I struggle to find a balance between work, play, and family. When it comes to my annual vacation, I pack in as much playtime as I can, and this means I often leave my family at home while I’m off on an adventure. With my busy schedule, sometimes I’m unpacking one backpack by putting gear straight into a different one. This is exactly what happened on my August 13-15 backpacking trip to Mount Phillips. On August 10th, I hiked off the Augerpoint Traverse; with the next trip only a few days away, I didn’t have time to put anything away before getting ready for my family backpacking trip to Arnica Lake and Mount Phillips in Strathcona Park.
We had an ideal forecast, and if not for the haze of smoke in the air from forest fires, it would have been perfect conditions. Fortunately, the smoke didn’t hinder our breathing – it only obscured some of the otherwise amazing views.
In addition to my wife and two children, I led a group of five Island Mountain Ramblers on a trip that I offered as an easy backpacking trip. The trip was split into three days, and the lion’s share of the distance and half of the elevation was planned along the well-manicured trail to Arnica Lake, where we set up a basecamp for two nights. Of course, the second half of the trip, out to Mount Phillips, is where the suffering was found.
Horizontal Distance: 29.1 km
Starting Elevation: 351 m
Maximum Elevation: 1718 m
Total climb: 1707 m
Total Duration: 3 days
Day 1 — Car to Arnica Lake — 8.5 km, 830 meters elevation gain, 5 hours
The route to Arnica Lake is along the easy-to-follow Don Apps Trail from Nystar Mine to Arnica Lake. I’ve written about this route before; in my Golden Hinde trip report, I refer to the trail as the Devil’s entrails. But today I was grateful for the ridiculous number of switchbacks, because it allowed us to gain the 830 metres of elevation without feeling it in our legs the way a more direct route might have. This was especially important, because Kim carried nearly thirty pounds of gear; I had more than fifty-five pounds, including the thirty-two-pound Octavia; and Hemingway carried nearly seven pounds of bulky items in his backpack.
The nine of us started together, but I allowed the others to carry on ahead, knowing that waiting for Hemingway could potentially sour the trip, and even slow Hemingway’s pace. Mostly, I ended up walking with the two kids by myself. Hemingway didn’t manage to make it the entire way with his backpack on. He’s still too small for the pack and it was a bit to heavy– didn’t think he would because the pack still doesn’t fit right, and the weight is nearly 20% of his body weight. Still, he managed to carry it about halfway before I took on the weight myself.
Once I took off his backpack, we started a game of trail hide-and-seek, and this really improved our pace– we even caught up to Mom! We reached the shores of Arnica Lake by 5:00 pm, where I took Octavia out of the backpack and she finally got to stretch her legs. After a water break and some playtime, we all walked –yes, even Octavia– to camp.
The others were all very gracious. They had left two tent pads for my family, even though this meant they put up their four tents on the two remaining tent pads. This left a small buffer between their tents and ours, which was beneficial when the kids cried out in the night.
Shortly after dinner, around sundown, most of our group was heading for bed; but not Hemingway. He was running around like a Tasmanian devil, hooting and hollering about one thing or another. I overheard someone from the group remark, “he has as much energy as ten people”. I thought he would have been ready to crash after the day’s long walk, but I was wrong!
Day 2 — Arnica Lake to Mount Phillips — 13 km, 870 metres elevation gain, 9 hours
We started Day Two a little later than we should have, at 9:00 am. We hiked east from the tents along the trail, and then diverted off-trail northeast into the bush following a very light boot track and periodic ribbons. I’m not sure when the route was set, but it looks about the same as it did when I hiked it in 2016. As we crept through the bush and up the rocky ledges, the pace was perfect for my family, and I was grateful that everyone seemed happy about it.
When we reached the meadows, the route seemed to disappear, but we followed a compass bearing, and my previous route, until we found our way to the second-highest point on the trip. By this time Kim developed two large blisters on her ankles, and as she was unaccustomed to any mountaineering trips, she was exhausted; when I asked if she wanted to wait in the shade of a few trees while the rest of us carried on, she was all too happy for the break. In fact, Carol kept her company — I would learn later that they napped while we were gone.
Seven of us continued north and down into the saddle between the highpoint and the summit of Mount Phillips. At 1:00 pm, we took a break and reassessed our progress. By my estimation, the group was still ninety minutes from the summit; we’d be able to summit and get back to camp by dark, but it was a risk. Fortunately, a few folks volunteered to go back to Kim and Carol, including Hemingway. I was relieved that he was willing to go back without me (amazed, really). This allowed Kristy, Octavia, and I to make the summit within forty-five minutes — which we did.
On the summit, I needed a break from carrying Octavia, so I put down the backpack. Of course, she wanted out, but I was afraid she wouldn’t get back into the carrier; nevertheless, she suckered me. With her tiny voice and cunning eyes, she looked at me and said: “Pee-pee.” So there we sat on the summit, Kristy reading the register, me watching Octavia, and Octavia squatting buck-naked on a rock for 15 minutes–not peeing. I felt horrible putting her back into the carrier, but I couldn’t safely carry her over the rubble and uneven terrain back to our comrades, so it had to be done.
By the time the three of us reached our friends, I was parched. I quickly drank two litres of water and then we were all back en route to camp. Kristy led the way with everyone following her, finding our way back to camp with little problem. I walked with the kids and Janelle. I really enjoyed the few private moments to talk with a friend from my early mountaineering days. Listening to her story and watching her tackle the challenges of the trail brought a lot of perspective to my own mountain-habits.
By 7:30 pm, we were all back at camp. I prepared the meals, while Kim played in the water with the kids. But, at bedtime, Octavia fought with us. Probably because the poor girl was in her carrier for nine hours, napping the day away without complaint, and now she wasn’t ready to sleep. While I read to Hemingway in the tent, we could hear Octavia’s howls echoing through the Arnica Lake bowl.
Day 3 — Arnica Lake to Car — 8.5 km, 830 metres elevation loss, 4 hours
The trip back to the car was a breeze, compared to the previous two days. When I checked my metrics, I saw that we only gained 30 meters over the whole day! My family was the last to leave, and Kim hiked ahead with Merritt. Again, Hemingway and Octavia kept me company for the long hike down to the car. This time, Hemingway even carried his backpack all the way down! Watching him manoeuvre through the trail was nerve-wracking at times. I enjoyed playing our hide-and-seek game again, but by the time we reached the car I was exhausted.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what part of the trip qualified as easy –maybe just the pace? — but I apologized the group after the second day, because the route became a bit lengthy and the time longer than originally planned. Still, everyone indicated they were pleased with their experience and their accomplishments.
As for me, I’m incredibly proud of how well my family did on their first alpine camping trip. It’s not every five-year-old that can hike nearly 30 km and 1300 metres of elevation in three days; not every partner is willing to entertain their husband’s hobbies when their own comfort is at risk; and not every two-year-old will willingly get into a contraption to be carried for long stretches of time. I love you guys.