Every year, Phil and Rick celebrate their birthday by hiking to a remote peak on Vancouver Island. It was as part of this tradition that in June 2017 Phil, Rick, Colleen, and I made an ill-fated attempt to summit Nine Peaks as a day trip. Seriously, what better way to celebrate your birthday than with a 40 km hike, including more than 3500 metres elevation gain, and all on a day when you didn’t sleep? I can’t imagine what could be better!
Total Distance: 24.8 km
Starting Elevation: 500 m
Maximum Elevation: 1866 m
Total Elevation Gain: 2045 m
Total Time: 16h 18 m
The trip was destined to fail from the start: the distance was too far, the elevation gain too much, and we were just too tired. We started the hike at shortly before 11:00 pm, after a full day of work and no sleep; not the ideal way to start a heroic (but otherwise possible) effort. Despite our ragged condition and the fact that we didn’t reach the summit, everything worked to our best advantage. We had clear night skies, warm breezes in the valley – warm enough that we hiked through the night in t-shirts! – and excellent snow conditions that allowed us to walk on the surface without post-holing.
We hiked as two groups of two, using radios to communicate with each other. At least, that was the idea. Phil and I jackrabbited at the trailhead, hiking quickly up the snow-free valley to Baby Bedwell Lake, where we finally reached snow. We took a break and realised after fifteen minutes of waiting that we were going much faster than our comrades. We carried on past Bedwell Lake and took our next break on the hump that rises off the south side of Little Jim Lake. From there, we hoped to see Rick and Colleen’s headlamps bobbing along the terrain; but after twenty minutes of searching, we still hadn’t spotted them. The radio offered no help, a problem that persisted through the day – little did we know it was because Rick’s radio was turned off; though, in all fairness mine was too. As 2:30 am arrived, we departed, leaving a note in the snow to let Rick and Colleen know what time we were there.
Descending into the cirque was the most nerve-racking aspect of the hike. Any attempts to look to my right were useless, as the short runout ended in the black nothingness that consumed the limited light my headlamp produces. Only the distant sound of rushing water reminded me that a fall here would be a bad option. Fortunately, this section was short, and once we hit an outcropping of rocks we scrambled down to the snowy cirque quickly, and then followed the standard route up the glacier. When we reached the top of the lower glacier, we finally noticed Rick and Colleen’s headlamps. We couldn’t raise them on the radio, but it looked as though they were starting their descent through the steep section.
As we approached Big Interior’s summit ridge we turned our headlamps off, as the first light of the early morning turned the predawn sky lavender and rose. We raced to the summit to beat sunrise and caught the view of Nine Peaks and the Beauty Glacier was illuminated by the sun cresting over Rosseau Ridge (~5:00 am). Looking toward Tofino, I noticed an odd triangular shape in the off-shore fog toward the horizon: the shape of Big Interior’s shadow on the fog. I started looking for the best settings to capture the images and I’m glad I did, because these were my most compelling photographs of the year. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
The sunrise over Rosseau Ridge was spectacular. We ate our breakfast and decided to rest for an hour to let Colleen and Rick catch up before proceeding to Bear Pass and the Beauty Glacier. It was shaping up to be an awesome day. We threw on our rain jackets to cut the cold breeze that was cutting across the summit of Big Interior Mountain and hunkered against a pile of rocks on the summit to take a nap.
An hour later, I woke and tried the radio again, with no response– more naptime. Another half hour passed, and I tried the radio again – still no answer. Nearly two and half hours after arriving on the summit, Phil and I allowed the reality of the situation to sink in: there would be no Nine Peaks summit today. Reasonably, we were only at the midway point to our destination, and it was clear that we wouldn’t have enough time or energy remaining to make the summit. With some reluctance, Phil and I started our descent back to the cirque.
Midway down to the lower glacier, we finally met up with Rick and Colleen. They were carefully working their way up the consolidated snow, sweating under the early morning sun. After making a plan, Phil and I descended to the rock ridge that rises to the west of the lower glacier to wait. We explored what we could, and then decided it was time to take another nap. By 10 am, we moved to rendezvous with Rick and Colleen back on the glacier, and together we descended to Bedwell Lake via a route through the lower valley.
By far the most challenging part of the day came after we got back to the Jeep. It was just before 3 pm when we arrived back at the car – nearly thirty-four hours since my last good sleep. The drive back to Campbell River was ridiculous. I did everything I could do to stay awake: windows open, talking, radio on, drinking water, etc. We even stopped the Jeep at a rest stop and did a little jog to get the adrenaline flowing. I overcame the fatigue only after drinking a large coffee and a bottle of soda when I arrived in Campbell River.
I’m disappointed that we didn’t make the summit on what turned out to be a perfect day in a year when a half-dozen other parties took advantage of the fantastic snow conditions to do the same route in the same month. But when I look back at my photographs, the disappointment washes away; it was that delay that allowed me to capture the best pictures of the year.
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