Archive for the 'Backcountry' Category

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.

Bushwhack on Trail Runners

Bushwhacking up Mount Gardner on Bowen IslandYesterday two of us spent several hours bushwhacking in the upper part of the Mt. Gardner woods below the north summit and above Bluewater. It was a good test of my new trail runners as a replacement for hiking boots.

In my last post, I described the new Saucony Xodus shoes and my reasoning for acquiring them. This area of second-growth forest is fairly open, sometimes steep, and there is lots of underbrush. I figured it would be a fairly good test of backcountry travel on the runners. Since we were here, on Bowen Island, I was not committing to a trip far from home.

My first comment is that using the runners instead of boots is somewhat different. On the trail, especially during the uphill grinds, the going is much easier with the runners. Oddly, on those sections of trail that are steep and rocky because rains have washed away most of the soil, I found the hiking much easier with the runners.

The runners seem to require me to pay more attention to foot-placement. During this kind of bushwhack — fairly low level forest — I often cannot see my feet: they are down there obscured by the salal (gaultheria shallon). With boots I would confidently plant my feet on whatever support they could find, and then lift them up without too much worry about bumping into a rock or branch. My feet had lots of protection. With the thin mesh on the top of the runners, there is no protection.

Even though the runners have a Vibram sole, it is more flexible than on boots. In steep downhill situations, with the stiff boots I might be able to dig the heel or side of the boot into the soil for some purchase, but I couldn’t do that with the runners. I had to keep the tread flat on the ground.  So, in some circumstances, even with the Vibram sole, the footing was slithery. I was often reaching for vegetable belays.

Also, during the downhill, I felt my toes were against the front of the shoes, and I was wondering if that would cause a problem. That was only a 6-hour hike, but afterward there was no discomfort.

In the Section Hiker reviews of trail-runners-for-hiking, Philip has often said he does not use Gore-Tex because it retains sweat. For socks, all I was wearing was a pair of heavy liner socks. As soon as we returned to the car I wanted to take off the shoes to examine my feet. I was wearing the gaiters (described in the previous post), and I have to remove the shoes to take them off. After a day of strenuous hiking, my feet were only slightly damp… so the Gore-Tex was venting satisfactorily. In cold weather, I’m hoping the Gore-Tex will contribute to keeping my feet warm.

The gaiters are waterproof, and I was surprised to find the inside of both were very wet with sweat. They are shorties, and there was no related discomfort. Their robustness was very useful protecting my ankles and feet as I slogged through the underbrush. The gaiters use a shoelace that goes under the runner. Two comments. First, the catelogue shows the gaiter lace tied on the outside of the foot,  and the bungee for the part around the leg to be on the outside as well. I am simply not flexible enough to tie the laces on the outside of my feet. So,  I put the gaiters on the wrong foot so the lace-ties and bungees are between my legs. Much easier! Yes, I expect the laces will wear out fast, but they should be cheap to replace. The real problem was that the laces untied themselves several times during the day. The gaiter seem to stay in place without them, so it was not really a serious situation. I would like a better solution.

It was an enjoyable day rambling around the mossy bluffs and researching a better route from Bluewater to the North Summit. So far,  I am satisfied that my day was much easier on runners than if I’d used my old hiking boots. I do have to pay more attention to how and where I am stepping, and I am probably learning how to do this efficiently.

A new hiking boot system

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

Evolution of hiking boots
Montrail Verglas
   30-year-old leather boots
   Saucony Xodus with Gore-Tex

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 high-clearance 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.

Robert's professional sites:
Ballantyne and Associates

Jump to month

Blog Article Categories

RobertB on Twitter

Blog Stats

  • 146,605 hits


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers