Dam Mountain and Thunderbird Ridge (via BCMC Trail), 17 Apr 2021

Opinion:
Do not do this trail right now as the snow is a slushy mess, and microspikes don’t help. The BCMC was better than expected thanks to recent upgrades that have significantly improved the first quarter of the ascent. However, having said all that, the views were pretty darn nice and almost made us forget the slog. Almost.

Fact
Grouse was not as busy as expected and there was lots of parking available at about 9 am. Parking was still $4 for the day. Given the recent jump in Skyride download prices (it’s now $20 per person!) I wonder how long it’ll be before the parking costs rise too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the parking lot was mostly empty by the time we got back to the car just before 4 pm.

The BCMC Trail was clearly marked with new green-on-yellow trail markers as well as distance markers (50 of them). The Grind was closed but we saw at least two hikers go around the barrier (which was not very substantial). The lower quarter of the BCMC Trail has seen significant upgrades since our last visit in 2018 with rock steps now in place in many sections and net fencing to guide hikers along the steeper switchbacks. An extensive split-rail fence now lines the trail from the first junction with the Grind to just beyond the BCMC turnoff, presumably to ensure hikers stay on the trail and to discourage them from nipping back over to the Grind. (Further away we could see a new high cable mesh fence whose purpose we couldn’t quite work out. Security to prevent anyone getting close to the cable towers? Avalanche or debris control?) Snow began just after the half-way point and was continuous by about marker 33. It was hard-packed and icy making microspikes essential (though we did see a few hikers and runners chancing their luck without them, even on the descent).

Once at Grouse the snow changed immediately from icy to slushy and remained that way for the rest of the hike. It varied in how difficult it was to hike on but to be honest it was really just degrees of quite miserable hiking. The route was well signposted and marked with bamboo poles all the way up to and beyond the summit of Dam Mountain and out to the end of Thunderbird Ridge. We followed the Snowshoe Grind to Dam Mountain, then off the north side of Dam around to the Thunderbird Ridge Trail, out to the end and back, rejoining the Snowshoe Grind and then following Fritz’s Way down to near the bottom of the Slushshoe Grind.

The grizzlies have not yet woken from their hibernation, which is a good thing because their enclosure is still full of nearly 3 metres of snow. It looks like the staff are digging it out as much as possible and will be setting up a smaller electrified enclosure while the rest is cleared or melts.

We had a few really good wildlife sightings. Steller’s jays near the chalet, chickadees, robins, varied thrushes, pine siskins, and nuthatches in the forest, dark-eyed juncoes tutting from the subalpine tree tops, a few spruce grouse were calling, a juvenile bald eagle flew above us on the ridge, and a couple of deer wandered through the parking lot at the end of the day.

No signs of any flora in the forest yet.

Distance: 9.0 km
Elevation gain: 1160 m
Time: 5:25
Route on AllTrails

Key moments

  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Morning sunshine in the old-growth forest near the top of the BCMC trail
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Hearing the booming grouse calls echo off the cliffs
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Enjoying the stunning views and moments of stillness at the end of Thunderbird Ridge
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Seeing the nearer peaks shine bright white through polarizing sunglasses
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Watching a juvenile bald eagle soar right overhead
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ Relaxing in the sun and seeing a pair of deer at the end of the hike
  • โ˜น๏ธ The snow was awful, just awful
  • โ˜น๏ธ Riding down in the Skyride was a) expensive and b) way too claustrophobic for me right now. I can think of many better ways to spend $40.

Story
We’ve been lining up a few hikes to try and get us in shape for the summer, varying elevation gain and distance to improve strength and stamina respectively. As the saying goes, to get in shape for climbing mountains, you need to climb mountains! Breaking 1000 m of elevation gain is one of those early season barriers that takes a bit of working up to, and so we chose this hike to get us started, but also because it offered different views on the mountains we’ve been seeing over the winter and it would be quieter now the skiing season is winding down. That 1000 m barrier is a useful goal as it’s only a few rare hikes that have more, plus 1000 m is about as much elevation gain as I can manage with a full overnight pack without exhausting myself completely.

We had our boots tied and packs shouldered a little after 9 am and set off through the gate marking the base of the Grouse Grind and nearby trails. It’s nearly three years since we last hiked the BCMC Trail and a lot has changed in that time. After passing the first barrier closing off the Grouse Grind, we were struck by the extensive split-rail fencing along the Baden-Powell Trail to prevent hikers from straying. The BCMC Trail turned left just as the trail crossed a large washout and we found ourselves hiking on a much-improved trail, with well-placed rock steps to create a more durable footbed. Instead of dreading the climb, I found myself wondering how much more I was going enjoy this trail today with such improvements in place.

Markers on the trees kept us on track and counted up towards 50 as we walked. In truth, the upgrades made it easy to stay on the trail, with mesh netting in places where the slope was steep to help prevent the (further) erosion of switchbacks and to allow parallel trails to be rehabilitated. This was all looking very promising! Robins and varied thrushes sang in the forest and, although we were in the cool shade, we soon warmed up, especially as the trail steepened..

The trail wasn’t crowded at any point but there was a steady stream of hikers making their way up, some passing us, while we passed others. We exchanged numerous mutually cheerful greetings with quite a few hikers, which really added to the sense of enjoyment despite the steep climb. Alas, the promising start petered out around marker 13 and we found ourselves following the original unimproved trail with its many roots, its braided and ill-defined path, and eroded sections requiring big steps and/or careful footing. Ugh. Well, we were committed now so we continued upwards, albeit less enthusiastically than before.

Icy snow patches began to appear which made me nervous on this worn-out trail but it wasn’t long before the snow became continuous and, with some relief, we put on our microspikes at about marker number 33. In an instant our world was transformed! Not only was the gradient beginning to ease but now we could simply hike on the snow without having to worry about steps or roots. Even better, the sun was just coming over the ridge of the mountain and it shone through the forest, lighting up our surroundings. And better still, we had just entered the unlogged, old-growth patch of forest. Suddenly the worst of our ascent was forgotten and we hiked on with regained (or perhaps only just gained?) enthusiasm.

A short time later we emerged at the Grouse chalet and paused by some picnic tables to drink some water and put on sunscreen. The sun was already scorching and the snow bounced it all back at us. Steller’s jays chattered and cackled in the nearby trees, no doubt on the lookout for morsels left behind by hikers and skiers. Feeling a little refreshed from our rest, we continued on through the resort, seeking out the signs for snowshoers. But all the hiking joy we had experienced in the forest had gone. The resort was noisy and busy with people and machinery and the snow was churned-up slush. We trudged on but the going was exhausting.

We passed the grizzly bear enclosure, where the bears were obviously still hibernating – thankfully, as their domain was still completely snow-filled and not secure. A couple of diggers had begun removing some snow to create a small electrified enclosure that presumably would have to suffice until the rest of the snow could be cleared. They’ll have to work quickly as I’m sure the bears will be waking up soon!

The trail led us around the west flank of Grouse summit, passing some high cliffs, and offering a good view down to Capilano reservoir and beyond to the sea. Finally we reached the forest again and began our uphill once more. A couple of male grouse were calling back and forth, their deep whoompfing calls echoing off the cliffs – one of my favourite heralds of spring in the mountains and the first of the year for us! We haven’t done much low-level hiking but I was surprised I hadn’t heard them before now as I’ve heard them in March in other years. Up we trudged, following the bamboo poles, picking the Snowshoe Grind option at a junction and continuing steeply upwards.

It was not fun. If we weren’t sliding in the snow, we were postholing up to our knees, or sometimes higher. And yet still we persisted, determined to at least make it to somewhere with a view. The snow caught between my microspikes and my boots, quickly soaking through and wetting my socks. Cold wet feet – just what I wanted!

We passed a few hikers descending and eventually we reached the final couple of zig-zags to the summit of Dam Mountain. Looking behind us for the first time we celebrated the view we had worked so hard to gain, interrupted by trees for sure, but still expansive with the city grid below us, the sea and Vancouver Island off to the south west, the peaks of the Cypress Bowl area to the west, and glimpses of Mount Seymour and beyond to the east. Directly in line with Mount Seymour we could see the end of Thunderbird Ridge, only a hundred metres of so lower but looking further away than we felt like walking at that moment! We stopped just short of the small, already-occupied summit and ate a well-earned lunch taking in those views.

I couldn’t remember if the trail was marked beyond the summit but a quick check confirmed that it was so we decided to make a (small) loop, plus get the superb views north with the Sky Pilot group framed between Crown and Goat Mountains, and west towards the familiar Howe Sound peaks. We descended steeply and wound our way around the back of the peak to continue over to Thunderbird Ridge, postholing and slipping on the slushy snow, the trail meandering around, up, and over the lumps and bumps of the ridge.

The trail ended with a gradual climb to the end of the ridge, a pair of crossed bamboo poles marking the finish. With some relief, we stopped awhile and took in the gorgeous scenes before us, the back of Grouse and the grid of city streets to the south, while the north peak of Mount Fromme looked particularly daunting with its steep drop-off into the valley between us. To the east lay the ridge of Lynn Peak and the Needles, then Mount Seymour and peaks of the Fannin Range, with the more distant peaks of Golden Ears, Robie Reid, and Judge Howay jutting up above the ridge line. Further north was the expansive summits of Coliseum and Burwell with the hulking slab of rock called Cathedral creating a substantial bookend. Behind us, the sheer slopes and flat top of Goat Mountain and Crown.

All pretty awesome stuff. It almost made us forget about the slog it took to get here. Almost.

I always enjoy seeing familiar mountains from different perspectives, especially today having spent so much of the winter exploring Mount Seymour. Through the telephoto lens we could make out hikers on Pump Peak, along with the many overhanging cornices on the north-facing cliffs. We could even make out a faint trail traversing below Tim Jones peak and leading over to Mount Seymour itself, the full extent of the drop awaiting a mis-step visible before us. What I didn’t see at the time but later spotted in one of the photos was a trio of paragliders soaring on thermals below Pump Peak. What a great day for it!

A couple of hikers joined us at the end, one soon seeking a patch of shade while the other took video clips to document her surroundings. It was all so very peaceful, broken only by the occasional yell from skiers at Grouse. We slathered on some more sunscreen and began our slog back, taking a more direct route than on the way out (where possible), climbing back up to the base of Dam Mountain where we rejoined the Snowshoe Grind. As we climbed, I spotted something bright out of the corner of my eye and turned to look. I realized it was just one of the peaks behind Mount Seymour – probably Mount Elsay – but it suddenly looked so gleaming white against a dark blue sky. I tilted my head and realized it was the effect of my polarizing sunglasses making the nearer peaks shine while the more distant ones took on a yellower shade from looking through more atmosphere. It was a really neat effect.

Finishing our final slushy uphill climb was a cause for a brief celebration (my feet were at least now warm and wet – lovely…!) before we began the main descent, this time opting for the alternative “Fritz’s Way”, hoping it would be a little less steep than the winter Grind.

So much for that hope, and if anything it was trickier on account of it traversing some steep slopes. Thankfully it was short and it wasn’t long before we encountered the worst snow of the day on the access road back in to the resort. It was simply horrible walking, and the sooner we can forget about the experience the better! With heads down and attempting to maintain some momentum, we eventually reached the chalet where we were greeted with the sight of too many people milling around whom we did our best to avoid.

Our first thought was to get a cold drink and a snack, which we took out onto the much quieter patio near the top of the BCMC Trail. We found a table with some shade and took great pleasure in dropping our packs and sitting down. Taking stock of our energy levels, we reluctantly made the decision to pay for the Skyride back down to the car. It was painful to pay that much but we knew that descending the trail now would be even more painful on our tired legs. We booked a time about 45 minutes away and relaxed in the hot afternoon sun. It was the right decision.

The ride down was a little claustrophobic despite the extra space not normally afforded on the Grouse Skyride but it was soon over and we did enjoy watching the trees pass beneath us on the descent. Then it was a final hundred metres or so to get back to the car, where we could finally peel off our boots. I squeezed as much water out of my socks as possible (at least my feet had warmed up by now) before putting them on again to wear inside my runners.

That’s the last time I’ll forget to bring a dry pair of socks!

The day had one more surprise in store for us: we spotted a pair of deer walking along the far side of the parking lot, one of which hopped the barrier to begin walking between the cars. The other soon followed and I spent a couple of minutes watching them and taking a few photos. Judging by the antler bumps on one, we were watching a mating pair. They seemed remarkably unbothered by the few people around taking their picture, and wandered off as we began our drive home.

With our time relaxing at the top and the deer sighting, it was a lovely way to end what was, to be honest, a pretty terrible hike. Can the snow please hurry up and melt? I’d like to get back to real hiking now. Thanks! :-)

6 thoughts on “Dam Mountain and Thunderbird Ridge (via BCMC Trail), 17 Apr 2021

  1. Deary me, that snow sounds awful! I’ve done that hike a couple of times this winter (with fewer views, but way better snow!)

    I am always surprised to see people ignore the massive barriers to the Grouse Grind… but I don’t think I’ve ever been there in winter and *not* seen naughty hikers over on the closed path.

    Your photos are fab as always Andy!

    1. Thanks Josy – I might have played up the suffering a bit but it was definitely not easy going! I do love Thunderbird Ridge in the winter, though. It offers such a nice alternative view on the area.

      Yeah, I think some people just have a sense of entitlement and think that they’re impervious to whatever risks there are. I noticed now that there is a sign that highlights the avalanche risk of the Grind and BCMC. I hadn’t appreciated the Grind passed through complex terrain, though I suspect that the majority of Grinders won’t really know what that means…

      1. I didnโ€™t really understand what that meant until we did the AST1! Itโ€™s a lot less scary before you know how dangerous it can be!

  2. They are indeed nice views. I havenโ€™t done this hike since Feb 2020. Thanks for reminding me about the 1000 m goal. I guess I should get training as we were lucky (really lucky!) to get reservations on both the Berg Lake and Rockwall hikes.

    1. Wow! That’s great! I look forward to reading about your trips – we’re going to try for Lake O’Hara this year, so wish us luck on Tuesday!

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