Saturday slog up to Wedgemount Lake
Looking back over the summer, we were surprised to realize that we hadn’t actually done that much backpacking. Apart from our big trip to Mt Assiniboine, we’d only done one other backpacking trip and another overnighter. Remarkably little considering how much we had planned!
So we were determined to get out on at least one more overnight trip, and it was a toss-up between Wedgemount Lake and Russet Lake. Plus of course we had to fit in a swimmable lake for Andrew and Merewyn. The former won in a vote, and so we left early on Saturday morning for Whistler. I’d read that the logging road to the trailhead was much improved since our last visit so I was looking forward to a nice easy drive to the parking lot. Well, the deep water bars had been graded out, but the steep hill had been torn up by all the 2-wheel drive traffic losing grip (err, just as we did in one or two places) and we ended up bouncing through a number of potholes. Remarkably we scraped the underside of the car only once. I don’t think anything fell off….
Once safely parked, we put on our boots and hoisted our packs and set off on the trail. The first stretch is through fairly mature second growth. I remembered it being dark and dingy but on a fine sunny day it felt quite pleasant. It didn’t seem to have that second-growth gloom (though my opinion of that would change at the end of Sunday!).
After a while, we came to the bridge across the rushing Wedgemount Creek with a couple of big, knee-killing steps down. After that the uphill began, first along a narrow spine, complete with several lovely old-growth cedars, before beginning a series of switchbacks up the hillside. For a short time we were kept company by someone’s dog (which are not allowed in Garibaldi Provincial Park…) until we swore at it loudly to go back to its owner.
Up and up the trail continued. I remembered the trail being very steep, but that was at the end of our first summer of hiking in BC. In fact, it wasn’t really that steep at all, or maybe our concept of steep was severely distorted by our experience on the Place Glacier trail a couple of weeks before. We plodded our way steadily upwards through some nice mature forest. The light was amazing, due to the heavy haze from a number of forest fires. It felt like a never-ending morning with golden light shining through the trees, lighting up the moss and lichen.
The uphill eased and we made good time as we passed below a large boulder field. Pikas squeaked here and there. Then it was time for some more uphill. Along this stretch we caught glimpses of the fantastic waterfall on the creek. It’s such a pity that it’s not possible to get a better view as the falls are quite spectacular. Once again my memory failed me as I really didn’t remember being impressed with this the last time. A quick check of our photos showed why: there was barely any water flowing!
More up and up on badly-eroded switchbacks, passing through a thick understory of huckleberry. We tried a few berries but they weren’t quite ripe. Eventually the trees got shorter and more spaced out as we reached the subalpine. I breathed in as deeply as I could to take in the wonderful scent of the trees. One of the things I love most about the subalpine forest is that scent. We passed through flowery meadows which were dying back, dodged pika attacks (well, not quite…) and came to the steepest part of the climb – the final headwall. The last time we did this hike, this section was very muddy and slippery so I was not looking forward to tackling it with a full overnight pack. Luckily, today it was dry. And I was extremely glad of that as it was hard enough when dry! The trail was very badly eroded which meant we made much use of nearby trees and roots and rocks to haul ourselves up.
But fortunately the ascent was short and before too long we crested the rise and levelled off. A hundred metres or so further and we neared the hut and caught our first glimpse of the green lake. Hooray! We were amazed to see that several tent pads were unoccupied, but we first thought about heading to the lakeside camping area, half a km further. We ummed and ahhed, and eventually Andrew and I went back to claim tent pads, reasoning that we were closer to our trailhead for the trip up to Mt Cook we had planned for Sunday (plus there was food storage here). There were four left: perfect. We bagged a large wooden tent pad for ourselves, only later realizing that we’d have been better off with one of the gravel ones as our tent doesn’t pitch well on wood. I was horrified to find garbage lying around the camping areas, and was even more horrified when I made the mistake of turning over a nearby rock to use as a weight only to find a pile of TP below it which was covering up a load of… well, you know.
A hasty hand-washing session later and with the usual improvisation we managed to set up our tent. We found a nearby rock to sit on for lunch. We eyed up our surroundings, admiring the lake, Wedgemount glacier, Wedge Mountain and the other peaks: Weart, Rethel, Parkhurst… Those will have to wait for another time. After lunch we set off towards the Wedgemount Glacier. I really wanted to get to the toe and, if possible, stand on the glacier – something I’d never done before. (I wasn’t counting the special coach trip onto the Athabasca Glacier the year before – I wanted a glacier I’d hiked to.)
We ambled along the lakeside, peering up at the hazy skies all around. Where creeks were flowing, the broad-leaved willowherb flourished, a riot of pink among the grey rocks. The trail eventually ran out and we ended up rock-hopping towards the glacier, and within minutes we were there. The snout of the glacier curved downwards and stopped inches above a rushing creek pouring out from underneath the ice.
Andrew was the first to try the ice, and once a couple of metres from the edge, pronounced it safe. The rest of us followed. Woohoo! I was standing on a real, live glacier! The top of the glacier was covered in rocks and dirt, making it much less slippery than I expected. Maria sat down on the glacier to ice her aching leg muscles. We walked over this narrow section of the toe and stepped off the other side, at first on solid ground but another step and we encountered quick-dirt. The fine rock flour mixed with a little water, plus dirt and gravel made some parts of the area as treacherous as quicksand and we had to move quickly to avoid sinking up to our knees in cold mud!
We explored the rocks near the glacier, admiring the shattered fragments laying on the ice (and some left behind where the glacier had retreated) and the fine scratchmarks in the polished bedrock. A convenient bluff overlooked the lake. It was nice to stand there and look back to the other end of the lake. We admired the view and took photos.
We retraced our steps back across the glacier, dodging the quick-mud, though Merewyn did set off the most fantastic slow-motion mudslide which poured silt into the meltwater stream, creating a lovely two-tone effect in the water. Back to our boulder-hopping to regain the trail, we followed the lakeshore to a large rock which Andrew and Merewyn identified as their swimming spot. We always expected it to be a cold lake (duh – there’s a glacier at the end of it!) but when they got in Andrew was adamant that it was the coldest lake he’d ever swam in. Lots of photos and some video later, August’s lake was declared done.
Back at the tents, we collected our food and wandered up the slopes behind the camp ground to get a nicer view of the lake. Here we ate and watched the sun set, turning deep pinky-red in the haze. A yellow first-quarter moon appeared from behind Wedge Mountain. With the last available light, we made our way back down and turned in for the night.
Sunday slog to Mt Cook
We had chosen our camp sites with today’s hike in mind and were very glad to just begin right behind our tents. Using a detailed report from Club Tread, we picked up an intermittent trail which led up the slope, behind a rocky outcrop and then up through the steep heather and boulder slopes. We startled a marmot and watched it run and tumble down the hill to the safety of a burrow.
We spied a small cairn atop a large rock which guided our way just as the terrain levelled off. We paused for a water break and examined the route ahead. We could see another small cairn a hundred metres or so away and picked our way among and over large boulders towards it. All semblance of a trail had now disappeared and for the next half hour or so we made our way over innumerable rocks and boulders in the general direction of the end of the ridge up to Mt Cook.
Boulders and rocks, rocks and boulders. The slope was gentle, at least. Our next challenge was to determine the point at which we should head up the ridge. A few times we followed what looked like trails over the scree, only for them to disappear. We eventually spotted a more promising route which zig-zagged up the slope and began trudging our way uphill again. And what a trudge it was! A classic scree plod: we slid back a bit for every couple steps we took forwards. Our progress was slow, plus Merewyn wasn’t feeling too good so we stopped for more breaks. At least we were gaining elevation and we could begin to see how steeply the ridge fell away to the north.
We pushed on up through the scree and after what seemed like an age, the slope eased and we found ourselves on the broad open ridge leading to Mt Cook. In the distance we could see the summit, still a couple of km away. We drifted towards the northern edge of the ridge and within a few hundred metres came to a viewpoint which quite literally took our breath away.
The view was stunning and completely unexpected. Sure we’d looked at the map and seen a glacier, but still we were totally unprepared for the stupendous view. We found ourselves standing on the edge of a sheer precipice which dropped more than six hundred feet down to a massive glacier. We could not believe that this glacier didn’t even have a name. (We were tempted to name it HoJo Glacier…)
We admired the view and took a ton of photos before continuing on to our destination. Despite the time of day we were determined to reach the summit after a few unsuccessful summits during the past year. We followed the edge of the ridge, thankfully almost flat and easy going (compared with earlier) on the level scree.
We came to a notch which I’d read about, our only potentially tricky section. We dropped down into the notch (not wishing to fall to our left, which would have meant a very speedy descent over a pocket glacier to the ice below…) and edged around to the south to pick up a loose and colourful scree slope. We picked our way up the slope with as much care as possible, ensuring that none of us was in the way of any rocks disturbed by anyone ahead.
Up over the scree slope and the summit was now in sight. We each set our own pace and headed for the summit cairn. Andrew made it first and waved his trekking pole in triumph. Soon we were all there and we cheered. Now for some lunch! And of course, what a lunch spot we had. We sat on a small ridge a few metres away from the summit, our legs almost dangling over the edge, our massive nameless glacier laid out before us seemingly at our feet. Wow!
With greater reluctance than usual, we had to drag ourselves away and begin the return journey to the campground. We re-negotiated the scree slope, where Andrew did slip, sending a large rock careening my direction which fortunately stopped before going too far. Soon we were back atop the ridge and enjoying the hazy views once more. We managed to spot the twin cairns we’d passed between on the way up and began the nasty descent over the scree. Remarkably, we picked up exactly the same trail we’d climbed on and with a bit of boot-skiing at times, found ourselves at the base of the ridge within a relatively short time.
We were beginning to tire (and we had yet to break camp and head back to the car!) and I was not looking forward to the next section over the boulders. Time to buckle down and concentrate on getting across safely, back to the cairns. (It must be said that the cairns were invaluable, but only on days with good visibility – they’re too far apart to rely on in mist or fog.) Once again, we picked up the route of our ascent through the heather. Wedge Mountain and its glacier lay before us, the view softened by the smoke haze. Within a short time we were back at the tents.
It was 4 pm as we began to pack away our gear. The sunshine was warm and it was hard to be enthusiastic about dismantling our tent. I think we felt more like just kicking back and soaking up some more of our surroundings. We briefly considered staying for a second night… except we didn’t have enough food. And so within the space of an hour, our packs were ready again. We hoisted them onto our backs and set off back to the car.
We said goodbye to Wedgemount Lake, took one last look up to Mt Cook and within a few minutes were making our way down the steep headwall trail. It was much more difficult to descend this section of the trail due to the steepness and the loose surface. We made good use of the rocks where possible and took advantage of the poor unfortunate trees growing on or at the edge of the trail.
As the trail began to level out, we heard a squeak and a pika darted over the rocks and crossed the trial a few metres in front of us. What made this even more amazing was the fact that it had a bunch of grass in its mouth, which was longer than it was! Very cute. We passed through the last of the meadows and entered the trees. We made steady progress on our descent, enjoying the warm, soft light once more. The peek-a-boo views of the waterfall seemed better than on the way up, and although Andrew and I took a detour to the creek at one point, we never found a way to get a clearer view.
Down and down we went, the light dimming as sunset approached. At several points I thought we were close to the bottom, only to find more descent awaiting. But eventually we reached the bridge over the creek, literally just as the sun disappeared below the mountains across the valley. It was 7.30 pm.
We re-entered the scrubby second-growth forest which now seemed very dark and foreboding (unlike yesterday morning…). And it seemed to take a long time to hike through. Finally we reached the car park and with great relief were able to take off our packs for the last time. Dinner was a well-earned burger at Splitz Grill in Whistler.
What a fantastic weekend, and our first one with more than 2000 m of elevation gain (and loss!). There’s no doubt, Wedgemount Lake is a beautiful area.
Distance: 12 + 7 km
Elevation gain: 1200 + 780 m