It was the Labour Day weekend and, despite a less-than-perfect forecast, there was no way we were going to let it pass without getting out. We really wanted to make the most of the time so we decided to leave on Friday and camp at Cheakamus Lake to give us a head start in the morning. Maria and I packed the car and headed out into the traffic.
We were later than planned (of course) and it wasn’t until 8 pm that we reached the Cheakamus Lake parking lot. We pulled on our boots, shouldered our packs and set off into the gloom, a few pink clouds at our backs prolonging the last of the daylight. We passed several people returning to their cars, including a few cyclists (with no lights!) but the trail was mostly quiet. At first the trail was wide open and easy to see (in the logged section), but the light level dropped dramatically once we entered the old-growth forest.
However, our eyes were adjusting all the time and the trail was still easy to follow so we left the headlamps in our packs. It was quite an experience hiking at night, a little eery but very, very peaceful. The forest was silent when we stopped for a rest. After just over an hour we came to the first campground by the lake. We studied the map to work out where to put our tent, but the reality on the ground was very different in the dark. By now we were using our headlamps, casting sharp deep shadows wherever we looked.
We never did find the campsite we were looking for, but we did find a level open patch which would make a perfectly good spot. We could see another tent nearby, down at the water line, and an outhouse and food storage were close by up the slope a short distance. We pitched the tent with no problem, although the ground was so hard that getting our pegs in was tough. We were not expecting rain that night, so I didn’t tension the flysheet as much as usual due to the hard ground.
Now we could eat dinner :-) We had little tuna steaks in foil packets and some couscous. We walked back along the trail a short distance to a big rock, and sat there eating our cold but tasty dinner. A pika squeaked off in the trees, telling us we must be near a boulder field. We brewed tea and got ready to sleep, hanging our food bags. We crawled into the tent at 10.30 pm and settled down to sleep.
We stirred around 7.30 am, packed away our sleeping gear and wandered down to the edge of the lake to eat breakfast. The sky was clear blue, with only a few clouds hugging the glacier-clad mountains to the east. The lake was perfectly still, broken only by a passing harlequin duck, and looked deep blue or green depending on whether we looked east into the sun or west to the trees reflected in the water.
Having eaten a leisurely breakfast, we re-packed our backpacks and set off for Helm Creek at 9.15 am. We think that this was sooner than we would have done had we left the city early that morning, but it was a close run thing. Half an hour after setting off, we crossed the Cheakamus River and set foot on a new trail. We were expecting a bit of a slog up the switchbacks, but we soon found a rhythm and found that with a steady pace, we gained elevation quite effortlessly. The trailbed was soft (apart from a couple of small rock-fall areas), quite narrow (unlike the multi-lane highway that is the route to Garibaldi Lake) and simply a joy to walk. We had a couple of fallen trees to go round but other than that the trail was in excellent shape.
The trail levelled off and we noticed that we were surrounded by huge cedars. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I think we must have passed a few before it sunk in. We were at an elevation of more than 1000 m, and yet here we were in valley-bottom rainforest. Quite beautiful. Soon the trail began to rise again, nice and gradually, and the forest changed character. Silver firs and hemlock dominated now, with an open understory of berry bushes and smaller hemlocks. We found a fallen tree to rest on and grab a snack before continuing with our steady ascent.
The ascent was gentle but unrelenting. We could hear Helm Creek cascading down the slope to our right, and we were able to get a glimpse from a small ridge. The forest was damp with spray and mist hung in the air which cooled us off nicely. Ahead of us the forest began to thin, now a mix of small trees and berry bushes and we wondered how soon we would break out into the subalpine. It took longer than we expected and it was about two and half hours after setting off that we started to encounter flowers such as lupine and arnica.
We crossed a couple of small creeks which I tried to use to locate us on the topographic map, but failed miserably as they didn’t appear to be marked. And still the trail wound upwards. But within half an hour we suddenly popped out of the trees into the large open meadow of the Helm Creek campground. And it was empty! We expected to be fighting for a place, but in the end we could take our pick of tent-pad. We chose one with its back to the trees.
The campground is already in a beautiful location between Empetrum and Gentian Ridges, but the crowing glory is undoubtedly the fantastic view of Black Tusk. From the north, the Tusk looks like a dramatic black spike of rock poking straight up, quite unlike the sloping double-peaked appearance we were more used to.
We pitched our tent and sat by the food storage area to eat lunch. We were joined by a pair of whisky jacks within seconds, but they got nothing from us, as we had nothing to give. We put our stove and dinner ingredients into our day-packs and stowed the rest of our food. Suitably refuelled we headed out for a new destination: Empetrum Ridge. I’d done a little bit of reading and it sounded like a rarely-visited part of the park, yet was easy to get to.
Heading off, we followed the trail towards Helm Pass, winding our way through sparse subalpine fir forest. Occasional late-flowering meadows flanked small creeks, including one we called Monkey flower Creek because of a big patch of pink monkey flower :-) We met the occasional hiker heading towards the campground wearing only a daypack. They were either hiking through to Cheakamus Lake from Garibaldi Lake, or going as far as the campground and returning. Or maybe they were lost, as was one woman we met who asked us about “the lake”. We said that Cheakamus Lake was 2-3 hours away. Turned out she meant Garibaldi Lake: she had missed the turnoff to Panorama Ridge and was now more than an hour beyond and running out of time to meet up with her husband. Unbelievable. No map, no idea of where she was of where she was going. Scary. We couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if she had not run into us.
We left the trees behind as we gained the flat ground near Cinder Cone. To the north we could see Whistler Mountain, while Black Tusk was getting closer. Our next decision was to work out where to cross Helm Creek. There was no bridge and no established trail, it was a matter of picking our own route. As the ground levelled off, we struck off to our right towards the creek. Finding a good place to cross wasn’t easy and in the end we found the shallowest part where the bed was soft, small gravel, took off our boots and socks and waded through mid-calf deep water to the left bank. Boy that water was COLD! My toes were numb after the 30-second crossing. I stood on my fleece and rubbed my feet to dry them. Putting socks and boots back on was luxurious and my feet were soon warm again.
We could see the south slope of Empetrum Ridge and eyed up a more-or-less direct line to it. Within a few metres we were stopped in our tracks by the most abundant flower meadows we have ever seen. Not only was there a fantastic range of colours, they were jam-packed together and were growing up to waist high! Chalk up another one of those jaw-dropping moments we’ve experienced in the mountains.
We picked our way through as carefully as possible, using a small creek for much of the way, until we were clear and reached the heather-covered slopes. There was no trail to follow, and we simply eye-balled the direction we wanted to head and set off through the heather. Marmots whistled and scampered for their burrows. We must have seen half-a-dozen in a few hundred metres, the soft earthy slopes being perfect burrowing ground. We came to a group of trees and turned left up the slope through a marshy area and onto firmer ground. The marsh was filled with red leatherleaf saxifrage and white bog orchids, and it was a treat to be able to admire so many flowers without being bothered by swarms of insects.
A short distance further we spotted some flagging on a tree, and then more on the next tree, leading us up the slope to the col. From here we zig-zagged up an open grassy slope (with much evidence of glacier lilies from earlier in the season) and picked up a narrow trail which led the rest of the way to the ridge. The view behind us opened up more and more as we gained height, and we stopped every couple of minutes to admire Black Tusk one more time.
We reached the first bump on the ridge, descended into a small dip before climbing to a larger bump. This felt like the summit, though looking around we realized that the summit cairn was probably another 10 minutes further. However, the weather in the Cheakamus Valley (which was heading our way) looked bad, so we stopped here for a snack and to take a group photo. It would have been nice to reach the actual summit of Empetrum Ridge, but I suspect the view would not have been significantly better than from our current spot. Over the Helm Creek valley was the Helm Glacier, much diminished from the 1970s when guide books wrote of visiting its ice caves. Clouds covered the top of Castle Towers, but we could still see the massive glaciers on the northern faces of that peak.
After a 20-minute break we began re-tracing our steps back down. We made rapid progress and before too long found ourselves back among the marmots. A pair caught our eye after one of them whistled, and we swiftly changed to the long telephoto lens. I snapped away while advancing cautiously. To our surprise, they didn’t move, and we managed to get within 10 m or so before they dove into their burrow. Back at the resplendent meadows, we picked our way carefully back through the flowers unable to resist taking more photos, especially as we found flowers we hadn’t spotted on the way up (silky phacelia, or sky pilot, for one).
We reached the creek just as we felt a drop or two of rain on our faces. We took off our boots and splashed our way across, glad of the soft moss on the other bank. We dried our feet on our fleece jackets again before retying our boots. And then the weather caught up with us. It started to rain, then sleet before turning to wet snow as we reached the trail. We looked for a spot to hunker down for dinner, and found a group of subalpine firs arranged against the wind. Unfortunately someone had used the best spot for, uh, a post-dining evacuation, so we made our way as far from that as possible. We set up the stove and heated water for dinner.
It continued to snow, cold wet snow and there was I still in my shorts! Though dinner and the hot cup of tea afterwards were welcome, I was shivering a bit by the time we were done. We watched the clouds hide Gentian Ridge across the valley, as some of the snow settled around us. Having cleared up from eating, we took advantage of a lull in the weather and set off back to the tent. The light was fading, but our route was easy and within 45 minutes we were back at the tent. The clouds had lifted a little and we could see the ridge-tops were dusted with snow. We put away our food, got ready for bed, and crawled into the dry tent to warm up.
We laid there in comfort as the rain came in again, before drifting off to sleep to the sound of the rain drumming on the tent.