Back in early November, before we had even a light frost back home, I joined my core group of mountaineering buddies –with a few notable absences– on a trip to Stevens Peak. We planned to summit the mountain by following the east ridge from a spur of the Canton Creek mainline. Our research promised a straightforward approach, and the forecast predicted a splendid day with clear skies and sunshine. None of this held to be true.
Total Distance: 11.7 km
Starting Elevation: 659 m
Maximum Elevation: 1504 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1339 m
Total Time: 8 hours
I think everyone started the day in exhaustion. From my home in Nanaimo, we drove nearly four hours to get to our starting point. The road is in reasonable condition, which allowed us to park at 650 metres elevation, right at the edge of the old-growth forest. As we exited the vehicle, we noted that the air was already warm, at 8 degrees. We held high hopes for a sunny, dry fall day along the ridge.
For the most part, the route is straightforward: Follow the ridge to the summit of the mountain. But the pillow lava holds many tarns, a few bluffs, and undulating terrain that makes for considerable zigzagging along the ridge. As for the bush, in the lower elevations, we found typical azalea and blueberry, with smatterings of large hemlock and limited windfall. We picked our way between the moderately-bushy sections and the open terrain. Wherever a challenge loomed ahead, we found gullies or ramps, where green belays helped us up.
By the time we reached 900 metres, we were breaking out of the bushiest section onto the open ridge. We caught a view to the east down the Conuma River Valley. The blue skies and sun urged us on, and I savoured the moment by taking a few deep breaths of the fresh warm air. As we continued, the voluminous white clouds in the distance descended, and eventually we were hiking in a dark shroud that misted the rock and vegetation with water. On the open ridge, it didn’t create any issues, but we would feel the wet by the end of the day.
Everywhere I looked there was evidence of the dry summer. Dead cedar trees along with desiccated crowberry and heather created rich oranges, rusts, and yellows that often carpeted the billowing rock below. In areas without vegetation, the bare rock created visual interest, with pillows in a wide variety of colours and hues, and inclusions of white quartz. Even the shapes were interesting.
There are a few notable obstacles along our route. The first is a high bluff at 980 metres elevation. This wall rises well over 30 metres, and when we came up against it, we turned left and followed a watercourse until we found a steep gully cutting up the face. We entered the base of it, reached up to a tree, and hauled ourselves up to a ramp that continued to the plateau above.
This plateau was much like the lower one, but with even less vegetation and better views. We continued along the ridge, trundling up and down the many humps until we reached the crux of the route: a notch between the ridge and the summit massif. I searched for a direct descent into the notch, then wisely chose to double back and look for a ramp that wraps around the left side of the ridge. Even still, I found myself scrambling to a narrow platform, where I stalled: I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) climb down the vertical rock to the ground four metres below. However, as I stood on my perch, I noted a few holds and tiny footholds to my left. They looked like they would give access to a grass ramp, only a short hop off the rock.
I lowered myself onto the ledge and edged over to the footholds, but I paused too long, and my hands grew numb from holding tight to the cold rock. Eventually, I was motivated to move when I heard Phil above me, and the threat of a small rock falling hastened me to make the last two moves to the ramp. From here, I looked up and noted a natural ramp that we used on our way back home–still very slippery, because of the wet surface.
I exhaled and watched Phil as he descended. We were both invigorated by our progress; it felt like the summit was right in front of us! It wasn’t, but we couldn’t tell, because the cloud still obscured the summit ahead. Up the rock in front of us and through some more gullies, and after a few more small bumps and false summits, we were finally making our way to the base of the summit massif.
From our approach, the summit sits atop what looks like a rock pedestal. We walked to the left and found a rocky route to the upper summit ridge. By the time I reached the top of the slope, the wind was howling, and a few snowflakes were starting to fall on us. When Phil made his way up behind me, I watched as he pulled his hood tight and leaned into the blustering wind. We had to shout at each other to be heard over the wind as we talked about the success of the summit. We didn’t linger on the cairn. With no view and no register to sign, we turned around and headed back without eating or taking a break.
We kept an ear out for Rick and Colleen as we started our descent –on our approach to the summit, we had left them in the clouds. Once we were below the ridge, I could hear a distant voice calling out: they were at the notch but couldn’t figure out a way down. We had a broken conversation through the clouds, and by the end of it, we had a plan to meet back on the ridge.
Our return to the car didn’t include the fanfare that often accompanies a successful summit. Usually, we ride a natural high, but today the cloud, cold, and mist weighed on us, and we focused more on our footsteps than on lighthearted conversation. The trip was starting to run long, and the elevation gain and distance was making it seem even longer. I think because I was tired, I just started following instead of really knowing where I was on the route. Eventually, when I looked at our GPS, I discovered that we had walked in a big circle. Had the day been clear, and the weather warm and sunny, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened– or if it had, we would have had a good laugh about it. Once we realized, we rerouted and beat a hasty line back to the vehicle. There was far more bush-bashing on the way down through the thick section of the forest than on the way up.
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