The Flatiron, 13-14 Aug 2011

Saturday: what views!

A free weekend, a fine weather forecast and the realization that there are some alpine areas that have shed their winter coat – finally! Five of us piled into our car for its first backcountry test. Well, not so much, the test was more about making sure we could fit 5 people and their backpacks. No problems there, and we headed east on a lovely sunny morning for the Coquihalla.

Our goal was to camp next to the so-called Tasty Lake, explore the Flatiron plateau and surrounding ridges, and finish off with an ascent of Needle Peak. The highway was being repaved which closed off our usual parking spot, and we ended up parked a mile further along the road. We knew there was a pipeline right-of-way just off the road, but we weren’t quite sure that it led where we wanted to go, so we began our weekend’s hiking by walking along the narrow shoulder of the Coquihalla Highway, huge trucks speeding by at 100 km/h or more. A little disconcerting and it was with some relief that we were able to move away from the road back at the salt sheds. Somewhere along the way Andrew had found a cowboy hat, and was wearing it with pride.

We picked up the trail and set off into the trees. Seeing as this was our first backpacking trip of the year, we took it really slowly to begin with and I enjoyed the rambling pace through the mid-level hemlock forest. We gained height slowly at first, then more rapidly as the terrain steepened. To my surprise, we encountered our first Queen’s Cup flowers still barely in bud – they were in full bloom when we tackled this trail two years and a month previously. Spring is really only just coming to the mountains.

One of the best features of this hike is how quickly you reach the subalpine, even at our leisurely pace. The trees thinned and we looked back to the fine views of the spectacular Yak Peak. Now the trail began its meandering, up and down and around, soon rising to an open ridge with superb views all round. We paused here for a snack and water break, and were immediately set upon by blackflies and the occasional horse fly. Damn things.

We continued on over the granite and encountered our first snow patch. A trail of muddy boot prints led us across the watermelon-tinged snow. I expected to see flowers blooming at the edges, as I remembered the show of lupines from last time, but there was nothing. The heather was barely in bloom, the pinky-red and white bells here and there.

We reached the open slopes below the ridge up to Needle Peak and the first hint of flower meadows. From here the trail over to the lake is great fun to follow, occasionally braided which adds for a little fun as everyone finds a different route. The trail descended sharply into the col between Needle Ridge and the Flatiron and once again I was surprised to see how far behind the flowers were here. There were plenty of lupines and arnica in bloom but far fewer than I expected. I wondered if I might see some glacier lilies in a few of the spots where the snow had only just melted, but nothing caught my eye.

We had spread out a bit along this stretch, Andrew in front, with Merewyn and Carollyne somewhere ahead of Maria and me. It wasn’t until we were almost at the lake that we all came together again. Within moments our attention was drawn by a thundering crack ahead of us and we watched several large blocks of snow crash down the slope after breaking off from a remnant cornice. Wow, what a sound! They tumbled and slid down the snow, coming to rest barely a few metres from the lake. With that in mind, we set about choosing our camping spots further away from the lake than we had originally envisaged.

Another reason to camp further from the lake was the chilly wind that blew over the Flatiron, down the snow slope and over the lake. Brrr. We found more sheltered places to camp on the heather and pitched our tents. By now it was time for lunch and we sat in warm sunshine by the lake.

What to do with the afternoon… Andrew decided he wanted to head for Needle Peak, especially as the weather forecast for Sunday was less good. None of the rest of us felt like tackling the peak, with exploring the gentler terrain of the Flatiron sounding more appealing. To be honest I would have been quite happy to go and lie down in the tent for the rest of the day, but I also wanted to explore the area.

Andrew set off for the peak, the four of us going in the opposite direction. We picked our way upwards along a trail which petered out in the heather, leaving us to find our own way up heathery ledges to the plateau. I was distracted by a ptarmigan family which I stalked for a few minutes, trying to get a close up photo of the mother bird and her brood. I soon gave up on that and followed the others up the slope.

Flatiron, 13 Aug 2011

It was Merewyn and Carollyne’s first visit here and they were blown away by the views – and the breeze. Wow, was it windy up here! That put us off exploring further west towards Portia Peak and instead we followed the edge of the plateau above the lake. I crept close to the top of the snow to get some nice views down the slope, over the lake to the majestic Needle Peak, careful not to lose my footing and slide into the bergschrund between the snow and rock. We skirted around to a notch above a steep snow slope (which we slid down on our last visit…).

We continued over the notch following the slope down into a small col. There was no trail here – we just picked our own individual routes over the granite and heather. By now my energy levels were dropping and I’d reached a point where all I wanted to do was crawl back to the tent. Unfortunately, we were also at a point where it was impossible to take the shortest way back, and we had to continue on over more snow and heather to find a shallower route. I felt like such an idiot stumbling every few steps – I was so tired, and all my energy had just drained away after getting up here.

I reminded myself to take it one step at a time (or was that Maria’s gentle encouragement?) and kept looking up to enjoy where I was. We picked our way back through wet heathery marshes, a few flowers blooming here and there (I always notice those, no matter how tired), and I was glad when we crossed the last little creek and found ourselves at the tents.

Merewyn was keen to get back for a swim in the oh-so Tasty Lake. Andrew soon reappeared and was delighted that he’d made it to the summit that had thwarted us last time. But he said he could barely stand because of the wind, and was even afraid of losing the camera off the summit. The Coquihalla is known for its strong winds – we experienced them at Illal Meadows last year – which reminds me more of hiking in Britain. At least it was still sunny. Despite the breeze, the two of them went in for their customary post-hike swim, Andrew using his air mattress to float on and still wearing his cowboy hat. All he needed was a can of cold beer… oh wait, there it is! His redneck transformation was complete. :-)

They swam a little, but mostly Andrew and Merewyn seemed to want to get out to the big snow island in the middle of the lake. Andrew lay down on his air mattress, beer in hand, hat on head, sun in the sky. You can’t beat this for living. But the breeze was too much, and they soon pulled themselves away to dry off and get dressed. I stumbled upon the same ptarmigan family as earlier and managed to get even closer this time.

We found a sheltered spot a little way down the slope from our camping area and decided it was time for dinner. We whiled away the evening, putting on all our layers to keep warm as the sun dipped below the Flatiron. I was holding out to watch the (just-past) full moon rise and to try and get some moonlit landscape photos. Our numbers dwindled with Carollyne, then Merewyn opting for the warmth and comfort of their sleeping bags. Maria was next – I had to get one more long exposure photo and then I followed, leaving Andrew to his photo-taking.

Sunday: what views?

Well that was an uncomfortable night – we hadn’t been as careful as we should have been with our choice of camping spot, and we ended up on quite a lumpy slope which made it very difficult to get comfortable. As usual I didn’t sleep that well, but somehow that rarely matters as I usually find the energy to be active when backpacking (yesterday’s dip notwithstanding).

We crawled out of the tent to grey skies and low cloud. The top of Needle Peak was covered and Andrew was very glad to have made his summit attempt yesterday. It also meant that the rest of us weren’t even remotely interested in trying for it. We retrieved our food bags and sat down for a leisurely breakfast.

It got greyer and greyer, and the cloud that was covering just the top of Needle Peak was now blanketing the lower slopes of the mountain. We began packing up and agreed that all we wanted to do was make our way back to the car and head for home. By the time we had our backpacks ready, the cloud level had lowered enough to envelope us in mist, mixed in with a little light drizzle.

We shouldered our packs and retraced our steps from yesterday. As we travelled along the edge of the cliff, we found we could barely see down – it almost felt that we were not high up, but we knew differently. A wrong step here would result in a nasty fall (but you’d have to be pretty clumsy to do that). We pushed on through mist-soaked bushes and soon came to the base of the steep flowery slope from yesterday.

The others had begun their climb, I was hanging back as usual trying to get pictures of some flower or other. I moved on to catch up and was stopped in my tracks by some little yellow flowers: glacier lilies! How had the others not noticed? And how had I not seen these yesterday? There were barely a dozen or so flowers, and I’m convinced that they must have sprung up in the night – I am sure I would have noticed these yesterday had they been there. So I set about making sure that I had yearbook photos for each flower (well, not quite but close enough).

Flatiron, 14 Aug 2011

Eventually I dragged myself back to my feet, grinning sheepishly and pointing at the flowers as a couple of hikers passed me on their way to the lake. Up the slope I went and rejoined the others. The mist was thick as we reached the lower flanks of Needle Peak, and re-crossing the snow patches required a bit of concentration to make sure we stayed on the right route. At one point I took a photo of the others in front of me, everyone wearing their waterproof pack covers: two black, one yellow and one orangey-red against a solid grey backdrop. I should have been in the picture to complete the scene with my bright orange pack cover.

In practice, finding our route back was easy, and we regained the ridge before long. We ambled back and were soon below the clouds as we descended through the forest. Back at the trailhead, we decided to follow the old road along the pipeline right-of-way rather than brave the highway again.

Well it was a long road and we were all feeling pretty tired. And it seemed that a bear had marked its presence every 100 m or so. We kept our eyes open but saw no bears. What we did see loads of were wild flowers of every variety – lupines, paintbrush, orange agoseris, bog orchids. It was quite a show of colour, and it made the boring hike back to the car much more pleasant.

After what seemed like an age, we reached the pullout where we were parked, changed into clean clothes and squeezed our gear back into the car. We pulled in to Hope for our usual Blue Moose caffeine stop before driving home. It was nice to be home quite early in the day, but a pity we couldn’t have spend more time exploring. There’s always next week…

Distance: 15 km
Elevation gain: 750 m
Photos to come…

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