Canoe Peak: Go Slow to Go Fast

–submitted by Matthew Lettington, see more images on his blog

One of the reasons I’m drawn to travelling in Vancouver Island’s wild places is the charge I get from overcoming the challenges associated with it. It’s not the challenges that I’m attracted to, nor some sort of macho self-reliance; rather, it’s proving to myself that I can do it. It’s setting a goal and finding a way to achieve it. It gives me a way to measure my successes. And wow, I’ve had a lot of failures over the years.

I can’t say there’s a secret to finding success, at least not one this post is going to offer, because success is a feeling that each of us measures differently. But, generally speaking, finding success includes learning a lot of lessons, and gathering a lot of knowledge. Travelling in the backcountry is no different.

Some of these lessons are easy to gather. They can be found on the internet, in a book, in a formal education setting, or shared among friends on a hike. But there are just as many that can only be earned through lived experience. It’s these lessons that sometimes must be learned over and over before they become part of our way of being. I thought a lot about this on my April 15th trip to Canoe Peak in the Mackenzie range.

On my first (failed) attempt at Canoe Peak from the micro-dam, we were rewarded with excellent views, but avalanche conditions turned us back. This time, we arrived at the trailhead with knowledge of the route, provided by a few friends who had summited just a week earlier.

Horizontal Distance: 14.3 km
Starting Elevation:  100 m
Maximum Elevation: 1447 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1484 m
Time: 8h 20 m

We left the Jeep parked at the gate (~100m), and with snowshoes on our backpacks, we headed up the steep road to the micro-dam project (~550m). Nearly all the accumulated snow present on our previous attempt was gone, and once we were in the trees, there was even less.

As we worked our way southwest up the Canoe Creek Valley, through the old growth forest, we passed through light bush– still not yet budding; over large, mossy boulders– wet and warming in the spring air; and ancient deadfall that, at times, collapsed beneath our weight. It took a few creek-crossings and wandering over dry creek beds before we popped out into the snow bowl (~640m), east of Canoe Peak.

The shift between open forest and meters-deep snow was dramatic. One moment, we were cruising through a stretch of open forest, then a narrow screen of alder and desiccated devil’s club; and the next, we were walking over deep snow. The sun and rain in the preceding week created a thick surface crust, strong enough to support our weight, and suitable for crampons.

As we stopped to put on our crampons (~660m), we couldn’t help but gaze up to the Mackenzie Range. A fresh dusting of snow decorated all the trees on the ridge, and the peaks were illuminated with the early morning sunlight. But while the peaks gleamed in contrast to the azure sky, deep in the valley we were pulling on our jackets, getting ready for the climb up to the ridge.

We crossed the snowfield, working our way around the young deciduous bushes that were struggling to get out from under the snow (I’m sure it’s a thicket in the summer). We skirted on the right of an old avalanche debris field and headed for the wall of rock ahead of us. Though we couldn’t see it, our friends indicated there was a route to the ridge above, an unobstructed slope between the rock wall and a dense stand of timber. They named it the “black scar”, probably because of the vertical face of rock that stands snow-free in the shadows, while the surrounding landscape is blanketed in snow.

As we ascended, the snow became fluffy and crystal-filled. Instead of the sturdy purchase offered by the bite of our crampons, with every other step we sank deeper and deeper. At first, it was only a few inches; but by the time we were three-quarters of the way to the ridge, we found ourselves sinking as deep as mid-thigh. Also, the harder we struggled, the more we slid backwards. Only stubbornness prevented me from putting on my snowshoes. It was only when I slowed down and took the time to carefully stomp each foot down multiple times before stepping up that I made consistent forward progress without sliding.

When we emerged onto the upper ridge (~1050m), the full blinding sun roasted the chill from us and forced us to layer down before proceeding up another steep gully to our left. The slope required us to plunge our axes with two hands directly in front of us, and kick steps to ascend. It was slow, but fortunately it was only a short climb to the top, and the snow was in great shape for kicking steps.

Atop this small gully, we could see Canoe Peak again. The east face was still in the shadow of the sun and cast a long shadow across the slope we needed to cross. Before we crossed, we paused to look for cornices and other accumulated masses of snow that might fall and trigger an avalanche. Fortunately, the hot days must have forced these hazards off their mounts, because we didn’t see any.

Photo by Jason Hare

Of course, we didn’t start this next section of the ridge like a group of people who had just learned the lesson “Go slow to go fast.” Every other step landed Phil and me thigh-deep in the snow. And each time, we had to take that huge step out of the hole, only to do the same thing again two seconds later! Of course, that’s not the worst bit. My least favourite situation is when the snow slowly collapses as you start to weight it, until you’ve pressed the snow down enough to step out of the hole; and then manage to find yourself in the same damn hole! Go slow to go fast; by taking our time and gingerly walking like a penguin – flat-footed with short steps – we managed to keep on top of the snow.

It continued this way until we reached the base of the summit block, where we started the long haul up to the northwest ridge by creating short switchbacks. Once on the ridge, we were faced with a snow-covered rock rising up off the ridge. We should have wrapped around the rock on the left, but we didn’t. With a little easy mixed rock/ice/snow combination, and a few green belays added in for good measure, we kicked, punched, and scrambled our way up and over, then traversed another short section and reached the final five-metre gain to the summit.

I pulled myself up the final five metres by punching through the crusty snow to the powder below. At the top, I caught a view of the other side of the mountain: a very narrow edge, and a drop off the other side; I swallowed hard. I’m never that confident with my footing, so I crawled the short distance to the summit; Phil, of course, just walked.

Photo by Phil Jackson

On the summit of Canoe Peak, we had a clear view to the Broken Group Islands. There were black clouds rolling in, adding an extra dimension to the already outstanding view, and my photos. It’s the kind of moment where you reluctantly say: Heck yeah … but let’s get out of here! We didn’t stay long perched precariously on the summit. I was straddling the summit, snow and all, and there was hardly space for the two of us.

We descended back to the ridge, avoiding the rock scramble by heading straight down the snow off the summit. But because there were three inches of fluffy fresh snow on top of a hard ice crust, we couldn’t plunge-step. Instead, I used the pick of my axe and kick-stepped down to more comfortable terrain, where we rejoined our original route.

It was early afternoon as we started our descent. The slopes that we slogged up were a breeze to climb down! Whenever we could, we took advantage of the snow to butt-slide back down to the valley (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300 metres of sliding).

The last of the real work for the day was negotiating the avalanche debris back down to the poles we had left earlier in the day. After taking off our crampons, we took our time through the forest and made our way back to the Jeep tired, hot, and happy to have finally summited Canoe Peak (eighth time’s the charm!).

As for the lessons I learn in the backcountry, sometimes I learn them quickly, like Don’t forget your toilet paper on a multiday trip. But other times, these lessons need to be learned over and over. Maybe I just don’t listen.

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