An important part of planning any trip is having a Plan B, and sometimes a Plan C. There are a lot of factors that go into developing backup plans, but for me, one of the most important factors is geography: Plan B should be close to Plan A.
On Sunday February 28th, we were scheduled to make a summit attempt on Horseshoe Mountain. After a long haul from Nanaimo toward Gold River, down Highway 28 and then an additional 20 kilometres of logging road, we were turned back by a pile of snow more than six feet high that blocked the logging road leading to the Horseshoe Mountain Trailhead. We wasted no time in making the decision to switch to our alternate objective, Crest Mountain.
100 metres more to go to the summit ridge but the view was worth it
Late last year, but early in the winter snowshoeing season, we had a failed summit attempt on this peak. At the time, the snow depth was up to our shoulders, and we failed to find the all-important gully that leads to the lake at the top of the summit ridge. Today, we would fare much better.
Total Distance: 13.2 km
Starting Elevation: 325 m
Maximum Elevation: 1549 m
Total Elevation Gain: 1306 m
Total Time: 7 hours 37 minutes
The hiking conditions varied widely throughout the day. At the car we had rain, enough that we each started with rain jackets on, and some of us even had rain pants. With the recent rain, we found that all evidence of winter had been washed away at the lower elevations. This made for fast travel and easy navigation.
We left the car at 9:00 am, quickly making our way along the route. The trail zigzags across the slopes, generally heading northeast and leading to the summit ridge at 1440 metres. The established trail was easy to follow, and we gained elevation quickly. Precipitation continued as we climbed, with the rain slowly giving way to slush, then snow, then really huge snowflakes - large enough that I must refer to them as snowballs. At around 600 metres, the snow began to stick on the ground, and the huge flakes nearly obliterated our footprints within minutes. Rick, who was trailing behind us, later told us that at points it was difficult to find our path. By 700 metres, we were hitting our first patches of old snow, hidden beneath two inches of freshly accumulated powder. From here, the route was more difficult to follow, and we relied on the GPS to keep us on course.
King's peak through the low fog
By 11:00 am, the trail was completely obscured, and we were only at 850 metres. With each step, we walked through the fresh powder and sunk deep into the surface of the slushy old snow. Sometimes we even postholed to depths beyond our knees. It was difficult going, with careful foot placements required to keep our balance. We briefly considered turning around: there was still another 500 metres of elevation to gain, and we were pessimistic about our ability to move forward, likely flavoured by our failed attempt in November. Determined, I suggested that we hike another 20 minutes before making the decision to turn back. After all, we had already covered half the elevation to the summit ridge, and I didn't want to make a third attempt on this peak!
Fortunately, the poor conditions improved as we moved past 900 metres. The snow began to hold our weight, and we were encouraged by a set of tracks we found in the snow (likely set a week or more before, maybe even by the two men we met on a failed attempt of Kokummi Peak trip). The deep prints were covered in fresh powder, transforming them into little pit traps, so we avoided walking on top of them. As we made our way up to the steep gully, I think we missed the regular summer route but instead found an easy-to-negotiate alternate gully, requiring just a little scrambling over easy rock steps and through some dead trees to rejoin the regular summer route. Making it past this section is the biggest challenge of the route. Without gaining that ten metre section, we would not have been able to carry on.
the route to the tarn on the ridge. Easy to navigate
We regained the regular summer route and again found the set of footprints, which would lead us right up to the top of the ridge. Beyond 1100 metres, the snow was much deeper. The fresh snow was at least 25 centimetres deep, and the older snow still didn't do a great job of supporting our weight. We couldn’t walk five steps without find ourselves up to our groins in snow. I was tired of it! It was time to give the snowshoes a try. The other three guys waited to see what my results were before wasting time with their snowshoes. Phil was convinced that the conditions were so poor that the snowshoes would also sink, creating more of a workout than just suffering with the post-holing. However, I was rewarded for my choice: my 30-inch long snowshoes did the trick! They mostly gave me the flotation to stay on top of the old snow.
With my snowshoes on, I began moving quickly again. I followed the footprints along the summer route, with only a few deviations that took a direct approach to the ridge. On the final 100 metres of elevation, the trees give way to more open terrain. Looking back, we could see King's Peak across the valley, just barely visible through the cloud. The open terrain made for great walking, the snow was more even, and we made the lake (~1440m) by noon. After crossing the lake, we took shelter from the moderate wind and ate our lunch. We were concerned about making the summit; from the lake, the summit is more than two kilometres away, and our turnaround time was 1:30 pm. We were getting tired, the wind was cold, and the snow seemed to get deeper.
The summit ridge is long, and the highpoint of the mountain is only marked with a cairn; there is no distinct promontory that could be easily identified. As we left the lake, we rounded a knoll heading on the summer route which begins to trend northwest. Rounding the bump, the wind hit us with full force; the cool breeze at lunch was nothing compared to the gale that now crashed into us. It blew strong and consistent, reaching at least 30 km/h. It didn't impede our progress, but it did drive the snow at us, stinging our eyes and freezing our faces. Thoroughly chilled, we pulled our hoods up over our toques and cinched them down snug to protect ourselves as much as possible. Still, my cheeks hurt, and I frequently turned my face from the wind to warm them. My glasses fogged, as they always do when I use a hood in cold weather. I had to remove them to my pocket, losing the protection from the wind. I thought of putting on my glacier glasses, but feared they too would fog.
Summit shot. As Phil would say, "the juice was worth the squeeze"
As we came up the ridge, visibility was fair and we could see deep into the woods. However, once on the open ridge with the wind and snow blasting us, we could see scantly more than 100 metres. We navigated by comparing our route to the few features on the landscape that we could see. In raised voices, we would agree to walk in a straight line to the next tree we could see at the edge of our visibility. We did this countless times as we progressed along the ridge - we were walking in near whiteout conditions. Looking at the ground in the diffused light, there was no hope of perceiving depth. As Chauncey walked in front of me, I sensed we were about to walk down into a depression but had no idea how steep it was. He stepped into the soft snow and slid forward, tumbling several metres down a steep embankment. I followed, skidding on my snowshoes rather than trying to walk. As we walked on, I looked back and saw Rick slide down as Chauncey had; Phil attacked it head first, rolling head over heels in the soft snow. Neither of them had perceived the angle better than we had. I chuckled - it was a sight to see.
The route rolls over a series of hills on the ridge, working its way to the summit. We arrived at what I thought was the summit, only to find that I was deceived – the summit was yet another 70 metres away. Once on the summit proper, we found no cairn, as it was buried in the deep snow. Nevertheless, we had done it. Crest turned us back on the first attempt, but today we had worked hard to get to the high point! We arrived at 1:28 pm, right before the turnaround time. We didn’t bother setting up for the traditional summit shot, but I did capture this video.
The return trip across the ridge was faster than our approach. We were fueled by the day's success, and by a desire to get back to the car. The winds on the ridge were so strong that the tracks we’d made only five minutes earlier were completely covered, so we couldn’t follow them back. Regardless, the slight downhill nature of the ridge saw us back at lake by 2:00 pm; what had taken us well over an hour to go up, took us less than 30 minutes to retreat across. We were ready for the long approach down.
Rick picking the best route down
Once on the steep sections of the descent, the condition of the snow and the angle of the slope made for some fun slip and slide moments, with each of us slipping more than once. A few times we even had some sliding collisions. Once, poor Chauncey came down right under me and knocked me off my feet! After that, we all took our snowshoes off and descended by plunge stepping. It was the smart decision; the steepest sections may have been difficult as we sunk in up to our thighs, but at least we had a controlled descent. We were back at the car by 4:30 pm.
The day worked out great for us because we planned ahead, not wasting any time in choosing an alternate destination. There is the added benefit of safety. When I log my trip plan with the Canadian Beacon Registry Service, and on the form I send to my wife regarding trip details, I include the Plan B too. I'm sure that many folks out there have criteria regarding their Plan B choices - let me know what goes into creating your Plan B!