Vancouver -> Squamish via HSCT and more
Date: 16th September, 2017
Participants: Ian and Christina
Route:Vancouver to Squamish via Howe Sound Crest Trail -> Sea-to-Sky Highway ->Furry Creek FSR ->Cyrtina Creek Trail to Mountain Lakes Hut -> West flank of Mt Sheer -> South Flank of Sky Pilot Group (Ledge, Sky Pilot, Co-Pilot) -> Skyline Ridge Trail -> Shannon Basin Trail -> Sea to Summit Trail
Stats:MovesCount/ Suunto: 83.28km with 4488m+ and 5351m- / Strava: 71.9km with 5,285m+
Summary: Run/ hike. As we decided to do this 10 days before we did it, we didn’t do trail recognizance so we kept things pretty basic. Next season we hope to do some scouting around Deeks and Cap.
Google Maps View of Mountain Lakes Hut -> Skyline Ridge Trail
Data from SPOT (spotty and spot on where one might expect)
A long trip report with lots of thoughts and photos:
I had written Ian a blank peak bagging cheque and now it was time for my legs to cash it. 10 days ago we'd been chatting online. Post run, wrapped in a blanket, I was sitting on the sofa with a mug of hot coffee. Somewhere between half heartedly foam rolling my quads and drinking another cup of coffee the consensus was it would be fun to spend a day out and bag as many peaks as we could before the snow came. “Anything on your list you want to do? I am up for whatever.” I absently mindedly texted. Ian responded “Let me think about that one”. By the next day that thought had turned into a question: “what about Vancouver to Squamish via the HSCT?”
The idea excited me as The HSCT is a nice bit of trail: if you been you know. I had last run the HSCT three weeks before. It was one of those days where running felt easy and all was right in the world. The thought of a mega-HSCT day was downright appealing.
Here are a few of my favorite photos from my 21-08-2017 crossing a month before the Vancouver to Squamish Trip:
Despite viewing the HSCT through somewhat rose coloured glasses, there are a few problems with extending the trail north that we were aware of and likely at least a few that we aren’t. Even the most casual of glances at a topographic map tells you immediately that this is a journey in two parts. As you move towards Squamish, the orientations of the peaks and valley shift, meaning that you cannot continue along a ridgeline until you hear the siren call of Mags 99 Cantina and descend to Squamish, losing and regaining at least 1200 meters elevation is currently unavoidable.
A secondary concern is the watershed. An exposition on my feelings regarding recreation in the watershed is beyond the scope of this trip report but suffice to say, to have a route that might be traversed by the law abiding public, one must be mindful of the boundaries of the watersheds. This eliminates some potentially appealing options.
It is also worth noting that while there are many trails in the area and more than a few forest service roads, they aren’t always linked together in a convenient, aesthetically pleasing way. Some bushwhacking or off trail navigation is currently required. How much is up to each party. At minimum one must navigate from Mountain Lake Hut to start of the Skyline Ridge Trail as there is currently no “trail” between Mountain Lake Hut and the Skyline Ridge Trail: despite some well placed cairns and obvious signs of human exploration getting cliffed out and slowed down by route finding is a reality, at least it was for us.
Due to a lack of reconnaissance missions and limited hours of daylight, we decided to keep our route very basic and take the trip we were prepared for now in favor of waiting to take the perfect trip later.
Three am on September 16th came early, which is fairly typical three am behavior. It was time to drink more cups of coffee than I care to admit publicly and force feed myself a bowl of oatmeal. My wife Leah sat on the sofa, clutching a cup of coffee, looking bleary eyed and recounting the more interesting items on her twitter feed. She appeared to be in good spirits considering she was driving us to the trailhead this early. The dog, however, did not consent to any of this nonsense. I could hear him moaning, grunting and making loud sighing sounds in the bedroom. Old terriers don't take kindly to this sort of disruption.
Ginger didn’t want to come for the car ride but he didn't exactly want to be left behind either. In this spirit of ambivalence we departed. I know that Ian doesn’t love early starts anymore than Ginger does - though I would imagine his routine involved slightly less grunting and sighing but perhaps not. True to form, as Ian deposited his gear in the back and got in the car he looked like he wouldn’t have minded another few hours of sleep.
By 4:50am we were in the Cypress Parking Lot. As we double checked our packs and tightened our shoe laces I couldn’t help but notice how dark it was. The new moon was waning and the sun had not yet started to rise. The Black Mountain Lodge (Brown Bagger Building) glowed invitingly from across the parking lot. We saw staff working outside and noticed the building appeared to be open.
I have a trail running rule: if you pass a bathroom on the trail, stop and use it unless you are racing. After a quick pit stop, we were ready to roll out. I laughed when I realized that Ian had started his watch when we began unloading the car. I guess this would be on strava so it definitely happened. In case anyone was wondering there doesn’t appear to be any segments in the men’s bathroom.
We departed into the darkness and I hit what would be by far my lowest point in the day. Parking lots, loops near small lakes and logging roads are my personal bermuda triangles: if I am going to get lost or take a wrong turn chances are a parking lot, logging road or a loop near a lake are involved. Now I was on a trail that was part of a loop, by a parking lot near a series of small lakes with the spectre of the dirt logging roads ahead looming large in my psyche. I managed to make conversation and took the lead to make the appropriate turns at junctions until we were on the trail that only led one place: we were on the way up to St. Mark’s Summit. Crisis of confidence over, I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped Ian hadn’t noticed.
The trail to St Mark’s has changed over the years and if the large machinery on the side of the trail and the Cypress Provincial Park management plan are any indication, the trail will continue to change. It is transforming from rocky, rooty single track to a more well graded ramp to the alpine. After the type of climb that removes any vestige of cold from your body, we reached the first viewpoint of the trip. If you are on the ‘gram’ you’ve seen it - from the vista of the Howe Sound to the precocious whiskey jacks, its beauty as been well documented. Unsurprisingly, the area was dotted with tents. Despite knowing the area is a wildly popular camping location, the tents managed to sneak up on me.
Ian at St.M
We slunk to a viewpoint away from the tents before silently proceeding down the trail. The angle of the light increased as the sun rose higher and as we trod higher up the slope until we arrived on Unnecessary Ridge. As we were extolling the virtues of the location we stopped to chat with a solo hammock camper who was enjoying a warm cup of coffee and watching the sunrise. We were all in agreement that we were in a great spot.
As we traveled forward we saw the Lions on the horizon and the Sky Pilot group even further in the distance. “That is our day right there” Ian had remarked gesturing towards the far off peaks.
I am so so happy!
After stopping to marvel at the Lions, we proceeded up David, James and Thomas Peaks. Ascending these peaks is always easier than I remember, which is a good thing as they are very steep climbs. After running the HSCT hungover in 2016 subsequent crossings have felt markedly easier - climbing James, nauseous, with a headache in the heat is a vivid sensory memory to say the least. Thankfully, today was nothing like that.
Our pace was leisurely by design. This was not an FKT style effort - a lack of trail scouting in advance and knowing we would face the demands of route finding during the second half of the day meant we didn’t want to be “run stupid” and enter that state of hazy glucose depleted decision making that can occur when you are red-lining it or nearing your endurance limits. The ever present possibility of “bonus” mileage and navigational errors meant that we needed to pace ourselves conservatively and navigate mindfully. Ian and I were both using watches with optical heart rate monitors. The topic of the accuracy of optical heart rate monitors aside, we have found that they can be a useful tool to keep yourself in check and ensure that your easy pace is actually easy.
I was at turns embracing the pace and feeling frustrated by it. I itched to run faster and feel my body move through the terrain more fluidly. At the top of Thomas Peak, Ian turned to me and let me know “we basically did that climb too hard, we should try not to do that”. He was probably right. I tucked in behind him on the single track and was entertained by tales of bike racing in Nebraska and descriptions of special whiskey glasses and favorite bottles. Ian’s enthusiasm nearly convinced me I should give Whiskey another chance… but not quite.
Heading back down to the trail after checking out a view point
Just past the Mount Harvey trail turnoff, we encountered a very plump black bear grazing on berries near the tarn. As we slowed to a walk, the bear’s awareness visibly shifted from fattening up for winter to the annoying bipeds heading his way. Thankfully, he seemed well versed in the Alpine Bear Code of Good Conduct and scuttled off into the trees.
For most of the summer and fall season, Magnesia Meadows marks the first reliable source of running water on the trail. The hard rock gives way to softer, greener ground and you can hear the creeks before you can see them. Once you arrive in the meadows, you can drink until satiated and refill water bottles, secure in the knowledge that any thoughts you’ve had of rationing water are over. I had heard from a friend who had run the trail the week before that there was still water at Magnesia Meadows but the creeks were looking very dry so I shouldn’t count on them. As we entered Magnesia Meadows, the silence was unfamiliar. Where was the running water? Thankfully this meant dry feet.
At the upper section of Deeks Creek we stopped to refill our water. As I was distracted with taking off my pack and wrangling gear, I banged my knees on a rock. They puffed up, bleeding enough that a bit of blood rolled down to my compression socks but not enough that any action was required. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt beyond the initial sting. “First blood”.
We continued downwards on the single track, past the lakes - Brunswick, Hanover and Deeks. The low water level meant that we would walk across a rocky high point that divides the two parts of Brunswick Lake rather than wading through ankle deep water or honing our rock hopping skills. The waterfall on the lower end of Deeks Creek signaled that soon the double track would start.
Roughly seven hours after we departed, we reached the parking lot at Porteau Cove. Rumour and OSM has it there is a trail that takes you up the bluffs at Porteau Cove and connects to the Furry Creek FSR. While we had read some trip reports and had gpx tracks, we had also heard that recent logging and industrial activity may have changed the area. Without the benefit of recent beta we had decided in advance that we would take the road more traveled. Unfortunately that road was a 3km section of the Sea-to-Sky highway.
My mood turned from jubilant to tense as I hit my final low point of the day. Running from Porteau Cove to the Furry Creek exit, I felt genuinely frightened as the cars whizzed by. Despite “salmoning” and staying well to the side of the road, I did not feel completely safe. Ian appeared less phased by the traffic but the tension was palpable - we were both a little on edge. I tucked in behind him and took comfort in his steady presence in front of me. My shoulders dislodged themselves from halfway up my neck, moved down my back and settled into their normal position as we spotted the sign for our exit and moved to safer ground. Phew.
We found the entrance to the Furry Creek FSR without difficulty and yoyo’ed with some dirt bikers for a few kilometers as we proceeded up the FSR, repeatedly proving to their consternation that two legs and a sense of direction beat an engine and two wheels. The pair of dirt bikers would be the last people we saw until we exited the trail.
We continued through the valley past evidence of fresh logging and recent recreational gun use. Some folks had used the 5km marker signs for target practice and in several locations shotgun shells littered the ground.
We proceeded at an easy pace, stopping at each spur to avoid error. Eventually we left the portion of the road that is in active industrial use and turned onto a spur. Here nature was making quick work of reclaiming lost ground. 1st growth opportunists made a bushy foothold and the formerly two lane road narrowed to more of a path. This continued until we connected with the single track-size opening. Cheery flagging signaled the way up.
We gained altitude and the landscape opened until we found ourselves on more rocky, open alpine terrain. “This does not suck” we commented as we both marveled at the rock walls and alpine lakes. We stopped by Wind Lake to refill our water. Watching as the breeze created small ripples across the lake, we sat on a rock and ate a snack. While there were several lakes coming up, once we got past the Mountain Lake Hut and onto the ridge, our opportunities for water would be severely limited/ nonexistent given the late season conditions. Looking at the topo the week before, I guessed our next guaranteed source of water would be a stagnant, possibly mucky tarn along the Skyline Ridge Trail. We took a moment to really enjoy the abundance.
As we continued through the alpine, we found the path was clearly marked, with cairns and flagging where one might hope to find them. There is also ample signs of this area's industrial past - metal debris, faces carved into stone walls and of course, the dam at Mountain Lake lets one know without doubt that this is not an untouched landscape and one could not, even for a moment, operate under the delusion that they were standing where few had stood before. The area had, no question, been part of many stories that we will never hear and witnessed many events outside of our awareness. We wondered about how exactly they built the dam and where the rumored mine shafts were located.
We followed the cairns until we arrived at Mountain Lake Hut. I noted we still had cell service and I texted Leah. Ian and I poked our heads into the hut and to my surprise, there was fresh, dry toilet paper in the outhouse. It is the little things. Thank-you BCMC.
Lions in the distance
We briefly discussed returning to the hut. This was a less than ideal option in my mind as we could tell from the long term forecast and a half recalled rythme about ‘mackerel sky’ it would ‘not be 24 hours dry’. If the storm came earlier than expected, I didn’t relish the idea of spending hours in freezing rain that threatened to turn into the first snow of the season. Even in 30 degree summer weather, I am often cold at night. So, while I had enough gear to survive a night out I knew it wouldn’t be enough to thrive. I pictured myself in the loft, wearing my hat, mittens and puffy, huddled inside a light bivy missing my wife and counting down the sleepless hours until sunrise. No thank-you. Ian also had a warm bed and partner he was eager to return to.
We discussed descending into the bowl and heading down to meet up with the decommissioned road that headed down to Britannia Bay. This was one of the “vintage” ways to access the area and we had researched the route as a potential out if we were unable to connect to Skyline Ridge Trail. From what we could glean, there would be alder and it wouldn’t be fun but we had a gpx track downloaded and felt we could travel the terrain safely. Then there was the matter of bailing on our mission so close to completion: that would be a disappointment.
Ultimately there was more merit in continuing onwards. We were prepared for navigating and moving in the dark. The route we were following was open alpine, the night was clear and visibility excellent. Given that we estimated going back would be about the same distance as continuing forward, moving towards our objective was more appealing than moving away from it. We continued onwards with the agreement that at any time either of us could “call it” and move to plan b.
I enjoy night running and that I had been savouring the beauty of moving through the alpine as the light receded. There is something magic about the myopic focus of the headlamp and I was finding viewing the world as revealed through a thin band of light relaxing. It was nearly dark, navigation was a little harder but we had everything we needed.
We continued on into the twilight. Most travel was across open rocky terrain interspersed with some light bushwhacking and scrambling. Eventually the solid rocky terrain turned into a fine scree. As our feet sunk into the sandy particles each step became more laboured. The light from our headlamps illuminated an aura of swirling dust around us, each motion forward kicking up more and more dust. I tasted the sourness of the dirt in my mouth. When I licked my lips I could feel the grit on my tongue.
As we rounded the corner, we saw stable ground in sight. I pretended to kiss the rocky outcrop. It was at that point that we saw what was next - more scree. As we lumbered onwards, we scanned the terrain above us, on the look-out for large rocks above that could slide down the slope. Thankfully we saw none. Occasionally I would get a few feet below Ian before a flurry of scree and the quick retreat of the ground under me would remind me that this was neither smart nor safe. The water run off from this year’s snow had created large ruts, runoff paths in the scree. We had to lower ourselves into these deep depressions and then climb out on the other side while the ground fell away beneath us.
After another kilometer or so, we felt grateful that we were once again on solid ground. I burst out laughing when I realized we had yet another scree field to traverse, more dirt to inhale, more steep ruts to negotiate. “This is hilarious”. I know I found more humour and joy in the absurdity than Ian did. It was then that I got a bit more militant about snack time generally and Ian's food intake specifically. Trail running is one of the few times where feeding your feelings genuinely improves your outlook.
Over 2km of Scree field is a lot of scree field. I alternated between marveling at the way the headlamp illuminated the sparkling swirl of particles and feeling absolutely ready to take a full deep breath without my lungs creaking and grating. When we rounded a corner and did not find more scree, it was a moment of joy. Generally speaking I recieve what feel like obligation high fives, given with a lack of gusto as if to say “okay she is going for it, politeness dictates that I shouldn’t leave her hanging”. Not today, there on the rocky outcrop I felt like we shared a genuine high five. It was a fun moment. I was into it at least.
Scree field behind us, all we had to do was gain the ridge, travel on it and we would find the Skyline Ridge Trail. A few of the spicier sections of terrain had us wedging ourselves comically between tree trunks and dangling off of blueberry bushes. While no advanced or even intermediate climbing skills were required, I was glad I had been going to the bouldering gym several times per week as I knew my grip could bear my weight, my feet would find holds and my mind could calmly focus on upwards progression. There was of course, no mat to absorb mistakes and I carefully pulled at each hold before I trusted it with real weight. Some rock was rotten and crumbled down, clanging down the slope,vanishing into the darkness. We took turns leading, avoided each other's fall line and kept moving. Since completing the trip, we learned that there is a fixed rope to aid passage around this section of rock, but this was not apparent from below illuminated by headlamps, and is perhaps more visible from the top than from below.
When we found the trail bed some distance down the ridge and no longer needed the aid of GPS, we enjoyed the certainty and ease of following spray paint marking, cairns and bits of flag over rocky outcrops and past tarns that glittered in the light from our headlamps. As we moved through the alpine, we saw the lights of Squamish appear tantalizingly close below, bright in contrast to the moonless night. We were able to start running again after hours of slow travel. Moving faster felt like a revelation. We ran down to the Shannon Basin Trail and then down further still to the Sea-to-Summit Trail.
As we approached the Shannon Basin Trail, I texted Leah to let her know we were on track. She had been expecting our text and was ready to leave Vancouver and meet us at the base of the Gondola. I may have jinxed us with my confident proclamation: “We should be ready in about an hour and a half!” As we approached the Sea to Summit trail, Ian’s quads mutinied. At 79km in, his longest day ever, they had had enough of this nonsense. We had 4km left to go, down the steep trail that included a short roped section, lots of roots and some stairs.
We continued downwards until eventually emerged from the forest and arrived at the Gondola. Leah saw our headlamps from across the parking lot and drove towards our location. One look at her told me that my fears of keeping her waiting were unfounded. Her face lit up as she said “Chris!” and gave me a big hug. It is always so good to see her. Fresh clothing, a cold drink and snacks were also more than welcome.
As we drove back to Vancouver, the kilometers ticked by: “Oh, still running… yup still going… still going” we laughed until we were parallel to the Cypress Parking lot. “Oh, now we’ve stopped”. It was satisfying to see the distance we had covered, being that it seemed like a long distance even by car. There was still so much more there was still to explore in the area.
Thanks for writing up your trip in such detail. I truly enjoyed that.
That was a wicked trip report! It would be awesome to see a route in place that from Deeks lake connects to Lost Lake Hut via Deeks Peak before ascending over the ridge and down to the clear cut before Marion Lake. From there maybe up and over Capilano via downing creek would work. I've been planning on scouting the route out and I'll check back if its successful. Only way to stay out of the watershed really.
Also the attachments aren't working, maybe you can edit them!
Thank-you both for your kind words.
Russellcoffin, I noticed the maps weren't showing up this afternoon and re-uploaded. I hope they work now?
I would absolutely love to hear about route scouting even if unsuccessful. That way I won't try the same thing ;)
When the snow goes I'll be putting on some long sleeves and poking around there as well.
To circle this ... its also being discussed here https://forums.clubtread.com/8-britis...-squamish.html and the BCMC is discussing the Howe Sound Crest Trail North here https://backcountrybc.ca/index.php/c...st-trail-north
Incredible trip report! I wish I had the physical means to accomplish what many others like yourself do here. I have yet to conquer the Howe Sound Crest Trail. I've done Brunswick Mountain out and back, as well as Mount Unnecessary. Next year, if my tent doesn't get stolen again then I'll be sure to cross this one off my list. Congratulations on such an awesome adventure!
Here is a BC Ministry map from around 1970 that I found in the Vancouver Public Library while researching the North Shore Mountains book, showing a trail from the col between Deeks and Windsor continuing north to the Capilano Mountain Trail and Marion and Phyllis Lakes. No doubt wildly overgrow, but on my to-explore list.
@Dac-van: Thank-you! That is very interesting indeed.
Definitely one for the to-explore list. Do you know the history of that trail? (it sounds like perhaps it was one that wasn't often used?)
(I am excited about the book -I've been looking forward to publication and getting a copy)
Thanks @Chris S. - sorry to hear about the tent! I hope you will be able to cross the HSCT off the list. It is truly a special area.
Thanks for sharing!
There is a discussion also on BackcountryBC about HSCT North ... so @Dac_Van your map find links into this perfectly.
this would be such a fun project: a bushwhack exploration of the route on my map (from Deeks to Capilano) and then from Capilano north as shown here (https://backcountrybc.ca/index.php/c...st-trail-north) is definitely on the summer 2018 to-do list.
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