Hollyburn Mountain, 11 Dec 2022

Opinion:

It’s only been a fortnight since we were last up here but a lot can happen in that time in winter. Fresh snow always transforms even a familiar hike into a fun adventure. Early starts are mandatory for optimum peace and the best snow, although we got lucky today with our more leisurely timing and managed to beat the worst of the crowds that turned up later.

Fact

The parking situation at the Nordic skiing area on Hollyburn is far from clear. We were stopped by resort staff who inquired where we were going, and when I answered snowshoeing on Hollyburn, we were waved through and told to park further up the road. I was expecting to pull in next to the cars parking nose-in along the road. I’m not complaining – we got a spot barely 50 m from the trailhead. By the time we finished, cars were parked all the way down to the Cypress Bowl Road so our timing was good. There was a parking meter by the kiosk with the park map, but there was no indication that we should pay for parking – so we didn’t. The new washrooms were still under construction and only partially open, but there were plenty of (clean) portaloos.

The winter trail was marked as far as the top of the Romstad cross-country ski trail where the route up to Hollyburn leaves the forest and steepens. The upper Nordic trails were not yet open so some people walked along those. Snowshoes weren’t really needed today but I think the longer teeth on the crampons offered better grip compared with our microspikes, plus we benefited from the flotation as soon as we stepped off the compacted trail. There were plenty of hikers who seemed to be managing just fine in microspikes though. The snow was wet and heavy at lower elevations, with a bit of a weak crust. Near the summit, the snow was much lighter with a layer of hoar crystals and much more fun to wade through. We rarely sank in more than a few inches.

Wildlife sightings were the usual ravens and whisky jacks plus a flock of dark-eyed juncoes at the summit. We saw snowshoe hare tracks in the snow.

Distance: 6.5 km
Elevation gain: 450 m
Time: 2 h 40 m

Key moments

  • πŸ˜€ Having a raven follow us along the trail, flying from tree to tree, while making little barking sounds
  • πŸ˜€ Being eye-to-eye with an expectant whisky jack, close enough to get an almost full-frame picture with my cell phone
  • πŸ˜€ Having the fresh snow on the east spur off the summit all to ourselves
  • πŸ˜€ Witnessing the most sublime diffuse light through the trees and on the snow
  • πŸ˜€ Seeing a fogbow!
  • πŸ˜€ Catching a glimpse of the Lions floating on a bed of mist
  • πŸ™ Just the usual pick-up-after-your-dogs and control-your-dogs rants… :-)

Story

I just did not feel like going out this morning. The weather was gorgeous, much better than forecast, and I watched the North Shore mountains catch the glorious first light of the day, but I wasn’t feeling inspired. It took me an inordinate amount of time to pull together my gear and set up hot drinks for the hike. And even standing at the front door, ready to leave, if Maria had expressed any doubts I would have been happy to call it quits before leaving the apartment. But we persisted and had a quiet drive up to Cypress Bowl. That is until we joined the end of a stationary line of traffic waiting to get into the downhill ski area. Our plan had been to hike up to Black Mountain and enjoy a simple yomp in the snow on the plateau, but we quickly changed plans to Hollyburn, even though it was only two weeks since our last visit.

We were stopped by a resort staff member who wanted to know what our intentions were. I said Hollyburn; to which he asked, snowshoeing? I nodded, and he instructed us to head further up to park rather than pull in next to the other parked cars. We were puzzled by this and drove on, unsure of exactly where to park – we certainly didn’t want to go to the farthest parking area as that’s usually reserved for Nordic skiers. Thankfully, a roadside space was available near the park map kiosk and we pulled into it. A pretty good spot it was too, perhaps only 50 metres from the trailhead. So far, our change of plan was working out well.

Today was the day to finally make use of our brand new snowshoes that we’d bought a month too early (we would have saved over $100 had we waited). After walking a short way up the trail, we stopped and slipped our feet into them, enjoying the nice new – and flexible! – bindings, and eager to try them out on some fresh snow. It had been over nine months since we were last on snowshoes! We set off up the trail, crunching away on the compacted snow and passing a few slower groups as we climbed the steep hill. So far I wouldn’t say we needed our snowshoes but we didn’t care. We were just happy to be outside.

We followed the hard-packed trail along its winter route, the cross-country ski runs now roped off, occasionally wandering off trail to allow descending hikers to pass, most of whom seemed to be wearing microspikes. The trail was narrow with only a person-width of compacted snow to walk on, and while trail etiquette suggests that downhill hikers yield, it was easier and friendlier for us to make the detour. Plus sometimes it’s just not worth making an issue of it. We plodded on up the trail, soon shedding a layer as we warmed up. The day was mild, the drips from the trees clearly indicating the temperature was above freezing.

Being up the snow was proving to be the right move and we enjoyed meandering through the freshly-coated trees, the forest softened and simplified by the undulating layers of snow. It didn’t matter that we’d done this trail so many times; it’s not the past that counts, only the present. A raven gave out a little barking call from a tree above us, flying on as we walked up the trail, keeping us company almost as far as the base of the main climb. I wasn’t sure if it was really following us but it certainly felt that way. Every time it landed it gave out a series of calls, interspersing the soft barks with sounds I find impossible to describe, all the while with its hackles all fluffed up. I recorded a short video clip of it making these sounds – it’s worth a listen here on my YouTube channel.

We emerged from the forest at the base of “The Climb”, for want of a better description, where the marked trail joins the broad open slope that leads to the summit. We paused to drink some water before pushing on, following a switchbacking path in the snow for a while, then making our own when it ran out or headed up steeper terrain. Ahead of us lay tantalizing patches of blue sky, luring us onwards with the promise of a view. But I wasn’t going to get my hopes up, as we’ve been in this situation before and seen precisely nothing. The sun was struggling to pierce the thick cloud, casting a soft light over everything. Behind us there was no suggestion a city even existed. It was all very peaceful.

The Climb can be broken down into three roughly equal sections with level areas between them that provide a welcome spot to catch your breath. It also makes it easier to pace yourself and assess progress. We paused momentarily at the first level spot before pushing on up into softer snow that made us glad to be wearing our snowshoes. At the second level spot, I paused to take a picture of a photogenic patch of snow-covered trees, ones that we had used for our family Christmas card last year. Ahead lay the steepest part of the climb which prompted us to use the heel lifts on our snowshoes to make the walking easier. They made such a huge difference, though when the ground levels off it becomes what I imagine walking in high heels must feel like!

The steepness of the climb always challenges many hikers, and today was no exception thanks to the soft snow. While we hadn’t really needed our snowshoes on the trail lower down, they really came into their own on this final ascent and we pushed up the slope with relative ease. Near the top we avoided the direct path to the top where most people were going and took a different route that brought us to a mostly untouched open meadow to the east of the summit area.

Wow! It was stunning! The untracked snow looked pristine while the soft two-tone light cast pale shadows across its surface. They were a photographer’s dream conditions – diffuse sunlight to provide direction, mist to lend depth, and a mix of warm and cool colours for tonal contrast. We set about taking photos, enjoying the beauty of the scenes around us. Who needs a view when you have conditions like this? Even better, ahead of us we could make out a faint fogbow, something we’ve only seen once or twice before.

Every step produced a new photo, a new set of shapes and textures. I didn’t want to disturb the snow too much so others could enjoy it and we followed a line of existing snowshoe tracks over to the summit area, dropping our packs at the view of the Lions where only a couple of others had stopped. Maria beckoned me over quickly to see the view: the most tantalizing of glimpses of the familiar twin peaks seeming to float on a layer of cloud. We fired off a couple of quick photos but the mist had closed in completely by the time I changed lenses and the view was gone. Meanwhile the fogbow formed a perfect ghostly semi-circle against the blue sky beyond as the mist swirled higher.

I had planted my hiking poles in the snow and within seconds one was being used as a perch by an expectant whisky jack. Of course it was getting nothing from me, but it sat there eyeing me up for some time, long enough for me to get close enough with my cell phone to get a photo in which it nearly filled the frame! It was too close for me to use the telephoto lens on the camera so I had to take a couple of steps back to take any more photos. It hopped down onto my thermos of hot chocolate at which point I waved it away since I was about to drink from it. I dug out the Clif bars from my pack, which attracted attention from the jays again, and proceeded to eat mine taking much care to ensure I didn’t leave an opening for a camp robber to swoop in and grab some. They’ll sneak in when you’re not looking, and with half a dozen of them flying around, taking turns at perching in nearby trees there’s a real sense of feeling surrounded. Thankfully we were both able to eat our snacks and sip our hot drinks without losing any to the hungry birds.

The view of the Lions never returned despite my fervent hopes, and the temptation was to hang around for a bit longer, just in case it showed. But we decided it wasn’t likely and started the reluctant walk back, crossing the small summit plateau, past the throng that had settled on the tiny summit, and began our descent into the mist, a light drizzle now falling. As we picked our way down the steep slope, we found ourselves descending into thickening grey cloud that looked dull and gloomy rather than atmospheric, all signs of the sun now gone. The drizzle covered our glasses and made it so hard to see that we both took them off – it was making it feel even gloomier!

We were soon down at the bottom of The Climb (which I guess should be called The Descent when approached from this angle), having passed a good many hikers still on their way up, and turned back into the trees. The gloom subsided somewhat as we descended and we found ourselves quietly enjoying the meandering trail as it led us through the forest again. For some people it’s undoubtedly a boring, viewless stretch of trail that never seems to end but to us it was a lovely path through the trees that I didn’t want to end.

As we reached Triangle Lake, we thought we’d check out the short-cut that follows the creek draining the small pond. We skirted its edge as we could see the middle still looked slushy and unfrozen, and picked up the creek at the southern end. For us on snowshoes, the going was easy, even with a couple of large dips that hadn’t yet filled in – a pair of hikers in just their boots were having a tougher time, sinking in and punching through the snow every few steps. I knew from one of our previous trips that it would probably not be a good idea to take this route without snowshoes. We emerged back onto the trail and traipsed our way down the final stretch, climbing briefly before the last descent back to the parking lot. We unstrapped our snowshoes and walked the last few metres to the car.

Despite not hurrying, it had only taken an hour to get back down to the car. We changed out of our boots and headed for home, driving past the now-filled parking lot, feeling relaxed, refreshed, and restored. It was so worth pushing through the way I felt earlier and coming up here this morning. And sometimes it’s not about the views; it’s about the moments.

One thought on “Hollyburn Mountain, 11 Dec 2022

  1. Great story! Thanks for the reminder that, in spite of winter’s challenges, getting out in it offers sublime rewards. Happy holidays!

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