Mount Spencer: The Great Congo Line of December 2016

–submitted by Matthew Lettington, see more images on his blog

I’ll cut to the chase– we didn’t make the summit of Mount Spencer. Of course, as with most of my stories, the devil’s in the details.

On December 18th, Vancouver Island was deep in a colder-than-normal shoulder season. The day held a forecast for overcast skies and precipitation. Further, the Mount Spencer trip was scheduled on a day with only 8 hours of daylight, almost the shortest day of the year.

The cold month had brought snow low down on the mountains, and covered the logging roads in snow. From a hiking perspective, with our approach routes covered in snow, we wouldn’t be able to drive very far — meaning that our Mount Spencer hike was double the normal distance.

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley
Mount Spencer map and GPS route


Total Distance: 20.6 km
Starting Elevation: 388 m
Maximum Elevation: 1430 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1414 m
Total Time: 11 h


It was still dark when we pulled off the Bamfield Road onto the Franklin River Road. I was surprised to see furls of snow piled by the roadside — evidence of a snowplow. We easily drove to our access spur, but that’s where the easy driving ended. Once off the Franklin River Road, the vehicles struggled to gain elevation on the snow-covered hills. At best, it took several attempts to reach easier terrain. Even from there, the vehicles laboured to drive just a few kilometres farther. Eventually we stopped – midway up another hill, when Rick’s chain-equipped Nissan couldn’t make it any farther.

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley
Still smiling, it must be the begining of the day!

We were trudging up the hill by 8:30 am. The sky was just beginning to shed a cold blue light of overcast morning onto the route. We pushed ourselves to move quickly, to shake off the chill of the early morning. The large group walked like a centipede through the powdery snow; the leaders broke the trail, compressing the snow eight inches or more with each step. Each of us took a turn at the front of the line, sweating as we plunged our heavy snowshoes deep into the untouched snow; likewise, we each relished our turn in the back of the line. Unfortunately, the snow packed poorly under our snowshoes, and even as the ninth person in the conga line, the snow compressed at least another two inches beneath me.

It took four hours to ascending the long, winding, logging road. The higher we climbed, the more challenging the conditions became. At the 1000 metre elevation, where we originally intended to park, the two Phils turned back to the Jeep; a snowshoe malfunction was causing fatigue and muscle strain. From this point forward, Sharon, Colleen, and Andrew did the lion’s share of the trail-breaking. Without their efforts, we would never have made it to the end of the logging road!

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley

It was half past noon when we started up the steep, southwest-facing cut block toward the old-growth above. Inside the trees, the labor of breaking trail was lost to the exhilaration of the scenery. Ice and snow hung from every limb, and the tree trunks were encrusted with snow. Compared to the long road up, walking into the treeline was a little like walking into the frozen Narnian forest–many of us said as much!

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley

By 1:15 pm, we were standing on top of a very steep hill, overlooking a saddle between us and the ridge that leads to Mount Spencer’s summit. We had only 850 metres distance and less than 100 metres total elevation gain to the summit, but we were running out of time! We decided to push past the turnaround time, and set a new time of 2:30pm. We knew that the new turnaround time would put us back on the logging road well before dark, but would likely mean the final section of the road would be done with headlamps. We were overcome by summit fever!

We came prepared for the steep hill; Rick carried a 30-metre rope to use as a handline. He descended the steep snow easily, without the aid, to scout the route. From the bottom, he yelled back to us: “It GOES!” After setting up an anchor around the base of a large tree, and removing our snowshoes, the six remaining hikers descended the steep slope. I’ll note that although the handline was a luxury for the descent, it was a necessity on our return up the collapsing snow. Don’t overlook the rope if you’re traveling with a larger party to this peak in winter.

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley

At the bottom of the hill we reshoed, and carried on in a more direct route to the ridge ahead. In the saddle, the snow was windswept and dense. We sunk only a few inches with each step, which hastened our pace.

The ridge offers great views of the opposing valleys. We had to squeeze between the stunted branches as we worked our way along the crest of the narrow ridge. As we approached our second turnaround time, the weather changed to near blizzard/whiteout conditions. The stiff breeze froze our hair into mattes of ice, and sharp ice crystals pummeled our exposed skin and eyes. By 2:30 pm we were only 200 metres from Mount Spencer with less than 40 metres in elevation to go! We were so close, but the terrain made it apparent that we could still have another hour to the summit. We conceded defeat.

snowshoeing, vancouver island, explorington, matthew lettington, hiking, mountaineering, Mt Spencer, Alberni Valley
shot on our high point

The return to the logging road was fast. We were compelled by the harsh wind to move quickly, wasting no time with words. It wasn’t until after we scaled the steep slope with the handline and crossed over the hump that we found a reprieve from the wind. We were grateful for the handline; by the time the last person was coming up the slope, the surface was nearly polished ice.

With the last major obstacle behind us, we descended back along our original route to the logging road, arriving just 45 minutes before sunset. The wind and snow nearly covered our original track in many places, making the walk more difficult than I anticipated. We walked the remainder of the road in twilight and into the black of the bleak winter night. At times, the wind blasts were so strong that I was blinded. Some of the hikers wore their ski goggles and balaclavas to protect their faces. The final nine kilometers were exhausting, and we enjoyed numerous short breaks.

Once below 600 metres in elevation, the snow became slush-filled rain, and back at the vehicles, simply rain. When we arrived, we discovered that the two Phils had dug out the vehicles – thanks, guys! It was 7:00 pm by the time we pulled back onto the Bamfield Road. It had been a long day, but our adventure wasn’t quite over!

In the morning, the Bamfield Road had been covered in hard-packed snow; with the afternoon rain and the cool evening air, the road was now a solid sheet of ice. Several times I fishtailed or drifted across the road, even though we kept our speed under 40 kilometres an hour. Along a straightaway, the vehicle fishtailed, then turned 180 degrees and slowly slid backwards across the road, finally coming to rest against a berm at the side of the road. We were lucky; there was no vehicle damage, and we drove our way out of the ditch.

Although I’m disappointed that we missed the summit of Mount Spencer by such a narrow margin, I’m happy that we all made it out safely. Even more, I’m eager to return to Mount Spencer, and have even planned a Spring trip. I’m hoping we can drive higher on the road and walk on compressed snow. I’ve booked my dates already!

–submitted by Matthew Lettington, see more images on his blog

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