This weekend was originally planned to be a leisurely slow food cycle in the Pemberton Valley but that was cancelled due to forest fires. Since we had booked a spot in the campground at Birkenhead Lake we decided to do something up that way, and we were joined by Su-Laine to tackle the Place Glacier trail. The description in 103 Hikes made it look reasonable: 1300 m elevation gain spread out over 21 km. Long but doable.
We drove up to Birkenhead lake on the Friday night and with traffic and a stop for dinner we didn’t reach the campground under after dark. We drew in to our campsite and left the headlights on while we pitched our tents. We decided on a leisurely start, (foolishly) thinking that the trail wouldn’t be too challenging.
The next morning we woke around 9 am and were on the trail by 11 am. We found the trailhead no problem thanks to Matt Gunn’s precise description, and set off down the trail, crossing the railway line and climbing over the (wobbly) gate. From there the trail passed straight through the trees to emerge at a clearing for power lines before entering another patch of trees. The trail kinked to the left and then right again and came out into another clearing with a second set of power lines, before re-entering the woods.
Now the book description was quite vague, and we opted for the most obvious trail with some pink/orange flagging tape. Soon that trail led uphill on a soft bed and we guessed we were heading the right direction. We came alongside Place Creek, high up on an eroding bank which reminded us a lot of Cottonwood Creek on our Stein mini-traverse trip last year. The pleasant-sounding creek was soon replaced by the roar of a nearby waterfall. We climbed a steep section and promptly bumped into two people who knew Su-Laine! They chatted for a couple of minutes before we carried on up the hill to get a good look at the waterfall.
And what a waterfall! Somehow I’d missed the glowing description in the book (103 Hikes is not known for its effusiveness) so it was a complete surprise to be confronted by a spectacular set of falls with a 50-60 m drop in good flow. Wow! At that moment I was convinced it was going to be a good day, and even coming this far made it a worthwhile hike. We dropped down a little to get an even better (and wetter) view before regaining the trail and continuing our upward journey.
Up alongside the waterfall, the trail followed the narrowest of wet, muddy ridges with sheer drops either side. Spectacular, and I wondered to myself that this would be a bad place to be in the dark…. Prophetic thoughts as it turned out…. The trail got steeper and steeper with very few switchbacks to ease the gradient. At our next rest stop we stopped and consulted the books. This didn’t feel like a trail with an average gradient of 10%, and we could see that it continued straight up through the forest. Matt Gunn’s book did say it was a relentless grunt but didn’t give a distance; 103 Hikes wasn’t specific about the gradient. I looked at the topo map and tried to reconcile the 21 km distance with what I could see, and failed unless there were going to be some long gentle switchbacks to come.
At least we had the rapids and cascades on the creek to keep us entertained. We were able to get close at numerous points, scarily so. We all remarked that it would not end well if one of us slipped. The trail continued up, up, up, and more up. I think it’s the steepest trail we’ve ever hiked. It was indeed relentless and every time the gradient eased we wondered if we were close to the mythical crossing point where the going became easier.
Our progress was slow due to the steep trail. Eventually, at 2 pm, we reached the creek crossing having just passed a pair of backpackers heading up and another couple heading down. We plonked ourselves down on whatever looked good to sit on and ate our lunch. It had taken us 3 hours to get this far, and our reading of the book suggested we were only a little over half-way in terms of distance. I was beginning to feel a bit demoralized but I really wanted to see this glacier, and if possible touch the toe. We made the decision to keep going and headed off through the ripening berry bushes along the most enjoyable stretch of trail so far. We ambled through pleasant forest, which gave way to some quite creepy forest with many closely-spaced spindly trees, cloaked in lichen and moss. We picked up our pace a little and recrossed the (now dry) creek bed.
A little further on, and a bit more meandering up and down, we broke clear of the trees at the edge of a large boulder field. Well, a moderate boulder field filled with large boulders. We couldn’t see any more flagging and the boulders ended in a sheer cliff, so it wasn’t obvious which way to go. We picked a course straight up towards the cliff and picked up the flagging tape again at the next set of alder. We picked our way along under the cliff, which was decorated here and there by small patches of flowers, fed by the trickle of water down the cliff-face.
Rounding the corner, we came alongside the creek again as it thundered over the cliff in yet another gorgeous waterfall and spied our route up the headwall. Now, I’m not great with heights (thinking back to the Golden Ears trip from last year…) and so the view of our route up gave me butterflies. It alternately looked manageable and scary. The rock was polished smooth, and sloped downwards towards the rushing creek. There were a few small cracks for hand and footholds but of course that’s where the water collected too. At least the diagonal ledge looked OK. However, it certainly looked true to the description in 103 Hikes as “daunting when wet”.
We started up over the rocks and found ourselves working very, very slowly along, always testing for good grip or a hold. Daunting when dry also seemed appropriate. The first stretch was a little nervy due to the nearby creek, but was forgotten when we started up the ledge. The ledge was fine until one small section where it narrowed to barely a boot wide to get past a small outcrop. The outcrop was really very small and wasn’t much in itself, but I could only think about the downwards return. The lack of good handholds and the slope was making me very nervous: I really didn’t want to get stuck up there! But I pushed on through and thought, well I’ll just deal with it at the time.
Maria and Su-Laine followed with no problems and we picked up the cairns to make our way over glacier-polished rock and loose ankle-turning boulders. We followed the creek and came to the outlet from the first meltwater lake, complete with its bizarre outhouse-liked structure. We still have no idea what it is. Turning the next corner brought us to the edge of the lake, but where was the glacier? We checked our watches and knew we were really short of time now, but having come this far we couldn’t just turn around without seeing the glacier.
So we pushed on over the glacial debris and within another ten minutes there it was: our destination, the Place Glacier. It was cloudy and grey, and there was a chilly breeze coming off the ice. What an anti-climax! Even with our nice view it was still another 5-10 minutes to actually get to touch the glacier. It was 5 pm and we really had no time to explore further. We sat on a rock and rested, took a couple a photos. I was tired.
Now for the hard part: the descent. Having taken so long to get up here we were facing a similar time to get back to the car. Well, not quite – going downhill is usually quicker, but it still looked like we would be getting back to the car in the dark. We set off back over the rocky terrain and took a detour via the A-frame glaciology huts. Cosy would be an understatement! But they were clean and would definitely do work well enough for a small party.
We picked our way off the knoll with the huts (and some interesting rocks) down to the creek again and followed it back over the talus to the smoothed rocks of the headwall. It was time to face up to the bit I was really dreading: the descent down the ledge. I insisted on going first (I don’t think I could have sat and watched anyone else do it before me) and began my descent. I was fine until I got to the little knobbly bit sticking out. Suddenly there were no more footholds or handholds and all I had to go on was pressure holds on the polished rock. I edged my front foot down into a small depression and psyched myself to make the move with my other leg around the rock. All I could think of was the way the rock fell away to my right, and how a slip would see me tumble 50 feet into the frigid bouldery creek. I was standing there, angled down at what seemed a crazy angle with one foot forward, one back and a hand leaning far forward gripping a small handhold for all I was worth.
It took me a few seconds (which felt like an age of course) but I went for it, made it with no problems at which point the adrenaline kicked in and I just had to keep going. I made it down to where the ledge was wide enough for two and stopped to look back and snap a photo of Maria and Su-Laine making their way calmly down. I don’t know how I did it and I don’t know if I could do it again, especially now I know what’s involved!
What surprised us was how difficult the next part was! The slick rock and lack of handholds had us scooting down nervously on our bums. But thankfully it was only a matter of a minute or so before we were safely back on level ground and retraced our route back along the base of the cliff to the top of the boulder field. An invisible pika squeaked away to our right. We picked our way down over the boulders, carefully and slowly as our legs were tired and wobbly, and eventually reached the safety and comfort of the trees.
We stopped for a rest before following the trail back down through the forest. It was now after 7 pm and we were all nervous about finishing in the dark. We pushed on as quickly as we could, but we just could not move fast enough. At least here the forest was open and despite the fading light, we had no trouble following the trail. We recrossed the creek at our lunch spot (having not seen the two backpackers who we’d passed on the way up) and re-entered the denser forest.
The light got dimmer and dimmer in the trees and we were glad of every opening, every boulder field. We made noise to alert any bears or other animals to our presence, really not wanting to encounter anything large and furry in the half-light. We paused at one final open boulder field to make use of the last of the light before switching on our headlamps. Unfortunately Su-Laine had only a small turtle-light, and so we attached her yellow waterproof jacket to Maria’s pack for visibility.
With more than a little trepidation, we plunged on into the dark forest. For the next hour or more we picked our way painstakingly down, following what best looked like a trail in the darkness. Occasionally we cheered as we encountered flagging tape. We crossed a couple of small boulder fields and I can only say that I was never so glad to see faded orange tape and small cairns. Without those guides I don’t know how we would have found the trail on the other side. To add to the difficulty was the ever-present roaring of the creek to our left. We did not want to be drawn off course towards the creek and certain disaster. Somehow we managed to follow the steep trail, using all of our collective experience to decide the slightest difference between trail and not-trail :-) It was hard and intense work, and made us all vow to get stronger headlamps.
We reached the final waterfall and actually it felt good to be bathed in the cold spray. We knew we were close to the finish. However, the trail here was the most treacherous as we re-encountered the slick mud and roots on the narrow ridge. We moved carefully and with much relief began our final descent. A couple of wrong turns later and we dropped onto the flat forest floor at the end. Now, though, it became a memory test as the flagging finally ran out. With what I can only describe as dead reckoning, I followed a route through the trees to the first clearing, across to the pick up the trail again on the other side, through those trees to the second clearing. Another decision to follow what seemed to be the right direction brought us to the trail again and eventually the gate at the railway line. We crossed the railway and headed up the last 100 m back to the car. We had made it! It was 11 pm. We had spent the last two hours navigating solely by our headlamps in the pitch darkness. I am glad we were all so calm about it as I can imagine it would have been easy to lose our heads (and/or concentration). That was what I call character-building!
In retrospect, we probably should not have pushed on to the top to see the glacier. We set off too late, we underestimated the difficulty of travelling over the upper terrain and our pace was too slow. On the other side of the coin, we were not in any real danger and the worst that would have happened was that we would have spent a chilly few hours on the mountainside until the sun came up again around 5.30 am. We had our emergency blankets for warmth, we had food and water, we were a group of three, and we had bear spray. (Unfortunately we only had a single canister as we’d managed to lose the other one somewhere on the descent :-(. Lesson learned: attach the canister to a belt, don’t just stuff it in the side pocket of a pack.)
We threw our gear into the car and drove back to the campground, all too aware of the fact that the gate was supposed to close at 11 pm. But the luck was with us again and we drove back into our campsite just before midnight. We celebrated in style (quietly, of course) and cooked a `delicious’ dinner, accompanied by a very tasty bottle of wine… What a day…
Sunday morning was very leisurely, and we packed up with moments to spare before the official checkout time (not that anyone was checking). We drove round to the lake and enjoyed a luxurious sunny breakfast of blueberry pancakes. Thank you Su-Laine! Delicious! We explored the lake shore a little while Su-Laine went for a bracing swim and set off home around 1.30 pm. Unfortunately the drive home was hot and slow. We were held up by roadworks on the road back into Pemberton and called in at Pemberton Coffee to get an iced coffee. The cooling effect of that didn’t last long and we called in to Whistler around 4 pm for a late lunch/early dinner at Splitz Grill. Then all we had to do was join the long queue of traffic heading back to Vancouver!
What a weekend. Normally I say that when we’ve had a spectacularly fabulous time, but this time it’s tinged by the frustration at the long drive home and our experiences on the hike. Still, it was a weekend in the mountains and that is always time well spent!
Distance: 12 km
Elevation gain: 1300 m
Photos on Flickr