You’ve no doubt heard the story by now. It’s one of overcrowding, lack of planning, and the abysmal management of a natural treasure. With all of the current controversy regarding Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, sometimes it’s hard to remember that it ‘s also one of the most idyllic places in all of southwestern British Columbia. This park, located at the summit of Cayoosh Pass, is just north of Pemberton on Highway 99. The turquoise lakes, glaciers, and towering peaks make it popular year round, but the summers are when it’s busy beyond description.
So exactly what happened to cause all the issues? Well, with the advent of social media, the expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway, and the excessive promotion of tourism, came a huge influx of visitors. When you combine that with the destruction of the old trail in favour of a wider gravel path, and a zero dollar increase in parks management funding over the last fifteen years, what you have is a recipe for disaster. Long before the ridiculous and sometimes unruly crowds, however, Joffre Lakes was a markedly different place to visit. Even if you turn back the clock a mere dozen years, the park was a far more pleasant experience, though even then there were clear signs of change. Well, if you’ve been of the mind that a place this overrun just isn’t worth seeing, then continue reading and I’ll try to illustrate why you might want to rethink that resolve!
It was in July of 2008 when I finally found my way to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. I had heard it could be a bit crazy in the sunnier months, so I’d avoided it mostly for that reason. Most of the people I knew in the hiking world had already spent plenty of time there by then. It was an overnight stay in the parking lot and a trek to the 2377m summit of Mt Tszil that served to change all of that for me. I arrived on an early July evening to meet up with Ted and Denis, who were climbing nearby Saxifrage Mountain earlier that day. Once there, I spent a lot of time rambling back and forth to Lower Joffre Lake just to photograph the mountains and glaciers as the sun began to set. The parking lot had but nine other vehicles in it, which is unimaginable by today’s standards.
The guys arrived around 10 pm, a bit tired and short a couple of pints of blood courtesy of the hordes of mosquitoes in the Spetch Creek Valley! We hung around shooting the breeze and enjoying a couple of cold beers before settling in for the night. We knew we’d be starting out very early the next morning.
Arising early to make coffee, I found the clouds had closed in and the bugs had now come out in full force. During the night the valley had chilled and we awoke to clouds of mist swirling in the parking lot. The weather was expected to clear as the day wore on, as we geared up for what was sure to be a long trek. Soon Denis and Ted were ready to go, and a short while later we were hiking the beautiful trail up the Joffre Creek Valley. Rolling fog and cooler temperatures made for fast travel, and on the way I enjoyed the Kendal Mint Cake Ted had brought up for me!
At Lower Joffre Lake the sun had been struggling to emerge, but by the time we arrived at Middle Joffre Lake half an hour later it had nearly won its battle. There was plenty of chatter to kill time, bit it was a lively discussion about the right kind of chips to eat that dominated the trail conversation. Denis is strongly against flavours, strictly preferring plain or ripple chips. Despite the fact I am of the same mind, it was fun getting him to evaluate all the other varieties. Lines like “If I wanted a dill pickle, I’d be eating a dill pickle. Why would I want my chips to taste like one!”, and “Ketchup is a condiment. If you must add it to your chips, please do so privately with packets, because I don’t want it on mine!”, or “BBQ flavoured chips don’t really taste like anything I’ve ever barbecued, so I don’t understand that idea at all!” were the order of the day. Ted had heard it all before, and seemed more concerned with where we were going next and the beer we’d be drinking later on.
In no time at all, we had reached Upper Joffre Lake and would be scouting for the somewhat obscure trail that leads you up into the alpine. It winds through the woods and eventually to the bottom of a large lateral moraine of the Tszil Glacier, where a steep and rough track follows a spine into the col between Mt Taylor and Tszil Mountain. The path was soon located, and so was a sweater lost recently by someone we knew through the Clubtread hiking website we all hung out on. The guys, uhhhh, put that to good use in their latest comedy routine of the day.
The route was well marked and reasonably straightforward, and soon we found ourselves staring down the summit block of Tszil Mountain. The line of ascent was simple to figure out, and much sooner than we had figured we were standing on the summit, in less than four hours from the cars. Not too bad, especially for Ted and Denis, who had knocked off 1500m of climbing the day before!
Originally, we had planned to climb Slalok Mountain, but the guys were pretty burned out from the previous day’s climb so, between that, and the whiteout we encountered, Tszil would be enough to content us that day. We sat high above the clouds, enjoying our lunch and the constantly changing scenery.
Soon, with snacks now consumed, we departed the summit, and were now basking in the warmth of sunshine. Along the way the guys ran into a couple who had just finished a trip to The Alps, and spent a while discussing their experiences there. Feeling the need for some solitude, for whatever reason, I decided to wander down the ridge further to take photos of the lake and mountains. I marvelled at the clusters of tiny wildflowers, and the way they take advantage of every opportunity, while the calls of pikas occasionally broke the silence.
Eventually, it was time to retrace our steps back down to the lakes, where we experienced a fairly hectic hike back down to the parking lot. Keep in mind this was a weekday in 2008, and the crowds today have increased at least twenty fold! Then, as now, there were a lot of impatient people on the trail, many spectacularly unprepared, and plenty of peculiar behaviour to go with them.
We were happy to reach the parking lot, now jammed with cars, and kick back with some cold Stella Artois and those potato chips we love so much. Plain ripple, of course, if you’re keeping score, as I had no ketchup packets! Then, as now, it was a day worth remembering, and it had me planning future visits to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park.
But what of today? Despite the fact that this park faces many future challenges, it is still a wilderness worth preserving. In a world where outdoor recreation has reached record demand, there will have to be some well reasoned solutions so that it thrives. I’ll discuss those potential answers in this story’s next chapter, to follow soon…
It was 3 am on a Monday morning when I rolled reluctantly out of bed, making it as far as the couch. You know, I used to be an early riser, once, but that’s becoming something reserved for special occasions lately. As I forced down coffee and breakfast and read my computer screen in the fading darkness, my eyes later came to rest on a sentence: “430 am and heading for a hike, Mt Klitsa, here we come!” The words were Mary’s, and it occurred to me that despite how early it was, everyone else was getting up a whole lot earlier! Less than an hour later I met up with Dustin, Jim, and Mary, and we were soon rolling toward our destination.
Klitsa Mountain, at 1639 m in elevation, is the second highest peak surrounding the Alberni Valley. It’s not as high as Mt Arrowsmith, but because it gets far more snowfall it stays snow covered until much later in the season. The mountain’s name,“Kleet-sah”, derives from the aboriginal word that translates as “always white”.
The route to access Klitsa, at least via the Brooke George Trail, is certainly a circuitous one. For us, it meant driving on Highway 4 to Port Alberni, then following Stirling Arm, Gracie Main, Nahmint Main, and finally the N600 spur which led to a branch where the trailhead begins. Dustin was able to drive us all the way there, to within 20 metres of the first trail marker. That gave us the advantage of beginning our hike at 800 metres in elevation! It also helped that Mary had been on the trail before, so navigating the maze of roads was, thankfully, somewhat easier.
It was still fairly early that we piled out of the truck and began gearing up, and the blast of frigid morning air had us moving around quickly, with more than our share of joking around. I’d hiked with Mary and Dustin before, and also joining us on the trek was Jim, who I hadn’t met until then. It turned out we had more than a little in common, as you often discover on those long trips on logging roads!
The only hitch on the entire trip happened within 150 metres of the trailhead, where a stray set of flagging tapes had us heading in the wrong direction, but we soon sorted that out and were promptly back on track. The route to Klitsa from the Nahmint Valley is actually long established, and the trail was renamed the Brooke George Trail in honour of a very well respected member of the Alberni Valley Outdoor Club. Brooke passed away some years ago in a mountaineering accident, and the club has adopted the trail in the years that have followed.
The path began by leading us up through a considerable stand of untouched old growth forest, while following roughly along a creek that drains the upper bench below Klitsa. Sections of the trail were quite muddied but we were quite lucky that much of it was frozen solid, at least on the way up. Once we arrived at the small lake that sits at about 1050m we took a break and studied the route a little bit more. I knew that the trail was soon going to be traversing a fairly wet subalpine meadow which you get to by working your way north, along the lake’s eastern shores. Once past the lake, the climbing would begin in earnest as we wove our way along the route toward the alpine.
Pretty soon the path began to dry out somewhat as we entered the alpine, eventually reaching a junction with the less often used route that comes up via the Brigade Lakes Trail and the Gibson-Klitsa Plateau. From what I understand, that track is an equally worthy objective but it does come with a good deal of bushwhacking in the upper lakes basin. I know I’ll want to spend some time there as there are apparently a great number of ancient trees to be seen! The Brigade Lakes Trail is much more readily accessible if you don’t happen to have a high clearance vehicle, as you can park at the Taylor River rest area on Highway 4. It was actually built by a group of loggers on a forest service project who felt the area was so special that it ought to be saved, believe it or not! As a result, much of the Gibson-Klitsa Plateau became part of an old growth conservancy, though currently there is some concern about a road boundary marked on the lower reaches of the Brigade Lakes Trail. It would be a shame to see any of this wilderness damaged!
Once past the junction, you begin to see the lakes below, and the higher you climb, the more mountains appear! The footbed is relatively well worn, and cairns appear here and there, along with the occasional flagging tape.
Klitsa soon made a more prominent appearance to the east, and before long the summit block was before us. We had reached an open clearing that was clearly marked on both sides of the trail, but we weren’t quite sure where the path went from there. I looked up to the left at first, as my friend Chris had cautioned me that the right hand side was harder to climb and more exposed. He and Shane had climbed it earlier that month in a virtual whiteout and ended up with a little more fun than they bargained for, though they’d managed it well. We hesitated for a minute or two and looked around , but as it turned out we rediscovered the path basically straight ahead of us, after which it trended strongly to the left. In different conditions, there may have been several gullies worth ascending but since we had ice to contend with we were content with the easiest possible line.
The last 100 metres were a bit more of a grind, but that was mostly because we’d all been pretty active the day before. Dustin, for example, had spent the previous day hiking up Kings Peak in Strathcona Provincial Park, which was an all day affair. Mary had climbed Mt Maxwell on Saltspring Island, while Jim and I had been active trail running. Jim, also an avid skier, kept busy contemplating all the possible lines up for grabs once the snows fell there!
There was loose rock to contend with while we lost ourselves in the views, but the walk was neither hazardous nor exposed. A relatively easy scramble soon had us on the summit, where we enjoyed little if any wind and ideal temperatures. I was about as happy as I could be, as this was a mountain that had really captured my imagination! This was a mountain where the ocean on both sides of Vancouver Island could be seen, which was a new experience for me.
From the summit, the entire Alberni Valley was laid out before us. You could see Sproat Lake and the Taylor River below, as well as Highway 4. In the distance Arrowsmith loomed prominently and beyond, the Salish Sea. Across the valley to the south is Nahmint Mountain and as you look westward peaks like 5040, Adder, and Steamboat can be seen, as well as countless others. Northern views are dominated by the mountains of Strathcona, notably Nine Peaks, Big Interior and Septimus. Since I’m an Island novice, about the only one I was sure of was the Comox Glacier! According to Mary, on the clearest of days one could also see Elkhorn and the Golden Hinde but if my photos captured either I’d not have known what I was looking at!
As stoked as we were to be there, after about half an hour we decided to begin the hike homeward, after all, we did have a long way to go! Before we departed, everyone took another good look around, as though imprinting the views to mind. It was a place I would return to in a second!
The walk down went uneventfully, with the added benefit being that much of the ice had begun to melt, though the trail lower down was all the muddier. We didn’t mind, though, because it could not have been a better day to be outside! We made such good time we decided to take another break on the way down.
Once past the lake, it was just a matter of trekking through the woods again for about an hour to reach the truck. That in itself was a treat, as there aren’t too many undisturbed old growth forests left here on Vancouver Island. It’s quite likely many of the Mountain Hemlocks exceeded 400 years in age!
All told, it was a very memorable day on the trail. We completed the hike, which probably had close to 900m of vertical gain, in roughly five hours car to car, I think. As relatively quick as that was, the same could not be said for the drive back, which was as long as it had been that morning. The roads, however, were all in excellent condition, so we had few complaints!
On the ride home, we decided to stop in at Bigfoot Burgers in Whiskey Creek for a late lunch. Dustin and I had wanted to eat there on an earlier trip to Mt Cokely but hadn’t managed to do so. This time around we were pretty determined to get those burgers, but the restaurant was closed for a staff party, of all things, so no luck there! At Mary’s suggestion, we made our way to Coombs Old Country Market, better known as “Goats On the Roof”. There’s a restaurant there that served us up some pretty decent burgers and fries, I’ll say! One unusual thing about the place is that it’s also well filled with wood carved art, much of it for sale. There were many pieces that were naturally or culturally significant, and quite a few that were rather ornate or even a bit risqué. One in particular featured a tiny little stool on which the backing had been crafted into a phallus, of all things. We all had a bit of laugh over that, and a few other pieces. I had joked that “My wedding anniversary was the following day, and there were some pretty decent carvings of life sized bears there, hmmmmm.” “Well, I do have a truck with plenty of room,” said Dustin. It was a fitting and fun end to a fine day out. In the end, I recommend both the mountain and the restaurant, you can’t go wrong with either! (No, I did not buy the bear)
*** Author’s note: Some thanks are in order regarding this day in the mountains. Thanks to my friend Chris Hood, who first piqued my interest in this mountain. He was to summit it himself two weeks later, and I wish I could have shared that day.
Thanks as well to Chris Istace, whose invaluable information provided about the trip he and Shane Johnson had just done a couple weeks before helped us to have a successful outing.
Finally, thanks to my hiking companions on the trek and to Dustin for driving, you all helped make it a memorable day! ***
The annals of mountaineering, especially those of social media offering, are so often filled with the stories of success. That is, you plan the trek, face the adversities, and eventually stand triumphant and heroic on the summit before staring down the descent. The truth, however, is that sometimes victory eludes you, yet in defeat there is often a story worth telling. If you have the courage to look back on the bad days, you might even get a laugh or two out of the spanking you’ve taken. Whatever the case, the most important thing is to keep on going back to the mountains. They are always worth the effort!
Here then, are a few excerpts from my three and a half decades of history in the hills, some rather inglorious. The mountain has a way of finding you when you’re not having the best of days, you know. As long as your ego isn’t too closely shackled to grabbing the summit every single time, and even if it is, you can still learn a lot from your misadventures.
What follows here is a retrospective of some climbs on which I ended up turning around, and the variety of related reasons for those retreats. I was surprised to find, to my chagrin, that there were a few more of them than I thought there were! Most of the real epics were concentrated in a ten year period that I’d characterize as the most trying time in my life, yet those same years were crammed full of discovery and elation as well.
First up? Mt Elsay, the avalanche… It was late one spring when I finally had my first experience setback in the mountains. I was close to my 39th birthday, and was feeling pretty immortal back then. I was, after all, at the peak of fitness at the time, having finally quit destroying myself playing baseball, and freshly off successful knee surgery. In many ways I felt unstoppable! Spoiler alert, I wasn’t.
That trek basically ended for me almost before it started. No sooner had I descended Wes’s Staircase on the Elsay Lake Trail, than a haunting mist obscured the entire valley. I continued on for a spell, knowing the route well, but almost immediately I froze in my tracks. There was a deep rumbling off the eastern slopes of Mt Seymour. It sounded powerful, so I stood and waited a minute or two to see what had happened. When the clouds drifted away momentarily, I could see a massive runout of wet snow that had carried with it the twisted limbs of small trees and continued on well over the trail I had intended to walk! This was an omen, had I been five minutes faster it’s possible I might not be telling this tale right now! It was a timely reminder that nature couldn’t care less how much you want to reach a summit. Though my wife sometimes begs to differ, I can sometimes take a hint! I turned around, and didn’t return again until over eight years later to climb the mountain.
In 2006, I only missed out one summit, and that was the rock tower of Ben Lomond in the Britannia Range. Simon, Alan, Denis, Chris, and I had planned on climbing Ben More, Ben Lomond and Red Mountain in one long day. On our way up Ben More, I felt something pop in my left hip, which I had injured the year before on Mt Price. I knew right away it was going to be serious, but I badly wanted to stand atop the high point of the Seymour Valley. Though I did manage to summit Ben More, by the time we reached the base of Ben Lomond, I could not move my leg high enough to kick steps into the precipitous snow slope. Frustrated, I sat down with Chris, then chipped off a piece of snow with my ice axe to stuff in my pants. Chris, meanwhile, was suffering with a painful foot injury. We were not happy campers! This was the first time I ever had to sit idly and watch other people climb a mountain and I didn’t like it.
It made me kind of nervous to be a spectator, but of course Alan, Denis, and Simon pretty much pulled it off without a hitch. When they came down, it was time to climb the less technical Red Mountain, which I had decided I was going to do come hell or high water. It hurt like hell, but I did it.
Meanwhile, we watched from afar, cheered, and celebrated as Chris got up off the snow and proceeded to climb Ben Lomond! After that, we all walked out, and I returned the next summer with Denis to finally climb this peak. It was all I had hoped for! It was, however, the start of a ten year battle with that serious hip injury. Hip flexors are difficult, as they may heal, but in the process, they often tear again frequently. It took me a decade to properly rehabilitate from the injury, but then, I never stopped hiking, so maybe that is why. I resorted to taking up yoga to help the healing process, and it worked better than anything else I had tried.
July of 2008 on Cayoosh Mountain was the best of times. Ted, Denis, and I spent the night camped out having more than a few beers before starting out the next morning for the summit. The conditions were ideal, but we were going to have to move fast to avoid the high temperatures of midday.
It had been a big snow year and we knew the route could become dangerous if we tarried. As it turned out, I basically managed to louse that up by getting us off the right path. We passed the correct gully and instead I led us to a ridge we cliffed out on. That meant we had to double back before ascending the correct line, which we did, eventually.
Once we reached a steep bowl below the sub summit, however, I knew our day was done. The snow had become too isothermic, and was now too unsafe to cross. The only sane decision was to walk away. We haven’t returned yet, but maybe someday we will. That one’s on me, boys!
Later in 2008, Chris and I were attempting Tulameen Mountain in the Cascades. We began, sans helmets, by climbing a very sketchy gully and veritable shooting gallery of falling rock that I began calling the Jingfest Couloir. With that bit of Russian Roulette out of the way, it was a question of digging in and making our way through a big field of shifting rock and up the southwest ridge of the mountain.
On that day, the weather had looked unsettled, and then suddenly we could see a storm moving very quickly up the Fraser Valley. This was not good! We were only another hour from the summit of Tulameen but our position was much too exposed. The next thing we knew there was lightning, and more threatening clouds, and we were scampering back to the cover of the woods below! It took a while, but we struggled back to the truck in one piece, none the worse for wear. Chris often tells me he’s a magnet for bad weather. I’m not sure about that, but on that day it was a funny enough explanation!
A different fate struck on Castle Towers in 2009, where Doug battled vertigo gamely and scrapped his way up to the west summit on a perfect summer day. The week before he’d been down with the flu and an ear infection. Climbing the true summit, just a half hour away, just wasn’t going to happen. While I took summit photos, Doug took a seat just below the cairn trying to gather his bearings.
He offered to wait while I attempted it alone, but we were a long way from civilization and if anything had happened to me I was not sure he was in the right shape to walk out alone. I made the only decision that I felt right about, and we enjoyed the west summit for a good thirty minutes more before beginning the long walk back. In the end, this trip was among the finest we have ever done together, and over a decade later I still talk about it!
The year 2009 also brings to mind one of the more strange and happy days of my life. In September, Chris and I drove up to the North Creek Valley near Pemberton to have a go at Hemionus Mountain. As we hiked up the south ridge on that cold and sunny day, we were treated to some phenomenal scenery. Just as we reached a high sub summit with a commanding view, we made the mistake of sitting down.
I had slept only an hour and a half the night before and Chris had been doing a lot of trekking the weeks before as well. Though we might have had the summit, instead we just kicked back, relaxed, and let it all sink in. This was the first time I’d ever done that on a mountain trip, and it was outstanding! We laughed a lot, and then strolled back down after a while. Some of my friends were a little incredulous, wondering why we would drive all that way and not at least try a little harder. I just shrugged, to us it had seemed right. Still does.
Then there was Ring Mountain, a dormant volcano in the Squamish Valley. I set out with Doug, Denis, and Chris on a spectacular spring day in 2010 with the goal of standing atop this tuya. The year before, Doug, Chris, and I had approached it from the Callaghan Valley, and due to a lot of faffing around on the wrong side of the mountain we had already spent a fair amount of time on the objective.
I was to fail again that day, as despite Doug’s stellar efforts at breaking trail I simply did not have the strength to follow. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had previously picked up a very devious intestinal parasite which only affected me especially in times of hard physical effort. With it came chills, shuddering, fever, nausea, and sometimes the complete and random evacuation of my bowels. That day featured all of the above. While Doug and Denis reached the summit, I waited below, cursing my fortune. In fact, I was damned angry! Chris also had to turn around on that day, but it was more a matter of time constraint, not for lack of strength. Current score: Ring Mountain 2 Mick 0.
Only months later, I would make an attempt of Mt Bardean and Mt Ratney with Gerry and Sabine that turned out to be all too familiar. In those days I was pushing the envelope on every trip, and surviving on the absolute minimum of sleep.
My wife and I raise a son with autism, you see, and for the better part of about 20 years, we lived in a partial state of exhaustion. I made it to within just 150m of Bardean’s summit that day, but could go no further.
It wasn’t as bad as all that though, because I enjoyed a 90 minute nap in an idyllic alpine meadow while Sabine and Gerry climbed the two peaks. I’ve not managed a return yet, but would love to try again!
Curiously enough, since 2010, every summit I have attempted has been met with success and for the most part with far less difficulty. As time has passed, I don’t get up mountains with the quite the same speed I did in younger days. Who does? What I do is finish off the efforts with a combination of persistence and well, more persistence. I live by two important mantras: “Just put one foot in front of the other” and “Those beers down at the truck aren’t gonna drink themselves!”
It had taken us the better part of two years to sort out our move to Vancouver Island, but having finally done that, I wanted to climb a mountain here! Recently I’d joined a local hiking group called Island Mountain Ramblers , and while checking out the trips they had planned, I discovered one I had to join! Gemini Mountain, deep within the Nanaimo River Valley, sounded like a place I needed to see!
There is limited access to the valley, which is controlled by Timber West, the landowners. It was only possible to hike there in autumn months, according to Matthew, our trip organizer and current club president. The twin summits of Gemini Mountain were ideally located and, if the weather was in our favour, might serve up some beautiful views. The only catch was that we’d be in there during hunting season, but at least the area we were to hike was off limits to the hunters. While that sounded a little scary, of course there were no problems!
Eight of us met at Harewood Mall, and from there drove a long way up the Nanaimo Lakes Road to reach our destination. We stopped at a checkpoint along the way, where you need to report in to let Timber West know where you’re headed. It was at least another half hour before a while before we turned onto the K15 logging spur. A long climb led us steeply up that road to where we’d begin our hike.
The Nanaimo River Valley has a lengthy history of logging, and there are still a lot of active haul roads within its watershed. Despite the piles of logging slash burning at roadside as we climbed, you could still see that the valley maintained its strong feel of wilderness. Somehow it seems to have transcended all the harvesting that has happened there.
After gearing up, we began our hike at about 1200m in elevation, with cold winds urging us on. Our leader knew the route well having been there before, but there were few markers to show us the way. The forest, a mix of Mountain Hemlock, Silver Fir, and Western Hemlock, was quite enchanting.
Soon the trees became more widely spaced, and we entered some attractive subalpine meadows, then heather covered slopes led us to some dense coastal brush. The mist and clouds were constant companions, and would only leave us for short breaks throughout the day.
We were soon approaching the first of Gemini Mountain’s two summits, and after a short bushwhack, we were there! As we arrived, the clouds would clear, making good on the promise of those spectacular views. I had been hiking for many years in the same familiar ranges of the Lower Mainland, where I was used to being able to identify most of the peaks around me. Here on Vancouver Island, however, the surroundings were entirely new to me, so there was a great sense of discovery that had me quite enamoured.
After a short break, we began hiking over to the second, and highest summit. This involved trekking over the shoulder of the first summit and weaving our way down to a col between the two. On the ridge, we passed by bedding and grazing sites of elk herds, and followed their paths quite often. We’d have to return the same way we came, because both sides of the col were lined with steep cliff bands that would prevent us from taking any shortcuts.
The col was a beautiful and rugged place! Soon the skies parted for at least half an hour, as we rose above the clouds. The ground sloped sharply into a valley below the col, and in the distance the road we had driven up to the trailhead became visible. There was a sea of mountains to gaze at, but most of them were unknown to me.
Soon we left the col and crossed over on a ramp to the base of some steep bluffs. Here we waited, before climbing up to a bench just below the summit. That was the biggest challenge of the day, as the rock was a little unstable in places. While we did that, the skies would clear even more, which had everyone feeling more cheerful.
Our trip leader Matthew, along with navigating, had his two year old daughter in his backpack. He also had his five year old son walking the entire route with us. He did well, and the only help he needed was a boost or two on some of the steepest sections. It reminded me of hiking with my kids when they were young, trying to share with them that fascination with nature, which they still seem to have to this day!
After we climbed the bluffs we then headed up to the summit proper, at 1525m in elevation. The summit plateau was fairly broad, with panoramic views. There were also some alpine tarns that were just beginning to freeze over. I was very happy to be atop my first peak on Vancouver Island!
Pretty soon the weather began to arrive in earnest. The winds now began blowing more briskly as we took a short break before the hike back. Many peaks could be seen in the distance, including Mt Baker down in Washington state.
Light rain began to fall as we walked down to the col, then back up to the first summit, and finally back down again to the logging road. It seemed like much longer than a five and a half hour hike, yet at 3 pm we were back at the vehicles and rolling down the road to the gate shortly after.
If anyone out there on Vancouver Island has thought about hiking this mountain during the limited opportunity, I’d highly recommend it. As well, if you’re looking for a hiking club on Vancouver Island, join the Island Mountain Ramblers, you’ll be glad you did!
Doug’s Ford Explorer rolled slowly to a stop. It was an ideal summer morning back in 2009, and there was plenty of excitement in the air. We were finally going to climb Castle Towers Mountain! The plan was simple: We would hike along the ridge lines below Helm Peak after leaving the trail, then work our way to Gentian Pass. From there, we would push on to set up camp on Polemonium Ridge and find our way to the summit the following day. You may have heard that this part of British Columbia is overcrowded and a bit too popular for your liking. While sometimes that is undeniably true, likely even more so today, I think this story might just change your mind a little. If you’ve ever had any doubt that spending a couple of days hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park is a good idea, then be prepared to dismiss those worries!
With full packs, the grunt up the Helm Creek Trail took plenty of effort, but we were still elated to be there. Doug had put a lot of planning into this trek, and now it was time to put our boots to the trail. It seemed a relatively short couple of hours for us to make it up to the Helm Creek campsite, and some overnight campers were still lingering there as we arrived at Helm Meadows. The momentary envy we felt for the coffee they had was all but extinguished when I told Doug I’d packed some beer along for the walk!
If by now you’re wondering about the catchy title to this story, well, here’s an explanation of sorts. So, exactly what is a hoser? See the actual definition below, but the word has come to mean any typical Canadian in many circles, and it’s also a nickname that got attached to the two of us by friends years ago. The flowers and Castle Towers? I’ll let the photos answer that question!
To elaborate, I offer the following:
Hoser: (n) Canadian hockey derogatory term that is similar to the American “idiot” or “loser”. It is derived from the pre-Zamboni days in hockey, where the losing team would be stuck with hosing down the ice after the game. It was popularized again by the characters Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis played on the SCTV comedy show of the late 1970s and 1980s.
The next phase of the operation was to circumvent the Helm Glacier so that we could arrive at the col above Gentian Pass. To do that, we climbed steeply toward Helm Peak and simply meandered along the ridge some 250 metres below its summit. The clouds and sunshine put on a real show for us as we walked, and although the weather looked unsettled it ended up clearing just as we had hoped. The views, at least, were a welcome distraction, as the slope we had chosen to hike up was steep and lined with heather.
Spectacular views of Gentian Peak, Black Tusk, and many of the peaks of the Garibaldi Ranges made their appearance one by one. Though we were beginning to feel the heat of the day and the weight of our carry, it hardly seemed to matter. Gazing at all of the lakes, with their varied shades of blue and green, I could not have imagined a better place to be on a summer day.
Once we reached the col, we virtually stopped in our tracks. There it was, Castle Towers! The very first time I had hiked to Garibaldi Lake I had been drawn to this high, glaciated, triple summited tower, and now we were getting a closer look. After a brief diversion examining a weather station there, we continued on.
It is here on this climb that you get an idea of the punishment you’ll endure on the return, because at that point you drop at least 250 metres in elevation to reach Gentian Pass. As per mountain terminology it isn’t strictly a pass so much as it is the Gentian – Polemonium Col, I suppose, but the name seems to have stuck. It took us another three quarters of an hour to reach the short expanse of meadow below, with its fine views of Castle Towers and the nearby Spearhead Range. By then we were in no mood for the up and coming hike up to Polemonium that was to follow, so we decided it was dinner time.
Doug broke out the stove and cooked up tasty dinner of rice and chicken with Indian spices, which was so good at the time I can still recall it a decade later! Meanwhile, I iced down some beers in a creek nearby and broke out some Snickers bars for dessert. After we ate and drank, we took ourselves a short nap, which really helped Doug as he hadn’t been feeling that well the week before the trip. Still, it was only with great reluctance that we shouldered our packs again and made for the ridge above. It seemed like every step took a minute, but eventually we reached our destination.
Polemonium Ridge was a revelation! It was a broad plain of multiple levels, and featured endless vistas of the surrounding peaks. Though I don’t remember saying much at the time, I do recall being very thankful to be there! For lodging, we had brought two lightweight bivouac shelters that were braced with our hiking poles, and of course sleeping bags. We placed camp in a carefully located position, in case the winds kicked up, then set to exploring the ridge for a spell. Garibaldi Lake loomed below us, no doubt buzzing with campers, but from our perch we heard only faint summer breezes and the calls of nearby marmots. This was a real mountaineer’s camp, complete with some aging remnants left on a previous expedition or two. I even found an old pair of aviator sunglasses that date back to the 1970s which I still have today!
The sunset was a grand show, as the alpenglow danced across the nearby peaks and a fiery orange glow hung over the Tantalus Range and the Squamish Cheakamus Divide. We spent the time letting all of that sink in and talking about trips past and future, and the fact we were then out of beer! Shortly after the sundown, we turned in, wanting to take advantage of the cooler morning conditions as we knew we’d be climbing in the shadows. Sleep came easily, it had been a long day!
I awoke early, as I always do in the mountains, having never been one to lie in a few extra hours when there’s a sunrise to see. I found myself thinking about my father, who had passed away the previous November. He had a lot to do with teaching me about the joys of early rising, being of the belief that it was particularly sublime to be awake while most of your corner of the world was ensconced in slumber. I will always think of him in the wee hours of the morning.
Breakfast came next, then we cached some of our gear which we’d pick up on the descent. No sense carrying too much weight, right? Cool morning air accompanied us as we climbed further up the ridge and searched for the gully that would give us passage to the west flank of Castle Towers. It turned out that it wasn’t too difficult to locate, the crux being all of the loose rock that we had to contend with. We were well distracted by the views of the hulking mass of the Garibaldi massif and it’s volcanically created lake in the valley below.
Pretty soon our objective stood before us, and next we scaled yet another pile of randomly placed rock to bring us to the foot of a snowfield. According to our information, the snow here was supposedly in decent shape for kicking steps, so we’d opted not to bring crampons and ice axes with us. Big mistake! Doug, with his sturdier footwear, was able to lead successfully up the steep pitch to make it just barely possible for us to cross the snow. I followed behind, trying to very carefully place my steps. Since there was some exposure, this took us some time, but in time we made it up intact. Lesson learned? A serious mountaineer brings ALL the necessary gear, and that way if you need it you have it with you!
All that was left to do was to finish the climb to the west summit, where we could examine the rest of the route. That consisted of a fairly large boulder field, which never gave the feeling of walking on secure and solid ground. Nearly every rock moved regardless of its size, and that made for one very nervous ascent, but we just kept on moving until we arrived at the top.
The west summit of Castle Towers is a spectacular vantage point. Not only could we see Garibaldi across the valley, but many of the more rarely ascended peaks in the park, such as The Sphinx, Isosceles, The Bookworms, Phyllis Engine, and many more. We could even see the Tantalus Range and could make the distant peaks of the Squamish Elaho Divide. Mt Price and Garibaldi Lake stood out in especially sharp relief, and seemed close enough to reach out and touch, as did the Castle Towers Glacier!
This was a day on which I was going strongly, but I could soon see that Doug was now grinding out every step. It turned out that he was dealing with a case of vertigo which was disturbing his sense of balance, despite his determination. When we finally reached the cairn of the west summit, it was time to reevaluate our situation. Doug decided it would be best if he rested for a while, while I finished the task and made my way to the central and true summit. While that looked relatively straightforward, my concern for his well being prevented me from doing that. Had I met with an accident, I could not have been sure he was going to be alright on his own, and since we were in a very isolated location, I opted to stand down. While I felt was the right decision, it wasn’t necessarily an easy one, but whatever disappointment we felt soon faded away as we focused on the incredible views!
We savoured the moment as best we could, as soon we’d be on the clock again, and heading homeward. We’d need to pick up the rest of our gear that we’d left at camp on Polemonium Ridge as well, and were expecting a long walk back to the parking lot! For a minute or two, we could hear nothing but the wind whistling through the vents in our helmets. I love that sound!
Feeling somewhat fresher than before, we now backtracked down the boulder field, with all the more caution. It may have been even more unnerving on the descent, as even car sized boulders shifted underfoot. I remember laughing uneasily, referring to it all as “geologically recent”, mostly because it was!
When we reached the hardened snowfield for the second time, I had even come up with the idea of using a sharp rock to improve the steps, but the sun had shifted, serving to slightly soften the snows. It turned out nature had helped us out somewhat, and we were soon back on the endless rubble that would lead us back to the now familiar gully, then up to Polemonium Ridge beyond. It wasn’t quite as easy to climb as when we’d descended it, mostly because we kept finding rocks to dislodge, but thankfully it was a short, sharp, section of suffrage.
Our loads would get a little heavier, and as we retrieved our gear and stopped for another snack on the ridge, Garibaldi Lake shimmered below in the distance. It was at that moment we joked about calling for a helicopter ride home, but part of earning your keep in the mountains means you’ve got to do that walk back to the truck!
As we left Polemonium Ridge behind, we turned to stare once again at Castle Towers. Would we try again for the summit? I knew I definitely wanted to. We still have not. It was one of the most ruggedly beautiful places I’ve seen in the Coast Mountains, not far as flies the crow from civilization, but it may as well have been a thousand miles from the closest human. It’s that very feeling of isolation that fuels my love of the mountains, and most of these words are but faint praise when comparing them to being there in the moment.
Next, however, came the drop into Gentian Pass, steep as it was, followed by the climb back up to those ridges above the Helm Glacier. We were trudging along so slowly at one point that I’m sure I recall some of the resident marmots mocking us! Despite their imaginary taunts, we soon found ourselves overlooking the Helm Glacier and its sprawling valley below. Turning one last time to Castle Towers, with a quick nod of respect, we were off yet again. It would be over an hour before we reached the well groomed trail at the Helm Creek campsite, and several more before we made it to the parking lot. It was Doug who rebounded strongly toward the finish line, as I began to fade, as much mentally exhausted as anything.
The hike back was something of a blur, so I’m glad I took plenty of photographs. All I really recall was that it was dark when we finally finished the trek! Here are some more looks, in no particular order, at this wonderfully scenic place.
Author’s Note: I must have been tired and delirious because I forgot that just before we reached the parking lot we stopped to retrieve some very cold Heinekens Doug had stashed from a nearby creek. Doug actually checked the GPS track he had and found a waypoint called Beer Creek. It makes me happy to know we weren’t deprived of refreshments after all that walking!
As popular as Garibaldi Park has become over the years, there is still land in the park that is as isolated as it is difficult to reach. Castle Towers Mountain is, in spirit at least, the gateway to this wilderness, so don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. The harder you work, the greater the rewards!
When discussion turns to the great remaining stands of ancient Western Red Cedar, most people are referring to the trees found on the western coasts of British Columbia and Washington. Even among those interested in hunting down those fast disappearing giants, precious little attention is paid to the few surviving rainforests of British Columbia’s interior. If you have never been to one of these rare and beautiful sanctuaries, then this story might just pique your interest!
High in the upper Fraser River Valley, about 110 kms southeast of Prince George and 93 kms northwest of McBride is a surprising grove of trees just off Highway 16, near the outpost of Dome Creek. Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area ,close to Sugarbowl Grizzly Den Provincial Park and Protected Area, is also host to a most unusual climate. Here, all of the right conditions have combined to create something truly magical. You see, this cedar and hemlock forest has somehow managed to exist without any natural disturbance, including a complete lack of fires, for at least a thousand years. It has the added distinction of being further from an ocean than any of this planet’s other inland temperate rainforests.
The quest for the conservation of these trees was a determined one. It was a University of Northern British Columbia graduate student named Dave Radies who first brought wider attention to this incredible place. The forest had already been been marked and surveyed for logging at that time. This story, thankfully, was to have a different ending! After consistent lobbying and a barrage of media publicity, the provincial government agreed not only to preserve the trees, but to designate the land as a provincial park! Thanks to the efforts of the Caledonia Ramblers, an extremely dedicated local hiking club, trails were built, and later interpretive signs were posted so that future generations could appreciate these cedars for years to come. Substantial parking space was also created to accommodate the expected increase in visitors. Cooperation between local First Nations and British Columbia finally led to the official opening of Ancient Forest/ Chun T’oh Whudjut Provincial Park and Protected Area in 2016.
There are a variety of hiking choices in the park. You can choose a boardwalk section that is wheelchair accessible that can be seen in half an hour, the forty five minute Big Tree Loop, a sixty minute trek to Tree Beard Falls, the ninety minute Ancient Forest Loop, and even a 15 km hike along the more rugged Driscoll Ridge Trail, whose western trailhead is five kilometres west of the park on Highway 16. Not having an entire day to work with, I experienced a good combination of all but the last option! I took a great deal of photographs, and have arranged them, for once, in no particular order. Should you ever visit this park, I think you’d enjoy the opportunity to discover it yourself, as I did!
I can only ponder what it must have been like for First Nations people to discover this woodland paradise. Everything about it seems as venerable as it is verdant. The understory is alive with mosses, lichens, ferns, and many other plants. Rising above the forest floor are tall groves of spiny Devil’s Club, always a challenge to the forest explorer, and a look skyward reveals not only the spiked tops of the ancient cedars, but also their ever present coastal companions, the Western Hemlocks. This forest, being inland, is subject to winters that are colder and lengthier than seen on the coast, thus growing seasons are shorter and trees take longer to reach larger girth. Other than the man made structures that have been constructed to preserve the fertile and fragile ground, not much has changed here in the last twenty centuries or so!
Wildlife in the area is considerably varied. At lower elevation, black bear and deer are commonly sighted, as are moose. Above the forest, high on the Driscoll Ridge Trail, you’ll find Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir growing, where grizzly bears, mountain caribou, and even wolverines can sometimes be sighted.
When I hear logging companies talking about trees like these, they speak in terms that confound me, focusing only on harvesting them for cash value before they reach the end of their lives. What they fail to understand is that aging trees, and those that fall to the ground, are the life blood of the ecosystem, allowing for maximum biodiversity and wildlife habitat. That is why what little remains of apex old growth forest needs to be preserved, not cut down! Surely there is room in our resource based society to at least protect the finest of old growth stands that still remain. If not, they will exist only as posts and beams in some grand architectural design, or worse, be shipped off as raw logs to some foreign land to be processed.
Every once in a while, a superb place like this gets discovered and then preserved in its intact state. While most would agree that it doesn’t happen often enough, at least when it does, I believe it sets an inspirational example of what we should be striving for as a society. We need to preserve nature in its intended state and save its very best for all, instead of destroying it for our own purposes. That’s a vision that I know that I can embrace.
“Whose idea was this anyway?” The question was Ted’s, as we traipsed up the old road to Singing Pass. The answer from Denis came quickly: “I believe this was your idea. You getting old or something?” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I know it included some pretty good back and forth! That was unsurprising, considering the two have been hiking and climbing together for decades and were into their sixties at that time. As funny as I found the banter, I just wasn’t awake enough to laugh, though I wryly kept asking “Are we there yet?”
It may have been a lengthy approach, but I was still more than curious about the destination. Fissile Peak, part of the Overlord Group, boasted volcanic rock and fine views of the Overlord Glacier. It was also quite close to Russet Lake. Surprisingly, this part of Garibaldi Provincial Park is relatively quiet once the snows recede and the skiers pack it in for the season. You’re unlikely to meet too many other hikers on most days. The previous year, Ted had climbed Whirlwind Peak and Overlord Mountain, so he was keen to complete the trifecta by ascending Fissile.
Soon enough, but not soon enough, we were passing the old mine adit at trailside and Cowboy Ridge was now within our sights. Just like that, we were out of the trees and following easy switchbacks to the broad plain above. Some of Garibaldi’s grander summits were already front and center, and the icefield of the Cheakamus Glacier shone brightly in the morning light.
What was the highlight of the trip for me, though, was that up until that day I’d never had the chance to see a marmot in the mountains up close. Sure, I’d seen them at parks and campgrounds in British Columbia’s interior, but never on an alpine excursion. This trek was different! An entire family of marmots, in no hurry to scurry away from us, were out to welcome us to the area. We happily hung out with them for a while before heading up toward Russet Lake.
Well, that was unexpected, I remember thinking. So you ask, could this day have gotten any better? Well, yes, and no, as I’ll soon describe. We continued our stroll toward Russet Lake, opting not to check out the Himmelsbach Hut, which I recently learned has now been rebuilt since then.
Back on the trail after that moment of respite, pretty soon our quarry was within sight. Fissile Peak is a dramatic sight as you approach it, standing out beautifully against the dry alpine plateau. As I alluded to earlier, Ted had been this way a few years earlier when he’d climbed Whirlwind and Overlord Peaks, and he knew well these mountains had a reputation for loose rock. The routes up the mountain, as written in Matt Gunn’s guidebook, described two options. We chose the first, something of a free for all scuffle up an intimidating pile of scree, which, coincidentally, describes this mountain to a tee. Pretty much anything you lay your hands on or step on is a potential souvenir!
Remember New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, known for his peculiar sayings that stretched the boundaries of the English Language? One of his gems was “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” Well, he certainly wasn’t talking about Fissile Peak, which is way down on Garibaldi Provincial Park’s to do list. It isn’t a place recommended for the novice hiker, to put it mildly, but as long as you are careful and persistent you should be able to make a go of it.
Once we attained the well earned ridge above, views really began opening up far and wide. The Whistler area is a great place to wander as long as you can sort out the parking and access issues. I can certainly say with conviction that I’ve never spent a bad day in Garibaldi!
Next it was simply a matter of scrambling up to the summit for a very well deserved break. We had a great laughs reading all of the quotes in the summit register. Such beauties as “I can’t believe I lived!”, “I’m not dead!” “How do we get down from here?!”, and “OMG, I’m still alive!”
Ted jokingly commented “I’d never have left that last comment. Not so fast, buddy, you’re not down yet!”
Denis and I could only concur, with the climb still fresh in mind! The views, on the other hand, were splendid, and we took more than our standard ten minutes on the summit to admire them and eat lunch.
More incredible scenery unfolded as we worked down the ridge line. “Route Two” in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia was our choice on the descent. There was no way we were coming down what we’d encountered on the way up! There is a bit of stiff third class scrambling to drop down off the end of the summit ridge, and then some moderate scree sliding as you reattain the valley. All in all that worked out very well. Soon we could say we’d made it down this mountain, followed by a quite a few of its rocks!
It was with great satisfaction that we staggered back down toward the trail, meeting some ptarmigans along the way and enjoying the 360 degree views. What a place! Those ptarmigans were very well camouflaged, because we nearly stepped on them! This trip certainly had been great for wildlife sightings!
A successful climb was in the books, in more ways than one, but this trek was far from over. You see, a total of 34 kms had to be walked before the journey would be complete, and we were barely halfway there. Mercifully, the temperatures remained comfortable as we started our long hike back to the truck. Since leaving was gradual, there were of course more scenes to be admired as we bantered endlessly about beer and potato chips, or rather, our current lack of same!
The better part of four more hours had us arriving back at Denis’ truck down in Whistler, where we were three very happy guys! For those interested, the Coles Notes on this trip: Elevation gain was approximately 6300 feet, that courtesy of Denis who measures vertical gain the old school way! 34 kms hiked, or about 21.25 miles. One could make the case for climbing this mountain on spring snow, if it managed to spare you the struggle up the scree. You could also choose to camp at Himmelsbach Hut if you had the time, but that wasn’t going to happen with these guys. To quote Denis “Why would I want to sleep in some drafty alpine hut when I have a perfectly good bed at home?”. Lastly, I’m not recommending this mountain to all my friends, and that’s basically because I’d like them to remain my friends!
To begin with, beer may have been enjoyed at the parking lot, and on the way home we decided to stop at Wendy’s in Squamish and load up on cheeseburgers and fries. It was one of the best decisions we made all day! What a sight we must have been walking up to the counter with the uneven gait of three old western gunfighters. It was a helluva way to end the adventure! It didn’t look at all like this, but who doesn’t love “The Good, the Bad, And the Ugly”? This trip, as it turned out, was all of those things, and more!
The sound was as loud as it was clear! The distinctive grunt and snapping of jaws left little doubt as to its source. Motioning silently to each other, we beat a hasty retreat down the alder choked logging spur, hightailing it back to the Mamquam Forest Service Road. Chris and I had no question that we’d run into an ill tempered black bear, even though neither of us had seen it. So ended our ill fated assault on Pinecone Peak!
This story had its beginnings in the third week of June 2008, when we had decided to set out to climb the aforementioned mountain. Armed with some decent route descriptions and trip reports from good friend Simon, we had made our way deep into the Mamquam Valley in Chris’s trusty Ford, under deceptively clearing skies. The road was still wet from spring torrents as Chris displayed an array of evasive manoeuvres to avoid obstacles better left to four wheel drive travel. In addition to running some damn fine bookstores ( visit him at one of Vancouver’s Pulpfiction Books locations ), he can also flat out drive a logging road! Up until that ursine encounter, it had been a fairly pleasant outing. We had even taken the time to stop and look at the many creeks bursting with meltwater as the skies seemed to part above, hinting at a bluebird day. Optimistically, I felt that the weather would take a turn for the better, after all, how often does the forecast turn out to be wrong these days?
Alas, we were duped by the weather gods! It was just as well, I suppose. Ominous clouds had begun gathering above and the rain then began to fall, lightly at first, then harder, and harder still. What to do now? Well, we wandered about the valley, hiked up a few logging spurs, located the M-110 logging spur that led to the Pinecone Lakes Trail and Peak 6500, then spent a little more time perusing the area. Some considerably large stumps of Western Red Cedar were one highlight of the morning, along with several piles of shotgun shells and views of misted forest.
Clouds hung low in the morning silence, a deer hopped through an opening in the clearcut and soon disappeared. We marvelled at the endless determination of the road builders, and wondered aloud how many more piles of spent shotgun shells there might be in this valley. Good thing none of the local Leroys were around that day!
A stroll up yet another spur netted a really rare find- an old Zenith cabinet style colour television with, you guessed it, another nearby cache of shotgun shells!
As my friend Tracy later said “Wow, that TV’s seen better days!! I bet it remembers this Coke commercial, or this Big Mac commercial, and, of course, Mikey.” Televisions like these sure do bring back fond memories, don’t they? In my mind, I almost could imagine Adam West (R.I.P.) and Burt Ward in an episode of the old Batman series playing out on screen! Bam! Sock! Thwack!
From there we bushwhacked back through the clearcut, admiring the surprising biodiversity, and the general aura that showed us that the Mamquam Valley was a special place, despite the obvious human disturbances.
We finished our foray with a wander down to the banks of the Mamquam River itself, enjoying the sounds of the roaring current amid the din of the pouring rain, while I vainly attempted to keep my camera dry just to try and land a few decent photos!
It hadn’t exactly been the kind of alpine excursion we’d daydreamed about, but it had nevertheless been a memorable day! I’d characterize it as unexpectedly eventful, at minimum.
Soon enough we were enjoying our lunch in a Squamish cafe, drinking coffee and telling more tales, a little wet but certainly none the worse for wear. An ironic denouement, at least for Chris, considering his profession. We’d come to buy, but settled for browsing, in the end, though we enjoyed it well!
The weeks rolled by swiftly, and soon, summer was almost over. Doug and I seized the opportunity to head up the Mamquam Valley again, before the days began to shorten. On this occasion, not only was it not raining, but the chance of precipitation was basically nonexistent! We were determined to find the M110 logging spur and hike up to Peak 6500, sometimes known as Seed Peak. The mountain sits in the same cirque as Mt Gillespie, in an alpine playground full of tarns, beautiful granite blocks. There are even remnants of a pocket glacier, whose demise seems inevitable.
Here are a couple of views from the road as we drove up the M 110 spur….
After winding our way up all those logging roads, finally we managed to reach the trailhead to Peak 6500. Both the road and the trail had been brushed out and reflagged, making our passage somewhat easier. The track began with a beautiful walk through subalpine forest to a plateau, then followed with a steep scramble up to Peak 5700, which has an outstanding view of the surrounding Coast Mountains!
Getting to Peak 6500 involves dropping down 150m or so in elevation and then climbing up again to another alpine bench. We surely realized this was a superb wilderness area that is highly underrated, and were happy to have the place to ourselves. I recall there was a great sense of relief in the air, as life had been quite stressful of late for us at that time. There is something undeniably therapeutic about the rhythm of time in the mountains, so far away and above the twisted routines of human lives. If only everyday life could measure up to those standards more often!
The spectacular alpine views made this trip worthwhile, from beginning to end. This part of Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park still does not see that much traffic, so you truly get that wilderness feel. It would be a great area to camp in and explore for several days!
The ascent of Peak 6500, which is actually 6580 feet in elevation if you’re a stickler for details, is relatively straightforward. For the most part, it’s what I would call an alpine stroll, with very little technical difficulty or exposure. We explored the basin below at leisure, with its colourful tarns, fast eroding pocket glaciers and sweeping views of the mountains in all directions.
The more we meandered, the greater was my affinity for this place. Should you decide to visit it yourself, please remember to treat it with the utmost respect. Be sure to leave no trace by packing out what you pack in, and take great care not to damage the fragile environment!
Reaching the summit, we settled in for an uncharacteristically long rest, even though neither of us was particularly tired. We’re both of the mind that climbing mountains is best part of peak bagging, as neither of us is all that fond of descents, unless of course there’s beer waiting at the truck!
Peak 6500 boasts some enviable views! One can see the entire Britannia Range, and many of the peaks within Garibaldi Provincial Park, just to name a few, but pictures always speak louder than words, so here are a few more images…
I remember thinking that if I had to choose a mountain to live on every day, this just might be the one. I think Doug agreed with me on that score. Of the many treks we have made together on Fridays just like this one, the Pinecone Lakes area is definitely a standout. There is very little the region lacks. I could even make a strong case for lugging a pack raft up there just to enjoy some paddling on the glacially formed lakes.
As day trips go, this wasn’t a long one by my standards. It was about seven hours car to car including all the alpine sauntering, but the drive up will take you at least a couple of hours, so an early start is recommended. One thing I can assure you is that you won’t be disappointed!
Regrettably, we realized it was time to make our way home, as we were mindful of that long drive ahead of us. While this required a reasonable pace, by no means did we need to rush, and so we savoured the trip home as much as the climb. The magic of this valley lingers on for days, if not weeks. When I was assembling photos for this story, culling them down to a reasonable number was no easy feat!
The wilderness protected by Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park is a beautiful legacy for the province of British Columbia. It may not be far from civilization as the crow flies, but it’s an eternity away in the mind’s eye. I have much gratitude for having had the privilege of sharing it with friends, and now with readers. May it always be the refuge that it is today, wild, free, and undeveloped!
You can see it on a signboard at Cypress Provincial Park, where it’s featured as one of the trees discovered by Randy and Greg Stoltmann. There’s a a picture of a magnificent Amabilis Fir deep in a snow filled gully, with one of the brothers posing beside it back in the late 1980s. Randy, who passed away in a skiing accident in 1994, is even today a legendary tree hunter and conservationist. It would have been interesting to have met him, indeed, his legacy still burns brightly.
I’ll admit that I’d been hunting old growth trees for many years before I ever went looking for a record Pacific Silver Fir ( the other namesake of the Amabilis Fir ). The tree occurs in cool forest glades at lower elevations, often less conspicuous in the company of the larger Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar. True giants of the species, however, are generally found at higher elevations where they are similarly overshadowed by Mountain Hemlock and Yellow Cedar. In a sense, they sometimes seem to be hiding in plain sight!
It was actually in 2004 that I first heard about the Cabin Lake Fir, when talking to Ralf Kelman, B.C.’s preeminent big tree hunter. Over a decent cup of coffee, he told me, among other things, a tale of a November trek to see the tree back in the late 1990s. Accompanying Ralf on that excursion was Washington state tree expert Robert Van Pelt, who was hoping to measure the crown spread of the tree with then state of the art laser technology. Typically for Ralf, not known for preferring early starts, the trip began a bit late in the day. While they did manage to locate, photograph and measure the tree, there were some adventurous moments extricating themselves from the steep approach gully and subsequently, hiking back to the parking lot in Cypress Provincial Park. Darkness, sleet, and poor visibility didn’t help them much either. The day ended with more than a few beers at an east end Vancouver drinking establishment where all finished the day both dry and more than a little happy!
It was my frequent partner in exploration Doug who finally convinced me that we had to rediscover this tree some eight years later. He reasoned that we ought to approach it by following a direct contour line off of one of the Black Mountain ski runs. Doug also thought that we might just have the chance to find some of the large Mountain Hemlocks he’d also seen marked on some maps. It didn’t take too much effort to get me hooked on his plan. I later learned, years later, that due to the destruction of Washington’s Goodman Creek Fir, the Cabin Lake Fir had since become the largest known of its species. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were now hunting for the world champion Amabilis Fir!
We chose a decent spring day for the hike, and though the terrain was steep and time consuming, travel was reasonable. The forest was well spaced, and indeed, full of the beautiful Mountain Hemlocks the park is well known for!
We soon managed to work our way close to a broad chute fortified with high walls on the side we found ourselves on . It was first necessary to climb safely into the chute so that we could explore the area, which was at roughly the elevation we expected to find the Cabin Lake tree. The light soon began to shine more brightly as we kicked our way into the snow slope and gradually worked our way down. We were glad to have brought our ice axes for the descent.
We didn’t see it at first. Curiously, the next thing we noted was that the snows below us were covered with a fine layer of fallen moss and lichens – the kind you often see draping trees in the high mountains. I’ve heard it called Old Man’s Beard.
While we were both pondering exactly where that carpet of foliage had come from, a towering spire appeared almost right in front of us, just downslope. It was clear we had found the source of all that fallen plant life, it was the Cabin Lake Fir itself! In its company were a number of young Silver Firs, perhaps seeded from the cones of their parent nearby.
To some, it might seem like hyperbole to assign mythical qualities to a simple being such as a tree, but the Cabin Lake Fir most certainly had a peculiar aura. It grows in a location quintessential for its survival and it’s doing exceptionally well. The tree is ideally situated to acquire all the necessary nutrients, water, and just the right amount of sunlight. Simultaneously, the steep rock walls nearby shade it from the midday sun and protect it from high winds. It is even evident that the slides and avalanches which take place in the couloir follow a path well away from the tree.
We spent quite a while in the presence of this grand old spirit of the forest, taking ample time for photography and lunch, before packing up and climbing out of the gully to Cabin Lake, as we wanted to be certain to chart the entire route. I was certainly happy that Doug had been so insistent that we make the trek that day!
Two years later, we would return in autumn, descending that same gully downward from Cabin Lake, with the bluffs of Black Mountain looming above. Paul, who was along with us on that day, was also keen to get a look at the tree.
If you are taking notes on the approach and how it might look once the snow melts, after you leave the lake behind you should find yourself in a blocky, granite boulder field that is very distinctive looking . Just carry on downward, with bluffs on your right, as you descend toward the gully.
The tree was no less magnificent on that occasion, and the weather was about the same as it was for our first visit. Fog and mist made getting an ideal photo something of a challenge. All agreed, though, that it was a tree worth revisiting!
In the end, it seemed fitting once again to walk in the footprints of the Stoltmann brothers, and my only regret was all of the years I had waited before searching out the Cabin Lake Fir. To paraphrase the immortal Warren Miller: “Get out there and get it done. If you don’t do it this year, you will just be one year older when you do!”
I have recently learned that the Cabin Lake Fir has died, as reported in the summer of 2015, not long after our last visit. Here is a link to the BC Big Tree Registry that documents its demise in two very telling photos. It was a privilege to have made its acquaintance and it truly magnifies my concluding paragraph in this story. Had we not made the effort to see the tree when we did, we would not have seen it alive at all. It will have to live on in memory alone, once the largest and perhaps the oldest known tree of its kind! It was, at least, the world champion for about seven years!
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!
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and treks to the mountains