Inhaling deeply, I hold my breath a long moment and then slowly exhale. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears, and feel it in my chest, as I release the shutter on my camera. It shudders as the frame is captured, preserving the moment. I’m high up on the summit of Mount Celeste, the highpoint on Rees Ridge, looking west over the mountain ridges and peaks that form the body of Strathcona Park. Behind me, the Aureole Icefield stretches the length of Rees Ridge. From my vantage point, I think about this place, its history, its visitors, and I reflect on its significance to me – the birthplace of my passion for mountaineering.
My introduction to mountaineering was not a trial by fire, but a trial by snow and ice. In July 2010, I joined the Island Mountain Ramblers and went on my first mountaineering adventure: a seven-day, ten-peak extravaganza through Strathcona Park. Although the trip included several ridge walks and a lot of traversing, the highlight was walking on one of Vancouver Island’s most precious mountain features: the Aureole Icefield on Rees Ridge. At a height of over 2000 metres, Rees Ridge gives access to some of the most outstanding views of Comox Glacier, Argus, Harmston, Tzela, Shepherds Ridge, Flower Ridge, Rousseau Ridge … if we were talking, I would be out of breath just listing them!
Horizontal Distance 35 km
Starting Elevation 970 m
Maximum Elevation 2047 m
Total Elevation Gain 2207 m
Though I lack the words to describe how it feels to stand atop the tenth-tallest peak on Vancouver Island and look across the landscape, it’s a feeling I am always eager to embrace. When the opportunity arrived recently, I willingly joined a group of three Island Mountain Ramblers to recapture that feeling!
Car to Carey Lakes
On Friday, June 3rd, the four of us planned to complete a traverse from Carey Lakes to Mirren Lake. Our route followed a series of easy walking snow-capped ridges, including the Aureole Icefield. We planned the trip as a thru-hike, and arranged a car at each end of the trail–a long car shuffle made even longer by poor road conditions.
We parked Jon’s truck four kilometres from the Mirren Lake trailhead, and used my vehicle to drive the long gravel roads. As my Jeep crawled up the extraordinarily steep roads, we caught sight of Rees Ridge looming on the horizon; bathed in the evening light, it tantalized us with the promise of adventure. The road climbs high onto a plateau and terminates in a horrible washout at ~990m. We readied for the night’s goal: Carey Lakes, inside Strathcona Park.
We quickly covered the remaining four kilometres of logging road. The broad ridge suffers the indignity of heavy logging, but the denuded landscape gives views of wildlife. We disturbed bear, birds, and deer as we walked; they observed us calmly from their positions, resorting to running only when it was obvious that we, the intruders, wouldn’t be deterred in our mission.
We departed the road and walked through light bush, seeking Carey Lakes as the sun set. As we arrived, the warmth of the day was replaced by a heavy mist that rolled across the snow-covered lakes, and the deep croaking song of frogs became the soundtrack for the evening. While preparing our camp (~1120m), Tom discovered that his down-filled stuff sack carried a vest instead of the sleeping bag he had hoped for! He made do through the sleepless night, frequently examining his watch.
Carey Lakes to Rees Ridge
The cold, blue light of pre-dawn glowed around us as we rose and prepared for the day; even at four in the morning, there was enough light that we didn’t need headlamps. As we left camp at 5:30 am, we sorted our route and set the day’s goal as Siokum Mountain. We had a long route ahead of us, with another 35 kilometers to go on top of the five we’d travelled from our car to Carey Lakes. We barely noticed the creeping sun that would eventually scorch the landscape.
Hiking west over the deep snow, we sought the toe of a ridge that provides access via a series of connecting ridges. The route is easy, and Jon planned it well; we covered ground quickly. Soon, however, the cool morning air gave way to the blazing hot sun of the May heatwave. By midmorning, the heat was excruciating; the clear blue sky offered no protection, and the sun beat down on us and reflected blindingly off the snow-covered ridges. The route offers a good number of highpoints, allowing us opportunities to admire the area we walked. Eventually, our route turned sharply south and up the narrow edge of a connecting buttress that gives access to the high plateau of Peak 1795, another amazing viewpoint. As I climbed the rocks and snow to the plateau, I looked to my left: a shiver ran down my back as I watched Phil crossing just beyond the heavy cornice on the plateau.
We took our first break at a small tarn on the plateau as we waited for everyone to gather. I took the opportunity to kick my boots off, lie back, and enjoy the heat of the day. Before long we were back on our feet, descending to the saddle between Peak 1795 and the long ridge that gives access to Siokum Mountain. The route to the ridge high above is easy to navigate, and it was only 12:30 pm when we arrived at the junction between our two destinations: a highpoint at 1892 metres. With seven hours of hiking already under our boots, we took another well-deserved rest as we considered our options: to the northwest, we could see the undulating path to Siokum Mountain; to the south, the more obscured route to Rees Ridge and Celeste.
Abandoning our gear on the highpoint, we made a beeline to Siokum Mountain. Without my backpack, my feet felt light; invigorated, I jogged down the steep snow slopes and across snowfields toward the summit. I looked longingly at another highpoint on the ridge, but passed below it to save time and energy. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t regret it: “You’ve done that one already, you don’t need to do it again.” Reaching the final 30 metres of Siokum, I practically ran up the choss to the summit (1871m). At the summit, I looked across to Peak 1909, searching out the route I used when I visited in 2010. At the time, we had used an extremely steep snow-filled gully to access the summit; today, the gully was filled with rock, not a snowflake to be seen. I am thankful we didn’t set 1909 as a goal.
Back at our gear, we considered setting up camp. In order to meet our goal of covering half the distance, we still had a lot of ground remaining for the day. Though we needed to push on, we compromised with our exhaustion and took a well-deserved two-hour siesta. Kicking our boots off, we stretched out on the bare rocks, and I covered my face with my hat. While we dozed, the sun continued to beat down on us as it moved across the sky. It was difficult to get moving again, but by 4:30 pm we were on our way, hoping to cover another few kilometres before setting camp.
Soon, we found a snow-free spot with tarns and soft heather, on the bump (over 1900m) before Rees Ridge. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the location was the stunning view of the both the sunset and the sunrise. It was still early, just 5:00 pm, but it was time to stop; this was the perfect spot for us. As we ate our meals, we looked to Rees Ridge and debated which bump was Celeste. I had a good idea, but my memory was fuzzy, and the others believed I was wrong. It wasn’t even dark when the others went to bed, but I forced myself to stay up and catch the sun setting behind the Golden Hinde. I managed a few snaps, but soon retired to my tent. The hot weather had taken its toll on all of us, and we slept uninterrupted through the night.
Rees Ridge to Kweishun Valley
Jon woke me at 5:00 am to watch the sunrise over the Coast Mountain Range. I was happy to witness it spilling its light on the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island. After another hour of sleep, we started the day. We descended from camp, off the bump to the col between our camp and Rees Ridge. At the bottom, we finally took our first steps on the Aureole Icefield. Gaining elevation, we hiked the nearest peak (2032m); since Celeste isn’t an official name, Phil decided to dub this bump Mount Mitzy. From here, it was obvious that the opposing bump (Celeste) was higher. Jon, Phil, and I descended to the base just as Tom was reaching it; ever focused on our objectives, he skipped Mount Mitzy and joined us on Celeste at 2045m– it’s just a bit taller!
We wandered the Rees Ridge, following its steep but easy terrain southwest to Iceberg Peak. From the strait, Iceberg looks indomitable; but once on the ridge, it’s an easy walk to the summit. When we arrived, we found Jon perched on the summit cairn, drinking a pilsner left behind by Dick Victoria when he visited the peak a month earlier. It’s a fine thing to share an unexpected, ice-cold beverage on the summit with a group of friends.
As I readied my camera to take photographs, I discovered I had misplaced the polarizing filter on my camera! I hated to lose it, so I separated from the group; the other three continued on route to Mirren Lake, while I backtracked. I followed my footprints, first to Celeste, then Mount Mitzy, down to the col, and back to the campsite – NOTHING! AARRRG, an expensive lesson about taking gear into the backcountry! I knew I was wasting precious time; everyone would be waiting for me. I made a beeline across the Aureole Icefield. I was fast, but the heat of the sun, combined with the light bouncing off the ice, dehydrated me. I walked with two handfuls of snow, regularly popping it in my mouth to keep hydrated.
Returning to my backpack, I drank deeply from my water bottle and removed my hat– it was hot to the touch. I stood on the edge of the drop-off down to Mirren Lake, into the Kweishun Creek Valley. I could see the tracks travelling down and across the length of several very steep snow slopes, and my three friends sitting on the frozen surface of Mirren Lake. I jogged, trying to make up for lost time.
As I reached the col between Rees Ridge and Comox Glacier, I interrupted lunchtime for two climbers. Unintentionally, I snuck up behind them and surprised them. To my regret, my haste prevented us from making introductions. I asked after my friends, but the climbers had only just arrived back to their camp. Departing, I continued following my friends’ tracks down the final slope down to the lake. It was a tricky slope; I bluffed out once, and had to reclimb 30 metres to cut across and descend another section of snow slope, but otherwise it’s an easy route to Mirren Lake at the bottom of the Kweishun Creek Valley.
The valley is another natural feature that is hard to describe. I’m calling it The Valley of a Hundred Waterfalls. As I worked my way down the valley, I could see dozens of waterfalls feeding the creek with their glacial meltwater. When at last I made it to Mirren Lake, only Phil was waiting for me. Some two hours earlier, Tom had fallen and cracked two ribs and hurt his shoulder; he and Jon were slowly walking the route back to the trucks.
I’m not sure who tracked the GPS route we followed, but the route is an unexpected bush bash with multiple crossings of the knee-deep water of Kweishun Creek. Cutting left and right across the valley, we gave up on the route and followed the path of least resistance. In many cases, we pushed straight through the bush. As we closed in on the logging road, we intersected an overgrown path and followed it down the final hill. Although we were relieved to be out of the bush and on the logging road, the pain didn’t stop. I looked down the several kilometres of road and sighed. It’s not even reasonable to call some sections of it a road anymore; a good chunk of it is nothing more than a dry river bed. As we walked the final section of logging road, we caught up to Tom and Jon, and arrived together at the truck.
The final section of the trail left a sour taste in my mouth, sullying the trip at the time. I’ll definitely return to Rees Ridge again, but I won’t take the Kweishun Creek Trail to Mirren Lake. Instead, I’ll hike back in through Carey Lakes. For those interested in hiking Strathcona Park’s high alpine ridges, I highly recommend Rees Ridge; you won’t be disappointed.