With Maria’s boots needing re-resoling, we perused a few hike options that could be done (in principle) in runners. Our original plan was to head for Radium Lake with the option of continuing up to Mt Webb, but we changed our minds for something a little closer: Brunswick Mountain. This peak has been on our list for as long as we can remember, but we kept putting it off thanks to the intimidating elevation gain and reports of an airy scramble on the summit. However, there’s no time like the present and so we thought that it would be an ideal target for today.
Being closer, we opted for a later start than planned which meant we had to park down by the school in Lions Bay and walk the extra distance (and elevation gain!) up to the trailhead. So far so good. Mind you, the parking lot at the trailhead is so small that I suspect we would have ended up at the school anyway, even if we had got there at our appointed time. We left the car at 9 am and up the road we went, and we soon found ourselves at the trailhead. In retrospect, it was quite a nice way to warm up. We passed the gate onto the gravel road and began a gentle plod up the hill.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that Maria’s trail runners were no match for a decent pair of hiking boots as she found herself slipping frequently on the loose surface. But we continued, thinking that this initial section of logging road would be the worst. Oh, how wrong we were… A few more minutes up the road we met a couple who asked us which trail we were on. It turned that they were looking for something called the Lions Bay Loop trail (according to their Vancouver Trails hiking app), which neither of us had heard of before. But we told them about Tunnel Bluffs and they said that sounded a bit like what they were aiming for, so we gave them a few pointers on getting there and continued up the hill. I later found out that there is indeed such a loop trail that wanders various trails through Lions Bay – and it’s nowhere near where we found them… We hope they either found Tunnel Bluffs and enjoyed the hike or had the sense to turn back and try again.
So onwards and upwards and an hour after leaving the car, we reached the fork where we headed off left on a nicely-overgrown logging road. We’d hiked this once before when we visited Tunnel Bluffs and enjoyed it. Today, Magnesia Creek was nice and low and a little rock bridge made it easy to get across without getting wet feet. The road seemed more overgrown than before (I can’t believe it’s been four years since we hiked it!) but maybe that’s due to the different time of year.
All too soon we reached our next fork and stayed right to begin the next phase of elevation gain. The road was still pleasant to walk and gain height at a steady rate. However, the surface soon deteriorated to gravel once more and we found ourselves having to work that bit harder to plod up the hill. We met a couple of backpackers on their way down, who’d spent a couple of nights up on the Howe Sound Crest Trail and exchanged a few words before continuing on. We passed an elderberry tree laden with red berries and then an extensive patch of wild ginger. The trail was a little better here, which was fortunate as we had to brush our way through waist-high bushes and grass and often had little sight of our feet.
The road wound up the hill, back and forth, alternating clear and brushy sections, all the while getting a bit steeper and more and more gravelly. Still we plodded on and, two hours after leaving the car, we reached a convenient old log to sit and rest. Much needed, especially after the last hundred metres or so of alder swimming… We drank some water and ate a boiled egg, accompanied by the characteristic calls of the mountain chickadees. We seemed to have disturbed them and several flew in quite close by, eyeing us up and maybe on the lookout for food?
We pushed on once again and the road finally petered out into a dry, dusty and (of course) gravelly trail that pretty much took a direct line up the slope. Great – steep and loose, our favourite. :-/ With much cursing and difficulty we hauled ourselves up through the trees, initially mostly spindly, dismal second-growth but gradually giving way to older forest. Despite the forest, the trail was still a mess and I began to question everything I’d read about this hike. No one had ever mentioned the state of the trail; to my astonishment, later reading turned out several glowing endorsements of the trail! I couldn’t believe my eyes…
I kept an eye on the GPS to monitor our climb – the consolation prize for hiking straight up the slope is that you gain elevation quickly. We’d already done more than half the climb by the time we entered the forest and despite what seemed like slow going, we were actually making good progress. A few viewpoints opened up here and there, offering tantalizingly-beautiful glimpses of Mt Harvey to the south, and Howe Sound to the west and north. Eventually the trailbed turned to something more akin to a real trail (albeit for a short distance) and for the first time today, I began to enjoy the hike.
Sadly it was over all too soon, but we had reached our next landmark: the intersection with the Howe Sound Crest Trail. It was 12:30 pm. Could we really be only a half hour from the summit? A four-hour ascent would be pretty good time in my book. We paused for a snack and a rest before continuing our direct approach to Brunswick. A short distance later we caught our first glimpse of the west summit above us. It still looked a long way off…
Up we went and soon reached a small rock step, slightly downsloping and slippery with few handholds which stymied me for a good couple of minutes until Maria found the obvious way up. I followed and we continued on our merry way, though at the back of my mind was how to get down that step again. The views began to open out and it all started to seem worthwhile. A bit more careful climbing up a loose, gravelly gully brought us to a big steep, open slope with no obvious route up. We could see flagging and paint marks and figured that it was just a matter of picking the route that seemed most comfortable.
Now I began to question my choice of hike once more :-) I never lose sight of the fact that I have to descend anything I climb, and this slope was making me a little anxious. I would not attempt this if it were icy or really wet given the gradient and loose footing. But with a little care we made it up and, passing one last little spruce tree, emerged at the col between the west and central peaks of Brunswick Mountain.
Suddenly it was worth every slippery step. And we still weren’t at the actual summit. The ground dropped away from us almost vertically down into the bowl behind the north face of Brunswick. What a sight! It didn’t feel like we were in the North Shore mountains at all – it all felt very alpine. Of course, the summit of Brunswick is above the treeline, so that should not have been a surprise, but it was brought home by the appearance of alpine flowers such as stonecrop and harebell.
The summit ridge lay up to our right, still a bit of a climb away. We couldn’t see any markers but the route looked obvious (just don’t get too close to the edge…) and we headed up over the sharp broken rocks, passing another hiker who was on his way down. We exchanged pleasantries. No, let me say that again. We exchanged exultations – what a spectacular place! Higher up we came to the first section that could be labelled as having “moderate exposure”, as defined by Matt Gunn’s description. A craggy, narrow spine only a few boots wide with a drop into a tangle of mountain hemlock and spruce on one side and a longer drop on the other. I expected to balk here but in practice I found it to be easy – just like Striding Edge in the Lake District. In fact, better because the rocks were grippy, and not sloping in any particular direction. A dozen steps and we were over.
Our next obstacle was to downclimb a steep gully before another climb towards the actual summit. This required much more care but it, too, was not difficult. Up more of the grippy (albeit boot-shredding) rock, passing another hiker happy to be up here, and then we reached a new roadblock. Now this one nearly did turn me around: it appeared that we had to haul ourselves up onto a smooth, sloping narrow rock with a hundred-metre drop on one side and an intimidating mess of rocks and trees on the other. I thought I could do it, but it seemed pretty dodgy to me. Maria took a look on the south side and found an easy way through – phew! We didn’t have to climb it after all! Just for fun, I seriously considered trying it out on the return, but I decided that I had nothing to prove, and why tempt fate?
The buzz of an aircraft engine had us looking around to see a floatplane flying angling towards the gap between Brunswick and Harvey as a shortcut to get to Vancouver. We watched it as it flew past the Lions and decided that we have to do that flight one day – that must have been almost as good a view as ours :-) Now we were just a few steps from the old helipad where we dropped our packs and enjoyed one of the best lunchtime views we’ve ever had. The sun was hot and shade was non-existent – unless you were a scrounging raven, where you could wait under the helipad, ever watchful for handouts.
Stunning. In a summer of pretty good lunchtime views, this one really ranked up among the best. Harvey and the Lions to our south, Grouse and Crown (where we’d been just a few weeks earlier), Coliseum and Burwell to the east with Golden Ears in the distance. To the north lay the jagged Sky Pilot group, Garibaldi, and even Black Tusk. Immediately below us lay the trio of lakes, Brunswick, Hanover and Deeks. Plus we had our first views into Magnesia Meadows, a place which has long intrigued me – I couldn’t see how the terrain would allow such a gentle meadow to exist, but there it was complete with the bright red emergency shelter. It made up my mind: I’d love to hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail.
After lunch we explored the rest of the summit ridge as far as a cairn before it dropped down to a col to the “horn” on the end. We were quite happy to stop there and we took a few (!) more photos. We headed back to the helipad, enjoying the mild scrambling as we went, hoping that the raven hadn’t been bold enough to have a stab at our packs for food. Luckily, the raven was well behaved. We could see other hikers had come up as far as the first sub-peak, but surprisingly none made their way over to where we were. We couldn’t believe our luck at having the entire summit to ourselves for the past hour, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that we began to retrace our steps.
We took our time, not wanting to leave the summit area too soon, and enjoyed all the scrambling back to where we began our descent. In fact, we probably enjoyed it more having become more comfortable on the terrain. We soaked up the last views and picked our way back down the loose slope. One more final viewpoint before we entered the trees – turquoise water surrounding Anvil Island in Howe Sound. And finally the long descent – the less said about that the better really, but we got it done. As ever the final few minutes along the road to get back to the car were excruciating and we were relieved to come around that last bend and find the car where we’d left it. We threw in our gear and headed for home.
At last, after so many years, we had visited Brunswick. What an incredible summit – but was it worth the slog? I’m really torn – I’d love to go back to the summit, but I don’t know if I can face that approach again. Maybe give it a few years to let the memory fade….
Distance: 16 km
Elevation gain: 1600 m