TL;DR We hiked long and far. It was easy until it wasn't. We skirted bliss, and dipped our toes in hell.
[A note for those unfamiliar with Vancouver Island Backcounty, and the route to the Island's highest peak, The Golden Hinde (2,195m); The route starts at 300m elevation near Buttle Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park, and follows a well established trail for the first 10km or so. Beyond this point, it becomes a route. The route is well tramped enough at this point that well researched parties will have little trouble reaching the objective (from a navigational stand point). However, to be clear, an established route on the Island is a lot different than the type of singletrack trails found in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The Hinde itself involves 3rd and 4th class scrambling, some of it exposed, with significant choss and loose rock. Some low 5th class moves may be encountered depending on route choice. There are also proper established climbing routes for interested parties, detailed in Island Alpine. The round trip is approximately 64km ±5,000m and the fastest known time is 15:47]
Every 'so often', I like to do some kind of adventure that pushes me mentally and physically outside my comfort zone. I say only 'so often', because generally these types of fools errands, while exhilarating and bringing feelings that are ineffable in the best possible way, can also be painful in the making. Very. Furthermore, I think that part of what makes them so special, is that they only happen every 'so often'.
My family just had the amazing experience of spending the summer covering 17,000 kms camping in our Nation's best Provincial and National parks, all the way to Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick, and the Gaspe in Quebec. I spent the summer running some of the finest trails in our amazing country. While the weeks far from home accumulated, so did my longing to get up to something special in Strathcona Provincial Park when I returned. To pay tribute to my home, after paying tribute to my country. Our trip this summer (I posted a photo a day on my Instagram if you want to check it out) reinforced for me how incredible our country is. And at the same time it also reinforced how lucky I feel to call Vancouver Island home. I've remarked before that I don't think the average Island resident, let alone the rest of Canada, knows the amazing secrets that are held deep in the heart of Vancouver Island.
As my friend Darryl and I started off early on Aug 19, we knew we wouldn't be the first, nor the fastest, to attempt to hike the Island's highest peak in a day. But we didn't care. What we could be certain of is that it would likely be a mighty fine challenge and adventure, just a couple friends soaking in the best of Vancouver Island for a day.
We started at 4:15AM by headlamp, and barely noticed the climb on the lovely switchbacks up to Arnica lake. HAHAHA <evil laughter>. We would feel different about these switchbacks 24 hours later. For now, our ignorance had a beautiful serenity like the pre dawn calm we found at Arnica lake.
About 4 hours in, and the stunning Golden Hinde still looks distant. Hadn't really noticed the effort yet, but knew we had a long way to go.
Phillips Ridge (foreground and on the right), makes for fairly easy passage in the day time. Even the semi exposed, short lived scrambly sections pose little nuisance with a bit of patience and careful route finding. Later we would learn that at night, with no moon, it could be different. HAHAHA <evil laughter>.
We made it down to Carter Lake in about 6 hours, and it took about another hour to go around both lakes (Carter and Schjelderup), and start gaining Burman Ridge. Schelderup Lake (shown below).
Somewhere around the 8 hour mark, as we descended Burman Ridge towards the Burman trench, I had a scary thought. Even if we turned around now, we would likely just finish our hike with nightfall. And if we keep pushing, we still have a round trip summit of the Hinde to fit in before we can make that return trip. Gulp. Physically, we both still felt great. Neither of us had doubts about summiting.
Before I ever got to the trailhead, I had prepared myself to know that there would be certain moments of pain and regret in the end stretches of this adventure. There had to be, and I had accepted this. But here, 8 hours in, the impending certainty of what discomfort would likely come later began to sink in. I am sure both of us had thoughts about suggesting to bail on the summit around this point, but Darryl must be stubborn like me, because neither one of us said anything out loud about our hesitation. We just kept trucking.
The Burman trench may look like not a big deal on the topo map, but in real life it was a tough pill! After travelling so far, you needlessly lose a smack of elevation through the bush. Nasty stuff, but keep your head down, right!? The tarn up the mountain can't be that far, right? Oof. Onward and upward.
We made it to the tarn after about 9 hours of hiking. The view towards the summit from the tarn can be seen below.
Before coming, I read a lot of trip reports, and studied GPX tracks in google earth. I read and re-read Island Alpine Select. And so while I knew there was a fairly straight forward choice up the South East Couloir, we seemed, like other parties, to complicate matters by being slightly right of the easiest route - a correction we made on our descent.
We made the summit after about 11.5 hours from the trailhead. Darryl unknowing posed for an obligatory "deep thought" mountain portrait.
The views from the summit are nothing short of jaw dropping and of course while pictures may do them no justice, I can try...
Although we had been traveling for a long time, physically we both still felt pretty good. Not fresh like daisies, but still feeling like a lot of walking would be ok. After lounging around the summit taking a well earned break, we realize it's 4PM. It will be dark in 5 hours... and we have a 32km trip back to the car. HAHAHA <evil laughter >. The majority of the route can be seen in the photo below;
Descending the south east gully, we found the loose rock and challenging choss that so many speak of. We passed one party on this section, and it is truly scary when a cry of "rock" is followed by killer debris hurtling down from above. I was glad I had carried my helmet all this way, but the size and speed of some of the rockfall seemed to imply it a moot point. Like having life vests on a jumbo jet.
We recomposed ourselves when we got back down to the tarn, about 14 hours in to our adventure. We knew we had a long way to go. We HOPED we could make it past the lakes, and up to Phillips Ridge before dark, but both agreed (and were right) that it would be somewhere around Carter lake when we would need to put our lamps on. We were SO FAR from the trailhead, that we knew better than to allow anything other than a "lets get it done" spirit stay in our thoughts. We descended all the way down to the belly of the Burman trench. We grunted up the other side, to gain the Burman Ridge. Our legs felt like they had been hiking a long way, and they still had a long way to go. But we were both feeling energized and in awe of where we were and what we were doing.
I stopped for 2 mins for just a few final photos, knowing that there was much work to be done. This image gives a good sense of how tough the Burman trench can feel when you are so far from the trailhead.
Our spirits, although tired and tried, were still strong as we passed a few tents having a campfire (wtf) at Schjelderup Lake. They thought we were nuts and invited us to have a break with them. I asked if anyone would have me in their bivy to cuddle up for the night, and hearing no offers, we continued on our way. The light was fading fast, but we were too stubborn to put our lamps on. We passed another party having another fire (another wtf) at Carter lake. We donned our lamps and kept going. The forest was dark dropping down from Carter Lake; mentally it was tough dropping elevation knowing it only had to be gained back up the exceedingly steep climb to Phillips Ridge. We called out for bears. We caught salamanders and toads in our headlamps. We took a bit of a wrong turn and took an old defunct route. We had been breaking the return trip into smaller manageable peices to avoid the dark reality of how far we really had to go. Get though the trench. Gain Burman Ridge. Get to the lakes and past the lakes. Get up to Phillips Ridge. Pass the high point on the ridge. Get back to the forest. Get to Arnica lake. Take the switchbacks to the car. Easy LOL. Both Darryl and I felt in good spirits still at this point in the adventure. We were 18 hours deep and had covered most of the route with pleasure and awe. But we also knew those times wouldn't last forever. I told Darryl that once we hit the high point on the ridge, mentally it would feel easier with almost all downhill to go. HAHAHA <evil laughter >.
With no ambient lighting, navigating the Ridge was harder than anticipated, and gave us serious challenges at certain points. We lost hours in there in total, in addition to the slowed pace of our inevitable exhaustion. It was windy and cool. I allowed myself to be too cold for too long. In the desire to continue pressing on, I stubbornly neglected to take the 3 mins to stop and put more warmth on. This was clearly a bad move, as it was quite evident later on that the combination of exhaustion (did I mention that I only got 90 mins sleep the night BEFORE we started!?), and cold rendered decision making impaired. I thought I had learned this lesson well with my Elk River Traverse in 2015, but I had to learn it again here. The dark combined with mental and physical exhaustion and being cold created a potent mix of difficulty. Eventually, after taking the care to warm up a bit, to stop and analyze and think clearly, we understood our navigational errors and got back on track. The sense of hopeless wandering in circles subsided, and we became certain that the trailhead was achievable. Objectively, when our navigational challenges were resolved, we "only" had about 15km to go. HAHAHAHA <evil laughter>.
For both of us, the biggest challenge for the remainder of the adventure, aside from the obvious overwhelming physical exhaustion, was how the perception of time changes with darkness and mental fatigue. After hours and hours of suffering the tunnel vision of our lamps (and keeping in mind with no moon, there was ZERO ambient lighting) it feels like it would impossible to exaggerate just how slow time felt like it was dragging. In the context of my normal running, I have previously prided myself on my intuitive ability to judge time and distance. Often I can go out running for over an hour, not looking at my GPS watch, and I can guess within a few hundred meters how far I've traveled. I can go out on trail runs of over 4 hours, and before taking my first step on the trail, I can estimate within minutes how long it might take. But in our shattered sleep deprived state, this ability was cruelly impaired. There were times where I would have gladly wagered a month's pay that we MUST have covered at least a few kms and half an hour, and it would turn out that mere minutes and meters had passed. You keep seeing (by the beam of your lamp) features that you insist you must have passed already. We were constantly moving. And so in that constant movement comes a mental expectation that you must be "getting somewhere". But these hopes were dashed repeatedly until resignation that you might just be doomed to suffer in this blackness forever, a fate equivalent to Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain for all of eternity. You can't even laugh until you cry - there is nothing funny about pondering what feels like an eternity of pain and darkness. Despite being surrounded by the vastness of space, all that exists is the tiny external bubble revealed by your headlamp, and a seemingly infinite internal mental landscape of darkness.
Eventually, by which I mean after an eternity, we started to descend into the trees towards Arnica Lake, but even then the snails pace of time would haunt us. I had been dehydrated for some time now, and could not wait for the outflow of the lake to refill. Reaching the outflow exhausted, I struggled to refill my bottles. I could have easily fallen asleep in the middle of the trail, and considered it more than once. The only thing motivating me to keep going was the knowledge that if I did fall asleep for the few hours, the inevitable tightening of my muscles would all but guarantee that the vertical km descent to the trailhead would be even more tortuous than it would already be. Even so, I don't think I could have kept going without the 80 calorie mini snickers bar Darryl shared with me. Mentally, we were on the last step of the plan - descend the switchbacks.
You learn to play mind games in endurance events. It's a bad idea at the start line of a 50 mile race to ponder miles 49 and 50. You pick smaller objectives and work incrementally. To try and break up the pain of the last leg of the adventure, I decided I would keep my mind busy counting switchbacks. There couldn't be more than 20? I hadn't counted them on the way up, but those first hours passed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Worst case would be 30? There can't be more than 30 I decided. Although the sun was starting to bring hints of dawn to the sky, judging just how far the valley was below us was tough. After counting about 20 switchbacks, Darryl remarked that he thought he saw a car down below. It can't be that much further. A sense of relief. When the 30th switchback came, I realized Darryl was WAY off. It didn't even look like the valley was getting closer. Surely this sense of perpetual motion resulting in no progress can't be worse than what hell feels like. Internally I vacillated between hating Darryl for teasing what would turn out to be a LONG shot from the truth, and cursing the person who designed these evil switchbacks. They don't even go anywhere! Each switch is horizontally LONG and barely seems to lose any elevation. I was also hallucinating by this point. I would see what looked like a really cool carved log up ahead, or some birds, and it would turn out to be nothing. I dragged my poles and my body, convinced the valley would never come.
There are over 60 switchbacks on that trail.
On the upside, I knew from having done stupid things like this in the past, that the second I reached my car, the hell would be released, and I would be able to re-appreciate the fact of what we had accomplished, and that the first 18 hours or so were some of the finest of the year.
After traveling across the country, I had been pining badly for my homeland Vancouver Island and its inner secrets. I needed an experience, an adventure, a true will testing challenge challenge. I confirmed my suspicions that it is possible to fill the tank by emptying it. The FKT (Fastest Known Time) on this route is under 16 hours, and is something I've thought a lot about in the past couple years. My will to race ultras has been dead for some time, but I know I'll be back to the Hinde to see how fast I can go.
This selfie at the trailhead pretty much sums it up! Trip time was 27 hours :D