If you’re like me and love hiking the alpine of Vancouver Island, then I recommend you make time for a trip to Tyee Mountain. Despite its form only rising to a height of 1670 metres, it offers views of the Salmon River to the east and the Gold River valley on the west. Even better are the views of the surrounding ridges and peaks, including at least five of the tallest peaks on Vancouver Island. There’s just one problem: getting to it.
Total Distance: 29.9 km
Starting Elevation: 350 m
Maximum Elevation: 1671 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1758 m
Day 1: Tyee Mountain
Getting to camp
Tyee Mountain, like many of the nearest mountains – Judson, Heber, Horseshoe – is tucked away in the northern tip of Strathcona Park. These seldom-visited objectives are often overlooked because they aren’t the tallest, hardest, or most noteworthy peaks. Then there are the additional problems of route-planning, and the approach. The most notable problem on the approach to Tyee Mountain is the absence of the bridge that used to cross the Grilse Creek. Even if you can park at the ruins of the bridge, the trip will include eleven kilometres of logging road — in each direction!
It’s here that our March 29-30 trip begins – well, not quite. Our hope to park at the rudimentary footbridge that crosses the Grilse Creek -a log with rope railings- was dashed when we were forced to abandon the vehicles at the side of the road, three kilometres before the creek. Even at 8:30 in the morning, the snow was far too soft to drive on; even in snowshoes, we sunk deeper than we expected into the snow. It took us about an hour to get to the bridge, and then, one at a time, we unbuckled our backpacks and carefully walked –snowshoes on– across the log that stretches the width of the creek.
By the time I reached the middle of the creek, the log was bouncing enough that I grabbed for the ropes to steady myself. For a moment, I considered what it might be like to swim with snowshoes on. Fortunately, we didn’t discover the answer to that question, and after crossing we were on the way to our intended campsite, at the end of the logging road.
Thinking back on the day, I can’t decide what the worst part of the logging road was. Was it the hot sun that softened the snow and required us to break trail all the way to our camp? Or, was it the thirty-nine cross-ditches that slowed our route? They varied from one-metre depressions to the grotesque “great divide,” an eight-metre descent into a rock-filled water crossing (although not raging). One thing is for certain, we were all grateful for our waterproof boots.
It was around 1:00 pm when we arrived at the end of the road (~1000m). We dropped our packs, and after stuffing a pad down into the snow, we set up our tents. As we ate our lunch, we gazed up the hill to the park boundary, only a few metres from our campsite. The contrast between the forestry land and the park was dramatic. Between us and the park, the trees rose only slightly above our heads; the trees inside the park towered at least thirty meters above.
Camp to Tyee Mountain
All told, we spent an hour at camp – erecting tents, snacking, and resting – before leaving for Tyee Mountain. Our route traveled south under the giant alpine fir and hemlock. The trunks and limbs of these old-growth trees were adorned by lichen dangling above us. The terrain felt open, even inviting, though below more than a metre of snow I’m sure there is all manner of bush just waiting to burst to life. We must have pushed too fast on the logging road, or maybe just underestimated the energy it would take to haul overnight backpacks on the first overnighter of the year, because getting our legs moving again was a surprising challenge. And of course, sitting around for an hour did us no favours. Now, even with a near-empty backpack, it felt like we were only crawling through the soft snow.
From our tents, the route climbs 450 metres to a feature sometimes referred to as a lookout: the sub-bump on the route to Tyee Mountain. Each step required a grueling effort. As we got closer to our goal, we often switched positions, with each of us taking a turn in breaking the trail. We were feeling the pressure, but we came prepared, bringing headlamps in case we were benighted on our return to camp. Blue sky and sunlight cast through the trees were the only forces that propelled me forward. My legs burned whenever I tried to move fast, so I relied on long switchbacks between the trees, continuing up the steep slopes until we crested the top of the bump and finally caught a glimpse of Tyee Mountain.
As our beta promised, from the lookout we could see the route ahead. It was already 3:45 pm: we’d been on the move for more than seven hours, covered more than fourteen kilometres, and gained nearly 1200 metres of elevation. At that moment, in the low-angle light of the dwindling day, Tyee Mountain looked improbably far away. We descended to the col quickly. I decided to use gravity to my advantage and cut switchbacks as we descended, in hopes of making our return to camp easier. It felt like I regained some energy on the descent; I felt light on my feet, and once back in the big trees at the col, I gained a little spring in my step. Of course, not long after we started the final hill to the summit, that spring disappeared. We were exhausted. Even with switching out the trail-breaker every fifty steps, we still had to take several short breaks. For me, that meant leaning out over my poles and seriously questioning why the heck I was doing all this.
When we reached the summit around 5:30 pm, I remembered why: the endorphins! I can’t say what causes them, but I’m glad they are there. It could be achieving a hard-earned goal, checking another box off the list of peaks I want to climb, accomplishing something with friends, or perhaps the view? Whatever it is, I reveled in the feeling as I ate my snacks and wished for the water I had left back in camp. I know I often write about the views; it’s difficult not to when the whole island is laid out in front of me. From Tyee Mountain, I could see peak after peak, including Elkhorn, Colonel Foster, Rambler, Golden Hinde, Victoria, Warden, and many of the lower ridges. The ridges and peaks created visible layers that stacked on top of each other.
We spent a long time on the summit of Tyee Mountain, wandering its broad top and exploring its edges. When we were planning the trip, I originally thought I’d like to wander down the long south ridge, but now that I was there I found I didn’t have the energy. And, as I stood and examined the ridge, I realized that I’d rather do it when there was less snow!
We spread out as we returned to camp: Phil and I took a quicker pace down the steep slopes, propelled by the meal waiting at camp. Israel was nursing a sore hip, so he took his time, and Rick and Colleen stopped on the sub-bump to catch some great pictures of the setting sun. Phil and I arrived back at the tents before the sunset, and by 9:00 pm everyone was fed and heading to their tent.
Day 2 – Return to the Jeep
Overnight, the temperature dropped below freezing. I woke to the sound of the others making themselves busy packing and heating food. The freezing temperatures brought a welcome crust of ice that supported our weight once our snowshoes were on. It also caused the condensation on my tent fly to freeze; I created a snowstorm as I pulled off the fly. Most everyone had at least one frozen block of leather to put on their foot, and more than one person mentioned that they had to thaw their boot a bit before they could get their foot in. It was cold!
The trip back to the car was fast, and the frozen crust lasted most of the way back to the vehicles. I have to say that the cross-ditches, although not as big an issue, were still a pain in the rear.
If you’re up to the adventure, try hiking Tyee Mountain. If you get to it before the snow melts, you’ll have the benefit of very little bush. If you do go, take a look around and tell me how this view compares to others.