

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Incredible mountain views!

 

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.

 

 

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One final snowfield

 

 

 

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.

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The final crux, Denis leads and Ted follows

It was time to break for lunch and enjoy the fine views afforded by the summit. But first, a bit of historical banter…

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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. A worn but well made little sign lay nearby as well. Here are some summit views!

 

 

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Gillespie Glacier

 

 

There was a large snowfield and a glacier on the other side of the mountain as well.

 

 

 

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Five Fingers Group

 

Haze from recent forest fires hung over the mountains, but of course the views were still grand.

 

 

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Meslilloet Mountain

 

 

 

 

 

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Mamquam and Pinecone Lake peaks

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A glacial lake forming on the flanks of Gillespie
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The guys on Gillespie summit, 2018 metres high

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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Well, maybe one last summit shot before we head home!
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Blue Haze

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Scrambling!

 

Denis backing down the slot just below the summit, no problem there.

 

 

 

 

 

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The end of the summit ridge with Peak 6580 behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Snow and rocks

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November Lake

 

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.

 

 

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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 missed when Ted noticed a rocky gully that swung down to a moraine we could cross to get closer to the glacier.

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Denis on the snowfiel

 

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 .

 

 

 

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The glacier, shrouded in the pinks of “watermelon snow”, caused by an organism called Chlamydomonis Nivalis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A final look back toward the ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And now we are heading back up…

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.

 

 

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Last look at Gillespie

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!

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Doing what we do best!

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.

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Old Cellar Dweller

Since the ride up had thoroughly shattered his beer glasses, Ted included one of these 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 underrated experience that is the Mamquam Valley. Get up there soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traversing the Ridge of ‘Chanter’

Nestled on a sharp divide between Cyrtina Creek and Furry Creek, the unofficially named Chanter Peak and its accompanying approach  via its western subpeaks  looked to be an adventurous ascent. The name Chanter, assigned by the Bivouac website, refers to the pipe of a bagpipe which is provided with finger holes with which to play the melody. It was not, as we joked then, what you call those groups of friendly Hare Krishna folk you sometimes see carrying on at the airport. The peak’s name is supposed to be in keeping with the Scottish theme of names in the area, like Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond, whose names are official. At any rate, Simon had diligently researched the ridge and knew that it was rarely hiked and promised great views, and that was enough to pique our curiosity!

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‘Chanter’ Ridge: We were to approach at right and traverse to the left in this photo. The summit of Chanter Peak is 1568 metres in elevation. Our exit ramp is clearly visible at far left… Photo credit Martin O.

 

So it was that on a perfect tenth of May in 2006, we set out to tackle the task. Simon’s Nissan X-Trail lurched to and fro up the logging road. It was evident that it was going to be a warm spring day, and we continued up the road to park at a washout about 8 kms from the gate. I was intrigued, since I had climbed nearby Capilano Mountain the year before. We had packed snowshoes, crampons, and ice axes, as we weren’t sure exactly how the snow conditions might play out, and expected the trek to last a good portion of the day.

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Morning views from our parking spot

 

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Here is a view of the ridge, in the foreground, as I’d seen it from Capilano Mountain in August of 2005. Sky Pilot Mountain is at left, and the tower of Ben Lomond on the right

Our  immediate concern was to try and avert any kind of route that crossed a potential avalanche chute. The north face of the ridge had several that were particularly dangerous looking and incredibly steep.

We began by crossing Cyrtina Creek to gain the forest below the western side of the ridge. This went well, at least for Simon, but I managed to end up in the drink.

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Simon shows how it’s done on the creek crossing

None the worse for wear, we continued through stands of ancient mountain hemlock, working our way to the bottom of the ridge. Plenty of stories and laughs were exchanged as we worked our way upward. We had developed quite a rapport through previous expeditions and now had that easy sense of humour that only develops through familiarity.

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The beautifully open old growth forest that we saw that day is now forever gone, according to Simon, who repeated this trek some eight years later. At the time it had been slated to be logged, and though we had hoped it would be preserved,  that, unfortunately, was not to be.

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‘Anybody home?’

 

We soon came upon a tree that looked as though it would be a perfect den for a bear. Simon peered inside for a quick look, finding no ursine residents, but did so with a casual air that had us both chuckling at the time.

In short order, the forest opened up into an area of scattered trees and lighter foliage. It didn’t quite don on me at the time, but there was good reason for it that would soon be clear to us.

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The forest begins to clear as we near the ridge above

Once we crested these slopes you could tell that avalanches had snapped trees and created substantial clearings, and possibly in the not too distant past. We soon climbed into a bowl below the ridge and could see a path to the ridge above. Route finding was simple – we chose a steep gully already razed right down to the earth in some spots by a recent slide.  It provided an ideal avenue to attain Chanter Ridge. Had that avalanche not already occurred we might well have shifted our plans or stood down, but luck had prevailed, in this case.

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Me ascending the steep gully below the ridge All photos of me in this tale credited to Simon C

This was one of those treks in the mountains that has turned out to be incredibly memorable to me. Perhaps it was the feeling of isolation, perhaps it was the ample sense of adventure. I’m not sure, however, these photos still evoke strong recollections. I even use the photo at left here as an icon on social media sites at times.

 

 

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Simon waiting for me atop the west end of the ridge

The elevation at the west end of the ridge was about 1420 metres, I believe. It was an appealing vantage point, and we were beginning to enjoy the day immensely. The route we would be taking to move eastward toward the summit seemed straightforward. We knew only of the destination, and scarcely little of the possible obstacles, but that was perhaps the best part of it all.

 

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Mountain views across the valley were beginning to improve!

The sun was beginning to warm us up quite a bit, and the first thing we realized was that neither of us had brought any sunscreen. While that was no issue at the time, it certainly was to be later. We resolved to move on, trying to shade ourselves wherever possible. There were plenty of other preoccupations to focus on, as it were. Here are some of the emerging views that were enjoyed.

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The Tantalus Range over in the Squamish River drainage

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The ramparts of Capilano Mountain through the trees

 

 

 

 

 

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Ben Lomond, a nice looking rock tower at the head of the Seymour Valley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We now concentrated on the task at hand; the next peak on the ridge was a short but sharp ascent of less than 150 metres, elevation wise. The snow, at this point, was well consolidated and ideal for travel.

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Simon assesses the route up the next peak we must ascend

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Getting up this peak was not a lengthy undertaking, but it did take some determination. We had to stop on a ledge to put our crampons on, and, as we did, we noticed a huge crevice where snow met rock. It looked very deep and foreboding, and neither of us wanted to end up trapped inside, so we carefully moved past it then tackled the last fifty meters or so to the crest. The first crux was ours!

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Sky Pilot Mountain, from near the summmit of the first subpeak

 

The sun had really  begun to roast us by now, especially since we were now without the cover of trees. I had wrenched a knee on the steepest section of the climb, but it seemed I could manage. We stopped to eat some lunch and survey the sublime views in every direction, savouring them as much as we could.

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Looking back at the entrance to our valley and the road on which we accessed it

We could now see the road we’d driven up on,  where we’d begun, roughly 800 metres below on the valley floor.

 

 

 

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Capilano Mountain, at the head of the Capilano River, a major source of Greater Vancouver’s water supply

 

Capilano Mountain could now be seen more clearly, a decent sight for a couple of happy trekkers.

 

 

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Simon having a look at Sky Pilot Mountain

We had set a good pace up to this point, or rather, I should say, Simon had set that pace. Of all the people I’ve been with in the mountains, he is certainly the quickest when moving uphill! I’ve often wished that I could spend the number of days he does in the hills, as often he averages ascending over fifty new peaks a year and has climbed hundreds of summits. Me? I’m just glad to have been along for a decent handful of those hikes.

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Time for alpine strolling….. Photo by Simon C

 

We were now in the kind of territory every mountaineer loves; an open stroll on a friendly expanse of snow with stunning vistas everywhere you looked. At left you see me working toward another peak on the ridge.

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Simon with the westward end of the ridge and the Tantalus Range behind him

 

I was in no hurry to accelerate this part of the trek, as we trudged along through snow that was fast becoming isothermic. It was also clear we’d both be sporting obvious sunburns in the days to come but that too, seemed not to matter. We had not managed to catch sight of the summit yet but according to readings it could not be far away.

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Simon walking the ridge

One could discern that the prevailing winds had the habit of creating cornices, which we were very careful to keep our distance from. It was safe hiking in the middle of the ridge, but we had seen the sheer drops and avalanche chutes on the north face and so naturally  wanted nothing to do with those.

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Soon enough, the summit was in our sights, and Simon took the lead as we dug in for the top. You can see (in my photo at left) Simon  making tracks upward and (in Simon’s photo at right) me ascending the ridge with the start of our ridgewalk in the distance. In another ten minutes, we were standing at the high point, at 1568 metres, on this unnamed ridge! It was time to break out the cameras yet again before beginning the journey back into the valley.

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Summit shot….Photo by Simon C

 

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Sky Pilot Mountain, at 2031m, tallest in the Britannia Range

 

 

 

 

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Cathedral Mountain, tallest in the North Shore Mountains at 1737 m….Photo by Simon C
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Simon explores the summit plateau
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Ben Lomond. Simon was to stand on its top in about 4 weeks, and while I was present on the trip when he did so, it would take me another year to make it back for a successful second attempt. That’s a fine tale in itself!

 

 

 

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Looking down into the valley: What would our escape route be?

 

 

 

 

 

While capturing the summit had been eventful,  now it was time to think about the day’s second crux. How were we to get down? While we had a general idea, there was some apprehension due to the snow having softened and the need to avoid avalanche prone slopes. That would take some doing, but we were confident a solution would present itself.

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This mountain hemlock, as pictured above here, that guards the end of ridge where we dropped down may be well over 400 years old. At right, Simon contemplates our next step.

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The bowl we descended with the summit looming behind

 

As we reached the end of the summit block, an appealing snow bowl with reasonably safe slopes came into view. We would start our trip downward there, plunging steps as we walked.

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Me, hiking down into the bowl below the ridge…..Photo by Simon C

 

 

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Ice axes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next came a glissade on wet snow that enabled us to lose almost a hundred metres in elevation. At the end of the slide only quick reflexes allowed Simon to avoid a nasty broken snow bridge. Had I been in the lead I would certainly have broken through if only because my greater weight would have ensured that. As we stood about considering where we should go next, a conspicuous solution leaped out at us. A perfect ramp to our left seeemed to lead to the foot of the ridge, and since we knew that the slopes above it were reasonably safe,  we walked and glissaded our way down. It had taken merely half an hour to reach the valley floor.

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The ramp where it met the valley below. You can see the devastation a previous snowslide had wreaked on the forest here

 

The end of the ramp came abruptly, and  welcomed our return to the forest, but not without warning. Some  weeks before, an avalanche had ripped down the couloir immediately west of our exit point and taken out a huge expanse of forest. There was no urge to linger there, because while the danger had passed, the feeling of vulnerability had not, so we continued on toward the logging road.

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The chute at center was the one that released, making our ramp exit inadvisable in typical winter conditions.

It had taken us just under eight hours to complete our trip, and we were feeling that brimming sense of accomplishment that a fine day in the mountains typically brings.

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Well done!

 

On our walk down the logging road, we stopped in to have a look at Rolf Beltz’s ski cabin, which has now long fallen into disrepair. We certainly wished it had a beer fridge, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

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Simon in the ski cabin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A decent wood stove

All told, our eight hour day featured about 9 kms of travel and 1100 metres of cumulative elevation gain , and it was a day that tested not just our skill and mettle, but also our critical thinking process. It was a satisfying day in so many respects, and I suppose that is why it has left such an impression on me. The ridge with no name, had, to us at least, made a name for itself!

 

 

Welcome to the Jungle!

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.

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Here they are in winter as seen from Mt Fromme…Hmmmm, left to right, over the top, avoid the cliffs, how hard can it be?

 

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, right? Here it is on a map…

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The route we took, HCTH,( the actual bike stash ) means Hydraulic Creek Trail Head, but I won’t tell you what Base MF means

 

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The Needles, as seen from Doug’s driveway

 

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 despise harsh exercise before sunrise even though I enjoy rising early. This day was no exception, but on the drive up 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.

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Doug looking somewhat enthused (sarcasm). At least at this point the tree is holding him up
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Sun arrives on the Paton Trail

 

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 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.

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Big Douglas Fir in Paton Creek

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.

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Like, cliffs, eh!

 

 

 

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.

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The conspicuous bulk of Cathedral Mountain above the lookout. At 1737 m it is the tallest mountain in the North Shore Mountains, not including the Britannia Range that is
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The granite plateau is etched and carved by past glacial advances, and is a fine place to spend the day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coliseum Mountain, 1446 m, with Coliseum Cliffs at left

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cathedral Mountain again

 

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.

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Seymour Lake reservoir below, no water shortage there.

 

 

You can see the haze beginning to build in the distance here as it often does in the mountains on hot summer days.

 

 

 

 

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Cathedral Mountain

 

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Had we known the 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.

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 our excursion.

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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.

 

 

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Blooming heather, a closer look.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A look here at Crown Mountain across the Hanes Creek Valley, which ranks high on my list of favourite North Shore  haunts.

 

 

Looking northward  to the Crown/Lynn Divide from Norvan Pass.

 

 

 

 

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.

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Steep vertical bushwhacking with plenty of what Coast Mountain climbers call “vegetable belays”

 

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell 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 piece of gear you forget to plan to bring on every other 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!

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“Trail”

 

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.

 

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Looking up

 

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 mid thirties in degrees Celsius. Understandably, our pace slowed somewhat, but we kept busy with idle chatting and the 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.

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Flagging tape!

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.

 

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Yep, me, still alive, hallucinating mildly though… “Yeah!!! $%@&*@#$%^!!! We’re up!!!”

 

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 shared profusely. This summit was a mere 1260 metres high, but to this day neither of us has worked harder on a mountain!

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Incredible panoramic views from the top, Crown Mountain at left

Be sure to have a closer look at the panorama above, the view was worth the battle!

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West Burwell, 1499 m, at right

 

Doug enjoyed this view as the west peak of Mt Burwell could be seen from his house at the time.

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Mt Burwell, 1537 m, formerly known as White Mountain. the prominent gully at far left has sometimes been called White Stripe. You can just see Cathedral Mountain behind and Coliseum Mountain is at far right

 

A look here at Mt Burwell, one of the finer destinations in the North Shore Mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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. 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.

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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!

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Doug, on the Middle Needle
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Me, contemplating the hike to the South Needle

 

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.

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.

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The South Needle, at left in the foreground with Lynn Ridge behind, we’d be there soon

The fight continued, with us making reasonably short work of the ascent of the South Needle. Now we were within reach of a well marked trail, and chock full of optimism. The forest would help us chill a little, too, we hoped.

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Jack’s Burn Cliffs

 

I later realized the cliffs in this photo were those north of the head of Mayers Creek near Jack’s Burn. You can see Lost Lake in the background as well.

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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 this mythical wooden creature!

 

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Doug hiking down off the South Needle

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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.

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Christina Rosetti “Up-Hill”

At roughly 800 metres in elevation on the Hydraulic 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 and what a sight we had become as we burst 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Saga of the Red Creek Fir, Part 3 of 3

Time now for the conclusion of this chronicle. The sundial moves forward yet another year, to May of 2009, and, you guessed it, we’re chilling again at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s way too early to be drinking anything but coffee, but it’s another bluebird day, and this time we’re going to find that tree, right? The Simpsons imitations are flowing freely, and I’m doing my best Troy McClure ( credit here to The Simpsons, all rights reserved, and the late great Phil Hartman )…

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” Hi, we’re tree hunters Mick and Chris, you may remember us from such failed  Red Creek Fir expeditions as last year, and the year before that. Will we be third time lucky? ”

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See you later, Horseshoe Bay

 

 

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Fiery skies

This time, though, it was going to work out just fine. I had contacted my friend and fellow hiker Scott, who lives in Victoria, and had been to see the tree before, in 2005. The plan was to pick him up along the way and head out to Port Renfrew on Highway 14. Morning sunshine provided some fine views on the boat ride to Nanaimo.

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Hanging out on the ferry deck
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Jordan River and the Pacific Ocean

 

It was smooth sailing to Nanaimo, and trouble free driving to Victoria, where we met Scott. He’s what you’d call a true Vancouver Islander, in that he loves the lifestyle there and sees little need to venture to the mainland very often. I can’t say as I blame him, as I certainly enjoy my time there too! Much of the drive was spent catching up and discussing prospective climbs in remote regions of The Island, especially the isolated northern ranges, which I’ve not visited at all.

We had planned in advance to approach via the new logging spur, so we crossed over the San Juan River and then doubled back over the Lens Creek Bridge. Hopefully, this time, the tree wouldn’t see us coming and hide, you know, like it did the last time.

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Views from the cutblock

 

 

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New Red Main

The new spur lands you at about the 13 km mark on the old mainline,  and in Scott’s memory the trailhead was quite close to where the roads intersected. It was decided we’d try to spot it from the vehicle at first but when that proved fruitless, we jumped out and began to scrutinize every tree and rock for signs of disturbance. After about ten minutes of searching, suddenly we heard a holler from Scott, he had found the trail! Chris drove back and parked in a clearing with a pile of old culverts. If you go, pull over on driver’s right, the trailhead is on the same side of the road just upriver from where you’re parked. We rebuilt the cairn, which had been dismantled, and found some flagging tape to do some marking where the path begins.

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Here is the parking spot, near the junction

 

 

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This is how the trailhead was marked after we left

 

 

 

 

 

Ironically, the tree is a very short stroll from the road, and the last time we visited we were, unwittingly, not much more than 150 metres from where it stands, As an added bonus, you get to see three very old Western Redcedars that are just downhill from the world champion  Douglas Fir. They are called The Three Sisters, appropriately enough, and all are over 350 years old.

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Scott leads the way, and Chris follows
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The largest of the Three Sisters, about 10-11 feet in diameter
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Trillium in bloom
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Another giant cedar

 

I clearly recall feeling elated on the hike in; we’d already devoted over 40 hours in the quest to see this forest giant, after all. At that point, though, we’d probably have crawled there on broken glass, I recall Chris saying, only half joking. It had been since the early 1990s that I had first read about the tree, and I had been sure it would prove almost mythical in stature.   

   

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Scott and an old friend

 

The next thing I knew, Scott called out excitedly. “It’s still here!” And so it was, though it had lost a huge limb from its ancient upper canopy, perhaps in the great storm of December 2006. Scott  was just as impressed as he’d been when he first visited, and as for us, I’m not sure if we were more in awe or just dumbfounded we could finally see it!

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Chris meets the Red Creek Fir
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I felt truly dwarfed by this freak of nature, and felt very small standing here

 

The tree is almost 14 feet in diameter, and is the world”s largest member of the pine genus as well. Its future status is reasonably ensured, but nearby logging has made it somewhat vulnerable and exposed to rough coastal windstorms. Still, it has managed to survive a millennia, so perhaps it will survive another.

 

Huge valley bottom specimens such as this are the rarest of the rare, and it’s not likely very many remain. We need to make every effort to preserve trees like it for others to see.

3583234069_ec364d2b87_bThis image is a five frame vertical panorama that I took of Scott and the tree. It really puts into perspective just how immense it is. I had never seen a fir over 10 feet in diameter before and to see one 14 feet in diameter was remarkable. It’s about 240 feet in height, but the top leaders were blown off years ago so it’s possible this tree was once close to 400 feet tall.

 

 

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True forest giant
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The upper canopy. A branch at left recently had broken off

We spent quite a while clambering  around and looking at different aspects, here are a few more.

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Scott climbing around on the huge mass of the recently broken limb we noticed
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A closer view of the massive trunk, which required a two stitch panorama
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Me again, still feeling small

The broken limb that had crashed nearby was as big as a young second growth tree all by itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You could certainly build a few houses from the timber if this giant were ever to fall.

 

 

 

It was time now to head home, but I found it especially hard to leave. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that now we at least knew where to find it.

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The bark
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The old sign, a bit the worse for wear

 

 

It was a happy trek back to Victoria, where we brought Scott home. How does a guy from Toronto end up living near the corner of Yonge St and Toronto in Victoria? I’m calling that a strange coincidence, to put it mildly. We bid adieu, and continued on the highway back to Departure Bay, this time with a sense of accomplishment. What were we going to do now?

 

Well, we’d probably find something else to obsess with, after all, it’s what we live for! Time for yet another ferry ride to close out this epic. I couldn’t wait for the cold beer that I knew awaited me in the fridge at home.

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Sunset views!

Thanks to all of you who took the time to read the whole tale. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it.  Until next time…..