–submitted by Matthew Lettington — read the full report on his blog.

It’s official, I’ve lost all my summer fitness! It was a long slow decline to the state I’m in now, a fact that was made painfully apparent on my snowshoe trip up Mount Elliot. But, I’m looking forward to a winter full of snowshoeing, skiing and family fun in the snow. And who knows, maybe I’ll kick myself back into shape again!

If you’re looking for a great snowshoe mountaineering trip, Mount Elliot may be the trip for you. Aside from one or two short, steep sections at the top, it’s a lovely route up the side of the southwest side of the mountain. The reward is the summit. On a clear day, the lucky mountaineer is rewarded with spectacular views of the Bonanza Range and the Johnstone Strait. It took me two attempts to reach the summit, but it was worth it!

 

Total Distance: 8.3 km
Starting Elevation: 785 m
Maximum Elevation: 1549 m
Total Elevation Gain: 817 m
Total Time: 6 hours

 


After an abysmal experience only two weeks earlier, we went back to Mount Elliot to use the route that Phil had originally researched. It was the right decision, and we were granted our moment on the summit. It was a combination of good spirits, good company and snow conditions that allowed for our success. On our November 19th trip, we were practically rained out. The snow on that first trip was laden with water, but today the skies were clear, sun blazed down all around us, and the powdery snow persisted in the trees throughout the day. Despite the sun, the temperature didn’t climb above zero, a factor that contributed to the powdery conditions and prevented us from driving to our parking spot. Today, we reached just over 800 metres before we parked for our trip up Mount Elliot.

a back lit snow covered logging road on our way to Mount Elliot on Vancouver Island

We dawdled at the car, testing new gear and doing beacon checks. It was already 9:30 by the time we left the vehicles behind us. We wore our snowshoes from the start, and in fifteen minutes we were passing the spot we parked on the first trip. Here, we left the road to cut up through a section of old growth, intersecting the logging road much higher above (~1020m). Here on the upper road, the snow was in good condition and carried our weight well; we were able to make excellent time toward the base of the ridge we used to access Mount Elliot. As we rounded a corner, Mount Elliot loomed on the horizon. We paused to examine the snow-covered, west aspect of the mountain. We saw our earlier route from this vantage, and I was happy that we chose to turn back on that earlier trip. On that day we would have been travelling in what I consider to be sketchy terrain for the conditions, including snowy bluff and possible avalanche hazards. Today, under the bright blue sky, we could see the southwest ridge. Snow-encrusted trees formed the skyline leading to the summit massif, and a few trees even dotted the top. It looked promising!

When we reached the second Y in the logging road we turned right, following it through a dip in the route and around a blind corner. Once around the corner, we stood and examined our options: on our left, a cut block created an unwanted obstacle, and along the treeline above we could see many rocky bluffs; or, we could continue along the road to an obvious gully. We opted for the gully. The risk of being bluffed out inside the dense old growth was more appealing than the pit traps that the logging slash promised. The risk was worth it!

snow capped mountain, Mount Elliot, Vancouver Island hiking, climbing, snowshoeing

Once inside the old growth, we snaked our way up the ever steepening slopes. Route finding was easy, as the terrain forced us continuously to the right (east). The more challenging task was the snow. We had hoped to find firm snow from tree bombs, but instead, we found fresh undisturbed snow. I was grateful for the aesthetics, but it made walking very tiring. The higher we climbed, the colder it became, and the deeper the snow compressed. We groaned with effort when the snow collapsed twenty-five centimetres with each step, but as we passed 1300 metres we wished for those conditions to return! We couldn’t walk in the traditional sense – instead, each step was a leg press: lift the leg to the top of the snow, then press it down. At times, the snow compressed more than fifty centimeters under our step! Even our long switchbacks required an immense effort. I was happy to have the group of four, because each of us took our turn in the front stomping our tracks up the mountain. I’m convinced that if it was just Phil and me on the trip, we would have been forced to turn around.

When we reached 1420 metres, we left the protection of the dense forest behind us. As the trees thinned, we approached the crest of the ridge leading to the summit and found some wind slab that made walking easier. This didn’t last long before we were faced with steep slopes (greater than 30 degrees and some sections approaching 50 degrees). It was in this steep area that I kicked off my snowshoes– they’d become useless in the steep snow that slipped away beneath me. Eventually the others did the same, and we kicked our way up the slopes. In the steepest areas, we resorted to hauling snow off the encrusted trees to pull ourselves up the last few metres. When we didn’t have trees to grab, we punched our arm’s length into the snow, searching for rocks and chunks of ice to gain enough purchase to move just a few inches closer to our goal.

traversing a steep Vancouver Island snowslope on hike to Mount Elliot on Vancouver Island a figure hikes up a very steep snowslope, a river valley falls away in the background a figure hikes up a very steep snowslope, a river valley falls away in the background a figure hikes or scramples up a steep gully while hiking Mount Elliot on Vancouver Island traversing a steep Vancouver Island snowslope on hike to Mount Elliot on Vancouver Island traversing a steep Vancouver Island snowslope on hike to Mount Elliot on Vancouver Island

With less than fifty metres horizontal and ten metres elevation to the summit, I felt that Mount Elliot’s summit was unreachable. We joked that at times it felt like we were shovelling our way up the mountain rather than snowshoeing. Whatever we were doing, Phil and I took turns pulling the snow bank down to allow us to climb up and over to gain the flatter summit. After considering failure, the success felt extra sweet. In the sun we could see the distant vistas, and the blue sky highlighted my party as they trekked the last few metres to the highpoint of the mountain!

a lone figure raises his arms in celebration after snowshoeing or hiking to the top of Mount Elliot on Vancouver ISland

We arrived at 1:45 pm, very close to our turnaround time! As it was, we wondered if we would be making our final approach to the car in the dark. It didn’t offer a lot of time to linger in the glow of our success, and the biting wind didn’t encourage us either. As we took gloves off and put gear down to take photos, it took only a moment for my poles and mountaineering axe to freeze to my wet pants. As for Phil and Rick, they each had one glove that was frozen stiff!

Fortunately, our route down was among the fastest I’ve done: from the summit back to the car in under two hours! It was a wonderful combination of butt-sliding and plunge-stepping most of the way back to the road. It was only when we started sinking up to our waists that we stopped to put our snowshoes back on. The best news? We made it back to the car fast enough for me to arrive home for the kids’ bedtime –a great end to a greater day.