A grim combination of employment challenges and the pandemic conspired to keep me from my pursuit of the Island Alpine Quest, for most of the New Year, in 2020. The meagre fitness acquired from a summer ripe with challenging treks was squandered in the late fall and dwindled even further into the New Year. Though I tried to keep in shape by joining Phil for many quick-paced hikes with plenty of elevation gain and distance, they lacked in time investment. On our hike to Mount Hall, I wondered what my lack of conditioning would impact our trip.
Mount Hall is situated southeast of Triple Peak and northwest of the head of Effingham Inlet. Drawing a line between the two features on a map, that line will cross almost exactly overtop the summit of Mount Hall smack between Triple Peak and Effingham Inlet.
It’s an objective I’ve been dreading. Five years ago, Phil and Rick made an ill-fated attempt on Mount Hall, and like all great fish stories about the one that got away, a narrative emerged from this failed trip that raised it to a level I suspected would be impossible to achieve. Phil had stories of a bushwack so vile that not only did he lose sight of Rick in the thicket but Phil couldn’t hear him anymore. Still, it was on our list of peaks yet to check off our list and I’ll admit, Phil picked a great day for it.
Total Distance: 15 km
Starting Elevation: 151 m
Maximum Elevation: 1430 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1453 m
Total Time 12 hours
When I examined the data, I anticipated a ten-hour day, but Phil was confident we could manage it in seven. The long June days made for an excellent choice because they offered flexibility for our trip, and the forecast was ideal: cool, but little chance of precipitation. Another benefit of the early date, we found very little in the way of bugs.
I had a sinking feeling that the trip was going to live up to the bushwhacking nightmare that Phil proselytized. The final five kilometres of road were overgrown with salmonberry and alder that stretched clear across the path of the road. As I crawled the Jeep through the thicket the look on Phil’s face was one of disbelief; five years earlier, the road was in excellent condition. Now, it’s not long for this world.
Regardless, we brought the jeep to rest at a small clearing at the edge of a cross-ditch that marked the start of our route. Due to our early start, we were making our first steps at 7:15 AM, and as we departed we discussed our turnaround time, setting it from 2:30 PM. It was a conversation that I grew to appreciate much later in the day.
We began our hike following the old T55 spur, a long-ago deactivated section of road that parallels the Toquaht River which itself flows from far up the valley toward Mount Hall, Toquaht Mountain, and the south face of Triple Peak. The road quickly deteriorates giving way to various stages of disrepair and overgrown bush. One could draw a timeline based on the type of agriculture we found. Early on we could see the road grade and there were the odd tall Scotch Broom; as we progressed young alder overtook the road and eventually became a thicket; farther still, the alder created a towering canopy under which dense salmonberry and other shrubs thrived. Ducking low we found the odd bear tunnel, too low for my 6’2″ frame, there was nothing to do but fight our way through; hacking at times, getting scratched across the face, hands and torso. In the thickets sections, the spiny branches were so entwined that they stayed forward movement, or cloyed at our glasses, even pulling mine from my face a few times.
But, the route gets better (and by that, I mean worse). Among my all-time least favourite hiking obstacles to overcome are log crossings. Possibly because of my pronating step, I tend to fall off logs. I’ll go well out of my way to avoid crossing logs, and today was no exception. So let it be known that there are at least three points (each direction) where the route crosses the Toquaht River and/or tributaries. I had wet boots within the first two hours.
Beyond the end of the logging spur, we found ourselves in the land of the little sticks. Beneath the verdant canopy of replanted evergreens, it’s dark. All the lower branches are brittle and the shrubs long ago dead, stand in a skeletal thicket of desiccated sticks that snap when pushed. It’s in here that I earned many of the wounds that I’d brought home with me. The broken branches made pokers that cut through my shirt and jammed into my body: face, belly, ass, groin. Basically, everywhere.
It wasn’t all unpleasant. After breaking out of the devastation of the replanted evergreens and swam through the band of salmonberries that edge the Toquaht River, we found some pleasant walking in the narrow band of remaining old-growth forest.
It took 3.5 hours after leaving the Jeep (700 m) to break out of the bush at the tip of a slide path. I breathed deeply as we step out of the bush and onto the open snow, but looking at the time I was filled with a feeling of dread. We had an agreed-upon turnaround time, and it was fast approaching. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing our objective today; the thought of doing that bushwack again spurred me forward with new determination: no time for fatigued leg muscles to slow us down — SHUT UP LEGS!
In the lower Toquaht River Valley, we watched dark clouds gather and roil above. I doggedly kicked steps up the ever steepening slope, each bringing us closer to the shroud. By the time we passed 1000 meets we were mired in the dense fog, navigating with 20 metres visibility over snow. In near whiteout conditions, we could barely make out the few exposed rock faces that gave us passage to the upper ridge. And, adding insult to injury, a modest rain was condensing, soaking our outer layers, and time kept creeping ever toward our turnaround time.
Surprising no one, in the fog I navigated poorly. Blindly kicking steps up the steep snow, I followed the path of least resistance until I ran out of mountain. Summit success?! Checking my GPS I could see that I was still 75 metres horizontal to the summit, I had unwittingly summited the sub-peak. From the rise, I strained my eyes trying to peer through the cloud, hoping to find the obscured peak. It had to be there!
We descended blindly and traversed below the subpeak to find the wall of the summit massif. It took us three attempts to find a route that goes. In a different season, each route would probably work, but in the snow, problems emerged: deep moats, narrow snow fins choking narrow gullies, etc.
Disheartened, exhausted, and running low on time, I was unwilling to concede defeat so close to our objective. I summoned the last of my resolve and traversed west around the massif until I found a path that brought us to a saddle between the two tall features on the summit, a real stack of rocks: another in my list of least favourite kinds of terrain. I examined the stack of boulders and discovered a hole that allowed visibility through the mountain. Totally not confidence instilling.
Phil led the way, clambering up and over the rocks (class four). After seeing that the rocks didn’t shift under his greater weight, I followed. Within moments we were all on the summit, just twenty minutes from our turnaround time of 2:30 pm. We grumbled at the lack of views but were content with the knowledge that we didn’t have to come back. And as a bonus, as we had a five-minute snack, the cloud started to clear we were rewarded with a few views of the valley and Effingham Inlet.
At seven hours of hiking, some people might call it a good day in the mountains but we were still sitting on the summit. As the cloud cleared, we rapped off the summit, retrieved our anchor and made our way back along our route. The rain that fell high up hadn’t reached the valley, leaving the bush dry for the return to the car. We bashed another three hours in the bush and made it back to the car with plenty of light to spare, ready for the three and half hour drive back to Nanaimo.
I’m grateful to have reached the summit on our first attempt. I’m not sure I’d have the heart to return using the same route. We got lucky and found that the lower valley was still filled with snow. I’m sure this allowed us for a rapid ascent from the valley.
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