Archive for the 'Backcountry' Category

Trail runners instead of boots on steep snow

The spring snow is rapidly vanishing in the local hills, and I wanted a tougher test for my system of replacing hiking boots with trail runners. On May 21 I suggested to my hiking buddy that we leave the skis behind and head up for a local bushwhack. Click here for a full description of the system.

Disclaimer and warning: this article describes a route that is potentially dangerous, and is therefore not a recommended hike. A fall is very possible and could be fatal. The north face of Hollyburn Mt. is very steep, gnarly, and drops into a deep gully. Rescue would be difficult. Although this is close to urban Vancouver, the old trail is no longer completely marked, and the spring conditions increase the hazard. Wayfinding is difficult, the weather is changeable and very different from that at sea-level, and there are no easy ‘escape’ routes. This article is a report, and is not advice to adventurers.

I had heard that there was an old trail that leads from Mt. Strachan, over to Hollyburn Mt. via a steep ridge. I thought we’d be on spring snow most of the way, and the steepness would give me a sense of how the Saucony trail runners and Microspikes managed in conditions that are typical in these mountains. Since I am taking the pictures, you are looking at my companion, yet I am discussing my experience with my footwear. These are thumbs, click for full-size images.

The 'system' is a Saucony trail runner with Gore Tex, Microspikes, and short gators

The ‘system’ is a Saucony trail runner with Gore Tex, Microspikes, and short gaiters.

GPS track on Hollyburn Mt. Note the drop-off to the climbers' left

GPS track on Hollyburn Mt. Note the drop-off to the climbers’ left.

A tag on a tree showed that the beginning of the trail was a narrow vertical line with a horrific drop to the left.

A tag on a tree showed that the beginning of the trail was a narrow vertical line with a horrific drop to the left.

At first we were on and off snow. The Microspikes provided some grip on both

At first we were on and off snow. The Microspikes provided me some grip on both. There were no more trail markers and we were just bushwhacking.

Side-hilling meant kicking my shoe into the slope on Mt Hollyburn.

Side-hilling meant kicking my shoe into the slope. I love being up and alone in these high old forests.

We had to navigate a number of these short steep snow pitches on Hollyburn Mt.

We had to navigate a number of these short steep snow pitches

As we emerged to the summit dome we looked back and saw the warning sign on Hollyburn Mt.

As we emerged onto the summit dome we looked back and saw the warning sign.

What worked with those shoes, and what didn’t? Generally, I am thrilled with the system. The runners are not boots, and kicking steps in the snow worked because while the snow was often hard, it was not icy. Runners are much softer than boots, so I was kicking tiny toe-holds and I blew out more steps than I would have with boots, but I never really felt insecure. The Microspikes are not as aggressive as crampons, which meant that when it was really steep I could not keep them from slipping — I was better to kick a hole for my toe, or better-yet, zig-zag up the slope in a diagonal ascent. For this manoeuvre I was kicking the side of my shoe into the slope until I had a little shelf to stand on. Here, I found I had to be careful. While boots would provide the support to keep my foot flat, the runners could allow my ankles to roll out and lose the grip on the hill. It required a slight adjustment to my technique.

After an hour or so with the shoes constantly in the snow, my feet became cold. This didn’t bother me because this has always happened with my hiking boots. Also, the boots became much heavier as they became wet. The runners are so light that I was amazed at how easily I could keep climbing. I felt 15 years younger. For me, this is a wonderful revelation! There was a bit of sun and dry rock at the summit, so as we rested I took off my shoes. By that time my feet had already begun to warm, and I was pleased to find that my feet were dry! I am very impressed with the Gore Tex liner in these shoes. While on the way down the benign southern aspect of Hollyburn, plunge stepping down every steep slope I could find was fun. At one point I put my foot through a cavity under the snow and into a stream of melt-water up to my ankle. My ankle came out damp, but my foot stayed dry. The next weekend we were back in the hills where the heavy rains had produced several inches of new snow at the top. I happily tramped through the spring snow in my runners. Microspikes are for more than ice: I am pleased at the security that the Microspikes provided walking across wet and sometimes mossy ground where the snow had melted.

Conclusions: These runners are not for mid-winter, high altitude, cold hiking and climbing. For everything else, they are truly a breakthrough development for my hiking. I will try warmer socks for the shoulder seasons.

Where to find snow? (Mt. Strachan)

On Sunday, May 1, we headed out late in the day, so we were looking for nearby snow — and that usually means on the hills above Cypress Bowl in West Vancouver. It is a short drive up a paved road from sea-level to park at at the ski resort, which is now closed for the season. Elevation: 3,000 ft. The site was fairly quiet and access is free. The sun was warm in a deep blue sky. There were some scraps of snow on the ground left over from winter and people come to hike and sunbathe — its sometimes nicknamed Cypress Beach.

After skinning up the hill to 3,600 ft, there is only a little snow left on the ground. From the parking lot you’d wonder if it were really possible to ski here.

Elevation 3600 ft on Mt Strachan and there is just enough snow to skin up

Elevation 3600 ft on Mt. Strachan and there is just enough snow to skin up

He lost this ski on this run last winter. It must have scooted down the hill for a couple of hundred metres. He has just found this downhill ski today in the trees below this spot.

He lost this ski on this run last winter. It must have scooted down the hill for a couple of hundred metres. He has just found it today in the trees below this spot.

A family, including a baby in a backpack, skiing the spring snow on Mt. Strachan, May 1, 2016

We are not the only people skiing this hill today

Suddenly, above 3,800 ft. the snow is deep and plentiful. It almost seems like rugged backcountry — Crown Mountain through the trees, looking from Mt. Strachan

Suddenly, above 3,800 ft. the snow is deep and plentiful. It almost seems like rugged backcountry — Crown Mountain through the trees.

Looking at the summit of Hollyburn Mountain from the ski runs on Mt. Strachan.

Looking at the summit of Hollyburn Mountain from the ski runs on Mt. Strachan.

Snow in the upper valley below the summit of Mount Strachan

Snow in the upper valley below the summit of Mount Strachan

Testing trail runners to replace hiking boots

In a post from last May I described my plan for replacing my hiking boots with trail runners. In a subsequent article I talked about what it was like to use the trail runner for a bushwhack.  For months, the Saucony Xodus 5.0 GTX runners have worked well for me when hiking. While the Gore-Tex liners have kept my feet dry in all weather, I knew the real test would be when I was hiking in wet spring snow. (I posted more complete test of the system here.)

Yesterday the weather was grey with some occasional drizzle. I announced to my skiing buddy that we were not going to ski, I wanted to try hiking on spring snow. We drove up to the parking lot on the local hill, Hollyburn Mountain. There were only a few cars parked, and we saw very few people along the hikers’ trail. That was at 2980 feet (49.379641° -123.191288°) and there was not much snow at that elevation. We didn’t have to climb very far to find lots of wet spring corn snow. So, with my runners, and Microspikes, I was often post-holing in wet snow. Much of the time I wanted to be in the forest, away from the trail. More about my experience in a moment, but the conclusion is that I’m very pleased with this system. My friend shuffled along with snow shoes, I danced up and down the hill in my light Runners. Look:

In conditions like that, my old leather hiking boots would quickly become wet and much heavier, and my feet would become soaked and cold. With the runners, my feet never became wet. I was wearing two pairs of socks: a light hiking sock with some percentage of wool, and a thin liner sock. Probably one pair of socks would have been enough. My feet were always warm. This was partly due to the gaiters and pants that easily shed snow.

It was my first day using the Kahtoola Microspikes — and I am thrilled with them. I felt more secure on all slippy surfaces that I ever have with just hiking boots and a good Vibram sole.

The big advantage to this aging hiker is that the weight on my feet is much less with runners than with any hiking boot. I’ll probably reach for my monster Montrail Verglas boots for a mid-winter trek on a very cold high glacier. But for most hiking, you’ll likely see me wearing those Saucony runners.

In the year since I planned this system, Saucony have discontinued the Xodux 5.0 GTX and replaced it with the 6.0 GTX. I hope the new ones are made on the same last, and are as waterproof/breathable. MEC no longer carry the Istrum pants, and I don’t know what is the replacement.

The equipment I used that contributed:

  • Saucony Xodus 5.0 GTX runners
  • Kahtoola Microspikes
  • MEC Short Gaiters (only $10!)
  • StrapGear, 8″ bungee (big improvement over the laces that come with the gaiters)
  • MEC Istrum pants (easily shed snow after post-holing knee-deep, if they did get wet they were dry again in moments, cut the breeze yet vented my sweat)

This was all purchased at Mountain Equipment Co-op.







Where to Find Snow? (Roe Creek)

This season we are finding that some of the familiar routes to great spring skiing are no longer easily available. On March 19 we discovered that the road into the wonderful valley to the NW of Cloudburst Mt. was blocked by a recent collapse of a cliff (49.950275, -123.290549).

Rockfall on the branch road above High Falls Creek - Cloudburst Mt.

We had a nice walk that day… but we were very far from Tricouni Meadows or the summit of Cloudburst Mt. and adventures we’ve enjoyed here in the past: Cloudburst from the Tricouni Trail.

A reliable destination has always been the road to the head of Roe Creek, so that’s where we went yesterday. We made it only to the intersection with Branch Road 200 (50.010479, -123.205308). Three other cars were parked there, and we wondered why.

Cars parked on the Roe Creek Road at Branch Road 200

Beyond this point, the road has been deactivated. Immediately beside this intersection, the road has been trenched to guide the water flow from along BR200 down to Roe Creek.

Roe Creek Road deactivated

Looking up BR 200 several mighty logs have been placed across the road as barrier. In the past couple of years, this has become the site of active logging.

Branch Road 200 above Roe Creek - Barrier

BR200 has been an important route for backcountry travellers because it leads to the trail to Brew Mt. Meadows and the Brew Hut. It was a warm sunny day, and we could see almost continuous snow on this road. So, we tossed our skis over the barrier, and could snap into our binding right there and begin to skin up. There were a few small open patches of road, but most of the way up we were on lovely soft spring corn.

Snow on Branch Road 200 above Roe Creek

Above 3500 ft, the new logging clear cuts had enough snow on them for us to make a few turns and enjoy some great mountain views. That’s Cloudburst across the next valley. We’ve skied off the top of that, and it was fun to explore the gullies we’ve skied over there from this point of view.

Cloudburst Mt. from the clearcut above Roe Creek

Where to find snow? (Diamond Head)

It’s spring. Here in British Columbia’s lower mainland the fruit trees and daffodils are blooming and the weather is mild. Some of us are looking up at the flecks of snow we see glinting on the tops of the local hills… and wondering, “How far do I have to drive or walk to find snow that is deep enough to ski?” This weekend, as part of our skiing I noted the answer to that question… and it is here as an historical record of the spring of 2016

Diamond Head Parking Lot & Trailhead 2016april3The weather has remained chilly, and we’ve had lots of precipitation lately, so there is a mighty snowpack somewhere up there. We took the Mamquam Road out of Squamish. It provides the closest access to Garibaldi Park from Vancouver. Mamquam Rd. crosses Ring Cr. [elevation 71 ft, lat 49.733684°, long -123.114137°] and becomes a rough mountain road that climbs to the Diamond Head Parking Lot and Trailhead. The trailhead is at 3200 ft. [trailhead lat 49.750206° long -123.053084°]. There was almost no snow in the woods. The trail is an old Jeep track, and because it is open to the sky it collects lots of snow. Well, the snow on the lower section of the trail has almost melted away.

In some sunny places the trail was patched out and we stepped carefully over the rocky path with our skis. this is the first major switchback on the trail [lat 49.749963° long -123.047329° elevation 3698 ft].
First switchback on the Diamond Head Trail 2016april3
About one and a half kilometres farther, the track has climbed gently to the northern side of the ridge, and the skier is in old growth forest. Here there is lots of snow. I realized how much there was at the waterfall. We were only 800 feet higher than the parking lot [Waterfall, lat 49.761572° long -123.047500° elevation 4073 ft].Waterfall - Trail to Red Heather Meadows

Conclusion: the snow is up there. And lots. But count on climbing above 4000 feet to find it.

Weather Resources for Mountain Travellers

Click to go to the Alpine Forecasting Resources page

Click to go to the Alpine Forecasting Resources page

Are you planning a trip into the mountains of southwestern BC? You need more than a map, you need to be able to predict the weather. Mountain weather is seldom the same as the sea-level report for urban Vancouver, and conditions can change dramatically and rapidly. Learning to anticipate what could happen and what to watch for when you are out there is part of planning a mountain adventure. If you are in a hurry, it is often difficult to find the online resources you need to do your predictions. I’ve tried to assemble sources of current information at one web page. Yesterday I updated that page for the first time in two years.

The Alpine Weather Forecasting Page is here:

Let me know of any errors or better resources. Thanks.

If you want to explore our local mountains…

This week a couple of hundred friends and colleagues of the International Policy Goverance Association (#IPGA2015) will be travelling here to meet in Vancouver. This post is for you if you find yourself looking at the great mountain range that rises from the city’s North Shore — and are pining to experience those hills. For 25 years, I’ve been hiking and backcountry skiing that endless high country, so be sure to ask me about the great places and routes. What follows is a sampler to whet your appetite.

You will need a car and a map (Google Earth on your phone will do). Here are some destinations that don’t require a 4×4.

The easiest way to get high is to go up on a wire. Check out these links: Grouse Mountain in nearby North Vancouver, SeaToSky Gondola in Howe Sound (the link includes a shuttle from Canada Place but you can drive up there yourself), and Whistler’s Ski Resort Summer Program.

Everything that follows is free.

Looking north from the downtown peninsula, the mile-high mountain visible at the end of all the streets facing NE is Mount Seymour (1450m/4766ft). The road climbs the south ridge of the mountain to a ski area.

Mount Seymour from 547 West Cordova Street in Vancouver

Mt. Seymour from West Cordova Street in downtown Vancouver
click for full-size image

Just before the parking lot, at 3240ft, is a pullout with an awesome view of Vancouver. From the north end of the parking lot there is a hikers’ trail to the summit of the mountain. This is where I must make the usual guidebook warning and disclaimer. In spite of the easy road access, the hike is high-altitude wilderness mountain travel. It will be colder up there than in the city. The trail is rugged and includes some scrambling. You’ll need to be fit, and prepared for sudden changes of weather and possible injury. Carry food, water and extra clothing. Know about the 10-essentials for your pack (don’t even think about making a fire). The trail follows a broad ridge, and the only way down is back along the trail. Warnings aside, the location and views are stunning and mountain hikers will have a good time. The round-trip is 5.5 miles and the elevation gain is 1475ft (with lots of down-and-up).

The Mouth of the fjord called Howe Sound

The mouth of the fjord called Howe Sound; Bowen Island; in the distance Georgia Strait and Vancouver Island. Bowyer Island is in the foreground. The point on the right is the Sunshine Coast and the town of Gibsons. Below is the Sea-To-Sky highway and a glimpse of West Vancouver on the left. This is from The Balcony on St. Marks Summit

If I want to show visitors some high altitude old-growth forest, I take them to Cypress Bowl Provincial Park. The access road departs from the Upper Level Highway in West Vancouver and climbs Hollyburn Mountain. At the two main switchbacks there are excellent lookouts with outstanding views over Burrard Inlet, all of Vancouver, Mount Baker, and on a clear day you might see Mount Rainier in the USA. The road ends in a ski area called Cypress Mountain (no mountain with that name here). The three mountains that surround this high altitude bowl are Black, Strachan (pronounced Strawn), and Hollyburn. For a very easy walk, drive to the end of the road and park by the lodge. There are well maintained, fairly level trails that head west toward Yew Lake. For a more ambitious day, this is the start of the trail to St. Marks Summit << The link is my illustrated account of that hike — highly recommended.

If you love mountain travel, and you are looking for more adventure, contact me directly. Once I learn something about your capabilities I’ll have lots more recommendations. I might even tell you about the trails I mapped up Mount Gardner on Bowen Island.

Robert's professional sites:
Ballantyne and Associates

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