It was late January. I’d been signed up for a winter snowshoe ascent of Mt Becher with the Island Mountain Ramblers for a while, but the weather had not been easy to predict of late. In the end, it had to be postponed for a week, but with a forecast of light snow and afternoon clearing, the trip was a go for Groundhog Day. Well, I’m no meteorologist, but that sounded good to me. I’ve only seen that movie about twelve times by now!
As our trip leader John was later heard to say “In Saskatoon, you know, we never really worried about the groundhog seeing his shadow. Six more weeks of winter didn’t sound too bad at all!” But I digress, despite the torrential rains of the previous Friday, it was time for us to gear up and head for the hills!
There were seven of us altogether: Fearless leader John, Mo, Karen, Sylvie, Goody, and I left Nanaimo at 730 am. We met Kristy on the mountain a little later on. As we drove up Highway 19, the sun and skies put on a bit of show, once we got north of Qualicum. I remember musing that it might just be the best light of the day, and that there had to be a storm behind it. Sure enough, when we reached the turnoff to Piercy Road, it had begun to snow lightly, and by the time we’d parked near the site of the old Forbidden Lodge, it was snowing harder and the wind had picked up considerably.
A former ski resort, Wood Mountain Park apparently once boasted Vancouver Island’s first mechanical chairlift, which began running back in 1972. The Forbidden Plateau had already been popular with Vancouver Island skiers for fifty years by then. Business was brisk in early years, but when Mt Washington Ski Resort opened in the early 1980s, and winters warmed, things took a turn for the worse. To top it all off, the ski lodge burned down in 1982 in a case of suspected arson! The owners soldiered on until 1999, when they finally closed up shop, after a huge snow load collapsed the roof of the ski lodge. Given those events, you’d swear there was something of a curse at play, but more on that later.
I’d heard the beginning of the trail offered little respite, as it steeply makes its way up the remnants of the old ski runs, and that turned out to be more than true. You climb the first few hundred metres in short order! We took a couple of breaks on the way up, fortunately, as it was at least thirty minutes before I began to hit my stride. John and Karen led the way breaking trail for the first hour and a half, making it easier for all.
More grinding our gears came next, as we worked our way up to the boundary of Strathcona Provincial Park at roughly 1050m in elevation. I was intrigued to learn that there is actually a trail all the way over to Mt Washington that traverses the Forbidden Plateau, which, to say the least, has a colourful history. According to First Nations legend, this plateau was where the K’omoks brought their women and children to keep them safe in times of war. During a raid by the neighbouring Cowichan, all the women and children vanished without a trace. When a member of the tribe went in search of them on the Forbidden Plateau, all that he found was red lichen covering the snow and rocks. This he assumed to be the blood of the family members. Sadly, since that time it has been believed by the K’omoks to be inhabited by evil spirits.
Once we reached the plateau, there was a long walk through the meadows to contend with, as the snow and wind began increasing in intensity. Our navigation was helped by the fact that there was at least a discernible track to follow in most places, and a number of us had walked the trail previously. Soon enough we reached the crux of the route, which features a series of climbs up some bumps to gain the southwest ridge of Becher.
The first such climb winds its way beneath a steep slope which would have warranted concern, had the snow conditions been different. We followed a switchback to the bench above. Once there, we crossed a bench and headed to the biggest challenge of the day, a sharp hillside that barred our way to the summit ridge above. It was Kristy who took the lead on this section, kicking in a couple of steep ramps, as the rest of us followed. This part of the track, too, would have been dangerous in avalanche conditions, but we managed it fairly well.
Finally, we could see that southwest ridge, and our spirits rose somewhat as it looked as though the sun had begun battling for an appearance. Eventually, Goody took the lead, having been to the summit before, and we all scrapped our way up yet another steep slope. There, through gusts of wind and blowing snow, the summit of Becher appeared fleetingly. Earlier, I had told Goody this was to be the first Vancouver Island summit I’d visited in winter, other than Mt Benson. When we reached the ridge, squinting in what can fairly be described as something of a blizzard, she began gesturing at the mountains you could usually see from where we stood. That brought some much needed levity!
Visibility was poor enough at that stage that it wasn’t easy to see where you were placing your next step, but Goody and Kristy led forward through the gale. Finally, we reached what seemed to be the height of land, with nowhere higher to go. Was this the summit? Well, I wasn’t sure at first. My GPS read 1390m, and I had thought Mt Becher was 1330m in elevation, so I wondered whether it was reading correctly. It turned out, when I checked back at home later, that the instrument was spot on. I’d not remembered the correct height of the mountain!
But what to do now? No self respecting groundhog was going to be seeing much of anything here, let alone his shadow! Having lunch on the summit would have been akin to an Arctic expedition, minus the extreme cold, of course. We made the quick decision to flee the summit block and take refuge from the wind. We’d some of the most difficult parts of the descent over within this way, and so we headed downhill.
Once through all of that, we soon took a break for lunch, where some voracious Whiskey Jacks joined us. They didn’t wait for an invitation, and quickly busied themselves pilfering what they could. One of them scored a good sized bite of my sandwich. Somehow or other, the talk also turned to crows, and Goody told us that as a kid she’d had a pet crow, of all things. The crow even had a cat for a sidekick, and the two had been lifelong friends!
We didn’t wait around too much longer, as the cold eventually found us, so it was time to move on. We continued to retrace our steps, meeting quite a few more folks on their way to the summit.
The most daunting part, eventually, was descending the slope that Kristy had led on the way up. Once we reached it, we met several skiers and a band of hikers from the Comox District Mountaineering Club all on their way up. There were a few familiar faces in the group too! Some of us were able to kick our way down the ramps adequately, while others chose the fun way, by sliding down!
What’s more, the skies soon began to hint at shades of blue, and for a short time the snow relented and the meadow brightened. Hopefully those on their way upward might at least have enjoyed the summit views that had eluded us, which was a happy thought. We pressed onward, enjoying the snow clad trees along the trail. The forest was was reminiscent of Cypress Provincial Park, where I’ve enjoyed many adventures, and a pleasant walk among old growth trees always ranks high on my list.
When I read about the subalpine meadows below the southwest ridge of Mt Becher, I discovered they are home to considerable biodiversity. That includes being Canada’s only known location of the Olympic Onion (Allium Crenulatum), which is exceptionally rare. Additionally, the meadow was the epicentre of an earthquake in 1946 that registered a 7.3 on the then used Richter scale. It was the strongest quake ever recorded on land in Canada!
Once we reached the Strathcona boundary again , the snow and cloud returned, and we beat a long retreat to the trailhead below. Our pace had quickened quite a bit, what with gravity now being on our side!
In the end, we managed to complete the trek in just under five hours, and spent some time clearing snow from the vehicles as we stashed our gear. It was a highly enjoyable hike, and one I hope to repeat in different seasons and sunnier days. Life inside a snow globe, you know, is not so bad at all!
A note of thanks to my fellow hikers, who made this day a lot of fun, and to John, who organized the trip and also did some of the driving as well. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, as witnessed by John when I finally found my car keys at the end of the day! Live long and prosper, fellow Ramblers!