Monday, October 3, 2016

Three Tries to the Summit

When there's a mountain in your backyard, of course a hiker is going to want to climb it. Living in Metro Vancouver, and especially in those cities within Metro Vancouver that back up against the mountains north of the urban area, there are lots of backyard mountains to climb. Burke Summit, in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park, is one of those mountains.

Our first attempt was in mid-June and was in some ways intended to be a scouting hike, although if we could get to Burke Summit safely we would go for it. The chosen day started out rainy and miserable, so the four people on this hike put on our rain gear and pack covers, and headed out to explore the mountain.

Rainy day salmonberries
photo by Rhonda
Not far up South Slope Trail, shortly before where we'd consider our first snack break, we encountered bushes loaded with salmonberries in all the salmonberry colours: yellow, orange, pink, nearly red, and multiple hues shading each drupe. We ate at least a granola bar's worth of salmonberries each without ever stepping off the trail, so that became our snack break.

(Please note: some provincial parks prohibit "harvesting of natural resources", aka foraging for berries, mushrooms, or other edibles, picking flowers, collecting rocks, or otherwise removing any material from the park that is not human-sourced garbage. Check the park's info page to find out if berry picking is prohibited before you go. Pinecone Burke Provincial Park does not prohibit foraging as of 2016.)

Between the rain falling from the sky and the former rain collected on the leaves we pushed through along the trail, it wasn't long before we were soaked through even with our rain gear. The streams were running high -- not as high as spring snowmelt, but definitely higher than on our second and third attempts. After sloshing through some streams, Alex commented that his new water resistant shoes didn't help much when the water poured in at the ankles. My shoes, being entirely not water resistant, didn't keep any water out... but also didn't keep water in once filled through the ankle, so I spent less time squelching after each stream crossing.

After crossing Coho Creek, Alex changed into his more waterproof pants, and (discovered later) dropped one of his hiking poles' world protectors from his pants pockets. (Some people call them tip protectors, but let's be honest, tungsten carbide doesn't need protecting. Everything else needs protecting from them.)

It was slippery, it was muddy, it was wet, and, fortunately, it was not a particularly cold day. Even so, when we reached the junction in the Ted Kay lakes area, we located Burke Summit Ridge Trail leading to Burke mountain's north summit, then turned away. There was envy of Nienke's butt pad when we sat down for lunch near the lakes because she had a dry insulated pad to sit on, while the rest of us sat on cold wet rocks. After lunch, we followed the loop out past the ski resort ruins and down the old logging road to return us to the trailhead. (Many trail descriptions for this area send you up the logging road and ignore the much prettier South Slope trail, which we prefer to use on the way up.)

Everybody thinks blackberries are tasty
photo by Rhonda
The rain stopped on our way down, mostly, and where the powerline crosses the logging road, we had a bit of sun and discovered some pacific (trailing) blackberries -- BC's native blackberry. They were just coming ripe on that one sunny slope, and we tasted a few. We also discovered that we weren't the only ones enjoying them.

Our second attempt was in early July, and this time there were only three of us. In addition to trying for Burke Summit, we wanted to do some wilderness camping, the sort where there are no services whatsoever.

(Please note: some provincial parks limit backcountry camping to established tent pads only. Please check the park's info page before you go, and respect that limit where it exists. Pinecone Burke Provincial Park does not limit camping on Burke mountain as of 2016, but asks that campers select sites for minimal impact.)

We had spotted a good site to pitch a tent on the previous attempt, where a fairly large area of rock was exposed, there was a level spot, and we would trample minimal plant life while camping. The first day's hiking was easy, as we walked up the same trail for a few hours, then set up camp. At Coho Creek, where Alex had lost his world protector on the previous, very wet trip, a short search of the area revealed it sitting out in plain view, black plastic on dark brown soil.

Setting up the bear cache
photo by Nienke
One of the difficulties came about when trying to set up the bear cache. At an established backcountry campsite, there is often a steel box bear cache for storing your food, but here we had to hang it from a tree, out of reach of a bear. Since we had spotted a black bear's footprint while hiking up, we knew that this would be important, even if we had climbed well above the majority of the ripe blueberries. After many (many, many) tries, followed by getting the throwing weight stuck in the tree and only getting it down after resigning ourselves to cutting the rope, we finally got the rope over a suitable branch, and prepared it for the PVC drybag that held our food.

Pumping water
photo by Rhonda
A second difficulty came about as soon as we stopped moving. There were bugs everywhere. It was our first time using the 10L water storage bag that we now routinely carry, and sitting still by the pond pumping was not tolerable for long, even with bug repellent. But it had to be done, and we eventually got that water bag filled with safe filtered water, then hung it from a tree for easy container filling. Virtually every action that didn't involve walking faster than an amble was punctuated by swats at the insects swarming around us. Alex compared it to the Northwest Territories, although they weren't all big biting flies.

The next morning, we had an admittedly slow start, and eventually headed toward the summit with day packs, leaving our tents and overnight gear where we had camped, and our food (other than the lunches and snacks we were carrying) up in the tree. The trail was only a couple of kilometres on the map and we thought we could make it there and back no problem. This time we easily passed Dennett Peak, the first of the three peaks leading to Burke Summit, and headed toward Pika Peak, the second peak.  The terrain between the two peaks turned out to be challenging and in some places very steep; we were very glad we hadn't tried it on our first, rainy attempt. Pika Peak itself was extremely steep and rocky, suitable for mountaineering but not hiking; fortunately, the trail went around the east side of the peak instead of trying to climb to the top. As we hiked, we discussed our turnaround time, the time which would allow us to get back to the trailhead by our planned hike end time, so we could contact our responsible person and let them know we were safe and they didn't have to call Search and Rescue for us.

We reached a boulder field on Pika Peak very close to our turnaround time, so we decided to have lunch (and swat at bugs) there and head back. The terrain was proving to be quite a bit more challenging than the first part of the hike, and we knew we wouldn't get to Burke Summit and back in time on this day. On the way back, we packed up our camp, reloaded our overnight bags, refilled our water, and hiked out, reaching the trailhead almost exactly when we had planned to.

After those two attempts, we were determined to make it to Burke Summit, and we now had a pretty solid idea of what to expect.

Refreshing a sign
photo by Alex
Our third attempt was at the very end of July, and we planned it as an epic day hike, with a start time of 7:30AM at the trailhead, and an end time before sunset (which that day was 8:50PM). From the trailhead, we powered up the now familiar trail past Dennett Peak, pausing only for snacks and trail maintenance. Alex had his folding saw, new on this trip, and he removed a small tree that had fallen across the trail. My machete took care of branches on a much larger tree, making it possible to climb over the trunk without going way off trail to get around it. A sharpie touched up the faded corrugated plastic signs which somebody had put up to replace the original painted wood signs, which in many cases were lying on the ground nearby, broken and rotting.

We made excellent time to Pika peak, scaled the boulder field, and headed into new territory. The terrain between Pika and Burke summit was even more challenging, and we knew we had made the right decision to turn back on the previous attempt. The final approach to Burke Summit was, as described in the trail description, bushwhacking while following flagging tape. (Lest you think our previous hikes were poorly planned, that trail description was published after our second attempt, and most trail descriptions for Burke Summit only go to South Summit, aka Dennett Peak, with no time estimate given for the "optional extension" to North Summit, if they mention it at all. North summit is challenging enough that it's something you plan a hike around; we do not consider it an optional extension the way we would something that only takes an extra hour or so.) The summit itself — once we found it, and not the rock we initially thought was the summit — was a granite knob with lovely views. We had enough time to relax there for a little while, take photos, and eat lunch, but not for too long, before we had to start back.

View from the summit
photo by Rhonda
The hike back was no easier; being a ridgetop hike with three peaks, we hiked up, then down, then up, then down, then up to get to the peak, followed by hiking down, then up, then down, then up, then down to get back to the trailhead. And, hiking down is not easier, and is sometimes harder, than hiking up!

On top of the long, strenuous hike back, while getting off the granite knob that was the peak, Alex went first down a section that was steep enough to make butt sliding the safest option — and started sliding before he was ready to. One of his hiking poles caught on a rock, and while they are strong, they are not built to have somebody's entire body weight landing on them. The bottom segment bent by almost 90 degrees, and Alex had to make the trek back with only one pole.

This last hike was well planned and executed: apart from the bent pole, everything went as expected, we finally reached Burke Mountain's North summit, and we made it back to the trailhead with a half hour to spare before sunset, very close to the 13 hours we had budgeted. We consider all three hikes to be well planned with the information we had at the time of each hike, and well executed with appropriate abort points given time and trail conditions.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Wrong Mountain

Just over two years ago I went for a hike with my sister; it would have been late July. For reasons I can’t recall, she had rented car for that weekend: a sporty BMW. It made fast fun work of the drive up to Squamish. We had planned on visiting all three summits of The Stawamus Chief. Two weeks prior, I had gone up to the first summit with some friends. I was confident I could get us there; I believed it straightforward. 

Chatting on the drive up, it became clear that we both assumed the other had done the homework. The hike was my sister’s idea and I took that to mean she had a more detailed plan than I. Me, I had my memory of the previous trip, and used this to try to guide us. Things would have gone much differently if either of us had done some more research before we left. Instead I assumed it was a clear, well marked trail, and there was little that could go wrong.

The Chief is often started from the Shannon Falls Provincial Park parking lot. This allows a quick stop at Shannon Falls, the third highest waterfall in the province, a ribbon of water falling down 335 meters of granite. There’s an easy connector trail that leads from the Falls to the Chief trail, now partly closed off for rehabilitation. Once you hit the first segment of the Chief trail, the climbing starts. We slogged our way up the stairs, enjoying the coolness of the thick forest and the creek nearby. As the valley opened up just a little, I started watching for a rightward trail. I knew from the other trip that the first summit was to the left, and the trail to the third continued up a valley. We reached a junction: one trail went to the left, the other sharply right. It looked the part. After a short debate in which I may have said we should take "the other left", by which I meant right, we decided to take this trail, and turned right.

The trail snaked its way south, and south some more. I walked this expecting it to turn sharply east to carry us into the valley where we would gain access to the target mountain. As it climbed and meandered eastward, I still held on to to the notion we were headed the right way. I had my doubts but resisted questioning that belief — I did not want to be wrong. Reality was driven home when we came across other hikers on a steep granite knob. When asked about the Chief, they told us we were on the wrong trail, and the wrong mountain. The good news was that there was a gondola farther up that could take us down. Quite a lot farther up. Of this news we were grateful, as it was turning into a long hike and we had just climbed up some rope assists which we had no interest in going down. 

A cartoonish relief drawing.
I will have more to say later.
(Photo credit: Nienke Van Houten)
After some more climbing, we entered a flatter highland of second growth forest and alders. Here the trail widened, and we could find signs from the resort. The map board had a cartoonish relief of the mountains the gondola served, a handy "you are here" dot, and trail traces to keep us on track. Lacking a better option, this was photographed as a navigation aid. The Upper Shannon Falls trail was chosen to bring us up and around to the gondola. At this point the trail was 4X4 tracks, reassuring after miles of narrow footpaths far from anywhere. The 4X4 tracks faded out as we walked eastward, while the trail hugged the side of the narrow valley, crossing many small streams. Shannon Creek was to our left, mostly hidden in a deep gully with dangerously steep banks. The gondola complex could from time to time be seen through the trees, a mass of planes and angles in a world of curves and bushes. Well above the opposite bank, trailing from behind the gondola complex, was a linear gap in the trees which I rather hoped was the service road we had seen on the map. Large, bright, sandy coloured bare patches hinted at road cuts and recent excavations. These signs of civilization were tempered by the fact that we were far from the planned day, and farther into the woods than we had wanted. At the far end of the valley several large peaks loomed, reminding us that the wilderness could swallow us. This was stressful.
Happy to be crossing
Shannon Creek
(Photo credit: Nienke Van Houten)

Despite fears of getting swallowed by a mountain, our way out became more obvious as we trekked on. The steep high bank on the far side of the creek diminished, the road cut was growing level with us, and most importantly, Shannon Creek was no longer in as deep a gully: a bridge would be possible soon. Far up the valley a foot bridge appeared. It was a narrow little plank bridge, one I was all too happy to see. Rather disproportionately happy to see. Almost as soon as we crossed it, the trail changed. Gone was the footpath, replaced with a gravel service road. The bright scar seen from miles back was proven to be a road cut into a gravel deposit likely used to make the road. From there it was a comparatively short walk to the gondola resort complex. 

Once there it was only natural to take in the view. They had bolted a steel and wood platform to the granite. It jutted out over a lot of open air. From there we looked down on the 900m of vertical we climbed. It was a little dizzying. We also found ourselves looking at the mountain we had planned to climb, the people there smaller than ants. The Chief was below us by 300m. One hell of a wrong turn. We took the ride down and walked the short trail between parking lots to get back to the car, rather relieved. 
See that bare knob in middle? That's the Chief,
and behind it is Squamish.
(Photo credit: Nienke Van Houten)

This is a story of a bad hike with a lucky ending. Yes it was a good day: it was mostly fun, it ended safely, but the execution was unsafe. We had a lot of luck. It was a more forgiving time of year with longer days and warmer temperatures, it was a busier mountain, other hikers were around and we bumped into to them enough to help fix our location. There were signs with maps, there was a gondola down. The simple fact is that there are very few mountains where a wrong turn gets you a powered ride down to a parking lot. On most mountains, a wrong turn just gets you more mountain. What we did wrong was not plan the trip carefully; this included learning the trail description, having an appropriate map, and staying on the planned hike. 

While the hike suffered from some dangerous errors we did do a few things right. We had plenty of food and water; I recall a good cheese spread with pickles on our lunch. Our clothing and footwear was solid, and there was plenty of water. We did fall short on many of the rest of the ten essentials, though I doubt we knew that list at the time. The big lesson from that hike was that we were very lucky to have bad planning end so well. We found out that the Sea To Sky Gondola had only been running for a few months prior to our trip. Had we made that error last year and committed to the same route we would have been forced to double the length of our hike and pick our way down a steep mountain.

This hike was a watershed moment: we knew we wanted to avoid relying on luck. From then on we started building knowledge and tools to make our hikes safer and fun. In the long term this has opened up more mountains to us.

The view from the top.
(Photo credit: Nienke Van Houten)
The trail we hiked: the Sea to Summit trail, formerly known as the Upper Shannon Falls trail.
The hike we planned: Stawamus Chief.