On June 23rd & 24th 2018, I was one of five Island Mountain Ramblers who summitted Nine Peaks, located on the southern boundary of Strathcona Park. It earns its name from the nine distinct peaks that rise out of the Beauty Glacier, forming a line that runs along a northwest axis. Our trip was planned as an annual birthday getaway – one of Rick and Phil’s long-standing traditions – and was a reprisal of a failed daytrip to Nine Peaks, on the same weekend in 2017. Having been beaten back on the first attempt, we came with the intention of completing the trip as an overnighter.
Our route originated at the Bedwell Lake trailhead, and by the time we were back at the car we had covered 38 kilometres and more than 3500 metres of elevation gain. The trip involves route-finding challenges that change with the season, terrain difficulties that may require scrambling, and the need for self-arrest skills. On top of the physicality of the route, it’s also mentally challenging. There are many sections where you gain elevation, lose it, and then regain it. It includes either two summits of Big Interior Mountain, an airy traverse from the saddle or, at least, an airy traverse around the base of the summit massif.
Total Distance: 34 km
Starting Elevation: 515 m
Maximum Elevation: 1849 m
Elevation Gain: 3068 m
Day 1– A Surprise Summit of Nine Peaks
We started the trip in two groups, and planned to meet at Bear Pass at the end of the first night. Rick and Colleen formed the first group; they slept in their car at the trailhead and got an early start at 6:00 am. This smart idea let them make most of the elevation gain in the chilly morning and gave them more time to enjoy the trip at their pace, rather than the hurried pace of my group.
Phil, Mel, Brooke, and I started at 9:15 am. We moved smoothly along the Bedwell Trail, and took our first break when we stopped to admire Mount Tom Taylor shining through the gap at Baby Bedwell Lake. Last year we were already walking on a metre of snow by the time we got to the lake; today, however, the ground was snow-free, and the plants were in full foliage. The route remained snow-free until we started our ascent to Little Jim Lake.
We continued on the route, stopping for another short break at the lookout between the lakes so I could show Mel and Brooke the route we were going to use for Big Interior Mountain. We could see the snowfield rising out of the cirque, high above the treed ridges in the foreground. It looked like a lot of snow, but the sun reflecting off it fueled our pace toward the Bedwell Lake campsites.
Unfortunately, before we got to the campsites, Brooke decided to turn back. She was conflicted and felt that she wasn’t in the right “headspace” for the challenge ahead of us. While she returned to the car, we continued. By the time we reached Little Jim Lake, the sun was blazing. It was already 11:30 am, with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees. The heat, effort of carrying heavy bags, and exposure to the direct sun meant we were all sweating. I urged the group to push on to the ridge above Little Jim before taking a lunch break, but even my stomach was growling with hunger. We found a spot in the shade of a large tree and ate our lunches as we looked onto our first view of Nine Peaks.
In my opinion, the most challenging portion of the trip is route-finding down to the cirque. We climbed as high as 1380 metres before traversing on the snow and starting our descent. While there may be a lightly-booted route in the summer, today, the southwest face of the ridge was still covered in snow. And, since my prior experience through this section was done by headlamp on a moonless night, I was able to offer little help with navigation. When we discovered a waterfall flowing over the standard route, we opted for an attractive gully that ended on a rock ledge (~1280m) just above the cirque. I peered over the edge just long enough to spot a water-filled crack. There were plenty of good footholds poking out of the water, making for some fun Fourth-Class moves down to the cirque. I got down with only a little water flowing over the toes of my boots, but Mel’s boots didn’t fare as well: they filled up like buckets –wet boots from here on out for her!
From the cirque, we followed the standard route up the glacier, avoiding the middle section that was rotting out from the torrent of water flowing below. We spotted boot tracks from the numerous groups that passed through the areas, but they didn’t offer much help as they melted in the sun while we watched. The snow was a slushy mess by the time we reached the final slope to the summit of Big Interior Mountain. Each step required some stomping or packing before I could place my boot with confidence that the snow wouldn’t slide off below me.
Despite the snow condition, the scorching sun, and our heavy packs, we made it to the summit of Big Interior in a reasonable time. We were faster the year before, but our bags were twenty pounds lighter on that trip. It felt great to summit our first six-thousand of the trip. We skimmed the summit register while we snacked and admired Nine Peaks Mountain. I scanned along the route ahead for Rick and Colleen. I had half-expected to catch them at the summit of Big Interior Mountain, but they were maintaining a good pace! From my vantage point, I could see their tracks leading down the ridge until they dropped off the ridge to the south, and then along the lower section of the ridge until just north of Marjorie’s Load, where I finally spotted them!
We needed to catch them–fast! Our original plan was to camp at Bear Pass, but Phil convinced me that it would be better to camp higher on the ridge near Marjorie’s Load. Given the long descent to Bear Pass, and more specifically the long ascent from the pass, it was a great idea. But, we would need to catch Rick and Colleen before they went too far!
With a few bouncy plunge steps, we descended Big Interior to the south ridge. We followed the boot-track set by Rick and Colleen, dropped off the ridge, continued until we passed below Marjorie’s Load, and stopped about 500 metres south of the feature at an uncovered rocky outcropping (1580m). It made the ideal campsite: exposed rock, and a small water source nearby. It was around 4:30 pm, but unfortunately there was still no sign of our friends, so I rushed to a high point nearby. Luckily, I spotted them and when I hollered at them, they stopped! After a confusing exchange done mostly by hand signals, they turned around, and soon we were together for the first time on this trip.
While we set up camp, Colleen checked the forecast on her Garmin In-Reach: the evening looked clear, but the morning would bring steadily worsening cloud and chances of rain. Since everyone was willing to descend the glacier by headlamp if needed, we set off for Nine Peaks around 5:30 pm.
We followed the ridge, routing around rocky outcroppings when needed, and dropped down into Bear Pass (1200m) and the base of the Beauty Glacier. We were tired from the long hot hike, but our significantly lighter packs and the siren call of the summit motivated us. Mel took over most of the trail-breaking and led us over the glacier. We didn’t see any telltale evidence of crevasses that would open in the late season, but we were careful to watch where we stepped as we cut our long switchbacks up the modest slope.
At the base of the summit massif, we anticipated crossing the bergschrund, but there was enough snow in the gully for us to cut short switchbacks or kick steps directly up to the col at the head of it. I’ve read reports that highlight how gnarly this section can be, but we got lucky; it seemed easy. Regardless, I’m thankful to Rick, who carried a rope in case we needed it. From the col, we did some easy scrambling on bare rock to the exciting ridge, and onto the summit.
With such a long day, we all lingered on the summit to enjoy our reward –our second six-thousander of the day. To the west, we watched as cloud rushed into the valley. The peaks emerged from the clouds like islands from the ocean, while to the east we still had a view of the ridge leading back to the camp. The pre-sunset light cast an orangish hue on everything. It was magical.
We departed the summit around 8:30 pm. The descent was fast. Mel led the foray, running and launching herself off the edge of the saddle into the gully. I followed after her, and in a series of long butt-slides, we descended all the way to Bear Pass in record time. The long grunt back to camp was not the ideal way to end the day, but it made arriving at the tents that much sweeter.
Day Two — The Return from Nine Peaks
I woke the next morning to one of the other hikers shaking my tent. During the night, a minor medical issue had escalated into a situation that, although not life-threatening, would prevent the person from walking out. We used the In-Reach to call for help and then set about slowly packing while we waited for the RCMP helicopter.
It took about two hours for help to come, and during that time the cloud cover descended as the forecasted weather came to fruition. Fortunately, the helicopter arrived before the weather. We heard the rotors, then spotted the copter as it made a beeline to us–remarkable! It landed 200 metres from our tents and whisked two members away.
The three of us who remained strapped on our backpacks and started our exit. Instead of ascending up and over Big Interior, we decided that we would pass below the summit and head straight for the saddle between the summit and the northwest peak. The snow was still soft, making the traverse easier than it could have been if the slope were ice. When we got closer to the saddle, we hopped off the snow and followed a series of ledges, scrambling at times, up toward the saddle. Eventually, we were rewarded with a simple step out onto the snow and up and over the lip.
During the traverse, the cloud descended, and by the time we reached the saddle, the cloud was dense all around us. On the descent of Big Interior, Mel shot off on another epic butt-slide, and in a few seconds she was lost in the fog. Being the timid creature that I am, I followed my instincts and walked down. When Phil and I left the north face of Big Interior and joined the east slope leading down into the cirque, I noted that Mel’s track had disappeared, and by the time we were halfway to the cirque I was confident that she was off-route. Committed to our route, we descended to the bottom and confirmed our suspicions: she had descended too far down from Big Interior, into the wrong drainage.
It raised some awkward questions related to travel in the backcountry. Exactly how long do you wait before you consider someone lost? When you know someone has taken the wrong route, do you assume that they will backtrack when they realize it? And, what happens if they pick a new route out– how can you follow?
We evaluated her route and looked at the elevation loss/gain, determining that if she was going to backtrack, one hour would be enough time. If she hadn’t made it back in that time, we would rush our exit and call 911. We knew she had a device with maps, as well as a paper map I provided her—she was equipped with all her own gear, and she could make her way out. Fortunately, we didn’t have to make that decision: within 45 minutes we spotted Mel descending into the cirque. I think my shoulders dropped about 10″ from my ears — what a relief! Back together again, we exited the cirque via the common route, and made our way back to the trailhead without further incident.
If you’re planning your own trip to the area, consider taking time to visit Della Lake and Beauty Lakes. These seldom-visited places offer some of the most secluded moments to be found on Vancouver Island.
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