Elk Mountain, 17 Feb 2008

A fantastic blue-sky day! Five of us headed out Chilliwack way and headed for the open ridge-top of Elk Mountain. This is a superb summer hike with all the wild flowers and glorious views – now to try it in winter to experience the bug-free version! We parked up on the icy snow at the trailhead and set off at about 9.50am. At first it was fairly easy going and snowshoes weren’t necessary, but after a short while the trail began its climb and we put ours on for grip. Better boots or crampons would have been more appropriate.

Warm, sunny, blue skies… And yet it was raining. Big, cold wet drops dropping from every tree. As we gained elevation, the rain turned to snow which was a relief, though it was accompanied by occasional hard chunks of ice. We puffed and panted uphill as fast as we could, to get out of the rain. Elk is a very teasing, deceptive trail and there are several points at which it seems obvious to ask `Are we getting close yet?’ only for those hopes to be dashed by the next climb. But after 2 long hours we reached the open meadow below the first viewpoint. Here is where the fun began (for me at least). The trail traverses a relatively steep slope, turns uphill, traverses another stretch before another climb before reaching the viewpoint. The problem is that this slope is wide open, and if you were to slip, there’s nothing to stop you. It was on the second traverse that my imagination got the better of me, my legs gave out and I had to return to a suitable spot to sit down. The others carried on and I had the option of catching them up or heading back to the car. After some lunch and some warm sunshine, I retraced my steps back to the trees to test my footing in the snow. Happy with that, I returned to my safe spot, picked up my backpack and struck off across the traverse and up to the viewpoint. And I was so glad I did – the view was spectacular, looking across the Fraser Valley to Chilliwack, Cultus Lake, and an ocean of mountains forming the Coastal range.

Elk Mountain snowshoe, 17 Feb 2008

With my energy levels restored I set about catching up with the other four and went charging up hill through a small copse of trees before coming out onto the open south-western aspect of the ridge. I still had to pause every 20 metres or so to catch my breath (it wasn’t until later I realized how steep the slopes were that I was attempting to almost run up!) but made good time when the ridge levelled off and within 20 minutes of setting out, I encountered the rest of the group enjoying their lunch break. Yay! Cheers all round :-)

Here again the views were spectacular: Mt Baker to the south, the Border peaks and Mt Slesse towering over the Chilliwack River valley, Vedder Ridge and Cultus Lake, then the Fraser Valley itself, Sumas Mountain, the many peaks of the Coast Mountains including Judge Howay and Golden Ears. Etc etc. Too many mountains to even name.

We sat around for another half an hour or so, taking photos and soaking up the sunshine (Jeanie started off her 2008 tan). The snow was making cute pinwheels as it rolled downslope, but we couldn’t get them to go very far. Although the avalanche danger was low, there was clearly a poor bond between the new snow of last week and the old snow. A clear crust allowed the top 10 cm or so to slide very easily. It didn’t go very far (only a foot or two) but it made for a couple of surprise footfalls on the way back.

Elk Mountain snowshoe, 17 Feb 2008

And so we reluctantly headed back. We wished for more time to carry on as far as Thurston and maybe further if energy allowed. Another day, for sure. A quick stop to take in some peek-a-boo views and more photos of Mt Cheam and Lady Peak. Turning round, we spotted a paraglider circling on air currents below us, just a little too late to get a good photo. Then Jeanie’s cell phone rang… and she answered it! Well that’s just bad mountain etiquette ;-) We were all shocked and stunned :-)

Still smiling, we began our descent. John (and then I) found that some of the snow was not as strongly supported as the rest, as we both went through to hollows below. The wind had scoured the snow, and underneath on the south-facing side of the rocks was a hidden miniature bergschrund where the snow was essentially hollow beneath our feet. Fortunately we only went thigh deep, but the unsupported snow made it quite hard to get back up again!

Elk Mountain snowshoe, 17 Feb 2008

Back to the viewpoint for our last look at the view, and then it was time to tackle the descent of the open slope I’d had trouble with earlier. With a hiking pole for stability (though next time I’d prefer crampons and an ice axe.), it was a straightforward descent and all too soon we were back in the deluge from the trees. At least this time it felt a little more refreshing. Fortunately in the few hours since our first passage through the trees, almost all of the snow had melted and so before long the rain had stopped. Phew! We continued our steep descent, crunching and sliding through the snow and made it back to the car for a little after 3 pm.

Heading back down to the highway we made a couple of quick photo stops: one to get a picture of the most amazing tree house any of us had ever seen, and then to catch the moon rising over the ridgeline of Elk Mountain. A perfect ending.

A fine destination for such a fine day. Spectacular!

Distance: 8 km
Elevation gain: 800 m
Photos on Flickr

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