Friday, July 10, 2015

Lost and found

Mt. Tom Taylor, July 2015

It always feels funny to strap on a pack loaded with climbing gear and walk on the ferry to Vancouver Island. So many inquisitive looks and recurring queries about my ice axe and snow pickets. Even in winter there are times when fellow passengers bid me good luck in my quest for snow. It’s out there, I assure them; you just have to climb high enough.

Canada Day 2015 proved no exception, but with car loads of families set to enjoy the midweek holiday and the morning sun already burning over a bright blue ocean, it was I who began to ask myself the very questions usually directed my way. 

Ronan, my ride to the hills and tent partner for the coming three days, confirmed the answers when he pulled up to the Crofton ferry terminal in his wife’s immaculate Subaru Outback not too long after all the ferry traffic cleared up. It was mountain time. We’d climbed together years before on a spring trip to Mt. Klitsa, but hadn’t crossed paths in the years since. I’d remembered him as a gregarious Irishman, unafraid to face the elements and explore the wilds of Vancouver Island on his own or as part of a larger group. I was happy to hear he'd begun to spend more time in the mountains after recovering from a tough bout of tachycardia.

We sped north along the island highway in the way so many Vancouver Island mountain trips begin. A left turn at Campbell River towards Gold River and, within an hour, we arrived at Strathcona Park Lodge, our designated meeting spot and an island institution that deserves a blog entry all its own.

I filled my water bladder during the 30 minutes or so that we had to spare until the rest of our group arrived. After all the handshakes and hugs, I was relieved to discover our team had shrunk considerably from the 12 people who’d initially expressed an interests in the trip. Seven was still a larger group than I’m used to but still exponentially more efficient on the trail.

Within an hour we’d driven the length of Buttle Lake, stashed the cars by Bedwell Lake trailhead and shouldered our burdens for the anticipated three-hour hike to camp.

Four kilometres and 500 metres of elevation opens a whole new world. The Bedwell Lake Trail (BLT) is one of Strathcona Park’s showcase features. It’s wide, steady and gives users a more-or-less direct route to the alpine. The only easier way to reach the park’s high country is the Mt. Washington Parkway, but that’s cheating. With its suspension bridges, iron ladders and carefully engineered switchbacks, the BLT is reported to have cost a million dollars to complete. It represents a time when funding was forthcoming and BC Parks were kept to a world-class standard. I doubt any such trail could be built under today's budget.


We hit Baby Bedwell Lake right on schedule, having taken only one major breather amidst a jumble of boulders that featured natural air conditioning flowing out of the rocky vents at our feet. The lake features about a dozen tent pads around a scenic alpine lake. The large granite outcrops that surround the lake offer a spectacular location to pitch a tent, cook a meal, dry off from a swim and soak in the mountain views of Big Interior Peak and Tom Taylor’s east ridge. More than a few members of the group were elated by the site; we’d finally arrived in the mountains.

Sprawled on warm granite under a setting sun, my belly filled with Bombay potatoes, trip leader Andrew called on us to share our goals for the days ahead, share a bit of our personal mountaineering history and offer a confession. He began by telling us he’d forgotten his crampons while transferring gear between cars on the way to the trailhead.

I spoke about a recent trip to Triple Peak, my ongoing battle with tangled rope syndrome and the unfortunate discovery, earlier than evening, of a small tear near the top of my water bladder. I’d applied a temporary patch with cloth medical tape topped with a touch of NuSkin spray-on bandage. I worried about my water supply for summit day and had to spend the first night with a partially soaked sleeping bag.

This post-dinner group summit was a first for me, but one I’d like to incorporate in my future trips. The exchange offers trip participants a chance to get to size each other up, recognize priorities and share concerns. It sounds formal and serious, but we spent much of the process laughing about our forgotten poles and aversion to heights. We agreed to set off at 6 a.m., and I retired to the wet sleeping bag.

In my never-ending quest to minimize weight and declutter those foggy moments between waking up and departure, I’ve taken to eating a Probar for breakfast. These dense prepackaged calories are equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal. Have a second and your hitting logger’s breakfast territory — without the gassy consequences. I’d neglected to confess having forgotten my supply of tea and coffee, but Ronan came to the rescue with a spare java pouch and a touch of Bailey’s to seal the deal. We downsized our packs and hit the trail a few minutes after 6 a.m.

The sun rose quickly as we gained elevation. Within two hours we’d reached a series of sub-alpine tarns that set Roger to dreaming of swims to come along the return journey. The inspiration kept him moving at a strong, steady pace for all 13-hours to follow.

Just past the lakes Ronan discovered he’d left his camera behind during a blister rehab stop a little further down the mountain. Andrew’s crampons and Ronan’s camera were the first in a series of lost objects our group had begun to leave along the trail. The inventory piled up to include water bottles, hiking poles and another camera that Roger left behind after one of the numerous dips he took on the trail back to camp.

The horizon grew to include Mt. Septimus, the Red Pillar, Argus and Mt. Harmston, Nine Peaks, the Golden Hinde, Colonel Foster and Mt. Albert Edward. All of Strathcona’s high peaks were on display. As we got higher, views to the Mackenzie Range, Triple Peak and Clayoquot Sound completed the island tapestry.

The thermometer reached 30 C by noon. We kept up our crawl along the granite ridge overlooking Tom Taylor’s north glacier at an elevation of about 1,700 metres. Summer was in full swing. The soaring temperatures, stunning views and rocky footing conspired to slow our progress.

We spent considerable time contemplating whether to rope up before a snow field only to discover the benign crossing took fewer than 15 minutes. Down a short snow slope, through a notch below the south side of Tom Taylor’s “tooth,” and up a south-facing, sun-baked gully from hell brought the team to the final challenge, an awkward shimmy around a weather-ravaged, old-growth alpine pine growing smack in the centre of a supposed fifth-class move. Another corner, a long reach and a hefty step saw us crest the summit just before 2 p.m. Time for lunch, some photos and a chance to sit back in the sun surrounded by the whole of Vancouver Island. Not a bad place to celebrate Canada Day, even if it was July 2.

We could have spent the rest of the day up there, taking in those views, feeling the great mountain beneath us, yet we were all aware of the long trail back to our camp at Baby Bedwell. We reshimmied past the tree, elected to downclimb rather than rappel and chose to cross low along the upper section of Tom Taylor's north glacier. After a short prussik refresher and rope clinic, our two rope teams shuffled along, taking time to peer into some pretty big gaps and listen to the water rushing through hidden depths beneath snow and ice.

Further down the ridge, we elected to take our chances on what looked to be a shortcut home. The result was about an hour spent retracing our steps after the intended route dissolved beneath some staggering bluffs. Chris and I had chosen a higher route than the rest of the group and were able to cut back up the ridge. This meant negotiating a sketchy scree-strewn gully with a few harrowing hero moves. With my pack growing heavier with each passing step, I cursed finding myself in this situation when the road home had been so clearly laid out before us.

By the time we’d reached camp, most of us were knackered. We’d spread out considerably as the afternoon turned to evening and we each settled into a comfortable pace for the homestretch. A new round of celebration ensued as each member of the group made it back to camp, dropped their dusty clothes and sought immediate relief in Baby Bedwell’s refreshing waters.

A serving of vegetable curry restored my body, and a Purple Jesus revived my spirit as we lay, once again, spread on the warm granite overlooking our alpine paradise. We’d managed to recover everything but the trekking pole and Roger’s point-and-shoot. Given the unfavourable odds of anyone ever finding and returning his camera (and the valued contents of his memory card), Roger was back on the trail at 6:30 the following morning.

While I contemplated the highly utilitarian taste of my second Probar breakfast, a holler screamed down the hillside. By the time I’d packed up, a much-relieved Roger was back at camp with camera in hand. As Ronan and I made our way out towards the trailhead, I swear I could hear the splash of Roger setting out for a final victory swim.

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