The name “Mount Milner” is unfamiliar to most Vancouver Island hikers. Hidden deep in the Prince of Wales Range, it’s not a well-known mountain. The rocky peak sits high above the connecting ridge that forms the Prince of Wales Range, and is only visible from deep in the valleys, from the ocean, or when you’re high up on one of the range’s sister peaks. The topo maps show four separate ridges that buttress out from Mount Milner.
The Prince of Wales Range forms a line of peaks that run parallel to the coast of Vancouver Island, just south of Sayward. Mount Milner is among the more difficult peaks in the range to reach. Unlike its sister peaks – H’Kusam, Stowe, and Springer, all of which are all easily accessible from Stowe Peak Trail and Bill’s Trail – Mount Milner is a minor bushwhack up steep slopes to the long east/west running ridge.
Total Distance: 5 km
Starting Elevation: 563 m
Maximum Elevation: 1030 m
Total Elevation Gain: 479 m
Total Time: 5 h 30 m
The recent blast of arctic air has blanketed the region in snow. Mount Milner is white, with what looks like a sheer cliff. The surrounding rock is covered in ice and a dusting of powdery snow. High up on the ridge, the breeze is visible as it catches the snow and blows it into the air. Despite the recent fresh snow, the snow depth is shallow, or at best varied.
It’s 8:30 am, a silver Jeep Liberty snakes its way along the slush-covered road from Campbell River. Inside, five adventurers try to stay awake; they’ve been driving since before 5:00 am. They’re on their way to Timber Road, better known as the route up to the Stowe Creek trailhead for the Kusam Klimb. The Jeep turns abruptly off the highway and pauses for a moment at the intersection. Although the hikers have visited this road on several previous trips, the snow-covered terrain makes it look unfamiliar.
The backroad is covered with snow. It isn’t deep, but as the heavy vehicle progresses into the Stowe Creek Valley, the long tracks unfurl, leaving tightly-packed snow behind. Many snow-laden tree boughs hang low across the road. As the Jeep crawls up the road, it brushes the branches, which slingshot up, clearing the path but leaving piles of snow to melt on the hood of the truck. The cross-ditches prove no significant challenge until the driver, overcautiously, stops the vehicle in a small water-filled ditch. This mistake will cost them time. With wet wheels and lack of momentum, the vehicle is unable to drive out of the ditch. They try two, three, four times to get more speed, but the short runway doesn’t allow them the chance to get up and over. Instead, they back up and park.
The hikers abandon the Jeep in the middle of the logging road and continue their journey on snowshoe. They make a good pace as they follow the road. They hikers murmur amongst themselves about the expected route, but they barely notice that even at 600 metres there is only five inches of snow on the road. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, they pause and examine their maps. They strip off their snowshoes, strap them to their backpacks, and head off track. The white evergreen boughs push aside easily, and one after another the hikers slip off into the dense underbrush, leaving their snowshoe tracks as the only evidence of their activity.
For the next three hours, the hikers push up the steep, south-facing slope. At times, they literally push through dense cedar limbs that hook on their snowshoes, mountaineering axes, and backpacks. They aim for the long ridgeline they saw from the road; but now, the dense bush obscures a view of any kind and they are forced to navigate by topo. The combination of snow and bush muffles their voices, and often the hikers can’t even see each other. After a time, they traverse the slope and burst onto the slide area. The evergreens have long since been washed away; in their place, an unhealthy number of slide alder form a half-buried thicket 100 metres wide.
Focused on the saddle between Mount Milner and the sub-summit immediately above them, the hikers pile headlong into the thicket. The going is slow: frequently, the hikers punch through the crust below the fresh layer of powder, up their waists, and once in a while, up to their shoulders. A watercourse divides the thicket, but the water is only a trickle below the rocks; they cross to the opposite side without incident, pausing to examine the map again. They were happy to be out of the dense evergreen forest, and reluctant to head back in; instead, they opt for the more open terrain of the slide area.
They continue to fight their way up through the thicket of alder, and near the top, they trend east toward the saddle. They scramble over ice-covered rocks, fallen trees, and narrow, snow-filled gullies, but it’s all in vain. Time ticks away while they are busy route-finding, bush-fighting, and extracting themselves from snow pits. Around 1:00 pm, the group is faced with an impassible obstacle. The hillsides are snow- and ice-covered rock outcroppings; another watercourse is between them, and their destination is lined by snow piled four feet high on either side. They search for a route up the rock, but they can’t cross the shallow watercourse– they’re stuck. There is still more than a kilometre to the pass, and more than twice that to the summit. There isn’t time to reroute.
At 1:00 pm, the trip leader calls the trip. Before turning back, the group sits to enjoy lunch; as they do, the sun breaks through a small patch of blue sky. For 15 minutes, the members are warmed by the sun as they eat their lunches.
The return along the already-broken route was significantly faster. Once back at the slide area, the hikers picked a new route down the watercourse. They moved quickly over the snow covered rocks. In the middle of the watercourse, there are no slide alder to impede their progress, and any low-hanging branches spring out of their path when tapped with a walking pole, while the reaming ones snap easily in their hands. In a short time, they are down on a severely overgrown roadbed. Although there is more bushwhacking to be done, the hikers are back at the Stowe Creek Trail, their original route, within an hour!
Once back at the vehicle, the hikers reflect on the day and make a plan to return to Milner Mountain in a different season. They are resolute in their determination: it’s a peak on their Island Alpine Quest, and it must be summited.