St Marks Summit, 29 Jan 2022

Opinion:
Possibly my least-favourite North Shore hike, at least in the summer. But when the snow is right and the weather isn’t good enough to tempt you up to a better summit, it can be a fine way to get some fresh air and exercise with a pretty good view at the end. However, I do not recommend this hike for inexperienced hikers in winter as it is not marked (even though summer markers are usually still visible), it crosses several avalanche paths, and traverses steep snow slopes where a slip could lead to serious injury or worse. Be sure you have the knowledge and gear to tackle this hike safely in winter.

Fact
We parked in Lot 3b as usual – the free lot for backcountry travellers – which was much less busy today than last week, probably due to the less-inviting weather. We had no issues getting backcountry access passes at the old lodge and the resort staff were friendly and waved us through when we showed them. The avalanche rating was low at all levels today.

The snow near the lodge was probably the worst I’ve ever tried to walk in – it was like walking over deep, soft sand. Yuck! That snow made is hard to cross the ski slope in a safe and timely manner and it was only once we reached the trail that we could walk normally again. The trail was hard-packed and icy in the morning with a thin churned-up layer on top, becoming a little softer/slushier by the afternoon. Microspikes weren’t need on the flat but were essential once we began to climb towards Bowen Lookout. Beyond the lookout, the trail was no longer marked with poles and there were stern warning signs advising against hiking to St Marks. I recommend that inexperienced hikers take heed and turn around at Bowen Lookout.

The route through to and beyond Strachan Meadows was easy to follow, both due to the trail markers and the obvious track in the snow. Care was needed as we reached the first bump on the ridge as the route wasn’t obvious – the summer trail markers were invaluable here. The final ascent to St Marks involved a short traverse across a steep, icy snow slope where a slip would have been very bad. It was also easy to lose the trail on the various switchback sections as some people had carved shortcuts through the snow, often on steep slopes.

Microspikes or crampons were needed at all times; the nature of the icy snow, the narrow path, and steep slopes made snowshoes inadvisable today. Most hikers we met had microspikes or crampons, a few were making do with their snowshoes. Two hikers had nothing and weren’t even wearing winter footwear and claimed they would turn around if things got too dicey for them.

We met perhaps a fifteen to twenty hikers on the route to St Marks; Bowen Lookout was clearly the more popular destination and we met probably three times as many on this section alone.

Ravens kept us company today – a few by the parking lot, a group of half-a-dozen near the Yew Lake turnoff, and one or two soaring near St Marks. We also heard what may have been kinglets in the trees at one point. (Bowen Lookout probably had whisky jacks and Steller’s jays but we skipped it today.)

Distance: 14 km
Elevation gain: 610 m
Time: 5:20
Route on AllTrails

Key moments

  • πŸ™‚ Watching a raven soar on the wind at the viewpoint
  • πŸ™‚ Quiet hiking in the forest surrounded by giant hemlocks
  • πŸ™‚ Reaching the first viewpoint and gaining that view down to Howe Sound and across to the mountains beyond
  • πŸ™‚ Enjoying a nice chat with a fellow hiker at Strachan Meadows
  • ☹️ So much dog poop along the Yew Lake portion of the trail :-(
  • ☹️ Car trouble…

Story
We’ve been lucky so far this winter with either great snow or great weather on every trip since mid-December. But the mountains haven’t received any fresh snow in over two weeks, and a cloudy day couldn’t inspire us to revisit any of our usual summits, so we had to think about less-visited destinations. St Marks Summit soon came to mind as it doesn’t need great weather although it does need stable snow conditions – two things we knew for certain we’d have on Saturday. Our friend Gabriela had got in touch about getting together and so we met at the free parking lot in Cypress Bowl (after a brief delay due to a car issue that turned out to be not cheap to fix but at least wasn’t serious).

The three of us set off along the road to the main downhill area, making light work of the distance and picking up our backcountry passes at the old Black Mountain Lodge. From there we headed for the Backcountry Access Corridor that would take us to the Black Mountain and Yew Lake trails. In so doing we had to walk through the worst snow we’ve ever encountered. The footsteps of hundreds of skiers and hikers had turned the snow to the consistency of sugar or soft sand which was exhausting to walk through, even though it was barely 100 m!

Thankfully we were soon on the trail and took the fork to Yew Lake, startling a group of ravens as we passed. The trail meandered along the edge of Yew Lake and led us around to an open meadow before disappearing into the forest of the hemlock grove, a wonderful intact stand of mature western hemlock trees. It only took a couple of minutes to pass through the grove before we emerged onto an old logging road which we followed for a short distance. We paused briefly at a bridge to pull on our microspikes and began climbing the zig-zagging trail towards Bowen Lookout. We ignored the turnoff to the lookout and instead continued on past a sternly-worded sign warning that travel beyond was not recommended, due to the trail being unmarked and passing through avalanche terrain. I was hoping that these warnings would put off the majority of inexperienced hikers.

Immediately the path in the snow narrowed to a couple of boots wide which suggested that not too many people were venturing on to St Marks, although I’m sure a sunnier day would have drawn more. We turned onto the Howe Sound Crest Trail, stopping to admire the wonderful view of the Lions through the trees. The trail led us downhill for a short distance before traversing the steep north-facing slopes of Mount Strachan. Fortunately, enough hikers had passed to etch out a flat path for us to walk on so we didn’t have to sidehill over the slope. We crossed one gully, then another bigger one that would pose a significant avalanche hazard under less stable conditions. Not long after we emerged onto my nemesis slope, a 35-degree snow-covered slope that I once froze on, unable to go forwards or backwards on the icy surface. Thankfully, today a path led over the snow and we crossed with ease, though the memory of being stuck there with a long runout into the trees below still made me shiver.

A few minutes later we reached Strachan Meadows at the base of Christmas Gully and stopped to sip some water. A hiker returning from St Marks stopped to chat and we enjoyed a nice conversation about snow conditions, the glorious sunrise, broken snowshoes, and hiking in general. As we parted ways a group of four passed us and promptly stopped, unsure of where to go. That immediately made me a little concerned: this trail is not a place to get lost in winter. The hiker we’d been chatting with offered some help and they turned the right direction. We carried on and soon passed the group again and plunged back into the forest heading for the first major climb of the day. (Well, second if you include the switchbacks up to Bowen Lookout.)

The teeth of our microspikes crunched into the icy snow as we walked, offering us a secure footing as we traversed the west-facing slope of the ridge. Today was definitely not a day for snowshoes, given that the trail across the slope was essentially a series of steps in the snow, big enough for boots but not really big enough for snowshoes to sit squarely on the snow – although we did see a few people wearing them, and they seemed to manage but it must have been uncomfortable. I’ve hiked these slopes in snowshoes before and the grip offered by the microspikes was far more reassuring. It was also far less tiring as our ankles were not constantly under stress from the snowshoes inability to lay flat as we crossed the slope.

After the traverse came the first big zig-zagging climb to a small forested summit where we paused again to catch our breath and drink more water. We picked up the trail again and soon found ourselves more or less back at the point where we’d just had a break. Wait, what? What happened there? An obvious foot-track in the snow and a trail marker had led us around in a circle which puzzled me as I’d seen trail markers from where we’d stopped. Well that’s what you get for following footprints rather than identifying where the trail goes. And that’s a trio of experienced hikers making that mistake! We tried again and this time spotted a trail marker and noted that the obvious route where others had walked was definitely not so obvious here, thanks to being partially hidden behind a small tree we had to push past.

We descended slightly to reach an obvious ridge where the ground fell away steeply on both sides, the snow highlighting the curve of the slope. The snow was quite shallow here and bare ground was exposed around the base of many of the trees. It wasn’t obvious today but on previous trips I’ve seen evidence that this section gets wind-scoured, hence the shallower snowpack. Bright orange trail markers guided our way onwards through this stand of giant western hemlock trees. As I mentioned in my Opinion above, this is not my favourite hike but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. The forest here escaped logging and has many enormous mature hemlocks, some of the biggest we’ve seen, along with the usual Douglas fir and red cedar. Several trees had hollows in them, undoubtedly good nesting spots for owls or other wildlife.

The ridge narrowed and came to an end, forcing us to begin climbing again, and we found ourselves traversing the steep western slope (the eastern slope is in the Vancouver watershed so it’s out of bounds). A short section (50 m or so) was relatively exposed in the sense that a slip could lead to a long slide that would probably only be stopped by the trees below. (Did I mention how big the trees were?) The route was a series of steps rather than a continuous path and once again I was thankful for the security of my microspikes which made it quite easy to get through that section.

We turned into the first switchback and moved away from the steepest slopes, wending our way up to rejoin the main line of the ridge. The terrain was still steep and we had to take care to follow the intended switchbacks and not be tempted to do what others had done and walk straight up the slope. It’s just so much easier to take the more gradual ascent! A short distance later we crested the climb and emerged into subalpine forest, more open and now dominated by (yellow?) cedar and mountain hemlock. The trail continued along the ridge through what is a pocket meadow in summer, often muddy and buggy.

Another short climb and we were soon at the first overlook at St Marks where we slowly approached the edge to get that now-Instagram famous view over Howe Sound. The scene before us was vast, the water, landscape, and distant mountains tinged a hazy blue below the grey clouds. It all looked so calm. We admired it for a few minutes before moving on to the rocky outcrop a short distance away. The snow was icy but still soft enough to kick in steps where needed, which was good because the ground gets a little steep near those rocks.

A trio of hikers was already at this overlook, taking in the stunning and scary view below. A chill breeze found us, forcing us to step back into the shelter of some small trees for our early lunch. Today we’d brought a Thermos of tomato soup, the warmth of which was extremely welcome and we polished it off in no time. And then we sat for a while, just enjoying where we were. The other hikers left, a couple more also came and went, and we savoured the quiet time here in the mountains.

I wandered about taking photos as usual, checking out the terrifying drop more or less straight down to the water 1300 metres below. We could see the Sea to Sky highway winding its way towards Lions Bay and ferries coming and going into Horseshoe Bay. Bowen Island and other nearby islands decorated the open water, while Vancouver Island was visible on the horizon. Wisps of grey reached down from the clouds above us, hinting at the change of weather to come, and we felt the day had become greyer even in the short time we’d been sitting here. Despite the clouds, the muted shades of the day leant a real sense of calm. That and the fact that very few hikers had ventured this far today!

Focusing a little closer, I was hoping to catch the raven that kept soaring past on the breeze, seemingly just over our heads. I didn’t need to wait long and on one its passes it landed in a nearby tree, looked at us, and then swooped down onto the snow in search of leftovers. I followed it with the camera as it crept around until another hiker arrived and it took off. By now we’d all cooled off and decided it was time to get moving again. We’d heard the group of four hikers arrive earlier and they seemed content with the view from the first viewpoint before turning around and heading back. I was glad to see they’d made it.

As we retraced our steps I suggested we go visit the actual peak of St Marks Summit. I’ve explored it once before on a summer trip and, well, let’s just say it’s shrubby! With snow on the ground we’d be able to avoid that and see what views there were. We left the trail and crossed an open slope with a fine view of the Lions before climbing up through the trees into another open meadow. My hopes weren’t especially high that there would be a view and that was good because there really wasn’t much of one. Maria and Gabriela made their way to the high point in the trees while I tried to find a view, eventually spotting Mount Baker through a gap in some cedars, enough to get a photo provided I stood in exactly the right spot, and ducked down a little. Another peek-a-boo view offered a glimpse of the summits of Mount Strachan. So, not much to see really, and we followed our footsteps back to the trail and began the return journey.

The sun was struggling to break through the clouds, a bright orb surrounded by a blanket of grey cloud, but we knew it wasn’t going to happen today. Still, we absorbed the light before plunging back into the forest. At least the snow helped keep up the light level so it never felt dark or dingy. Descending the steep snow required care and we had to pay attention to follow the best path. It was too easy to follow where others had been, short cuts and slides were everywhere, but I wasn’t keen on slipping here and sought out the most likely switchbacking option instead.

We enjoyed the walk back more than the outward journey as we weren’t having to work so hard. In fact, the travel was really quite easy in this direction, thanks to the grip offered by our microspikes. We followed the route back down, traversing the steep slopes that disappeared below us, and re-crossed the ridge of many hemlocks. (That’s not its real name: I just made that up.) A few more groups of hikers passed us on their way to the viewpoint, all of whom looked to be well equipped for the conditions.

We made good time back to Strachan Meadows, stopping to top up our water levels again and admiring the Christmas Gully route up to Mount Strachan. I felt like I had the energy to try it out, and today would have been a good day for ascending it, but I suspect it was an illusion and I’m sure I would have run out of steam half way up. Plus we would have been breaking our own trail on the descent which would have been far more difficult than simply walking along the hard-packed snow we were enjoying at the moment.

As we got nearer to the start of the unmarked trail, we started meeting more groups heading out, including one pair who were most definitely not equipped for the conditions. I couldn’t help myself and asked if they had microspikes – of course the answer was no, but they assured me they’d turn around if it got too sketchy. A likely story, but what can you say? I can only hope they did actually learn something – you can’t force people to take notice – this isn’t a route to underestimate in winter. Still, I felt better having at least said something and they were perfectly fine about it, no attitude or anything (unlike the times I’ve suggested not feeding the wildlife…).

It wasn’t long before we made the final climb back to the sign board at the start of the Howe Sound Crest Trail, where we turned to look back at the Lions one last time before heading on to rejoin the throngs on the Bowen Lookout trail. And – oh my fairy godmother – were there throngs…. I don’t think we appreciated just how quiet it was on the trail to St Marks! Well, not much to do but get a move on and pass some groups where we could. The snow had been churned to sugar over the past few hours and it was now terrible to walk on. We scooted down the switchbacks, pausing briefly to admire some sapsucker holes on some alder trees, before heading back through the hemlock grove to pick up the trail around Yew Lake.

So many people! I really had to work hard to tune them out and we yomped our way back to the ski area, crossing the runs and passing by the lodge once more, where the snow was even worse than earlier – which was hard to believe! We couldn’t wait to get out of there and it was such a relief to get off the snow so we could relax and just walk normally again. Much better!

We passed the mostly empty parking lots – clearly the skiers aren’t fond of icy snow – and were soon back at the car. We changed footwear and parted company, though Gabriela followed us to make sure we didn’t run into any car problems on the way back into town. Thankfully we were fine and we waved goodbye as we turned onto a side street. A few minutes later we got caught in the snarl of traffic from an anti-vaccine protest drive and we groaned as we had to endure so much idiocy for a few very slow blocks.

But it wasn’t too long before we were home. It had been a really enjoyable day out; quiet and calm, with great hiking conditions, and it confirmed in my mind that a day like today is the best time to visit St Marks Summit.

5 thoughts on “St Marks Summit, 29 Jan 2022

  1. What a fantastic adventure and stunning views, especially the view over Howe Sound. A great read with an explicit description of St. Mark Summit. I am so glad to follow your blog. I am excited to read more about your outdoor adventures.

  2. Interesting that you’re not a fan of the hike – it’s the one that I really regret not doing while I was in Vancouver! Really hoping I can make it next time. Regardless of the weather, your views from the top are still stunning! Must be a very different challenge in the winter, especially with your Blair Witch Project-esque experience haha.

    1. It is a great view, it’s just not a great hike – in the summer it’s ridiculously popular and a good portion of the trail is over some of the worst roots and mud on the North Shore. Also it’s a hot spot for Instagram bird/chipmunk feeding and to be honest they’re a damn nuisance – I spend more time chasing them off than enjoying the view. Yeah, definitely has a more remote feel in the winter, and it’s always nice to be somewhere that feels far from the city!

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