Make a nice cup of hot chocolate and settle in to read this report.
The following is an account of a fabulous yet unusual trip, taken during August of this most recent summer. Rather than climb mountains as our sole purpose, our intention was to follow a serpentinian route along ridges that span mountains, starting from close to the head of Toba Inlet and culminating at the north end of Powell Lake.
This is a rugged route. The scrambling can be difficult, especially with a heavy pack. Obstacles are encountered that seem insurmountable; yet for us, it seemed almost miraculous that at each of those impediments, breaches were revealed.
A year ago, on August 8 of 2017, I received an e-mail from an old friend, wondering if I would be interested in doing a traverse in the summer of 2018.
Robert had read an account written by a couple who had made an attempt to hike from Toba Inlet to Powell Lake. Their photos were tantalizing, and their description of the route was very attractive. Their trip took them 10 days, yet because of poor weather, they were forced to abandon the last section of the ridge system earlier than they had planned.
An examination on Google Earth of this traverse was captivating. Naturally, I was in 100%!
Over the next weeks and months, I became increasingly excited as I traced the route on the topo map.
I’ve known Robert since we both were 4 years old; we attended play school together, then elementary and high school. It was during our time in high school (during the 70s) that we began hiking together, starting with the North Shore mountains, then extending our range to include the peaks of the Sea to Sky corridor. During the summers of our university years, we ticked off many of the big glaciated peaks within a weekend’s reach of Vancouver. One of our last hikes together had been to the Chilcotins to ascend Monmouth. (see related story: https://forums.clubtread.com/27-brit...ly-2018-a.html
Planning the logistics of this kind of trip can present many challenges. We were fortunate that I have a friend who has a boat. Blair had mentioned to me at a mountaineers’ party that he’d be willing to take people up an inlet for hiking, and when I contacted him, he was eager to transport Robert and me. Robert, meanwhile, secured the services of Bob, of Powell Lake Marina, to pick us up at the north end of Powell Lake.
Finally, everything was ready for our adventure.
We left Vancouver on Wednesday, August 8 (exactly a year after Robert’s initial e-mail), taking the ferry at Horseshoe Bay to the Sunshine Coast, and eventually parking our vehicle at the Powell Lake Marina. We met Bob and made our final arrangements for him to pick us up in a week. A very nice chap (Lenny) gave us a lift to the Powell River/Comox ferry terminal; then as foot passengers, we travelled over to Comox. On this ferry, we were delighted to encounter Alison G., whom we had both known since elementary school.
Blair met us at the Comox ferry terminal and drove us to the nearby home of his friends Mark and Leslie F. It was at their home that not only did we sleep in beds in their basement, but we were also given a wonderful send-off meal of ribs, corn, and rice. Delightful people!
Very early on the morning of Thursday, August 9, we set out, driving to a boat launch just south of Campbell River. It wasn’t long before we were heading across the Strait of Georgia.
Our route passed between Quadra and Cortes Islands, then between the islands of Raza and West Redonda, and then we entered Toba Inlet.
On both sides of the inlet, steep cliffs rose over 1,500 metres to the tops of the mountains that line the fjord. The water was calm, and as we progressed it became increasing greener with glacier silt.
After 86 km of travel, we reached the little bay where Robert and I were to disembark. Blair brought the bow of the boat to nudge the bedrock and we hoisted our packs and stepped ashore.
We were filled with excitement – we were now to be left to ourselves and the unknown lay above and beyond. Blair remained just offshore for a short while; perhaps he, too, felt that this separation was one of total commitment.
Then with a shout and wave, Blair was off. His motor grew fainter and fainter until it was just silence that enveloped us. It was now 8:30 a.m. Robert and I were now alone, and our adventure had really begun.
We knew that the toughest sections of the traverse were the bushwhacks at both the beginning and the ending of the entire route. Rising directly above us was a mess from past logging operations – the coniferous forest had long been removed and now groves of alder had taken over. Most imposing, however, was the thick underbrush, comprised mainly of salmonberry and devils club, both with their thorny stocks. Rotten logging refuse lay hidden below this vegetation, making travel especially hazardous. Somewhere within all of this was an old logging road, which we had noted on Google Earth, and we hoped that it was passable.
Blair had not only been useful to transport us in his boat – he had noticed on Google Earth that there was a powerline that travelled from further up Toba Inlet, passing high above where we landed, and continued up the valley above and eventually descended into another valley to the south. Our intention was to bushwhack through the logging mess and find the old logging road, which we hoped would lead to another road that had serviced the construction of the power line. The power line road was only a few years old, and we hoped that it was not yet overgrown; it lay 2,000 feet above us.
The bushwhack proved to be very nasty and we didn’t encounter the old logging road until we had smashed 1,000 feet upwards through the horrendous bush. This road is now overgrown and, as we proceeded, we needed to work our way through dense alder and scrub. It took us over three hours to ascend from the ocean, through the bush, and up the scant remains of the logging road in order to reach the second road, the powerline road. We were relieved to find that vegetation had not yet reclaimed the powerline road and for the next several kilometres we could now hiked far more easily. We had not packed sufficient drinking water and we were very hot! Eventually the road drew near a creek and we were able to get relief. I drank 1½ litres!
At five kilometres, the road ended and the powerlines continued onwards, descending far below into the next valley. It was here that we turned northeast up steep slopes, bushwhacking through blueberry bushes. Again, we were parched, yet found relief with handfuls of marvelous berries.
Eventually we emerged out of the trees and out onto a steep meadow. A brook descended from a high snow patch. At 1,700m (5,600’), just below the skyline, we pitched our tents and settled in. The bugs were horrible – mainly mosquitos and horseflies.
Next morning, Friday, August 10, we began by hiking up the remaining 75m to meet the beginning of a marvellous ridge system that would take us in an enormous horseshoe, heading first north, then east, and then a long way south. This 40 kilometre long route remains at an elevation between 1,300 and 1950m and includes passing over of quite a few rounded peaks, including the Chusan Group.
Here is the start of our ridge……
The following are a series of pictures of the ridge, which leads from left to right, east to south. You can follow our ridge as it follows this arc.
Even to reach the area above the turquoise lake is only 1/4 of the distance of the entire traverse!
And looking back at the start of the ridge, one can see how perfect the route was……
Our packs were enormous. Robert called mine “The Winnebago”. Okay, so it’s 95 litres, but it is very comfortable. And hey, Don Munday stated, “If you can’t haul half your weight all day in the mountains, you have no business being there.” At 70 lbs, my pack was just 3 lbs lighter than that of Munday’s criteria. Robert’s pack was smaller in volume, yet he too was lugging quite a load.
As we proceeded all along the ridge, we had the most fabulous views. The area abounds in cliffs falling thousands of feet below; waterfalls tumble down these near vertical faces. There are also many, many lakes, each of a different hue – turquoise, azure, sapphire, royal, aquamarine.
Although the general route was easy to conceptualize, it was more difficult than we expected. As we hiked, we encountered frequent cliffs that barred travelling in a direct line. A way, however, was always found - it seemed almost miraculous that at each of these impediments we were able to find a bypass ramp or gully.
By 6:00 we were ready to end the day, so we set up our camp right on the ridge.
Here is what we looked and looked and looked at while cooking and eating dinner…..
And looking towards Chusan SW4 (1,985m/6,512’), where we were headed tomorrow..…..
We arose on the following morning (Saturday, August 11) to a band of clouds stretching across the entire western horizon. Forecasted for this day were showers, and we were hoping that they would be light and brief.
As seen in the previous picture, our ridge led over the significant hump of Chusan SW4, and as we approached it, the way to its summit did not look easy. Yet, like all obstacles encountered on the previous day, we again were able to find an amazing bypass route. This time, a wide ledge contoured all across the south face to the col on the other side. As we proceeded along this ledge, the clouds became thicker and they soon descended to envelope us.
It began to rain.
From the col, we climbed over the next mountain hump (Chusan SW3 at 1950m/6,394’) and, as we descended its east side, the rain became extraordinarily heavy.
We reached this next col just as the torrent really let loose, and here we found yet another of the miracles of this traverse – a perfectly dry alcove, protected by two enormous rocks set to lean against each other. We crawled in, and here we remained entirely protected for the next four hours while an electrical storm pounded the surrounding mountaintops.
By 2:30, it seemed that the storm had passed, even though it was still raining. We climbed out of our haven and, shouldering our packs, we went on.
A few hours later, the rain began to become more and more heavy, yet again we were fortunate: at the base of a small cliff we found a perfect roof under which we could stay dry and sit comfortably as we cooked our dinners.
The rain lessened, so on we went.
From here the route descended, heading south to a col where we were surprised to note that our maps omitted two significant glaciers – they’re not on the 1:50,000 nor on the 1:20,000 TRIM series.
We tried to skirt the first of these glaciers (it rose from the col), but we were compelled to ascend its steep east side. The way upwards led to rock.
The rain began to increase and soon it was simply pounding down again; we were now in a deluge.
It was at this point in the traverse that we learned just how to trust our Vibram soles. From here onwards, the entire rest of the traverse is slab rock, and here we were, in torrential rain, climbing 3rd and 4th class slab, trusting our fingers and the toes of our boots to tiny dimples as we climbed, bearing our heavy packs.
Again, luck was on our side: close to the top of this rise, the rain ceased just as we found a suitable place to set up camp!
Next morning (Sunday, August 12), we realized that above us was now not cloud, but wildfire smoke. Visibility was obscured, yet somewhere above, the sun was doing its best to try to cut through the haze.
On we went, first climbing over Chusan SW5 (1,950m/ 6,391’), continually following the ridge, then climbing over several more rounded mountaintops. The ridge just kept going! For the rest of the entire traverse, there was much scrambling, much trusting of dime-sized finger and toeholds, much descending of steep yet very slightly rippled surfaces - and almost all of this climbing up and down was on slab.
At cols we generally encountered vegetation, a few trees, and a significant increase of mosquitos and horseflies. Cliffs sank below on both sides, and we could hear the roar of waterfalls.
Look closely at the following photo and you’ll see three bugs!
That evening we camped close to one of the pools that are frequently encountered on this traverse. A bath was had by each.
Monday, August 13 was our fifth day of the traverse. Again, the sky was overcast with smoke, yet the smoke was thinner and we could see more of our surroundings.
We continued following our ridge, then hiked up and over yet another mountain. In places the rock was still wet from the rain of yesterday. One had to be especially careful to not step on a blackened spot of gooey muck where algae was extremely slippery.
From here, though, the way forward did not appear easy. The ridge now became very sharp (which really looked really fun to cross) - yet beyond, the route was obstructed by a series of imposing bluffs.
As we began crossing the thin ridge, we realized that those bluffs would present more serious climbing than just scrambling.
What to do?
Out came my new 40m, 6mm static rope, and we rappelled off the ridge top and down onto a bench. (And to all of you skeptics and naysayers: this is really the way to go for keeping your weight down in the mountains: 6mm is light! I do recommend, however, taking a rope longer than mine. 60 or even 80 metres would enable longer rappels.)
We then crossed an enormous bowl consisting of large expanses of slab. This detour enabled us to bypass two peaks, and eventually we were able to climb back up onto our ridge.
We were elated - the toughest scrambling of the entire trip was now behind us, and it was with relief that we also acknowledged that the difficulties encountered during the past days and been so tenuous in places that there were times when each of us had secret thoughts that the route was impassable.
A descent now lay before us, leading to where we intended to camp. Beyond, the ridge continued.
Again, we found a marvellous camping spot with drinking water, a bathing pool, and mosquitos.
Smoke was heavy in the air when we awoke in the morning of Tuesday, August 14.
This was the final day of the traverse. Ahead lay more slab and then the dreaded bushwhack down to the logging roads of the upper Powell River.
We began by ascending a broad ridge, then climbed our final peak (1,686m/5,532’). We should have had marvellous views to Powell Lake and surrounding mountains, yet the smoke obscured it all.
More slab lead down to the forest.
The descent began as a 350m continuous blueberry/willow "bush rappel", which was fun and quick. The next 1,200m were difficult however, and we stumbled down very steep slopes within thick rainforest, encountering frequent cliff bands. Route finding was tricky, yet miracles continued to emerge - we were able to find breaches.
At one place, above an almost vertical drop of some 20 metres, the way forward was only by a wriggle and tight squeeze through an opening between two fallen trees. I, however, couldn’t wedge myself through with my pack. The solution? Why, simply toss the Winnebago down the mountainside….All went as planned and the pack sensibly stumbled to a halt all on its own. I crawled through and slid down as its proud owner!
After several hours of downward struggle, the forest finally opened up. Then began a miserable slog down through 50m of messy logging slash.
It was with a strange and indescribable feeling that we finally stepped onto the logging road. Triumph? Elation? Resignation? Sadness? Now all that remained of the route was a five or six kilometres trudge on a logging road to reach the shores at the northern end of Powell Lake, where there is a logging assembly area and a dock, now abandoned during the summer fire season.
The traverse was over.
For six days, we had travelled 58km, with a total elevation gain of 5,395m.
Are any local climbers reading this story? Pay attention to what follows……
At the dock, we encountered humans. Two young climbers from California had just arrived to begin their trip to the gigantic cliffs located north of the lake.
This was Josh’s third or fourth annual trip to the area, making first ascents of the huge rock faces. He has purchased an old speedboat to take him up Powell Lake. He is visionary. He is 18 years old!
Accompanying him was John, likely in his very early twenties. He, too, was eager for making first ascents.
These two young guys intended to spend the next 8 days climbing. Off they went…..
BC climbers: that area has many rock faces higher that the Chief. Get going!
Robert and I set up our tents near the lake.
Early next morning Bob and his grandson arrived in their boat. It was a delightful 50km trip down Powell Lake to the marina at its south end.
Thank you, Robert, for your companionship on this magnificent adventure!
And now we can start planning a trip for 2019!