Paradise Creek Headwaters circuit via Grizzly Pass: 10.5 km, +615 m, -615 m, 7h
I came round about 1:30 am with the expectation of seeing moonlight on the tent only to be greeted by darkness: the clouds had rolled in once again. When I peeked out of the tent around 4 am as the dark began to lessen, I could see the surrounding peaks were hidden in heavy cloud. It began to rain soon after, and I dozed off to the sound of it pattering on the tent until about 7 am. During one of the lulls we figured it was time to get moving and I checked the weather forecast on the InReach. For what it was worth, it said 70% chance of precipitation with a high of 6 C today. Since 70% is not 100% we decided that we should get up and do something with our morning, if nothing else to distract me from the fact that the rain was getting me down again.
First (well, second…) order of business was to set up a tarp to provide shelter. This was a new experience for us having never put up a tarp before, and we relied on a couple of short videos I’d watched to set up an A-frame-like arrangement. It wasn’t perfect but it did mean we could enjoy our breakfast out of the rain, so we were pretty pleased about that. Our new larger tarp was nice and spacious underneath too, having learned that lesson on our previous trip here in 2018. We had a slow start and the three of us chatted about what to do with the day.
To our delight the rain eased off, blue sky appeared between gaps in the clouds, and it was time to put our plan into action. A little after 10 am we headed off to find a way up Mount Cunningham. Our first challenge was crossing another fork of Paradise Creek, again not too wide and deep but fast-flowing with run-off and just a it wider than leaping distance. Having made it across without getting wet feet (my boots were almost kinda dry at last) we picked up the trail again and followed it downstream through patches of trees and wet marshy spots filled with globeflower and willow.
The trail came and went but the route was easy to follow. We kept our eyes open for any sign of a junction with another trail for us to turn left up the valley, though we saw none. We consulted the map and GPS and scoured the landscape but there was no sign of an obvious turnoff. We kept going through more wet meadows full of animal tracks and poop, including a huge wolf poop that became a bit of a landmark as we walked back and forth. I was stopped in my tracks when we encountered our first glacier lilies of the trip – just a few but enough to lift my spirits.
There was still no sign of a junction. We came to another creek where we spotted a trail further up the slope, and we sought to link up with it and to follow it back in the direction we planned to go. Indeed, it seemed to be leading us in the right direction, through some gorgeous grassy meadows full of glacier lilies, paintbrush, and cut-leaf anemone, and we followed it until it disappeared in a large patch of low willow. Undeterred, we carried on with the help of the map and GPS, through patches of trees and wet boggy meadows until we found another trail segment, that also promptly vanished. We even found some old tin cans at a spot that was likely used as a camp, but no trail.
Still, we kept searching until finally we came across an obvious trail that pretty much appeared from nowhere and which led in exactly the right direction. Now we felt we could relax and we followed the lightly beaten path across pocket meadows full of glacier lilies, globeflower, and others. At times the path was so faint that it was hard to avoid stepping on some of the flowers but we did what we could to avoid them. My progress was obviously slowed by photographing the flowers so I urged the others to keep going, saying I would catch up once I was done with my floral portraits.
A short time later we came to an obvious fork. We could see that the main trail continued right but we wanted to see where the other direction went and followed it for 30-40 m to its end at a great view over the creek. Animal tracks traversed the earthy slope below us suggesting it was well-used by wildlife. We backtracked and picked up the main trail once again through more open forest and pocket meadows teeming with flowers, and soon emerged onto a wide grassy bench dotted with marmot burrows as well as the ubiquitous globeflower. Surprisingly, no marmots though. It had taken us over 1.5 hours to get here and we’d walked over 2.5 km to reach a spot that was not even a kilometre as the crow flies from our camping spot! Time for a break!
We were bathed in moments of soothing warm sunshine while we decided on our next move
We were bathed in moments of soothing warm sunshine while we snacked and decided on our next move. I found more glacier lilies to photograph and spent a few minutes on my hands and knees in search of their best angle. Moving on, we continued over the lovely stepped grassy bench, which looked like the classic river terraces seen in geography textbooks, before picking an ascent line up through the heather to what seemed to be the thinnest area of trees. At one point a pair of voles jumped out of the heather and over Maria’s feet before bounding away up the slope in search of an escape route.
Once through the trees we realized we’d overshoot our target but somehow we found another trail – probably a game trail – and followed it in our intended direction, angling upwards across gentle slopes filled with blooming western anemone into an opening behind a small forested ridge. We crossed a couple of earthy rills and aimed up the valley between the steep slopes leading up to the ridge. Our best bet looked to be a mini-ridge, not visible on the map, that would keep us out of the steep-sided creek channels.
The ground was steep and loose but we were able to get a good grip in the soft dirt and small rocks, and we zig-zagged our way steadily upwards, the view now opening up behind us. It was a bit of a slog but we made good progress, noting how the air was cooling and the wind freshening as we climbed. The ground was covered in tiny alpine flowers and criss-crossed with goat tracks that extended across the steep slopes on either side of us. We came to a small rocky outcrop where many goat tracks converged, the rocks covered in goat wool, and an obvious smoothed-out depression in the ground where one or more goats had rested awhile. We scanned the landscape but, alas, saw no goats.
Up to now our hike had remained dry and even quite sunny, but all that was about to change. The wind blew stronger with ominous grey clouds ahead, and we could swear we saw snowflakes dancing on the air. A portent of things to come… Having worked up a sweat with our climbing, we now froze as the cold wind hit us, sending us scrambling to pull on extra layers, with the added bonus of giving us some respite from the uphill climb. We still had more hard work ahead of us, though, and we picked our way up between a couple of steep snow patches, soon gaining the height of the ridge where we were greeted by stunning views all around. However, behind us, Relay Peak was backed by a thick grey cloud that appeared to be heading our direction on the wind.
We continued up the ridge towards a sub-peak where the views only got better. Looking back down into the Paradise Creek valley we could make out our tents and the bright yellow of our tarps. The snowflakes rapidly increased in number and within a few minutes we were enshrouded in a heavy grey cloud while being pelted with snow. Up on the ridge our options for shelter were, well, pretty much non-existent but we found a small outcrop and huddled in its lee, like a trio of penguins in the Antarctic. It wasn’t much shelter at all, so we sat there and did our best not to freeze. And given that it wasn’t worth trying to go anywhere with zero visibility, it seemed as good a time as any to try and eat some lunch to top up our energy levels.
Thankfully, as quickly as it had arrived, the squall blew over and continued across the valley, and now that we were refuelled, we were eager to continue our ridge-top exploration. Ahead of us lay Mount Cunningham: it looked a long way off yet, and very snowy. We had microspikes but it was hard to judge just how steep the slopes were from a distance. But that was for later. For now, we were content to enjoy the beautiful ridge walking before us.
We could wander as freely as the landscape and our whims dictated
It was truly wonderful hiking. There was no path, no route, no sign of any footprints before us. We could wander as freely as the landscape and our whims dictated. The views were immense, with Cardtable and Castle Peak on one side, . Relay behind us, while to our right were the distant peaks either side of Graveyard Flats (Mount Davidson and Red Hill) and a glimpse of where we hoped to explore in the following days. We were in hiking heaven.
The ridge led us up and over several bumps, some with lichen-encrusted rock formations, occasionally fringed with goat wool, perhaps where the goats were shedding their winter coats. At our feet were a myriad tiny wildflowers, mostly a small yellow cinquefoil, white dryas, and a pale creamy vetch. As the storm cleared we could see fresh snow decorating the higher peaks in the distance, but the wind remained our ever-present companion. It was brutal: very strong – literally breath-taking – and very cold. The only consolation was that it wasn’t in our faces. Mostly.
We climbed over one last bump before descending to a shallow col below the slopes of Mount Cunningham, a spot we would come to again in two days’ time. The biting wind made our decision easy and we decided to save the peak for another day. It would just be too unpleasant today. And besides, we were just enjoying being in this vast landscape. We turned left and descended gradually over a broad meadow, escaping the wind for the first time in a couple of hours. To top it off, the sun came out to warm our wind-chilled bones. It was bliss!
The broad rocky ridge was mostly lichen-covered talus bursting with patches of cheerful yellow cinquefoil interspersed with tufts of grass
We skirted the lower flanks of the mountain on awkward loose scree to regain the broad rocky ridge, which was mostly lichen-covered talus bursting with patches of cheerful yellow cinquefoil interspersed with tufts of grass. Away to our right we could see over to the ridge of Mount Sheba from which the grey storm clouds were struggling to clear. The breeze caught up with us again but much less than before (and mostly behind us), with the added bonus of frequent sunshine. You know, just more great hiking, especially as the rocks gave way to finer gravel and grassy patches that made for easier travel.
After dropping down a short distance, the ridge climbed again to a small summit with a great dragon’s-back rock formation where we sought shelter from the wind to top up with another snack, all the while enjoying the grand views before us. Well, apart from the Mount Sheba ridge which had completely disappeared in storm clouds, making us very glad (again!) we hadn’t chosen the alternative itinerary that took us over there! We continued our descent into the col, unofficially named Grizzly Pass on the map, a name that had us ever alert for wildlife. And still we saw none.
At that, we said farewell to the high ridges and began our descent back into the Paradise Creek valley to the sound of unseen whistling marmots. We picked another faint trail passing over dirty snow patches and mud, all the while surrounded by so many western anemones, their fresh creamy petals gleaming against the dark earth. Once again, the trail vanished underfoot and we were left to our own devices to pick a route downhill, choosing to stick to heathery ribs while following the creek. Marmot tracks covered the snow patches as we criss-crossed the slope seeking the easiest way down.
The gradient steepened as we descended and we found ourselves being channelled by the creek towards a steep-sided valley carved into the soft glacial deposits. We hopped the creek and aimed for more open terrain, finding ourselves bushwhacking through meadows full of budding willow and absolutely covered with globeflower, probably the most extensive displays we’ve ever seen, perhaps rivalling some of the best glacier lily meadows we’ve witnessed. It was almost impossible to find a way through without stepping on some of them and I cringed at every misplaced step. The creek vanished below a patch of snow as it tumbled steeply down through the valley and we left it behind for a short time, pushing our way through small spruce trees and trying to stay on drier ground. I didn’t want to get too far from it, as I knew we had to cross over again to pick up our route from earlier.
As the slope eased, we could sense a way back over to the creek and, after pushing through more spruce trees, we soon found a suitable crossing point where a single big leap would get us across. We all made it without getting our feet wet! Now that we were back on the west bank of the creek, it wasn’t long before we reached the grassy benches we’d stopped at this morning where we decided to pause awhile once more to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. Of course, I was tempted by a few more glacier lily photos… A whir of wings caught our ears and we looked to see a grouse hurtling down the creek, as fast as I’ve ever seen a grouse fly!
Then all we had to do was retrace our steps through the lovely flower-filled pocket meadows and pick up the trail back to the tents. Rather than get mixed up with our morning’s attempts to find a connecting trail, we checked the map and decided to bushwhack directly through the trees. It was less than 150 m and the forest was open enough for us to push through quite easily, for the most part anyway. I’d still love to know where the trails met but that would have to be for another day. We popped out of the trees right on the trail just before the creek by our camping area, which was noticeably higher than this morning but we still made it across with dry feet.
Our timing was perfect as the rain started to fall again as we reached the tents. We were low on water so I went off to filter some more while Maria relaxed in comfort, as was Brenda. Filtering was hard work as it had been clogged by yesterday’s filtering water from the silty main creek, despite our best efforts to let the silt settle out. I dismantled it and cleaned the pre-filter but it didn’t seem to make much difference. The only way I could filter water was to get into a rhythm of counting to four for every push of the pump. It took patience but it was less effort. I took the water over to our tarps and retrieved our food bags. Unfortunately our tarp had collapsed since this morning and was no longer offering much shelter, so I set about re-pitching it in a slightly different configuration in the freezing rain, now falling even more heavily. My hands got so cold, and I learned several valuable lessons, namely to practice setting up a tarp, practice the knots, and use cord that holds a knot when wet. The nylon rope we’d brought had slipped all of its knots and it was difficult to get them to hold again. Plus I’d somehow forgotten how to tie a trucker’s hitch and I spent a few long cold minutes trying to work it out again. Like I said, I needed to practice.
Eventually, and with much swearing, the tarp was secure with its back to the wind, and we could scoot underneath to get out of the rain, much to our relief. First things first: get a hot drink going! There’s nothing like a hot drink and hot food to perk you up when you’re cold, especially when it’s a damp cold. Now we could relax again and we sat and chatted over dinner, dessert, and more hot drinks. A white-crowned sparrow came to visit, flitting between the trees and willows, singing a very different song to the ones near Vancouver. Flickers and varied thrushes joined in with their calls echoing between the trees.
The rain eased off and the sun found gaps in the clouds big enough to create a rainbow behind us. The rest of the evening was bright and sunny again, which was a lovely way to end the day. The light played on Castle Peak as it had last night, but this time I was content to just watch. Darkness fell, we stowed our food bags, and we settled back into our tents just as another rain shower passed over.
We were back to how we started the day with the pitter-patter of rain on the tent, gradually fading away to be replaced by the plaintive songs of hermit thrushes. It was beautiful to hear, and we drifted off to sleep having thoroughly enjoyed our first day of exploring; it had been hard work but also so uplifting to find our way up and along the high ridges. We couldn’t wait to see what else we could discover in the days ahead.