In a cool, quiet, forest glade in the North Shore Mountains sits a most venerable tree. Surrounded by a healthy stand of Pacific Silver Fir, this Western Red Cedar makes a daunting first impression. As you approach it from the south, the first thing you notice is the gaping wedge that has been cut from the trunk that almost resembles a mouth, of sorts. The many burls and aged trunk bely its centuries of growth, and its top thrives brilliantly, likely well into a seventh century of growth. Countless folk cruise within 40 metres of it it unwittingly every day without noticing it, on their way to Norvan Falls and points beyond. I call this tree The Survivor, and its narrative is well worth sharing.
Travel back in time, if you will, to the 1920s and 1930s, in what is today Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. The east side of Lynn Creek was being heavily logged by the Cedar Mills Company. In the end, when the harvest was done, they left precious few old growth cedars behind, and decades later a strong second growth forest is slowly recovering from the onslaught. The cutting ended in the early 1940s, I have been told, and then the area was designated as drinking water supply and made off limits to the public until the 1980s, when the park was opened.
The Survivor, too, was expected to perish, like so many giants before it, but fate would decide otherwise. According to legend, its life would be spared, and here follows how that was supposed to have occurred many years ago. At work on The Survivor back in the day was a group of fallers, the same gentlemen who had cut the substantial wedge on one side of the tree that I mentioned previously, in the direction it was to be dropped. That being accomplished, they set to work on the other side of the tree with a crosscut saw, and began slicing a deep groove into the trunk. This was a long and laborious process, given the tools of the day, and would have taken quite some time, I’m sure, to complete.
In the meantime, another group of loggers was hard at work on a closely neighbouring cedar. As goes the tale, they were much closer to falling this second tree than they initially thought, as it fell suddenly and errantly toward The Survivor and its team of loggers. Before it crashed to the forest floor, sadly, it is reputed to have taken the life of two of those men.
The loggers, for whatever reason, be it grief, be it superstition, or some other reason, decided that The Survivor would not be taken. They also decided not to harvest the wood of that neighbouring giant that fell, causing the accident. Today, The Survivor remains, standing tall and reaching high into the canopy above, while the bulk of its neighbour lies forlornly beside it. On my brief sojourns to this place, my mind often wanders to thoughts about the men who made their livelihood here. They were modest and hard working, and I have learned that most who toiled this part of Lynn Valley were also of Japanese descent. I ponder what an impact that day must have had on their families. There is a haunting sense of loss juxtaposed with that of great triumph when you visit this place: Good men lost, a fine tree saved.
It was, I believe, on April Fool’s Day, 2005, of all days, that I first saw this tree. Jim, Rich, Jim’s dog Midnite, and my dog Amigo were my companions that day. We hiked up to Norvan Falls on what turned out to be a rather cold and inhospitable day, complete with snow, sleet, and some freezing rain thrown in just for good measure.
On the way up, just past the 4.5 km mark on the Headwaters Trail, we had stopped to look at a collection of artifacts that sat on a trailside log, as seen below here.
Minutes later, Rich spied a big tree just downslope off the trail that looked most unusual, and naturally, we went down to investigate. It was then that we found The Survivor, though for us the diatribe of its history was to follow later. That came courtesy of good friend Rick, who had chanced to meet some archaeologists from Capilano College some years before who had told him of the tragedy of this tree.
We speculated, at the time, exactly what to call this tree. Rich saw it as happy to be alive, and thought it should be called “Smiley”. Others on the Clubtread hiking site speculated that it was reminiscent of an Easter Island statue, or retro cartoon character Snidely Whiplash. I have always called it The Survivor. What do you think?
Whatever name you choose, it’s certainly a sight you will always remember.
After stopping for lunch we hit the trail once again and hiked up to see Norvan Falls. It’s a place I have trekked to dozens of times over the years but in winter it can be especially interesting!
That trip some 13 years doesn’t seem all that long ago, and I have revisited the tree more than a few times since then. It’s like dropping in on an old friend who doesn’t get around much, but then it’s a tree, so… here are a few more photos I took this week.
What I know for certain is that today a prodigious example of nature’s tenacity lives on in this cedar. I am struck not only with its ability to heal, but also with its capability to endure, in ways practically unimaginable. That The Survivor lives is a reminder of the fact that there are forces driving this planet and its many ecosystems, many of which continue to flourish despite human effort to their detriment. You know, some tout that old expression “I’d rather be good than lucky”, while others say “I’d rather be lucky than good”? This tree, all would agree, has been as good as it’s been lucky, and I hope that luck never runs out.
Mt Callaghan, a worthy destination in a scenic valley beside a beautiful lake. I’d been that way before, so why not again? As much as you plan a nice, easy trek on a well walked trail and a pleasant scramble to a summit with panoramic views followed by some tailgating and a refreshing swim in a lake, sometimes, you know, the mountain gods have other ideas.
On Wednesday, Alan, Denis, Ted, and I met up in the pre morning darkness to head up Mt Callaghan. After a quick stop for breakfast in Squamish, it was off up the Callaghan Valley Road and then on to the Callaghan FSR for the trip up to Callaghan Lake, where the trail begins.
I should have known it wasn’t going to be an easy day. I once had a high school teacher named Callaghan who was a pretty tough guy that kind of helped straighten me out back in those days. We called him Dirty Harry! That was back when when discipline was, how do you say, a lot more rampant. On several occasions he threw me up against lockers, a blackboard, and he cured me of leaning back constantly on my chair by kicking it out from under me. Yes, those were the days…Am I rambling? Sorry, back on point…
Our first obstacle was the logging road. Instead of bringing the truck we took Al’s car which didn’t quite have high enough ground clearance. He did a masterful job of driving much of the road but we were stopped by a waterbar over six kilometres from Callaghan Lake. That meant over an hour walking on the road that we’d be repeating later. Dirty Harry had landed the first shot!
Between catching up with Alan, with whom I’d last climbed with in 2006, and the usual array of stories from Ted and Denis, the long hike on the road and then on the lengthy trail to Ring Lake went off without a hitch for the most part. The trails were reasonably well groomed and the scenery, though muted by the thick smoke, was as pleasant as I’d remembered.
By the time we reached Journeyman Lodge we stopped for a quick break. It was locked up when we got there, obviously closed for the season.
This valley is hemmed in by some formidable mountains, but none were visible save for faded outlines on a canvas of hazy skies. It would have been an exceptionally hot day without the cloud and smoke cover, which actually served to lower temperatures somewhat while raising the humidity. We hiked onward past Conflict Lake, where you begin to cross a broad meadow and the trail begins to climb.
We pressed on past the meadow and up the ever steepening path at a pretty spirited pace, working our way up past the trail’s signature feature, a nifty wooden ladder that helps you up the slope after the creek crossing.
Once you’re up the ladder, the trail ramps up again as it works upward, heading for Ring Lake, but first you get to cross a boulder field that’s alive with the whistling of marmots. That was where we stopped for a break, and as soon as we did the hordes of insects found us again. There were plenty of bugs but not too many were biting us, luckily.
We then crossed the boulder field and headed back into the woods again, finally working our way up into the bowl where Ring Lake resides. Normally, when you arrive there, it’s one of those Sound of Music moments as it’s really a spectacular place to hang out, but on this day it was hardly visible and the smoke cast an eerie orange glow. At the time that REM tune “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” was running through my head.
Ring Mountain is a tuya, which is a volcano that repeatedly erupts under cover of thick sheets of glacial ice. When that ice melts the unusual looking volcano is revealed.
Once near the lake we began angling up toward the summit of Mt Callaghan, choosing to aim for a gap in the face at the top of a steep run of rock and heather. It was slow going and shifty ground. Alan led up through the gap, followed by Ted and myself, with Denis bringing up the rear. Right about at the time Ted was moving through the gap, I looked up and heard something clatter and a nasty rock half the size of a volleyball zinged past me at waist height from above about thirty feet to my left. Right away I shouted “Rock!” to Denis below, but he barely had a chance to react before it passed just ten feet to his left while he was looking in the opposite direction! He never even saw it! Too close for my liking. It threw a scare into me for a minute or two, and also at that point I was dealing with my first ever sore back on a climb. It didn’t persist too badly and so I resolved to pace myself a bit because my legs were feeling strong and so we then moved up to join Ted and Alan who were waiting at 2050m.
Denis was also not having his best day. Sometimes when you’re not quite right the mountain finds you. Being the only one in our group who’d already climbed the peak, he just decided to walk back down to the lake and rest up while the rest of us went for the summit. We would have to go without his comedic stylings for a few hours but were sure he had made the right decision.
Before that, though, we took a bit of a respite and examined the route. Alan figured it made good sense to head up through a gap in the ridge in front of us to see if we could access the summit block from there and Ted agreed. That worked well, giving access to a cirque above, where we had a decision to make. Work up to the right on rock and snow to examine what was beyond or try a nastier looking mixed gully accessed by crossing some snow on the left? Right it would be, as Alan scouted above and reported it would go all the way to the summit block!
Not too long after that we all made it to the top, where we were glad to stop and enjoy rock which was not moving! The summit crests right at the edge of what becomes the Pemberton Icefield. Even through the smoky sky the views were pretty inspiring! We were all stoked to have earned some time at the top of Mt Callaghan.
The next half hour was spent refueling and, for me, bandaging my cuts and stretching out my lats. While I did that Alan and Ted decided to climb a nearby pinnacle for a good photo opportunity or two. It had a simple and safe approach as the guys said but looked like quite the dramatic perch, with its head shaped like a howling wolf. I resolved to call it “Coyote Ugly” or “Bark at the Moon”. Ted also had a good name for it but I’ve forgotten what it was.
There was time to enjoy the summit, but not too much time, as the days are getting shorter and we did not want to be walking the trail with headlamps later on, so a few more shots for good measure and we were away!
The descent went reasonably well, save for us getting sharp rocks stuck in our shoes and encountering plenty more of the same moving rock. It took until around 430pm before we were back in the meadow below again.
It was good to discover that Denis was feeling much better when we made it down, as now the race with daylight was on! It was going to be a long haul back to the car. But first a last look at Callaghan and a few words…
A quote from the movie Dirty Harry, because some of you may know I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood’s films even if he does spend too much time talking to freaking chairs these days!
Dirty Harry: “Uh uh. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
As we marched out along the trail, we concocted a scenario in which Alan would quickly roust us up a ride from someone camping at the lake so that we would not have to walk the logging road again. Well, for all his charms it was not to be. As he returned to us on the road we asked what happened and he replied “Arrghh, they told me to f**k off”, followed by “Nahh, there was nobody there!” and roars of laughter ensued. Somehow or other, mostly because I had not turned on my GPS right away on the walk up, we had duped ourselves into thinking it was only three kilometres to the car, not six plus.
No such luck on that score, so we walked the road as dusk fell quietly. On the stroll back we discussed some of the unusual phenomenons of modern day Japanese culture, courtesy of Ted, and a tale of young Nazis being forced to recover two million land mines off the beaches of Denmark, I think it was, as Denis described. Numerous times Ted, ever the fatalist, wondered whether the car had been stolen and how it wouldn’t be so bad walking to Whistler as long as the thieves left us all the beer! Geesh! At about 845 pm we hooted and hollered joyously at the sight of Alan’s car and cracked open some Stellas as we celebrated the day!
But…all those ready to beer up please step forward…not so fast retreads! You see, there was still the matter of getting Al’s car off the logging road unscathed and since it was now pitch dark we decided to do that before having a few more beers. I rode up front with Al to scout, and Ted described his ride down the road here:
“Bumping down the pitch black Callaghan FSR, sitting on a cold cooler of beer in the open trunk to provide weight to get over cross ditches. Between sips and various profundities being pondered, I asked my friend [also in his seventies]” Is this really how we should be spending our doddering old age?” My response to that later was “Hell yes it is!”
Once the danger was cleared, a few more rounds were had, with the Nacho Cheese Jalopeno Doritos and Beef Jerky that Al had remembered to bring. The beer selection was diverse, and the jokes were flying left and right. If we know you at all or have even just heard of you, you probably got mentioned, but I’m sure it was in a good way!
I’ll let Alan sum up the apres slog best, as follows:
“TNT beer, Stella, Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee, Alexander Keiths, Bowen Island Lager. F**k we had a great selection too bad we couldn’t have swam in the lake and drank em all. The pitch black tailgate was time well spent though!”
When it was all said and done, Callaghan had made our day, and I guess we were kind of lucky too. Thanks for the day out, lads, highly entertaining as always!
Postscript: I couldn’t resist adding these last two shots. It’s one thing to drink beer in the dark, but it’s another to post about it online. Thanks Alan for these photos and the others I used in the story. Two photographers on a trip with these guys is a bonus!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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….
…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.
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!
Only a few pages of the 2007 calendar were to turn before favourable spring weather had us thinking about a return to Kennedy Creek. It was the first day of April when Chris and I began our early day hiking along the Cedar Mills Trail in Lynn Headwaters Park. The idea, this time, was simply to try and cover some ground we hadn’t the first time. Would we be April fools? Well, yes, but read on and find out how!
On reaching the Third Debris Chute, the first mission was fording Lynn Creek. A word to the wise and wary: you have to be comfortable with cold, fast moving water, especially when you do this in spring. Your trip can easily be over before it begins as sometimes it’s simply too dangerous! Techniques will vary. Sometimes I will leave my boots on and walk straight across and sometimes I carry my boots. I recommend hiking poles or finding a long sturdy branch to help with balance as well. Last but not least, put your cameras in a resealable plastic bag and pack extra clothing in case you end up going for an unplanned swim. A climbing helmet is also not a bad idea not only for the creek crossing but also for all the clambering over rocks and logs you’ll be doing!
Chris had reasoned that on this trek we ought to work our way up to about the 450m elevation mark then traverse north toward Wickenden Creek. This made sense as then we would cover exploring the belt of forest just below the one we had walked the first time. No sooner were our boots back on after the ford than we were faced with the unexpected fast moving waters of lower Kennedy Creek, but we managed to steeplechase that with minimal difficulty.
Once past the creek it was a matter of bashing our way uphill for about half an hour. On our first trip we had followed the crude flagged route that heads west up to Kennedy Falls after you cross Lynn Creek but on this day we were well north of that line. Morning mist drifted through the trees as the sound of the rushing torrents faded. Silence descended, and almost magically we were again among the giants.
Normally we think of ourselves as tree hunters, but on this excursion, as with the first one, the trees were more or less finding us! I was surprised by the sheer number of them as much as anything else. This was a stand of forest in which many trees had reached way over 400 years in age.
The quietude was interrupted from time to time by the rhythmic sounds of a nearby woodpecker building a home, and punctuated by the occasionally inane Simpsons’ banter that seems to follow Chris and I wherever we go. On we thrashed, in the direction of an unnamed creek not far south of the Wickenden drainage, with plenty of distractions along the way.
Another half hour passed, and we found ourselves in a steep creek gully that was peculiarly bright and open. On subsequent trips I discovered that avalanches are not infrequent there, as the gully is at the bottom of a chute that shows evidence of very forceful slides. For a moment, I looked uphill, where I could see the spiky tops of more ancient cedars, then downhill, where I could see the The Needles in sharp relief across the Lynn Creek Valley. Where to go next?
In proof of the old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, suddenly Chris was on his way up the chute, saying “I think we have something here!” And so he did! It was a huge western red cedar, most likely about 500 years old yet relatively young in appearance judging by its trunk wear. Because of where it was growing it was difficult to say exactly what its diameter was was but it was definitely in the neighbourhood of 15 feet wide, perhaps more. What is likely is that if it reaches the age of the oldest trees in the park it will almost certainly someday be among the largest. Here are a few looks at this grand old specimen!
Well, that tree had certainly made our day memorable, but as it turned out the walk home delivered just as much wonder! We were now at an elevation of roughly 350m, and so opted to follow that lower line back toward the Kennedy Creek again.
Not to sound trite, but this was one of those days that has you really appreciating the wonders of nature. I advocate responsible forest management but I find it hard to understand that some people would only see this forest in dollar signs. In this day and age there is really no excuse for harvesting old growth forest. Thankfully, Lynn Headwaters Park has seen its last logger.
Midday gave way to afternoon, and we decided to stop for lunch near a tree both of us nearly walked past. Life was good.
Half an hour later we were making our way across lower Kennedy Creek again. The waters were flowing even harder than they had been in the morning, which is typical of creeks during the spring snowmelt.
We had just crossed the creek when I spied something odd lying on the ground and picked it up and showed it to Chris, who exclaimed “What? No way?!” It turned out he’d lost his lens cap on a previous excursion to the area and had been doing without it for some time. And they say it’s hard to find a needle in a haystack? Not for me!
A short time later we were crossing Lynn Creek again even as we planned our next adventure. Several hikers were having lunch on the other side and from their bemused looks they were no doubt wondering where in the world we had come from. It had been another successful day
Over the years, hiking and snowshoeing in Mt Seymour Provincial Park has occupied a lot of my free time, and, if you ask me, very few parts of the park can capture your heart the way the Suicide Bluffs do. It’s become something of a tradition to make it up there once the snow falls. While it’s not an entirely unknown area, it does tend to be quieter. Why? Because the sometimes complicated route finding and difficult micro terrain can be challenging. Like anywhere in the Coast Mountains, all the usual cautions apply, especially in winter.
I don’t know exactly how these bluffs earned their auspicious name, but there are a number of intimidating cliffs on the bluffs. The Suicide Creek drainage nearby even features a pair of waterfalls known for their death defying drops as they plummet to the Seymour Valley below.
We generally access the trail by first hiking to Dog Mountain, then branching onto it just before the lookout. Then we make our way eastward to where the route links eventually with the main Mt Seymour Trail.
While I call it a trail, it definitely stretches that definition, as even in summer this convoluted route uses ropes and chains to help on some of the steeper sections.
In winter, you have to be prepared for full on mountaineering. It’s not a place for the uninitiated, or for those expecting an easy and well marked trail, so gear up appropriately if you go! We usually bring ice axes, snowshoes, and crampons as well as a GPS, compass, and maps. Clouds and fog can move in quickly as well, challenging your visibility.
The views are 360 degrees from all of the summits. You can see Mt Baker down in Washington, all of the Vancouver area and harbour, as well as most of the North Shore Mountains. In summer it’s still a beautiful hike, but it’s in winter that it truly shines!
My own history with the area actually began far below in the Seymour Valley, where I started with a hike with some friends to lower Suicide Creek. We explored an old logging camp near the Spur Four Bridge in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (LSCR) where there was once an incredible ancient forest.
I would also return later to the valley with regular hiking partner Doug on several occasions to explore and maintain the rough track that leads up to Suicide Falls. North Shore Rescue has used this route to save wayward skiers and snowboarders on a number of occasions. The Suicide Creek Valley is rough, vertically steep in places, and under some conditions downright hazardous due to its frequent landslides. The two photos below here pretty much sum up the kind of hiking you get into on that trail.
But I digress. Only after I explored these lower reaches did I actually hike the Suicide Bluffs Trail, some 400 metres above the falls, and 800 metres above the Seymour River. The trail is entirely within Mt Seymour Provincial Park. The first hike was so much fun that Doug and I began to make the bluffs an annual winter destination.
When we go, we’re very careful about choosing the right conditions, especially in winter, both in regard to the snow conditions and to visibility. We’ve learned that it’s more prudent to ascend the steep slopes from west to east because those same slopes are usually much more precarious to descend during those times. In that way, we get to do a little more climbing too, which we prefer. In summer, we have hiked it in both directions.
The forest of Suicide Bluffs is predominantly mountain hemlock, sprinkled with the occasional yellow cedar. Some of those hemlocks are well over 500 years old. Interestingly, unlike the the trees of the lower valleys, they don’t tend to garner a lot of attention from conservationists. Perhaps because they are out of sight to many, they are also out of mind. There have been precious few studies devoted to their longevity as a result.
All that said, here are some images from our most recent hike on New Year’s Eve of 2015 and from some of our previous treks in other years.
On a good day you can also see Mt Garibaldi, Mt Baker, and much of the Britannia Range in addition to most of the North Shore Mountains.
Over the years, I think we have come to see Suicide Bluffs as our favourite winter stomping grounds. There is something about standing high above the treeline in fresh snow and looking at so many places that you have been lucky enough to visit. In twelve years we have hiked, climbed, and thrashed our way through countless North Shore valleys, and the bluffs afford fine views of many of them!
If you’re looking for a local winter hike that still gives you that wilderness feel. and you have already honed your mountaineering skills, then make your way to the Suicide Bluffs. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it well!
Well it’s December here on the west coast and finally winter has arrived in earnest. There has been snowfall in the North Shore Mountains lately like we haven’t seen in years. Trouble is, everyone has been set on enjoying it at the same time, so it took a little planning for Doug and I to figure out the best way to enjoy one of our favourite local haunts without having to brave the crowds.
Rather than join the throngs of humanity up at the ski resort area, we decided to take on a somewhat different approach. Knowing that the snow line was relatively low, we opted to begin our trek somewhat lower on Hollyburn Mountain. The destination? A walk through the old growth forest of Brothers Creek up to Lost Lake and West Lake. As it turned out, we had the best of all worlds: relative solitude, enjoyable weather, a decent navigational exercise to work through, and plenty of untrodden snow to play in!
The trek began on Millstream Road at the trailhead for the Brothers Creek Fire Road. It wasn’t as cold as we thought it might have been, so we were able to dress fairly lightly for a winter trek. After about half an hour or so, we were already in the midst of old growth forest at an elevation of about 600 metres.
It was a narrow escape for the cedars here at the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s a full scale logging operation ran for quite some time, one of the first to use large steam donkeys as engines and incorporate the use of incline railways. However, a collapse of the cedar shake market put an end to all of that prosperity, and years later when it did resume easier sources were sought. The lands are now owned by British Pacific Properties and managed for public use.
Soon after, it was that this valley, then called Sisters Creek after the two prominent peaks then called The Sisters (and now called The Lions), was renamed as Brothers Creek. Logging has pretty much ceased since therearound 1912. Hiking there gives one the ready opportunity to see sections of ancient forest which are almost intact to this day. To see these trees clad in winter snow is especially worth the effort!
But beware, unlike its distant cousin the yellow cedar, the western red cedar is not built to hold snow and usually sheds it quickly and without warning. We had to pay close attention to falling snows, hence the title of this entry.
The old fire road makes its way up to a bridge that crosses Brothers Creek at about 720 metres and joins the Brothers Creek Trail that meanders the other side of the creek. Our destination though, was Lost Lake, one of the small subalpine ponds that dot the lower reaches of the mountain. There is a well marked route that leads into Cypress Provincial Park and on this day it had been trodden as far as the lake.
The silence was conspicuous once we reached the lakeshore, with nobody in sight and blue skies above the trees. We stopped briefly at the lake to reconnoiter our route, as from that point on we would be breaking trail in two to three feet of new powder snow! In the Lost Lake area, the silver fir and mountain hemlock dominate the forest, along with the yellow cedar.
Doug got out his GPS and we decided to head up the mountain to West Lake, once the site of an old ski lodge. My memory of the trail was a bit vague, but we both knew that it wound its way into the upper valley of Brothers Creek and then crossed over the creek into the West Lake drainage. As it turned out we ended up taking a partly new route to the lake, where we stopped for lunch. Before that we managed to step into a few big snow holes and managed a difficult creek crossing. Somewhere along the way I lost one of my snowshoe straps, which made walking a bit more difficult but not especially hazardous.
There was much to talk about as we hiked as we’ve had a long history with the area over the years. At one time you could hope to see a Northern Spotted Owl on these trails but as it’s very elusive that’s not too likely. I have, however, run into black bears and pine martens occasionally and have seen signs of deer, rabbits, bobcats, mountain lions, and even a wolverine. Woodpeckers, barred owls, and Douglas squirrels are commonly seen as well.
Once we’d had enough to eat we decided to make our way down the West Lake Road to the Baden Powell Trail. In summer that’s easy to do but it took some doing to find the junction where the trail crossed the road as the signpost was almost buried.
Once we got that out of the way it was clear sailing. We hiked down to the Crossover Trail with the intention of heading back to the Brothers Creek Fire Road. Travel was fast, with only a brief respite or two, including one at the bridge where the trail crosses Brothers Creek. Only weeks before, we had hiked this trail in the total absence of snow, so it was interesting to see it in such different conditions.
Before we knew it we were back at the truck once again headed for home, filled with new memories and images of a place so very familiar to us both.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this excursion, our strategy was much more well thought out, and in no time we reached the basin above.
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.
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.
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.
Now we focused our attention on the ridge leading toward The Spearhead, which seemed fairly straightforward.
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.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.
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!
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. We could go no higher, and had reached the summit! Superb views were everywhere.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”***
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and other thoughts on life