"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." - John Cage



6.24.2015

Through the Heart of Strathcona - Phillips Ridge to Elk River Traverse (In a day)

By all accounts, I should be sleeping right now, not writing a blog post. I took two 20 minute naps on my drive home from Strathcona this morning, as I was simply not safe to drive after being awake for 30 hours and completing one hell of an adventure. But I can't stop thinking about the past day, and really want to get my thoughts down. This might be for the best anyway given my procrastination when it comes to trip reports! I have a lot I want to say, but realize different readers will have different interests, and so I will try to break it down into bits, so feel free to take or leave what you may!




What

"Fast and Light" traverse from Westmin Mines to Elk River Trailhead
Distance: 60km ±4,100m Elevation Change (Approx)
Time: 24h 15m
Beta: Mainly "Hiking Trails 3" w/ GPS tracks of some pieces courtesy Rumon & Jamie, and comoxhiking.com
Route Variations: Off Phillips Ridge to S. end of Carter Lake, then bush bash up to Mount Burman. Burman Lake to Saddle via the "low insane bush bash" route. Otherwise standard as per Hiking Trails 3.
For Rumon & Jamie: I was taking it easy, having fun, taking pictures, and route exploring often. Not to mention the many hours I spent wandering in circles with a dying headlamp in the dark. I am not even calling this an FKT as it could easily be done much much faster. (though not sure I even want to try!)

Gear

Shorts/T Shirt, Socks, Hat, Ankle Brace ; Garmin Fenix 3 & Suunto Ambit GPS Watches
12L Salomon Pack
Salomon Waist Pack
4 x 500ml Soft Flasks (water)
2 x 250ml Soft Flasks (maple syrup)
Trail Mix 430g
8 x Electrolyte/Caffeine Pills (Salt Stick)
Canon S120 Camera 232g
iPhone 5S 112g
Aqua Tabs
Pages from Hiking Trails 3
Petz Nao Headlamp and Replacement Battery 187g + 94g

Emergency Kit:
Waterproof Bivy Sack 511g
3 x Hammer Gels (w/Caffeine) 100g
First Aid Kit 120g
Paracord 10m 35g
Bug Spray 50g
Multi Tool 56g
Contact Lenses/Bandaids 8g
Waterproof Matches 18g
Emergency Blanket 60g
Toque/Gloves 88g
Icebreaker Long Sleeve 140g
Arc'Terxy Incendo Jacket 133g
Spot Gen 3 Device 114g

Why?

This question is a can of worms with a million responses. The easiest - why not!? I make it a point to do at least a few big adventure runs each year in addition to my normal routine of trail running 6-7 days a week. Coming off a disappointing result at the World Trail Running Championships in France this past May, mentally I've needed to shut down the competitive aspect of my training. I've been choosing to just pick fun runs that keep me excited and take them nice and easy. I've long had it in mind to attempt this route (amongst many others!) and with the low snow this year, and a free day in my schedule, I couldn't think of a reason not to!

Why not multi day hike like a normal person?

In previous adventures (such as the West Coast Trail in a day), I've come across two main groups of hikers on the trails. Those that share my enthusiasm for adventure and are ready with high fives, and those that clearly have a disdain for my single day adventures. To this group, by going fast I am "missing the experience". The only reply I have for that group, is that the experience I have is different. Without a doubt, I don't get to soak it all in, in the same way I might on a multi day hike. But at the same time, I enjoy the sense of accomplishment of covering long distance challenging terrain in a day. I do relish the views, but I take them "in stride" :D

Different strokes for different folks :-)

Route Planning

Although I had the route memorized from Hiking Trails 3, I like extra assurance on these kinds of adventures, and redundancy is good as well. I used Google Earth (along with topo overlays) in concert with Hiking Trails 3 topo maps, and previous GPX files. Using all of the above, I traced my planned track in Google Earth, and uploaded that file to both of the watches that I brought with me (one was for backup). I also brought hard copies of the maps with me. In zip loc baggies, natch.

What made this one so special for me?

This adventure was different because of the committing distance, being solo, and the remote isolation. Although I enjoyed this adventure immensely, it had as much to do with the obstacles overcome, rather than the sheer magic of the park. This wasn't your everyday 4hr jaunt out to Albert Edward! Physically, 60kms and 4,000m of elevation gain is no joke. Mentally this run required constant focus, which takes a lot of effort to maintain for 24 hours. There were numerous points where I had doubts, and even more where I was pushed well out of my comfort zone, wondering what the hell am I doing? The last 6 hours were completed in the dark, including some challenging route finding. By the end my body and mind were spent and drained completely. The last kms were a true grind, and it would be a lie to portray a lot of parts of this adventure as "fun" in the normal sense. But at the same time, with great work and risk, can also come great reward. The stunning location and beauty of the park served a striking backdrop for a big challenge. This was an experience that I will not soon forget. It was invigorating on a very deeply satisfying level.

Blow by Blow (with pictures)


Preamble

There simply aren't enough superlatives to describe this route. Stunning, inspiring, pristine. But honestly the ones I found myself coming back to again and again are more like heinous, unrelenting, insane! This truly is a ROUTE. Although in some places game trails or sparse flagging make things a little easier, other sections are downright nasty. Bush bashing to the extreme. Hanging from the sides of cliffs grasping at vegetation and praying not to slip. I can't count how many times I said to myself, "If I slip here, I am screwed, and a spot device does no good to someone dead or unconscious". I had been warned ahead of time about the slow going nature of this route, but even at that, I grossly underestimated it. I naively hoped to finish in 16 hours, not 24! Aside from the slow bashing and route finding are the ridges that don't quit. Every one it seems goes up and down multiple times - a fact proven by the 4,100m elevation gain despite the difference between starting elevation and the high point on the route only being around 1,500m!

Westmin Mine to Arnica Lake and Phillips Ridge

This section was relatively uneventful, and some of the fastest moving on the whole route. I was a little unnerved at the get go because a sign at the trailhead warned of a mother cougar and two cubs frequenting the area. I was sure to call out a combination of "Hey Bear/Ho Bear/Baba Booey" throughout the run. Not sure if that scares cats or attracts them. :D

The trail to Arnica is buff switchbacks, and there is an easily followed trail on most of Phillips Ridge. There is a little bit of route finding on the ridge(mostly common sense). A few semi exposed spots when descending the later dips in the ridge.




Ignorance is bliss! I had no idea at this point just how "epic" the day would prove to be. 

Arnica Lake
First section of Phillips Ridge
First glimpse of the Golden Hinde and the Behinde
A nice shot of Phillips Ridge (foreground), Mount Burman (behind the ridge), and the Hindes. 
A view across the valley from the ridge
Panorama from Phillips Ridge


Phillips Ridge to Mount Burman

There is a low point on the ridge that can be used to descend to the south outflow of Carter Lake as described in Hiking Trails 3 (HT3). There is currently some flagging and it is pretty easy to follow, if not very steep and badly eroded in places. You know you're on the right track when leveling out at the bottom you cross two small creeks (as per HT3 topo) and then climb up to the outflow of the lake.

I had heard that it is slow going to skirt Carter and Schjelderup lakes, so I opted for the bush bash straight up the ridge of Mount Burman and to its summit. It is slow and nasty going from the outset, and you need to keep your eyes on a few cliff sections, but for the most part pretty easy to do, and the view from Mount Burman is a nice treat. It was a scorcher though!

The suggested route from HT3 to descent Burman is shown in Purple below, however I decided to roll my own (shown in Green), and with low snow levels I descended a steep gully to join the nice meadow on the backside of Burman where HT3 points out a really nice spot for camping.



Carter Lake from Phillips Ridge. The subsequent bush bash up the ridge to Burman can be seen on the left.
Carter Lake from the ridge on the way to the summit of Mount Burman. 


 Mount Burman to Burman Lake to "Unnamed Peak"

This is about the point in the journey where I became truly baptised with Island bush bashing, route finding, and undeveloped ridge running. Before I even undertook the route to Burman Lake, I had to decide whether to commit to the full traverse. Having taken 6 hours to get to the meadows on Mount Burman bowl, I knew my original goal of finishing in daylight would be in jeopardy. I considered retracing my route back to my car, but I really wanted to complete the adventure. I figured as long as I could get to Elk Pass in daylight, I could finish the last section in the dark.

The final bits from Mount Burman  to Burman Lake looked simple enough, and were not explained to have much difficulty in HT3. In fact, traversing some small ridges seemed to be the preferred method (rather than dropping down to Burman Lake and thrashing around the edge of it). But this section proved to be tedious and slow going. And I knew the hardest bush bashing was yet to come!

At any rate, I made it to the end Burman Lake, and was ready for the bash up to the "unnamed peak" via the saddle at the west end of the Behinde. The description in HT3 was relatively straight forward sounding, and the vegetation didnt look too crazy on Google Earth. But these wound up being some of my slowest kms of the day. Just hard core thrashing. There are a couple creek crossings for which HT3 mentioned game trails and flagging, but I know I was on the right elevation, and scoured up and down the creek beds (after flailing my way into them) to no avail. Oh well, onward and upward! The progress got a little easier once I gained the saddle, but the theme of slow and challenging travel prevailed for the rest of the day.

View of the Behinde, showing the saddle that had to be gained to get here. 
It was HOT by this point. Snow never tasted so good! Photo from the same ridge as previous photo, but higher up. 


Unnamed Ridge to Unnamed Ridge

Again, a relatively straight forward route in theory, but tedious and slow (I was warned). The ridges are tortuous with seemingly unending undulations, and the descents always require effort to avoid backtracking and getting bluffed out here and there. It became increasingly evident that my goal of making it to Elk Pass by sunset would require a good push. Good fun!

Every time I looked back at where I had come from, and where I still had to go, I wondered if I had gone mad in attempting this! Committed by this point though. Just had to get 'er done. 



Panorama from the second unnamed ridge (that was gained from the Col beside Devoe). 
Elk Pass can be seen just to the right of my hat in this photo. 


Unnamed Ridge to Lake to Elk Pass

Just more of the same fun here. The number of photos reduced as I pressed hard to get to Elk Pass before sunset. I made decent time, and got to the base of Elk Pass by 8PM giving me plenty of time to ascend. I mean there was a lot of painful slow going, clamoring around the lake and up the steep creek bed. Nothing new though, just par for the course at this point.

I feel I made a mistake here, or maybe it is just the case that ascending the pass is supposed to be heinously steep and sketchy. HT3 mentioned that when descending the pass, to stick left, and stay above the cliffs. Deductive reasoning told me then that I should do the opposite coming up. Have a look at the photo below (I've captioned it as with the others). Long story short, I struggled and had myself in more than one precarious position getting to the pass. Daylight was starting to wane, and I was actually worried for safety a few times when I was very high up, clinging for life to vegetation with multiple cliff bands around. Looking at the pass, and in Google Earth, I can't help but wonder if HT3 meant to say to stay *right* when descending... looks like a much easier route there. C'est la vie!

I finally gained the pass at 9PM. Tired, but still feeling ok. I was keen to finish the last 17k or so to the trailhead. It was nice to know after 4,000m ascending I only had downhill left (until that cruel set of switchbacks I didn't know about right by the parking lot!).




I descended to this lake, skirted under the cliffs, and then up the steep creekbed. Elk Pass can be seen below Colonel Foster. 
This was probably the easiest creek bed of the day, lol. 

Elk Pass. I took this photo as I pondered my plan of attack. I took the white outflow on the right, up above the visible cliffs and then headed left with a lot of struggle. There must be an easier way!


Elk Pass to Elk River Trailhead (9:30PM - 5:20AM!)

This is where things started to get tough. I knew the last 11km or so from the Landslide Lake trail junction were supposed to be pretty easy, and HT3 didn't really describe any significant challenges getting from Elk Pass to there (approx 7-8k), but the combination of a weary body, sunset, and a headlamp that eventually lost almost all of its juice meant this section would be truly trying.

With the total lack of snow this year, and my legs being hamburger from the days' travels, the initial descent from the pass was anything but easy. Adding to that, after the first km, I lost daylight, and had to resort to using my headlamp. Suffice it to say that looking for cairns and worn trails was not easy. Luckily I was able to rely on my Altimeter on my watch and I knew to cross to the west side of the river at 1,200m to avoid the cliffs. As far as getting back to the east side, I basically guessed and got lucky.

But next was one of the most difficult sections to navigate in the dark. The route passes up and over a shoulder, and then by a couple of landslide sections. The route is sparsely flagged, but very overgrown and with an inordinate amount of deadfall. Progress slowed to a crawl, and more than once I found myseld backtracking to find the last know trail. Route finding this section during daylight would be a challenge in its current state - doing so by headlamp and having been awake for 24 hours and physically and mentally spent - it was almost funny. Almost. I was making maybe 30-40 mins per km.

And then the regulated output from my headlamp died (and the "torch mode" - great for searching for cairns and flagging along with it). No problem - I would just switch to the spare battery I brought. But apparently lost. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. My feet were completely pained at this point, every step hurt, my body ached, and I wanted nothing but rest. But more so, I wanted to finish what I started. I had maybe 14k to go, and it was going to be a long night at my current rate of progress.

And a long night it was. The trail spit me out at the parking lot at 5:20AM, a full 24h 15m from whence I started. I really had to dig deep to finish those last kms. At the same time, I welcomed the challenge. Or at least it sounds sexy to say that after the fact! That which doesn't kill us.... or so they say. I'm not even ready to laugh about that quite yet I don't think.

You know its funny though how fleeting pain can be. Somehow we come out of these adventures, and the memory of just how hard it was quickly fades, and we find ourselves left with a deep satisfaction, and sitting down to plan the next one!




A view down the Elk River valley, with the sun about to set.
A view back up to the pass. That rock does not make for quick or easy travel!
I think the look on my face about sums up how I felt at this point!


Epilogue

So, haggard and entirely spent, I still had to find my way back to my car at Westmin, and then drive myself back to Nanaimo. Good times! No problem hitchhiking at 5:30AM right!? I lucked out, and within 3 minutes, I got a ride to the Westmin Rd junction. I had to apologize profusely to the nice girl who picked me up, as I smelled horrid.

As I sat at the junction waiting to get a ride to Westmin, I thought about the cougar warning sign at the trailhead, and laughed to myself, knowing if a cat came upon me now I wasn't sure I could muster the energy to care. No matter, as within a minute, another ride came, an employee heading to work. Then, as we proceeded in his truck, not 300m up the road from where I was thumbing, the most beautiful cougar came out onto the road right in front of us! It made no rush to move, and is the closest I have ever seen a cat. What an amazing and terriying beast.

Luck continued my way. The nice guy dropped me off at the first parking lot at Westmin. This meant a 2km walk to my car at the trailhead, as it started to rain. I could only laugh as I started to hobble down the road. No matter though - within a minute a security guy saw me, took pity and gave me a lift. They say its the little things in life. I can't think of a way for the day to end any better! I thanked him profusely.

Thanks for reading! Happy Trails!!!! Errr.... Happy Routes :-)

5 comments:

  1. WOWZA! What an awesome adventure! Thank you for sharing - I enjoyed every moment reading it...and can actually imagine the experience as I have spent some time in that area recently. The full traverse is also on my list...but perhaps over a few days with a few summits and a little less bush bashing than you hahaha! Enjoy your post epic bliss...until the next adventure:) SS

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    1. PS that photo at the finish is freakin priceless.

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  2. Wow, wow, wow! Most people take 8 days to complete this traverse. I can't imagine how you did this, especially in the dark for the last leg. Sounds like it might have been better to take the east side around Burman, which is the longer but more travelled route.
    Congrats!

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  3. Great write up and pics Jeremy Congrats on your amazing accomplishment!
    I could feel your pain having first hiked the route solo in 3 days, then, a few years later speed hiking it in 33hours and change back in the late 90's with brother , Frank Wille & Joe taylor. Your time is incredible! have you ran the "Hinde yet?

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    1. Thanks for the note Chris! It is definitely a unique sense of isolation out there in the valleys and bush! My trip was definitely made easier by all the information available online. I suspect when you did it, the sense of unknown would have been much greater :)

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