Pump Peak, 14 Jan 2023

Opinion:

Mount Seymour is a fitting place to kick off our 2023 hiking season, especially to catch the sunset on a fine afternoon. Care is needed to stay on the trail when descending in the dark but the opportunity to see the city lights and a sky full of stars makes it worthwhile.

Fact

Day passes are needed to visit Mount Seymour in the winter. Despite the short notice, plenty of same-day passes were available. However, we still ended up parked down near the lower parking lot and so had an extra kilometre or so walk each way. Fortunately the road was fairly quiet as the snow was impossible to walk on. Be aware there are no streetlights along the road so it’s a good idea to carry some kind of light or wear something reflective to be seen more easily by descending car drivers.

The BC Parks park ambassadors had a shelter set up at the trailhead with info about the trail and avalanche conditions. Stop and say hello to them when passing – they’re friendly folk and there to help you out.

The winter route was marked by poles almost as far as Pump Peak, some of which were helpfully equipped with reflective tape, which made navigation by headlamp easy. The snow on the trail was churned up and mostly quite sugary; snowshoes were definitely not needed. Microspikes were helpful especially on the steeper sections and near Pump Peak where the snow had a slick icy crust on it. However, the crust wasn’t very supportive and we post-holed a lot when travelling off-trail, sometimes thigh-deep. Recent rain has washed away a lot of snow at lower elevations and there were multiple open creeks running – watch out for those at night!

No flora or fauna to report.- a couple of ravens near the parking lot but nothing once we were on the trail. Coming down in the dark didn’t help! However, a sign near the trailhead warned of a recent bear sighting (January 4) so they’re not all hibernating.

Distance: 10 km
Elevation gain: 590 m
Time: 4 h 50 m

Key moments

  • 😀 A fleeting moment where the last rays of sunshine lit up the peaks of Mount Baker, Shuksan, the Border Peaks, and Mount Slesse in a deep red
  • 😀 Lying in the snow admiring the emerging stars
  • 😀 Finding a sheltered spot out of the wind near the summit to watch the light fade over the city
  • 😀 Encountering a fully-lit Christmas tree on our descent, set up temporarily as a photography prop
  • 🙁 Nothing really :-) Maybe that the camera didn’t capture the colour of the red light on the mountain peaks – that was a little disappointing.

Story

The clouds had unexpectedly cleared over the North Shore mountains and we were surprised and pleased to be able to get an afternoon day pass to venture up Mount Seymour on our first hike of 2023. We picked up our friend Dawn and took the long slow drive across the city to reach the parking lot with plenty of daylight for our plans to get to Pump Peak for sunset. Although mild in the city (13 C!) a chilly easterly breeze hit us as soon as we opened the car doors and we were keen to get moving to avoid getting too cold.

An easy walk up the road saw us soon reaching the trailhead where we stopped for a quick chat with one of the park ambassadors before pushing our way through the throng of descending hikers to start the hike. We plodded up the trail in the crappy snow, soon putting on our microspikes to make our lives easier. The sunshine was becoming hazier and, although it still lit up the trees and snow, whatever warmth we’d felt in the city was dwindling fast.

We reached Brockton Point for a momentary breather before continuing on. A few of the mountains to the east were catching the afternoon sunshine, standing out like bright beacons, while Mount Baker was wearing a blanket of cloud and bathed in creamy light. Passing through the small meadow below the cliffs of Pump Peak, we crossed the open trickling creek on a narrow but solid little snow bridge, only a metre or so long and barely a snowshoe wide. The trail led us through small hemlocks then much bigger hemlocks to reach the Elsay Lake junction, whose signpost was now buried in the snow, before the steep climb up to the bowl below Pump Peak.

The cold wind caught up with us as we levelled off and I was quickly forced to pull on my jacket again. In fact I put on both jackets to stop myself from getting too chilly! We met a few people on their way down but the numbers had decreased significantly since Brockton Point, and by the time we neared the summit, it was clear we were one of the few groups to be up there. Maria led the way up through the bowl and off to the south side of the peak, punching steps into the crusty snow to reach one of the many small bluffs around the summit. We stopped here to admire the view of the city and the sinking sun, now only about 15 minutes from setting and mostly hidden behind a layer of high cloud. The cold wind made me glad of my extra layers.

We made our way over to the peak itself, traversing a steep icy slope by following someone else’s foot steps, before angling up to the top. I noticed some colourful clouds drifting over the peaks of Vancouver Island and planned to get a photo from the summit. That plan was short-lived as I glanced behind me and my jaw dropped: the tips of the peaks to the south were all bathed in a gorgeous deep red as the sun found a gap in the cloud layers and lit up the summits of Mount Baker, Shuksan, the Twin Sisters, Tomyhoi and the Border Peaks, and even Mount Slesse. I hurried up the slope and found a clear view, sitting down in the snow so I could keep the camera steady and willing my heart rate to come down after the sprint up the slope. What a glorious sight!

The summit was only a few metres away now and we walked the last steps to claim our prize, which we had all to ourselves – it was so cold and windy that no one else was daft enough to loiter. We took in the scenery around us, the remaining glow of the sunset reflected in the water of Burrard Inlet while the mountains to the east were cast in blue. We stayed long enough to snap a few photos before descending to find a sheltered spot behind some trees where we could rest and top up our energy levels. Above us, the first celestial bodies showed themselves – Jupiter by far the brightest with Mars not far behind, then the stars of the Summer Triangle setting in the west, and the familiar shape of Orion rising in the east. Out of the wind, it actually wasn’t too cold and we were able to snack in comfort as the day faded. Hot chocolate has quickly become my go-to source of warmth and comfort for winter hikes and it didn’t take me long to drain my thermos.

It seemed like it would be fun to continue our journey by completing the circumnavigation of Pump Peak, so we set off north over the crusty snow. Each step promised to hold our weight before the icy surface broke and we plunged through into the softer snow below, usually ankle deep but occasionally to our knees and higher. We skirted a small bowl and walked up to the shoulder north-east of the peak to admire the view before searching for the way down to pick up the trail again. In the half-light it was hard to judge distances or the steepness of the slope which made our way ahead look difficult, even a bit sketchy. Thankfully, a beaten trail traversed safely across the slope before turning down a small gully to reach the crossed poles that signalled the end of the marked trail.

We continued on down the trail, at first relying on whatever light remained, but soon switching on our headlamps for easier going. It was fun retracing our steps by the light of headlamps and we made good time, slowed down only by stopping to note the appearance of more stars as the sky darkened. By the time we reached Brockton Point the evening sky was full of familiar constellations – the Big and Little Dippers in the north, the W of Cassiopeia so obvious, Perseus, Andromeda, and the square of Pegasus overhead. Orion. Taurus, and Auriga lay to the east, along with the twin stars of Gemini. In the west, the tip of Cygnus showed above the clouds. I decided to try some long exposure photos using the snow as a makeshift tripod, initially pointing straight up to capture the Andromeda galaxy, but then turning my attention to the more photogenic constellations rising in the east. I soon found that icy snow did not make a good camera support as the camera slid around on it so easily. I took many half-minute photos only to find the camera had slipped during that time even when I thought I’d pushed it firmly into the snow. No matter – I did get a couple of photos I’m happy with, especially the one with Orion, Taurus, Mars and the Pleiades.

Maria had been taking Dawn on a tour of the stars above, the two of them lying out on the snow, but they were now a little chilly and it was time to continue our journey back to the car. We didn’t get far as we were stopped by the sight of a tree completely festooned in Christmas lights. A couple of hikers had brought up 300 feet of lights and carefully wrapped them around a small group of trees. It looked very festive, if perhaps a couple of weeks late! Not that we cared. We stopped and chatted with them for a while before one (Jason) asked if he could take our photo. Why not? The three of us posed in front of the tree for him and he was immediately able to share the photos, thanks to the magic of technology, which was really nice. I took a few photos of the tree as well, trying to get the city lights in behind too for perspective.

That was a fun little diversion but we were definitely feeling the cold now and hurried our way back down the trail, sometimes by the light of our headlamps, and sometimes just by the bright lights from the ski resort. While the ski runs were busy, the trail was deserted and we enjoyed the quiet hike back. We pulled off our microspikes as we reached the parking lot before walking the remaining distance back to the car. By the time we reached the hiker parking, we realized that 1) there were no street lights and 2) there were only 2 or 3 cars left! We had the idea of using the red-light setting on our headlamps to make it clear to car drivers that we were walking down the road. Soon we were back at the car, changing out of our boots and driving back down the mountain in search of dinner.

I’d say that was pretty good for the first hike of the year!

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