A Saturday of clouds
`Wow!’ I wrote that in the snow on the Saturday with my trekking pole, and it summed up the entire weekend. This was our first winter backpacking trip, an overnighter to the shelter at Elfin Lakes. We got a reasonably early start and set off from Vancouver in light rain. Anne and Adib joined us in our car, and we met Susanne and Hervé in West Vancouver. The rain turned to snow at Horseshoe Bay which enforced a gentle drive. We stopped at Galileo Coffee just before Britannia Beach and supplemented our breakfast with a cranberry muffin. The snow was still falling as we pulled into Squamish and turned onto the Mamquam FSR. Not long after the road turned to gravel, we hit the first incline and I felt the tyres slip. Since we didn’t want to end up in the ditch, we stopped here and put on the chains we had bought the week before.
With the chains on, we had enough traction to make headway on the hard-packed snow. Here and there the wheels spun as we hit something a little icier but the car was never out of control and I kept up the momentum to get us through the tough spots. One thing for sure – when snow covered, the road is a lot smoother with all the potholes filled in! We reached the car park and joined the other two-dozen cars already there. We managed to find space for both cars and pulled in.
We were on the trail by 10.35 am. I had been feeling like crap all morning and wasn’t even sure I was up to this trip, but I found that once I was under way I just had to set myself a steady pace and keep going. I was worried that if I stopped, I would stop for good and return to the car. Somehow this meant that I pulled ahead of everyone else, leading to a few disbelieving comments about how well I really was :-) It was cool and damp, and the snow was soft. Such a contrast to the hard foot-pounding gravel road of the summer trail.
We reached the hut at Red Heather meadows after about an hour and a half where we stopped for a chilly but much-needed lunch. The stove in the hut was out of order, so we had the choice of freezing outside or inside. We opted for inside where we could sit at a table at least. Suitably fed and watered (with hot tea) we set off again. It was no longer snowing on us (and had barely been snowing since we left the car), and the clouds were lifting here and there, promising views. For now we could see far enough in front of us but distant peaks were still hidden. The filtered sunshine made for nice light and shadow on the snow.
This was probably the hardest part of the day, what felt like a steep climb up through Red Heather meadows made worse by the fact we had only just eaten lunch. Here the trail deviated from the summer route, going straight up through the meadows and heading to the south side of Paul Ridge. Struggling onwards, we eventually reached the end shoulder of Paul Ridge which marked the end of our uphill workout. Normally we would have had fantastic views already, but not today. From here the trail skirted around the south side of the ridge and was mostly level. The trees were beautiful white snow-encrusted sculptures, occasionally contrasted against a deep blue sky as the sun broke through the clouds.
For the next few kilometres, we followed the ridge, pausing often to admire the acres of untouched smooth snow. It was spectacular even without views. At times the clouds rolled in again, reducing our visibility to almost nothing, and we could do nothing but follow the tracks of others until we spotted the next orange marker pole. Eventually we reached our last little downhill which could only mean one thing: we were at the lakes, and almost at the shelter. The visibility was worse again as we reached the shelter in the fading daylight. We unfastened our snowshoes and went down the half-dozen snow steps into the front door of the hut.
Well there was no way we were getting a bunk that night. The shelter was already full of people. We all managed to find some floor space and put down our bedding. Maria and I ended up next to the open north-facing window, and I wondered to myself how warm we would be that night.
Back downstairs, we bagged a table and proceeded to spend the rest of the day there. We made tea, we watched Anne and Adib figure our how to make up their origami plates and cups, we played Uno. We were indoors, and warm. It was great. Since it was Susanne’s birthday weekend, we celebrated with two-bite brownies. Her cake was a brownie with a candle in it. We had a great evening.
Eventually the hut began to empty as others headed out into one of the snow caves or igloo. Even then, more people had arrived during the evening and the shelter was full to bursting point. Around 10pm, we settled down in our sleeping bags. Some folks were still up and chatting, and we employed our antidote: some laid-back music on the iPod. We drifted off listening to Alpha Yaya Diallo, by which time almost everyone had gone to bed. Suddenly the place was quiet. Except for the snorers, who seemed to be competing for the honour of being the loudest. And the girl who had drunk too much and was throwing up in a bucket… Fortunately for everyone else, she had some very good friends with her.
The clouds had drifted away during the evening and an almost full moon lit up the surrounding landscape. A cold northerly wind joined in, and sometime in the early hours of the morning I found myself dusted in cold snow. I ignored it for a while but eventually it became too annoying so I got up to close over the window. I had barely reached the window when a voice hissed at me from the bunk `Don’t close the window; it’s too stuffy in here’. I countered that I was getting snowed on, and besides I had no intention of closing it all the way. I halved the size of the opening and crawled back into my sleeping bag. Sleep, perchance to dream….
From the window we could now see the view. Blue sky and a few clouds greeted us as we got up and headed to the outhouse. A totally different day, and what scenes were laid out before us. Mamquam to the east, Tantalus to the west and Garibaldi towering over us to the north. Breakfast was cramped, as the snow-cave campers began to trickle in to the shelter.
The hubbub returned as conversations got under way. I was dumbstruck as I heard a woman’s voice loudly complaining to her friends about someone trying to close the window during the night. I sat and listened as she told the story again and again as other friends sat down. So I got my own back on her by complaining loudly to anyone who would listen about this woman who complained when I went to close the window a little… Funnily enough, I ended up telling the story to someone who was in her party. Normally I would be embarrassed by that, but today I was not going to back down and I did it mostly to amuse myself and see how far I could push the matter. This is how wars start…
After breakfast we packed up our gear and headed out to play in the snow and enjoy the views. Make no mistake: the January sunshine was glorious and very welcome, but the north wind was bitterly cold. We explored the snow caves and the igloo, left huge footprints in the pristine, untouched snow. It was a beautiful day and nothing was going to spoil it.
Not even a glorious entry in the book of outhouse horror stories, where the breeze whistled into the lower outhouse and up through the toilet seat. Ooh chilly! But worse than that – how do you make weightless toilet paper go down into a hole where the wind is blowing the other direction? There are few things worse in this world than being stuck in a small toilet stall with a yard of unravelled TP floating around like the ghost of last night’s dinner… I mean, just which bit do you grab?
The morning passed, and after a quick lunch we shouldered our packs and began the slow plod back to the car. We struggled up the first incline and immediately stopped to look back over the snow-covered Elfin Lakes. So clear and obvious in the summer, they were remarkably difficult to make out in the snow, showing up as two barely-discernible flat depressions, merely gentle outlines in the snow. Today we had the views, and we stopped many times for photos. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful it is up there in the winter; the photographs really don’t do it justice.
We retraced our steps along Paul Ridge and were blown away by the views of the Mamquam range, the Tantalus range and the spectacular jagged teeth of the Sky Pilot group. We stopped in a sunny spot to dig a snow pit and examine the snow layers. The avalanche danger was considerable, which had ruled out a morning trip up to the Gargoyles. Digging down, we easily found a couple of crusty layers. The greatest instability was the top four inches or so, which slid easily as a slab. I found a couple of small slopes to test this on and sure enough, it was easy to get little slabs to form. Those were not the danger today; but who knows? Another storm or two and things could get much worse. We filled in the pit by jumping on the sides, and continued on our way.
The final uphill section along the ridge had the most breath-taking views of the trip. Looking back north-east the view encompassed a 270-degree sweep from Brohm Ridge and Garibaldi through to the multitude of mountains between us and Vancouver. It was hard to stop and admire the view thanks to the freezing cold wind, but we did as long as we dared before ducking over into the next dip, which proved to be a nice little sun trap on such a day.
We paused here for a snack break before finishing off the ridge and descending back through Red Heather meadows. We had one last peek at Garibaldi on the shoulder of the ridge, before tromping down through soft powder, rather than the hard-packed trail. We reached the shelter at the bottom of the meadows around 3 pm and finished off our hot drinks with a final round of chocolatey goodness. From there we just had the final trek back down the logging road, where we had to dodge the skiers and snowboarders. Or rather, they had to dodge us. Either way it made for an occasionally stressful descent, but we were back at the cars within an hour and a quarter. Only one way to finish off: beer!
What a brilliant weekend.
Distance: 22 km
Elevation gain: 650 m
Photos on Flickr