In the early days of writing this blog, I tried to document all my trips. It was a near-impossible task that offered little route information to the community, even if it did frequently highlight my inexperience and buffoonery. It was exhausting and often frustrating, especially when, inevitably, I couldn’t keep up with it.
Along the way I let go of that ideal, and I started reporting on trips only when we summited. It’s probably for the best; really, if you are looking for route information on successful trips, why read about all the failed attempts? The only trade-off is that this blog has stopped being about my development and become self-aggrandizing, making me look like I don’t make errors and always reach my goal. Trust me, that’s not the case!
Back in August, after a second failed attempt at completing the Pamela Creek Horseshoe (one that ended in humiliating disgrace), I realized that the information from this failed trip should be available to help others plan their own successful trips and keep them safe.
Successful trips require planning, and that means lots of research. The more remote a location is, the more research you must do. We rely heavily on trip reports, as first-hand accounts that document travel through terrain. The fewer trip reports are available, the more we have to speculate by examining topographical maps and photographs, and navigating through Google Earth to find potential terrain issues. To that end, I’ll note that all the responsibility for the failure of this trip is mine; it has more to do with being unprepared for what we encountered than omissions in a route description or lack of trip reports to access.
The Pamela Creek Horseshoe is a multiday ridge walk that circumnavigates the Pamela Creek watershed. It’s a challenging route with two significant issues that contributed to our failure: our maps were wrong, and there were no first-hand trip reports that document the details of the route.
First, about Ms. Mountain (M.S. Mountain): it’s placed incorrectly on my GPS map. How did this happen? After the trip, I explored the BC Geographical Names Database in hopes of figuring out why my two maps had different positions. I discovered that when the official name was adopted, the location was incorrectly placed on the map (imagine the embarrassment of misplacing a whole mountain; does that make it lost?). Then, later, the position was corrected. I’ll own this mistake; it’s on me to carefully check on the details of the location, and manually confirm that the maps are correct.
Wherever it is, the mountain’s name contributes to research problems. The official name is Ms. Mountain (yes, the period is required. Think of the fun using this as a possessive!). I’m using a second spelling, MS Mountain, because it’s often spelled in this way (also try M.S. Mountain and Ms Mountain). Depending on where you search, you can find different results by using these different spellings. I guess that the period is disrupting Boolean search operators and causing poor results from databases; this may have contributed to challenges finding trip reports, or maybe there just aren’t any reports available.
Regardless of spelling and placement, the route is described in a popular mountaineering guidebook. Our research revealed only two reports that even mention the mountain, and nothing that has a first-hand account of the route.
Jeep to Lake Below Kent-Urquhart
8 hours,1550 metres elevation gain, 10 kilometres
We planned to hike the route clockwise, as recommended, starting near Mount Donner and keeping to the height of the land over Mount Kent-Urquhart, Ms. Mountain (M.S. Mountain), and Popsicle Peak, exiting along the north ridge on the west side of Pamela Creek. The route requires a shuttle, but we planned to close the loop by walking the 19 kilometres back to the Jeep. However, things don’t always go as planned.
We started our four-day trip on August 2nd. We parked the Jeep about 600 metres from the park boundary (at 400 metres elevation), on a newly renovated spur on the east side of Pamela Creek. The cloudy weather brought muggy conditions that persisted throughout the day. We started at 9:00 am, and soon we were sweating up a storm as we bashed along old elk trails.
The first task was to ascend the southwest-facing slope, up to a bench around 1520 metres. In the lower altitudes the bush was dry, but as we climbed, the low cloud brought moisture on the leaves and branches. This being our second time in the area, we deviated from our original route, opting for a rocky scramble up a narrow gully, instead of the bushy scramble up questionable rock that we did on the first trip. Either course works, just pick your poison.
When we reached the bench at 1520 metres, we traversed below Mount Donner’s south-facing slope until we reached the saddle between Donner and Mount Kent-Urquhart. After the five-and-a-half hours of effort, we were ready for a break. Sitting with our backs to Mount Donner, we focused our attention on the route ahead.
Eventually, we settled on a heather-covered ramp that led off to our left. It required some scrambling, easy bush, and some squeezing between stiff branches and rock to gain the easy walking above (~1600m). With snow, a different approach to the right may be favourable. Following the crest of the ridge, we made our way south toward Mount Kent-Urquhart, up and over 1720 metres and then back down to 1680 before we were ready to make our final approach to the mountain. We deviated from the described route and made a mountaineer’s direct assault on the peak — requiring one easy step with low exposure to gain the upper summit ridge.
Around 4:00 pm, we were on the summit marvelling at the dramatic drop off the west side of the mountain. The clouds continued to drift by and threatened to obscure our view of the route, so we wasted little time looking for the most natural way off the mountain.
From the summit, we navigated down a few rocky steps, and then down a gravelly slope to the north face below the summit. Although we were tempted to descend along the obvious slope to the lake, we decided to keep to the ridge, and, later, we found out why (there’s a large bluff at the bottom).
We descended this amazing ridge, 500 metres, to the lake below the peak. Other than interrupting a bear up a tree (who climbed down, ran three circles around the tree while he watched us, before taking off down the side of the mountain), it was a quick and uneventful walk to the shore of the lake. We found good camping and impressive views of the ridge ahead.
Day 2- Lake south of Kent-Urquhart to Pile of Death Mountain
We rose early and broke camp before the morning sun could dry our tents. We hiked south from the lake, following the ridge up and down as we moved toward Ms. Mountain. The described route reads, “Keep to the broad crest up the ridge, ascending steadily to the 1760m summit of Ms. Mountain”. As we ascended, we could see the feature looming high above us. It looked more challenging than the description, but I try not to get too worked up about spooky-looking mountains until I rub my nose on it.
Around 1710 meters, we came to an easy, short step that rose to the base of an overhanging scramble to the ridge above– definitely not in the route description! We decided that we must be off-route and tried to edge along the right side of the mountain. We crept along a series of heather and rocky ledges on the northwest side of the mountain, and although the description didn’t include this, it’s typical difficult scrambling. However, at one point, we faced a committing step that felt a lot more like low fifth- than third-class, but this gave us access to another ramp that brought us over the crest of the mountain.
“Holy F—.” Those are the words that emerged from deep within our bowels as we crossed from one side of the mountain to the other and routed to the crest, heading along the ridge. Rather than a broad ridge that leads to the summit, we arrived at a section that we named Pile of Death Mountain. It’s important to note that at the time, we didn’t know we were on a feature of Ms. Mountain. On our maps, it was just an unnamed feature with Ms. being more than a kilometre down the ridge.
While Phil explored the south side of the mountain for a way around the crumbling mass of crap on the crest, I tried moving over it. What we couldn’t see is that just beyond the feature we were on was a long drop to a notch, leading to a fourth-class scramble up to the summit of the mountain. I’d spent the night before looking at the feature from far below, but at that time we thought this was a feature we would bypass.
We were screwed! We came for a challenging hike more than mountaineering route, and as we didn’t bring a rope, we were done. Again, I’ll own this mistake. We didn’t come prepared.
As a closing note, it may be possible to join a snow slope much lower on the ridge and walk up to the base of the connecting ridge between the feature we were on and the summit of Ms. Mountain proper. With enough snow, it may be possible to walk to the top of the ridge, but when we were there, it looked like a stiff scramble.
Reflecting on mistakes is essential. Upon returning home safely, we began researching options for emergency rappelling, that is, the gear you take on a route where rappelling isn’t necessary, so that you have equipment if something surprises you. Of course, that philosophy could get you into a different kind of trouble.
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