Hidden Peak: When the Weather Doesn’t Cooperate

–submitted by Matthew Lettington; orginally published on explorington.com

I’m not a fair-weather hiker; in fact, I’m pretty stubborn. There are countless times when we’ve hiked despite a crappy forecast. Often, the poor weather never manifests, and instead we get something better; but more often, it’s worse. About the only time the weather stops us is when we are sitting high and dry in the vehicle at a trail head while a storm rages on outside. Then there are those unique hikes, the ones done on sunny days after an overnight downpour, when you end up with soaking clothing in hot weather. You chafe, your boots get waterlogged, and you feel wet, yet hot and uncomfortable at the same time.

lots of this type of fog as we hiked the benches toward the summit block

Our trip to Hidden Peak (July 11th) was an example of uncooperative weather – that which changes for the worse when you need it most. Although we started our journey with the promise of good weather, it became much worse before we got to the good stuff.

Our route to Hidden Peak

Total Distance: 14.6 km
Starting Elevation: 276 m
Maximum Elevation: 1455 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1492 m
Total Time: 14 hours

Hidden Peak is the highpoint of the Maitland Range, but because it’s tucked behind mountainous ridges and not visible from the highway, the lower Mount Maitland is the titular peak. Nearly every trip I’ve done into the mountains on the north side of Highway 4 ends with me dumping water out of my boots, wringing water out of my clothes, and washing a forest off my body. It’s notoriously wet! My trip to Hidden Peak started no different.

crossing the creek, a minor water feature

The route follows an overgrown road and crosses a tributary to the Kennedy River, twisting through the dense bush to gain a long slope –carved by seasonal avalanches– to a basin high above. The basin has a lovely meadow with a small pond, from which the route ascends another overgrown watercourse to the ridge, then up a narrow chute to the base of the rock feature on the ridge. Here you cross to the southeast face of the feature and edge along the steep forest to a saddle that allows you access to the upper ridge; then you drop down to the northwest and walk along the bare rock and over another pass to the northeast side of the range. At this point, the route picks up a series of heather-covered benches to the base of the summit block, where most of the fun happens.

a little bushy in places

The various weather models offered little certainty for the day. Although we started the day with the hope of blue skies and sunshine, the rain the night before created extremely wet conditions for our hike along the old road. Before we even crossed the river, we were drenched — the water squished out the top of my boots and I knew it was going to be a long day.

Looking down the valley, ascending the avalanche slope.
Phil and Anne in the weeds of the avalanche path

I breathed a deep sigh of relief as we pushed out of the bush (500 m) and headed up the long slope. It took a long time to gain 500 metres, and at the top, I goofed and took us into the trees too early. Fortunately, the morning light had dried the bush at this altitude, and we slowly pushed our way to the rocky col that marks the entrance to the meadow-filled basin.

Looking back down on the meadow as we climb to the ridge

As I daydreamed about camping in the meadow, a black bear popped its head up to investigate the racket we were creating. Catching sight of us, it disappeared up the side of a hill in the opposite direction. This encounter hastened our progress through the meadow and up the dry watercourse at the head of the narrow basin.

ascending to the ridge above the meadow

We made good time over the bare rock, but in the upper portion we fought against thick, stunted evergreens. Even in that misery, I spotted the highlight of the day below an overhanging rock in the middle of the watercourse: a huge alpine lily. It’s the largest I’ve ever come across, with a stalk as thick as my thumb; this girth was needed to support the thirteen blossoms in full form!

thread between the rock and the trees to easier terrain above.

I can’t tell if we ascended into the cloud or it dropped onto us, but either way, we were in a fog by the time we reached the ridge (1060 m ). Mist wafted through the air and every surface glistened with moisture. We followed the ridge north, to the right of a rocky outcropping and up a steep, narrow chute. I used my body to support myself and the sharp edge of my boot to dig into the dirt, and the few tree branches became the mountaineering equivalent of the ‘holy shit’ handles in my jeep.

Above the chute, the obvious route looked to be straight ahead up a rocky scramble, but it’s not. This is where the unexpected rain began. We checked the time and realized we’d already been on the move for six hours! We hadn’t reached our turnaround time, but with the conditions and lack of route information, we decided it was best to turn back. I pulled out my inReach to activate the “We’re turning back to the car” message, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. We’d come so far and endured the worst of the weather, and I wasn’t going to turn around without at least doing some route-finding.

lots of this type of fog as we hiked the benches toward the summit block

We headed to the right of the rock face, up the hill through dense evergreens to the crest of the ridge. Here we crossed to the southeast face of the ridge. The bushy gully led to the top of the ridge, and we popped out of the bush and up and over the crest to descend a gravel slope to the other side of the range.

Phil routefinding on our way to hidden peak. We will head to the pass on the right.

The rain let up as we walked, but the low fog added to the drama of the hike. As we traversed the ridge, we crossed another saddle to the right (east) side of the ridge and linked up with a series of heather-covered benches that gave way to rock.

a lake in the valley below Hidden Peak

In the fog, it was challenging to keep track of each other and find the right route. As we approached the summit block, we tried to find the described approach, but it was impossible to see any of the features. We were at the mercy of the mountain. We didn’t see any route markers, and the ground was relatively undisturbed, offering no clue. After one failed attempt that ended with a narrowing route that became too exposed, we backed off and tried a second.

The summit block, HiddenPeak. This was as clear as it got! I caught this shot and a moment later it was socked in.

At the base of a rocky face, we spotted a route leading up between the bush and the bluff. We grabbed at branches and overhanging rock as we scrambled to the summit ridge, and even once there, we weren’t done with the route-finding.

I hoped the crest of the ridge would take us the last few meters to the summit, but it didn’t. Phil bravely stepped out onto a dead-headed tree, an airy step across to a saddle, but then he too was stumped at the base of a rocky feature. He reached up and pulled at a sun-bleached piece of webbing hanging between a sharp boulder and the rest of the mountain. The route heads up through the crack. We were so close, but with the wet rock, Phil was reluctant to continue, especially knowing that I’m more timid than he is. I crossed the dead-headed tree and came up behind him, then found a few reasonable steps on the right of the obvious route, and then grabbed tight with one hand and stretched my leg way out to get a toe on the rock ledge.

Summit selfie. A little water on the glasses and dirt on the hands.
summit cairn on Hidden Peak.

Clearing that obstacle, I was on the summit in a moment, and I could hear Phil (who is taller than me) cursing my long legs. In a moment, we were both on the top of the mountain together. If only we’d had the blue skies and sunshine the forecast called for! We stared into the ether while the pile of rocks that is the summit hosted our summit shot, and then we were quickly descending back to Anne, who was waiting for us at the base of the summit block.

The hike down the mountain was slow as the saturated soil offered poor footing. Adding to the frustration of the day, when we were halfway down to the vehicle, the cloud lifted, and sunshine blasted the surrounding mountains.

By the time we descended the long avalanche path, the forest was dry. We took our time, picking our way through the dense forest, trying to keep to the lightly-flagged route we found. By the time we reached the overgrown logging road, we were losing the light, but hastening our pace made keeping on track difficult. Around 9:30 pm, in the wee-est twilight, we exited the forest back at the Jeep.

See all the images from this trip

2 Replies to “Hidden Peak: When the Weather Doesn’t Cooperate”

  1. A gritty performance. Well done and hard won. I’d like to see a map of this showing your start point. I think the lake on the left side of image #2 is the one we walked round on the 1st ascent, starting at the end of the now defunct Sand River Road.

Leave a Reply