Without a doubt, the shoulder season is one of my favourite seasons for hiking! The cool air makes steep climbs tolerable, and when the sun makes an appearance, it usually brings just enough warmth to chase the chill away, but not enough to dehydrate us. The cooler temperatures mean I’m not dying of thirst, looking for the next trickle of water to drink from; instead, there’s plenty of water trickling downstream and filling alpine tarns, getting ready for winter ice. Finally, the cool air brings a great fall aesthetic. I’m not talking about thick-knit wool sweaters or fashionable scarves; I mean the greens of early summer, now retiring to a full spectrum of fall alpine colours. A personal favourite is seeing how the alpine blueberries transform, their leaves showing deep red, orange, and even purple hues!
Total Distance: 5.8 Km
Starting Elevation: 906 m
Maximum Elevation: 1763 m
Total Elevation Gain: 860 m
Total Time: 5 hours
Of course, it’s also a frustrating time of year to plan trips. Often, early-season snow can wreak havoc on the trail! A light dusting of snow will obscure common routes and make navigation tricky. Sometimes, a small quantity of snow is worse that a huge dump, because it can hide cracks between rocks or slippery roots, making walking treacherous! Lastly, it means hauling a heavier backpack, filled with extra clothes and gear: will you need that ice axe and crampons, and what about snowshoes? Consider the winter of 2014, or as we like to call it, “the winter-that-never-was,” (or “the winter of never-ending November”). Phil and I used our snowshoes only twice; but we carried them, attached to our backpacks, on twelve other trips. Because planning fall trips is such a challenge, we often end up planning trips week-by-week instead of months in advance.
Phil did the research for this recent trip, but he found little published information on the seldom-visited Peak 5800. The best information he found was a skiing video with Island Mountaineer John Waters in it. Unable to rely on data provided by previous trips, Phil plotted his route the old-fashioned way, by evaluating topographic maps and using Google Earth (okay, maybe not so old-fashioned).
On Sunday, October 9th, three of us piled into the Ditchmuncher and headed north. The scenery was a blur as we whizzed past the brown fall landscapes, heading well beyond Sayward. Several hundred kilometers from Nanaimo, we finally took a right off the highway onto the Kumum Mainline. The active logging road climbs steeply as it pushes deep into the valley. At times the roads are rough, but almost any vehicle with reasonable clearance and all-wheel drive would make it to the spur where we started our hike (~940 m). As we geared up outside the Jeep, we could hear chainsaws struggling to rip through wood, and the inevitable crack of trees as they fell and tumbled down the steep slopes. On the opposite side of the valley, we could see men and machines working to clear a cut block. These sounds would follow us as we hiked through the cold morning, until we mounted above 1500 metres into a cirque.
At 9:00am, we were walking a short section of ripped-up logging road. Frost glinted on the leaves in the chilly morning, winking at us as we passed the base of an old cut block. As we reached the end of the road, we crossed a short span of frozen shrubbery before plunging deep into a section of old growth. Rick expertly led us through the forest, hiking southwest up the steep hillside and following the path of least resistance. We were aiming for a broad gully, hoping it would provide us access to a plateau above. We had been hiking only fifteen minutes when we merged with a water course. Though only a trickle of water flowed, the channel created an ideal path. We walked up the stony path, easily gaining elevation. When the route became impassable, we stepped back into the forest on the hikers’ left. As we gained elevation, the trees gave way to their smaller alpine cousins; with the open terrain, heather- and moss-covered slopes accepted our footsteps as we climbed. We grunted with effort as we tromped up through the heather and mountain blueberry.
The biggest challenge of the day was on this first long hill. A wall emerged within the forest, and we were forced to use our hands on the heather to prevent us from slipping. I nervously picked my footsteps as I crept right along the rock wall. At times, I stepped on bent saplings, and used my hands on the rockface to steady myself. Once, I looked down the very steep slope and tried not to think of slipping on the dead plants and smooth heather as I made my way along the short stretch of ledge. Fortunately, the ledge quickly brought us around the rock face and provided access to the much easier slopes above.
Within an hour, we had climbed almost 400 metres and emerged from the last of the trees. A huge cliff face loomed ahead of us, well over a hundred metres tall. As we walked, I felt the crunch of fresh snow– our first of the season! We took a short break and looked toward our summit, but we caught only a glimpse of the peak through the fog and cloud.
The route was obvious: we could see straight up a heather-covered slope to a pass above. We moved quickly up the slope, but paused again at the top (~1520m). We needed to pick our route to the summit, but the low-hanging fog still obscured the peak–and most of our potential routes! We waited for a break in the clouds, intently watching the spot where the summit should be. Eventually, we gave up, knowing that the fog wouldn’t break any time soon. We crossed to the cirque, hopping over the icy trickle of water and coming out of the near-frozen alpine tarn, and started up the other side. As we climbed, we crossed dozens of snow patches, and at the top we saw that everything was blanketed in a crust of snow. More importantly, we could see the route ahead, up to the northwest ridge. Even though it was only a few inches deep, it was dense and crusty, cold enough that it supported our weight and made walking over the otherwise chossy ground easier.
Within a few minutes, we were standing on the edge of the ridge, admiring the view. A stiff breeze blew the clouds, giving us a glimmer of hope for a view from our summit! The ridge drops off on both sides; below us, I could see the surrounding landscape with many tantalizing ridges to explore! We continued up our chosen route, picking our way through the snow-covered rocks—oh, why didn’t I bring my mountaineering axe? In a few places, it would have been handy to use the pick or handle to place into the snow, instead of my hands. Regardless, it took just a little time to pick a careful route up the blanket boulders. Carefully, we avoided what looked like slabs of rock below four or five inches of snow. Mostly, the terrain is simple hiking, but we found one small section that could be called third-class terrain. Perhaps in the summer, the obstacle would be easy to surmount; but in the snow and ice, it took a tricky hand and foot placement to ensure that we didn’t fall off the wrong side of the rocks.
By noon we were standing on top of Peak 5800 (~1762 m). We stood in full sunshine, and any clouds that drifted by didn’t obscure our view for long! We stood at the small cairn, eating our lunch, admiring the landscape, and of course posing for photographs. As we ate our lunch, we started to doubt our successful summit. The mountain top is separated by a very narrow notch: it was hard to tell if we were on the high point, or if the bump on the other side of the notch was a metre higher. Whatever the case, we couldn’t make it to the other side: the snow and ice made the climb impossible, as we surely would have slipped off the low fifth-class terrain and tumbled to our deaths. We were satisfied with our summit, and set off for home.
We followed the same route back to the car, with only one small diversion. The frost which covered the heather in the morning had melted, leaving the slopes slick with wet heather. In many cases we skated down the slopes, and Phil even took a prolonged butt-slide as he descended the greased hills. Regardless of the potential for disaster, we made it safely back to the car by 2:00 pm. Phil did a great job plotting the route. When everything was said and done, our walked line was very close to the one he plotted.
I’m thinking ahead to trips in the upcoming months. There are plenty of options remaining on our list, but I still have questions about what type of terrain we will find. It may be too early to start packing snowshoes, but certainly my mountaineering axe will make its way into my backpack again.