Brandywine has quickly become one of my favourite summits. It’s a great mix of easy hiking and more challenging boulder-hopping with some steep terrain and a bit of route-finding thrown in for good measure. And then there are the stunning views. Mountains, glaciers, meadows, lakes… Definitely a hike to save for a sunny day, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it is ridiculously scenic.
The new trail into the meadows still had a muddy spot or two but it’s a massive improvement on the old trail. We were in the upper meadows within an hour or so. Beyond that there was an intermittent trail and cairns for guidance up to the ridge. More cairns pointed the way up to the higher part of the ridge, although they ran out a couple of hundred metres short of the summit, which is where the route-finding comes it as the summit can’t be seen at this point. The summit itself is a small bump on top of a bigger bump, big enough for our group to find (un)comfy rocks to sit on to enjoy lunch. There’s a summit register in which to add your name and it was fun to find our old entry from 2014 :-) Just watch those sheer drop-offs on the north-west side – they are unforgiving, to put it mildly!
The road to the upper parking lot was very rough and steep in places: our CR-V struggled in a couple of spots with a full load of 5 hikers. A vehicle with some clearance definitely seems like a good idea as the bumpy road causes the vehicle to bounce quite a bit. A Subaru Outback made it up OK though. Budget about half an hour for the logging road.
Car-to-car was almost exactly 9 hours (we were leaving the meadows just as the sun set) including a full hour on the summit.
Fall colours in the meadows were at their peak, and much more vivid and widespread than I was expecting. A few berries remaining on the bushes, but not many. Flowers were few and far between, just a few yellow and pink monkeyflower holding on near the creeks in the upper meadows.
Distance: 16 km
Elevation gain: 1000 m
Photos on Flickr
With a sunny weekend in the forecast I knew I had to get out and take advantage of it. And I knew I wanted to get up high – I’m not usually a peak-bagger but I was really craving some quality summit time. Maria was heading off to the Okanagan with the Black Sheep, and I’m not keen on heading out on tricky hikes alone so I decided to send a callout to Wanderung.
Within pretty short order the spots in our car were filled, and come Friday morning we were under way by about 7:30. After a quick stop in Squamish for comfort and to top up my breakfast, we picked up Simon near Function Junction and headed up the logging road. The road was fine at first before getting a little bumpier as we climbed the first pair of switchbacks. As we levelled out, the bumpiness lessened and we made good time to the turnoff: left/straight ahead for the low-clearance/2-wheel-drive trailhead, right for the high-clearance/4-wheel-drive option.
We began to climb almost immediately and the road deteriorated into a bumpy rocky jumble. Thankfully, the rocks were still mostly embedded and were nicely rounded, so I wasn’t too worried about getting a puncture (as long as I took it slow). Around the next switchback the gradient steepened again and we crawled up the road, negotiating a couple of particularly bumpy washed out areas before turning another corner and making our way (oh so slowly) up the steepest part of the road.
The car struggled a bit but we made it OK, and – after one more short bumpy climb – we were soon at the parking area by the snowmobile cabin. I turned the car around and pulled in behind a Subaru Outback, making sure to leave enough room for others to continue on all the way to the trailhead. We pulled on our boots and set off. Time check: 10:20 am.
At the end of this parking area is a pretty serious rocky water bar, which I might have attempted with fewer people in the car. But soon after that came another, with a fairly steep exit as well – here I think 4wd would really be necessary to avoid getting stuck at the bottom of this water bar. To be honest, getting through these other water bars saves only 20 minutes of hiking each way, and despite being a logging road, it’s an easy hike and very scenic with Mt Fee dominating the horizon to the left.
We soon reached the end of the logging road, where a big pick-up was parked, and we took up the new trail leading up to the meadows. This trail had only just been established the last time Maria and I were here in 2014 and was quite sticky with freshly-turned soil. But now it was pretty well bedded-in and was easy going. As we wandered up into the easternmost meadows, we hit a couple of muddy spots but they were nothing compared with the old trail. We gained a little elevation here and soon reached the main meadows with the open valley ahead of us.
The valley sides were covered in fall colour, much more than I expected, with berry bushes dotted across slopes of burnished grass and flower stalks. Walking through the meadows was now effortless thanks to the new trail which led us down into the floodplain of the creek. The trail builders have done a fantastic job here as the trail is raised slightly above the ground level so it should be possible to walk it even if the meadows are flooded. I can’t say enough about how much better this is than the old trail which picked its way across delicate meadows churned to black mud by countless boot steps. Within what felt like a very short time we reached the end and rejoined the old trail right by a large boulder close to where Maria and I had camped back in 2014.
We were now back on the original trail, but in the heather so it was (mostly) dry. We crossed the creek higher up (which can be a bit tricky when the water’s high) and continued climbing through the upper meadows. Now it was time to begin the first significant elevation gain and after crossing another creek, we turned left up the steep heathery slopes. I’d mentioned to the others that there was an intermittent trail, and to my amazement I managed to find and follow it for most of the way up until the ground levelled off again and the ground became more rock than heather.
Looking back we could see the flat valley bottom and over to Black Tusk and other peaks in Garibaldi. Now on rocks, our progress began to slow a little. I could tell that my personal training sessions and our backpacking trips of August were paying off as I found myself pulling ahead of the others. As someone who values keeping a group together, this had me pausing more often than I actually felt like. But I reminded myself that this trip was not about me, it was about the group, about everyone who’d signed up to come with me. I was not going to become one of “those” hike organizers who leaves everyone to their own devices once on the trail.
I couldn’t make up my mind as to which line to take across the boulders, and opted for a slightly higher route than on our previous visit figuring that we should continue to gain height steadily, rather than giving us too much work to do on a steep boulder field. I kept promising riches ahead (in the form of nothing more than views) and we plodded on upwards. The boulders were less stable than I remembered, so I was actually glad to get onto the steep compacted dirt. Recent rain had softened the surface and allowed me to get some purchase with my boots. (Last time it was rock solid and really hard on our ankles.)
One more push and we were on the ridge where the first of our stunning views hit us in the face. We’d made it this far on our very first attempt back in 2009, and it certainly does make a good enough destination in itself with an eye-popping vista. I mean how can you not be impressed by the sea of peaks, and especially the jagged spires on Mt Fee, Pyroclastic Peak, and Mt Cayley? We paused long enough for a break and soak in these views.
We looked on to identify where the cairns would lead us next. I remembered enough of the route to know where we should go but it was still reassuring to have the cairns. Up a steep loose gulley we went and gained the higher shoulder. The temptation was to turn right and load up on more views, but we turned left and continued on towards our destination, which only now came into sight. One of the nice things about Brandywine is that it’s a fairly gentle approach. The downside is that the summit is not always obvious, it’s not a classically beautiful peak, and it can’t even be seen from the meadows! But sometimes a location wins you over because of what it provides, not for how it appears itself. And Brandywine has that in spades.
We skirted the edge of the (nameless) glacier and followed a mixture of cairns, trail, and obvious direction towards our goal. We met a group of elder gentlemen on their return from the top and we stopped to exchange pleasantries. Their enthusiasm for being in the mountains shone through as they waxed lyrical about the location and the day. It was impossible to disagree – it was a spectacular place to be on a perfect day.
Cairns guided us over rocks and boulders towards the summit, and we came underneath a slight shoulder that hid the summit. I had a vague recollection of heading up and over said shoulder, but couldn’t be sure, and decided to just follow my nose instead. I continued on towards the edge of the mountain before turning right up the boulders. It was a little steeper than I had hoped, and I was a little wary of leading the group into terrain they weren’t comfortable with, but we all pushed on and no one said anything to me about not enjoying it, so I guess we were good!
One more little rise, and a small climb and there we were at the tiny bump of a summit. I raised my arms in mock triumph as Sarah took a photo. One by one we all made it to the top, and settled down to find a suitable rock to sit and enjoy lunch. We had the summit to ourselves. The temperature had dropped as we’d climbed, and most of us had donned extra layers but for some reason I remained in just my t-shirt. Sure, my arms were cold, but manageably so and I knew I had the layers to warm up if I needed them. I found the summit register and passed it round for us all to sign. I looked through the previous register and found the entry left by Maria and me back in September 2014 :-)
The view was as spectacular as I remembered. The sheer drop to the north-west was as stomach-churning as ever, and… and… well I just run out of words. I can’t describe the feeling, the sight before me without resorting to tired cliches. I’m not a peak bagger but it is definitely an incredible feeling to reach a point where you cannot go any higher under your own power. Brandywine is blessed by numerous spectacular, stunning, and/or striking mountains in pretty much every direction and I know I could spend hours here just admiring them as if I’d only just seen them for the first time. I would like to camp up here one visit, just to let the night take over for a while before the sun returns, and to not have to rush back down to the car, or even to a tent in the meadows.
I couldn’t sit still for long: there were pictures to be taken! I moved off and wandered around seeking as many photo-ops as I could think of. Our lone occupation of the summit came to an end as another pair of hikers appeared, and soon after another. I got chatting to the first couple and it turned out to be a pair of Brits, including a lass from Aberdeen. She was chuffed to hike to the top of a random mountain in Canada and run into someone who knew of her home town. Plus it was nice to hear a Scots accent again (I’m definitely partial to the Aberdonian accent :-)
An hour had passed, and I realized that we would be finishing the hike in the dark. I checked in with the group to make sure everyone was OK with moving on, and oh-so reluctantly we picked up our packs and began the steady descent. Heading down from the summit we took a different route, much closer to the path Maria and I took back in 2014. Picking our way down the rocks was slow but we made better time once we regained the easier terrain below the summit.
Now all we had to do was retrace our steps and take in as much of the scenery as possible. The afternoon sun glinted off creeks in the meadows to our right (which totally fooled the autofocus on our RX100II – it does seem to have an issue with extremely bright highlights), turning them into rivers of gold. We picked our way back along the snow at the top end of the glacier, which was trickier than the ascent as it had started to re-freeze and had become icy! It would have been better to have stayed on the rocks at this point, but I was committed to finding a safe way down and made sure that everyone was comfortable.
We dropped down off the upper shoulder down to the ridge above the meadows. As I descended the loose gulley, a rock gave way under me and I fell, coming down heavily on my left arm as it scraped across a sharp rock. Fortunately, the rock was at an angle for it to scrape rather than slice… A few degrees difference could have led to a somewhat worse outcome as my full weight went down on that arm. I picked myself up and admired the skinned inside of my left wrist. That was going to sting… Blood oozed out of a small cut. Of course had I been wearing a jacket (as most of the group was) I’d have been fine. The saving grace, perhaps, was that my arms were cold and there wasn’t much blood near the surface. (Only later did it bleed.)
I moved on carefully and we reached the ridge where we rested for a while, enjoying our last chance to soak in the views to the south. Mt Fee, Tricouni, the Tantalus Range, even the Chief and the Sky Pilot group through the haze in the Squamish Valley. It really is an incredible place. And then it was time to descend into the meadows. The sun had dropped below the ridge and we made our way down in the shade. As expected, going down the compacted ground was much more difficult than climbing up, and it was slow going on such a steep slope. After that came the steep, loose boulders which were no fun, but eventually we levelled off a bit and could relax.
After what seemed like an age, we made it back down to the meadows. I stopped long enough to get some flowing water shots – I love these upland streams. A few pink and yellow monkeyflowers were holding on to summer, but most flowers had gone to seed and were readying themselves for another winter. We picked up the trail once again and took a steady walk down through the meadows, the light level dropping and an evening glow beginning to appear on Mt Garibaldi and Black Tusk across the valley.
The sun set as we reached the far end of the meadow, and we took one last look back up the valley. The walking was easy now and we regained the logging road quickly, for our final 20 minutes of hiking. A single cloud over Mt Fee hung on to some remnant pink light for a while before dusk descended upon us. We reached the car at ten past seven, and changed out of our boots before the slow, bumpy descent on the logging road. Then it was back up to Cheakamus Crossing to drop off Simon before heading for home. We finished the day with a quick bite at the Howe Sound Brew Pub, where we were seated and served in record time. Finally we made it back to Vancouver, and home. Yes, it was a great day out, yes we had great weather, but it’s the group that makes the day in the end. A big thank-you to Sarah, Simon, Anna, and Janavie for joining me and making it such a great day out. One to remember for sure.