Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

A nice easy peak for a quick spot of winter exercise, with plenty of space for people to spread out, which was invaluable as it was extremely busy! Just don’t expect solitude and know that the whisky jacks are a serious nuisance. Get there before 10 am to be sure of getting a parking spot close to the trailhead.

As expected, Hollyburn was really popular on a sunny Saturday. We arrived a little before 10 am and parked only about 50 m from the junction with the Cypress Bowl Road (just under 300 m from the winter trailhead). By the time we left, cars were parked along the Cypress Bowl Road for about 200-300 metres either side of the turnoff to the Nordic Skiing area.

The winter route was marked by red poles all the way up to the summit. Note that the upper Nordic ski trails were not yet groomed or roped off – we saw a few groups walking along the cross-country ski trails, presumably attracted by the open space. I can’t imagine it was pleasant hiking as it was churned up by snowcat tracks.

The snow was crusty and supportive allowing for easy travel with microspikes. Snowshoes were not needed and, if anything, were more of a hindrance than a help especially on the steep final approach to the summit. Where the snow was exposed to the sun for any length of time it quickly became slushy. The firm snow meant that it was easy to avoid other hikers, which was a blessing given the sheer number of people on the trail. For once, we actually got a few thank-yous! We saw fewer ill-prepared hikers than on Mount Seymour last week, which surprised me. The snow wasn’t very deep, perhaps as little as 30 cm near the beginning to maybe twice that at higher elevations. The tarns we passed were frozen and snow-covered, however, there was still a lot of open water along the way, with small creeks still running and visible. At least they were easy to spot.

Ravens and whisky jacks were the faunal entertainment of the day, the former hanging out in the tree tops and only venturing close when people vacated an area, the latter (of course) were in everyone’s business. Many people were seeking photo ops but thankfully not all of them were feeding the birds. A red-breasted sapsucker teased us with occasional sightings as it flew among a few trees at the summit. Always a treat to see them. A bald eagle cruised over the trail at one point before being chased off by the ravens.

Distance: 6.5 km
Elevation gain: 440 m
Time: 2:45
Route on AllTrails
Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

Key moments

  • 🙂 Watching ravens wheel above the trail, one chasing away an eagle that got too close
  • 🙂 Blissful, warm sunshine in December
  • 🙂 Beautiful views in all directions, layers of blue towards Vancouver Island and the Olympics
  • ☹️ The whisky jacks are relentless and will snatch food from your hands (although they do eventually leave you alone)
  • ☹️ Watch out for dog poop on the first few hundred metres of the trail

A sunny winter’s day in Vancouver means only one thing: hordes of people streaming over the Burrard Inlet to the North Shore mountains. Avoiding the crowds means either heading up really early or later in the day. Last weekend’s trip to Mount Seymour adopted the latter approach (for which we were well rewarded!), but we thought we’d try the early option this week.

Okay, so leaving home at 9 am isn’t exactly early but I suspected that we’d still be able to park within easy reach of the Hollyburn trailhead. And – thankfully – I was right. This time. After waiting for a few minutes in line while the cars ahead of us were manoeuvred into parking spots, we backed in next to the car in front and proceeded to top up our breakfast with a mince tart each. Yum! A nice way to begin a hike! We stayed in the car to pull on our boots in an effort to avoid any close interactions with milling hikers.

With boots on, we donned our masks, exited the car, and grabbed our packs and poles, joining the procession towards the trailhead. We stopped behind a parked car just short of the trail to put on our microspikes. After the mostly clear weather of the past week and little in the way of new snow, there was no way that my snowshoes were coming along for the ride today.

First task of the day was to pick a path through the congregating hikers, stood apart but still crowding the trail. That accomplished we strode off up the hill (avoiding the usual minefield of dog poop) at a steady pace on the hard-packed snow. We soon passed a couple in snowshoes who paused to ask us about the microspikes as they seemed to be regretting their decision to bring snowshoes. We’re always happy to spread the word about microspikes, as they are far more useful than snowshoes on the North Shore plus they are perfect for shoulder season hiking.

Cresting the first hill, we passed more hikers as we admired the view along the powerlines and the cross-country ski track, and descended the short slope on slushy snow, exposed to the full warming sun of the morning. As expected, the snow was firm even off the compacted trail and after letting the crowding get the better of my mood last week, I decided to simply be the first to take evasive action and simply walk off the trail to let others pass or to get around slower hikers. It was a good move. It was no more effort for us to do that than to walk the trail itself, and it meant that our moods were as sunny as the day.

We climbed the next rise, levelling off near Triangle Lake (I only noticed its name recently) before climbing again through the wonderful old-growth forest that covers the slopes of Hollyburn. Our stepping off the trail so obviously to avoid oncoming hikers actually elicited a few thank-yous, which made me all the more glad of our attitude this morning.

The trail led us through the trees, winding back and forth gently, passing the edge of a yet-to-be-groomed ski track before ducking back into the forest. Another climb brought us to what is often the half-way point at the top of the uppermost cross-country trail, breaking out of the trees into full sunshine. We paused here for some water and to shed a layer or two, stepping to one side to allow others to pass. Ahead of us lay the beginning of the steeper climb towards the summit, almost completely shadeless, and dotted with colourful stick figures making their way up and down.
Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020
We stuck to our current plan of avoiding people and headed off away from the marked trail over firm, crusty snow to make our own path up the hill. Most people descending seemed to be following the marker poles while alternative trails were being used for the ascent, a good system for these pandemic times. The open slopes made distancing easy and we could relax and enjoy the hike without the concern of close encounters with others. The hard snow had a softer layer on top but it was thin enough for our spikes to dig in and grip the snow, allowing us to walk pretty much wherever we wanted, picking steep bits for fun and easier climbs where necessary.

It was a good workout! The winding-down of our hiking over the past few months has led to a decrease in our cardio fitness (which is more noticeable as I get ever older!) so we paused occasionally to look back at the expanding view behind us. The sun glinted off the Salish Sea, dazzling us twice, but its warmth was welcome when we stopped. A cool breeze swept down the slope to keep us moving, the warm sun now prompting us to seek the shade on the left side of the slope. Thankfully the wind wasn’t chilly enough to deter us from hiding from the sun, the shade offering the added benefit of even firmer snow to hike.

Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

We paused again at each stage where the terrain levelled off to catch our breath before the next climb, each section getting progressively steeper. Now at the base of the final approach we could see that many people were having difficulty both going up and coming back down, mostly due to the fact that they were wearing snowshoes. Not only that, but most were the tubular frame design that has little in the way of traction for climbing typical North Shore snow. We waited for those ahead of us to clear (quite a few descending hikers opting to slide instead) and began our steady plod uphill again.

We zig-zagged back and forth a bit, seeking out the easiest snow to walk on and trying to avoid the U-shaped, bum-smoothed path carved by sliding hikers. Our relative ease of travel prompted another conversation about microspikes and I think we sold our second pair of the day. We should be eligible for some commission by now! The final climb always feels like it lasts forever but in reality it wasn’t more than 10 minutes before we emerged onto the open summit of Hollyburn. Spotting an opening, I quickly went over to the small summit rise to tag it with the GPS before rejoining Maria in search of a safe spot to stand and admire the view, a view that was nowhere to be seen on our last visit back in October.

Pairs of hikers dotted the area, some standing, some seated, all keeping respectful distances from the others. Mostly. One pair drew up to the best view whereupon the male (shirtless and proudly displaying his considerable musculature) proceeded to direct his partner to take the optimum shot of him conquering the mountain. We had trouble keeping a straight face. Alas, such egos rarely return the favour and we never did see him take a photo of his partner in the same spot, or even get a selfie-style photo of the two of them.

Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

We took a break from the people-watching (trying to ignore the shrieks from someone behind us who wanted the Instagram whisky jack shot but didn’t actually want the birds to land on her hand) and soaked in the view before us: the Lions in a partially-melted winter coat, Sky Pilot and Garibaldi in the distance, Mamquam hiding behind one of the magnificent mountain hemlocks at the summit. Movement caught my eye and I spotted a red-breasted sapsucker working the top of a snag, too quick for me to get the camera focussed. Whisky jacks swooped in from all directions, perching on our hiking poles and cocking an eye at us in search of handouts. I shooed them away to allow us to eat a sandwich or two in peace. We’ve learned the hard way to guard your food in your hand.

A pair of ravens circled the perimeter of the summit, hanging out in the tree tops and waiting for an opportunity to collect any dropped morsels left by departing hikers. I don’t think they had any luck, as the turnover of people was fairly constant with no spot going unoccupied for long, unlike their smaller and bolder grey cousins who undoubtedly gained a few grams that day.
Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020
I can only tune out the general busyness around me for so long, and we decided it was time to make our way back down. We’d enjoyed an unobstructed view with warm sun on our backs (which wasn’t enough to dry out my damp t-shirt), enough to top us up with some mountain sights for a little while. We wandered back across the summit towards the peak and the summer trail, considering it briefly as our descent option before discounting it as too steep with the chances of slipping being too high. Instead we paused at the top of the usual winter descent, standing between a few lovely old mountain hemlocks with a clear view of the city below and the mountains beyond.

Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

Layers of blue faded into the distance towards Mount Baker and the Fraser Valley peaks to the south-east, and across the sea to the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, and the Olympics beyond. The air was exceptionally clear and it felt like we could reach out and touch Vancouver Island, one of those beautiful days where the view extends forever. Well, not quite forever: I peered into the distant haze in search of Mount Rainier but saw nothing.
Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020
Now for our descent, tricky even with microspikes. We tried to avoid where people had slid as much as possible (though Maria was still nearly taken out by a flailing slider as he lost control and overshot a bend…) and ended up on the right-hand side of the slope, eventually picking our way into the trees to avoid the steepest sections, the snow still firm enough to prevent us postholing up to our thighs. Usually, anyway: the snow was still prone to collapse into the wells around small trees, and we chose our path carefully. We were soon back down onto easier terrain, and retraced our route back down. A trio of ravens had found some hiker’s leftovers on the snow, soon taking flight as we approached and wheeling round on the thermals. A bald eagle flew over, the ravens seeing it on its way northwards, making it known to the interloper that it wasn’t welcome in their airspace.

It didn’t take us long to reach the base of the open slope again, passing many more ascending hikers. I took a picture of the deep blue sky against the white snow, and again just how many people were on the trails today. As we took a selfie against that blue sky, I suddenly realized why I was squinting so much in the sunshine: I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses! Putting them on brought instant relief from the bright sun and snow. I simply hadn’t noticed on the way up because the sun was behind us.

Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020
And so it was time to head back to the car. We re-entered the forest and made light work of the hike back, greeting more ascending hikers (and, yes, even rewarded with a few more thank-yous!), and walking easily over the firm snow. Back at Triangle Lake we opted to take the “short cut” along its outlet creek, thinking that the shady snow would make for easy travel. Alas we were wrong! It started out well, but we soon found ourselves negotiating softer snow alongside the open creek. Lesson learned, and we were happy to rejoin the trail!

A short descent followed by a shorter but steeper climb by the cross-country ski runs and we were on our final descent to the trailhead. We sped past a few hikers, sticking to the edge of the trail as we rounded the corners, and were soon back at the beginning, once again having to pick our way through a sparse crowd to find a spot where we could take off our microspikes. Back on the road, we were greeted by a throng of hikers – some returning to their vehicles, others only just setting off – and it was difficult to keep our distance, so we walked down the middle of the road, dodging left or right as needed when we encountered people or cars. I’ve adopted a habit of holding my poles slight pointed outwards as a deterrent to pedestrians and car drivers alike, and it seems to work. We passed car after car, and just when I wondered if we’d walked past ours, we spotted it and with some relief stepped out of the road.

We changed footwear, dug out our remaining sandwiches and hot water, and relaxed for a few moments before setting off for home. Thankfully, today, getting back into town was easy, with light traffic all the way. A quick stop at the Pie Hole for Maria’s birthday pie and then home for a Zoom catchup with family.

A lovely morning hike, so worth getting out for despite the crowds and later-than-desired start. Attitude is everything: if I’d gone out on today’s hike in search of quiet and solitude I’d have wasted my energy fretting that I wasn’t getting that. Instead, acknowledging the crowds and adopting the best strategy for us to avoid them meant that we were able to remove ourselves from the busyness and enjoy our hike for what it was. Thankfully, the conditions were perfect for allowing that.

2 thoughts on “Hollyburn Mountain, 5 Dec 2020

  1. One of my go-to winter hikes. I was there on the 22nd–a glorious day after a huge snow dump. I’m so glad my friend urged us to go early. We were there shortly after 8 and had a peaceful climb up. By the time we left at 11ish the place was a zoo. I think I’ll wait til after the holidays.
    Speaking of those Whiskey Jacks, I was up on the peak munching on a Christmas cookie when one of those pesky birds dive bombed and grabbed it from my hand. They sure have lost any fear (thanks to us). My friend found it quite hysterical.
    Enjoy the holidays Andy!

    1. Thanks Caroline – hope you have been enjoying the holidays too! I bet it was glorious up there on the 22nd – we were up there on the 24th at a similar time and I couldn’t believe how many people were already there. I wonder if the new parking charges have actually helped with managing the numbers? If not then it was just a cash grab from the resort. We went to Seymour on Monday and it was even busier – the backcountry lot was full by about 8:30! But it was oh-so beautiful….

      Yeah, I’ve had that happen too – at Joffre Lakes we had a whisky jack grab at my sandwich literally the moment I pulled it out of the bag. Thankfully it didn’t get any but I was definitely very guarded as I ate after that. So annoying!

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