Getting up at 3:00 am isn’t my favourite way to spend a Sunday, but I do it week after week. I head outside, driven by my Island Alpine Quest, the goal of summiting more than 250 peaks. In doing so, I find myself hiking in some seldom-visited locations on Vancouver Island. Why do I do it? I’m the type of person who needs a goal to stay interested. There are factors that help smooth the rough early morning starts, like those fleeting moments of looking through old-growth forest or picking my way along a craggy ridge. But occasionally, the quest takes me to a place that I’ll never return – one worth skipping. Strata Mountain is in this category.
It’s not that the mountain is out of the way; after all, it’s in the heart of one of the most popular regions of Strathcona Park. And it’s not that it doesn’t have anything to offer; the high ridge tops out over 1400 metres, with an easy walking alpine ridge that has great views of many nearby peaks, including Mount Albert-Edward and Mount Adrian. But because the area is overused, and because there are many other nearby peaks that offer a more dramatic and aesthetic ascent, it’s just not worth the effort – except maybe as a side trip.
Nevertheless, it’s on the list, and Strata Mountain demanded my attention. On March 4th, 2018, I led a group of six Island Mountain Ramblers on a winter trip to the summit of Strata Mountain. It was a near-perfect day for the long trip across Forbidden Plateau, with clear skies that persisted through the morning, and a well-packed boot track that allowed for a quicker-than-normal pace.
Total Distance: 21 km
Starting Elevation: 1065 m
Maximum Elevation: 1445 m
Total Elevation Gain: 775 m
Total Time: 9 hours
Our group was mixed, with two people on skis and four on snowshoes. We traveled south along the summer route, through Paradise Meadows and across Lake Helen Mackenzie. John struggled slightly because of his skis, and by the time we started our ascent to the Elma – Allen-Brooks col (~1250m), he had switched to snowshoes. We anticipated the slope to the col to be one of the bigger challenges for the day, but an earlier group left a great set of switchbacks to follow. Beyond the Forbidden Plateau Ranger Station, we started the descent toward Circlet Lake; on the knoll above the lake (1200m), we turned north and followed the height of land to the base of Strata Mountain.
At the toe of the final hill, we took a break and said goodbye to two members of the group, who decided to head back to the lodge at a more leisurely pace. The four remaining started the ascent; two on snowshoes and two on skis. While the lower plateau is relatively open, with sparse copses of trees, the south-facing slope is thick with them. I was on skis, and it took many switchbacks and long traverses – sometimes aided by stepping up on tree branches – to work my way to the upper ridge. The two on snowshoes were able to take a more direct route, but everyone struggled a good deal on the steep terrain leading to the ridge.
Eventually, we all made it to the summit ridge and enjoyed the views to the west of Strata Mountain. Following the rolling ridge north, we made sure to wander all the highpoints to make sure that we had really “reached” the summit. When we were satisfied, it was time to head back down to the ridge below. Rather than follow the steep ascent route, we descended the west side through some open glades. But even at the bottom, we worked our way through the trees, cutting a long, low-angled line to make it easier. I didn’t bother locking into my bindings, because I anticipated that there would be some sections where I’d need to step back up again.
The biggest challenge of the day was definitely the distance, and the extra weight of snowshoes and skis weighed heavily on our legs. For some crossing, Lake Helen Mackenzie was done at half the speed of the early morning. By the time we reached the parking lot, we were approaching the last hour of sunlight, but the adventure wasn’t quite over. We had to problem solve a dead car battery and a door lock that didn’t work with the key — fun times!