Once you’ve done enough hiking on Vancouver Island, you will realize that most of the great hiking requires that you drive down a section of industrial gravel road. And that’s if you’re lucky; a good number of these places require walking stretches of road as well. Mount Mitchell is one of those.
Located along the Strathcona Provincial Park boundary, between the Norm Creek Valley and the south arm of the Oyster River Valley, this rocky feature creates a jagged protrusion of that boundary to include the area above 1200 metres into the Park. Below that, the terrain is stripped bare, and roads are visible throughout the surrounding valleys.
Aside from the tragedy of the lost forest, the roads give fast access to the start of our route. In previous years when the gates were open, Mount Mitchell was considered a daytrip. In those days you could access the route either via the Oyster River gates off Highway 19, or from the Boliden-Westmin Road along the Buttle and Park mainlines. However, times change, and so do permissions and road conditions.
Total Distance: 44.9 km
Starting Elevation: 232 m
Maximum Elevation: 1842 m
Total Elevation gain: 2548 m
Phil and I put off doing this mountain for three years. A good deal of that reason may be read here (on page 15) ; another portion was the hope that we would eventually be able to drive the long road.
Prior to this trip, we walked the road for our trip to Mount Alexandra, and at that time, the road was no longer drivable. So, on this trip, we left the Jeep parked at the gate back on the Boliden-Westmin Road. We were sure surprised to find active hauling in the area. I think we were surprised because we couldn’t really see any trees left to harvest!
Day 1 Highway to Mount Mitchell
On August 17th, we threw our gear on our backs, we hiked the road. The arid conditions slowed us, but within 4.5 hours we’d reached our camping spot (1010m) on the northern slopes of Mount Mitchell. It was only noon, and we’d already hiked 19 kilometres and gained 1250 metres of elevation. To celebrate the morning’s effort, we set up camp and ate lunch, but we didn’t linger long as we still had the hike to do!
Heading off to the end of the road, we cut through the cut block to gain the northwest ridge. We picked our way through the bush and rock, infrequently spotting an old cairn or flag, and once, a throwback to the early surveying of Vancouver Island — my fourth find of a wooden survey marker!
Up the ridge we travelled. The easy walking ended around 1300 metres, and from here we navigated the boulder field up to 1420 metres. Calling it a boulder field may be a disservice; many of the boulders were large enough to make me wonder, When does a rock stop being a boulder and become a feature? Whatever the case, we trended to our right and picked up a few more cairns and flags before making an ascent up a gravel slope to the base of the rock wall and followed that to the crest of the ridge.
We knew the northwest ridge has a low fifth class section, and I was apprehensive about what I would find. After some easy scrambling up the crest, we found the feature waiting for us. I paused to examine my options. The smart move would be to ascend straight up the gully, making the few moves to the ledge above and finishing off with the third-class scramble to the plateau above. However, it’s evident that others have explored to the left of the feature, and so I did too.
After a few steps on compressed grassy ledges led to another rocky scramble, I decided to turn around, then discovered that the route back looked a lot worse than it had coming in. On one side I was faced with significant exposure, and on the other a rocky face with some good, if not a bit spaced-out holds; fortunately, I have a long reach. Phil, wisely, opted for the gully (as we both did on the way down, but more on that later).
Having bested the crux of the route, we noted that it was 2:45 pm, and moved quickly for fear of missing our turnaround time. We stuck to the height of the broad ridge as it bobs up and down, and in another ninety minutes, we stood on the summit of Mount Mitchell (1842m). As compared to the crux of the route, the scrambling along the ridge was fun, with very little to no exposure.
For me, summiting Mount Mitchell was an emotional moment, as I reflected on the events of the summer, and the significance of this peak to my friends. I was lucky to be standing here, admiring the view. We turned toward Albert-Edward, and as we did, a text came in from another club member; he was standing on that peak, but a dense cloud rolled in and prevented us from getting a good view. We took that cloud as a cue to get off the mountain.
Mostly, we descended how we came up. At the crux, we descended the steep rocky scramble to the ledge above the downclimb and measured our options. We’d brought a thirty-metre rope with us, but we struggled to find a suitable anchor (a sixty-metre line may work; two sixties would definitely get you down this rough section). Any small horns crumbled when I put my boot to them, there were no cracks in which to jam a stopper, and the single shrub was so puny that I didn’t trust the roots to hold us. In short, we didn’t believe it would protect a rappel. Instead, we used the shrub as an anchor for a handline, knowing full well that it was foolish to expect this to catch us if we slipped.
Once over the lip and off the ledge, I felt comfortable with the downclimb. In the cloistered rock, I found many good holds for hands and feet, and the tight space allowed me to push my body securely into the walls. As for exposure, this route was much better than the airy downclimb on the other side of the ledge.
Propelled by the successful summit of Mount Mitchell, we left the tough stuff behind. Finding our original route seemed a more difficult task than was worth the effort, so we mostly pushed through the tall azaleas back to camp.
We arrived before sunset, but by the time we hydrated and ate dinner, the sun was down, and the mosquitos were up. It had only been a 12-hour day, but we logged 28 kilometres and 2250 meters elevation gain. Sleep came easily.
Day 2 – Return to the Jeep
There’s not much to say about our second day: we packed our gear and beat a hasty retreat to the Jeep. Having mostly downhill to do, we cut more than an hour off our time and arrived back to the Jeep before 11:00 am. Hot and sweaty, we loaded into the Jeep and drove to the Augerpoint Day Use area, where we stripped off our gear and jumped into the lake. Damn our tender feet, those rocks are pointy!