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Sun, 30 Nov 2008
Visible from most areas in greater Vancouver, the North Shore Mountains form a distinctive backdrop for the city. At 5866 ft, Brunswick Mountain is the highest of these peaks, located north of slightly lesser summits of Mount Harvey and The Lions.
The steep southern slopes of the North Shore Mountains bound the structural growth of the city to the north. In many places developed city abruptly ends and alpine forest begins. But the spirit of the city continues northward, undiminished. Wilderness slopes are penetrated by the extensive network of hiking, mountain biking, and ski trails serving as a recreational resource for much of the athletic, adventure seeking inhabitants of this lively British Columbia city.
Although not particularly high, and physically close to the "front country" of the city, the North Shore Mountains are true back country Mountains in every sense. Dramatic changes in weather sweeping in from sea, large precipices, and exposed snow slopes can easily kill the unprepared or unwary hiker. Of course, the hazard of any mountain is not a little of its charm. When I learned I would be vacationing in Vancouver, and saw these obviously serious peaks forming the skyline in photos of the city, I knew I had to try to climb one of them.
When I first began to research mountain hikes in the Vancouver metro area, The Lions were the premiere suggestion. The final ascent up these peaks was reported as moderately technical, but a hike to the start of this pitch was supposedly a Vancouver hiking classic. Several web sites listed routes that seemed within my ability and initially I marked the Lions as my choice. If I was to visit Vancouver once in my life and climb a mountain, a visit to the Lions was nearly mandatory.
But as I made inquiries on the various Internet hiking and mountaineering discussion boards that serve British Columbia, I was told by some climbers that a better choice might be a loop near the Lions that passed over the summits of Brunswick and Harvey. The views from this loop, particularly atop Brunswick, the tallest of the North Shore peaks, were supposedly superior to the vista from the usual Lions trail route. Moreover, the camping opportunities on the less traveled Brunswick-Harvey loop was better. The trail passed close by the Magnesia Meadows hut, a good spot to spend the night.
And so I found myself at a trail-head in the tiny town of Lion's Bay at 2 PM Friday afternoon. I laced up my boots, shouldered my pack, powered up the GPS, took my trail-head photo on self-timer, and was on the trail by 2:30. The day was perfect. It was 75 degrees in downtown Vancouver; maybe it was 73 in Lion's Bay. Hardly a puff of wind. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.
I made a late start that day, the proximate cause of my subsequent adventures. It's always better to begin too early than too late on a hike. I'm usually lacing up boots more near 2AM than 2PM. But given that I was vacationing, I allowed myself to sleep late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with my friends, did some morning sightseeing, ate a small lunch, and began driving north to the mountains at about noon.
Some of the reason for my late start was because there was construction on Route 99, part of the general infrastructure upgrade as Vancouver prepares for the 2010 Olympics. The "Sea-to-Sky Highway" is the name given to the section of Route 99 that traces the boundary between Howe Sound to the West and the mountains to the East. It's a narrow, winding, undivided two-lane strip of pavement built on a steep cliff starting just north of Horseshoe Bay. Signs warn: "Falling Rock, No Stopping, Minimum Speed 75 KPH." From Horseshoe Bay, the highway follows the coast of Howe Sound for about 7 miles to Lions Bay, where I began my walk.
This road is, by far, the shortest route to Squamish and Wistler, and I expect will see considerable traffic during the Olympics. Even with the upgrades planned, I wonder how many Olympic spectators and participants will lose their lives on its treacherous curves. Perhaps the upgrade should have been high speed rail?
In any case, I survived the "Drive to Die" Highway and despite my late start on the trail, I had little concern. After all, I was planning a night out. There's a saying in mountaineering: prepare for a bivouac and you will. I was prepared; and so I did.
Most of the hikers I saw as I returned on Saturday were day hikers carrying very little. They were heading up Brunswick with the plan of coming back down that afternoon. Myself, I had a 40 lb pack with tent and sleeping bag. Could I have carried the pack up and back in a day? Probably yes, if I had started early enough, but that wasn't the plan.
The path leading up out of Lion's bay was more like a road than a trail, actually. A wide fire road. Rutted gravel, dirt, rock. Occasional patches of grass. Emotionally, I started up this road in high spirits. I was soaking it all in, the sun, the sky, the crunch of stone under my boot. The heavy pack borne lightly up the 8% grade by muscles not yet fatigued. I was on my own, exploring the wilderness in a foreign country. Not quite Indiana Jones I admit, but it was a taste, a mere morsel of adventure. Perhaps all the adventure I could safely stomach with my usual diet of civilization.
Hiking alone doesn't necessarily amplify the adventure of a wilderness trek, it merely changes the dimension. With others, the adventure is a shared experience; solo it is usually a very personal story.
The ostensible reason to avoid solo hikes is safety. If something goes wrong, having a buddy along can add rescue options. According to the books, the best size party from the safety perspective might be four. That way, a pair can go for help as the injured party waits with a companion.
But if every hiking party had to have four members, a lot less hiking would happen, and that would be an even greater loss. Back country travel with less than four is still quite acceptably safe. And yes, even solo can be acceptably safe, especially on popular trails where other hikers are likely to pass by. It's just a calculated risk. We calculate risks in all things. When we insist on driving automobiles on Drive to Die highways, for example, we are calculating risks. Nobody can seriously claim cars are "safe" when car accidents claim nearly a million lives each year, By 2020, it is predicted that traffic fatalities will be the third leading cause of death, worldwide, after heart disease and tobacco smoke, and ahead of HIV/AIDS and Malaria.
But maybe safety doesn't even enter into it. "Aren't you afraid of the animals? Bears?" I'm asked by my Mom. I admit, hiking alone can have its spooky moments. Emerging from a tent at a moonless midnight to bare one's manhood to the cold black of night is an often cited example. To my experience, however, Blair Witch moments are very rare. Even the terror of a nighttime pee is overrated, especially with modern LED headlamps.
There were no bears, but I did see some unusual wildlife. Quail were plentiful through one stretch of my climb. Their brown and gray plumage made them hard to spot at first, but eventually my eye tuned in to their forms. They were very tolerant of my presence, paying me no mind till I was very near. I couldn't get close enough to actually pet one, but I could get less less than a stride away before they would scamper out of reach. It would have been easy to net one if I had a butterfly net.
At a another band of elevation frogs were plentiful, at least I think they were frogs. I never actually saw one of these creatures, but their croaking was disturbingly loud and emanating from myriad rocks and thickets. No matter how close I inspected, the source remained unidentified. Either their prodigious volume must have been disproportionally loud relative to their size, or their camouflage must have been far better than the quail. Or both.
I snapped a photo or two on the way up the trail. There weren't many Kodak quality vistas till I reached the end of standing timber at about 3500 feet elevation, but there were several unusual flowers blooming. One bloom, a column of elongated bells of a pleasing lavender, sprouted from a rotted log. On the way down the trail I would meet a Japanese hiker who was photographing the same flower.
I had seen Magnesia Creek at the base of the mountain as it passed under Rt 99 in town. A nearby sign noted "what you put into the creek above, we drink down here. Not a quarter mile up the trail I passed a water treatment shed, presumably where the townspeople's straw was planted. Then, another mile further up, I crossed the stream itself. Again I snapped a few photos and a short movie of the mountain stream crashing over the rocks. The current was fast, but shallow, and it was an easy crossing dancing on obvious stepping stones with hardly a drop splashing on my boot tops.
I would cross a much diminished version of Magnesia Creek cutting across the Howe Sound Crest Trail nearly 4000 feet higher up the mountain.
The trail out of Lion's Bay begins with quarter mile long switchbacks up the North Shore flank. These seem to be a continuation of the paved terraced roads in town. After a few mandatory turnarounds, I began to see optional forks leading to the various summits. The trail to Brunswick was a left turn at a tree bearing a prominent hand painted sign with a right pointing arrow strongly suggesting a visit to The Lions, two fang-like granite crags that are clearly visible from downtown Vancouver.
Brunswick Mountain was named after HMS Brunswick, 74 guns, 1,836 tons, under Captain John Harvey and Admiral Earl Howe. Built at Deptford, and launched in 1790, she and her captain fought with distinction in the glorious first of June. Howe, Harvey, and Brunswick now stack in reverse order of authority as map names.
Maps, by the way, are one of the ten essentials and I seldom venture on an unfamiliar trail without a paper map in my pants pocket and an electronic topographic map of the area loaded in my GPS. Once I decided on the hike I would do, I scrambled to find maps. Cypress Provincial Park had a very sketchy map tracing the basic route of Howe Sound Crest trail. I found an equally schematic diagram of the north shore trails on the trails.com web site. Neither of these maps were particularly good.
I had a little better luck with GPS maps. Unlike in the USA, the taxpayer funded geologic survey organization in Canada seems to be somewhat more open with their map data. I was able to find Garmin compatible topo maps of Canada as a free download.
This combination of sketchy paper map and public domain topos was adequate, but later I wondered if I should have asked about better maps at MEI when I bought my fuel. I'm certain that I would have avoided some of my ordeal if I had brought better maps.
Discerning the layout of the trails ascending the North Shore mountains wasn't the issue, map wise. Those trails are all basically the same. They go up. Up, up, and some more up. Occasionally there is a fork on one of the switchbacks, but I found those all very well marked. Moreover, these trails were a lot more like roads than trails, at least to about 4000 feet. Even above this elevation, I had no trouble seeing the obvious way up. There were some fallen trees that caused a brief re-route, but as the terrain became more bare at the higher elevation, the route stood out that much more prominently.
The problem trail in need of a good map was the Howe Sound Crest Trail. This trail traverses the high peaks, running basically north-south along the narrow long axis of Cypress park. Where the Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT) crossed my path up Brunswick I had reached about a mile above sea level. The summit of Brunswick loomed another 600 feet higher.
In my original research for my hike, I noticed he Howe Sound Crest Trail listed in the Cypress Park web site. It seemed like a wonderful option, leaving the convenient parking area at the southern end of the park, already thousands of feet above sea level, and threading its way through the high peaks. At first I thought it might have been too easy, what without any "significant" elevation gain. Maybe this is just some tourist trail, with crushed gravel grades, hand rails, park benches, soda machines, and rest rooms.
The official trail report for the HSCT on the park web site slightly revised my opinion away from "tourist trail", although I still didn't grasp the report's full significance when I first read it. The officials at Cypress said the HSCT was "not recommended for travel". There were blow downs, areas of gravel, and deep "glide cracks". What was a "glide crack" I wondered? But a blown down tree wasn't exactly a hazard I considered insurmountable. And gravel? Maybe this was a tourist trail. They were afraid wheelchairs couldn't navigate areas where the pavement had cracked or had loose gravel that they hadn't swept up yet.
Later, I learned that a "glide crack" was a deep crevasse in a glacier or snowfield. Gravel was an uncrossable quicksand pool of fine stone, worse than scree, obliterating the trail on a steep slope. And a blow down was a Home Depot warehouse worth of shattered lumber similarly obliterating the trail on a steep slope. No, the HSCT was not a tourist trail, a fact that I discovered soon after reaching its intersection with the Brunswick Mountain trail.
I had been climbing quite well, ascending at a rate of nearly 1000 feet an hour. I left the trail-head above Lion's Bay, about 500 feet above sea level, at 2:30. I reached the HSCT, about 5280 feet ASL, at 7 PM. Sunset would begin in roughly another hour, with usable light for another. At the trail intersection I saw a stamped aluminum sign. It read "Magnesia Meadows Hut, 1 hour". Not a distance, a time. Clearly it was placed there exactly for someone like me, weighing the alternatives. The hut seemed close as the crow flies -- less than a mile away -- but the matter of fact "1 hour" on the sign wasn't lost on me.
Without much second thought, I abandoned the climb up Brunswick. I'd head for the hut. It was too late to climb another 600 feet, enjoy the summit, return, and then traverse an hour to the hut. I could always do it tomorrow. I started walking south on the HSCT.
Weather wise, it was still quite mild. There was no wind to speak of, and the temperature was in the high sixties. As I set off on the HSCT I was tired from the climb, a little disappointed that it was too late to summit that day, but still in basically good spirits. That would change soon.
As I climbed the Brunswick trail occasionally I would see patches of snow. These tickled me to no end. Snow in July, how absurd! I took pictures of them, my favorite shot being of a mushroom growing out of a snow patch. I was swatting flies, how could there be snow?
As amused as I was with the snow, I made a subtle mistake: I avoided walking in the snow.
When I was inquiring about trails in British Columbia, I casually asked about conditions, not seriously thinking they would be an issue. Yes I would see snow on the mountain.
"Should I bring snowshoes?" I joked?
Not taking it as a joke, one of he mountaineers replied, "No, probably not. An ice ax might come in handy, though."
I had just bought my first ice ax that past winter. I didn't quite "get" this piece of gear. It was too short to use as a walking stick. Yes, I understood its theoretical purpose for self arrest. I read the books, saw the You Tube video on proper use of an ice ax. Yeah, you could climb frozen waterfalls with it, but that wasn't in my plans. I even knew that an ice ax was infamously used in the assassination of Leon Trotsky. All this, but I still didn't understand the quintessential necessity of this beautiful tool when traveling in the high summits.
Despite my naivete regarding is critical purpose, I was smart enough to listen to the advice I received and when I packed for Vancouver I included the ice ax in my kit. Crampons too, actually, although these proved to be less than useful. I carried both up the Brunswick trail. No snowshoes, though.
Bringing the ice ax was prudent intelligence; skirting the snow patches on the way up Brunswick was reckless stupidity. I know now that if a trail crosses a snow patch, I should walk in the snow, not avoid it. The reason is to get used to the feel of the snow. A life and death encounter with the local snow cover shouldn't be one's first encounter with that same character of snow. And yes, snow has many characters. The legend that Eskimos have 50 words for snow may be nothing more than fantasy, but it is a fact that snow has many characters -- easily 50. There's cold sandy snow, fresh wet snow, old icy snow, plastic snowball snow, flaky powder snow, and a thousand increments in between.
The snow on Brunswick Mountain that day was warm, plastic, old snow with a bit of icing in thinner spots. The meat of it was stable and predictable. The edges were somewhat treacherous.
And so it was that as I began my traverse on the HSCT, I had not yet set foot on snow, even though I'd seen several patches ranging in size from little bigger than a manhole cover, to as big as a sheet of plywood.
Even without the snow hazard I would soon face, the HSCT wasn't a "tourist" trail. This was a big mountain I was on. The slope was near 45 degrees in spots and the HSCT was often not any wider than my boot. At 5280 feet elevation, the plant life was gnarly and scattered. A slip from the trail wouldn't be anywhere near fatal, but it would be uncomfortable, and progress off-trail over the steep, rooty, gravelly surface was ten time more difficult. I quickly realized that the hour travel time to the hut predicted by the sign back at the intersection wasn't exaggerated.