–banner image courtesy Phil Jackson– Summit Ridge
Route planning is among the most important parts of trip planning. It influences equipment choices, time estimates, and helps one visualize the role environmental conditions will play on the expected terrain. Sometimes route planning is easy; the most popular routes have trails, booted track, well-documented maps, GPS tracks, and dozens of trip reports. And sometimes, it’s not so easy – for example, my trip to Watchtower Peak in the Sutton Range. A key difference between easy and challenging routes is the beta available.
Watchtower Peak wasn’t our primary objective for the weekend and so Phil and I had the one-paragraph description in Island Alpine (2002) to rely on. It boils down to three points: Gain the ridge; Follow the ridge; Avoid troubles on the left side. A key part of using any beta is interpreting the information and its validity. First, you have to the question if the author is describing the route based on their first-hand experience and what their individual experience level is; Or, if it isn’t first-hand knowledge how reliable was their source. Assuming that you trust the resource, you have the job of interpreting the route description and reconciling it to the terrain. This experience might be lived out while neck-deep in some mountain hemlock looking for the edge of a cliff you may or may not be standing on, or even whilst dangling into a gully trying to decide if the route “goes”.
On the other side of the coin, there’s the trick of writing a trip report. It’s always challenging for me to parse the information in a way that will be meaningful for those who hope to do a trip of their own. A big fault for some of my reports is their depth of detail; giving too many details can be just as harmful –maybe more, even—as giving a report with too little information. Yet, here we are with another trip report. Hopefully I can avoid being both too sparse and too detailed.
Total Distance: 7.5 km
Starting Elevation: 736 m
Maximum Elevation: 1747 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1197 m
Total Time: 7 hours, 39 minutes and 8 seconds
On August 31st, Phil and I set out from Nanaimo for a multi-day adventure. Since it was our last summer hoorah, we had planned to summit Warden and Victoria; however, plans changed when we arrived rather late to the trailhead, due to a change in the approach to the trailhead. It was only a little after 9:00 am, but we decided it was foolish to start too late and risk another epic night-hike back to the car, like our Crown Mountain daytrip. A smaller contention was the silver Subaru we found parked at the start of our destination – the mountain was already too full!
Although we planned on camping two nights, neither of us was keen on wasting most of a day sitting at a logging road camp, so we decided to reconnoitre a nearby mountain: Watchtower Peak. Within forty minutes we were parked at the end of a deactivated logging spur (~750m) and preparing to head into the logging slash on our first attempt on the mountain.
From the car, we headed south, crossed into the logging slash, and followed sporadic animal paths up into the old-growth, through a re-growing slide path, and then up a rocky slide gully. It took less than ninety minutes to gain the ridge at 1230 metres—a grunt, but otherwise easy.
At the ridge, we turned west (hikers left). The steeper areas offered us an abundance of azalea to use on our ascent of packed earth, and a few game trails made it easy to follow the ridge to the start of the rock (1300 m). It’s here that “Avoid trouble on the left side” became relevant. We stood at the base of the massif, faced with two choices: go straight up the ridge, or go left. The left looked like a moderately-exposed traverse with a bushy gully on the other side, but otherwise doable; following the ridge looked like a series of bushy clefts and exposed ledges— much less promising.
Phil explored the route to the left, leaving the ridge unexplored. I started to follow, then backed off to get my helmet on, repositioning myself halfway down the treed gully to start again, leaving the class-two terrain behind. As well as some exposed traversing on gravel and crumbling rock, it included some tricky route-finding, and scrambling up fourth-class terrain (maybe low-fifth). Oh yes, and fighting the bush. With each movement, I tested the hold and rock-gardened whenever it was needed.
The real work of the day was gaining the ridge to 1500 metres. As I crested over the hump, I breathed deeply and relaxed at the easier terrain ahead – then coughed on the smoke from nearby forest fires that filled the air. Our earlier view was obscured, and for the rest of the day, the smoke would mostly obscure Warden and Victoria.
Phil and I wandered the ridgetop, staying high all along the Watchtower whenever the route allowed, and dropping low to avoid unnecessarily summiting the first bump that reached over 1600 metres and up the slope between it and the next bump. The final scramble to the summit was spirited, allowing us to arrive on the summit before 2:30 pm.
We explored the summit register—all three pages of it—while enduring the smoke with just a light cough now and then. As it turns out, the first entry (2008) was also made in the smoke of a forest fire. The pencil in the register is missing the graphite, but we managed to scrape out a shred and scrawl our small entry onto one of the pages.
On our return to the car, neither of us was overwhelmed with the desire to use our ascent route. At the end of the ridge, we did our best to follow the ridgeline back to the bottom of the massif. In doing so, we found ourselves in more bushy and complex terrain. When the obvious route abruptly ended at a seven-meter downclimb, we manoeuvred ourselves into a less obvious route that kept us guessing as to whether it would go. We squeezed between some trees, down an open book, then lowered ourselves down a section of hidden rock. I relied on the nearby green belays and even an alder abseil. Eventually, we popped out at the first exposed traverse below the massif (where I had my false start).
From here, it was a quick descent back to the Jeep. We were both happy to have checked off Watchtower Peak, but the success was tempered with our choice to call the rest of the trip off. We were both feeling the ill effects of the smoke: Phil was coughing a lot, and the back of my throat was burning. Neither of us felt like camping in the smoke.
If you’re looking to scramble Watchtower Peak, I hope this report offers some beta. My best, boiled-down description: Gain the ridge; Search the ridge for the unicorn Class-two route (expect at least Class-three); and avoid the troubles on the left side.
More Photos from the Watchtower Peak trip
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