–Submitted by Matthew Lettington: read the full report on his blog
Back in early November, I led a group of Island Mountain Ramblers on a memorable snowshoe trip to summit Mount Spencer. It was the most challenging snowshoe trip of the season: a gruelling 12-hour slog, hiking over 21 kilometres through the worst type of snow, and we were benighted on our way back to the vehicles. It was a grind, to say the least. But, the biggest sting of the trip? We didn’t even summit! We were only a few hundred metres from the summit, though at the time, it looked like we were another hour away. When I returned from that trip, the first thing I did was reschedule the hike. This is the trip report for that second attempt: the revenge on Mount Spencer.
Mount Spencer GPS track & mapTotal Distance: 10.8 km
Starting Elevation: 822 m
Maximum Elevation: 1460 m
Total Elevation Gain: 907 m
Total Time: 6h 30 m
With each Island Alpine Quest adventure, we climb a little higher before we have to park the Jeep. By May 7th, the snow was in full retreat high in the mountains. In most locations we can drive as high as 1000 metres before we hit the snowline, high enough to allow access to the trailheads of many popular locations, and, of interest to me, many of the not-so-popular ones too!
The Alberni Valley Regional District is home to many of my favourite Island Peaks. They’re not grand in scale, but they are plentiful – which means I’ll have many more trips back to the region before I complete my list. These peaks, like many on Vancouver Island, are accessed via a maze of logging roads. We accessed Mount Spencer from a logging spur that intersects the Bamfield Road. If you’ve ever driven this road and wondered where the dozen or so logging spurs head, the answer is: probably deep into a river valley, and possibly up a mountain. Therein was our first problem of the day: finding the right approach!
I’m ashamed to admit that I failed to mark the approach route properly, as I thought my memory would be enough. I had a good idea of where we were heading, but as it turns out I was mistaken (a problem that comes with hiking so much!). In a series of misadventures, we first visited the Franklin Camp (nope, that was Mount Grey’s approach), and then Museum Main (nope! we were on the wrong side of Mount Spencer), and finally we found the correct road: Corrigan Creek Main.
We made good time driving the road into and up the valley elevation. The only obstacle was a fallen tree, and we came prepared to remove it. The removal took only a few short minutes, and then we were driving again until we hit the snowline (~840m). Because of my poor navigation skills, we were getting a late start to the day, but I was confident that there was still enough time to make the summit: after all, we had less distance to travel, less elevation to gain, better snow conditions, and many more hours of light in the day.
The consolidated snow was no match for the sunshine. The surface was softened, which necessitated the use of snowshoes from the Jeep. We hustled along the road, periodically walking on gravel but staying to the snow as much as we could. Around 1100 metres, we rounded a hairpin corner and caught a glimpse of Mount Spencer. It was a long way off yet, but the beautiful day enhanced my anticipation of the route ahead.
We followed the zigzagging road until we lost track of it in the snow, and then proceeded in the most direct route we could safely walk. Up the snowy, north-facing, logged-off slopes to a road higher up, then traversing east until we found another steep slope up into the trees. By the time we reached the base of what I’ll call “the entry point” or “the end of the road”, we were ready for a break. I was a bit winded and grateful for the rest, and I know at least one more of the group was finding the pace blistering.
We left the road behind and climbed toward a high point between us and Mount Spencer’s aesthetic west ridge. Two members of our group remained on the road to enjoy a longer break, but they would eventually catch up to us along the ridge. The bump tops out around 1300 metres???, and overlooks the ridge and Mount Spencer. We admired the view for a moment before descending to a steep dropoff, leading to the ridge beyond.
Before descending, I set a 30-metre hand-line that we intended to use on the return trip. On the steep slope, the snow was compressed and icy between the trees. I was grateful for my heavy boots, as I repeatedly smashed the toe of my boot into the surface to make a step. It’s likely that crampons would be an easier tool, but none of us wanted to give up the time needed to equip them, especially for such a short section.
One at a time, we threw our snowshoes and poles down the steep slope and then used our ice axes to self-belay down the slope. By the time the three of us were at the base of the dropoff, the more complicated (and more aesthetic) terrain had allowed the trailing two to catch up. We were together again, and as we spread out along the ridge, a summit was looking entirely probable.
We put our snowshoes on and continued up the ridge. I thought back to our first trip, and remembered how grueling this section had been. Today, it was easy: we sunk hardly at all, the sun was out, we had great views all around us, and we weren’t exhausted from an overly long logging road approach. In fact, I even changed my mind about the ridge! Previously, I had called the ridge long, but today it was too quick to be called that. It’s an aesthetic approach to the final summit block. I could see cornices hanging over the cliff; the sun had not yet melted them enough to break off. I took care as I walked the ridge, staying as far from the edge as possible, but at times that wasn’t much because the ridge narrows in places. We talked about our first trip a lot, and tried to find the place where we had stopped. That day, we stopped because the summit looked too far away, but today, as we passed our previous turnaround point, we were surprised to see that the summit looked much closer. The mountains like to play tricks! In fact, it was only a few minutes to the base of the short summit block.
We regrouped at the base of the summit block so we could all reach the summit of Mount Spencer together. After pushing through some easy bush and walking up snow slopes, we easily scrambled the exposed rock to the summit. It took less than five minutes! We did it! We lounged on the summit for a long time. Although it wasn’t a herculean effort today, the combined effort of the previous attempt made the accomplishment that much sweeter. Way to go, everyone!
The return was enjoyable, as are most days that feature a successful summit. It wasn’t, however, especially speedy. Descending the ridge was quick enough, but we had to remove our snowshoes to ascend the snow slope. We placed the snowshoes in our backpacks, where they would remain for the rest of the day. Once up the slope, Rick retrieved the rope for me and met us on the top of the sub-bump. Getting to the top was the worst part of the day for me, because the snow softened so much that it carried no weight! With each upward step I punched to my knees, and sometimes deeper. Once were all atop the highpoint we started our descent together– snowshoes off.
We revelled in the open slopes. Today wasn’t an excellent butt-sliding day; instead, Rick taught us the secrets of boot-skiing. He started out with a short descent, and we each tried to follow. Our most successful ski allowed us to descend a 40-metre elevation change in one go! Fast! We created a new route back, following the easiest route down over top of a section that must be nightmarish in the summer. The skiing and sliding saved a lot of effort and time. Back on the logging road, we stayed to the outer edge where the snow retreated, exposing the road grade. Finally, we made the grind back to the car.
We arrived around 3:30 pm, and enjoyed a few minutes of snacking, laughing, and drinking together before loading into the cars. Mount Spencer is a fine hike for anyone that has the time to kill. The ridge is great to walk, but if you’re not comfortable with scrambling, bring a handline to make your ascent/descent easier.