Sunday, September 15, 2013

Into the heart of southern Strathcona: Part one

Vancouver Island continues to amaze. Where else can one go three days on a long weekend in the summer without running into another party? We weren't even hiding out in the bush; Our five-member group sought to explore three historic island peaks folded into some classic Strathcona Park terrain.

Mt. Harmston (1,980M/6,500FT) is listed among the Alpine Club's Island Qualifiers, Red Pillar (2,031M/6,665FT) is known for its stark profile and Mt. Argus (1,980M/6,500FT) offers a challenging scramble up an imposing ridge. The mountains' proximity to one another offers the ideal stage for a long-weekend peak bagging hat trick.

Heading up from Oshinow Lake
The "end of the road" comes after a nearly one-hour drive along the Ash River Mainline, accessed off Highway 4 west of Port Alberni. Plenty of people camped along the dusty logging road, hanging out in lawn chairs and watching the traffic go by but not a canoe in sight by the time we loaded our two boats and hit the water to cross Oshinow Lake.

Aside from the novelty of a multisport weekend, the canoe approach adds a spectacular transition to the backcountry. It's a gentle warm up for body and mind after the big drive out of the ordinary. There's a sharp contrast between the calm waters and the anticipation of getting the climb underway, whereas the way out offers some sweet relief to both soul and soles.

The trailhead is beyond the end of the lake, off to the right a short way up the Ash River, just before the river becomes unnavigable . The hike starts in spectacular old growth forest along the north side of the river until the trail takes a sharp right and climbs steadily to the ridge.

Our group of five got into a good rhythm, chatting and grunting our way up to the ridge, taking short breathers every 100 metres of elevation gain or so to regroup. An abundance of blueberries and huckleberries made the well cut trail even more enjoyable.

Things became more complicated just before the ridge as we broke through the treeline. The open terrain made it easier to keep heading up to the ridge, though a damp fog had moved in to seriously limit visibility. We'd initially sought to camp near a highpoint along the ridgeline called 1707M but were getting pretty hungry, tired and thirsty. We sought to drop the packs, though the hot and dry summer had obviously taken its toll along the ridge given that it took us a while to find a water source. We found some tenting room beside a snowfield that was stubbornly holding out against the August heat. We set up camp, cooked and ate dinner as the fog only occasionally offered glimpses of the surrounding terrain. We chatted and laughed, content to be in the mountains again, until retreating to our tents to await sunrise and the big day ahead.

See here for part two.

Along the ridge, towards Red Pillar

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