–photographs by Phil Jackson (thank you)
Vancouver Island’s backcountry is bristling with mountains, most of which are unknown to the average person. Many of these peaks don’t have local names, or even official names! Trio Mountain falls into this unknown category. Even though it’s only a few kilometers from Gold River, it’s seldom visited. I’d also wager that most folks couldn’t identify it, even if they looked right at it. It’s not fair to say that peaks are lonely; even if you enjoy anthropomorphizing a mountain, it’s more likely that the mountain enjoys its solitude. Perhaps, even, they look on in paralyzed horror, watching as their neighbors are denuded.
Despite its relatively unknown status, Trio Mountain has earned a high standing on my list of great mountain hikes. It features a steep approach through old-growth forest, a ramble along a tarn-filled lower plateau, and easy scrambling to a high upper ridge that grants access to the two peaks. And, at 1740 meters, it offers spectacular views in all directions. It’s sure to capture any mountaineer’s fancy, if they can be bothered to visit it!
Total Distance: 14.5 km
Starting Elevation: 700 m
Maximum Elevation: 1735 m
Elevation Gain: 1165 m
Time: 7 h 30 m
On October 23rd, four of us drove the long twisting highway between Campbell River and the Saunders mainline, only 10 kilometres from Gold River. The roads are in good condition, though active logging is a constant concern. We drove deep down the Saunders Creek valley and stopped in front of a two-meter high berm of earth and rocks. After crawling over the berm in Ditchmuncher, we parked (~700m) and started our hike.
Even at 8:45 am, the dark clouds created a heavy overcast sky, making it feel like the wee hours of the morning. Trio Mountain was still obscured by the plateau in the foreground. This complicated the trip, because we couldn’t see the conditions and therefore brought all the accouterments of the shoulder season: poles, crampons, snowshoes, and mountaineering axes. The only things we didn’t seem to have were ropes and harnesses! We started our hike up the deactivated logging spur, our pace hastened by the cool fall air. As we walked, we crossed numerous washouts, and even one large slide area. The earth, complete with trees, rocks, and shrubbery, had slid, undamaged, from a higher elevation to cover the road. Eventually, our deactivated spur intersected with an active one, and we found fresh tire tracks leading up the road. We trusted our research to lead us in the right direction.
We worked our way up the mountain, stopping at 1000 metres to examine our route beyond. It’s here that we turned off the road, heading up through a short section of logging slash. We used game trails wherever we could, following them up through the defoliated blueberries and rotting vegetation, over slippery logs and moss-covered rocks. As logging slash goes, it’s pretty easy. In less than 20 minutes we were clambering up a short rock into the old growth.
We travelled up the northwest face through typical old growth. The steep slopes were filled with light bush, slippery rocks, large fallen logs, and mountain shrubs of all kinds. Mostly, we stayed to the forest, but we periodically accessed a lightly-flowing watercourse to round a bluffy section of the route. Ultimately, we worked our way back into the forest and gained the first in a series of plateaus (1320m). As we walked up and out of the forest, we took our first steps on the crusty early morning snow, and enjoyed a break. The view took my breath away! We were overlooking a frozen lake, deep in a cirque formed by a higher sub-summit and the ridge above. It was all blanketed with a light dusting of freshly fallen snow. Looking to the sky, we could see patches of blue. The sun beat through at times, but we were walking in the shadow of the landscape. We each added a few layers and gloves as we prepared for deeper snow and even more elevation gain, up the hill on the right of the lake.
It was atop the hill where we finally caught our first glimpses of Trio Mountain. The ridge stretched across our vision to the southwest; we could see two high bumps and a broad saddle between them. Between us and the base of the massif, the landscape rolls along multiple frozen tarns. The light snow that covered the irregular rocky landscape wasn’t deep enough to hide the crowberries; with the direct sun behind them, they were silhouetted against the snow like sentinels wearing tiny snow caps.
In short order, we had covered the rolling landscape to stand at the base. We could see a potential route up to the saddle between the two humps, but from our position it looked indomitable. On the right, a ledge above us looked possible, but the approach up a choss-filled slope looked too sketchy because of the shallow snow and ice covering the hikers’ left. Here, Phil discovered a shorter snow-filled gully. The snow collapsed under his weight, and he wasn’t able to pull himself up to the ledge. I had better luck, though the snow was too shallow for a mountaineering axe, and as I kicked steps the snow fell and exposed slippery rock. I climbed by plunging my gloved hands deep into the snow, creating handholds, and wedging my boot into the snow and between rocks to pull myself up to the ledge above.
Unfortunately, the others couldn’t follow and they rerouted themselves back to the snow-covered choss we originally passed. I navigated along a higher ledge, but couldn’t see them below, and decided to climb to the saddle between the two summits. I followed the ridge, hiking through the snow, until I was high above their position in the gully. I could see them! They were on the same contour as the first ledge, but far to the right. I coached them along, and eventually they found my tracks and made their way to the saddle.
Finally, we were out of the shadow of the colossus, and the sun beat down on us. I was warm in my black jacket, but I kept it on against the strong wind. In the distance, we could see billowing dark clouds engulfing the distant peaks. We didn’t hesitate; we ascended along the ridge, twisting toward the witness marker on the summit (~1740m).
We had only a few minutes of sun on the summit before the distant clouds rolled over us. We took our photographs and admired the view. Because of the stiff gusts of wind, we decided to have our lunch at the lowest tarn. However, we took one detour before descending from the saddle. Standing at the saddle, I checked the time; we were ahead of schedule, with no risk of being benighted. I looked longingly at the sub-summit, and twisted my companions’ rubber arms.
The forced perspective of the high alpine made the sub-summit look a lot farther than it actually was. In less than ten minutes, we stood on top, admiring the view of the valley and the tarn-covered plateau below– it was better than the view from the main summit! Further, we could see another fabulous ridge of mountains that seemed to be just beyond a third bump: a hike for another day!
Back at the saddle, we descended the short gully I employed to gain the saddle, then proceeded down to the lower plateau. Once we were back at the lake, we ate our lunch and talked about how wonderful our trip was.
If you ever have cause to visit Gold River, and you’re the adventurous sort, I highly recommend taking the time to hike Trio Mountain. If you use my data please note: a little more time looking for the road could cut a few hours off the length of this hike.