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!
In memories of Easters past, there will always be one, for me, that stands out from the rest. Most recollections of this holiday are marked by the gathering of families and friends, feasting on turkey, and catching up on everyone’s trials and tribulations. Then, however, there was Good Friday of 2006, and the day that was spent climbing Mt. Bishop in the North Shore Mountains.
Weather had been variable that week, with days of sunshine interspersed with others of torrential rain. That’s typical of life here in southwestern British Columbia, where an April day can be as unpredictable as it is breathtaking.
Doug and I had made plans to tackle the mountain with a reasonably early start, with the idea that we might have adequate time to do some required trail maintenance along the way. We arrived at the trailhead at about 8 am, and early morning cloud had given way to blue skies. It was a welcome excursion for us both, life had been stressful of late and time in the hills had been in short supply.
As winter conditions were expected in the alpine, we packed ice axes, crampons, and snowshoes just in case. The trek began with a stroll to a grove of ancient cedars, which we had both seen a number of times. I never get over the novelty of west coast hikes, truth be told, and I’m one of those hikers that enjoys a repeat visit to any location. There is always something different to accompany the familiar, so to speak.
Trail conditions were excellent, though we did remove some deadfall and rocks, repair some ropes, and improve marking in some sections. North Shore Rescue uses the Bishop Trail as an evacuation route on occasion, and so it’s important that the route stays in good condition.
No snow was encountered until reaching nearly a thousand metres and we stood on the shores of Vicar Lake in just an hour and a half. It was a cinch to walk across the still frozen lake and soon we were making for the alpine, with only four hundred metres in elevation to gain before the summit.
As we broke into the clear on the ridge, we had a chance to witness something very peculiar. Heavy rains had formed deep runnels in the surface snowpack, giving it a grooved appearance. This is something you rarely see, and when you do it is usually under spring conditions. All of that made for interesting scenery as we bore down and dug in for the summit.
In another thirty minutes we crested the high point of Mt Bishop and enjoyed some lunch, more sunshine, and tremendous views with very few clouds. It was as perfect a day in April as it gets. On the way down we took turns climbing up and down the last pitch just to do some extra glissading before hiking back to the trailhead again for beers. It really had been a good Friday on Good Friday, better than good, in fact.
Here are a few more views taken at the summit. On a clear day it’s a beautiful place to be!
Happy Easter to you all, I hope you enjoyed the read!
Well secluded in a remote corner of Mt Seymour Provincial Park is a 1508 metre peak that towers high above the Seymour Valley to its west, and the waters of the Indian Arm to the east. That mountain is Mt Bishop. It was named for Charles Joseph Bishop, the first president of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC ), who died in a crevasse fall on Washington’s Mt Baker in 1913. It was first ascended in 1908 via the Bishop Creek Valley from the shores of Indian Arm by a large party of climbers. One those was Fred Mills, a noted explorer of the North Shore Mountains, and also an early member of the BCMC. A place that still sees few if any visitors, Bishop and its slopes offer an authentic wilderness experience, despite the fact that Vancouver’s city lights can be seen distinctly from its lofty vantage. Here then, is a blended tale of a two treks I have made there, and of Mr Mills’ historical expedition.
It was April of 2004. I was standing on the pedals of my mountain bike, picking up speed as I worked my way to the Mt Bishop trailhead, some 24 kilometres from my house, where the ride had begun. I had heard of a rough trail that had been blazed from the end of the Eastside Seymour Road in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve to the summit of Mt Bishop. The promises of massive old growth forest, subalpine lakes, and mountain meadows were running through my mind.
Soon after reaching the 13 km mark on the road, I came to an abrupt halt. My information had the path beginning at the 12.8 km mark, so logically, I needed to backtrack. Soon, I sighted the markers. I wasn’t certain exactly how I missed the conspicuous tree festooned with bands of flagging tape, but there it was!
After a short bikewalk I opted to stash my ride and commence hiking, but it was not long before I almost froze in my tracks. Something crackled loudly through the underbrush about fifteen yards to my right. It fell silent for a moment, then accelerated quickly through the forest cover with what sounded like a low growl, and then it was gone. I never did see what it was but I knew it was not a deer or a black bear. I concluded it may have been a cat of some kind, possibly a cougar or bobcat. My heart rate having returned to some semblance of normal, I continued onward.
Only several minutes later, I came upon a magnificent grove of western redcedar. The largest of the trees approached four metres in diameter, and two were significantly old specimens, well in excess of 700 years old. I lingered for a time in the presence of these giants, then began hiking uphill again. Ropes were fixed on the difficult sections as the trail was as steep as its reputation!
My trek was to last but half an hour more, as suddenly it dawned on me I’d be late if I did not turn around. A brisk walk turned into a run, and then a hurried ride home. One thing was sure, though, I was hooked and vowed to return!
Flash back to the summer of 1908. To me, a year of significance, as my grandmother was born then in New York City and the house I used to live in was built in that year. The Mills Party, for their part, made camp at the mouth of Bishop Creek across from Croker Island, near the turn of that twentieth century. They ascended all the high peaks in the area, including Mt Jarrett and Mt. Elsay. Jarrett and Bishop were both climbers in this BCMC group, though Mills did much of the leading. The region was roadless then, so their method of transport was by boat from Indian Arm. After walking the ancient forest of cedars, they attained a hogback ridge that gave them passage to the alpine and the summit of Bishop. The other peaks were accessed from that region, and all climbers returned to camp that evening before returning homeward. It was, without a doubt, a full and successful day!
Fast forward to 530 am, July 30 of 2004, and another heinously early start for Doug and me, just two weeks to the day from our traverse of The Needles. Would today prove similar? Read on and discover….
As we arrived at the trailhead, it was by then 7 pm, and the rising sun was beginning to cast shadows on the fast awakening valley. The bikes having been locked away, it was time to walk through the aging giants that would give way to the upper valley. The Bishop Trail had originally been blazed by Denis Blair, Jim Sedor, and Moe Lamothe, avid mountaineers all. In the years since then I have been on quite a few treks with Denis, who, it must be said has become something of a mentor for me. He has forgotten more about the mountains than I’ve ever known and is still climbing strongly into his seventies, no mean feat here in the steep Pacific Northwest!
Later the trail was adopted by local climbing legend Don McPherson, who improved it while clearing an access route to the Indian Arm Trail, and finally by North Shore Search and Rescue, who planned to use it to evacuate injured hikers.
The jungle gym qualities of this trail were as immediately apparent to Doug as they had been to me several months before. The ever popular Grouse Grind, also built by McPherson, ascends 890 m over 2.9 kms, but the Bishop Trail climbs 1268 m over 3.25 kms, not for the faint of heart.
It was good clean fun and plenty of effort to make our way up that trail! Once we made it to 700 m above sea level and a fine view of Cathedral Mountain, the route was new to both of us.
In short order we reached a clearing which gave way to a broad basin with several subalpine ponds. We knew that the largest of them must be Vicar Lake, and that the worst of the battle was done. The peak lay another hour above the lakes, and its unmistakably rounded summit was now within sight.
We lingered for a while at the lakes, before taking once again to the woods. It was an ideal place to stop for lunch.
The forest was now an old grove of Mountain Hemlock dotted with sizable, silvery trunked Yellow Cedars. One in specific, named The Bishop Giant, was over eight feet in diameter,over 800 years in age, and in near perfect health.
As you can see in the two photos above, the upper section of the trail begins at this metal marker on the shore of Vicar Lake, from which you also have a fine view of Mt Elsay.
The next section of the route wound through ever thinning forest along Gibbens Creek until it emerged on the ridge, where the views expanded. The weather was warm, but not as oppressive as it had been earlier that month, so that the hike was quite comfortable.
This was a beautiful section of the trail. Heather clad meadows and thick, stunted hemlock were the order of the day there.
There was little left to do but scale the granite blocks that led ever higher. The hiking here was not difficult, with only the occasional bit of scrambling to be done. The lower reaches of the trail provided much more of a challenge than the alpine reaches did, as it turned out.
In twenty more minutes we stood at the apex, Mt. Bishop was ours to share, if only for a while. We wandered around the summit and took a well deserved break!
We spent a relatively short time on the peak, eating the rest of the homemade pizza (thanks to my wife) and absorbing the absolute quietude, before traipsing back to the bikes again. Here are some summit shenanigans….
The clouds also made for some interesting photo opportunities!
As we began the trip back down the valley, more cloud cover rolled in, but no rains came with it. A little reluctant to leave the alpine, we took our time through the meadows.
In the intervening years since Mr Mills led the first ascent, this mountain has not changed substantially. On almost any given day, one would find it without the company of humans. At one time the wildlife population was supposedly more abundant, yet we found the tracks of many deer, mountain goats, and of several black bears on our travels that day.
It was about half an hour before we had made it back to Vicar Lakes again. Though gravity always makes descents somewhat easier, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll take less time.
What with all the obstructions, ropes, and rockbands the Bishop Trail has, it took us nearly as much time to return to the trailhead from the lakes as it did to make the same distance uphill. That’s not unusual for the North Shore Mountains, where there’s seldom an easy way.
By the time we reached the truck, over ten hours had passed. It had been a lengthy and strenuous day. Over 30 kms of biking and another 8 kms of hiking all told. A highly recommended trip, by my account.
We certainly appreciated that when Mr Mills and his party made their foray, they didn’t have a chance of completing their climb as a day trip. It likely took an extra day of travel by horse and boat just to establish their basecamp. Determination was needed in greater supply in 1908!
For some time I have wanted to kayak my way up the Indian Arm and recreate their expedition, and hopefully that day will come. Until then, when I walk up Mt Seymour or drive the Barnet Highway along the Burrard Inlet, the sight of Mt Bishop will always trigger fond memories.
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