Highway 14 features some of the bushiest alpine routes on Vancouver Island. Phil Stone even mentions the region in his list of the Island’s best bushwhacks, though this particular route doesn't make the list. Because the area is not protected by any special status, most of it has been logged. The regrowth is often dense and difficult to navigate, and in alpine regions the stunted trees are even denser - in some cases, wall-like.
From Mackenzie Summit looking east towards Cats Ears, Tripple Peak and more.
The approach to Mackenzie Peak trailhead is easy. The route starts on Highway 4, about 58 kilometers from the orange bridge in Port Alberni. Look for a pullout on the right side of the road as you round a corner. The trail is on the left side (east) of the highway. We found a long orange ribbon hanging from a tree, marking the start of the trail. We parked on the side of the highway and started up the route just after 8:00 am on Sunday, September 27th. In anticipation of a long day, we didn't push ourselves too hard.
Total Horizontal Distance: 11 km
Starting Elevation: 32 m
Maximum Elevation: 1417 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1449 m
Total Time: 10h 10 m
The route to Mackenzie Peak involves two components: the Climbers Route and the ascent of Mackenzie Peak. The Climbers Route was developed by hiking clubs in the 1980s and 90s, and gives access to several features in the area. At one time the area was quite popular, and a developed route made it faster to get to the fun. Though interest in the region has waned, its former popularity forged a lasting trail. You can read more about this trail on Lindsay Elms' site, Beyond Nootka.
The route is well-booted and marked, but it ascends rapidly, includes class-three forest sections, and has a few sections where one could become turned around. The trail begins along a deactivated logging road, long grown over by moss, ferns, and alder. As you work your way up the route, the first complication soon appears, within fifteen minutes of the trailhead. The route heads over an embankment and crosses the river, but a different, well-flagged route leads off to the right. Keep your eyes open for the river, or you will get diverted.
wet and rooty class-three forest
Moisture is a persistent issue on the trail, as the region is in the fog-belt. With the ground saturated with moisture, the exposed wood and rocks on the trail created slipping and tripping hazards throughout the day. Though the morning temperatures were quite cool, we quickly overheated as we hiked up the relentless hillside through the forest. We gained more than 1200 meters in five kilometers before popping out into the low alpine. Emerging onto the lower plateau (1400 meters), we caught our first breathtaking views of Kennedy River and the Lake. The winding river and multi-armed behemoth of a lake create a unique view of Vancouver Island, and I stood admiring the view for a long time. I thought back to a trip several years ago, when I kayaked the lake with my then-pregnant wife; it was an amazing trip, but while on the lake we couldn't take in its magnitude. From this new perspective, it was an amazing sight. The view alone made the entire trip worth the effort!
Out of the forest, route-finding is more challenging. Cairns appear few and far between, and the flagging spreads out among the stunted trees and rocky slopes. We made our way to the tarn and then followed a gully to the scree and choss above. Eventually we spotted the day's objective. We took pause, viewing Mackenzie Peak and Red Wall, then crossed the scree to the gigantic boulders on our
left and ate our lunch, examining the block that makes up Mackenzie Peak.
The route travels up the gully, center
booted path in the low alpine
Red Line up Blue Line: down Green Line: Linsay Elms' and Walter More's Route
From the boulders, we could see the route we expected to use on the right skyline of the summit massif. Scree leads to a notch between the two huge bumps, and it’s in that notch that our route begins. After lunch, we continued up the steep slope. A short distance from the notch, a gully became evident on the left. We scrambled up the steep slope and promptly stalled. We expected to find a scramble route, but were faced with fourth- and likely low fifth-class in the gully. Looking up the gully, I could see a route that would go; however, I wouldn't budge without setting protection, and that appeared to be a challenge. Rather than continuing up the rock, we moved to the right, up a plant-covered slope in the rocky outcropping that forms the edge of the notch and leads to thick pine trees on the slope. The rock is in good condition, but there are some exposed moves. As we negotiated the large branches of a pine tree, and rounded over the ridge from the west face of the massif to the east (about 1350 metres elevation), I definitely held my breath! I was at the limit of my comfort without the use of protection.
The gully on the right of the massif, the light
on the trees mark the edge we will climb up.
Phil working his way across the gully to the rock on the right
This route is bushy! Around the notch, we pushed and pulled our way through the large trees, at times literally throwing our entire bodyweight at the limbs to move them enough to squeeze through (easily B4). I visualized the gully below forming a line, and as we climbed and pushed through the trees, we followed that line. Progress up the slope revealed a number of rappel slings attached to trees and features. As the thickest section of the trees gave way, we faced a wall of rock. We stayed to the left, and crossed back to the west face of the mountain. Hugging the wall, we wedged ourselves between trees and rocks to gain the last few metres of the difficult terrain. Phil was ahead of me, and climbed the subpeak on the right; he found an empty cairn, but it was definitely not the high point. When he descended, we continued left along our route to the summit, where we sat and enjoyed the views. Triple Peak in particular filled me with a sense of awe.
Phil lost in the trees, too far along the east face. We moved back toward the ridge
Turning around I caught this image! Too west coasty?
Stay left and follow that rock between trees and rock.
sitting on the summit
When mountaineering, it's always difficult to say where the time goes, and it was soon time to leave the summit. While we often descend the same route we climb, this time we didn't. From the summit, we followed an obvious route down to the northeast shoulder. We spent quite a lot of time choosing our next move. I hesitated because of the unknown. Normally we travel a known route, have a great description, or rely on existing slings to reveal adequate places to rappel from. Phil carried a 60 metre rope, and ultimately, we chose a series of rappels from the shoulder leading down and across the west face of the massif.
From the northeast ridge looking down to Redwall Peak
The first rappel was off the northeast ridge to a visible ledge below. We traversed the ledge (in the direction of the summit) without getting off the rope, and continued rappelling down the sloping rock to the cliff edge. On the right side of the cliff, I used a narrow gully to wedge in and build an anchor using two trees. At this point, I set a belay for Phil, who slowly descended and traversed above me through the bush. The terrain was simple enough; we may have been over-protected along the ledge, but it's good to put the skills into practice and be assured of safety. I pulled in the rope and the two of us followed green-belays (trees that you use like you might a handline) down the slope, traversing southerly across the west face to a rocky area below.
A peekaboo view of the Broken Group Islands
At the rocky area, we found two rappel stations; since we carried a 60 metre rope, we used the higher point. I added slings to the station, and we rappelled down to the slope below, avoiding the worst of the sections. We were within a few metres of our starting point for the route up. Getting back to the gigantic boulders where we lunched was a simple matter of negotiating the choss slopes.
We followed our route out of the alpine and into the forest. We faced no surprises; descending through familiar terrain, we arrived back at the car before dark, around 6:30pm.
Some may suggest that we over-protected our descent; some sections are likely possible as simple hiking with exposure. However, as I mentioned above, it was the unknown that made up our minds for us – that, and the nugget of a boulder that I pushed off the northeast ridge, which ended up careening down the entire massif and setting off sympathy slides in the steep choss slopes across from our position. Somewhat unnerving!
**Note** For those hiking this peak please note that water is frequently in short supply.