Little Paradise Creek via Relay Col: 13.5 km, +835 m, -835 m, 8h
After the excitement of last night’s sounds I didn’t sleep as well as I had hoped. We stirred a few minutes before 7 am as Brenda walked by and we unzipped the tent to be greeted by the sight of glorious blue sky and sunshine, with only a few lingering clouds to spoil the view. Oh wow! We hauled ourselves out into bright sunshine and enjoyed a wonderful leisurely breakfast out on the meadow, basking in the morning sun, spreading out the map on the wet grass to consider our options for the day.
Feeling rested, we were eager to get moving and explore some more of this beautiful area. We set off around 9:45 am, hopping over the creek and retracing our steps from two days ago through the open trees and wet bogs, passing the landmark wolf poop again, and soon coming to our next creek crossing. Getting across was straightforward but we knew that getting back over wouldn’t be so easy after yesterday’s rain and any new snowmelt in today’s sun. We picked up the trail again as it climbed steep slopes above the creek, fading to a line of dandelions in the grass as it continued down the valley. Our route was upwards, though, and after checking the map, we struck off uphill through the pathless meadow full of paintbrush of all shades of orange and red.
Awaiting us on the other side of the trees was an open meadow coated with fresh glacier lilies (much to my delight) followed by a short detour to cross a small creek, its steep, crumbling earth banks making the crossing surprisingly tricky. Once on the other side we found ourselves in even more expansive meadows extending far up the slope to our right towards Relay Mountain. Movement above us caught my eye and I looked up to see a large raptor soaring overhead. I couldn’t see any signs of a white head or tail, so I have to wonder if it was a golden eagle.
The trail led us into a thicket of waist-high willow, the ground beneath our feet immediately turning into wet bog that forced us to step on the lowermost stems of the willow to avoid sinking into the ankle deep muck. Thankfully it was only a short distance and we were soon in drier meadows again, and crossing more small creeks with similar steep crumbly banks. We kept up our vocal warnings to the local wildlife (it must have worked as we saw none!) while admiring the views across the valley to the meadows on the flanks of the ridge we’d hiked two days ago, and the views ahead us towards the end of the valley.
The path ahead became less distinct but the views ever more spectacular
We began to climb through open forest and soon left the trees behind as we zig-zagged up the hill on a muddy trail (made worse by the passage of horses, with ample evidence of their calling card for us to step over). The upper meadows soon gave way to tundra, still dotted with a remarkable number of flowers. Now totally above the trees, the views were vast. We paused to admire our morning’s progress, looking what seemed like a long way back down the valley. The path ahead became less distinct but the views ever more spectacular, and it was clear that many animals criss-crossed this area, with goat, deer, and marmot tracks going in all directions.
Walking with my head down as we climbed I noticed something semi-circular next to the trail. I bent down to look closer, thinking it was maybe a piece of rubber or something, and realized it was a piece of a concretion. Scanning around I noticed more, some of which were almost complete spheres. I spent a few moments picking the best, ranging in size from a small marble to a golf ball, and arranged them to take their photo.
Every few minutes we stopped for another view, another photo-op that made us go ‘Wow!’. It was glorious hiking.
It wasn’t long before we crested the next rise to reach Relay Col where we paused in the wind for a snack. The views were stunning: the Little Paradise Creek headwaters lay immediately below us, a surprisingly broad shallow valley, the snow-covered pyramid of Mount Vic catching the light in the distance. The nearer peaks such as Mount Davidson and Red Hill had the lightest dusting of yesterday’s fresh snow. A narrow trail led us off at an angle down into the valley, the ground churned up by the passage of hikers and horses during wetter times, and now set like lumpy concrete. But we couldn’t really complain, not with the views around us. Ahead of us lay a huge craggy outcrop of rock, reminiscent of Black Tusk, that just begged us to take photographs. And so we did. Every few minutes we stopped for yet another angle, another view, another photo-op that made us go ‘Wow!’. It was glorious hiking.
Marmots whistled in the valley, possibly from our appearance, though we caught only distant glimpses. As we neared the valley bottom, we crossed a snow patch and promptly lost the trail. Or rather, the trail vanished in the damp meadow. We had checked the map to verify where we were aiming for on the far side of the valley and picked our best route across the land, crossing several cute little creeks, running vigorously with snowmelt. We were surrounded by western anemone and marsh marigold flowers, catching them just at the start of their main bloom. That’s always such a treat, especially for the anemones which turn into their more familiar moptops all too soon. While the marigolds favoured the wettest areas, the anemones often created gorgeous floral crowns at the top of melting snow patches.
We picked our way up the slope, trying to avoid the flowers wherever possible, stopping briefly to admire a nearby marmot which had paused by the top of its burrow to check us out. Higher up, tiny meltwater creeks lined with emerald moss cascaded over rocks creating miniature water features. Upon reaching the top we were once again hit by the wind and quickly sought out a shallow dip to take what shelter we could. We’d emerged onto a broad grassy ridge with superb views all around which we revelled in as we ate our lunch.
Laying out the map, we attempted to identify the peaks around us and sized up the next part of our route that would take us around the head of Little Paradise Creek. Immediately west we could see Mount Davidson and Red Hill straddling Graveyard Pass. That sounds like an interesting area, and we wondered how we might incorporate it into a future trip. Behind us lay our route and from where we were sitting, it looked quite intimidating, with a steep climb up towards Mount Cunningham. But with the (unjustified) confidence that the route shown on the map would be fine, we set off once again.
It was beautiful hiking along the open grassy ridge, the views becoming even more expansive
It was beautiful hiking along the open grassy ridge; apart from the wind which occasionally threatened to knock us off our feet. The ridge climbed gently towards Mount Cunningham and the views became even more expansive. Mount Vic and its neighbouring peaks shone white in the distance, a stark contrast to the reds and oranges of Mount Davidson and its connecting ridges. As we came onto the southern ridge at the head of the valley, we could see down into the Tyaughton Creek valley with views across to Deer Pass area and into the Lizard Creek valley.
The ground under our feet changed from grassy meadow to layers of colourful rock fragments, with various shades of ochre with reds and grey mixed in. As we started climbing, the easy walking gave way to broken rock and scree, and the slope began to steepen significantly. Worse, the rock was loose and we often felt like we were taking two steps forward and sliding one step back. And even worse, the wind was now blowing so hard it took our breath away and was affecting my balance. I was finding the combination of the loose rock, steep slope, and the wind a real challenge, and I had a couple of moments where I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But we persisted, taking one step at a time, and it wasn’t only a relatively short climb before we levelled off to face our next challenge. At first I thought we’d have to continue straight up what looked like an even steeper slope on the side of Mount Cunningham. Thankfully, we noticed a much easier route to our left – the only downside being that we had to cross a steep snow slope with a fairly long runout. We pulled on our microspikes and edged down the crumbly rock to the snow only to find it was soft and slushy and very easy to walk over, much to our relief.
Once back onto dry land, we completed the ascent to a small outcrop covered in orange lichen, where we stopped to survey the views and our route ahead. Below us we could trace our route from earlier down into and up out of Little Paradise Creek, the valley laid out before us flanked by Red Hill on its left and the imposing Relay Mountain on the right. We finished our climb up to the next ridge where we met our route from two days earlier. I checked the GPS and noticed that we were at an altitude just below 2500 m, so I said to the others that I wanted to climb a little higher just to get that number over 2500. Maria and Brenda wandered over to a spot with a great view into the Paradise Creek drainage while I began climbing again.
2495, 2496, 2498, 2499, 2500! I had reached my goal, and yet the summit ahead – the western sub-peak of Mount Cunningham – lured me onwards. 2501, 2503, and upwards ticked my elevation. I crossed a patch of soft snow with occasional hidden icy spots to reach the broad summit, topping out at about 2520 m. The views were stunning! Despite the stormy clouds to the south, I could see all the way down to Tyaughton Creek, over to Mount Sheba (looking quite forbidding), and the peaks at the head of Lizard Creek. In all directions lay ridges and rounded peaks of different colours that reminded me of Harris Ridge. I yelled down to the Maria and Brenda that they really needed to see this, and so enticed them away from their somewhat sheltered spot up to the windy summit. They soon joined me (albeit a little reluctantly!) and the three of us took a few moments to enjoy this high viewpoint.
After admiring the view for as long as the wind allowed, we retraced our steps back down over the snow and to the col. We followed the ridge northwards to the next bump where the ridge down to Relay Col veered off left, our upwards route from two days ago to the right. This new ridge turned out to be awesome with a great variety of rock types and colour, plus the usual array of tundra flowers. It was wonderful easy hiking! We soon reached a little spur ridge that led over to the big rock outcrop that had captured our attention earlier as we descended into the Little Paradise Creek valley. It was tempting to follow it down to the outcrop and get a closer look, but time was ticking and the weather was showing signs of being less than friendly.
It was like walking in a dream
We continued down the ridge – like walking in a dream, one of us said – over a couple of bumps, descending steeply off some pale grey rock, and levelling off on a grassy section that led us over one final bump before dropping into Relay Col. We paused for a snack before hurriedly beginning our descent back down towards Paradise Creek. A blustery snow squall caught up with us as we started, reducing visibility and stinging our faces with icy pellets. The pellets soon gave way to a flurry of snowflakes, at which point we realized we’d missed the trail altogether and were heading off in the wrong direction. A quick check of the GPS allowed us to correct our path and we were soon back on the trail. Thankfully, the squall passed within a few minutes and we found ourselves baked in hot sunshine again. An instant change from winter back to summer!
The rest of the descent was easy, zig-zagging back and forth over the ground, then through clusters of whitebark pine, and we were soon down in the meadows. We began announcing our presence again, picking our way through the boggy thicket of waist-high willow, and crossing the various small creeks. A large dug-up area caught our eye as we walked, and we commented that we hadn’t seen that on our way through this morning. We upped our noise game as we approached some thicker tree cover but soon realized why we hadn’t seen the dig earlier: simply that our alternative trail to cross this next creek had avoided this part of the meadow. We breathed a little sigh of relief that we weren’t about to run into a grizzly, although we did find some fairly fresh poop.
Crossing the creek here was challenging (which was why an alternative trail had been forged around it) but we negotiated the steep crumbly and muddy banks to pick up the trail again. We followed the glacier-lily-edged track through the open meadows, and within 15 minutes were back at the paintbrush-lined main trail by the creek. Now we had to cross that creek, which had increased in flow since this morning. Our attempts at adding stepping stones failed completely as the current kept sweeping away any rocks we tried to drop into strategic spots. We had no option but to search for a spot where the creek was at its narrowest and to leap across. Remarkably, we found a suitable spot and, literally in one leap, we all made it across with dry feet.
We relaxed as we hiked the now familiar route back towards camp, passing the landmark wolf poop and glacier lilies, before picking our way through the boggy willow (or was it willowy bog?) and then open forest to reach the next creek. Here we ran into the first people we’d seen in three days, a trio of backpackers and their friendly dog. We stopped to chat and were amazed that they’d persisted in hiking through to Marmot Ponds in yesterday’s torrential rain. They were very glad of the drier day today!
Changing into dry socks, one of the most luxurious moments after a day of hiking!
I didn’t make it across the creek with dry feet this time but we were back at the tents within a few minutes and I could change into dry socks, one of the most luxurious moments after a day of hiking! The valley was bathed in warm late afternoon sunshine, and it was tempting to lounge around and soak it up, were it not for the the cool breeze and the ominous presence of some thicker cloud. Our lessons learned from previous days saw us setting up the tarps again for shelter, this time angled into the sun, and we set about boiling water for dinner and hot drinks. Those clouds I’d been watching gradually snuffed out the sunshine and the temperature dropped quickly as we finished up our tea. It was only 8 pm but we decided it would be a good time to get comfortable and warm again.
Our timing was perfect as the wind soon picked up and a mix of rain and snow began pelting the tent. It sounded cold out there but we were luxuriating in the warmth of our sleeping bags inside the tent. We laid back and chatted about the day, I scribbled down my notes while Maria read. To my surprise, the rain eased off a little after sunset, so we crawled out of the tent for one final comfort stop. Heavy, wet-looking clouds blanketed the mountain slopes but the sky above was beginning to clear. We shivered and quickly made our way back into the tent. It felt like it was going to be a cold night.