Archive for the 'Backcountry' Category

A new hiking boot system

Footware for hiking: heavy mountain boots, old hiking boots, and trail runners

Evolution of hiking boots

This I know: the more weight on my feet, the slower I walk. As I age, the situation is becoming worse. My back hurts, and heavy boots increase the pain. So, this season I’ll be trying something new. I’ll be hiking on trail runners instead of hiking boots.

In the past, when I expect to be out on snow, or a glacier, I wear my mountain boots. The Montrail Verglas are very heavy; but are always warm and waterproof. My leather hiking boots have been my companion since the 1980s. When it is wet or snowy, they become waterlogged. I have often returned home with the boots pounds heavier than when I set out. They take days to dry. I have re-soled them twice, and they are ready for a fourth. This year will be different. For months I’ve been researching using trail runners instead of boots. This week my Saucony Xodus runners arrived.

How will they perform on long hikes with scrambles; or through stream crossings; or rock hopping; or crashing through underbrush during a bushwhack; or on snow and icy routes? Thinking about this, I’ve devised a system.

On dry days when I plan to be on an established trail, I’ll simply wear the runners. Already I find that the modern and aggressive Vibram sole on the Xodus seems to provide better stability and traction than my traditional hikers. I hear people worry about turning an ankle using the low-top runners. This is a concern to me because once when I slipped, wearing hiking boots, I turned my right ankle and ruptured a ligament. It was very painful, and the recovery took many weeks. I just compared the sole of the runners to my old hikers. In spite of the amazing lightness of the runners, I can see that the sole is actually significantly wider than the hikers. On the trail, they feel low and very stable — like a sports car vs. a 4×4 SUV. We’ll see. Certainly walking uphill is easier — the new runners are actually lighter than my old Teva hiking sandals.

Xodus runner + gaiter + vibram sole Xodus runners with MEC short gaiters

These runners have a Goretex liner, which I hope will keep my feet fairly dry in wet conditions. Part of this system is to use low gaiters to keep out stones, snow, water, and to provide some ankle protection. These waterproof gaiters cost less than $8 at Mountain Equipment Coop.

In the autumn, when the trails become icy and snowy, I think I will try something like the Kahtoola Microspikes. I was impressed by this review at Section Hiker. The Section Hiker himself, Philip Werner, is much of the inspiration to investigate hiking on trail runners in many articles at his blog, such as Transitioning to Trail Shoes and Trail Runner Review. So, my system is trail runners + low gaiters + Microspikes. When I have a season’s experience, I’ll report on the effectiveness of the system.

The Non-Winter of 2014–2015

The View From the Sea To Sky Gondola looking down at Howe Sound

The View From the Sea To Sky Gondola
Looking down at Howe Sound from 885m above sea level
Click image for the live web-cam

It is the last Sunday in March. Today at sea-level it is very dark and raining. As a backcountry skier, this should be good news. If the temperatures were below 7ºC here, it should be almost a blizzard above 900 metres — beautiful big flakes creating a soft blanket of snow. Last season was also fairly grim for skiing; but here is what we found in Garibaldi Park almost exactly one year ago:

The local ski hill in Cypress Provincial Park (that calls itself CypressMountain even though no such mountain exists there) is reporting no snow this past week, no skiing, and a temperature of +5ºC. Mount Seymour is a bit more inland, and reports that the temperature up there is even warmer: +9ºC. There is no snow at the base and only 142 cm has fallen this year. Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island, which can receive epic quantities of snow, is on standby hoping for a few dumps before the season ends.

To see the conditions in Howe Sound at sea level, check the weather station at Pam Rocks. The winds are an outflow of 12 knots from the Northeast and the temperature is +7ºC There is a live web-cam at the SeaToSky Gondola looking down at Howe Sound from 885 metres, and it is obvious that there is no snow at that altitude

Although it is raining and +4ºC in the village of Whistler, the mountains Blackcomb and Whister are very tall and it is snowing in the alpine. The temperature at 1650m is 0ºC, -1º at 1835m, and -3ºC at Whistler Peak 2180m.

For us backcountry folk, this means if we are willing to hike up in the rain to above 1500 metres, we will find some snow. When I talk about this possibility, I am not finding much enthusiasm among my companions. It is too soon to give up on this winter completely, but the prospects are not promising. Over a beer, we are wondering if this is a freak year, or if this is the consequence of climate change and we can expect more years like this one. In the meantime, I am trying to keep fit on my indoor exercise bicycle.

There is some snow in the high country

The wall of mountains on the east side of Howe Sound — From Scarborough Beach on Bowen Island

The wall of mountains on the east side of Howe Sound
From Scarborough Beach on Bowen Island

The temperature was just below zero when I walked down to the beach and took this panorama. The snow line on the hills is clear. My hope is that we will receive more snow below 800m in the coming month. As the sun set less than an hour later, there was some alpenglow on that snow. Click the image to see it full-size.

The mountains in the panorama are identified in this article:

A new walking stick – tested on Mt. Strachan

The new walking stick on the sub-summit ridge of Mt. Strachan

The new walking stick on the sub-summit ridge of Mt. Strachan

In the winter when I’m backcountry skiing, of course I use ski poles. While many people use poles for summer walking, I haven’t.

Ecological Reserve Warden, Alan Whitehead, interpreting the fen

Ecological Reserve Warden, Alan Whitehead, interpreting the fen
Note: click all of these pictures to see them full-size

My curiosity was aroused last week when, last week, the Warden of the Bowen Island Ecological Reserve escorted a group of us into that untracked little wilderness. High in the hills is a small and magical fen. While it was a bit damp underfoot, and very springy, I was surprised that we could walk on the surface of the bog.


The walking stick never found the bottom of the fen

The walking stick never found the bottom of the fen

At one point while interpreting the bog, the Warden took his walking stick and plunged it straight down into the peat. It was all plant-matter, and offered a minimum of resistance. He never reached the bottom of the fen.


I found myself asking about the sturdy walking stick that the Warden found useful all day. “Oh, it is made of Ocean Spray, and that is a common plant on Bowen Island.” Denis Lynn said that he was clearing out some by his house, and if he found a suitable piece, I could have it. Denis presented me with my new walking stick later in the week!


Mount Strachan from Bowen Island

Mount Strachan from Bowen Island

Yesterday, Sunday, was a stunning late-summer (ok, early fall) cool sunny day. A couple of us wanted to walk in the hills, and the closest big mountain to Bowen Island is Mount Strachan. Access is an easy drive from West Vancouver up the paved highway to the ski resort. There is a trail, but since the resort is closed, we decided to enjoy the views and open sky by rambling up the ski slopes.


Bowen Island and fog on Georgia Strait from Mt. Strachan

Bowen Island and fog on Georgia Strait from Mt. Strachan

From the From the broad ridge of the sub-peak, there is a fine view of my Bowen Island. We were amazed to see that all of the vast Georgia Strait was cloaked in shining veil of fog. Somehow, Bowen Island and Howe Sound were clear.


Descent to the Mt. Strachan col

Descent to the Mt. Strachan col

Not everyone who heads up this hill bothers to scramble over to the real peak. It is worth the extra time because the views are outstanding. In the winter, the ski resort considers it to be out of bounds,  and that might explain people’s reluctance. Also, it is not easy walking. The descent from the sub-peak to the col is steep and slippery.


Approaching the summit of Mt. Strachan

Approaching the summit of Mt. Strachan

The climb up to the summit is a little bit easier.

The summit is a secure dome with outstanding views in every direction.

Vancouver and Mt .Baker from Mt. Strachan

Vancouver and Mt. Baker from Mt. Strachan summit

Summits to the north of Mt. Strachan

Summits to the north of Mt. Strachan

Heading down from Mt. Strachan summit

Heading down from Mt. Strachan summit


For the record: That walking stick is made of Holodiscus discolor, also called, ocean spray, creambush, and ironwood.

Trails on Mount Gardner

During the past year I’ve been working with Bowen Rotary on a project to map the trails on Mt. Gardner, Bowen Island, and ensure that those trails receive Section 56 recognition under the Forest and Range Practices Act of the Province of British Columbia. If you walk these trails, I’d like to talk to you about this project and discuss how you may help or participate. We have identified over 20 kilometres of excellent trails and created an accurate map. Please contact me (go to the About page at this site).

Hiking Trails on Mt Gardner

A view of the hiking Trails on Mt Gardner, Bowen Island, BC

Red Heather Snow

It has been a poor winter for local backcountry skiing. Recently there was some cold rain at sea level, and we hoped it would be snow above 3 thousand feet. The Diamond Head Parking Lot in Garibaldi Provincial Park is at the top of a 16 km rough mountain road that begins in the port town of Squamish. The trailhead is at 3200 feet (975 m). On Sunday, March 30, there was a couple of inches of new snow at the parking lot; and while we assembled our gear the precipitation alternated between snow and sleet. As soon as we climbed only a short distance, there was no more rain, just snowfall.

The trail was once a jeep track, so it proceeds upward at a mellow angle through high altitude old-growth forest for 4.5 km to the Red Heather Hut (1400 m). Amazingly, the depth of the new snow around the hut was over 40 cm.

Above the hut there are vast meadows and glades. And some bumps suitable for skiing. When it was time to go, we pointed our skis down the trail and skied continuously for 5 km. Well, I stopped a few times for thigh-breaks.

There isn’t much snow on the local hills

It is January 18 and we are trying to ski down Hollyburn Ridge. With so little snow, the going is tricky.

It is January 18 and we are trying to ski down Hollyburn Ridge. With so little snow, the going is tricky.

Yesterday, the Lower Mainland and Georgia Strait was blanketed in low cloud or fog. Just up the hill, on Hollyburn Ridge, it was a beautiful warm sunny day. After all the recent precipitation, we were surprised to find so little snow for skiing.

Robert's professional sites:
Ballantyne and Associates

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