Now that the worst of the long, cold winter is behind us, it’s difficult to summon the discipline to write this post, because my mind is already looking forward to the warm summer days and the adventures they promise. Nevertheless, it’s a story worth telling: the story of the first winter ascent of Mount Milner, in the Prince of Wales Range.
This wasn’t my first attempt at summiting Mount Milner; I have previously shared a failed attempt. For Rick and Colleen, this was their fourth attempt, and for Phil, his third. The terrain isn’t particularly challenging, but the issue is finding the right route, especially in the winter. Before I carry on, I have to acknowledge that we used route information that was provided by other members of the Vancouver Island hiking community. Their prior successes and failures helped guide our route—thank you!
Total Distance: 8.7 km
Starting Elevation: 559 m
Maximum Elevation: 1328 m
Elevation Gain: 940 m
Total Time: 7 hours
On March 19th, 2017, we set out on a trip that would reward us with amazing views of Johnstone Strait, an idyllic alpine ridge walk through alpine old-growth, and some great fun on steep snow! As with each of our previous attempts, we started from the Stowe Creek mainline, beyond the logging road we use to approach the long summit ridges above from different places. Today, our goal was to use the exit route followed by Rick and Colleen on an earlier attempt. We used the long-deactivated and alder-filled logging road (~700m elevation) to work our way east, deep into the valley between High Rigger Mountain and the ridge leading to Mount Milner.
The snow crunched beneath our snowshoes as we walked through the thicket of alder, the rain from the week before creating an ideal crust that, for the most part, bore the weight of the group. Bright blue skies and fluffy white clouds created a beautiful backdrop for the snow-dusted mountains that surrounded the valley. We moved quickly down the road until it became too rough to follow, and then cut back into the second-growth forest.
Once in the tight second-growth, we trended southwest, uphill. Our route traversed well below a few bluffs and avoided some water features that had turned us back on previous attempts. Before long, we broke out of the dense second-growth onto a very steep slope – too steep for snowshoes in these conditions, in my opinion. My cohorts carried on in their snowshoes, but I gave up and kicked mine off. Now, kicking steps in the raincrust, I simply walked up the slope with confidence. In only a few minutes, I overtook the leader, stopping when I reached the point where we would start to traverse to intersect the ridge. Phil caught up first and told me that Colleen had slipped. Her snowshoes lost traction on the crusty snow, and she accelerated quickly. Phil tried to grab her pole as she whizzed by, but she was going too fast and couldn’t hold on to the pole. She lost somewhere between 20 and 30 metres of elevation before she caught a tree with her arm. Fortunately, she escaped with little more than a few scrapes. Rick raced down to join her, and together they recovered the lost terrain to rendezvous with us.
After regrouping, we continued up to the top of the ridge (~1100 m). We walked first along a deforested section, and before long we were walking in the frozen old-growth forest. The navigation was easy as the terrain is open and mostly follows the ridgeline. Walking along the ridge was the most enjoyable snowshoe of the winter. We had a few good views of both sides of the ridge; on our left, we could see the Johnstone Strait, and on our right, we could see High Rigger and the valley between. Both looked impressive. We moved quickly along the rolling terrain, up and down some steeper sections. Around 12:45 pm, we arrived at the notch between the ridge and a highpoint ahead.
The steep-looking slope didn’t overly concern me, nor did the small cornice in the notch between the ridge and the slope. However, I was a bit unnerved by the gully the notch fed into. As I crossed the notch and peered down the gully, I could see it ran 100 metres down the side of the mountain at a very steep angle. A slip on the slope would assuredly end in a very rapid, unplanned, and unwanted descent. I watched as Phil ascended the slope first; when he made it without issue, I followed behind, this time wearing my snowshoes. When Phil and I reached the top of the bump, we thought we had reached the summit. The other three members of our group were still on the ridge below.
We climbed to the top and walked to the far edge, on top of a rocky bluff. As we admired the views, we noticed another bump 300 metres farther along the ridge. Was it higher? We couldn’t tell. Crap! Okay, new plan: descend halfway down the route we ascended, traverse below the bluffs and farther along the ridge to the next bump. We made it to the summit with little extra effort.
I’ll admit that the many failed attempts at this summit made the moment that much sweeter. At the time, we didn’t know this was the first Winter ascent of the peak; we learned this two weeks later. In the moment, the only bitter note was knowing that our three friends were waiting for us back on the ridge. I looked beyond our summit at the many peaks beyond us, and wished for infinite days, that we might explore them without fatigue or timelines. But, as is always the case, we did have a timeline – so we returned to meet our friends on the ridge.
The return was more enjoyable than the ascent. We used a different route on our descent; mostly downhill, and bushy at times, but with lots of opportunities for butt-sliding. We decided as a group to form a sub-group of the Island Mountain Ramblers: The Island Mountain Butt-Sliders (self-explanatory).
The lower elevations added a minor patina on the day’s shine. We had good snow depth that mostly kept out of the trees. But as we maneuvered closer to the road, the snow was soft enough that we post-holed more and more. It was wearying. In these moments, I considered what a summer approach might look like.
It’s not easy to compare one hike to another, but I’ll say that this hike is one of my tops for the year. I don’t know if it’s because it took us a few attempts to reach the summit, the variety of terrain, the weather, or the idyllic landscape up on the ridge; whatever the case, I’m excited to go do this one again. I already have it on the schedule for the summer.