Black Mountain and Eagle Bluffs snowshoe, 8 Mar 2009

Perhaps the only hike we’ve done in recent years where we did not have a camera. The loss of an hour’s sleep on Saturday night had us scrabbling around trying to remember all the bits we’d need for a Sunday snowshoe to Black Mountain. Unfortunately, the camera got left behind…

We met Andrew, Gabriela and Dawn at the meeting spot before picking up April downtown. We reached the parking lot at the main downhill ski area in Cypress Bowl and had collected our luminous green trail passes by 10.30 am. We gained elevation quickly as the trail wound its way up past the ski run, pausing here and there to catch our breath and admire the view back over towards Mt Strachan. The cloud cover was patchy and drifted across the nearby mountain peaks. We had nice peek-a-boo view of the the Tantalus Range to the north, but nearer peaks were enshrouded in grey cloud.

Within 45 minutes or so we reached the Black Mountain Loop sign and went right towards the summits, rightly guessing that the views might be worse later on. First we headed off to the North Summit (after a quick diversion onto Cabin Lake). For the most part, the Black Mountain summit area is quite a nice level plateau, and feels like gentle terrain. However, on the actual summits themselves, there are dangerously steep drop-offs. To the west, perhaps 30-40 m drops down towards Cabin Lake, but to the north and east, the mountainside drops steeply a couple of hundred metres down to Yew Lake. We edged as close as we dared (checking for cornices before we did so) and took in the views. Several trees on the north summit were coated with snow on one side only – very pretty! A lone shore pine looked like a series of snow-filled broom heads.

Then we headed over to the busier south summit, though the crowds soon left. For a few moments, the sun came out and we all turned to face it, like two-legged sunflowers. Dawn spotted some rubbish lying in the snow and picked it up, only to find it was a couple of euro notes. We thought they must have been dropped by the large group and figured we catch up with them later to ask, but that was the last we saw of them.

After surviving a few more minutes aerial attack by the local Whisky Jacks, we descended from the south summit and headed for Eagle Bluffs. We could see that someone had taken the summer trail route, but after our trip last year we decided to head straight across the nearest lake to pick up the trail further along (saving us a couple of hundred metres of ups and downs in the trees). We tramped over the lake, a few inches of fresh powder over a firm crust, and re-entered the trees to follow the summer route. Even if there had been no other tracks, it would have been easy to follow the trail as we were able to spot the orange trail markers at every stage.

We crossed a couple more lakes before beginning our gradual descent to the bluffs. There is a point about 5 minutes from the bluffs where the trees thin and give the impression that you are almost there, but not quite. Another short descent and only then did the trail emerge onto the largely snow-free rocks. I was expecting a bitterly cold wind, but it was calm and almost warm. The water looked blue (especially towards Bowen Island and the Sunshine Coast), the clouds were non-threatening and just high enough that we could see all across the Vancouver area. Our only company was an older couple who were sat on a rock near the trees.

We all took off our snowshoes and went down to the edge of the bluffs to eat our lunch. We drank our warming green tea, April passed around a superb Italian cake and we watched in wonder at the aerobatics of the ravens, folding in their wings as they rolled over onto their back before rolling back and regaining control. We even saw a pair of bald eagles gracing the skies, one soaring above us, the other passing below us as they skirted the bluffs. We could now say we have seen eagles from Eagle Bluffs!

We’d been sat for a while when the first snow flakes began to fall. Everyone had cooled down and the snow urged us to get moving again to warm up. Before too long a couple of us stopped to shed now-unnecessary layers. A few more minutes and we were back on the plateau crossing the small ponds and lakes. At one end of a lake, we could see where the creek flowed out and Andrew, Maria and I went to investigate. The creek was frozen to a few inches, but still running underneath. Either side of the creek, the snow was banked up to perhaps a couple of metres in height. Where the snow formed an overhang over the ice, we could see dozens of delicate small hoar-frost crystals, some like miniature blades of grass, some like feathers.

Onwards we went, over more lakes. It was still snowing and it felt quite Christmassy! It was beautiful and peaceful. The firm snow with just a couple of inches of fresh powder made it easy to travel off trail, and I did just that, finding steeper slopes to slide down. Great fun. We returned to the large lake near the south summit and picked up the second half of the loop trail. We found more slopes to slide down, including a perfect easy slope down onto another lake where we spent a good length of time climbing up and sliding down. I did a little self-arrest practice with my ice axe and came to the conclusion that it’s harder than it looks. After that I settled for more sliding.

We carried on, and found more sliding at the point where we joined the trail back down the hill. A little bit hard and icy in places, but still good fun. Then we were back alongside the ski run and we came to a large slide area we had noticed on the way up. Andrew went first, down the first section and then over the next lip down onto another slide. We were all waiting to see signs of a shaking tree where he had stopped (or had been stopped), only to hear a loud crack. For that split second we wondered what had happened, but fortunately he had halted himself by grabbing a dead branch which snapped in the process.

Then I had a go. I was still carrying my ice axe but soon wished I had stowed it. I slid down the slope, put out my right hand to control my direction and my axe bounced off the hard snow and hit me in the head, just behind the ear. Ouch! To begin with, I thought nothing of it, as it was just stinging a bit, until I felt something run down the side of my face and form a series of red spots in the snow. Oh, bugger. The spots became more and more numerous and I realized that I had cut myself quite badly. It bled freely and Maria had to go digging through our first aid kit for a gauze pad to stop the bleeding. Maria managed to get a dressing behind my ear and held it in place with a couple of plasters. A quick wipe of my face to get rid of the now dried blood and I was OK to continue. For safety reasons, Maria took possession of the ice axe.

We made it down with no further incident, and reached the new lodge at 3.15 pm. We went in for (freshly-brewed) coffee and sat and chatted for a while. By now the snow was falling quite heavily and we decided it was time to go. We headed home, crawling through the late afternoon traffic back over the Lions Gate bridge. Once at home, we showered and warmed up with a hot drink. I removed the dressing on my ear and took a closer look. Well, I don’t know what I imagined it would be like but it was a bigger cut than I expected and it clearly needed to be looked at by a doctor. We finished our drinks and headed up to the Urgent Care Centre at UBC. Within a short time I was seen by the doctor on duty who, along with a medical student, put half-a-dozen stitches into the cut. I went home looking like a Hollywood war-hero complete with bandaged head. We were home by 8 pm, just in time for The Simpsons. [Update: stitches removed – which hurt more than getting them put in – all looks well and the medical opinion was that it should heal without much of a scar.]

So I learned a valuable (if painful) lesson today: don’t be an idiot with an ice axe. Otherwise, a fabulous day out.

Distance: about 10 km
Elevation gain: 350 m
Andrew’s photos

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