When I was new to mountaineering, I was often intimidated when I listened to experienced mountaineers talk. They always seemed to know where they were and could easily identify the peaks they could see all around them, when to me it just looked like a sea of peaks. Further, they would talk about the names of places and trails as though they were commonplace. Features like the Augerpoint Traverse, and names like Mount Albert-Edward, were just two of the many names everyone (other than me) seemed to know. It was overwhelming! Although I was interested in learning about the places, names, and locations, I couldn’t imagine a time when I’d be able to identify them all.
Fast forward eight years, and today I can identify the shapes of many peaks amongst the sea. A big part of that is visiting a wide range of places, though I still struggle when I visit a new area. On top of being able to identify places, I’ve also met many of my hiking goals. Since I started hiking, I’ve hiked many of the most common access points to Strathcona Park, and even managed to hike one of those routes I heard about long ago: the Augerpoint Traverse (sometimes referred to as the Mount Washington to Buttle Lake Traverse).
Horizontal Distance: 47.8 km
Average Speed: 0.5 km/h
Starting Elevation: 291 m
Maximum Elevation: 2092 m
Total Elevation Gain: 3064 m
On June 23rd & 24th 2018, I was one of five Island Mountain Ramblers who summitted Nine Peaks, located on the southern boundary of Strathcona Park. It earns its name from the nine distinct peaks that rise out of the Beauty Glacier, forming a line that runs along a northwest axis. Our trip was planned as an annual birthday getaway – one of Rick and Phil’s long-standing traditions – and was a reprisal of a failed daytrip to Nine Peaks, on the same weekend in 2017. Having been beaten back on the first attempt, we came with the intention of completing the trip as an overnighter.
Our route originated at the Bedwell Lake trailhead, and by the time we were back at the car we had covered 38 kilometres and more than 3500 metres of elevation gain. The trip involves route-finding challenges that change with the season, terrain difficulties that may require scrambling, and the need for self-arrest skills. On top of the physicality of the route, it’s also mentally challenging. There are many sections where you gain elevation, lose it, and then regain it. It includes either two summits of Big Interior Mountain, an airy traverse from the saddle or, at least, an airy traverse around the base of the summit massif.
Total Distance: 34 km
Starting Elevation: 515 m
Maximum Elevation: 1849 m
Elevation Gain: 3068 m
If you’re like me and love hiking the alpine of Vancouver Island, then I recommend you make time for a trip to Tyee Mountain. Despite its form only rising to a height of 1670 metres, it offers views of the Salmon River to the east and the Gold River valley on the west. Even better are the views of the surrounding ridges and peaks, including at least five of the tallest peaks on Vancouver Island. There’s just one problem: getting to it.
You’re four-and-a-half years old now–time sure flies. I made only two resolutions for 2018, and the first and most important one was to get my whole family out on a mountain adventure (Paradise Meadows doesn’t count). You’ve been my adventure companion on many trips, but it wasn’t until our January 6th trip that we summited our first mountain together: Mount Elma. It was a lot of work, but well worth the effort to see your smile when we crested the hill and walked out onto Mount Elma’s summit plateau.
Total Distance: 12 km
Starting Elevation: 166m
Maximum Elevation: 1418 m
Total Elevation Gain: 446 m
Total Time: 5h 30m
Every year, Phil and Rick celebrate their birthday by hiking to a remote peak on Vancouver Island. It was as part of this tradition that in June 2017 Phil, Rick, Colleen, and I made an ill-fated attempt to summit Nine Peaks as a day trip. Seriously, what better way to celebrate your birthday than with a 40 km hike, including more than 3500 metres elevation gain, and all on a day when you didn’t sleep? I can’t imagine what could be better!
Total Distance: 24.8 km
Starting Elevation: 500 m
Maximum Elevation: 1866 m
Total Elevation Gain: 2045 m
Total Time: 16h 18 m
The trip was destined to fail from the start: the distance was too far, the elevation gain too much, and we were just too tired. We started the hike at shortly before 11:00 pm, after a full day of work and no sleep; not the ideal way to start a heroic (but otherwise possible) effort. Despite our ragged condition and the fact that we didn’t reach the summit, everything worked to our best advantage. We had clear night skies, warm breezes in the valley – warm enough that we hiked through the night in t-shirts! – and excellent snow conditions that allowed us to walk on the surface without post-holing.
Twelve of us set off for Crest Mountain from the trailhead on the Gold River Highway. The forecast was for good weather and the sky was promising. The trail is well-designed and built, but gains 1100 meters in the first 5km. We didn’t hit snow until the 1400m elevation shortly before coming onto the plateau by the first tarn. The tarns are still 3/4 frozen with blue water pooling among the snow and ice. A forty minute hike in the snow from the tarn saw us gain another 100m and the cairn marked summit.
Strathcona Park is a jewel nestled among many of the island’s tallest peaks. In many places, the long mountain ridges are the natural boundaries that define the shape of the park. All around the park, and sometimes within it, is evidence of industry: logging and mining change the landscape, and the juxtaposition of the two creates a dramatic, and obvious, delineation of the park boundary. Like it or not, these industries create roads that give access to some of the more obscure regions of the park, including the underappreciated northwest tip where Mount Judson (1750m) is located.
From some angles, Mount Judson looks intimidating. Bands of cliffs are clearly visible through pockets of dense forest, and on the skyline, steep snow slopes hide the true summit from view. For us, it was more than just a simple hike to the summit, but on June 11th our group rose to the challenge.
Starting Elevation: 1200 m
Maximum Elevation: 1745 m
Elevation Gain: 1070 m
Total Time: 6 h 20 m
Phil asks this simple question after each of our adventures. In so few words, it gets to the heart of what drives a person to find adventure. That question came to mind as we hiked up a steep, pristine section of old-growth on our way to the summit of Mount Heber. Phil and I agreed that there are two overarching reasons that drive adventure-seekers: aesthetic or athletic. Of course, these are oversimplifications; there are likely as many reasons to seek adventure as there are people seeking it. Whatever our individual motivations, on June 4th, our group of five was keen on summiting Mount Heber. It was more than the fine weather and the promise of a view that made the trip memorable; we were excited because it was our first snowshoe-free alpine hike of the year!
Total Distance: 11 km
Starting Elevation: 567 m
Maximum Elevation: 1683 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1238 m
Total Time: 7h 20 m
We had a typical alpine start: Phil and I picked up Shannon at 5:00 am, and Rick and Colleen followed after us in their own vehicle. Mount Heber is a long way from Nanaimo, far enough that we spent at least as many hours driving as we did hiking. By day’s end, we would drive more than a hundred kilometres of highway and logging road. The drive itself wasn’t without adventure: notably, our logging spur off the Heber Mainline included crossing a decaying bridge, driving through board washouts, using a saw to remove windfall, and getting the Jeep stuck with one front tire and one rear tire hanging in the air while the Jeep wobbled back and forth. If anything, these offered some levity to the otherwise lengthy drive.
We parked where the road becomes an alder-filled, seasonal watercourse (~650m). Though there was no snow where we parked, we knew we would still find snow on the mountain, so we strapped our snowshoes onto our backs. I noted that despite it being just 9:00 am, there wasn’t any dew; the trees were dry. Summer was coming! We quickly worked our way up the road, crossing a few bad washouts and walking long stretches of open road, finally arriving at the terminus of the decommissioned logging grade. Along the way, we did cross a few bushy sections, but nothing worse than B2.
The road ends at a ravine, and it’s here that we stood to examine the route ahead. The roar of water convinced us to avoid entering the watercourse, and instead head up through the cut block to the right of the road. An easy ramp led up the embankment, and we then followed the easiest route over the fallen timber, through devil’s club and shrubs into a section of old-growth that lined the watercourse.
The terrain just inside the old-growth gently climbs; we easily avoided most of the bush by weaving between large trees and around thickets of shrubs and saplings. Phil and I were the route-finders, so we surged ahead checking for obstacles, and waited for the others when we couldn’t hear them. Around 1150 metres we found the ideal place to ford the river. We stepped out of the forest, crossed a wide gravel bed, and walked into the forest on the opposite side. Stepping out of the ravine, the terrain became a manageable grunt up through the virgin forest, though much of it was on a forty-degree slope. One thing is for certain: the route to Mount Heber doesn’t lack for vertical gain!
We hadn’t even reached the alpine yet, but we were already blown away by the beauty of the hike! Perhaps ours was a reaction against the advice we’d received about the trip. We were told, “Take your whole crew, because you won’t want to go back.” I disagree with the second part of that statement, but admit the first is correct: Take your whole crew. It’s so worth it!
The biggest obstacle of the day was a headwall that emerged somewhere around 1300 metres. We scouted to our left and discovered an easily-scrambled gully that put us on top of the headwall. As luck had it, the gully was filled with snow – the first of the trip – making it even easier to scale; however, the middle had a snow bridge. As the fifth person crossed over, it collapsed harmlessly. The headwall is worth mentioning; soon after that, the slope begins to ease.
Very quickly after this obstacle, the grade eased off, and as we left the dense forest behind for the open alpine, snow accumulated beneath our feet and the long snowy slopes rising ahead of us created a dramatic contrast to the dark forest below. We stopped for a few minutes in the shadow of a huge alpine fir, to rest and admire the view. From our vantage, we could see Treo Mountain framed between two large trees. Treo was the first trip that I did with Shannon and Colleen, and I’ll confess that I felt a tear in the corner of my eye over the sentiment. No wait, that was the sunscreen in my eye — it was hot!
I looked all around me for Mount Heber, but it was still out of view. We trusted a track set by a bear that had run down the hill the day before; his tracks led us up the easiest route, until we diverted to create switchbacks up a steep snow slope. The snow was in perfect condition for edging boots in, and when the slope became too much for switchbacks, I turned directly up and kicked steps to the upper ridge.
We crested the ridge and gave a shout of excitement over the amazing panoramic view. To the south, we could see the giants that populate the Elk River Valley and the ridgeline that marks the Cervus/Wolf divide (Filberg Range Traverse). To the north, we had a clear view of Victoria and Warden Peaks. On top of this, we could see our objective, Mount Heber, and the high point of the ridge which carries the unofficial name Kenite Peak.
The two peaks are less than a kilometre apart and the terrain between is mostly easy, just a small scramble to the summit of Heber from a notch. We hit up the higher, unnamed bump. On the summit of this bump (don’t be misled by the name Kenite Peak in Google Earth), we posed for pictures, admired the view, and ate some lunch. Phil, never satisfied to stand still, took off running across the broad snow-topped plateau to the opposite side. He was checking the height of a distant marker to make sure it wasn’t higher — it wasn’t. In time, we left the high point behind us and headed south, into a low saddle and up to the bump that sits below Mount Heber.
At the top of the bump, we only had to descend into the notch and then get up the snow slope to the top of Mount Heber. In the hot sun, the snow softened, causing us to sink easily with each step. It took very little effort to descend into the notch. Phil led the way. At the rocks, I used the adze of my mountaineering axe to clear the surface ice off the rock, making space for foot and hand placements. I used rocks, snow, and green belays to scramble up the route, and eventually reached the summit.
In my opinion, the view from Mount Heber offers the best view of the Elk River peaks. I’ve been told that it’s the only peak from which you can see all the others. Each stood tall, distinct from the other. The snowy features created a romanticized image of the mountains.
It was 1:30 pm when we started our descent. Wherever possible, we saved time by taking a direct route down steep snow slopes. Once we were back in the forest, we sought the easiest path down, and though we kept very close to our original route, I think it was a bit easier than the ascending route. Our only problem with the descent was the snow gully at the headwall; in the warm afternoon sun it was slippery, and as Phil stepped into it, the snow collapsed and sent him on a short, unexpected butt-slide.
We arrived back at the cars by 3:30 pm, much earlier than we originally anticipated. We had come ready for ten hours of hiking, but with the favorable conditions, we managed to make it much quicker.
As to the questions of aesthetic or athletic, my tastes tend toward the aesthetic, though my true goal is somewhat separate from either of these reasons. I don’t like to think of my Island Alpine Quest as simply peak-bagging, though it must appear that way to others. Whether it’s skunk cabbage blooming in a watercourse, a huge fungus growing on a log, or a snow-capped peak in the distance, I’ll enjoy them all. For now, I’m content to enjoy the aesthetic that comes in whatever place I visit. In the future, I may have more time to select my locations; for now, I’m content gathering data and visiting some of the most beautiful places on Vancouver Island. I’ll include Mount Heber among those places. And to answer Phil’s qustion, yes, it was worth the squeeze.
This year, winter on the West Coast has been full of surprises, though this may only have been noticed by those who venture outdoors. Winter keeps serving up a huge variety of weather! We’ve seen temperatures at sea level that dip below negative ten for so long that lakes in Nanaimo have frozen hard enough to walk on, snow piled up on the roadside and yards for more than a month, blizzards in the mountains, and now, temperatures in the high alpine that are reaching into the low teens. On our February 13th adventure up Big Den Mountain, the unseasonably warm conditions forced us to turn back.
Total Distance: 8.7 km
Starting Elevation: 109 m
Maximum Elevation: 1470 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1377 m
Total Time: 7h 15 m
The forecast held true for our scheduled Family/Novice snowshoe trip for the winter 2016/2017 season. The skies were darkened by overcast skies air temperature hovered just below freezing, and there was hardly any falling snow. overcast skies and the air was slightly below zero, on the Island Mountain Ramblers first Family/Novice snowshoe trip of the 2016/2017 winter.