Two/three days by Joffre Lakes
Joffre Lakes is one of the must-visit places in south-western BC. Maria visited it a couple of years ago, and we’d returned with Wanderung in 2007 as part of a weekend in the area. We’d vowed to return again but this time to camp overnight, and so we arranged it with Andrew and Merewyn and called out to the mailing list for more company. Fortunately we got a response in the form of Darcy who had a car and could take the Friday off to drive up. I had to work.
So on a fine Friday morning, the others went up while I sat in front of my computer. They made it up to the upper lake and found the place deserted. This was a good thing as it meant they could claim the best camping spots right next to the lake. After setting up they explored the south shore of the lake and generally chilled out in the sunshine. Andrew and Merewyn swam in the lake, of course…
Saturday: my drive and the Tszil-Taylor col
Then it was my turn to join them. I left the apartment at 3 am, was stopped briefly on the Lions Gate bridge at a police checkpoint looking for drunk drivers, and then was on my way up the Sea-to-Sky highway. The moon was setting in the west and the sky was clear. I stopped at the Tantalus overlook to admire the moonlight on the glaciers before heading into clouds and mist between Whistler and Pemberton. By the time I reached the Duffy Lake road (startling a couple of deer on the switchbacks) the sky was mostly clear again, with just a few high clouds skimming the mountain tops and patches of mist down by the road.
I reached the trailhead at 5.45am and left the car at 6am on the dot. A few RVs were parked and I tried not to make too much noise as I got ready to set off. I paused briefly at the lower lake to take in the view before setting off along the wide-open trail. I talked out loud, hoping to make enough noise not to startle any bears in the bushes around me. Despite feeling my early start, the cool morning air and the possibility of a bear encounter kept me alert.
Hiking alone at that hour of the morning was quite exhilarating. I set my own pace, and tried to keep it steady enough not to tire me out but fast enough to make good time. Of course, photographic opportunities always get in the way, and I couldn’t resist pausing here and there to take the odd picture. I pushed on and within less that an hour and a half, I reached the middle lake. A few more pictures, in particular of the Stonecrop glacier reflected in the still water. I zoomed in for a detail shot as the first light hit the glacier and noticed a trail leading up the right-hand side. Had someone really gone up there? Sunday would show the answer was yes.
I pushed on, now at the steepest part of the climb and beginning to tire a little. I soon reached the upper lake and dropped down on a short side trail to get photos of the view across the lake. The lake was perfectly still and the Matier glacier was reflected beautifully. It was a breathtaking sight. I returned to the trail and made my way to the campground, quickly spotting the pair of bright orange MSR tents used by Andrew and Merewyn and crept up as quietly as I could. Andrew was already up and about taking photos.
I `knocked’ on our tent and popped my head in to wish Maria a good morning :-) It was just after 8 am. Not bad timing at all. Over the course of the next hour and a half, everybody crawled out of their tents and we sat with breakfast. I quietly stashed my treat for the evening in the lake: a six-pack of Okanagan Spring 1516 lager. No one saw me so I couldn’t wait to see the looks of surprise when I brought them out later :-)
We set off around 9.30 am for Tszil peak, thinking that it would be an easy scramble. New ground, always exciting. The trail set off along a meltwater creek, through a soft sandy area shaded by fir trees, gradually gaining height. Here and there we had to pick our way over boulders, but the trail was easy to follow. Patches of mud greeted us at the boggy edges of miniature meadows, blooming with fresh flowers (and usually bugs too). After a while we left the trees behind and entered an open boulder field. Behind us were views down to the lake and up to the Matier glacier; to our right was a cliff and to our left was the talus slopes and snowfields below part of the Tszil glacier.
A little further on we joined the lower portion of a lateral moraine. At first it was easy going, not too steep and a couple of boots wide, but it got steeper and narrower and was a little bit hairy in places. It was easy to knock rocks and boulders out from under your field and watch them crash down the side of the moraine. Didn’t want to end up down there… Of course, it was great fun at the same time as the views just got better and better. We reached the end of the moraine and scrambled up a short way to reach a small rocky plateau. This plateau soon ended in another boulder field, this time composed mostly of huge blocks from the cliffs above. Patches of snow filled in between boulders and we were careful to test them for crossing.
The boulders got bigger and bigger, and we were now scrambling between the boulders, picking the best route where possible, sometimes needing to backtrack a couple of rocks to find a better way through. It was tricky in places, but again it was easy to maintain our course. Mind you, in poor visibility that area would be quite difficult. We reached another extensive snow field and plodded our way up it, topping out at the col between Tszil and Taylor peaks.
And what a view awaited us! The ground fell away sharply below our feet down to a small alpine lake, while the tantalizing length of Two Goat Ridge stretched away to our left to join up with the flanks of Duffy Peak. We could make out Mt Currie and Pemberton in the hazy distance to our right. Dragging ourselves away, we turned left to head up the slope towards Tszil. However, we soon ran into problems and it became hard to see where we should head next, which was not helped by the presence of several steep snow banks. We looked at the time and decided that we should find a good lunch spot and mull it over.
Well of course, after lunch no one felt like going any further so we retraced our steps back down to the col, took one last look at the view and glissaded down the snowfield back to the boulders. Heading back down through the boulder field was a little trickier (as expected) and needed some care and good planning of foot steps. We soon reached the little plateau where we made a bee-line for a small melt-water tarn we had spotted from further up. There was only one possible reason for this: Andrew and Merewyn simply had to swim in it :-) And so they did, making their way across the tarn to an iceberg which they tried to haul out on to. That didn’t work so they swam back (in sync too). The rest of us watched and shook our heads in disbelief.
We continued our descent, dropping off the plateau (encountering a large group of hikers making their way up) back onto the moraine. This too was more difficult on the descent, mostly because it was easier to see how the terrain fell off in each direction around you. It was quite dizzying at times, but careful steady footwork was all that was needed to make our way back down safely.
We returned to the campground to find a small tent city had been established in our absence. Due to the lack of space, one tent had been set up between two of ours, leaving little room between them. A lesson for future camping trips, for sure: close up the gaps between tents a little. I soaked my feet in the lake, cooled off my head while my feet went numb. Maria and Darcy did the same. Merewyn and Andrew went swimming again, proclaiming that the water was warmer than yesterday! Riiiiggghhht. By about 0.5 degrees I expect. Not enough to tempt me in :-)
Then it was time for dinner and as everyone was cooking, I casually mentioned how nice it would be to have a cold beer right now…. Just as everyone’s head nodded in agreement, I pulled out the nicely-chilled six-pack and watched their jaws drop in amazement :-) Definitely one of the best-tasting drinks we’ve ever had :-) After dinner we turned to a spot of glacier watching as small pieces kept breaking off. Nothing spectacular, and certainly no thunderclaps but fun to watch out for. Given the number of campers below the headwall we were a bit concerned that a large piece would break off and carry that far, but fortunately nothing did. I certainly wouldn’t want to camp in that spot.
The last light faded off the Stonecrop glacier and we retired to our tents.
A pleasant night’s sleep, one of the best I’ve had backpacking, despite my usual alertness to scurrying noises. We crawled out sometime between 8 and 9 am and set about having a very leisurely breakfast. It’s very difficult to convince yourself to leave this place, it’s just so beautiful.
I spent some time poking about trying to get good flower photos as they were either just coming out or at their best. Fireweed, partridge foot, penstemon, saxifrage and arnica all got the macro treatment with varying degrees of success. Penstemon in particular is hard to get right for reasons I don’t understand. Done with the flowers, I looked for more things to take photos of. Three hikers had been spotted climbing up to the Stonecrop glacier. When viewed through binoculars it was possible to see their skis strapped to their backs. From our perspective it looked like they were heading up very steeply, but I’m guessing it’s not as bad as it appeared.
We packed away our gear and with a great deal of reluctance we began our journey home. We retraced our steps along the shore of the lake, pausing to take one or two last photos and picked our way down to the middle lake. The day was warm and by the time we reached that lake we were hot and needing a break. A few minutes later a park ranger joined us, on his way up to the campground. We chatted about the weekend and how busy it had been. Most importantly we all thanked him for the wonderful new outdoor facilities. He laughed and told us he’d had more feedback about that than anything else. Obviously a talking point. I think it’s the first open-air outhouse I used, though I’ve seen photos of others. There’s no doubt that when it’s not raining, it’s definitely a more pleasant experience.
Onwards and downwards. We made good time back down to the lower lake, where I slowed to take photos of some of the flowers I’d spotted on my hike in when it was too dark for photography. Then we were back at the lower lake and at the mercy of the bugs. Thankfully they didn’t seem too bad this time. We stopped to admire the view and track the progress of the skiers. Two of them had crested the top of the glacier leaving one of them trudging straight up the side using exactly the track I’d seen the day before.
We returned to the cars and stowed our gear. The parking lot was completely full, reflecting how many people had been camped up at the upper lake. It’s understandably popular: it’s beautiful, it’s not too tough a hike, and it’s completely free. I wouldn’t object to paying the usual backcountry fee to camp up there, just to help efforts to keep it clean. Back on the road, we drove back down into the Pemberton Valley, where we stopped at the bottom of the switchbacks to take a look across Lillooet Lake. We got out of the car and were hit by an enormous heat wave off the rock-face we were parked next to. It was staggeringly hot. Another car had pulled in ahead of Darcy and us and was letting its smoking brakes cool off. Some people never learn to use the lower gears of their automatics…
Soon we were in Pemberton and headed for the Pony Espresso for lunch and a well-earned refreshingly cold beverage :-) Then we were back on the road, following the traffic home. We stopped briefly at Green Lake in Whistler to grab a photo, where a float plane from Whistler Air was getting ready to take off. The traffic was getting heavier and the car was hot so we pulled in to Alice Lake for some shade. Somehow we ended up walking all the way around the lake, adding another km or two to our weekend tally :-) A very nice way to round off a fabulous weekend. Can’t wait to do it again.
Total distance: 5.5 + 10 + 5.5 = 21 km
Elevation gain: 400 + 500 = 1000 m