Mount Steele, 28-29 Aug 2010

It’s Steele Saturday

The name Mount Steele conjures up a mental image of a hard, forbidding mountain. In reality, a more accurate name would have been Mount Lupine, due to the thousands of purpley-blue flowers decorating its slopes. I don’t normally start entries with the punchline, but this hike was a delight and far exceeded any expectations I had. It’s one of those hikes I’d been putting off for ages, partly due to the 11 km gravel road, partly due to the ferry and partly due to a perceived lack of there being much to do in Tetrahedron Park. Now I’ve been there I can only wonder why I hadn’t considered going there sooner.

We picked up Merewyn on a gorgeous clear and sunny morning, and headed for the 9 am ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale. The crossing was smooth and uneventful, if a little breezy out on deck (as usual). We had great views of the Howe Sound peaks, all the way up to Black Tusk and Garibaldi. As we berthed in Langdale, we spotted a seal playing in the water, splashing around like a kid. Once off the ferry, we spent the next hour or so in slow or stop-go traffic most of the way to Roberts Creek. From there things evened out and we were able to travel at the speed limit! After a minor wrong turn (too early) we turned right in Sechelt on to the road out to Porpoise Bay provincial park, where we’d camped on the Victoria Day weekend back in 2006.

Soon we were the only car on the road and found the turnoff to the park with no problems. It was only once we had turned onto the road that we saw our first and pretty much only sign for Tetrahedron Park. No wonder the park doesn’t see many visitors: there are no signs telling people it’s even there! The gravel road climbed steeply for the first km or so, requiring steady pressure on the accelerator to make sure the wheels didn’t start to slip. The road was in excellent condition, and must have been graded quite recently. The only thing I didn’t like was the gravel surface itself. Some of the gravel looked quite sharp and hard on the tyres. We levelled off and after another minor wrong turn, headed along the Gray Creek Forest Service Road.

At first the road was quite level but it soon began climbing again. Though it wasn’t as steep as the initial stretch, I still found myself not looking forward to the descent. After what seemed like an age, the trailhead came into view with only a single vehicle to be seen. We pulled in next to the park sign and dragged our gear onto our backs. At 11.45 am we were ready to leave, and we signed in at the noticeboard. We were the only people listed as going to Steele Cabin, but we didn’t dare get our hopes up that we’d have the place to ourselves.

The first km was a slog up the road to the 4×4 trailhead. A Suzuki Vitara passed up part way up, which surprised me as some of the cross-ditches looked quite nasty, especially the exit where the ground had been torn up by previous drivers. The upper parking lot had three more vehicles, one of which had a BC Forest Service logo. From here the trail continued uphill along a logging road through a fairly recent clearcut (isn’t this supposed to be a park?). There was no shade and the sun was already beginning to wear me out, but then we were hiking when the sun was at its highest. It felt like slow going and I was extremely grateful of my trekking poles to keep up my momentum.

After forty-five minutes of dragging ourselves up the road, the trail levelled off onto a much older road, initially through clearcut (which makes for views of sorts…), before passing under unlogged forest, giving us some much-needed shade. While the visible logging scars were truly an eyesore of epic proportions, they were mitigated by the abundance of shoulder-high fireweed and plenty of pearly everlasting. As we passed through some wetter areas we saw bog orchids, leatherleaf saxifrage and other meadow flowers. Another twenty minutes and we reached the end of the road, thankfully descending into unlogged forest. Suddenly it was hard to believe that we had been exposed to all that clearcut. We were now surrounded by cool, peaceful old-growth and I felt myself relax instantly.

Within a few minutes we sighted Edwards Lake through the trees. Berry bushes covered the ground all around us and we paused to snack on a few early berries. The huckleberries were good; the blueberries needed a bit more sunshine ;-) We crossed a short section of boardwalk and came to an opening at the eastern end of Edwards Lake, with a couple of well-placed rocks making an ideal lunch spot. We relaxed and ate lunch in the sunshine (though the clouds had steadily increased over the last couple of hours). A couple of dogs appeared and we shooed them back towards their disgruntled-looking owners. A few minutes later we found out why they looked so grumpy: the park ranger was making his way down from Steele Cabin and had turned around the dog-owners, reminding them that dogs were not allowed in the park because it’s a watershed area. We chatted with him for a few minutes to see if there was anything we should know about. It turned out that it was his first time in the park too!

We set off again through the gorgeous subalpine forest, filled with hemlock and yellow cedar. And berry bushes. Did I mention the berry bushes? :-) The trail ambled up and down (mostly up) and weaved its way through the forest, passing small water-lily-covered ponds, crossing boardwalk through sensitive and/or damp meadows. About half an hour after we’d set off from the lake we reached the Edwards Cabin. A small clearing nearby seemed to be a makeshift helicopter landing pad. We entered the cabin and had a look around. The thing that struck us was there wasn’t a nearby water source. We hadn’t crossed any significant creeks, the cabin wasn’t anywhere near the lake and really there were no views of any kind. I couldn’t think of a reason why the cabin was here at all!

Moving on, we soon crossed a large creek. Well, judging by the streambed and depth it must be a large creek at certain times of year. At that moment it was barely a trickle. A sturdy bridge upstream of the obvious crossing point was clearly the safe way across, and we opted for that :-) Once over the creek, we reached a trail junction, with a sign pointing to McNair Cabin to the south. We turned left and continued towards Mount Steele. Now the hard work really began as the trail started climbing, zig-zagging its way up through the forest.

We hauled and puffed and dragged ourselves uphill, eventually reaching a more open meadow area, which led into a large bowl beneath a spectacular rugged cliff face. This meadow was mostly dry, very little water in the creek, and only a few marsh marigolds remained. The lupines, however, were a different story altogether. They were at their peak and covered much of the open meadow. We circled the meadow underneath the big headwall, climbing steadily towards a pass. We met a couple heading down from the summit and we asked them about water, since we’d seen so little on the way up so far. They reassured us that there was plenty near the cabin. Yay!

We reached the pass and turned right up the ridge. We caught our first glimpse of the Steele Cabin, still a good 20 minutes away, but the sight of its red roof gave us a little boost. By now it had mostly clouded over, but it was still a warm day and we were tiring. More lupines and heather distracted us. We crested the ridge, dropped down a few metres and crossed a damp meadow, complete with a gurgling stream. We were at the cabin! It had taken us a little under 4 hours to get there, which felt quite respectable given the elevation gain and that we were carrying our overnight packs.

We hauled our gear into the cabin and celebrated reaching our home for the night. I have to say that Steele Cabin is in an inspired location, with clear views from the north-east all the way to the west. Garibaldi, Tantalus and tons of stuff I can’t name. And it’s clearly well maintained. The sleeping area needed a bit of a sweep to clear the floor, but the cabin was otherwise nice and clean. And to our amazement, we had it to ourselves. We paused long enough for a snack break and to put out our bedding before heading for the summit of Mount Steele itself. We followed the obvious trail away from the cabin, but that soon petered out among rocks and we found ourselves scratching our heads a bit. In the end we figured we would just pick the most obvious route and set off through the heather.

We reached the high point of the ridge and could see two summits: an obvious one to our right (south) and a broad, open summit to our left. We figured the first one was actually the summit of Mount Steele, but really liked the look of the open summit too, and headed that direction first. We dropped down off the ridge before climbing up through a few rocks to the edge of a steep dropoff with fantastic views of Tetrahedron Peak to the east. And more mountains, some of which we could identify (Garibaldi, Mamquam, Tantalus) but many to the north which were completely new to our eyes. We soaked up the views here for a while before heading over to the summit of Mount Steele.

The approach Mount Steele’s summit initially follows a narrow heather- and rock-covered ridge, which looked quite intimidating from a distance (at least to folks like me who don’t like heights), but in practice it was easy. A steadying hand and/or a big step was needed in only a couple of places. Soon we were at the summit cairn, complete with tan baseball cap. The views were uninterrupted from the south through the west to the north-east. A line of trees blocked much of the view to the east, including Vancouver, but there were enough gaps to seek out those views. We sought out somewhere comfortable to sit, and lay back to bask in our achievement. It felt good to reach the top of a mountain.

The day was pleasantly warm and the bugs mercifully few. We must have spent the best part of an hour lounging around and exploring the summit area. A trail led towards an inviting sub-peak to the south, but descended quite a way before regaining height to reach it. We decided to save that for another visit. Our hunger eventually got the better of us and we began our descent. We returned to the col between the two peaks and decided to follow it back to the cabin, rather than retrace our (lost) steps from earlier. The afternoon sunshine lit up our path down, bathing the heathery slopes in golden light. Lupines were everywhere. Meltwater seeped out of the rocks and soil, with mossy mats growing on the flat or gently sloping areas. A few snow patches remained on the northern side of the wide gully.

The trickle of water became a steady flow, still only a step wide, cascading down the rocky slope and eventually pooling at the bottom in a couple of large shallow ponds. It was from here that we filtered our water. I suspect we could have got away without filtering at all, given that we were right at the source, but I never like the idea of risking bad water. The water was completely still and the summit slopes were reflected perfectly in the pools. Couldn’t resist a few shots of that.

Back at the cabin, we boiled water for dinner and drinks and took our dinner outside to catch the sunset. The light was beautiful and we ate our food at the edge of the slope, outstretched feet draped down the hill. We had a clear view over the unpleasant logging operations to a host of unnamed mountains and Vancouver Island. The sky turned from orange to peach to mauve to blue, and we only moved away as the air cooled. The moon was bright and we barely needed our headlamps. We hung our food and played a game or two of Set by the light of our headlamps. At some point we decided that it was time to crawl up the ladder and into our sleeping bags. I paid one last visit outside, and took the opportunity to take a few long exposure photos of the moonlit cabin under the stars. I was really pleased with the results too.

Mt Steele, 28 Aug 2010

Finally I crawled into bed, with ideas of catching the sunrise from the summit.

Sunday sunrise

I love sunrise, but not everyone does :-) I crawled out of my sleeping bag as quietly as possible, grabbed the camera and set out for the summit of Mount Steele, leaving Merewyn and Maria to snooze. Rather than follow our route from yesterday, I opted for the direct approach, scrambling up the mostly gentle north face. At first it was easy, picking my way up the slope over rocks, zig-zagging back and forth across benches. My route-finding skills let me down as I got nearer the summit and I ended up scrambling straight up a steep heathery slope, relying on the heather at times to pull myself up. But that was for only the last 10 metres or so and once past that I walked the rest of the way to the summit itself, twenty minutes after leaving the cabin.

The eastern horizon was cloudy and it didn’t look like I would see very much in that direction. Mount Baker was just about visible, and the Howe Sounds peaks were clear, as was Garibaldi, albeit backed by grey cloud. To the north and west, though, the skies were clear and I had a great view of Vancouver Island. I kept looking in that direction as I could see the Belt of Venus shrinking, and soon the Island summits were bathed in morning sunshine. The sun crept down the peaks until the coast was in sunshine. I was still in shadow though, thanks to the eastern cloud bank. I could see a few gaps in it, brightly lit by the sun behind and a few rays appeared over some craggy peaks where the sun shone through.

And then the sun cleared the top of the clouds and I could finally bask in the warm light. Where the sun shone on the forest below, the trees were bright green. The peaks still cast long shadows and the bumpy texture of the plateau was shown in relief. Edwards Lake was still in shadow, but appeared bright as it reflected the blue morning sky. I sat down and closed my eyes to soak up some of the warm sunshine.

Once again it was hunger that drove me from the summit :-) Breakfast was calling and this time I followed the ridge down, hoping I would pick up the trail we started up yesterday. There wasn’t really a trail to follow, just a series of sporadic cairns which did eventually lead me to what little trail there was. The sun came up over the summit just in time to sit outside for a fabulous breakfast. We found that the resident mice had managed to work their way into our `bear-proof’ food bags and had nibbled on a couple of food items. Dammit – we should have hung our food from one of the nails in the joists, rather than on the wall. It didn’t spoil our breakfast, and we lazed around in the warm morning sun.

Eventually it was time to pack up and head down again, and all too soon we were on our way back down. It was easy going, and we kept a relaxed pace. My pack was playing up as usual, sliding down off my hips so that all the weight was on my shoulders :-( No matter what I did, it just slid down again. That took some of the sheen off my enjoyment, and I found myself estimating how much further it was before I could rest. We encountered a few people hiking up, and a large senior crowd at Edwards Cabin who’d hiked in for the day. Back at the lake, we enjoyed the same lunch spot as yesterday, again all to ourselves.

The clouds were rolling in, and we’d seen the last of the sunshine as we rejoined the logging road. Now my feet began to hurt as we pounded the rocky road ;-) There’s just no pleasing some people…. But whatever, it was still nice to be outside pulling myself along under my own steam. And I was still able to notice things about our surroundings I’d not seen on the way up, such as a couple of side trails, hidden lakes and yet more flowers.

Down to the last kilometre, the final always-longer-than-you-think stretch of road… And yay, we were back at the car! The drive down the gravel road was uneventful and yesterday’s concerns were entirely unfounded. Next stop was Wheatberries in Sechelt for coffee and goodies :-) and a quiet drive and ferry ride home. We just missed the ferry we were going for so we kicked back and relaxed in the car with some well-earned gelato. We were on our way before we even noticed the delay.

Many, many thanks to the Tet Outdoor Club for maintaining the cabins. And to all those people who decided to stay away from the park while we were there ;-) What a glorious and relaxing weekend that was.

Distance: 20 km
Elevation gain: 800 m
Photos to come… eventually.

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