Category Archives: Hiking

One extraordinary day

What better way to celebrate ten extraordinary years together than with one extraordinary day?

Mount St. Helens crater panorama

It wasn’t intentional. It was a moment of synchronicity. When I remembered – weeks after they first went on sale – that we’d intended to buy Mount St. Helens summit permits this summer, the earliest date there were any available was September 16th. Our tenth wedding anniversary. We didn’t even really need to have the conversation; there was never going to be a better way to celebrate than this.

Monitor Ridge climbing route

For the whole week before, I’d been sweating over the weather forecast as it bounced back and forth for September 16th. On the two days when it mattered most in 2014, the weather gods had delivered in spades; all I needed was for them to smile on this one last day, the third time that counted for all. The alarm sounded early and when I looked out of our motel window, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was just cresting over the nearby hilltops. It was perfect.

Climber's Register, Lone Fir Resort

We signed the register and then piled into the car and drove, almost deliriously, up the last of the paved road and on to Climber’s Bivouac. The morning air was cool and clear, and as we set out on a fairytale path through the moss-laden trees of the Gifford Pinchot national forest it still didn’t seem possible that we were on our way to the edge of the most catastrophic volcanic event ever to take place in North America. Unlike last year, when we’d driven through the blast zone to our start point and at least had some time to take in the scale of the ruined landscape around us, this hike began long before we saw the devastation.

Lava flow, Monitor Ridge, Mount St. Helens

The transition, when we reached it, was abrupt. Shady, beautiful trees one moment, and barren slopes of volcanic ash and rock the next. The middle section of the hike was by far the toughest. As we crested the first open slope, the scale of what lay ahead became apparent. The lava flow was a jumble of huge boulders, half rough pumice and half sharp, fractured basalt, all of them strewn across a series of steep ridges that led up, up, up toward ash-grey peaks an impossible distance away. It may not have required technical skills but most of it was a hands-and-feet scramble, intensely fun but slow and tiring. In spite of our slow progress the views behind us grew wider and wilder with every metre of altitude we gained, a staggering vista wrapped in surreal, smoky light from the wildfires burning in timber far below.

Monitor Ridge views, Mount St. Helens

When we finally crested the last ridge and reached a relatively clear trail through the last few basalt blocks to the ash fields ahead, I could have cheered. To our left, a pocket glacier clung to the side of the mountain; to our right, the broad expanse of the Worm Flows made me dream of winter, of skis, of a different way of climbing and descending. Ahead, ruin. Rocks pulverized to dust and fragments that ghosted in little clouds around our feet. With every step forward we slid half a step back, but still we kept moving on. J hasn’t had much experience at altitude, so the thinner air threw her for a loop until I explained the trick of slowing to that perfect trudge where you can just keep going. Nothing but ash, ahead and behind. One step, two steps, slow and steady. Everyone’s moving just as slowly as you are. Knowing that it’s the home stretch, even though you have no conception of what that means in this strange and blasted world.

Monitor Ridge views, Mount St. Helens

We took one final gasping step upwards, and bam! Suddenly we were two feet from the crater rim, and there in front of us was the wildest, most alien, most surreal landscape I’d ever seen. I lost the power of speech; the only thing I could say was “Holy fuck!” again and again. Beige and brown and red and orange and ochre, it looked like the surface of Mars. Huge, jagged peaks to our left and right, the remnants of a shattered mountain clawing at the sky. Smoking vents in the centre of the crater itself, fumes rising from somewhere deep inside the world. The immense breach in the side of the peak, a reminder of a force beyond imagining, canyons and badlands spread out before it. Harry’s Ridge, where we’d walked the summer before, impossibly far below.

Crater vents, Mount St. Helens

We hung out on the summit for a while, taking it all in. It was hard to know which way to look, with the crater on one side and the beautiful blue haze of mountains behind us. When the time came to head downwards I almost couldn’t bear to leave.

Western rim, Mount St. Helens

Later there was champagne, and celebrating, and gratitude for the ten years we’ve shared, each other, and this amazing place we live in. There really couldn’t have been a better way to spend the day, or a better place to spend it. Ten years together called for something utterly unique, and this – well, this was it.

Mount St. Helens

Seymour peaks

With fall turning rapidly to winter, we managed to catch a rare window of good weather for a hike to the three peaks of Mount Seymour. I’ve been to First Pump a number of times now, but for a variety of reasons had never made it to the other two.

First Pump Peak, Mount SeymourIt was a really enjoyable hike, especially given the weather. It’s right in our back yard, it’s relatively quick with lots of ups and downs, and the terrain is rugged enough to be a lot of fun without quite descending into a full scramble. The views into the Coast Mountains from Third Peak were incredible, and more than worth the extra distance.

Third Peak, Mount Seymour

Third Peak also seemed to be a mecca for birds. As we ate our lunch two ravens staged an elaborate aerial dance near the bluffs, and six eagles soared close overhead. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a great fall hiking season, and make the most of the spell of sustained high pressure that took us into November. Now, though, it’s time for the snow to start flying.

The Lions redux

The first time we hiked the Lions, it was a bit of a disappointing experience. The forecast promised a clear summer day. I was a year out of knee surgery, and it was the first tough hike I’d attempted. After a long slog up, knowing that the down was going to be really hard on my reconstructed knee and shrunken quads, the fog rolled in minutes before we reached the ridge. We caught the barest glimpses of views, and none of the Lions themselves.

This time, it was the other way around. We set out from Lions Bay in thick, dense fog that shrouded the world from us. Every now and then a shaft of light would filter through, hinting at a ceiling that wasn’t far away.

Lions fogThe first part of the trail, which is steep but smooth, passed very quickly. Before we knew it we were above the cloud, with brilliant sunshine filtering through the trees. There was a fair bit of scrambling once we crossed Harvey Creek, but it wasn’t the struggle it had been when my knees were still in recovery mode. And when we reached the ridge, we finally got to see all the views we’d missed before.

West Lion

The Lions are such a Vancouver icon; it was neat to see them from the other side, with a totally different perspective. The temperature inversion had left us floating on an island high above the sea of cloud filling Howe Sound, with other mountaintops breaking the view here and there.

Howe Sound, sea of cloudEven the hike down was far easier than I’d anticipated, based on my memories of how hard it had been before. By the time we reached Lion’s Bay the cloud had drifted away, and we were treated to perfect fall colours in the sunshine – an ideal end to a gorgeous hike.

Fall colours in Lion's Bay

Cheakamus Canyon wildlife

Last weekend we took J’s parents (who are in their seventies, but still keen hikers) on a trip to Cheakamus Canyon. One of our goals this summer has been to explore hiking trails that we haven’t been on before, and this one sounded perfect. Not too far away, excellent views, and relatively easy terrain.

Spawning salmon

The salmon run has started, and the pools left by retreating high water from recent rains were filled with dying or newly dead salmon. It was quite different from the last time we walked the Cheakamus River late in the spawning cycle; then the salmon carcasses were deep in decay, fading into the dirt beneath them.

Bear on the Cheakamus river

 

Early in the hike we passed a bear enjoying a salmon dinner at the water’s edge. He paid little attention to us; there were more than enough fish to go around. Shortly afterward we found another salmon on the trail with huge fresh teeth marks clearly visible. Someone else had dropped their dinner, probably quite recently.

Salmon

Shortly afterwards the trail began climbing away from the river, passing over areas of rockfall before crossing the train tracks and passing through a tunnel of trees already turned to bright fall colours. A little further along we reached Starvation Lake, where the reds and yellows turned back to vibrant green.

Starvation Lake

The trail wound upwards again past viewpoints where the canyon walls peeked in and out through the low cloud ceiling. I’d like to go back and do this hike on a better day, because I know we were missing some spectacular background. Regardless, the canyon was beautiful.

Cheakamus Canyon

On one section of the trail the path had crumbled away and been replaced with fragile-looking but actually quite sturdy wire. J and I explored a little further and were treated to more stunning views of the river cascading through the base of the canyon far below us before we headed back.

Cheakamus Canyon viewpoint

We didn’t pick the best day for this hike in terms of the weather or views, but it was a great outing for a mixed ability group and the wildlife was spectacular. We’re definitely going back in the summer when the sun is shining and Starvation Lake will be good for swimming.

The first snow

The rains continued for what felt like days and days, and then one morning last week I woke up to clear blue skies and mountaintops dusted white. I’ve been in Vancouver nearly ten years now, and never seen snow on the North Shore this early in the season.

Snowy Lions, Howe Sound Crest Trail

In the late morning we drove up to the Cypress ski area parking lot and went for a quick uphill hike on a newly resurfaced stretch of the Howe Sound Crest Trail to the Bowen Lookout, where two large ravens and a collection of whiskeyjacks shared our lunch while we admired the views of Howe Sound and the gleaming new snowline.

Bowen viewpoint, Howe Sound Crest Trail

The resurfaced trail took us on through beautiful old growth forest and through a couple of small creeks before deteriorating into a scramble of roots and rock. We could see snow toward the peak of Mount Strachan behind us, and as we crested the ridge a few small patches of white began dotting the trail. It wasn’t until we reached the next climb to St. Mark’s Summit that we reached the snowline proper, but when we did it was so incredibly worth it. We stopped for a mini snowball fight and I made a snow angel on the summit, grinning for all I was worth.

St Mark's Summit, Howe Sound Crews

I couldn’t have asked for a birthday gift any better than this.

Maple Pass Loop

On our second day in Winthrop, J, M and I headed back into the mountains for a hike. After much deliberation over the various tempting options in the guidebook, we opted for the Maple Pass Loop. I will admit that we were slightly sceptical when we read the description: surely no hike could really deserve that many superlatives? Still, it was compelling enough that we decided we had to see it for ourselves.

Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades

It started with a trail in the woods. A few miles east of the Washington Pass overlook, high enough that the air was cool at the trailhead even though the sky was a clear blue speckled with clouds. We climbed steadily through old growth trees and small alpine meadows before emerging to views of Lake Ann that made us gasp out loud. Brilliantly blue waters, a tiny island, slopes of rock and shale all around. We were high above the water but low on the side of the cirque that enclosed the lake, with the trail still climbing ahead.

Lake Ann, Maple Loop Pass

When we reached Maple Pass at 6,600 feet, it was hard to imagine that views later in the hike could surpass the ones in front of us. On one side of the pass lay Lake Ann, now a very long way below. On the other were peaks with pocket glaciers, high spires, and alpine meadows sprawling down to the treeline. We had assumed we’d be heading down from here, but when I checked the guidebook it turned out we had another mile of climbing to go.

Maple Pass

From the pass, the trail switchbacked rapidly to the ridge at the top of the cirque. Every corner opened up a new view. Every ten steps we paused to marvel and comment how it couldn’t possibly get better. Ten steps later, it did. Emerging onto the ridge, the jagged angles of Corteo Peak loomed darkly over us. Far off in the distance we could see blue peaks crowned with crevasse-riven glaciers. Frisco Peak, our destination, was still a ways off and far above us to the west.  Lake Ann was just a glittering blue dot a thousand feet down.

Lake Ann, Maple Pass Loop

And still we hadn’t seen anything yet. Each time we assumed we were headed for the high point of the hike, we’d crest another ridge and see the trail still stretching upwards ahead of us. Every time, the views from the latest ridge would be better than the last.

Frisco Peak shoulder, Maple Pass Loop

We reached a point where we not only understood the number of superlatives in the original trail description; they no longer seemed adequate. We literally ran out of adjectives and just gaped in stunned silence at the views around us.

Frisco shoulder, Maple Pass Loop

And then, 2,500 vertical feet after leaving the trailhead, we finally reached the high point.

Frisco Peak, Maple Pass Loop

It was beyond stunning. When I looked up at these peaks from Washington Pass on our drive to Winthrop, I never imagined I’d be standing on top of one just two days later. To our east, the trail curved back down the ridge with the insane drop down to Lake Ann on one side and Corteo Peak towering over the trail to the other. To the west, alpine meadows fell away sharply to a hanging valley cradling a small lake.

Hanging valley, Frisco Peak, Maple Pass LoopFrom there it was a steep, rapid descent through the beautiful meadows to a very exposed section of trail overlooking Rainy Lake. I had thought Diablo Lake looked unreal, but Rainy Lake was a whole different level of intensity. As the trail continued its plunge back into the forest, glimpses of the lake accompanied us until the very final stretch before the trailhead.

Rainy Lake, Maple Pass Loop

We’ve done some incredible hikes in our time, but this one was right up there in the top three. Nothing in the guide book description was remotely exaggerated. It’s a well-kept trail, a substantial but easy climb (just under 2,500 feet total), and for a relatively short hike (13km) the variety and scale of the views are amazing. It didn’t have quite that strange alien quality of the Mount St. Helen’s hike, and for that reason I’m not totally sure it can claim the #1 spot, but for the sheer quality of the views I think it’s unparalleled. One more reason to love the North Cascades.

Hiking the blast zone

There are days when your perspective changes.

Sometimes, it’s seismic. It’s about challenging your own limits and moving further beyond them than you could ever have dreamed. Cayoosh was one of those. I remember the raging adrenaline high that consumed me entirely for a full week after I’d skied down the mountain. For that week I was still a thousand metres above the world, higher than anyone, capable of anything. No drug on earth could have compared to the way it made me feel. It’s why I’ll keep doing these things, even when they push me far out of my own comfort zone and way beyond safe boundaries.

Sometimes, it’s smaller and more subtle. It’s about going somewhere that results in an underlying shift, a different level of understanding about just how much is out there and how powerful the forces of nature are. This was one of those.

Mount St. Helens

We spent the past weekend at Mount St. Helens. I have never seen anything that compares to the beautiful, ruined landscape we found there. I’ve been to barren places before, badlands and canyonlands, but this isn’t a desert. It wasn’t shaped over hundreds of years by a gradually shifting climate. It was razed in an instant, destroyed, wiped clean of everything it had previously known in one single, cataclysmic moment. Because of that it’s also open to the restoration of the life it previously knew, but it’s such a slow, slow process. Thirty years after the blast, the landscape is still defined by dust and ashes. Life is a tiny sprinkling of wildflowers amid the dirt, a splash of green here and there, a patch of undergrowth, a stunted tree amid the white skeletons of the forests that came before.

Harry's Ridge trail. Mount St. Helens

I grew up in the UK. It’s a country entirely shaped by humans, filled with gently rolling hills where the soft green land is carefully contained by hedges and stone walls. There’s nowhere to go where you can’t see the influence of people, where the natural landscape isn’t subject to artificial constraints. Maybe that’s why, from the very first time I encountered it, true wilderness has had a grip on me like nothing else. It’s a world that I never knew growing up, that I can’t predict or control, and where anything – good or bad – can happen. There’s no intent or malice in the wilderness. There’s no space for lies or pretenses. People are not required to give it meaning. It simply is, and when we venture into it we’re putting ourselves in an elemental space where we don’t get to make the rules. We just try and manage the consequences as best we can.

Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens

We kid ourselves about this, I think. We like to pretend we have a lot more control than we actually do. But somewhere like Mount St. Helens, there’s no room to pretend. This is what happens when nature takes over in one unstoppable, unimaginable moment. The trail we hiked through the blast zone brought us to a viewpoint on Harry’s Ridge, where we looked out over Spirit Lake and the raft of thousands upon thousands of logs that still jams the lakeshore. These were once living trees that blanketed the hills. It’s hard to imagine. Way over on the far side of the valley, miles and miles away, the bleached bones of the forests that once grew here lie like matchsticks in the positions they fell into on the day the mountain blew apart.

Log raft, Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens

The thing about such total devastation is that it’s still so unbearably beautiful. I could have stayed there and stared at that landscape for days and days; I wanted to hold onto the fact that there are places like this not just on earth but so very close to home. It’s a different world than the one I knew before, a strange and surprising place where anything is possible. And in these extremes of space and desolation and wildness, these places where humans are utterly insignificant, I find a kind of peace.

Blast zone, Mount St. Helens

Rainbow Lake

The need for a new hike recently took us to the Rainbow Trail in Whistler. This was a gorgeous excursion that had pretty much everything: mountain views, beautiful waterfalls, and a stunning lake at the end of the trail.

Rainbow Lake trail viewpointThe trail wound slowly but steadily uphill from the parking lot, taking us past wide open views of the Whistler valley and Green Lake before we found the side trail to Rainbow Falls. This was a very worthwhile detour, with the cooling mist from the falls proving very welcome on a humid afternoon.

Rainbow Falls

The trail wound on through old growth forest, past tumbling creeks and more small waterfalls that sparkled in the sunlight. It was smooth with just a few roots here and there, making for easy hiking in spite of the steady elevation gain. It seemed like no time had passed at all when we found ourselves on the edge of the alpine, traversing small meadows on boardwalks that had clearly been intended to help out during wetter times.

Meadows below Rainbow Mountain

The open spaces around us were speckled with wildflowers here and there, and Rainbow Mountain crowned the horizon ahead. Looking back at the views of Wedge and Blackcomb,  I figured we had to be getting close to the lake. In fact it turned out to be a surprising distance away, across a whole series of additional meadows and then up one last ridge past a tumbling, chattering waterfall. When we finally crested the last rise and saw it in front of us, the reason for its name was immediately clear.

Rainbow LakeProbably the only disappointment of the trip was that we couldn’t swim in the crystal clear lake water, since it’s part of the Whistler watershed and swimming in the drinking water isn’t encouraged. Even so, it was well worth the long trek up to see the beautiful lake and the views of Wedgemount towering behind.

Waterfall on the Rainbow Trail

We made a fairly rapid descent back to the car, trying to keep ahead of the swarming clouds of bugs that were determined to eat us alive. The round trip took just over five hours, and in terms of bang for the buck it was a fantastic hike. Highly recommended.

Third akneeversary

I wanted to say “Happy third birthday, Frankenknee,” but the truth is that I haven’t used that name for my left knee in a very long time. I’m so happy with all the places it’s taken me, and excited for all the mountains that are still to come.

Third akneeversary

Goat Mountain hike

This weekend we headed up to Grouse Mountain for a hike to Goat, the peak that’s visible between Grouse itself and the distinctive bumps of the Crown and Camel when you look up from Vancouver. It was really neat to explore some of the wilder backcountry behind Grouse, which is a far cry from the family-friendly activities near the Chalet.

Goat Mountain viewsWe went out with the Vancouver Adventure Hiking, Scrambling and Snowshoe Meetup group. These guys have been organizing some really great looking trips, but with a busy ski schedule in the winter it was hard to make the dates line up. This was a perfect opportunity to get to know the group: a short, easy hike, with enough variance in the conditions to make it interesting.

We set out on the route that Grouse converts to the Snowshoe Grind in the winter, along Whistler Water Way and then up the trail to Dam Mountain. I wasn’t sure how much snow would be remaining given the recent hot weather, but our group leader Dan had encouraged everyone to come prepared and we ran into the snowline a very short distance along the trail. I hadn’t been able to find our microspikes so I went for total overkill and threw in the crampons, along with my ice axe. The axe actually proved kind of useful but the snow was far too soft to justify the crampons.

Crown and CamelWe ate lunch at Little Goat peak, with spectacular views across to the Crown and Camel (a hike I’m lining up for a future date). Then it was back onto the snow to head for Goat itself. We’d been warned off the traverse above Kennedy Lake by a park ranger, but in fact when we got there the trail was snow-free and easy to manage. After that it was a brief scramble up to Goat Ridge, and an easy climb to the peak.

Goat PeakIt was a lovely day out with a really nice group of people, and an excellent opportunity to see just what lies beyond the ropes at Grouse in the summer. An interesting postscript came later that night, when I read on Facebook that NSR had just carried out a heli extraction of two hikers from Goat Ridge. Not expecting to find such deep snow, they’d lost the trail and called for help as darkness fell. It was a good reminder that even a relatively easy, fun hike can turn bad when you’re not prepared for the conditions.