The Hollyburn Fir is an absolute revelation! Sitting almost inconspicuously in a shaded forest clearing on West Vancouver’s Brewis Trail, it has somehow managed not only to avoid being logged, but also to evade even being discovered until 1985, at least officially! Its trunk measures over ten feet in diameter and its age is estimated at about 1000 years old. The tree was nominated for the B.C. Big Tree Registry by Randy and Greg Stoltmann, both West Vancouver residents at the time, I believe. It still ranks highly on British Columbia’s list of top ten Douglas Firs, as far as I know.
You would think that an enormous Douglas Fir would have drawn more attention over the years, especially as it resides in an area that once had extensive logging and has also been used considerably for recreation. It may just have been that it was a well kept secret by locals, as there are even eighty year old cabins in the vicinity that are less than two kilometres from this tree!
It’s no surprise, however, that it was found on the lower slopes of Hollyburn Mountain. A large scale logging operation at the turn of the twentieth century did a fair share of harvesting in both Lawson Creek and nearby Brothers Creek. The forests of Lower Hollyburn were legendary! Many of the trees taken in those days were between 500 and 1000 years old in age. Even so, many grand specimens do remain standing, but with certainty, the Hollyburn Fir may just outshine them all!
If you haven’t had the chance to visit this giant, I suggest that you do. In a world that persists in seeing ancient forests simply for their dollar value, trees that have lived for a millennium are in increasingly short supply. This one, at least, is protected from that avarice, and to see the Hollyburn Fir is like travelling back in time!
Steve laughed heartily, leaning over to the right in the cab of his Toyota 4X4. “Damn it,” I said. “When am I ever going to get that right?” You see, his truck is imported from Japan, where vehicles are all right hand drive, so I keep on going toward the wrong door when I go to get in the passenger side. “Haha, you’ll just do it again before this trip’s over! Mark my words,” he replied, laughing harder still. He opened up the tailgate and we rearranged our gear for the long drive north. Soon, we were bound for Britannia Beach, where we’d be meeting Doug and Wally at Galileo’s for a coffee at 7 am. From there, it was back onto Highway 99 to Pemberton, where we’d be detouring toward Birkenhead, and a series of logging roads that would finally bring us to the head of Tenas Creek. Destination? Seven O’Clock Mountain.
Nestled high on the divide between the Birkenhead, Tenas, and Tenquille Valleys, this was a familiar haunt to Doug and I, as we’d biked up the Tenas Creek Road with overnight packs and set up camp near Sun God Mountain eight years before ( You can read more about that here ). While we then managed to climb Sun God, we’d run out of time to summit Seven O’Clock Mountain on that occasion, so were stoked to be returning for another try. For Steve and Wally, it would be their introduction to the area.
There would be quite an eclectic mix of generations present on this trek, with Doug and I in our fifties, Wally in his seventies, and Steve in his thirties. The coffee went down smoothly, and we soon moved on, with Doug leading the way in his Toyota Tacoma. Our only stop was for fuel in Pemberton, where we amused ourselves with current tales of adventure and had a few laughs looking at some very peculiarly dressed summer tourists. The weather was clear and sunny, and we couldn’t have been happier to have had a couple of days free to enjoy the mountains!
Driving up the Tenas Creek Road had not been an option for us back in 2010 due to washouts and downed trees, and cycling up the road had been pretty gruelling back then, as we’d later reminisce. This time we’d heard the road could be driven right to the trailhead, and as it turned out, that proved to be true. Just before 1030 am we parked the trucks and geared up for the hike, much to the delight of the waiting clouds of insects. On this trip there was a lot to look forward to, with plenty of food and gear along for the ride, and a full cooler of beer for refreshments!
The forecast was typical for the region in July, expected to be clear, sunny, and approaching the low thirties in degrees Celsius. The trail, if you can call it that, is a notoriously steep and sparsely marked track. We soon settled in for the long uphill grind.
Among the sundry topics of conversation as we climbed was an online trivia game for prizes Doug told us he’d been playing lately. All players answer the questions and are eliminated as soon as they fail, apparently. He spoke of one question that involved clocks that knocked out a lot of competitors, then wryly suggested that all the millennials must have dropped out of the running because none of them knew how to read clocks with hands. This brought great laughter from all, and good humoured protest from Steve, who proclaimed he had no trouble telling time and proceeded to prove that several times during the hike. Besides, it was more than easy for him to get back at any of us when we mentioned anything prior to the mid eighties, since he was more than happy to point out he hadn’t even been born by then! None of that stopped me from branding the colour of his shirt as “Millennial Orange”, though.
The trail through the forest was steep and unforgiving, but the the bushwhacking was still light and tolerable. I could tell that the route hadn’t received excessive traffic in the years since my last visit. I found, however, that my memories of the approach had blurred, and after a while it seemed like unfamiliar territory. All that changed, naturally, when we broke out of the trees to the welcome view of Mt Ronayne. It then dawned on me that we were not too distant from where Doug and I had bivouacked eight years before, with Sun God Mountain towering above us.
Once we were within sight of a most familiar lake below the summit ridge of Sun God, we decided to take a break. I was glad of that because I had to take off my new boots and repair some blisters they’d already given me. The meadow looked as beautiful as ever, snow free as it was this time. When Doug and I had last visited it had been entirely snow covered.
Steve then trekked down to the lake to replenish his water supply while the rest of us snacked. Wally and Doug, meanwhile, were discussing the frustrating issue of markers continually disappearing from Grouse Mountain hiking trails back in North Vancouver. The problem was resulting in lost hikers and late nights for the North Shore Rescue team that they volunteer with. Somehow Wally, armed with an effusive sense of humour, managed to make that a funny conversation. I think his many experiences in different parts of the world have given him some well rounded perspectives on life!
I spoke of my impending move to Vancouver Island, which was to begin in several weeks. Changes are often unsettling to me, and this one was about as big as they get! Having lived several decades in the same place, I’d be going from knowledgeable to neophyte, so to speak. The bright side was going to be all the new discoveries I’d be making!
A brief meeting of the minds followed while we scrutinized the route in front of us. It looked relatively straightforward to begin with, because we needed to reach the high point visible on the ridge above to make a clearer decision about where to go next. The walk began on blocky steps, which became steeper as we climbed. The views of the valley and Sun God Mountain had our spirits soaring, and the sun, as it turned out, was not nearly as hot as we imagined it might be.
Once we reached the top of the ridge, we could see that there was a broad col and another sub summit that was our next obvious destination, but the route we needed to follow wasn’t immediately apparent. In the end, we chose to flank the ridge on the left side and work our way around it, which required thrashing our way through some pretty persistent krummholz before we managed to emerge just above the col. Krummholz, by the way, is defined as a forest of stunted trees near the timber line on a mountain. It also has the nasty tendency of scratching unprotected limbs and provoking random outbursts of foul language!
It was Doug who immediately concluded, and all agreed, that we should try out the other side on the way back. For a few minutes though, we savoured the satisfaction of being at the col!
Now it was time to cross that col, with its splendid vistas far and wide, and scramble up the next pile of rock. Feeling a bit more energetic, I led the way upward, weaving through, around, and over the great granite boulders. It seemed as though we’d reach the summit soon, but as I crested the top I realized we still had to gain another 200 metres in elevation. We soon realized there was yet another peak to negotiate, and this one was going to be a bit more complicated!
We took to the rock enthusiastically, at first we followed close to the top of the ridge but, upon further inspection, we were forced to drop down and traverse it on a series of ledges on the left side. The right side, due to sheer drops, was not really an option at all! Already we could see that there was still another climb to deal with after this one, and after a little more meandering we were soon at its base.
While it didn’t lead to the summit we all wanted, that next section of scrambling finally cracked the code! We were now on an expansive and broad plateau that led to an outcropping of rock almost half a kilometre away. Seven O’Clock Mountain was finally in our sights! We took a short break at an icy tarn there as Steve filtered some water for everyone. I can clearly recall how wonderful it tasted, as does everything when you’re in the mountains, it seems!
Doug now took the lead again as we traipsed across the summit plain and soon we were digging in for the last hundred metres or so of climbing. It had taken us about twenty more minutes to reach the final pitch.
The top was reached somewhere around 2 pm in the afternoon. Steve and Doug mused that it would have been cool to be on Seven O’Clock at seven o’clock, but of course that would have meant we would have had to walk out in darkness! At Wally’s insistence, we all assembled for a summit photo or two and broke out some snacks. The views of surrounding valleys were breathtaking, and it was a highly satisfying place to be relaxing.
Well, I reasoned, it’s time to turn it around, because “All that beer back at the trucks is not going to drink itself!” The laughter rose once more, as we began the long descent.
Reversing our steps wasn’t too complicated, as it turned out, but we did manage to find ourselves off route a couple of times. At one point, we thought we’d lost Steve while contouring around the ridge again, but it turned out he’d taken a different route that got a little too complicated. I suggested we call it The Millennial Line, kind of a droll play on the Millennium Line, if you’ve ridden Vancouver’s Skytrain.
What follows here is a sequence of shots taken by Steve on the descent, as Wally, Doug, and I descended the route.
On the way back we ended up following very close to the same route, but Doug had made an earlier suggestion that would have saved us heading back to the lake and instead forging a direct line to the trail. In retrospect, it might well have served us very well had we tried it, as the extra hour or so was crucial when you consider that the bugs were now swarming aggressively as the afternoon light began fading. As it was, we careened through the brush ever downward, joyously reaching the road at six o’clock. “That’s when the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the six, Steve”, as Doug explained.
On our way up the valley, we had managed to check out an ideal camping spot on the banks of Tenas Creek, so we returned, hoping to find it unoccupied. It was not only free for the taking, but for some strange reason the mosquitoes never really figured out we were there! Doug and Wally were going to sleep in the truck, while Steve and I set up our tents with the idea of viewing the heavens later.
I had brought firewood but we managed to add to our supply by cleaning up the wood lying about the parking area. Soon we settled in for dinner, drinks, other refreshments, and an evening of tall tales told around the campfire. All manner of trips, past, present, and future, were discussed, as well as gear, music, history, and numerous other topics. Wally had us all laughing hard with the funniest story of the evening, all about a guy who used to do work safe presentations at a place he had worked at many years before. His films featured the woes of chainsaw accidents and apparently, though gruesome, were sometimes as funny as they were terrifying. Let’s just say one of the incidents recounted had us crossing our legs in mock agony. I told some stories about a couple of the more colourful baseball managers I’d played for over the years, while Doug shared some hilarious tales about the late North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones, who we all knew and loved. Steve? He added a few stories of his own, but mostly, he just “enjoyed listening to you old guys talk!”
After a superb night out under the stars, we awoke to yet another picture perfect day, packed up, and had breakfast before beginning the long ride homeward.
Even as I once again failed to find the passenger side of Steve’s truck, it nevertheless struck me that you can never spend enough time with first rate friends. Seven o’clock may happen twice a day, but ironically, time has a way of standing still in the mountains.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, when talk turns to the preservation of old growth trees, generally what people are discussing are the giants of valley bottom ecosystems. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce are most frequently mentioned. Why is that? Well, the answer seems obvious, in that they are located at lower elevations and as such might seem more relatable to the average person. They also reach great size and are conspicuously targeted by logging companies in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
There are, however, a number of different species that grow in the Coast Mountains that simply don’t garner as much attention. One such tree is the Mountain Hemlock, also known as Tsuga Mertensiana . If you’ve ever explored the forests above 800 metres in elevation, then you’ve seen your share of them. What you have likely never heard, however, are sharp cries of protest when the oldest of their kind are cut down. In truth, most people remain unaware that they are even targeted for harvesting!
Invariably, you’ll find the Mountain Hemlock at those higher elevations, where it’s most prolific. In coastal British Columbia it shares space with Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and in this subalpine zone it tends to be the dominant forest tree.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time in British Columbia’s southwest region, I’ve come to admire this hardy survivor of the woods. It’s specially designed to be able to hold the heavy snows of winter in the alpine regions, and to shed them efficiently. The Mountain Hemlock can be found growing in the most adverse conditions. It can thrive in groves, where some protection from the elements is afforded, but some big specimens are often found on exposed ridges, where they must confront the wrath of winter head on. Smaller, stunted versions are often found growing on rocky summits where their trunks thicken even more to withstand the winds.
The Mountain Hemlock is a tree that grows at a very slow and measured pace. When you see one that is just several feet wide in diameter that usually identifies a tree that is already several hundred years old. Growing season is short and difficult in the mountains, and nutrients are sparse, yet I’ve seen so many that have lived multiple centuries. In 2008, when Cypress Provincial Park was given permission to remove trees to accommodate some of the facilities for the Olympic Games, I made a startling discovery. Quite by accident I wandered into an off limits area where dozens of old growth Mountain Hemlocks had been cut down. Even the ones that were just three feet wide proved to be over 400 years old when I counted the growth rings and some of the trees were nearly two metres in diameter. Experts estimate that the tree can reach up to 800 years in age but I am convinced that some may make it into a second millennium.
Yet another example of similar negligence occurred when the trail to Joffre Lakes was expanded back around 2010. BC Parks contracted a firm to do the excavation and during the process they decided to take down a number of Mountain Hemlocks that were over a thousand years old. This was done, allegedly, in the name of public safety, but truthfully in this case they simply took the easiest possible line to widen the path. I’m quite certain they would be standing today had that evaluation been more accurate.
Many an ancient Mountain Hemlock has been levelled by ski resorts, road builders, loggers, and even homesteaders building cabins, over the years. Sometimes this has been done for business purposes, and other times for expediency, but nevertheless countless venerable trees have been destroyed in the process. Much of that destruction has occurred out of sight and out of mind, and it’s high time we paid more attention to this fine and noble tree. In the big picture, it plays an important role in nature, and must not be forgotten!
The Blue Cedar Grove. It’s a title that stirs the imagination, kind of like The Golden Spruce, I remember thinking, when I first read the words. I never did remember to ask Ralf Kelman exactly why he’d chosen such a name, but as soon as I saw it on the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) map, I knew that I needed to see these trees!
The first trip I made to this grove was hardly a day filled with great inspiration. It was a one of those spring days when it’s hard to anticipate what way the weather is going to turn. In short, I guessed wrong. Only half an hour into my bike ride up the valley, light rain began to fall, escalating into a torrential downpour by the time I had left my ride to hunt for the trees. I did decide to press on, but it seemed the further I walked the harder it poured! I made it as far as a soaking wet, moss covered boulder field before I conceded defeat.
The high point of the day was returning to my truck to don dry clothing, devour a sandwich, and drink a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Grand Marnier! ( I highly recommend that last part if you haven’t tried it before, just don’t drink and drive. Take a very long nap, like I did. )
It was four years later in 2008 that I finally returned. On that occasion I chose perfect weather, with the sun shining warmly on my birthday, no less! In a scant twenty minutes from where I left my bike I reached the grove, which certainly did not disappoint.
Tall and towering cedars, draped in moss, set the scene. The forest floor and understory were a carpet of innumerable greens, though it was far from easy to decide where to place your next step.
I was quite surprised to also find a number of very nice Douglas Firs interspersed here and there, and along the creek a number of massive Bigleaf Maples held court, shading me from the midday sun. Nearby, a quizzical deer observed me clambering about, no doubt wondering what in the world I was doing there!
After enjoying the grove, I was soon drawn uphill, following the dull roar of water that I could hear in the background. When I found the source of the noise it was a surprise to me. A winter avalanche had roared down the creek canyon right down to an elevation of 500 meters. By the month of May the snows had melted out and the creek had created a cavern beneath them, leaving me something highly unique to explore. I dared not venture inside it, though, as I could hear the creaking and groaning of shifting ice echoing from within.
Some years later I was to learn that this creek was highly volatile indeed, as during heavy rains the entire couloir released and stripped out the creek bed right down to earth. You can still view the scars of that event in Google Earth images, another five years after it occurred! Here then is the walk up the canyon as I viewed it that day…
Having finally run out of time, I descended the gully once again, vowing to return. The next decade, however, would have a lot to say about whether that was going to happen, but suffice it to say that I was a very happy hiker on that sunny afternoon in late May!
In 2018, I would finally return again, on another absolutely resplendent day. I knew that soon I was to be moving away from the North Shore Mountains, and the Blue Cedar Grove compelled me to visit one more time. The day of discovery was a rewarding one, as I found several sizeable Pacific Yews , hiding in plain sight as they always seem to be. One of them was so twisted and gnarled that I named it “The Elk”, for its upper branches that gave the appearance of antlers.
I will never forget having lunch on the banks of O’Hayes Creek that day, warmed by the sun as countless birds sang nearby. It may seem trite to say I feel as though I’ve developed a bond with this place over the years, but I can’t think of any other way describe it. It is, without a doubt, one of the Seymour Valley’s special places. Here is a guided tour of what I experienced that day.
Imagine, if you can, the Seymour Valley in the late 1800s. It was a land almost completely undisturbed, abundant with wildlife, and blanketed with one of the finest coastal temperate rainforests this land had to offer.
With the influx of settlers and the further displacement of indigenous peoples, however, everything changed. Much of the valley bottom timber was harvested, and the majority that remains many years later is in the stages of recovery. There are, however, places that do remain relatively pristine, and I’ve made it a passion of mine to search for them. The Blue Cedar Grove certainly possesses that magic in abundance, a place that always fills me with gratitude. Should you take the time to seek it out, I’m sure you’ll agree!
High in British Columbia’s Seymour Valley, in a broad clearing once razed of vegetation by landslides, is a most incredible tree that I call the Squamish Creek Giant. It’s a massive Bigleaf Maple that grows right along the creek bed. Rising above it is a rugged coastal valley that has seen little if any exploration, in no small part because its terrain is so difficult! I’m not sure exactly why the creek is named Squamish, by the way, as it is not near the well known city by that same name.
In the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, Acer Macrophyllum, as it’s also known, is a relatively common tree, usually native to riparian zones. Generally it will have multiple trunks, and tends to support a wide variety of plant life that grows from its limbs. Just because of its crown spread, it can be difficult to photograph on a tree hunt, and its lifespan can widely vary. The largest of its kind is reputed to reach over five hundred years in age, but many seldom reach half that age, perhaps due to the state of flux they endure growing near watercourses.
This particular tree is one I stumbled upon at least a decade ago, and we returned to photograph last year. It’s quite close to an especially captivating place I call The Giant’s Rock Garden (story is here ). Lately my interest about other Bigleaf Maple trees has definitely been on the rise. I have encountered many of them, but it has usually been when I am hunting other species, like Western Red Cedar or Douglas Fir. Has anyone else out there developed an interest in these beauties? Feel free to leave your comments if you have!
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 Regional 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 for Doug and I to make it up there once the snow falls. While it’s not an entirely unknown area, it does tend to be a lot 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. Maybe the name, too, is something of a deterrent.
I don’t know exactly how these bluffs earned their auspicious name, but there are certainly 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 track, 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 more than a few 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, it isn’t surprising that 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 these 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”***