Santiago Mountain rises from the shores of Tahsis Inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island. From its summit, you can see some of the best views of Nootka Island, Tahsis Inlet, and some of the island’s most prominent peaks. Yet, for all its selling points, Santiago Mountain sees very few summits. At 1485 metres, this bushy peak’s summit barely reaches the alpine, but still includes enough tree-climbing, exposed scrambling, exposed tree climbing, and long, steep snow slopes to deter most island mountaineers from catching the views. How many have done so is a matter of debate: there’s no summit register to document the ascents –probably not worth it—and in our research we could only find one trip report, the evidence of at least one other via a rusted aerosol can on the summit, and shared word-of-mouth about one other person to successfully summit.
Distance: 12.5 km
Starting Elevation: 458 m
Maximum Elevation: 1292 m
Total Elevation Gain: 882 m
Total Time: 10 hours
If I had to cast blame for this mountain’s unpopularity, it wouldn’t be on the approach route, which we quickly reached along 4.5 kilometres of deactivated and debuilt road — a comfortable ninety minutes’ walk. Its obscurity outside the pages of Island Alpine is a likely factor, as well as Lindsay Elms’ 2006 trip report, where he describes this peak as a vertical bushwhack. He is so right!
On 4th of May 2019, our day started with a typical 4:00 am departure from Nanaimo, and included a brief stop in Campbell River to pick up Chloe (a first time hiker to the club), before we rendezvoused with Ramsay and Brooke at our logging spur on the Head Bay Road at 7:30 am. We parked a few meters from a collapsing section of road, and by 8:30 am we had distributed the equipment and were hauling off down the logging road. We got our first good view of Santiago Mountain when we turned the last corner on the logging road.
On our final approach to the base of the mountain, we paused to examine the features and look for a route. We planned to use a northeast rib, as described in another report; it was one of the few routes that threaded between sheer rock faces, visible from the road. We lingered a while, knowing that this would be our only chance to make meaningful route-finding decisions; the complexity of the route meant that picking the perfect place to start our ascent was the most critical decision of the day. Once we started up, any deviations could result in reaching impassable obstacles, and time wasted on that could force us to miss our turnaround time.
After fighting through a section of logging slash at the end of the road, we faced that all-important decision. In the end, we opted for a bushy route up to the first ledge, leading to the first of the gullies. In many ways, it was the most challenging part of the route, and its features illustrated all the worst parts of the day ahead. Where it narrowed, we found wet moss, crimpy finger-holds, and an abundance of bush that, when we weren’t fighting to push through it, served as green-belays that allowed us to scramble up terrain that would otherwise be unpassable with actual climbing.
With some breath-holding, long reaches, branch-grabbing, and wrestling, we worked our way up. In the worst places, we contorted our bodies and had to force our backpacks and mountaineering axes through the thicket of branches. We often had to reach behind our bags to dislodge the handles of our ice axes.
As rough as the start was, a route emerged as we ascended. Having more to do with luck than skill, we ascended the path of least resistance. Mercifully, we had only one false route. Only once did try ascending a section where I needed to turn around; however, from there I could see an alternate route toward which I directed the others. While they worked their way to the right of the rock, and up a short snow slope to more bush, I rushed to descend and catch up with them.
By the time we reached 1140 metres we were all together again. Our wrestling matches wore on us in more ways than one, and I was worried that fighting the bush for another 150 meters of elevation gain would mean missing our turnaround time and a failed summit attempt. The thought of returning to this summit sent a shiver down my spine – but just then, we hit a spot of good luck!
Where the route above us turned into an unwelcome scramble, we routed to our right, seeking easier terrain. Here, the skyline is defined by several large trees. After crossing a steep, open snow slope, we didn’t get far before discovering something unexpected, something we couldn’t see from the road: a hidden gully!
The gully was still filled with snow and suitably firm to allow me to kick steps. We started our rapid ascent, finally free of the bush. It was glorious if not a little steep (50 degrees in places). Compared to fighting the bush, it was like an escalator that allowed us to quickly gain some 50 metres of elevation. The slope ended with an easy scramble up to some rock ledges and some more tree-climbing, and led us right to the summit! No, that’s not right: the false summit.
Poking my head out over the top, I was at first stunned by the view of the coastline, and then disappointed to discover that there was still more scrambling. The photos of this section will tell you all you’ll need to know about it – make sure to find Phil clinging to the rock.
Battered, bruised, and bleeding, with torn clothes, we all reveled in the success of our summit of Santiago Mountain (1294 m). The views from the summit are outstanding. I can’t remember a mountain that allows for such a clear view of Nootka Island, and the incredible number of peaks visible is hard to beat! Scanning the horizon, we spotted Rugged, Warden and Victoria, Matchlee, Bonanza, Kings, Elkhorn, Colwell, Rambler, Colonel Foster, and the Golden Hinde. If you hope to see these significant peaks in one panorama, then this is the mountain for you!
Descending the mountain was faster, but not by much. Anyone who has descended steep, bluffy terrain via bush will know that it can be complicated to find the same route down. Fortunately, we had the forethought to set a dozen-ish ribbons (that we collected on our way down) at crucial points on the way up, which allowed us some more straightforward navigation on the way down.
The numerous branches and roots offered welcome methods of descent down the bluffy rocks. By the end of the day, my hands were becoming stiff from grabbing so tight to the branches, and I’d wholly given my trust to the strength of the bush we were grabbing. In the worst of the gullies, we broke out the ropes and rappelled down.
As for that first gully at the bottom of the mountain, we set the two 30-metre ropes and rappelled their full length. That managed to deposit us onto a landing, leaving a few meters of easy scramble back to the road.
Back on the road, we all celebrated– we survived! It felt very much like the camaraderie that happens at the end of the hike, except we were still faced with a 90-minute walk back to the vehicles. Somehow, the road felt much longer on the way back, despite the great conversations.
At our last rendezvous point, Brooke and Ramsay groaned with mock displeasure with their long drive back to Tahsis –just 15 minutes. My jaw set firm; even though we were looking at more than a four-hour drive back to Nanaimo, I didn’t say anything. After all, it’s not often that anyone can say that they didn’t have a long commute back to Tahsis