South Chilcotins Day 5: Harris Ridge, 20 Jul 2018

Harris Ridge: 9.5 km, +600 m, -600 m, 7h 10m

The clouds had thickened overnight and we were greeted by grey skies as we emerged from the tent, with only a hint of weak sunshine in the east, barely enough to cast a pale shadow let alone provide warmth. We walked back up to the creek and our dinner spot of the previous night, retrieved our food bags, and enjoyed a welcome hot drink and food.

By 9:30 am we were ready to start hiking and we followed the trail up to Camel Pass again. We didn’t mind retracing our steps in the least, it was an easy trail passing through some wonderful little meadows. Upon reaching the pass, we looked for a trail up to Harris Ridge, soon coming across a plaque dedicated to Bob Harris courtesy of the Vancouver Natural History Society. A bit further on we came to the base of the camel which formed a very effective obstacle. The slopes either side were too steep to traverse so I investigated a direct scramble up over the rocks, finding an easy route that required only a moment or two of moderate scrambling to see us onto the other side to pick up the main ridge.

Movement caught our eyes and we stopped to look around. Snow! It was snowing on us! Looking behind us we could see the faint tendrils of cloud hanging below the main cloud deck, and we realized we had climbed up into those wisps to find ourselves in light snow. Fortunately it didn’t last long and we continued on our way. The going was easy, like all the ridges we’d explored so far – even without a trail – though it soon steepened considerably and we took care to make our way up the slope safely. It was close to the limit of my comfort zone, and had the ground been any firmer, we’d have had difficulty gaining good purchase. Thankfully we were able to get good grip with our boots and we zigzagged our way up over the dark grey soil to more level terrain above.

Snow! It was snowing on us!

The views were already incredible, much like yesterday, albeit under much cloudier skies. However, the sun was making occasional appearances, lighting up the meadows and peaks when the clouds parted. We moved from grey to brown underfoot, passing some small meadows filled with blooming dryas, a tiny arnica, and (I think) starwort. Out on the bare slopes we found some cut-leaf anemone, mostly done flowering and already producing their little golf-ball seed heads, some purple-tinged Arctic daisies, and silky phacelia (sky pilot). A line of goat tracks led away over the soft ground and we looked around but – of course – saw no goats.

We reached the high point of the ridge and looked down snowy slopes to our right into the upper Eldorado basin, the remnants of cornices hanging on just below the crest of the ridge. Ahead of us lay the rest of Harris Ridge, the gentle, open terrain luring us onwards and compelling us to keep exploring. The views were amazing, as indeed was the ground on which we were walking, with rocks of many shades, much like yesterday. Our feet led us on, and for the next 45 minutes or so we ambled our way towards the western end of the ridge, taking in the views and generally feeling like we didn’t want to be anywhere else. It was quite simply delightful wandering.

The clouds were definitely sending us mixed signals, though the signs were clear: despite the (few and shrinking) patches of blue sky and puffy clouds, the thickening and lowering clouds around us were telling us that things were going to change. Behind us, cloud was already drifting over the slopes on the far side of Eldorado Pass, hiding the peaks beyond. Out to the west, Mount Dickson had disappeared behind a wall of grey as a storm enveloped the entire adjacent mountain range. The cold wind also left us in no doubt that we shouldn’t linger. Undeterred, and thinking that the worst that could happen was that we’d have to sit out some snow, we continued to our destination, the end of the ridge with a grand view down into the Eldorado valley and the meadows where we’d camped for a couple of nights.

The open gentle terrain lured us onwards, compelling us to keep exploring. It was quite simply delightful wandering.

We came to the point where the ridge began to descend and decided this was our turnaround point. The ridge wasn’t done by any means, and the map marked a route that continued down into the Eldorado meadows but that would have to be another day. (It looked like that would make a fine loop, starting in those meadows, up to Eldorado Pass and Harris Ridge before descending back to the meadows.) The part of the ridge before us was perhaps the most colourful of all, a glorious striped ridge-back in shades of brown, orange, and grey. It was so tempting to keep exploring.

Instead, we found a couple of comfy rocks and sat down, pulling out a snack and savouring the vista before us. A pika squeaked in the rocks somewhere off to our left, our only pika encounter so far. We could see clearly down into the meadow where we’d stayed, even making out the bend in the creek where we’d set up our tent. Beyond that meadow, we could see the twin horns of Mount Sheba barely poking above the ridge line of Spruce Peak. In the vale leading up to Spruce Peak, we could make out the horse riders’ cabin marked on the map. To the right of that we could see our route up to Windy Pass, the path leading up through such vast green meadows. If we hadn’t just hiked it a couple of days earlier, we’d certainly be tempted! This felt like the we were seeing the second piece of the puzzle, getting this bird’s-eye view of another part of our trip.

The serious-looking weather was looking ever more serious, and seemed to be heading our way. Snow pellets danced on the wind; it was time to get moving.

The serious-looking weather over the Dickson Range was looking ever more serious, and seemed to be heading our way. Snow pellets danced on the wind; it was time to get moving. We walked back along the ridge, this time following the northern edge to gain a little shelter from the cold wind and the stinging snow. Despite the cold, the changing light over the mountains and meadows, and the ridge before us, kept us enthralled and we thoroughly enjoyed the walk back. I wondered out loud to Maria that this was ideal ptarmigan territory and that it was surprising that we hadn’t seen any. Well, barely a minute later we saw one, and only because it moved, its speckled plumage rendering it all but invisible against the broken rocks. Only its top half was speckled, though, the lower half of its body was still decked out in its winter white. Either it was only just changing to its summer plumage or maybe it knew winter was already on its way back…

Winter was held in check for a bit longer as the sun came out on us again just as we regained the high point of the ridge. We then descended a short distance before a short climb to the next bump, passing several rocky outcrops, each different from the last. Most of the ground we were walking over was made up of small rock fragments compacted into firm earth, which made for really easy hiking. Here and there solid rock formations jutted out like they were frozen in time, sometimes a low dragon’s back line of rock, sometimes a tall crag, and sometimes just a small pile of exposed boulders. The camel rock formation at the pass was simply a bigger version of one of these outcrops.

Our pace dropped as we explored the area, forgetting about the weather and admiring the shape of the ridge with its slopes sweeping down into the Eldorado Creek valley. Sunshine lit up the valley floor and the peaks on the other side, and we stared longingly at these places we hoped to explore on future visits. But it wasn’t just the view that held our attention; the rocks at our feet caught our eye with their various colours, textures, and shapes. One patch of rock had the most amazing wavy structure to it, alternating layers of white and dark grey. In one spot we found large jade boulders, while nearby lay what appeared to be fallen claim stakes.

We sized up an alternative descent, following the description in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles book, edging down the ridge that led to Eldorado Pass. Alas we hadn’t got far before we reached a small, but steep, convex snow patch that we didn’t feel very secure crossing without microspikes, so we gave up on that idea (next time!) and opted to retrace our ascent route. The snow patch would’ve been quite easy to ascend, had we approached from that direction, and without the snow it looked an easy route. The view from this spot was superb with the whole of the Taylor Creek valley laid out at our feet.

Not that we minded going back the way we had come, as we were thoroughly enjoying our time up on the ridge. The Dickson Range was now out in the sun again, but ominous grey clouds were now almost overhead and we hurried back down, seeking shelter from the wind behind a rock where we thought we could have our lunch. Those plans changed in an instant when a peal of thunder echoed nearby and we were soon on the move again to get to lower ground as quickly as possible.

Our plans changed in an instant when a peal of thunder echoed nearby and we sought out lower ground as quickly as possible.

Descending the steep slope towards the camel was tricky, but we made it down okay and could relax on the easier terrain approaching the outcrop. As we began our scramble back down over the rocks, we felt the sting of the first pellets of hail. We met a group of four mountain bikers at the pass, singing away to alert the wildlife, and we chatted for a minute before going our separate ways, them off down to the Lick Creek trailhead, us up the next slope to find a more sheltered spot for our lunch.

Those plans also changed when we realized the thunder was now much closer. The hail was falling constantly and we decided to get ourselves down to the treeline and take shelter there; we did not want to be exposed if this storm passed overhead. Hailstones the size of peas stung our cold skin as they rained down on us. We reached a patch of spruce and dropped our poles and bear spray (basically anything metal) before huddling near the trees to escape the worst of the weather. We pulled out the Siltarp from my pack and draped it over us (making use of it for the first time), at which point we realized it was barely big enough for two people to shelter under.

The hail continued to pound us as more thunder rumbled and now lightning flashed overhead. The landscape before us was gradually turning white with the volume of hail. And yet we somehow managed to eat our lunch, a few hailstones adding extra crunch to our wraps! Gradually the hail eased off to be replaced by wet snow and then light sleety rain, and we hung on to the tarp for a while longer until the storm passed and the clouds began to break. We took our chances and decided to head back to the tent, passing through the snow-flecked meadows and admiring the now mostly white mountain tops.

The hail continued to pound us as more thunder rumbled and now lightning flashed overhead. The landscape before us was gradually turning white with the volume of hail.

Thankfully only a small amount of hail and snow had fallen near the tent, and we shook the edges of the fly to clear it of the accumulated slush. We discussed our options for a few minutes but the snow and rain returned and we felt we needed to warm up, so we collected our stove and some food and walked on down the path to Taylor Cabin. It was now about 4 pm, nearly two hours after the storm first reached us, and a hot drink would be most welcome!

It didn’t take us long to reach the cabin and we opened up all the shutters to let in as much light as possible on this grey afternoon. We filtered water from the creek and set about making a much-needed mug of tea. Next, we pulled off our wet rain gear and hung it up around the cabin to dry, putting on our warmer layers now we were out of the elements. It worked, and it wasn’t long before we were feeling cosier and less shivery. The inside of the cabin was covered in graffiti, mostly written in permanent marker, some of it a record of past visitors, but some of it also offering advice to current visitors, such as requesting that mountain bikers respect the meadows by not taking shortcuts, and to treat the cabin with respect and keep it tidy. There was no doubt that the cabin was quite well looked-after, despite its general mustiness. We figured it saw a lot more use in the winter.

We made a much-needed mug of tea, put on our warmer layers, and it wasn’t long before we were feeling cosier and less shivery.

As we sipped our tea we laid out the map and discussed our options for the rest of the trip. We checked the weather forecast on the InReach and it wasn’t great. Our original plan was to return to North Cinnabar via the ridge we’d eyed up when we went exploring yesterday (which we later found out was called Ridge-O-Rama), camp in the upper meadows, and then hike back to the car the following day. However, the forecast meant that such a route wouldn’t be much fun as we’d be exposed to the weather the entire time and probably wouldn’t have any views. Instead we examined what it might take to walk back to the car in a single day by hiking down Taylor Creek and out along the logging road. It was certainly manageable, about 15 km in total, and it would be on an old mining and/or logging road the whole way so it would be easy walking as well. It just wouldn’t be as interesting. But it felt good to have a plan B in case the weather was as bad as forecast.

The rain eased off a little and some late afternoon sun filtered through the clouds, enticing us outside for some fresh air. The hermit thrushes were singing all around us, one of which briefly hopped down onto a nearby tree stump. Apart from that, the only sound was the rushing of the creek. Just another peaceful backcountry moment. We made dinner and brewed some more tea before repacking our food bags and closing up the cabin again. The rain had finally stopped and the clouds had even start clearing allowing us to walk back up the hill to the tent under mostly blue skies. We really enjoyed the walk, the evening was so still and quiet, and we took the time to enjoy the flowers in the meadows that we’d hurried past yesterday on our search for a camping spot. Moptops and valerian, arnica and lupine, along with white paintbrush bloomed in abundance around us and made the scruffy old mine workings and rusty oil drums look all the more incongruous.

A flash of red caught my eye and we followed its flight into a nearby tree – checking back at home, my bird book suggested it was most likely a pine grosbeak, a bird we’ve seen a couple of times before in subalpine areas. As we neared the tent, we could see the just-past first quarter moon in a clear blue sky above Camel Pass, while Taylor Peak had a perfectly-matching triangular shadow below its summit, cast by a peak on the opposite side of the valley. We walked on a bit further to hang our food bags in the trees before enjoying the last of the daylight on our return to the tent. The fly had sagged in the rain so we re-tensioned the guy ropes and put on a couple of extras to help brace against the wind and to keep the fly away from the inner (a persistent issue with this tent).

As we neared the tent, we could see the just-past first quarter moon in a clear blue sky above Camel Pass

We pulled off our rain gear and crawled back into the tent. The hike back uphill had warmed us up nicely and we made the most of it by getting into our sleeping bags as soon as we were inside. After getting so cold earlier it felt good to be warm and cosy! The remaining daylight faded and we settled down to a quiet night, hoping that it wasn’t going to be our last on the trail.

On to day 6….

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