It’s been a disappointing Spring for me. While I’m not normally a ‘glass-half-empty’ sort of guy, the last few soggy months have brought canceled multi-day trips, abortive summit attempts, and numerous other events that simply failed to launch. It’s been a trying season! I don’t intend to dwell on these facts, but observing them gives me cause to appreciate my hiking companions all the better. I found myself considering the question: What’s more important, the places I go, or the people I go with? The answer to this question will vary for everyone. Even for me, the answer depends on the season, the place, and even the group of people. It was my April 17th trip to Waring Peak in the Sutton Range that illustrated how important these relationships and trips are to me, and that often the where and the who are connected.
Total Distance: 7.2 km
Starting Elevation: 614 m
Maximum Elevation: 1500 m
Elevation Gain: 896 m
Waring Peak, along with all the peaks in the Sutton Range, is a long drive from Nanaimo, with well over three hours on the highway, and then more time on the backroads between Gold River and Woss. To save a long morning drive, the four of us left Nanaimo on Saturday afternoon to camp near the trailhead. Phil and I drove together. It was a long but uneventful drive, and we arrived at Waring Road around 5:00 pm. We used the ample time before dark to do some recce. We drove up the steep road, looking for the logging spur that would launch the next day’s adventure, and maybe host a camping spot. Around 600 metres, we reached our spur; the good road hairpinned and continued up, but we broke off on to an older, overgrown spur.
The still-barren alder reached well into the road grade, scraping at the Jeep’s sides and roof as we pushed by. The few easy cross-ditches didn’t slow us down, but by 700 metres there was a few inches of snow on the ground, enough to delay our forward progress. Examining our route, we were pleased to find that the road brought us well within easy hiking distance to the summit. We turned around on the narrow road, and drove back to Waring Road, idling at the junction for only a moment before the adventurer’s spirit overtook us and we continued up the steep logging road.
At the top of the road, we exited the Jeep on a landing. We stood in awe as we overlooked the Nimkish River Valley; from our vantage point, we could see thirty-five kilometres down the valley. The evening sun was casting its golden-orange hues on the landscape, creating a moment that demonstrated one hard fact: I needed this trip. I hadn’t understood that fact prior to being there in the moment, but now it was obvious. We opened some beverages, stared down the valley, and talked, watching the wind in the trees.
These moments don’t last forever, and with modest regret we departed for an unorganized and unscheduled rendezvous with Rick and Colleen. Because we hadn’t planned ahead, we decided to leave a note attached to a cairn at the overgrown logging spur, explaining our intent to camp at Vernon Lake that night. Back at the Nimkish Mainline, we turned off the engine and decided to wait five minutes– just in case they came along. The wait was worth it: in only three minutes our friends rolled up, leaving me not even enough time to eat half of my sub!
The four of us continued down the elk-infested road to the Vernon Lake site. Despite it being a long weekend, we found no other campers at the lake. We pulled up to the first sites we found, and set up our tents. We were too late to enjoy the evening sun, a fact that made me even more grateful for the earlier time on the ridge. In the setting sun, we could just see across the lake to the distant shores. While Rick and Colleen prepared and ate their noodles Alfredo, we all sat together and talked. We wasted a good amount of time trying to start a fire, but the wood was soaked and none of us was overly inspired to put in the extra effort needed, especially since we were heading to bed soon. We sat in the dark, lit by our headlamps, talking until we were tired.
Ascending to Waring Peak
Sunday morning was cool, but not freezing. We woke, packed camp, ate homemade French toast cooked on a pocket rocket (an impressive feat for sure), and we were back at the trailhead by 9:00 am. We left the vehicles behind us and continued on snowshoes under patchy skies. The route starts along the logging road, gaining elevation slowly along the decrepit old logging grade. After an easy creek crossing and another short section of alder-filled logging grade, we found ourselves at the base of a slide, both snow and washout (this is noted as the gully on the GPS track).
The gully starts gradually, but near the top it’s very steep before topping out on the overgrown logging road 200 metres above. Making the route even more fun, we would need to clamber over mixed terrain, hopping between patches of snow and crumbling granite. In some cases, we had to walk over rocks with our snowshoes. About three-quarters of the way up, I took off my snowshoes and scrambled the crappy rock to an easier patch of snow above; but the others kept their snowshoes on, choosing instead to walk up the steep gully as Phil knocked gravel down on top of them.
Although this was my first attempt at Waring Peak, the other three had hiked this same route sometime in August. Mostly we followed their former route, but today the snow allowed us to take a bit of a shortcut. In the summer, I’m sure it would be a festival of terrible bushiness, but today the crusty snow allowed us to do a more direct route. Above 800 metres, the rain crust only broke under the full force of stomping down on it. We created a series of switchbacks with positive footsteps (no fun sliding this time!).
We took our first break at the edge of the replanted section and the mature regrowth (~1000m). It was a well-earned break: the route from the base of the gully was nearly a straight line from ~750 metres to 1100 metres. I drank some water and looked out over the Waring Creek Valley. Somewhere on the ascent, the sun had broken through the clouds and now illuminated the surrounding mountain tops. The view was spectacular! There was plenty of snow piled on all the surfaces, making them look more majestic than they probably are in the summer. The snow has a way of hiding all the logging slash. It makes the mountains look pristine, a winter cover-up of sorts. My mind wandered to the snow conditions. The route we used to ascend was rapidly softening: our descent would be slushy!
For the next hour, we followed the obvious route northwest along the crest of the ascending ridge. As we hiked we wove between the trees, avoiding open areas. Below the canopy the snow was hard enough to bear our weight, allowing us to move quickly. I kept my head up and eyes open, scanning left and right for signs of avalanche, changing weather, and changing snow conditions. The avalanche forecast told of a recent snowfall that dumped nearly thirty centimetres of snow at Mount Cain (only about 40 kilometres away from us). However, I didn’t see evidence of this even though there was nearly 12 cm of snow on top of the raincrust.
When we broke out of the trees onto the narrow plateau below the summit massif (~1300 m), the view took my breath away! Not only did the surrounding landscape look amazing, but our route ahead looked daunting, much more challenging than the third class route we expected to find. Waring Peak loomed above us, we had a clear view of the bluffy south aspect of the massive. Ensconced in snow as it was, it held an aesthetic appeal.
As Phil and I waited for the other two, who were taking an extended break around 1000 metres elevation, I pulled out my snow probe and starting testing the snow depth and looking for rain crusts. At 1400 metres there’s still over 240 cm of snow, but the real surprise was the ice crusts. I could only find four crusts, and the layers between were all of similar density. When our friends joined us, we ate lunch and continued up the slope in front of us to the shoulder, only 50 metres below the summit. It’s here that we faltered.
The route traverses the northwest-facing slope. Today, it was loaded with snow, creating an exposed forty-degree slope. And if the short run out to death wasn’t enough to deter us, the warming snow was. The high afternoon sun had melted the rain crust and left a sloppy mess in its place. We didn’t observe any evidence of recent avalanches, but there was plenty of debris on the snow slope ahead, fallen from the peak above. It was enough to persuade us to search for a different route.
We routed to the south face of the peak, looking for a way up the rocky, snow-covered bluffs; when that failed, we tried traversing to the east side of Waring Peak’s summit massif. Everywhere we looked, the route raised questions about exposure to falling snow from above, the potential for avalanche, or terrain traps. We decided instead to plan a different trip – a trip after the snow melted.
We returned to the vehicles via tour ascent route. As we expected, the lower slopes were a sloppy mess; with each downward step, we slid at least half a metre. Surprisingly, not one area threatened to slide. The dense pin-cushion of young trees anchored the softening snow. The worst of the mess was in the long gully. I experienced a few hair-raising moments as we moved from crumbling rock to wet snow, but eventually, we gave in to gravity and did a long slow butt-slide down a good portion of the steep slope.
We arrived back at the car, tired and eager to get home. We routed north toward Woss instead of south to Gold River; the road is in better condition, allowing us to cover the terrain quickly. Plus, we detoured at the logging road up to Mount Cain, to check the road conditions for Mount Abel. Good news: we were able to drive right to the start of the walking route!
What’s more important, the places I go or the people I go with? I don’t have an answer to my question yet. But I do know that I’ll be back to this place, and I’ll be with my friends.