Monday, January 2, 2017

Snow / No Snow

Less than a week before first snowfall on Mount Seymour, we hiked to the top of Mount Seymour Peak. It was a challenging hike, featuring the sort of terrain where less than 1km on the map can take over an hour, but also a short hike, the sort suitable for the shorter daylight hours of November.

While returning from the summit, we encountered a hiker heading toward the peak who appeared stressed, and asked us which way to the parking lot. We quickly got the directions sorted out, and invited the (no longer lost) hiker to join us for the hike out. Even without leaving the marked trail, it's easy to get lost around here, and if you miss a marker, it's easy to leave the trail and get really lost. The week before our hike, SAR had rescued a hiker who had taken a wrong turn, went off trail, and got stuck in a gully. The hiker was rescued safely, but the SAR folks have mentioned on other occasions that Mt. Seymour is one of their frequently visited locations.

The very beginning of the trail to the first peak (First Pump Peak) is clear and easy, but it isn't long before the trail becomes much less obvious and the terrain much steeper. Trail and not-trail started to require more skill to distinguish, and we realized why Mount Seymour is a popular place to get lost and require SAR help.

Photo of two people on a root ladder, (a section of tangled exposed roots on a nearly vertical slope) one at the top and one at the bottom. The roots to be climbed are about two stories tall. There is an orange trail marker on the tree beside the root ladder.
This is trail.
Photo by Alex
A photo of one person on bare rock with trees in the background. There are two orange trail markers, one on the rock and one on a tree farther along.
This is trail.
Photo by Rhonda
Photo of an open V-shaped down slope that looks like easy going here, with a view of the city in the distance.
This is not trail. This is the top of a gully.
Photo by Rhonda
Those little orange markers on the trees and rocks? Sometimes they were the only real sign that we were going in the right direction. Many of the other hikes we've done have had other indications of where the trail is in addition to the markers, and we have navigated trails with few to no markers as well.

The most important safety tip I've learned about wayfinding in a formerly glaciated landscape such as BC is: in the absence of trail markers, don't follow streams downhill, even if at first it looks like easy going and you can see city through the break in the trees, as you can in the above photo. That way lies danger. If you don't have valley bottoms that connect in a useful way, ridge tops are the way to get around. (Although they're often not easy either!)

A hanging valley, with stream gully at the open end.
Photo and clumsy annotations by Rhonda
This is because glacier-carved valleys are U-shaped: flat bottomed and steep sided. Streams cut gullies into those very steep valley walls and can end in waterfalls. Sometimes those waterfalls are just very steep gullies all the way down, and sometimes they are an abrupt end to a smaller flat bottomed valley, such as the one pictured here. These truncated valleys are called hanging valleys, and are the result of a smaller side glacier carving them into the characteristic U shape, but feeding into a much larger glacier that carved the main valley much deeper. The blue U-shape is the original hanging valley, and the purple marks the stream gully that carved out the edge after the glaciers melted. (The red line is the ridge top; all the mountains above that line are actually the next mountains over, behind this one.)

If you look at a topographic trail map for any of the glacier-carved mountains in the area, you'll see that the trails often follow ridge tops. Both the Mount Seymour trail and the Burke Mountain trail do this, which is why both hikes go over or very near multiple peaks. The ridge top marked in the photo above is a section of the Lynn Peaks route that runs from Lynn Peak to the Needles.

On the Mount Seymour trail, the second peak (Tim Jones Peak) and third peak (Mt. Seymour) are less than half a kilometre apart, but that short distance was as deceptive as the distance between Burke's second and third peaks. Fortunately we had allowed plenty of time and could have a picnic at the peak, near the geological survey marker that indicates the official top of Mt. Seymour, before our turnaround time.

Head-sized rocks of various shades embedded in a reddish-brown cement which is made of volcanic ash. A hand is on the rock for scale.
Tuff is pretty tough.
Photo by Rhonda
The trail was very steep in places, so we had to be careful of our foot placement. But when dry and clear, the trail is stable and safe enough; a lot of the time was spent on solid granite and some on equally solid tuff — rocks cemented together with volcanic ash — neither of which were likely to move any time soon.

Two people walking on a narrow ledge across a nearly vertical rock face. They could easily put out a hand and touch the rock face without leaning.
Now imagine this trail
with waist deep snow.
Photo by Rhonda
But even a small amount of snow would make it too slippery to be safe, and could hide many of the trail markers, as a lot of them were bolted directly to the rock. A larger amount of snow would hide the trail entirely and could in places make it wildly unstable. It became obvious to us why the trail is closed past approximately first peak once the snow starts.

On another trip, about a month after first snow, we did not even attempt that trail, but went to Dog Mountain instead, an area with terrain suitable for snow-covered conditions and which had an established and marked snowshoeing route. This was a deliberately easy hike, because Alex was testing out his new snowshoes, including going very short distances off trail to test the limits of their abilities in a safe situation — such as going down a steep slope that was only a few steps high so there was limited risk of injury if their traction failed and he fell. We never went far from the trail, of course; we didn't want to lose our way.

A person standing next to a sign post buried in the snow.  The placard with trail names has been dug out of the snow and is at ankle height to the person.
That trail sign is usually at eye height.
Photo by Rhonda
One of the trail signs even separated the winter trail from the summer trail, although most of the trails seemed to follow the same routes summer and winter... if we could find the signs in the snow at all. Fortunately our wrong turns at the trail junctions were ones that led us back to the main trail instead of deeper into backcountry than we had planned — as SAR has noted, something that happens all too often in that and other parks.

Even if we had made a wrong turn that led to us being lost, we always leave a trip plan with a route and an expected return time with a responsible person, so if we don't get back when expected, at least SAR knows which mountain to search for us on and which trail to start with. Not doing that, well... while I was writing this post, a pair of hikers who hadn't left a trip plan went missing; the search started with police trying to contact the owner of a car found by Cypress Resort staff in the parking lot while closing up that night. Given that Cypress closes their lifts at 10PM and it takes time for all resort visitors to pack up and leave, this was most likely well over 6 hours after the hikers' intended return time. (Sunset was at 4:20PM that day, and it is dark under the trees quite a while before that.) Might they have been found if they had a responsible person to call for help at 4:30PM with a trail or peak name? Maybe, maybe not, but SAR wouldn't have had the multiple peaks of Cypress Provincial Park to spread their efforts over and would have been able to focus in more detail on the probable areas where the hikers might have been lost. The odds would have been better.

We have not ourselves needed SAR help and don't ever want to, and we don't want other people to need it either. One way we approach this is that we tell all the people we see heading away from the trailhead near the end of the day about sunset and how long it is before dark, and try to turn them around or at least set a safer goal given the time left. Sometimes they appreciate the information, sometimes they refuse to listen, but we still tell them.

For reasons that should be obvious at this point, we love AdventureSmart, and especially their slogan of "search and rescue prevention." We will happily put in the effort to prevent our local SAR teams from having work whenever we can.


  1. I was that one person who was slightly stressed out figuring out how to get down the mountain by myself. Thank you all for befriending and helping me get down safely! I will never forget your kindness (and your safety tips)!

    1. We're always happy to help. Glad you could get back safely and with less stress.