Mount Elsay, 27 Aug 2022

Opinion:
This was not a fun hike. “Rocks, roots, and misery” was our tagline. True, we picked a bad day to do it, hoping the clouds would lift but they never did. We also did it as an out and back ensuring we were subjected to the gruelling ascents and descents in each direction. I do not recommend doing it this way; it’s probably a loop/lollipop for a reason. The summit is nice and there are some delightful sections of trail but for the most part it’s more of an ordeal than a hike. Do not underestimate this destination and take plenty of water as there is nowhere to fill up along the way.

Fact
The summer parking lot is open and it made a nice change to be able to park close to the trailhead! Overnight parking is available in lot P2 (just outside the gate).

The trail was dry and easy to follow to the col between Tim Jones Peak (second peak) and Mount Seymour (third peak). The footbed was very rocky and uneven in places (I’d forgotten just how rocky it was). From the col, the trail descended 150 m in only half a kilometre before a short 50-m climb and another 150-m descent to the low point of the traverse among the boulders below Runner Peak. Beyond that point the trail climbed again for another 110 m before another (60-m) descent to the point where the route up from the Elsay Lake trail joined. Much of this section was decent but some sections were steep, slippery, and worn and required care. The route crossed two short but difficult boulder fields: look for cairns and flagging as guides. Do not expect to travel quickly along this section: it took us nearly 3 hours on the way out and over two on the way back (the ascents were much easier than the descents). Poles were very helpful, even if they did occasionally get tangled in the foliage. The final 200-m ascent to the summit was steep and required the use of hands and careful foot placement in places. Watch for flagging and don’t be misled by the turnoff towards Mount Bishop: keep going straight up.

There were no water sources along the way: no running creeks and only a couple of stagnant, muddy pools. We had two litres each and still ran out before the end of the hike. We met other groups who had long run out of water and were struggling as a result. Take more than you think you’ll need!

Flora was definitely showing the changing of the seasons. Most flowers were done with just a few Sitka valerian, pink heather, bleeding heart, arnica, copperbush, and partridgefoot hanging on. Fireweed and pearly everlasting were in full bloom near the trailhead. Blueberries and huckleberries were plentiful and were very tasty. Please take only a few: it’s been a bad food year for bears and they will need every berry they can find.

Wildlife was limited mostly to a few bird sightings such as ravens, whisky jacks, and juncoes. We heard pikas in all the rock piles and spotted one scampering up the slope next to one of the ski runs. Nice to see they’re still around! We also saw some very fresh bear scat on the trail, so take appropriate precautions, especially at this time of year.

Distance: 14 km
Elevation gain: 1450 m
Time: 9 h 25 m
Route on AllTrails

Key moments

  • 🙂 Delicious blueberries and huckleberries!
  • 🙂 The summit was a lovely area of open rock with a nice (if brief) view down to Elsay Lake
  • 🙂 Pikas! And ravens. Ravens are cool.
  • 🙂 Helping out a fellow hiker by giving him our surplus water
  • ☚ī¸ The trail was mostly quite unpleasant to hike – it was so disappointing
  • ☚ī¸ My knees felt tortured after the steep descents
  • ☚ī¸ Having no views at any point to relieve the tedium was demoralizing
  • ☚ī¸ Hiking the trail twice was not fun
  • ☚ī¸ Swarming black flies

Story
I suppose every hiking season has at least one trip where you scratch your head and ask yourself why you bothered. You slog through viewless forest for hours to reach a socked-in summit and have to muster every ounce of your stoicism reserves to not lose all composure and rail at the world. Maria and I both agreed that we would rather have relived our day of bushwhacking in the South Chilcotins with an overnight pack than do this hike. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves (especially as I haven’t even written about that trip yet!).

The forecast was mixed but promising; a cloudy, windy morning was due to give way to a sunnier afternoon. We didn’t feel like driving far and – against our better judgement – we opted for a North Shore hike. I’d long wanted to visit Mount Elsay having seen it so many times from Mount Seymour (as well as from our apartment), and managed to persuade Maria that it would be a worthy objective. We pulled into the cold and breezy parking lot at Mount Seymour, making the most of the fact that the summer parking allowed us to begin so much closer to the trailhead. The clouds billowed around us, with views coming and going as the mist drifted between us and the trees. I say views but I really mean just being able to see more than about 100 metres.

We set off up the trail and were reminded of what lay under the metres of winter snow: rocks. Lots of rocks. It wasn’t too hard to hike on but it wasn’t the easy trail of winter, and I did find myself wondering how it would feel to return on tired legs. We made short work of getting to Brockton Point and continued on towards Pump Peak, descending slightly before traversing a rocky bluff and dropping down into a small meadow. A lone tent was set up only a few metres off the trail on a rare patch of grass – not ideal, given the proximity to the trail which can only give the wrong impression for less experienced backpackers. (I’ve noticed the increase in casual backcountry camping in places such as this, which is a concern for popular parks when it comes to the lack of facilities for food storage and waste management.)

Our first decision point was at the turnoff to the Elsay Lake junction. We knew from the book description that taking that route involved a long descent and ascent on boulders, which I’ve heard/read many hikers complain about. Plus with the current lack of views I wondered if it would be too demoralizing to lose and regain all that elevation, so I suggested we do the hike as an out-and-back instead, hoping to avoid such a large loss of elevation. Plus, if we made it to Tim Jones Peak and decided that was far enough, then we could at least turn around easily. Well, that was the idea anyway, although it wasn’t really backed up by any facts…

So on we went towards Pump Peak, where the clouds showed no sign of parting, even if a little sunshine did make a very brief appearance. Trees ahead of us appeared and disappeared in the mist, which was cool to watch and made for atmospheric photos. As we descended into the bowl below Pump Peak, it looked for all the world that we were dropping off into the void. We were soon up alongside Tim Jones Peak and decided to keep going, down towards the ledges between second and third peaks, and then to the col where the trail to Mount Elsay turned off.

To our surprise the trail was obvious, marked by cairns and flagging tape, and we peeled off onto this new trail for us, descending steeply over rocks that followed an obvious water course. Down and down we went on the narrow path into the forest and traversed steep, slippery slopes lined with small trees and shrubs. This was tricky going and we slowed right down as we took care with our footing. On several occasions we were extremely grateful for those shrubs for support in negotiating awkward sections. Above us were the towering sheer granite cliffs of the west face of Mount Seymour, disappearing far above us into the clouds.

A brief respite from the downhill came in the form of a short, sharp climb over more roots and rocks to reach an open bluff below the north face of Mount Seymour. On a fine day this must be a beautiful place with gorgeous views. After all, it was some of my favourite subalpine terrain of mixed mountain hemlocks and heather. But not today, and with time pressing we couldn’t linger, and recommenced an even steeper descent that started out as a decent trail among blueberry bushes but soon became a tortuous and slippery clamber down through an eroded gulley.

Then the fun began; if by fun you mean finding a route through a pile of enormous boulders. We had reached the boulder field between Mount Seymour and Runner Peak, its upper reaches still buried in snow, with the peak itself hidden by low cloud. It was only short, but I have to say it was not easy to find a way through. Normally I quite enjoy boulder fields but these rocks were mossy and slick, with leg-breaking chasms between them which made me more than a little nervous! A trio of young guys had passed us on the descent just before the boulders but their inexperience led them on a long detour around the rocks while we followed the cairns to pick up the trail on the other side, flagging tape marking its entrance into the forest.

Of course that meant we had to climb again. And given that we had just reached the low point of the traverse, our climb would take us all the way to the summit. Yay. Ahem – once more with enthusiasm; yay! We ascended through more misty forest to reach another boulder field, thankfully much easier to cross, descending then climbing again to a shoulder. We paused here for a few minutes to check the map and were relieved to see we were close: at no time had we been able to see our destination so it was impossible – and a little disheartening – to judge how far we had to go. But alas, there was another bit of downhill (albeit one lessened by the sacrifice of a handful of blueberries and huckleberries) before the final climb to the summit.

As we reached the low point on the ridge, we could see open space down to our right marking the upper reaches of the boulder field crossed by the ascent from the Elsay Lake trail. I considered checking it out but to be honest I was too tired to take even a 10-metre detour, and so we began the steep climb to Mount Elsay. It wasn’t too bad to begin with, climbing on a soft trail-bed through some lovely forest filled with huge mountain hemlocks, but it soon became very steep. The route traversed below a cliff on a footbed of a couple of large boulders and a tree above a small but intimidating drop before following the rocks of a dry water course even more steeply upwards. We clambered up over these rocks, picking up a trail of sorts again higher up, and then rounding a corner to find ourselves at the base of open slabs leading towards the top.

Two of the same group of guys we’d seen earlier were sat on the slabs waiting for their friend whom we’d passed on our way up. (He was already looking done, and seemed to be in way over his head. But at this point we assumed his group was still looking out for him.) Funnily enough, the guys had got far ahead of us after we saw them below Runner Peak but we’d caught up with them again as they’d taken a wrong turn and started down the Elsay Lake trail. Fortunately they’d realized (maybe it was the big downhill?) and turned back the way to find the correct route up. I’m sure that didn’t help the straggler of their group.

Anyhow, back to the slabs. Let’s just say we’re glad they were dry! They were nice and grippy and we could walk up no problem. With the promise of the summit ahead of us we pushed on to the high point above us – only to be greeted by another boulder field. I think I let out a profanity or three at this final insult of an obstacle course between us and the summit cairn. But we had no choice, and we picked our way through the gleaming rocks to a spot a few metres from the cairn, dropped our packs and dug out our lunch. It was 2:25 pm; we’d been hiking for nearly five hours, just to get half way. Suddenly the prospect of a 10-hour day (as mentioned in the book) loomed very large in front of us and my heart sank. Another five hours from now would take us to near sunset.

But lunch was delicious, at least, and we both felt a little energized by the food, not to mention the bottle of Gatorade Maria had carried up with us. With our lunch devoured, we explored the summit area a little. A few small berry bushes had started the autumn colour show, the reds and oranges of their leaves standing out so brightly against the grey of the day. The clouds parted momentarily to offer a view down to the waters of Indian Arm and teased us with views of nearby ridges and peaks. I caught a glimpse of another body of water off the north side of the peak and it took a moment for me to realize I was looking at Elsay Lake itself; I had completely forgotten that we might see the lake from its eponymous summit. When I say “see” the lake, it was barely more than a few fleeting moments where its outline could be discerned through the mist. The clouds soon closed in again and we had no more views.

That, and the fact that it was now approaching 3 pm, meant it was time to begin our long return journey. Neither of us was looking forward to it. I felt that my out-and-back suggestion had backfired horribly as we now knew every difficult step ahead of us. Would we have taken so long on the Elsay Lake route? Would we be feeling as worn out? We’ll never know, but there was nothing else to do but get started. It was my fervent hope that the uphill climbs would feel easier than the descents. And by easier I merely mean less difficult, not easy. Every step would get us closer, and that was reassuring.

We picked our way carefully down the slabs (so very thankful that they were dry) and had just enough time to enjoy the lovely subalpine terrain around us before plunging back into the trees for the super steep descent. It was definitely steep, and tricky in places, but we took our time and it wasn’t too long before we were back down on the ridge, where I still couldn’t muster the energy or enthusiasm to check out the top of the boulder field. We climbed again through berry-laden bushes to the shoulder of Runner Peak, settling into a slow but steady rhythm, taking care on the descents and over the boulder fields – which were just as difficult on the return – and plodding up the climbs, doing our best to pace ourselves and keep moving. However, the bugs had made an appearance now the temperature had risen a little. Thankfully they were only sporadic but when present, the black flies were just swarming us. They were in our faces, in our eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I had to take off my glasses so I could wipe my entire face to rid it of all the flies. Somehow I managed to get away with only a couple of bites, but they got Maria right at the corner of the eye. It was a sobering and maddening reminder of why we don’t hike on the North Shore in the summer!

The trio of guys passed us again, though we met the straggler of their group sat at the edge of one of the boulder fields, looking distinctly worn out. We were a little concerned his friends weren’t showing more interest in his lagging behind, and they kept calling out to him. He was clearly too tired to respond. We offered him words of encouragement and continued on.

Beyond the Runner-Seymour boulders we made good progress, and passed another group that was having difficulty. A quick chat with them revealed that the trail was so much tougher than they expected, and one of their group was having muscle cramps. Alas we had nothing to help them so we had to let them make their own way slowly back. Up and up we went, passing through the bear-scat decorated hellebore and valerian patch from earlier, below the cliffs of Mount Seymour. I could sense we were getting close to the main trail again and I had to rein in my desire to get there quickly in order to keep us close together.

But then there it was: we were at the main trail and we gave out a tired little cheer. We clambered up the tree-roots and crossed the narrow ledges, climbing up to Tim Jones Peak where we stopped to top up our energy levels with a bar. As we were resting, the group of guys passed us – the first two exchanging a few words with us but the third was head down and didn’t even notice us. Not a good sign. As we made our way down into the bowl below Pump Peak, we found him sat on a rock again and we stopped to ask how he was doing. He had food but had run out of water, so we offered him some of ours, almost completely refilling his small water bottle – if that was all he had, he’d have run out hours ago, and he’s been hiking on a warm day with no water. No wonder he was struggling! He was extremely grateful for the water, and we were very glad to be able to offer it to him. It meant he’d get back to the car okay.

Feeling good about helping someone, we moved on with a bit of a spring in our step and made good time now that we were on the main trail. Down below Pump Peak, down to the Elsay Lake junction (where we met at least half-a-dozen backpackers on their way up – there were already two tents set up near Pump Peak – we have no idea where these other campers were thinking they’d be able to set up), into the meadow and back up to Brockton Point – the last climb of the day! Well not quite; the trail dropped down past a little pond and climbed back up to meet the ski run. As we turned onto the very recently graded run, a pika squeaked in the boulders to our left and we caught sight of it running up into the trees. Yay! After hearing a few in the other boulder fields, it was nice to see one.

And then it was the final descent to the parking lot (which wasn’t as bad as I had initially feared though the rocks did threaten to turn our ankles), back to the car where we dropped our packs and went into the washrooms to clean our hands and wipe the remains of any bugs off our faces. That felt good! Next stop was Earnest Ice Cream for a delicious pre-dinner dessert. We both had the lemon tart flavour – it was so good! Then home via a local pizza place and wine shop for our after-hike nourishment.

We felt beaten and exhausted, grubby from head to toe, our legs and ankles ached, and we wondered just why on earth we had even set out on that hike today. Sure, we had the sense of achievement, but there had been no real reward for the effort, no payoff – just difficult, borderline treacherous, hiking. The pizza and wine helped us forget about some of the discomfort, but as I write about it a day later, I’m still left scratching my head.

And my legs still ache.

5 thoughts on “Mount Elsay, 27 Aug 2022

  1. Goodness, that is a hard trail to do with no views!!

    You know, last time I did it, I thought maybe it’d be easier to go as an out and back (rather than the loop) but this makes it sound tough, whichever option you go with! I remember thinking those small bolder fields were easy-ish…but it might just be because the massive bolder field up from the loop was so exhausting in comparison.

    I feel like really gorgeous views help to re-energize hikers. So maybe the lack of views made this even tougher!?

    1. I think you’re right about the lack of views – it was hard to gauge progress so it just felt like it went on forever. But I think it was a genuinely tough trail – or maybe I’m getting soft :-) Having said I won’t do it again, there is a tiny part of me that wants to try it via the Elsay Lake route…

      1. Yeah, I have not heard the best things about that route… but I am still tempted!

        I also really want to go along to all the ecclesiastical peaks further along…

  2. Oh goodness that tagline definitely does not make it sound like an enticing hike at all. Sorry to hear about the flies/lack of views/unpleasant descents. :[ I feel like the lack of views would make the hike a whole lot worse (e.g. for Rae Lakes, I felt like I was dying but I was re-energized every time I looked around because it was so beautiful — had there been nothing to look at, I feel like I would’ve wanted to give up). The berries do sound nice though! I never come across those on mine!

    1. Haha – I wanted to write about the trip while I still felt it. I do want to try it again, on a day with views though – Josy has a much more upbeat description of that hike :-) Berries are definitely a nice treat at this time of year.

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