Black Mountain, 13 Dec 2020

Opinion: 
While the direct (and quite steep) approach isn’t as much as fun as the old trail (from over a decade ago now – am I stuck in the past or what?) the loop around the plateau is simply delightful in fresh snow. Easy snowshoeing and simple fun even without any views.

Fact 
Of course, the downhill ski area was extremely busy, but we turned up around 1 pm and were able to find a spot left by the morning shift of skiers in the upper parking lot. We collected backcountry tags from the old lodge (there were no metal ties for them so we put them in our pockets) but no one was checking.

The route was marked with red poles the whole way from the trailhead, up to the plateau, around the plateau and up over the south summit. The route to Eagle Bluffs was not marked (as usual); neither was there a marked route to the north summit. Snowshoes weren’t really needed on the trail, even though the snow was falling at a high enough rate to fill in previous tracks, but off trail they were absolutely essential. Anywhere from 10-30 cm of fresh snow sat on top of an icy crust, deeper in the lee of objects where the wind had blown the snow. Watch out for those!

No wildlife to report other than ravens near the parking lot. We met only a small number of people too, I’m guessing most were probably put off by the weather!

Distance: 6.5 km
Elevation gain: 415 m
Time: 2:35
Route on AllTrails

Cabin Lake

Key moments

  • 🙂 So much lovely fresh snow to enjoy.
  • 🙂 Rediscovering the simple joy of snowshoeing, reminding us of when we first started.
  • 🙂 Peaceful and quiet; happy people on the trail.
  • 🙂 Delicious hot chocolate at the end of the hike!
  • ☹️ No views today, but that wasn’t the point.

Story
After passing up a sunny Saturday we knew we had to get outside on the Sunday whatever the weather. And the weather was about as far from Saturday’s as you could get: grey and rainy, exactly what Vancouver is famous for. But a quick check of temperatures confirmed what we had hoped, namely that the rain in the city was falling as snow in the mountains, and so we packed up our gear and headed over the Lions Gate bridge towards Cypress Bowl.

Mist hung in the treetops on the North Shore as we headed over the bridge, the drizzle turning to heavier rain as we merged onto the Upper Levels highway for the few kilometres to the Cypress Bowl exit. The pitter-patter sound on the windscreen grew quieter as raindrops gave way to snow on our way up the hill, a light layer of slush forming on the road by the time we reached the last hairpin bend. We slowed down as we joined a line of traffic behind a snow plough, which turned around at the overnight parking lot, and we drove the rest of the way into the core of the ski resort on a thin film of snow. I figured that enough people would have left by now to free up some spaces, and sure enough we pulled into one about 100 m down from the old day lodge.

The pitter-patter sound on the windscreen grew quieter as raindrops gave way to snow on our way up the hill

Like last week, we pulled on our boots inside the car, as I realized I’d parked the wrong way round, the wind blowing snow into the car as soon as I opened my door. We stepped out, put on our packs and masks, and headed for the old day lodge to pick up our backcountry access passes. From there we joined the throng of people milling about heading to and from the ski area, glad to keep our masks on. We passed through the convergence point of the ski runs, strangely quiet with no one around to check our passes. I’d read a post on Twitter earlier in the day that mentioned one of the ski lifts was out of operation, and it turned out to be the one near the trailhead. The gates had been moved closer to one of the other ski lifts giving us a clear and skier-free path through to the beginning of the trail.

We tied on our snowshoes (remember our bindings had perished on our trip to McNair Cabin back in February) and set off up the trail, following the red marker poles. The snow was firm enough to walk without the need of snowshoes though it was nice to have the extra grip from the toe crampons, and despite the trail being clearly packed down, the falling snow was quickly obliterating any existing tracks and bootprints so it felt like we were the first ones on the trail that day.

Without my poles, I found that my hands felt like they were at (literal) loose ends with nothing to do except sway back and forth as I huffed and puffed up the slope

For some reason I decided that I didn’t need my poles today and I found myself soon wishing I’d brought them for the extra boost going uphill. Also I found that my hands felt like they were at (literal) loose ends with nothing to do except sway back and forth as I huffed and puffed up the slope. The trail was quiet thanks to the lack of hikers and noise from the ski operation. We passed a couple of people having fun sliding down a slope on one of the switchbacks up (one of whom turned out to be someone I follow on Instagram), and then a few more people on their descent (including someone else I follow on Instagram!), all of whom stepped aside and waited for us to pass which was a nice surprise. Thank you!

The steep trail led us through multiple switchbacks up the hill, eventually straightening up and levelling off near a small pond. We paused to catch our breath before continuing on, admiring the beautiful snow-laden mountain hemlocks and cedars around us. The landscape was transformed by the fresh snow piling up into rounded hummocks while small trees were curved over by the weight of their accumulations. Wandering off the trail, I sank up to my calves in the soft snow rediscovering the simple fun of yomping through fresh snow on snowshoes. To our surprise, the snow was sticking to our snowshoes, giving us little icy heels that needed a quick shake to dislodge.

Within a few minutes we rounded the last corner and reached the sign pointing out our options. The wind had picked up and was blowing cold, wet snow in our faces so we made our decision quickly, opting for the loop around the plateau first, to finish on the south summit before a quick detour up to the north summit and then back down to the car. The trail weaved in and out of the trees and descended to a long narrow lake, usually safe to walk on in winter but we decided to play it safe and stick to the trail. Besides, it was a nice picture and I didn’t want to ruin it for anyone else.

We met a few more cheerful hikers and I realized how nice it was to see how much people were enjoying being out in the snow, despite the lack of anything to see beyond about 100 m. The rest of the plateau loop was quiet and just a delight to wander. We stopped at a couple of “viewpoints” over frozen lakes, admired the old trees, and generally just enjoyed walking through the snow. It really was quite lovely. We passed the point where the unmarked trail to Eagle Bluffs turned off and headed towards the south summit of Black Mountain, pausing briefly to take in the view of the rocky cliffs on its western edge, the boulders softened by the fallen snow.

Now for a bit more uphill, zig-zagging through the trees decorated with a vertical white line that clearly indicated the wind direction. Reaching the top we were exposed to wind-blown snow once again, which now felt a bit wetter than before. I had difficulty judging where the snow was as I broke trail up onto the summit itself, misjudging several of my steps. Of course, there was nothing to see so we immediately turned around and headed north towards Cabin Lake. After a quick stop at the lake to look at, well, pretty much nothing, we paid the north summit a brief visit as well, following a faint snowed-over trail to the top before beating a hasty retreat once we had confirmed that there were indeed no views to be had, just a wall of grey. The northern summit’s exposure to the wind was evident in the deep drifts on the north side of rocks and in small hollows where I sank up beyond my knees on several occasions. With my jacket zipped up and covering part of my face, every exhale steamed up my glasses making it impossible to see where I was putting my giant unwieldy feet. But it was fun anyway!

Back on the trail, we retraced our steps downhill, passing a few uphill backcountry skiers along the way. The day was getting noticeably dimmer as we descended and I was glad when we finally levelled off at the bottom of the hill. The lacing solution for our snowshoes works well for travelling on flat or up gentle inclines but it doesn’t hold our feet very securely for downhill travel on steeper slopes. By now, the laces were jammed hard against my instep making downhill walking uncomfortable. Maybe MSR finally has some replacement straps in stock? I hope so!

As we re-entered the bounds of the ski resort, it was time to put on masks again, pull off our snowshoes, and walk back through the crowds. One of the staff asked how the trail was and all I could do was give a big cheery thumbs up in return :-) That pretty much summed up how we felt. We were a little cold, a little damp, but it had been a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. And just like last week, we walked back past the many rows of parked cars wondering if we’d missed ours only to realize we’d parked further away than we remembered. The car now had a few inches of snow covering it so I started the engine and we began to clear off as much as we could reach. I was once again cursing my choice of parking direction as it was hard to keep the blowing snow out of the car! Lesson learned: park facing into the wind!

Lesson learned: park facing into the wind!

Eventually we were able to get inside, shedding our rain jackets and pulling on our down jackets to warm up, before pouring out some delicious hot chocolate to warm us up. It’s been a while since we carried hot chocolate but I have to say that it felt like the most decadent treat ever to sit and sip that in comfort. My original idea was that we’d find a nice spot to drink it along the way but the weather kept us moving the entire time. No matter, it was still a welcome little bit of luxury!

With the windows clear, I carefully backed out of our space and joined the line of slow vehicles exiting the ski resort in the twilight of the day. Thankfully, the slow traffic was just on the Cypress Bowl Road (not helped by a couple of overly-cautious drivers) and we had no issues getting back across the bridge or through downtown. Soon we were home and making ourselves comfortable for the evening.

It was only a short trip but it really brought back memories of our first few winters’ snowshoeing before we became fussy about the snow and unwilling to be part of the crowds getting to and from the North Shore. It would have been all too easy to not go but we were so happy we did!

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