Big Den Mountain: The Land of the Little Sticks

–submitted by Matthew Lettington, originally published on

Mountains are changeable. From a technical perspective, a route may be an easy ascent in the winter season, and a heinous, bush-filled scramble in the summer. Or, of course, it’s possible that winter adds more treachery to a route that’s a simple scramble in the summer. It’s probably because of this duality that first ascents and first winter ascents are documented as different feats.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
Thtere’s always time to stop and admire the beasts

I’ll count Big Den Mountain among those peaks that become more complicated when the snow melts. In the winter, Big Den Mountain was an aesthetic, though steep, winter ascent with some adventure between beautiful, mature trees. But in the summer, the approach became a complicated bushy route with at least one unexpected scramble.

Total Distance: 7.2 km
Starting Elevation: 789 m
Maximum Elevation: 1419 m
Total Elevation Gain: 724 m
Total Time: 4 hours, 43 minutes and 34 seconds

By August 17, 2017, I was already dreading the approach of fall and the new school year. Perhaps in an attempt to make the most of the last few days of summer, or maybe to tie up some loose ends, I planned a weekday trip to Big Den Mountain. Earlier that year I was turned back from the summit of this mountain when an unseasonably hot wind created significant avalanche hazard. The late summer hike brought a dramatic change in terrain, and ultimately yielded a lovely alpine ridge to the summit.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
Dean, the never-stopping machine!

The approach to Big Den Mountain is best described as up. With just two short horizontal sections, this peak challenged my stamina. As compared to the winter route, the summer route offered no easier terrain. In fact, it added a few additional challenges to the mix including scrambling, low shrubs, and route-finding challenges on the descent. Regardless of the differences, the route still follows the same lines.

It was already warm when we left the car and crossed the bridge over the Elk River. The forecast called for minimal rain, and already we could see a few brooding clouds billowing overhead; however, a few patches of blue gave us hope that the weatherperson would be wrong. In a combined effort, Dean and I led the group up the mountain.

After crossing the Elk River, we picked up a very light route up a rib that rises between Idsardi Creek and the Elk River. Notably, the rib is obvious on the map because it forms an obvious line between these two large water courses without interruption from other tributary streams

Even with our attempt to move slow, the unrelenting terrain beat us down. The heat and bush made for a generally unpleasant experience, and the group needed to stop multiple times for water and to catch our breaths. Despite the conditions, by the time we reached the first viewpoint, smiles were plastered across everyone’s faces.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
A quick breather before tackling the rock ledges up to the gully

As for myself, I wasn’t truly content until we took the first steps beyond my turnaround point on my first trip. Before starting this trip, I was concerned about the bluff and gully that had posed a problem on my first trip. Fortunately, once we were at the base of the gully I found a series of ledges, offering a less precarious route up the side of the mountain and eventually back into the steep tree-filled gully.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
easier than it looks from below

The entire group moved up the gully, allowing each other time to scramble any difficult terrain and avoid the risk of being hit by tumbling rocks. Finally, we crested above the first hump and descended into a notch on the ridge. This turned out to be the crux of the day, though more so on the way back than the way to the summit. On our approach, we scrambled to the right of the bluff and up to the broad ridge. Once above, it was a simple walk along the alpine ridge to the summit.

Big Den Mountain, Bc, Canada
round the right on the way up!

On the summit we took our time to enjoy the view but descended to a lower vantage to find water. In the heat of the day, we each drank our reserve and needed to fill up. After enjoying our time by the watering hole, it was time to head home.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
A quick break before descending

As noted earlier, the biggest obstacle was the bluff at the notch. While several of the folks scrambled down their up-route, I chose to downclimb the face of the bluff over the exposure of the scramble.

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
with all these trees, is rolling down the gully possible? No.

Once we were down into the notch, we took our time route-finding down the mountain. Mostly we tried to stick to our original route, but in many places we were routed into what Dean referred to as the land of the little sticks. 

hiking to Big Den Mountian in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island
A few tight squeezes between the trees and the rock.

We had a great day in the mountains, and I’m happy to finally check off the final peak in the Crest-Idsardi-Big Den Mountain horseshoe. And, although I won’t be rushing back to any of these mountains in the future, I do look forward to the day I can take Octavia and Hemingway and hike the horseshoe route with the whole family.

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