The Hike Through Hell to get to Heaven, Hiking in the Haihte Range

In Activity, Mount Waddinton Regional Distrcit, Mountaineering, Regional Districts by Explorington1 Comment

The Haihte Range on Vancouver Island has the nickname, Little Patagonia. My friend Ryan B. often comments on how this is one of his favourite mountain ranges of Vancouver Island because it has ample opportunities for glacial exploration as well as general mountaineering and opportunities for setting gear for trad climbing.

Gendarmes, Merlon and Ya’ai peaks

Total Horizontal Distance: 26.3 km
Starting Elevation: 246 m
Max Elevation: 1,872 m
Elevation Gail: 3,461m

Day One — Getting There

Monday morning, Ryan picked me up at the very reasonable time of 7:45 am. After a quick stop to pick up Richard BS. & Mike C. and the obligatory coffee, we were on the road to heading well north of Campbell River. Our eventual driving goal was the N20 spur off the Nomash Main. To get there we drove about 20 km past the Woss turnoff, before turning left  (west) onto the Zebellos  Mainline. (I have to apologize about the road names, after examining several sources, there seems to be some discrepancy about the road name; Some call it Atluk Rd and others Pinder Main. If you check my GPS route you will easily see where we drove.) Regardless, we drove about 30 minutes/ 30 kilometres to the Nomash Mainline turnoff, left at the |Zebellos sign and across a bridge that crosses Nomash River.

Our First View of our Destination. Viewed just after crossing the Nomash River

While driving down the Zebellos Mainline we could see Zebellos Peak on our left, obscuring our view of the Haihte Range. Shortly after making the turn onto Nomash Main, we crossed the bridge over the Nomash River and we were greeted with our first view of our destination. First, the South Blades then Rugged and eventually Merlon and eventually the whole range. We stopped to admire the range but quickly ventured down the good quality logging road to our destination. Ultimately we stopped at the old N20 Spur and piled out of the vehicle.

packing our bags in 30-degree heat
After lunch, we loaded our bags, most 65+ pounds

The day was HOT, easily in the low thirties. We decided to prep our bags and eat lunch at the vehicle,  it was already past one. After eating and loading our bags, we were hiking by 1:30. Our research indicated that the trail would take around 5 hours, from the car to Nathan’s Col. We started up the old spur in a hurry but very soon we realized that the temperature of the day was going to be an issue. After only 25 minutes of hiking the lead hiker suggested a break, we all agreed. Given the heat and the weight of our packs, we were all overheating, shirts soaked through.

Typical route up the N20 spur, until you reach the end of the cleared section

We walked for about two hours, about 4 kilometres, up the N20 spur as it followed the switchbacks several times back and forth as it ascended from 230 m, where we parked our car, to 650 meters. Hiking up the deactivated logging road was easy. There was evidence that the alder and lower brush had been cleared, in the recent past.

At the 650 m/ 4km mark, the clipped portion ended,– dramatically! A wall of alder with some hemlock interspersed inhibited our progress greatly. Although there was a flagged route through the mess of new growth, we eventually discovered that it wasn’t the fastest or easiest route. The flagged route draws the hiker closer to the eastern (left side) and progress becomes more difficult as you need to climb over fallen trees, combat alder and traverse gravel wash out. We discovered that trying to find the old N20 spur was worth the effort. Although the alder was grown up, in many sections you could easily plow through, saving a lot of time. This section of the trail only lasts for about 600 m but it took as nearly 45 minutes to get through, partially because we were looking for the route up that would allow us to gain the ridge above us.

The view where the clipped section ends.
up the dry creek bed

We had gathered a lot of anecdotal information about where we were going and what we were looking for, a few of the climbers had ever done this route before; though a decade earlier. Regardless, it was easy to identify a place to head up to the ridge. It was marked with three colours of ribbon: blue, orange and predominantly red stripes on a white field. From here, I shall call this route Candy Cane Lane. I use this name because of the colour and the feeling of happiness you may experience once you see this marking. We may have even forgotten the bush-bash we just came through. However, as we progressed we realized the route was getting steeper and more challenging,  much like a candy cane becomes sharper on the point, and eventually you could use it as a tool of torture to extract valuable information from your siblings; But that’s enough about my family’s Christmases… for now.

Candy Cane Lane follows a dry creek bed for some time, this is a benefit because it allows the hiker to avoid a lot of the alder and hemlock second growth that would otherwise make the climb more challenging. Eventually, the second growth gives way to first growth and the undergrowth becomes more manageable. It’s at this point that the route becomes much steeper. The route is relatively easy to find. There was evidence that at least a few people had recently hiked it and therefore the flags were ideally spread out, allowing us to easily see where we needed to go. By 6:15 we had gained the ridge, which starts around 1100 metres.

The only source of water, about 45 minutes from the car

Unfortunately, by this time, each of us had exhausted the two or more litres of water we brought with us and there was nowhere to refresh our supply.  The hike became a slow march up the ridge and sustained ourselves by eating the ample numbers of delicious alpine blueberry and huckleberry. Each little berry popped with a satisfying burst of precious water as I popped them in my mouth.

Taking a much-needed break on the balcony

By the time we reached the balcony, a viewpoint that gives an amazing view of the range ahead, it was 7:00 PM. We could see our destination at the top of a steep scree slope that leads up to Nathan’s Col. Additionally we could see and hear, I imagine even taste, water far down below us at the base of the scree. We hiked forward, losing some elevation and eventually hit the water source. As we drank our fill of water and filled our bottles we watched as the long shadow of the ridge above cast its ominous shadow across the landscape. Foreshadowing a nighttime ascent of the final slope…

With Nathan’s Col right above us we set our intention on the 275-metre climb ahead of us. The scree slope is a thing of mathematical beauty, it perfectly follows the exponential curve of many Grade 11 math computations. The ascent was made even more magical  because we were benighted as we reached the halfway point. Three of the four  hikers donned headlamps and made the final approach in pitch black.

Once at the col (1580 m) we made camp, found water and ate our meals. It didn’t take long before we were all ready to hit the hay. We hike a long day with a lot of weight and were suffering from minor dehydration. Though we were happy to reach our destination, we speculated on what the next days would bring.

The shadow of the colossus, taken as we arrived at Nathan’s Col

Horizontal Distance: 7.1 km
Time: 8:40
Max Elevation: 1577m
Total Elevation Gain: 1575 m

Day Two — Exploring Upper Rugged Glacier and Merlon Peaks

The morning brought more sun, with clear views of the Upper Rugged Glacier, glimpses of Lower Rugged Glacier and the tarn at the base of the glaciers.  The approach on the first day took its toll on us, we had expected a 5-hour hike and spent nearly nine hours. With the addition of the dehydration of the first day, we were all exhausted and wanting an easier day. Further, we were expecting two additional climbers on Wednesday, we wanted to wait for them before ascending Rugged Mountain. Instead, we picked Merlon, quite close to camp; essentially just beyond the Chicken Leg and Gendarme that towered over our camp at Nathan’s Col.

The Gendarmes above our camp at Nathan’s Col. You can see the drumstick on the left one

At breakfast, we decided on the easiest of all the peaks, Merlon. We roped up around 10 am and walked the glacier descending approximately 50 meters to round the base of the Gendarmes. In general, we took a northeast approach.  At this point we made an error in judgement, we would make a few times over the weekend, we picked the incorrect point as the summit. Though the group had spent a lot of time exploring the route, no one had the geo-locations or a map with the peaks marked.

Our first peak was the closest to the Gendarmes above our Nathan’s Col. Although it was easy to ascend, once we were at the summit we had a clear view of the ridge that leads to the east face of the Gendarm. It looked as though it would be possible to reach our camp, if we traveled along the rocky ridge between the two peaks and up over the notch on the Gendarm. We didn’t test this theory as we were still in search of our summit at 1670m!

Looking east, our camp is beyond that point

From our vantage point it looked as though there could be multiple peaks that met the criteria of the main peak. If you view the GPS route, you will see that it took us one more false summit to finally obtain our summit of the main peak of Merlon.

The final ascent of the summit proper is interesting. There were two summits close to each other and the easiest approach to the main summit requires ascending very near the top of the Central Merlon Summit and climb through a notch. From here we needed to slightly downclimb. There was a reasonable amount of exposure to a gully down the east face of the Merlon blades. Mike C. set a hand line to help secure an easier descent. The stone is not solid. There are many small, medium and even a few larger rocks that are poised be pulled off the otherwise easy downclimb. Once down we only need to skirt around a point before traversing and ultimately scrambling up a gully of the main summit to 1817 m, according to my GPS.

descending from the notch

It took us quite a few hours of meandering to determine and eventually find the main summit of Merlon. We set our sites on home. After a quick descent of Merlon, we were all delighted to discover that it took us less than an hour of walking to reach camp. It really reinforces the need to know exactly the summit heights and preferably,, what the geo-locations are. This could have saved us three hours of travel. However, I don’t regret the experience of topping most of the Merlon Peaks. In fact, summiting more than one really reinforces the meaning of merlon.

Taking a moment to enjoy a break on the summit

Horizontal Distance: 4.1 km
Time: 6.5 hours, mostly meandering
Max Elevation: 1731 m
Total Ascent: 647m

Day Three — Triplets

*Thanks to Linsay Elms for correcting my error, Edited September 24th, 2014
Our first day of summit seeking was longer than anticipated and we were not yet ready for the long days that are needed for Haihte Spire or Yai ‘ai. Therefore, we chose to check out Triplets and the snowfield and glacier below.  We were outfitted and roped up, complete with crampons by 10 am .  The four of us traversed to the upper reaches of the Upper Rugged Glacier, right below the main summit of Rugged Mountain. Contouring the glacier provided amazing views of the surrounding landscape, including Tahsis Inlet, Woss lake, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and may other peaks around the region: like the Bonanza Range.

Getting to the glacier requires travelling southeast above Nathan’s Col, in front of Rugged Mountain’s north face. Quickly, we passed in front of Rugged and reached a gap at  1670 m, in a col between the  Rugged’s east ridge and another small bump. We descended a short scree slope to the snow and glacier below.

Ryan standing at the edge of a ridge, A few of the South Blades in the background

From the high vantage point at the col,  we couldn’t decipher if the area beyond our view bluffed out or not. Therefore we descended around 1400 metres before starting our ascent to Triplets ridge. Triplets forms several peaks on emerging from an easily traversable ridge. The ridge forms a line, that line is both physical and political, it lines the edge of Woss Lake Park. We ascended to a col between the south peak of Rugged Mountain and what looked to be a high point on the ridge. Our impetus was several small bottles of whisky, purported to be at the summit of the South Blades!

From the snowy col we easily rambled down the snow and avoided issues with moats or crevasses. From this point, I hiked up a gully, though some of the others chose to scramble up a steep heathered slope, only a few meters away. Ultimately both routes joined together at the top. Exposure was minimal but I would still rate it as fourth class, some loose scree but overall some simple mantling made the ascent easy.

near the top of the northernmost bump on the South Blades, Rugged Mountain in the background

Following this route took us up to about 20 meters below the first summit, there are three peaks accessible via this route. By the time I reached this point, Richard BS was already languidly airing his feet on the summit. From my position, I was able to access a fourth class ledge that gave easy walking access to the bases of the three peaks in this formation.

I personally skipped the first one, it was apparently the most challenging however the second two were easy scrambles to the top. From the summits views were fantastic for 360 degrees. To descent, we walked along a short ridge to the south and belayed down.   Richard BS set a piton and descended first but as Ryan B was getting set up to rappel, the piton visibly shifted. Ryan got off and Michael set some webbing. The piton came free, by simply lightly pulling at it, the rock around the piton had turned to dust.

View of Tahsis Inlet, from one of the South Blades’ bumps

It was getting too late to try any further summits. As most of us were completing our rappels Richard BS, hiked up the next slope to check the next peak. This peak appeared to require setting gear and roping up. At this point it was 4:45 pm and we were concerned that we wouldn’t make it back to camp before dark. We set home. The trip back to Nathan’s Col was very quick, we knew where we were going and therefore we took a bit of a shorter rout and we were back at camp in about an hour and half.

More summits

Horizontal Distance: 5 km
Max Elevation: 1726m
Total Elevation Gain: 725 m

I enjoyed the traverse of the range, the views and the chance to walk on more glaciers.

Late in the evening, while most of us were enjoying our bagged dinners, Rory and Ian arrived. They smoothly came up over the lip of the col and appeared to be in good spirits, considering the mess of bush they just came through. With all the climbers now present, we made plans for Rugged Mountain, for the next day.

Day Four — Rugged Mountain

Rugged mountain is the closest peak to the camp at Nathan’s Col. We decided on the route that wraps around the mountain, starting with the northwest face up to the west ridge and around the south face to gain the east ridge. Island Alpine Select names this route the Walsh-Facer-Hutchinson Route. This route was made possible by the fact that there was no snow at all on the Rugged’s summit block. Given that the mountain was so close to camp there was no urgency in the morning, we left camp unroped at 10:15. Our first goal was to make it to a notch between the main block and small bump, this notch is visible from camp and took less than 20 minutes for us to reach.

Ryan walking toward the Upper Rugged Glacier, Rugged Mountain in the background

Once past the notch, we stepped off the glacier and removed our crampons, we wouldn’t need them again until we descended,  after summiting.  The six of us slowly ascended the northwest face, creeping along a ledge that twists along the face, nothing more than class three scrambling; although some of it with big exposure.  We reached the west ridge by 11:30, progress was only slowed because there were so many climbers.  However, this allowed Richard BS to strike a pose, whilst hanging onto the rock that marks the edge of the ridge.

Mike C, stepping up to the west ridge

The route continues in an easy fashion across the southwest face of  Rugged, eventually requiring an easy scramble either up a shallow gully or slab face. Either are relatively easy, though each has exposure. This slab leads the climber to the top of the east ridge at 1850 m. The ridge is narrow and is shaped like the peak of a roof! We arrived here quickly, right before noon.

The final ascent requires the climbers to climb what at least one guide calls a chimney. From the east ridge, the summit is only 20 m higher. Its a hair raising experience that requires one simple low 5th class move to achieve the summit. Once at the top we ate our lunch and enjoyed the moment. Although the summit was crowded with 6 people, we all happily accommodated each other for photographs etc.

reading the registrar on the summit
the cure for your problems?

On the summit, we took a chance to read the register and remember past visitors. We found some familiar Vancouver Island names: Lindsay Elms, Tak Ogasawara and the late Charles Turner to mention a few.  We planned our descent. Rather than hike down the way we came, we committed to descending the East Ridge via the chockstone, sometimes referred to as The Window.  Descending below the chockstone requires a double rappel. The first is over uneasy terrain but worth putting up the pro.  The second offered adventure!

With all the climbers safely below the chockstone, after the first rappel, Ryan set up the gear off the best possible object. We found a small rock that is firmly affixed to the shelf, It had a half dozen sets of webbing attached to it.  After setting up the rappel he descended … and ran into some trouble. The descent is completed by stepping off rappel onto the glacier.  Herein lies the challenge, the glacial moat.  Ryan, who is 6′ 4″ had a real struggle trying swing out and catch the edge of the glacier with his ice axe and somehow manage to get his crampons dug into the edge and get off the rappel. Consequently, we searched for a new descent.

Setting up the rappel at the chock stone
Off the first rappel and setting up second

We found opportunity, a short distance away, to the south about 5 metres. It was clear others had used it, there were two sets of webbing left behind. However, it was less than perfect. It required the webbing to be precariously put atop a tiny lip. Though it ultimately proved safe, it was less than ideal. Once at the bottom of the rappel it was easy to hop onto the glacier and setup up to be on top of the upper Rugged Glacier once again.

Total Horizontal Distance: 2.2 km
Max Elevation: 1872 m
Total Elevation Gain: 332 m

Day Five: Disappointment & Return

By day five we have checked off all of the nearby peaks. Our remaining goals were Haihte Spire and Ya’ai. We had some concerns about route finding to the base of Ya’ai. Rory and Ian left camp early, at 6 am, venturing out to summit Ya’ai and hopefully Merlon in the same day. The remainder of us stayed behind in camp, intending a later departure around 9 or 10. We hoped that we might allow the early birds to do some of the route finding for us.

As we ate breakfast we scanned the glacier and Ya’ai’s face for any sign of the first two. Sometime during breakfast, we could see weather rolling in. We considered our plans but needn’t consider long because the weather was upon us. It began to fall, a light shower at first and then with increasing intensity. Enough that we all ran for the shelter of our tents.  We waited out the rain in there. Around noon the weather cleared up and we considered our options for the day. Right then, Rory and Ian returned to camp.

We were all a bit surprised, we expected them to be on the summit of Ya ‘ai. Ian reported that they had searched the bottom of the Upper Rugged Glacier for a possible passage to the Lower Rugged Glacier. Unfortunately, given the time of year, here was no snow/ice bridge. Further, the Lower Rugged Glacier had melted away from the rock creating a wide moat and deep crevasse all the way around it.

This created a quandary, what would we do? We had planned this trip for 7 days and we were only on day 5, we still hoped for Ya ‘ai and Haihte Spire. We discussed our options and ultimately it was decided that we wouldn’t be able to achieve either of these summits, the progress would be too slow getting to the Lower Rugged Glacier and we still have to get off the glacier and onto the rock to Ya ‘ai and all the route finding up to the summit in between. We decided to call it.

We packed up camp quickly and by about two o’clock we were descending from Nathan’s Col. In the light the true nature of the slope was revealed. More than a handful of times I questioned, “How did we make it up this slope without injury?”.  The slope is exceptionally steep but this isn’t the only factor that makes it a problem. The scree, mostly comprised of limestone, has a wide variety of rock sizes, non of which are very stable. At the top of the slope each step send a small slide of rock down the hill. With the large pack on it created a bit of a balance issue. However, we were able to slowly pick our way back and forth across the slope, safely. No falls or injury.

The rain of the morning remained heavy on the leaves of the blueberry, huckleberry…  and every stick and twig in the forest. The day was warm but not hot. Our pace was quick, therefore we didn’t wear waterproof breathable. Before long we were drenched.

We reached the cars at 7 pm, tired, wet and happy to be out. We paused for a moment to look back at the mountains. But only for a moment, soon the bugs set in and we rushed to dress in clean clothes, and load our gear in the car.

We exited the trail.

A Special Note about Vermin, Bugs and Birds

Nathan’s Col is in the wilderness, the alpine landscape is high above the forest but not so high as to offer protection from critters. Our biggest challenge was bugs. We fought no-see-ums, mosquitoes and biting flies. Everyday! The only time we didn’t have bugs to deal with is when the winds were high or when the temperatures were really low. We were fortunate with the weather, quite warm and mostly the wind was kept at bay. Unfortunately, this meant bugs, lots and lots of bugs.  I was the only one that came prepared, I wore a bug mask over my wide-brimmed hat and this kept my face protected. Combined with my mosquito armour (rain jacket and rain pants), I was able to be quite comfortable.

On day three we came back to camp to find it a mess, garbage and food packages strewn about! Fortunately, our tents were unscathed. Who was the culprit?!  Ravens! I had my dehydrated meals, coffee and a few of my dried snacks wrapped tightly in a plastic bag and several large rocks placed on top for safety. The others buried their pepperoni, vegetables and snacks in the snow.My meals were pulled out and several punctured. An entire chocolate bar was missing, wrapper included! Poor Mike, lost two packages of unopened pepperoni that were hidden under several bags of fresh veggies. The Ravens dug up the vegetable packages and tossed them aside, untouched, before devouring all his pepperoni. The ravens, I assume with glee in their black hearts, ripped open the package and devoured only the pepperoni sticks. Richards food tragedy was a mystery. An entire large package of Twizzlers was raided! Only the empty package remained, a hollow husk as a reminder of snacks lost.

View the entire photo album here.

View of the South Blades from one of it’s bumps


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