Hollyburn Mountain, 7 Feb 2021

Opinion:
Another sunny morning, another early dash up Hollyburn to feel alive. We didn’t even mind the extra walk from the backcountry parking lot, although it turned out to be unnecessary.

Fact:
Let’s start by clarifying the parking situation. Parking is free along the Cypress Bowl Road, where there is just enough space to pull a car off the roadway on each side, and in the backcountry parking lot (3b). Parking along the Nordic access road is (I believe) $10 and we were told that there’s a parking meter at which to pay. I have no idea how keenly they enforce it. We turned up at 7:40 am and were the second car in the backcountry lot. (We could have parked along the road right next to the Nordic turnoff and saved ourselves a 10-minute walk.) The parking on the Nordic road was already beginning to fill up and was full by the time we returned at 11 am, at which point cars were parked on both sides of the road for 400 m north and nearly 800 m south!

Walking to the trailhead from parking lot 3b was made easier by the presence of a snowcat-cleared embankment off the road. It was pretty badly churned up but was easy enough to walk on while still frozen. It would be awful when slushy. However, note that while it looks like this was made for pedestrians, there was no easy entry/exit point at the Nordic turnoff, and we had to careful step down the steep edge (about a metre high).

The trail was hard-packed snow and was easy walking, even without microspikes, though they were very helpful on the descent. Off the trail, near the summit of Hollyburn there was about 10-30 cm of soft snow overlying a solid crust. On slopes, this crust was hard to get a good grip on (especially when descending). The snow already had a well-developed surface layer of hoar crystals that sparkled in the sun.

It was extremely busy on our descent but most people seemed more than capable of keeping their distance. (But there’s always a few….) It helped that many sections of the trail had two parallel tracks to keep traffic apart. A few unruly and unleashed dogs today too – one that followed a raven from tree to tree, its owner offering somewhat pathetic attempts to get it to return. (Just leash it!)

Wildlife sightings today were a few chatty ravens, a handful of whisky jacks (that, thankfully, ignored us completely), and a couple of Douglas squirrels. Other evidence of wildlife included quite a few snowshoe hare tracks near the summit, plus other squirrel and bird tracks.

Distance: 8.5 km
Elevation gain: 490 m
Time: 3:20
Route on AllTrails

Key moments

  • 🙂 First light in the mountains is always a beautiful moment.
  • 🙂 Atmospheric clouds adding mystery to the views.
  • 🙂 Watching and hearing the ravens interact.
  • 🙂 Exploring to find a new viewpoint, finding snowshoe hare tracks along the way.
  • ☚ī¸ None really. It was a good day!

Story
Another fine weekend, another early start to beat the crowds! We opted for Hollyburn this weekend, given it’s been a month since we were last there and a fair amount of snow has fallen since then. We drove through an empty city, where we somehow avoided almost all of the red lights, and up towards Cypress Bowl. The morning was noticeably lighter and a lovely crescent moon hung in the south-eastern sky.

We drove on to the backcountry parking lot (3b on the maps), where we were only the second car in the lot! We had two reasons for doing this: the first was simply to avoid giving $10 to the resort, the other was to see just how much extra time and distance it added to the day’s hike to see if it was worth saving that money. By 7:50, we were ready to leave and I looked at the map to see if a more direct route through the trees was possible, intersecting the trail further up the mountain. It looked straightforward, but since we only had microspikes we thought it would be best to stick to the trail. We’ll save that for another day.

We began walking along the road, scrambling up onto the snow bank on the western side as soon as we could. The top of this embankment had been “smoothed” by a snowcat so it was flat and level, though of course the snow was broken up into icy chunks by the caterpillar tracks. Thankfully, at least with it all being frozen, it was still quite easy to walk on, and we made good time over to the trailhead.

Getting off the embankment wasn’t so straightforward: snowploughs had carved an icy metre-high cliff along its edge, but with a bit of judicious foot-work and use of our poles we made it down safely. A few more minutes of walking and we reached the trailhead, the pay parking area beginning to fill up. Less than 15 minutes after leaving the car, we were on the trail. That’s only about half the time it takes to get to the Mt Seymour trailhead from the lower lot, so we figured that it was indeed worth parking in 3b. The other advantage of this extra walking was that it was level and help warmed up our muscles (though not our hands: the air was frigid and my finger ends were numb!).

We admired the first warm light of the day on the slopes of Black Mountain as we turned onto the trail and began our climb. The snow squeaked and creaked under our boots, testament to the chilly temperatures. Our pace was brisk and we pushed ourselves to the top of the first climb where we paused for a moment in the sun and swigged a mouthful of water, the cold air having left us quite dry. As we crested the top of the climb, we stopped to admire a small cedar festooned with ice crystals and backlit by the morning sun.

Onwards, down the hill again before beginning the main climb through the lovely old-growth forest, the trees still wearing their recent coat of snow. As with our Christmas Eve trip, the sun shone through the trees, lighting up patches of bark and snow with an orange glow. The snow sparkled in the sun, its surface covered by a feathery layer of hoar crystals. Hiking on the hard-packed trail was easy and we soon found ourselves passing a couple of groups, prompting one person to remark on our pace: “Whoa, you guys are motoring!” We grinned in acknowledgement as we walked on into the quiet forest.

Moments later, we walked by the freshly-groomed cross-country ski tracks that we first noticed on Christmas Eve, then climbed some more, passing the (snow-hidden) turnoff to the Baden-Powell trail, and emerging into more open terrain as we approached the base of the summit climb. We stopped here to put on our microspikes and to rehydrate some more before setting off up the hill.

Ahead of us lay blue sky, drawing us upwards with the promise of views. Behind us a layer of cloud was drifting, threatening to hide them. We pushed upwards, our microspikes really helping on the icy snow and soon reached the first plateau. Looking to our right, we caught a glimpse of the pyramidal summit of Crown Mountain framed by the snow-covered trees. More views to the east began to open up, Cathedral Mountain showing up with a cushion of mist draped along its southern face.

The main attraction on our climb was simply all the beautiful snow-decorated trees, surrounded by fresh snow, untouched apart from a few filled-in ski tracks and the paw prints of a snowshoe hare. We faced the steep slope on the final section of the ascent and dug in once more, our hands now well and truly warmed up: it was a relief to feel my finger ends once again! Up the slope we walked, avoiding slower hikers and the few already on their descent, and we relaxed as the trail levelled off at the top of the mountain. The summit itself was, of course, busy, and the small plateau was dotted with people seeking out their own personal views to stand (or sit) and admire.

Noticing that the open area just east and downhill of the main summit area was free of people, we trudged over, initially following a beaten path but then postholing through the soft snow for the remaining distance. We stopped here to take in the views before us: the Lions and the Sky Pilot Group playing hide-and-seek with their attendant clouds. Further north, Garibaldi and Mamquam were hidden, while to our east Crown and Cathedral dominated the skyline.

At first I was a little disappointed at the hidden peaks but then I found myself enjoying the atmosphere that the clouds created, drifting around the peaks and slopes, views of other peaks coming and going. Beyond Crown we could occasionally make out the peaks of Mount Seymour, zooming in with the telephoto lens just revealing a small gathering of hikers on Pump Peak. I snapped view close-up shots of the neighbouring peaks, the Lions, Crown, and Cathedral in particular.

We wandered over towards the summit itself to see if there were any westward views to be had. Alas no, and a keen wind kept us from lingering, but then a raven landed at the top of a nearby tree, posing long enough for me to take a handful of photos. All around the raven I could see sparkling snow blowing in the wind. As we turned to retrace our steps we found that we were surrounded by this blowing snow, and that the morning sun was lighting it up causing it to sparkle like little diamonds. We could even make out a hint of some rainbow colours and I wondered if I could capture that. I took several photos to try and capture the snow, and to be honest I thought I’d failed: I couldn’t tell what the camera had focused on and my attempts to manually focus on the snow didn’t work. It was only when we got home and looked at the photos on the computer that we could see the results, and I have to say I love these photos! With the camera not focussing on anything in particular, the photos turned out to be quite abstract with all the snow crystals showing up as colourful defocussed circles, depending on how they’d refracted the light. I think they look quite magical!

It was time to begin our descent and we timed it to best avoid the increasing numbers of uphill hikers. Rather than struggle on the steep, hard-packed and icy trail, we moved over to the edge where we could find softer snow. It wasn’t all without excitement though as we punched through the snow to find the hard rain crust, which our microspikes did not dig into very well! We slid a little here and there but soon made it down. We looked back to see a veritable conga line of hikers now making their way uphill!

At this point we decided to go off-trail and do some exploring. We knew the avalanche conditions were in our favour and had checked the route on Google Earth so we knew where to go. We followed a filled-in ski trail east through what must be a subalpine meadow in the summer, picking a line that tracked the contour as close as possible. When that ran out we forged our own trail, crossing the path of a snowshoe hare, sinking up to our knees in the wonderfully soft snow and soon reaching a clearing with a superb view to the south and east. Well, apart from the encroaching cloud, that is! Most of the distant mountains were hidden, as was the Capilano Reservoir between us and Grouse Mountain.

We paused here for a while, munched on a snack, and soaked in our surroundings, basking in the warm sunshine. We had this little snow-covered outcrop to ourselves and we revelled in the quiet. The lack of views didn’t matter. The trees around us looked stunning draped in snow, the landscape smoothed over after the most recent storm. It was really quite beautiful.

Finally it was time to move on again, and we retraced our steps towards the trail, admiring the snow sculptures and shapes all the while. Another set of snowshoe hare tracks dotted the fresh snow, leading from one patch of trees to another. I would love to see one again, it’s been many years since we had a hare sighting in winter! For that we’d need to be there on a chilly night, which is less appealing.

Back on the trail we yomped our way down, making a brief detour to size up the approach to another knoll with a possible view. That turned out to be a dead end, but it was a lot of fun plunging through the soft snow! We returned to our descent and passed the multitude of uphill hikers, thankfully on a separate parallel path (one advantage to winter hiking is the ability to create multiple paths without affecting the landscape).

It wasn’t long before we were on our final stretch down to the trailhead, the parking lot now completely full. We walked across the road and onto the snow behind the line of parked cars. As we approached the intersection we could see the main road lined with more cars, stretching as far as we could see. We stopped to chat with a couple of the traffic management staff, asking about the parking arrangements, and answering questions about our microspikes. (We really can’t recommend them enough: much better value than a pair of snowshoes, at least for the North Shore.)

We crossed the next road at a gap in the traffic and made good use of our microspikes to climb back up the miniature ice cliff, before retracing our steps on the snow embankment back to the car. The line of cars on the road stretched almost to Cypress Creek, and as we reached the parking lot, we noticed it was still almost completely empty, with perhaps a couple of dozen cars parked in a few rows.

Just under three-and-a-half hours since we left, we were back at the car. We swapped our footwear, I sent our final message on the InReach, and we hopped back into our seats. The drive home was relaxing and we noticed that cars were parked for about a kilometre along the road! Next time we know we don’t have to park quite as far away, but to be honest the extra distance didn’t bother us.

A stunning morning, on which we found more peace than we expected. Much to our surprise, we found that it didn’t feel like just another trip up Hollyburn. Different conditions almost made it seem like a new destination, and we’d thoroughly enjoyed our time out in the snow. Our early start was worth it.

2 thoughts on “Hollyburn Mountain, 7 Feb 2021

  1. I’ve never paid for parking on the Nordic access road and I’m usually up there 1-2 times a week (weekdays I can always get parking there). Hmm? Have I just been lucky with not paying? Great photos. I think the clouds that come and go and partially obscure the peaks make a particularly dramatic scene. You’re lucky you’ve seen a snowshoe hare. I’m always keeping my eye out for critters but no luck except for the usual ravens, whiskeyjacks.

    1. Maybe they only had it in place for peak period just after Christmas, or maybe they’re not enforcing it? Weird.

      Thanks – yes I really enjoyed the more atmospheric look of that day, I didn’t really need just another picture of the Lions with blue sky behind them! :-) Our best hare sighting was in broad daylight while cross-country skiing at Callaghan – it just stayed still while I approached to get a photo. A very nice encounter!

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