Mount Strachan, 18 Sep 2010

A rare solo hike taking in the summits of Mount Strachan and Hollyburn Peak. I was determined to find some autumn colours and despite a crappy weather forecast, I insisted on dragging myself out and up to the Cypress parking lot. The rain had stopped maybe an hour before, but the clouds still covered the North Shore mountains. I drove up the Cypress road in some of the densest fog I’ve ever driven in. At times I could barely see a couple of car lengths and wished that North American cars had rear fog lights as they do in Europe. I was also dreading encounters with cyclists. Fortunately, though, the drive up was uneventful and I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled into a space at the trailhead.

Surprisingly, the visibility here was quite good and, after an altercation with the ticket machines, I set off in the lightest of drizzles. My previous knowledge of this trail led me astray as the first section has been rerouted away from the creek and up past the new winter lodge. I soon warmed up and once clear of the first stretch of forest, stopped under now sunny skies (!) to remove my rain jacket. A noisy group of four passed me and I let them gain some distance before I continued on. The sunshine didn’t last, and by the time I re-entered the forest near Bowen Lookout, the mist had closed in again. I walked on over new gravel and followed the Howe Sound Crest Trail through bright mostly open forest. As I looked up- and down-slope I was again reminded of how this trail could be tricky in winter: steep slopes and unforgiving runouts. Not a good place to slip. As I crossed the large open avalanche path I remembered crossing this icy slope one winter and was very glad of the crampons on my snowshoes.

Soon I heard voices ahead of me and ran into a large trail-maintenance party in Strachan Meadows. I picked my way through the mini-construction site and picked up the trail which led up the so-called Christmas Gulley. The mist was thick again and visibility was varying between 20 and 50 m. Maria had encountered bears here in previous years so I was a little wary as I pushed my way through the sopping meadow foliage. However, I didn’t really expect to run into any here given the proximity and noise of the work party.

Mt Strachan, 18 Sep 2010 Mt Strachan, 18 Sep 2010

The trail steepened as I headed up the gulley and soon I was puffing and panting, stopping every now and then to catch my breath. Not much of a view back down today. I continued upwards, brushing every rain-soaked berry bush along the way. At least that’s what it felt like :-) My shirt was wet from sweat; my trousers from the bushes. I eventually emerged onto the creekbed which formed the rest of the route to the saddle between the north and south summits of Strachan. At least now I could dry off for a bit. At the saddle I turned left up to the north summit, through subalpine fir and firey-coloured mountain ash and berry bushes. I later learned that the Wanderung group headed to Strachan turned round here due to a mother bear and cub, but I saw no signs.

I emerged onto the open summit to find I had it to myself. I dropped my pack and pulled out my sit-mat and lunch. The clouds swirled around me, taunting me with the prospect of views. I explored the edge of the summit, thickly covered with red and yellow berry bushes. The steep drop off the north face was hidden by the mist and I had to remind myself that I should be careful here. A northern harrier floated by, barely 10 m away and there was I with the wide-angle lens on. It settled in a tree on the other side of the summit, perched with its tail fanned out; I got as far as grabbing the zoom lens before it flew off. I sat down again to admire the fall colours.

Mt Strachan, 18 Sep 2010

I had just finished my lunch when I felt something warm on my back: sunshine! I looked up and saw a patch of blue sky above me. Soon it was a large patch, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Over the next half hour or so, the clouds were drawn away from the summit, like a blanket, and I was treated to bright autumn colours against a vivid blue sky. Photography heaven! I literally dashed from side to side, picking the most photogenic patches of foliage. At one point I realized that it might be possible to see my shadow against the clouds below: a Brocken spectre. I tried several spots but I couldn’t find anywhere where my shadow only fell on the clouds. I had given up and headed over to a spot where I knew there was an interesting tree, and some more resplendent berry bushes. I stepped onto a rock at the edge of the cliff and looked up: there in front of me I saw my shadow complete with a circular glory around my head! I was so excited I almost fell off (oops…). A few minutes later the sun came out more strongly and I was able to photograph my very own Brocken spectre! To say I was delighted would be a huge understatement! I’ve wanted to see one of these ever since I first read of them, back when I was 9 or 10 years old.

Mt Strachan, 18 Sep 2010

Eventually I dragged myself away from the summit and headed down again, only to climb to the south summit. I picked up a trail which led off through the meadows away from the actual summit plateau, a route I hadn’t taken before. I joined up with the ski runs, and took a couple of photos of the chair lifts standing still in the mist. It was quite atmospheric :-) I began my descent for real now, and it was time to get wet again. The trail was much narrower than I remembered and led past innumerable wet trees and bushes. Within a few minutes, my legs were soaking wet.

The descent surprised me: it was steeper and rougher than I remembered, and it seemed to take a long time to get to the point where it came alongside the ski run. Despite the wet conditions, I managed to fall over only once, classic mountain comedy where I slipped, regained my balance only to slip again before steadying myself, relaxing and promptly slipping over onto my backside in the mud. At least this time the camera was away (unlike at Brandywine Meadows a month earlier…). Well a little mud doesn’t do any harm. And I encountered a taste of things to come when I caught some superb sun-rays through the mist. When I reached the col between Strachan and Hollyburn, the sun came out in full glory and just enough mist swirled through the trees to create the brightest rays I’d ever seen, complete with rainbows :-) Spectacular atmospheric optical phenomenon number two for the day! I spent ages taking dozens of photos, completely awestruck by what I was seeing. I was pleased to find that the camera managed to capture it in all its glory (pun intended).

Mt Strachan, 18 Sep 2010

Moving on, I checked my watch and decided to head up to Hollyburn via the steep connector trail for a bit of an adventure. I’d wanted to try this route for a while, and just hadn’t got round to it. Sure enough, it headed up very steeply, before easing off a little. The first major obstacle was a large fallen tree. It’s clear that BC Parks don’t come anywhere near this trail. I had to work my way up the slope (through – you guessed it – more wet berry bushes), through the roots and back down to the trail. Onwards. It looked like I had one more climb and then I’d be at the summit. Except the trail had other ideas…

The trail wound up and round a corner before running into another fallen tree. I detoured upslope through what looked like a kind-of-trail (at least where someone else had ploughed through the undergrowth) but found myself cliffed out on a steep slippery slope. I traversed through (wet) undergrowth, hanging on to every available branch and emerged into a patch of blueberry bushes. I scanned the terrain and realized I was only about 10 m away from the trail ahead of me, so I pushed on, trying not to slip on the downward-pointing roots. It was with some relief that I regained the trail, which led up and over the cliffy section. I expected to come out onto the summit of Hollyburn, but I had crested yet another false summit and I could see I still had a good 50 m or so of elevation to gain.

Hollyburn Peak, 18 Sep 2010

From here at least it was uneventful and the trail was easy to follow. Eventually, and with a small internal celebration, I pushed through one last set of bushes and found myself on Hollyburn summit. I turned round to view the route I’d just climbed and immediately noticed that the Lions were now completely free of cloud. Wow – what a day this had turned into!

I spent the best part of half an hour resting on the summit. Well, not the true summit which was occupied by a couple of hikers taking in the afternoon sun. I looked around for the bench that I’d seen up here before, but saw no sign of it. The whisky jacks soon found me, giving me hopeful looks from the nearby trees, though they soon tired when I offered them nothing (I only had highly salted trail mix – I only hand out unsalted seeds).

By now it was getting late and I knew I was still over an hour from the car. I headed down the trail, through the lovely subalpine meadows to the rooty switchbacks (which seemed to last forever…) and joined the Baden-Powell trail heading west. I’d never hiked this stretch before, so I was quite looking forward to travelling this new section of the trail. Perhaps the nicest feature of this portion of the BP trail is that it passes through unlogged forest. It’s mature mountain hemlock woodland and it’s wonderful! A little more open than valley-bottom forest, which was a boon in the fading light. I crossed a couple of creeks, each with their own set of mini-waterfalls and cascades and stopped for long-exposure photos. I could imagine that once the rainy season is on us again, these little falls will be spectacular little torrents.

Hollyburn Peak, 18 Sep 2010

I pushed on in the twilight and 40 minutes after joining the trail, I emerged onto the ski runs on Mount Strachan. I reached the car at 7.15 pm, six hours after leaving. I’d put in a change of clothes, and with no one around, quickly dressed in them, before heading down to get some dinner and fine ale in West Vancouver. What an afternoon!

Distance: 12 km
Elevation gain: 650 m
Photos on Flickr

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