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.