Expansive peace

A few throwback-Thursday favourites from our Heather Trail backpacking trip last September. A great hike to soak up some wide open alpine space and big skies…

Our decision to hike the Heather Trail on the Labour Day weekend was made as we approached Hope along Highway 1. Do we take the turnoff and continue into the Fraser Canyon towards the Stein Valley, or head for the alpine of the Heather Trail? In the end the weather looked good enough for a few days of alpine enjoyment, and so we continued on to Highway 3 and into Manning Park.

It turned out to be an inspired move. We set off under cool, cloudy skies and began our 12 km hike in to Kicking Horse campground. Late afternoon sunshine caught up with us near the final pass, bathing the meadows in warm light (photos 1 and 2) for some wonderful scenes. These two photos are among my favourites from the entire trip.

We found a suitable spot for our tent and enjoyed as quiet a night as we’ve ever experienced in the backcountry with not even the slightest breeze to ripple the fly sheet. I remember lying in my sleeping bag, probably around 1 or 2 am, holding my breath and enjoying the sheer weight of the silence.

The next day we hauled ourselves off in the direction of Nicomen Lake for a day’s hiking. We passed through more expansive meadows below azure skies, meeting barely a handful people along the way. (At least, until the ridge above Nicomen Lake itself.) We enjoyed lunch on a peak high above the lake (photo 3) before retracing our steps.

The light was perfect on our return, though we could see the beginnings of some dramatic clouds over the summit of Third Brother (fourth photo), portents of the weather to come that night and the following morning. The square format of this photo doesn’t really do justice to the size of the meadows we were passing through.

As we neared the campground we opted to pick our way carefully across country to the windy summit of Fourth Brother (photo 5) to enjoy a view we hadn’t experienced before. Then back to the tent, a rainy night followed by a snowy morning, and a steady hike back to the car.

It was only three days but it was some of the most enjoyable hiking and camping we’ve had, adding to some of the best hiking and camping we’d already savoured over the summer. Gambling on the Heather Trail was definitely the right decision.

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Scenes from a hike II

The light was never in our favour but the views were still wonderful. We broke trail up Christmas Gully which I don’t recommend unless you know the route and the avalanche risk is low. The tracks of a snowshoe hare kept us company as we followed the trail uphill, getting showered with cold snow as we pushed through the trees. The reward was a view of the Lions and Brunswick lit up in the afternoon sun, layers of cloud drifting across the islands in Howe Sound. Feeling lazy we careened down the empty ski runs, taking only 30 minutes to descend!

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The light was never in our favour but the views were still wonderful. We broke trail up Christmas Gully which I don't recommend unless you know the route and the avalanche risk is low. The tracks of a snowshoe hare kept us company as we followed the trail uphill, getting showered with cold snow as we pushed through the trees. The reward was a view of the Lions and Brunswick lit up in the afternoon sun, layers of cloud drifting across the islands in Howe Sound. Feeling lazy we careened down the empty ski runs, taking only 30 minutes to descend! #cypressprovincialpark #northshoremountains #snow #live4snow #hiking #bchiking #westcoastmountains #explorebc #yourbcparks #bcparks #beautifulbc #beautifulbritishcolumbia

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In the absence of great light I found it hard to come up with a series of photos that really captured the feel of the hike. It wasn’t a day of photogenic grand vistas, though they were undoubtedly nice to look at, so I concentrated on shapes, forms, and contrast instead. And I think I’m pretty happy with the results.

  1. This might be my favourite image from the day: the small trees coated in fresh snow, a group that could be having a conversation about, well, anything really, but I suspect the weather. In the distance the sun shone brightly on Brunswick Mountain and the Lions.
  2. This view back down Christmas Gully doesn’t look too steep but it’s deceiving. Compare the heights of the trees nearby and further down the slope… It had taken us nearly an hour to get to this point as we plodded up through fresh snow, and it was worth every step.
  3. Keeping us company on the trail (despite heading in the opposite direction), the tracks of a snowshoe hare were a welcome sight. I always like seeing animal tracks in the winter, a reminder that it’s not an entirely desolate place, that animals still call this their home and they can somehow survive.
  4. I call this tiny snow-laden tree a snow mole as its pointed tip looks just like the sharp snout of a mole.
  5. The best view was not of the Lions (which is what I expected) but instead this view across Howe Sound towards the Tetrahedron Range, the perfectly still water a lovely shade of blue. What really caught my eye was the pair of sentinel trees part way down the slope – through the lens I adjusted my framing until they roughly lined up on the third lines. Beyond that I used a little perspective correction in DxO PhotoLab to straighten them to bring them back to what my eye saw, rather than the camera.
  6. Looking west over Bowen Island and towards Vancouver Island, with the warm afternoon light reflecting off Howe Sound and the snow on the northern slope of Mount Strachan. A lovely view, albeit a chilly one that had us beating a hasty retreat to warm up our numb fingers! It took most of the way back down the ski slope to warm them up again, and it reminded us of what gear we should have had on us to keep our hands warm.

A note about this hike. In winter this route should not be attempted without paying careful attention to the avalanche rating. The route crosses a couple of steep avalanche paths while the climb up the gully involves negotiating steep slopes with multiple terrain traps should you or the snow slide. Also, the route is not marked in the winter and taking the wrong descent path off the south summit of Mount Strachan could lead you into dangerous terrain. Equally, descending Christmas Gully means knowing where to join the Howe Sound Crest Trail – do not continue descending as the drainage leads to Montizambert Creek where multiple rescues have taken place over the years.

Always carry a map and compass, and/or backup electronic navigation such as a GPS. We picked this day to do it because we knew the route, having hiked it in summer several times before, and the snow depth was not enough to create significant avalanche risk. That was our call; you should make your own call based on the conditions at the time. Always check before you go. Stay safe – safety should be the top priority!

A bear at breakfast

Throwback to that time a grizzly bear dropped by for breakfast. Thankfully it took no notice of us, which is good because our bear spray was in the tent, 100 m away! Lesson learned: keep bear spray with you at all times.

The beginning of our third day saw us sat at the edge of the trees sipping away at our respective caffeine delivery systems, gazing out over the meadows and up to the peaks and ridge-lines to the west lit up by the morning sunshine. We were packing away our food when some movement caught my eye; a bear in the far meadow.

Not just any old bear either but an adult grizzly, snout down and browsing the meadow in search of food. We froze. This was our first grizzly sighting in the backcountry, and we were just two people. Looking wide-eyed at each other, we discussed what we should do. Our assessment of the situation had us thinking that we shouldn’t alert the bear to our presence and we were relieved to notice that it wandered off into the forest along the trail leading to the horse cabin below Spruce Peak.

That should have been our cue to go and get the bear spray but for some reason we didn’t. We used this time to stow our food, hoping that our knots wouldn’t be tested by a hungry grizzly. Five minutes later the bear reappeared, continuing its path along the edge of the trees and – more concerning – closer to our tent, although still the other side of Eldorado Creek.

The bear still hadn’t sensed us so we opted to remain quiet and hidden by the trees. After briefly going out of sight it reappeared, now heading back the way it came, much to our relief. Over the next few and exceedingly long minutes, it retraced its steps through the meadow, until it heard a sound which stopped it in its tracks and began to look around, ears pricked up.

That sound was a mountain biker descending from Windy Pass (our intended destination for the day), whooping and/or hollering loud enough for his voice to echo off the sides of the valley. For a moment the bear paused before beginning to run. We looked at each other and voiced our thoughts, “where is it running to?”. At first we thought it was going towards the source of the sound but we were relieved to note that the bear was actually just heading for the nearest tree cover. We followed its path across the meadow until it disappeared among the trees – the very trees that we would have to walk through to get to Windy Pass no less!

With the bear gone from sight we felt we could relax a little and continue getting ourselves ready for our day’s hiking. We never saw the bear again though we did find where it had dug up the ground in the meadow right next to the trail. Paw prints and claw marks were clearly visible in the disturbed earth. We were fine with that and had no desire to encounter the bear at any closer range.

After that morning, the bear spray came with us to breakfast. Always.

Scenes from a hike I

Views from the Chief – a selection of sights from last Friday’s hike in warm November sunshine with a freezing November wind.

The last day of my week off work and I joined a couple of friends for a quick sunny day-hike. (Or is that a quick sunny-day hike?) The Chief seemed like the perfect option – great views, not too long, not too tough.

  1. Garibaldi reflections – I had to lie down on the rock to get low enough for the reflection to show up, which was a little daunting as the wind was really strong, and about 10 feet from my feet was the view in the next photo.
  2. Don’t look down! – I think this is the first time I’ve been able to see all the way down to the road from the Chief (apart from the more distant views of Squamish). What made this spot more than a little terrifying was the convex slope of the rock, inviting you closer to the ever-disappearing edge for a better look. The fact that it was windy also didn’t help.
  3. Mamquam framed redux – another view of Mamquam Mountain, this time framed by a pine tree. I think I’ve photographed this tree nearly every time we’ve been to the Second Peak.
  4. Lunch spot views – Third Peak has a small pond surrounded by pines that makes for a lovely lunch spot. Despite the wind, the pond was still and reflected the trees perfectly, Garibaldi and Mamquam shining bright in the distance.
  5. Chains – I like the shape that these chains make on the rock, especially seeing the way they’ve eroded the surface, rendering it with a reddish tinge from rust.
  6. More chains – this is the first encounter with chains when ascending Second Peak the usual way, a welcome guide on this narrow root-filled ramp which can be tricky when wet, as well as a portent of things to come. It’s difficult to show just how steep this section is without someone in the photo, and I don’t recommend attempting it when it’s icy.
  7. Steps down – helpful steps with a twist that caught my eye, especially when viewed from above.
  8. Rock colour – this series of colourful stripes really stood out in the sunshine today. I think I’ve tried to capture it in the past but it’s usually been in deep shadow, or a dull day. I’m very happy to have caught it this time round!

Lastly, I realized that it was almost ten years to the day that I hiked the Chief with my brother when he first came to visit.

Memories of summer

On a soggy day at the beginning of November it’s nice to be able to look back at those sunnier days on summer trips. Our backpacking trip to the Southern Chilcotins was the highlight of our summer, especially this day up on Harris Ridge – even though we got chased off by a thunderstorm that chucked hail pellets and snow at us for an hour!

It’s been pretty wet over the past few days; it feels like autumn has finally caught up with us as the first hints of snow are decorating the tips of the North Shore mountains. Summer seemed to come and go quickly this year but we did get out on some memorable trips, not least of all our week in the Southern Chilcotins.

While we enjoyed travelling through the landscape, it’s our two days of day-hiking that stand out as our favourites, and especially the second of those days on which we hiked up and along Harris Ridge.

After a bit of hard work we ended up on the broad expanse of the ridge, walked to its end, and sat down for an early lunch with the view above. The sun came and went, and we waited as long as we dared to get this shot as the storm clouds rolled in our direction.

This view was one of our favourites as we looked down into the meadow where we’d camped for two nights – the same meadow we watched a grizzly bear patrol while we cleaned up after breakfast – and up to Windy Pass with its endless views to the west. It’s possible to gain the ridge from those meadows although it looks quite steep from down there.

We tried to outrun the weather but it caught up with us as we began our descent back to the tent, pelting us with hail that turned the landscape white for a time. As I said, a memorable trip…!

Sights from the North Shore

Sights from the North Shore – a couple of hours well spent rambling through subalpine forest with occasional spectacular views of distant cities, mountains, and islands.

We had one of those rare events in Vancouver: a sunny weekend! Alas we had in-town commitments (naturally…) so we couldn’t get out for a whole day, but I was able to grab a couple of hours up exploring some trails on Dog Mountain while Maria was in Deep Cove.

  1. One of my favourite photos from the afternoon, I really like the little puddle in the foreground, the rugged rocks of the bluffs beyond, a bit of autumn colour, the shadows, and the distant view of Cathedral Mountain (and even Mount Garibaldi in Squamish). It all adds up to many layers and a natural path for the viewer’s eyes to follow from front to back.
  2. Vancouver far below, the bright afternoon sun reflecting off the Salish Sea and Burrard Inlet between Stanley Park and the west side of the city. In the distance, the mountains of Vancouver Island are visible – later as we drove home along the Upper Levels Highway, we had a stunning view of the orange sky behind the silhouette of Mount Arrowsmith, between Nanaimo and Port Alberni. Just glorious!
  3. Decaying skunk cabbage leaves, nicely arranged on the forest floor. It’s amazing to think that those giant, robust green leaves of summer soon wither and decay to paper-thin fragments.
  4. Reflections in a small tarn – the trail passed by several small tarns or ponds, all of which reflected the surrounding trees and bushes just beautifully. I really like the tufts of grass at the water’s edge in this view.
  5. A dab of colour – many of the bushes and shrubs change colour to gorgeous shades of orange, yellow, and red. It may not be the spectacular maple displays of the eastern deciduous forests, but the subalpine and alpine plants put on their own diminutive show. I just love the vivid primary colours on display: red, yellow, green, blue…
  6. Mushrooms! I was surprised that there weren’t more on display – I only really found this little group and another nice patch of fly agaric. I don’t know what they are so if anyone can identify them then please let me know.
  7. OK so this might actually be my favourite from the day. There’s just something about dead trees; they’re often so photogenic and full of character. I always think about how old these trees are, how many summers and winters they have lived through, watching people come and go.
  8. Last but not least is another favourite showing the terrain dropping away into bowl below the bluffs, and the distance mountains of Coliseum and Cathedral, Garibaldi barely showing up at the edge of the treed slope of Mount Seymour.

So there you have it, my attempt at showcasing the glorious sunny subalpine experience I had last Saturday.

All photos taken on a Pixel 2 phone, edited to taste in Google Photos.

A Medley of Moptops

A medley of moptops for wildflower Wednesday, definitely one of the most distinctive alpine flowers – I just love the way they catch the light. They only flower for a brief time as soon as the snow melts, leaving their fluffy seed heads to decorate the meadows for the rest of the short alpine growing season.

Moptop, tow-headed baby, hippy on a stick, muppets of the mountains… The seed-heads of the western anemone have multiple nicknames. Many people liken them to characters from Dr Seuss books; to me they’re just moptops. I didn’t have much exposure to the Dr Seuss characters when I was a kid but what little I had I didn’t think much of; I have a vague recollection of thinking that it was kinda silly and unrealistic, even at a young age. So, forgive me if I shrug or even grit my teeth if one more person exclaims about how Dr Seuss-like they are!

It’s remarkable to see how tall they grow and how they dominate some meadows when they start off so small. But the best thing about them is the way they catch the light, be it afternoon, evening, or morning. And I can’t stop taking their picture when that happens!