Mt Grey : Under the Atomic Sky

–submitted by Matthew Lettington; originally published on

Back in January 2017, I was part of a group that Phil led to summit Mount Grey. That trip failed because of poor route-finding choices, less-than-amazing snow conditions, and a short winter day, but it left us wanting for this summit. It wasn’t again until August 6 2017, that we mustered the energy to make the next attempt. The warm conditions, long days, and the snow-free route made for excellent conditions for another attempt on this short summit. It was a trip where  we moved through nearly every type of environment to be found on Vancouver Island’s mountain terrain: logging road; logging slash; loose rock; open old-growth; bluffy rock faces; very bushy low-alpine; and beautiful alpine meadows. It was a hot, dry day and by most estimations, the conditions should have yielded bluebird skies and a fantastic day in the mountains. We summited but we paid the price in blood, sweat, and smoke-filled lungs.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
I marvelled at these lakes for a long time. Perhaps in a few years, I’ll be back to visit these lakes.

Total Distance: 5.7 km
Starting Elevation: 699 m
Maximum Elevation: 1393 m
Total Elevation gain: 852 m
Total Time: 6 hours, 10 minutes

The summer of 2017 will be remembered for its many large forest fires. I’ve lived on Vancouver Island since 1978 (save five years spent in Nova Scotia for my first degree), and in those 34 years I’ve never experienced smoke-filled skies like we did that summer. I’m sure anyone who lives on the central island will attest to the eerie feeling cast on their everyday environments as sunlight tried to burn through the smoke. The near-overcast conditions created an unfamiliar orange glow and held the temperature in the high twenties/low thirties for days on end. It made our hike up Mount Grey taxing: in addition to reduced visibility, the smoke filled our lungs and made all our movements more laboured than they should have been.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
looking down on the road– note the smoke.

On our winter trip to Mount Grey, we stopped at the snowline; on this day, we drove an extra kilometre of logging road and stopped short of the end, where we started our hike. Although there are many possible routes to gain the upper ridge (~1200m), we stuck to the one familiar to us, our winter route. Just before 8:30 am we hiked up through the decaying logging slash. Even at midmorning, the hot, dry and smoky conditions took their toll on our still-fresh bodies.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
light bush in the forest

By the time we made it through the short section of slash to the open old-growth, sweat beaded on my brow and ran down my face. Even the forest canopy did little to relieve the heat as we trundled northwest through the forest. I was surprised how well our winter route worked even in the summer. Up gullies and along ramps that saw us huddled against rock faces to gain elevation, we worked our way up the mountain.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
friends in the fronds

In the steepest areas, thanks to the extremely dry conditions, the forest duff gave way beneath our feet. At least once, someone slipped and started sliding down a dirt slope — it many ways it was more slippery than some icy slopes I’ve been on! Early on I noted that there was more underbrush than I expected, and as we climbed higher, I was again surprised at the bush. What started out as open terrain eventually became knee-deep, then chest-deep, and eventually high enough to reach far above my 6’2″ frame. Even in the worst of the bush, I was grateful that it was never worse than B3– causing the odd scratch on those hikers that chose to hike with exposed skin.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
a little open terrain, at last

Around 1200 metres the route trends west, as it follows the crest of the ridge. In these areas the hike became highly enjoyable, as the open heather-covered slopes and meadows allowed for an easy ascent. As we climbed, I could see alpine lakes that nestled in low areas below. If it wasn’t for the apocalyptic feeling brought on by the smoke in the air, it would have been an idyllic alpine scene. Phil and Mel forged ahead, leaving four of us to follow a different route. We found ourselves on the highpoint (1393 metres), looking down on Phil and Mel as they summited the lower bump (possibly the summit of Mount Grey), shouting distance away from us.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
ah yes, there’s always a chance to get a little closer to a friendly bush or two.

The four of us enjoyed the hot, arid (and still smoky) summit, and in short time, Phil and Mel joined us on the highpoint. We explored the tower, finding it unlocked. The interior revealed little more than a sealed electronics box, a 10-pound propane tank, and a loft that contained some near-fetid sleeping bags and backpacking cook gear. It was only after our exploration that the four early summiteers left to seek the lower summit-proper.

a high point or a summit?

Phil swears that the views from this summit are exceptional. Apparently, it’s possible to see up and down the coast. I’ll have to trust his judgment on that, because today the haze of the distant fires obscured the views. Regardless, I was pleased with the moody atmosphere the smoke created, as it added a lot of depth to my images.

hiking to Mount Grey on Vancouver Island
the radio tower on Mount Grey; summit or highpoint

Our route back to the car was not without its follies. In an effort to route around the worst of the bushy and scrambly forest sections, we attempted a different route down. It started well, but before long the terrain funneled us into a steep seasonal waterway. Filled with choss and debris from the surrounding forest, it eventually became too challenging for the rating of the trip, and I decided to reroute the group. Phil made it down the sketchiest of the terrain in the gully, while we reconnected with the ascent route. Once we were back on course, we met up with Phil and descended without incident.

It was great to complete this objective, and it was even better to spend time with a few new people. If anything, our troubles on the descent illustrate the need to stay on course, and that while this particular approach has many options, clearly, some are better than others. I won’t be rushing back to Mount Grey, but I’m sure I’ll try it again another time: those tarns are calling to me!

see for more images

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