“Was the juice worth the squeeze?”
Phil asks this simple question after each of our adventures. In so few words, it gets to the heart of what drives a person to find adventure. That question came to mind as we hiked up a steep, pristine section of old-growth on our way to the summit of Mount Heber. Phil and I agreed that there are two overarching reasons that drive adventure-seekers: aesthetic or athletic. Of course, these are oversimplifications; there are likely as many reasons to seek adventure as there are people seeking it. Whatever our individual motivations, on June 4th, our group of five was keen on summiting Mount Heber. It was more than the fine weather and the promise of a view that made the trip memorable; we were excited because it was our first snowshoe-free alpine hike of the year!
Total Distance: 11 km
Starting Elevation: 567 m
Maximum Elevation: 1683 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1238 m
Total Time: 7h 20 m
We had a typical alpine start: Phil and I picked up Shannon at 5:00 am, and Rick and Colleen followed after us in their own vehicle. Mount Heber is a long way from Nanaimo, far enough that we spent at least as many hours driving as we did hiking. By day’s end, we would drive more than a hundred kilometres of highway and logging road. The drive itself wasn’t without adventure: notably, our logging spur off the Heber Mainline included crossing a decaying bridge, driving through board washouts, using a saw to remove windfall, and getting the Jeep stuck with one front tire and one rear tire hanging in the air while the Jeep wobbled back and forth. If anything, these offered some levity to the otherwise lengthy drive.
We parked where the road becomes an alder-filled, seasonal watercourse (~650m). Though there was no snow where we parked, we knew we would still find snow on the mountain, so we strapped our snowshoes onto our backs. I noted that despite it being just 9:00 am, there wasn’t any dew; the trees were dry. Summer was coming! We quickly worked our way up the road, crossing a few bad washouts and walking long stretches of open road, finally arriving at the terminus of the decommissioned logging grade. Along the way, we did cross a few bushy sections, but nothing worse than B2.
The road ends at a ravine, and it’s here that we stood to examine the route ahead. The roar of water convinced us to avoid entering the watercourse, and instead head up through the cut block to the right of the road. An easy ramp led up the embankment, and we then followed the easiest route over the fallen timber, through devil’s club and shrubs into a section of old-growth that lined the watercourse.
The terrain just inside the old-growth gently climbs; we easily avoided most of the bush by weaving between large trees and around thickets of shrubs and saplings. Phil and I were the route-finders, so we surged ahead checking for obstacles, and waited for the others when we couldn’t hear them. Around 1150 metres we found the ideal place to ford the river. We stepped out of the forest, crossed a wide gravel bed, and walked into the forest on the opposite side. Stepping out of the ravine, the terrain became a manageable grunt up through the virgin forest, though much of it was on a forty-degree slope. One thing is for certain: the route to Mount Heber doesn’t lack for vertical gain!
We hadn’t even reached the alpine yet, but we were already blown away by the beauty of the hike! Perhaps ours was a reaction against the advice we’d received about the trip. We were told, “Take your whole crew, because you won’t want to go back.” I disagree with the second part of that statement, but admit the first is correct: Take your whole crew. It’s so worth it!
The biggest obstacle of the day was a headwall that emerged somewhere around 1300 metres. We scouted to our left and discovered an easily-scrambled gully that put us on top of the headwall. As luck had it, the gully was filled with snow – the first of the trip – making it even easier to scale; however, the middle had a snow bridge. As the fifth person crossed over, it collapsed harmlessly. The headwall is worth mentioning; soon after that, the slope begins to ease.
Very quickly after this obstacle, the grade eased off, and as we left the dense forest behind for the open alpine, snow accumulated beneath our feet and the long snowy slopes rising ahead of us created a dramatic contrast to the dark forest below. We stopped for a few minutes in the shadow of a huge alpine fir, to rest and admire the view. From our vantage, we could see Treo Mountain framed between two large trees. Treo was the first trip that I did with Shannon and Colleen, and I’ll confess that I felt a tear in the corner of my eye over the sentiment. No wait, that was the sunscreen in my eye — it was hot!
I looked all around me for Mount Heber, but it was still out of view. We trusted a track set by a bear that had run down the hill the day before; his tracks led us up the easiest route, until we diverted to create switchbacks up a steep snow slope. The snow was in perfect condition for edging boots in, and when the slope became too much for switchbacks, I turned directly up and kicked steps to the upper ridge.
We crested the ridge and gave a shout of excitement over the amazing panoramic view. To the south, we could see the giants that populate the Elk River Valley and the ridgeline that marks the Cervus/Wolf divide (Filberg Range Traverse). To the north, we had a clear view of Victoria and Warden Peaks. On top of this, we could see our objective, Mount Heber, and the high point of the ridge which carries the unofficial name Kenite Peak.
The two peaks are less than a kilometre apart and the terrain between is mostly easy, just a small scramble to the summit of Heber from a notch. We hit up the higher, unnamed bump. On the summit of this bump (don’t be misled by the name Kenite Peak in Google Earth), we posed for pictures, admired the view, and ate some lunch. Phil, never satisfied to stand still, took off running across the broad snow-topped plateau to the opposite side. He was checking the height of a distant marker to make sure it wasn’t higher — it wasn’t. In time, we left the high point behind us and headed south, into a low saddle and up to the bump that sits below Mount Heber.
At the top of the bump, we only had to descend into the notch and then get up the snow slope to the top of Mount Heber. In the hot sun, the snow softened, causing us to sink easily with each step. It took very little effort to descend into the notch. Phil led the way. At the rocks, I used the adze of my mountaineering axe to clear the surface ice off the rock, making space for foot and hand placements. I used rocks, snow, and green belays to scramble up the route, and eventually reached the summit.
In my opinion, the view from Mount Heber offers the best view of the Elk River peaks. I’ve been told that it’s the only peak from which you can see all the others. Each stood tall, distinct from the other. The snowy features created a romanticized image of the mountains.
It was 1:30 pm when we started our descent. Wherever possible, we saved time by taking a direct route down steep snow slopes. Once we were back in the forest, we sought the easiest path down, and though we kept very close to our original route, I think it was a bit easier than the ascending route. Our only problem with the descent was the snow gully at the headwall; in the warm afternoon sun it was slippery, and as Phil stepped into it, the snow collapsed and sent him on a short, unexpected butt-slide.
We arrived back at the cars by 3:30 pm, much earlier than we originally anticipated. We had come ready for ten hours of hiking, but with the favorable conditions, we managed to make it much quicker.
As to the questions of aesthetic or athletic, my tastes tend toward the aesthetic, though my true goal is somewhat separate from either of these reasons. I don’t like to think of my Island Alpine Quest as simply peak-bagging, though it must appear that way to others. Whether it’s skunk cabbage blooming in a watercourse, a huge fungus growing on a log, or a snow-capped peak in the distance, I’ll enjoy them all. For now, I’m content to enjoy the aesthetic that comes in whatever place I visit. In the future, I may have more time to select my locations; for now, I’m content gathering data and visiting some of the most beautiful places on Vancouver Island. I’ll include Mount Heber among those places. And to answer Phil’s qustion, yes, it was worth the squeeze.