This year, winter on the West Coast has been full of surprises, though this may only have been noticed by those who venture outdoors. Winter keeps serving up a huge variety of weather! We’ve seen temperatures at sea level that dip below negative ten for so long that lakes in Nanaimo have frozen hard enough to walk on, snow piled up on the roadside and yards for more than a month, blizzards in the mountains, and now, temperatures in the high alpine that are reaching into the low teens. On our February 13th adventure up Big Den Mountain, the unseasonably warm conditions forced us to turn back.
Total Distance: 8.7 km
Starting Elevation: 109 m
Maximum Elevation: 1470 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1377 m
Total Time: 7h 15 m
Avalanche! The word has been on the tip of many people’s tongues for the past two seasons. With the recent snow accumulation, then rain, and rapid warming in the alpine, our group knew that there would be a good possibility that we may be turned back because of the snow conditions. The reason we continued is not that we were stubborn; rather, it’s because we were unfamiliar with the terrain we would discover. We did our research, evaluated our topo maps, and read the sparse data about Big Den; but we know the maps are frequently unreliable, and there wasn’t any local seasonal information about Big Den, because it is seldom used as a winter route.
At 8:20 am, we left the car parked on the side of Highway 28, near the small bridge that crosses the Elk River. The snow started at the edge of the highway. We strapped on our snowshoes and worked our way through the evergreens toward the small creek, a tributary of the Elk River. Fortunately, the spring melt was only just beginning, and the creek gurgled softly, making for an easy crossing. The barren stones at the water’s edge, however, betrayed the reality that Spring would bring a heavy flow of water.
We followed what is assuredly the summer route, but if there’s an established boot-track or ribbons, we didn’t see them. The same layer of dense snow that covered the route made for quick travel, allowing us to gain elevation quickly up the crest of the ridge’s toe. The route is relentless: by the time we reached 500 metres, we had stripped our layers, while the sun blasted into the forest all around us. We kept to the hiker’s right and rounded a viewpoint, where we paused just long enough for a view of Kings Peak across the valley.
Our route was easy, though just a little steep, and we struggled at only one spot. By the time we reached 1000 metres, the snow had softened; as we tried to clamber over what must be rocks in the summer, the snow collapsed below us. We struggled to compact the snow enough to hold our weight. When Phil had tired himself out, I gave it a try, and found success by stomping repeatedly to make steps. Everyone followed behind me, and we were rewarded with another view of the valley behind us.
This step was the last of the really steep terrain we would cover that day. The steep ascent gave way to a shoulder that offered easier walking through the thinning old growth trees (~1300m). As we continued up the mountain, my mind began to drift to the conditions. The word avalanche kept running through my mind. A very warm breeze drifted through the air and between the trees, and now the sun was at its zenith, adding to its effect on the snow. All around us, snow bombs crashed out of the trees, with ominous low-pitch whumping as they slopped into the softening ground below. As the snow-bombs hit the ground, they rolled downhill collecting mass.
By noon, we discovered the crux of the route. Above us, we could see the shoulder of Big Den’s summit ridge; but in front of us, below the ridge, was a slope with a near 40- degree rise and a perfect exposure to the sun. It was rapidly warming. At the edge of the slope was a large, snow-free rock formation that looked perfect for scrambling. Phil and I pushed towards it, stomping the snow into a compacted set of switchbacks. We had our mountaineering axes out, and plunged them deep into the softening snow to give us an extra bump as we stepped, gaining elevation with each step. We paused only 10 metres from the rock.
The steepest portion of the slope remained between us and the rock, but our confidence wavered. We stood and discussed our options: continue, reroute, or go back. The ground above the rock was safe from avalanche, but we were worried about our slope failing. As we talked, I caught some movement to the right above us. I pointed, and Phil turned just in time to see a small avalanche of wet snow careen down a gully ten metres to the right –discussion over! We returned to the route below. We traversed through the trees below the snow slope until we found a gully used for the normal summer route. Today, it was filled with snow and hid steeper terrain above. We dared not enter this funnel of snowy death. Our trip was over.
We paused to enjoy a lunch below the treeline. As we ate, we could hear the near-silent sloughing and sliding of many small avalanches. We had made the right choice to turn around, and we couldn’t complain about the conditions — we had a near-perfect view, and the sun was warm enough to sit and enjoy the breeze in just a shirt.
On the return to the car, we attempted to follow our ascent route. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as one may think, because either our tracks were nearly obscured by fallen snow, or else they had melted away. As a result, I led us astray a number of times, and that wasted some time. Nevertheless, the return was quick, if not all that aesthetic. The worst of it came when we descended below 1000 metres, where the snow had transformed into something like a Slurpee. Our snowshoes slipped out from under us with each step, and we were often plunged deep into the snow. By the time we reached the car, each of our boots was soaked!