–submitted by Matthew Lettington, read the full report and see more images on his blog
Mount Grey is a lovely hike through old-growth alpine fir and along a treed alpine ridge, up to a summit that offers great views of the Alberni Inlet. My Mount Grey trip had two portions of adventure: the cold from an arctic outflow, and the ride home.
On January 8th, I joined a group of six Island Mountain Ramblers on a trip up Mount Grey. Our original trip plan was Mount Adam, but we were concerned about avalanche and difficulty ascending the two incredibly steep slopes on the route. Our failed trip up Mount Derby and Mount Peel had given us first-hand knowledge of the region’s conditions, and currently, the avalanche conditions were rated considerable. It was a smart choice to change our plans, and I was happy to be attempt Mount Grey. We had high hopes that the conditions would be stable, due to lower elevation and proximity to the Alberni Inlet.
Total Distance: 9 km
Starting Elevation: 434 m
Maximum Elevation: 1337 m
Total Elevation Gain: 894 m
Total Time: 6 h 45 m
I had a near-sleepless night and a hectic start to the morning, thanks to my son, and was more than 40 minutes late making the first rendezvous. Thankfully, the roads were in great condition and we made up most of the time. We arrived at the turnoff for the Franklin Camp just 15 minutes behind schedule.
Turning off Bamfield Road, we drove carefully along ruts in the snow on the logging road. We gained elevation slowly before the accumulated snow became too deep. When my Jeep’s undercarriage began to drag, more than four kilometres into the valley and at 440 metres of elevation, it was time to stop.
We stepped out on to the water-laden snow. I hardly sunk at all! Even in my boots, I sank only an inch or so into the snow. We changed into our snowshoes and proceeded up the logging road. As I stopped for a moment and looked along the road ahead, I could see a line in the trees. This betrayed that the rain-filled snow would only take us another few hundred metres in elevation before the snow would get fluffy. After only a kilometer on the road, the snow was starting to collapse beneath our shoes.
We moved quickly, fueled by three previous failed winter trips — we were determined to summit Mount Grey. We pushed hard in the ever-deepening snow. On the road, there was no route-finding needed, and we pushed fast enough that we were hot with the effort, even in the sub-zero temperatures.
We walked to the end of the logging road, then over the slab of snow that hid the logging slash, on our route up to the tree-line at the end of the cut block. We slogged up through the snow and mixed terrain, guided by our GPS, and followed the easiest route between trees, up narrow gullies, and along ledges. Slowly, we made our way up the shoulder of the ridge. Around 1000 metres, our route turned west. Huffing, we punched out of the dense old-growth and into the more exposed subalpine along the broad ridge.
Once out of the forest, the snow was deep, soft, and fluffy. In the steeper sections, the snow collapsed under the weight of the heaviest snowshoes, making the ascent a lot more work than it would normally be. It was aggravating to take two steps forward and one step back. Though this ate up time, we still made it to the base of the final ridge (~1220m) by 12:30 pm. After ascending to the ridge, we would be only a hop, skip, and a jump from Mount Grey’s summit. Our route plotted around a very steep slope to the hiker’s right, but we decided on a different approach.
As we examined the route ahead, the exposure to a cliff deterred us from rounding the mountain; instead, we opted for the steep slope. It was steeper than 50 degrees, so I removed my snowshoes at the base; I kicked steps and used my mountaineering axe to self-belay. Although a few folks kept their snowshoes on and created switchback in the lower sections, eventually they too abandoned their snowshoes on the side of the hill.
Unfortunately, the route bluffed out in some ice-covered rocks. Perhaps we could have found a way up and/or around, but as we stood above 1300 metres the arctic winds blasted us with snow and ice. It was a punishing cold, the kind that makes your cheeks and eyeballs hurt. After only a few minutes, a few of us turned back, and eventually we all conceded. Once back at my snowshoes, I was eager to continue, but by then it was 1:20 pm. Though we were only 400 metres from the summit, there was still another 100 metres of elevation to be gained; in all likelihood, it would take another hour of snowshoeing. We didn’t have the time.
Descending back to the car was the highlight of the trip. It took us 4 hours to ascend from the end of the logging road to our highest point; it only took us an hour back to the road. The soft snow that created such frustrations on the way up provided an amazing substrate for descending. I wore my snowshoes and plunge stepped into the deep snow adjacent to our ascent route. Many of the others removed their shoes and butt-slid their way down the mountain.
Once back on the logging road, the snow transformed to a heavy rain, driven by the cold wind. By the time we arrived back at the vehicles, we were mostly drenched. It was only 3:30 pm, but we were all eager to get home. However, our adventure was not over. If you spend enough time in the backcountry, sooner or later you’ll run into an experience wherein you are unable to get home. This was the second part of our adventure.
The rain caused the snow to sink and our vehicle tracks to ice over. Unfortunately, the space between them didn’t sink as much and as I started driving the jeep my differential dragged in the snow. I couldn’t get any purchase to get moving. We dug out the Jeep multiple times, trying to get it turned around on the narrow logging road, and then a few more times as we attempted to gain enough forward momentum to get going. Even with the chains on my tires, it wasn’t enough.
It took us an hour to skim the snow off the of the track, fiddle with tire chains, and dig the Jeep out before the vehicle moved forward enough to let another driver pass. His vehicle had two inches of extra height, and tires that perform better in the snow than my AT tires. He drove the route ahead of us, creating new ruts that allowed my Jeep enough clearance to push along. Fortunately, after a kilometre, we were able to drive easily.
It was a fourth denial in the mountains, a fact that’s forgettable. But I’ll definitely remember the trip off the logging road. I’m looking forward to attempting Mount Grey again, but I’ll probably wait for the snow to melt.