The Golden Eyries
Golden Ears… We heard of this legendary hike soon after moved to Vancouver and joined the Wanderung hiking group. On clear evenings the three peaks of the Golden Ears group are clearly visible behind the Vancouver skyline. However, its absence from Dawn Hanna’s book meant that we didn’t consider it as a suitable option: it was clearly too hard. That changed after we bought `103 Hikes’ and got in to backpacking. Its reputation as a difficult yet stellar hike (especially as an overnight trip) caused it to jump higher on to the `to-do’ list. Vying with it for attention was the hike to Russet Lake, equally high on our list. Discussing our options with hiking friends we settled on Golden Ears and saved Russet Lake for next season. (Again.)
We called out the hike to the mailing list, but no one signed up. Two trips had been there already this year, but I also didn’t mince my words when it came to the known difficulty of the trip. I had looked at the map, read other hikers’ descriptions of the trail and knew that almost all of the elevation gain was made in the second half of the hike. We were attempting this hike only a week after returning from the Stein Valley mini traverse, and, in retrospect, I have to wonder if this was a wise move as we were still really quite tired after that trip. For better or worse, we were going for it. The weather forecast was simply too good…
We picked up Merewyn and made our way out to Maple Ridge, parking at the West Canyon parking lot. We got under way around 10 am and made steady progress along the flat section towards Alder Flats. We passed the Gold Creek lookout and entered slightly rougher terrain, crossing a couple of dodgy bridges. Within two hours we had reached the campground at Alder Flats and stopped for a bite to eat. It was warm (actually too warm for carrying such a heavy pack) and dry, and the rushing creek we had stopped next to last year in June was nowhere to be seen.
We set off again, pausing at the facilities of course, and began the slow plod uphill. At least on this first stretch the ascent was quite gentle, following an old logging road and we soon warmed up. We reached a clearing on the trail with great views across the Alder Flats valley and up to Edge Peak. An awe-inspiring view for sure, as we knew we were aiming to get somewhere up there by the end of the day.
Beyond this point the trail deteriorated to a steep bouldery creek bed which was no fun at all to hike. The best thing I can say about it is that it was shaded because the surrounding trees and bushes had grown over the top to form a tunnel. Worse, Maria wasn’t feeling very well after lunch and was struggling with the heat and the climb. Not much else to do but take it easy. The trail wound its way up the hill and we eventually reached another small clearing with a view. From here the trail went up a series of gruelling staircases, which would not have been so bad had the steps not been made for giants. Hauling ourselves up these staircases was hard work and very hard on the legs. And I could only think of the descent to come tomorrow…
And it wasn’t over yet. Steeper and steeper the trail climbed, here and there over deadfall (bringing back bad memories of one of our days in the Stein a week or two before). And then suddenly the trail levelled off and we were surrounded by old growth trees: we had reached the end of the logging road section and could relax for the next little while. We stopped for a well-earned rest and edged towards a clearing so we could admire the view down into the valley.
Of course, the respite was brief and soon we were gaining elevation gain, in several places hauling ourselves up across little rooty and rocky outcrops. Not too bad going up (other than the need for considerable exertion) but I could see that coming back down would be much more difficult. After negotiating one particularly troublesome spot, we found ourselves on an open subalpine ridge with fantastic views all around. It was amazing to see how steeply the terrain fell away either side of the ridge. From here we could see that we still had some way to go, which was quite depressing as it was getting late in the afternoon and we were hot and tired.
We pushed on after a snack break, descending a little bit before a short climb to the beginning of Panorama Ridge. Even here we could tell that the ridge was well-named. A rugged crumbly rock face loomed up to our right, and Pitt Lake came into view ahead of us. We turned left (south) along the ridge, with still 250 m of elevation to gain, but at least we were on the last leg. Another couple of steep obstacles later and we could almost see the end. Almost.
But now the hike became a sheer delight despite our tiredness. The views got better and better and we were wowed at every step. Really, it’s too hard to describe adequately – go look at the photos, or better, go there yourself. Mountains in all directions, some nameable such as Robie Reid and Judge Howay, most not. We bumped into a couple of hikers we knew from Wanderung and stopped to chat for a while – they were doing it as a day trip and had a lot of ground to cover before dark! Then we had the final couple of scrambles and, to our relief, the A-shaped emergency shelter came into view.
We dropped our packs and sat and rested for a few minutes before scouting around for suitable camping spots. In the end we opted for a couple of cleared dirt patches more or less on the trail about 30 m from the shelter. We pitched our tents, mostly relying on rocks to keep the flysheet under tension as the ground was too hard and rocky to get pegs in. Usually you feel a tremendous sense of relief when you make it to camp when backpacking, but today we were so happy we had made it. Despite the effort involved, we were just beginning to appreciate just what we had achieved.
The views were unbelievable, some of the best (if not the best) I’ve ever experienced. No towns or cities were visible; only mountains lakes and trees. And a pure blue sky. We spent some time exploring our surroundings and found a good spot well away from our tents to cook dinner. Not that there would be any bears up on that narrow ridge, but it’s a habit you get into. We watched the light change, and enjoyed a long golden hour before sunset taking many photos and filling up on food and hot drinks.
We looked west at the setting sun, and then east at the rising full moon. It was like a game of tennis, looking one way then the other. The light on the mountains, Mt Baker in particular, was spectacular. We could not have wished for a better way to finish such a hard day. We packed up our food bags as a couple of speedy and inquisitive deer mice found us, hanging them out of mouse reach on a nail on the shelter. We chatted with the guys at the shelter, who had built a roaring camp fire (against park rules of course, especially up in the subalpine). They shared shots of vodka with us and we sat back and admired the starry sky. At some point we dragged ourselves away to retire to our tent for sleep…
I had one of the best nights sleep I have ever had backpacking. Despite the hard ground and the slope I had a comfortable, even warm, night. It was so mild, which made it hard to believe we were at an elevation of 1400 m in September. Even better, the flies were not a significant nuisance (there were plenty of them around, but apparently no hungry females).
Since it was such a clear night and we had such a stunning view I decided that there was no way I would miss sunrise from up here. I dragged myself out of bed around 6 am to find a beautiful lightening sky to the east. It wasn’t cold so I was fine in my fleece, shorts and sandals. I wandered around, taking photos in all directions again as the light changed from minute to minute. I woke Maria so she could poke her head out of the tent and watch the sun rise (Merewyn wasn’t bothered). To me that is one of the sheer delights of backpacking: waking up in the mountains, being able to just open the tent and admire the view.
For the best part of an hour and a half I watched the sky. The moon set, the sun rose, the sky was brilliant orange in the east and a dusky pink in the west. The sunlight struck the surrounding peaks and worked its way down their flanks, casting them in a rusty orange light. The impressive rocky plateau on the west side of Pitt Lake turned from pink to orange to grey. Mt Baker to the south and Mt Garibaldi in the north took turns in attracting my attention.
Around 7.30 Maria and Merewyn crawled out from their tents and we ate breakfast on the same rocky knoll as last night. We partially packed away our gear and set off for the summit around 9 am. Passing the shelter, the trail was marked by orange markers on the rocks, set just the right distance apart. For the most part we were walking over grippy granite rocks and it was easy going. We walked over the first snow field onto more rocks and made our way up the side of another big snow bank to a small ridge line.
From here, the route became more scrambly. We picked our way up a steep rocky outcrop and found the next marker. A short distance later, the trail followed a small exposed ledge around a corner and here I came to a complete stop. It didn’t matter what I did, or how I tried it I just could not get myself round that corner. Merewyn had the same issue, but Maria did not so she took the camera and proceeded carefully on to the summit. Merewyn and I retraced our steps down and looked for an alternative route that might avoid this corner. But no luck. The only alternative routes involved heading up a steep snow field (only Merewyn had an ice axe) or scrambling up a different rock face which neither of us really fancied. So we found a comfortable spot on the edge of the snow and sat down to enjoy the view in the warm morning sun.
Maria made it all the way to the summit (woohoo!) and enjoyed the 360-degree views, even having it all to herself for a while. She made her way safely back down again, joining us on the snow field. We picked our way back over the rocks to where we were camped and finished packing away our gear. then all too soon it was time to begin the long descent. Around 1 pm we set off, filling our eyes with the fabulous views of Pitt Lake. The last two scrambly bits we had encountered yesterday were a little trickier on the descent, an indicator of some of the challenges ahead.
I was feeling a little low after not managing to get to the summit, and it was difficult to leave the views behind. I trudged along grumpily, really not wanting to leave. Plus my knees were starting to hurt again (they had started making their presence felt on the last couple of days of the Stein trip). But descend we must, and we headed back along Panorama Ridge. We paused long enough to have lunch just before we re-entered the trees.
At least the trail among the trees was soft and easy going. Apart from the difficult descents over some rocky parts, we made steady progress. It was only when we reached the last of the old growth and re-entered the logged areas that my knees starting playing up again. While it’s true that hiking with poles really does help relieve the strain on your knees, it’s also true that to do so properly you end up hiking very slowly on steep terrain. So I was often quite far behind Maria and Merewyn, grimacing at every other step. Part of it was genuine discomfort, part of it was probably due to me kicking myself at not getting to the summit. Ah well, leave it behind… Save it for another day. Next time I will make it for sure.
As expected the descent down the creek bed was painful, and I was all too glad to reach the end of that. We came to the clearing above Alder Flats just as the sun dipped below Edge Peak, casting deep shadows across the valley. From there it was a never-ending 6 km back to the parking lot. We encountered other hikers who had done the day trip and they were hurting. Some marvelled at the fact we had carried overnight packs up there.
But eventually we made it back to the car, a little bit after sunset. Relieved we threw our stuff into the car and celebrated with dinner at Tim Hortons in Maple Ridge!
What a trip. Unbelievably beautiful and so physically demanding. An extreme hike for sure.