Most people mark the passage of time by annual events in their lives like birthdays, holidays, the New Year, and so on. Since I’ve started my Island Alpine Quest, I’ve started marking the march into Spring by how early I leave home on Sunday morning. During the winter, my departure from home is timed so that we arrive at the trailhead when the sun is rising, allowing us to maximize the daylight hours for hiking. As Spring emerges, the long winter nights erode, and the days get longer, we start to plan longer, more challenging routes. This means that in order to reach the trailhead at dawn, we find ourselves leaving home earlier and earlier; by mid-April, it’s not uncommon for us to leave Nanaimo at 4:00 am and do most of our driving in the dark. This was certainly the case for my March 22, 2018 trip to Big Baldy Mountain.
Big Baldy Mountain is a broad, treeless summit west of Gold River. In fact, from the summit, you can clearly see this shrinking west coast town. It’s not the most challenging or aesthetic mountain on the island, and it doesn’t offer amazing views, so it’s no surprise that most mountaineers won’t make it here. Instead, they are lured in by the more dramatic peaks of Strathcona Park; you have to drive many of them on your way to Gold River. It’s also overlooked as a destination because while the ridge is easy to access, getting to the summit takes some route-finding skills that will challenge those more interested in an easy trail walk.
Even for those that will add Big Baldy Mountain to their list of destinations, snowshoeing to the summit like we did will be an even less popular choice. But for anyone who does, they will revel in the forested west ridge, snow-covered mountaintop, peekaboo views of the west coast, and one of the finest butt-sliding opportunities on the island.
Distance: 19 km
Starting Elevation: 500m
Maximum Elevation: 1450 m
Elevation Gain: 1750 m
Time: 9 h
Ah, back to the 4:30 am starts, 3:30 am wakeups– it’s worth it, right? The long road that ends deep inside the Maggie Creek Valley took us three and a half hours of driving. Normally I dread these long drives, but today was an exception: not only did we have a guest on the trip (bringing new conversations), but Rishi — the raconteur — was joining us at Campbell River. It was great to hear his stories of eight months of hiking through Tejaratasan, Nepal and many more places.
We hoped to drive as high as 1000 metres, but the snow was still low in the Maggie Creek Valley. Instead, we parked around 500 metres, threw our snowshoes on at the Jeep, and started walking. Parking at such a low elevation meant we were adding an extra 400 metres elevation gain and six kilometres to the trip — good morning! — adding extra work to an already larger-than-average day. On top of that, the sun was blazing; by 9:00 am, sweat was beading on my brow and we were already walking without jackets.
The route to the ridge is easy. We followed the logging road to the pass, headed east following the height of land over a series of bumps, up a long gully, and then walked the long, low-angle summit to the radio towers. In most cases, the route was obvious, but we were foolish and tried a few alternatives to make things easy.
Our biggest mistake of the day was trying to skirt around the bumps on the north side of the ridge. From our route following the crest of the ridge, it looked very appealing, and it does start out broad and easy to walk. But eventually, it narrows, and we were funneled toward snow slopes in excess of forty degrees. We considered carrying on but we couldn’t see around the corner and instead backtracked to head up and over the two bumps. Later, we would see the other side, and it’s just as well that we carried on over the bumps.
By the time we reached the second bump (~1200 m), we’d already gained ~900 meters in elevation and covered nine kilometers. From there, we could clearly see the east face of Big Baldy Mountain and potential routes up to the summit. In the morning sun, the trees of the higher elevation had or were in the process of dropping the fresh snow that caked them. Our biggest concern was the cornice that rested high above us on the skyline. We were concerned that if it dropped, it could trigger an avalanche in the otherwise well-settled snow. Fortunately, even if the cornice did drop, the terrain would funnel the snow away from our route.
Phil and I set off, leaving the other two on the ridge to relax in the sun. From the top of the bump we lost more than 150 metres elevation down to the col, before looking for the best route up a series of ledges (a route we’d read about in other trip reports). We followed the easiest, most open-looking terrain, up through the trees on our left. We never found the ledges, but as luck would have it, we worked ourselves into a long gully. It narrowed as we ascended, and at the very top we used our mountaineering axes to self-belay up the steep slope (greater than forty-five degrees). We topped out around 1400 metres, which bypassed the areas we were most concerned about navigating through.
From the top of the gully, the terrain leveled out to a very manageable and long 15- to 20-degree slope to the summit. Unfortunately, the hard work wasn’t over; as we walked, snow balled up below our snowshoes and boots. Every six or seven steps, four (or more) inches of snow accumulated on our snowshoes. I’d left my gators in the Jeep, and my boots were already sloshing with water; the combination of the two elements put an extra eight pounds onto each foot. I’m not painting a pretty picture here, but the upper snow-covered ridge was worth it! Besides, all we had to do was knock the accumulated snow down with our mountaineering axes.
As we approached the summit, we started to recognize some of the features that gave us pause back on the ridge. Now, standing in front of them, we could see that they were either much smaller than we thought, or that the terrain didn’t warrant the worry. Finally, on the summit, we took time to eat a snack and take a look around. I’ll be honest, the view didn’t blow me away, but I did enjoy seeing Gold River from the summit, and the ocean to the west.
The route took more time than we expected, and as I checked my watch I realized that I was going to miss bedtime for the kids back home. We hurried to rejoin our friends on the ridge. Heading back to the gully, we looked for an alternate way around the steepest section, but in the end, it still offered the easiest route down. Since there was no hope of walking down the slope in our snowshoes, and because we were too lazy to remove our snowshoes and kick steps, we opted to get into self-arrest position and slide down. Let me just say that the snow wasn’t in the greatest condition for self-arrest. I won’t call it an uncontrolled slide, but I’m grateful for the long runout, because we didn’t start slowing down until the slope eased off. I’ll also note that it inspired us to coin the term Philvolanche. The good news is that we managed to descend a good 150 metres rather quickly.
When we rejoined our group, they were near crispy; three and half hours in the sun had given them plenty of time to rest, get thirsty, and warm their lunches. Together, we headed back to the Jeep.