Stein Valley traverse

August 29 – September 4
Participants: Elisa Bjerre, Cassandra Elphinstone, Vincent Hanlon, Birgit Rogalla

Day 1 — Trailhead to Lean-To camp
Written by Elisa

To our surprise we found ourselves at the trailhead of the Stein Valley Traverse near Lytton just a little past noon on Monday the 29th of August. Considering the obstacles we had faced since we headed out early that morning, the four of us were quite lucky to have come so far (actually to have come anywhere at all). But the obstacles were of a different kind than you would normally expect on a hike: they included nearly missing the bus, a furious bus driver refusing to take our backpacks on board due to lack of “mandatory luggage tags” (something which Greyhound seems to keep as a secret requirement until departure), and on top of this Highway 1 was closed causing a detour.

We eventually arrived in Lytton where it was dry, warm and sunny. Eager to get going as far as possible we headed towards the trailhead 8 km away. Within minutes of walking through the small town, we were offered a lift from a lady who told us we resembled her son and three daughters. She took us all the way to the trailhead which included crossing the Fraser River on a stream-driven ferry. As a foreigner in this country I keep being reminded how friendly and helpful Canadians are!

The trail was easy and the weather fantastic as we hiked our way up along the Stein River, enjoying the desert-like forest and the ancient rock paintings. We ended up cooking at Lean-To Camp in the dark that night as we had somehow walked past the intended campsite and walking back did not seem appealing. Cassandra Elphinstone was entertaining with terrifying stories about her numerous polar bear encounters this summer on Ellesmere Island. Vincent Hanlon and Birgit Rogalla enjoyed their shepherd’s pie, the first of many to come. Food-coordination is recommended.

Start of the hike along Stein river

Start of the hike up the valley along the Stein river.

Looking back along the valley                   Camp day 1

Day 2 — Lean-To camp to Logjam camp
Written by Vincent

There were lovely forests and riverbanks on the next day’s hike beyond Lean-To Camp, but unfortunately the massive mountains that surround that part of the valley were high out of sight. Beyond the Cottonwood Creek crossing the trail goes through an old burn, which apparently used to be choked with gargantuan fireweed. Since the whole trail was meticulously cleared this summer, from the trailhead to Stein Lake and even beyond, this is no longer a problem. The trail is obvious and open, and if you touch a plant it’s because you want to.

Walking along the Stein river                         Lunch beach

We met some military-looking guys along the trail with absolutely massive packs and a funny way of talking. They stopped to talk with our motley crew: Cussin’ Cassandra, Expectoratin’ Elisa (that’s Elisa Bjerre, by the way), Venal Vincent, and — well, Birgit had a nickname too, but I’ve forgotten it. They were preoccupied with bears (“I seen a bear down at the Logjam Camp”), and must also have doubted whether our thigh muscles were as fearsome as our names, because they told us at great length how hard the trail ahead was (“You’ll find it pretty rough up there, right”). At lunch that day, swimming from a gravel bar in the Stein, something happened that did make the trail much, much harder: Vincent lost the soap. Everyone (else) regretted it for many days. After lunch, blister taping begun.

The first of many blister tapings

The first of many blister tapings.

Arriving at Logjam Camp, we pottered around on the logjam, ate, and inconvenienced a bear that wanted to cross the river on the logs but preferred to avoid walking through our campsite (despite the mouthwatering smell of shepherd’s pie that might have masked the less-than-mouthwatering smells of the four of us). Though it may seem like a casual decision, stopping at Logjam Camp was essential to our psychological well-being. On many trips, the farther campsites are the site of unspeakable horrors suffered at the paws of pack rats. We do not speak their names.

Day 3 — Logjam Camp to Stein Lake
Written by Cassandra

After lying in the tent enjoying the sunshine for a couple minutes, Elisa and I decided to wake up Vincent and Birgit. Little did we know it would be the last night on the trip we would be able to sleep with the fly off the tent and enjoy sunshine in the morning. After breakfast, Birgit began the morning routine of bandaging Elisa’s blisters. Using tincture of benzoin and creating some padding around the blister, enabled Elisa’s feet to survive the company of her mountaineering boots for the entire trip (~100km). Amazing!

After seeing the bear the night before, we were on the lookout for exciting wildlife. Not long after leaving camp our hopes were fulfilled when we spotted an impressive caterpillar. It was 5-7cm long and bright green with red spikes. I had never seen anything like it before.

The caterpillar!

The caterpillar!

At lunch Birgit discovered that her brie cheese bagel had become slightly furry. We encouraged her to eat it with stories of old French cheeses but this may not have been the best choice… She regretted it for the next few days.

The hiking was beautiful! We continued to head up the Stein Valley towards Stein Lake. This was the first time we began to gain some elevation. We could look back and see where we had started and we could begin to see where we were headed. This trip is interesting partly because of all of the ecosystems it passes through. Starting in the dry desert like ecosystems, this was the first day we began to hike through more temperate rainforests. The timing of the weather seemed to match the ecosystems we were passing through. It began to rain quite hard as we entered the rainforest. Addition by Birgit: both Cassandra and Vincent can identify a fair amount of tree and plant species, and thus many hours were spent hearing about their interesting descriptions of the ecosystems and plants that were out of the ordinary.

The last few kilometers before Stein Lake we were discouraged by the rain. We debated if we were on the right trail and even stopped to check the GPS. Throughout the entire trip the distances mentioned in the guide book seemed deceptive; sometimes far too short and at other times far too long. We continued along the trail we were on and after what felt like forever we did reach Stein Lake. When we arrived the rain miraculously stopped so we could set up our tents and cook dinner without getting any wetter.

Heading into the mountains and the rain

Heading into the mountains and the rain.

The trail to Stein Lake from Lytton had recently been cleared and fixed up. Vincent pointed out  that some of the bridges had been created by cutting down large old growth trees! Whoever had done this had been very skilled with the chainsaw. They selected massive trees growing alongside some of the creeks and managed to topple the trees across the creek to form a bridge. I was surprised they were allowed to do this in a provincial park…

Spruce trees used as a bridge

Spruce trees used as a bridge.

Day 4 — Elton Lake day trip
Written by Cassandra

We woke up to weather looking a bit better and decided to try to hike up to Elton Lake. While eating breakfast I noticed a “Camp Qwanoes 2016 Getting Started” balloon in the middle of our campsite. At first I figured that it must have been brought here by someone but none of us had noticed it the day before. Finally we decided that must have floated over from Vancouver Island and landed in our campsite overnight. It amazes me that a small balloon could travel that far and by chance land in our campsite.

Balloon that floated to camp

Balloon that floated to camp.

The guide book said to follow the ridge south of the campsite to get to Elton Lake. We started up on the trail to the helipad and from there it was reasonably straight forward to follow the ridge. Occasionally there were bits of clear trail and a couple of cairns. When we had nearly reached the elevation of the lake it began to pour rain again. Although it was wet we continued up through meadows of blueberries and black huckleberries. The berries here were ripe and delicious significantly slowing our progress up the ridge. Eventually we reached the alpine and the density of berries declined resulting in a quick increase in our pace.

After a quick stroll through some alpine meadows we found ourselves looking down at Elton Lake. The colour of the lake colour was unreal! I had never seen anything like it before; it was an incredible blue colour that contrasted with the surrounding orange/red rock. After admiring the lake and glaciers behind it (and building an inukshuk), we eventually decided to head back down to our campsite to have time for an enjoyable dinner and lots of sleep before climbing into the alpine with our packs the following day.

Elton lake

Elton lake; the colours are not exaggerated!

                   Building an Inukshuk to remember people

We headed back down careful to stay on the correct ridge leading back to our camp. Before reaching Stein Lake we lost the “trail” for a while but we still found a way down. That evening we enjoyed a warm dinner and were lucky (as we seemed to be every night) that it was not raining in the evening.

Day 5 — Stein Lake to Tundra Lake
Written by Birgit

This was the promised ridge walk with a fair amount of elevation gain. We started early, left camp and arrived at the cable car crossing of the rushing outflow of Stein Lake. The cable car appeared large enough to fit all four of us + packs, so after some doubtful glances we gave it a go. A hard clunk and few nervous moments later we made it to the other side. From here, the guide book describes a steep trail with switchbacks leading up to the ridge. Within the first five minutes on the trail we missed a turn. This resulted in a short exposed scramble section, plenty of climbing over trees and through bushes, as well as route finding to avoid cliffs. Instead of switchbacks we went straight up (which turned out to be pretty efficient) and after about an hour we stumbled across the trail again and gained the ridge. The air was cold, especially in combination with occasional rain and wind. We spent the rest of the day walking along the ridge as clouds blew in and out, teasing us with short glimpses of the surrounding glaciated peaks.

Cassandra and Elisa on the ridge

Cassandra and Elisa on the ridge.

On the ridge we met a man who spent the past seven days hiking solo with his dog from the Lizzie trailhead. He was very keen to talk to people, while his exhausted dog was happy to have the chance to sprawl on the ground.

In the afternoon, we dropped down from the ridge to a boulder field leading to camp. The route down involved becoming a bit too close with the thick pine bushes/trees and clinging to the roots and branches while tree belaying ourselves. Lower down there was a meadow that appeared to be permanently caught in light. In this meadow we saw a large strolling shape, we think a Grizzly bear. A reminder to carefully store our food as our campsite was less than 2km away (and we’d all had our share of bear encounters for the summer).

Start of the tree rappel

Start of the tree rappel down to the boulder field.

The hike had gone faster than we had anticipated, so we found ourselves at camp by 4pm. The Tundra Lake camp had an outhouse with a glorious view. Tents were set up and we all crawled in to nap and warm up. Eventually we convinced ourselves to go back out into the cold and cook dinner. We could not locate the bear cache and thus Vincent had to pull some interesting maneuvers to build a bearhang. Like many of the nights on this trip, we had an early bed time around 9pm. Overnight temperatures dropped close to freezing with wind and rain hitting the tents.

DSC02414                   DSC02422

Day 6 — Tundra Lake to Lizzie Cabin
Written by Vincent

The next day we skirted around Tundra Lake through steep boulderfields. This section gives some parties route-finding migraines, but the trick is to stay above the bluffs until it is obvious that you can descend to lake level and boulder hop the rest of the way. At the far end of the lake, sitting on a boulder and looking at the glaciers, the clarity of the water and a chance sunbeam led us to discover that the only thing more stunning than the view of Tundra Lake is its temperature.

Looking back across Tundra Lake

Looking back across Tundra Lake.

As we walked through the gentle meadows around Caltha Lake, the clouds descended until they were sitting around our shoulders. The trail was still easy to follow – it’s a booted-in track through the heather in many places – but later on the poor visibility left us at the mercy of irresponsible cairn-builders that led us astray like will-o’-the-wisps. We followed the most insistent cairns across Cherry Pip pass and far too high up the ridge to Tabletop Mountain. Finding ourselves at the base of the summit tower in a sudden break in the clouds, Birgit, Cassandra, and Vincent ran up the peak into an exhilarating shower of snow while Elisa shivered below. This section, from Tundra Lake to Lizzie Cabin, was maybe the most beautiful of the whole trip (excluding Elton Lake), even though much of it was as transparent as the inside of an avalanche.

The descent past Heart and Arrowhead Lakes was straightforward, although various joints and tendons were seizing up and failing. After six days of unvaried company – risking social claustrophobia – we managed to force some surprisingly civil conversation while walking, and arrived at Lizzie Cabin with limbs and goodwill mercifully intact. The cabin is as cute as a button, if somewhat porous, and well worth returning to. It was also quite full, so we tented comfortably in the forest nearby, with hot water bottles in our sleeping bags to inspire dreams of normal temperatures.

Lizzie Cabin

Arriving at Lizzie Cabin.

Day 7 — Lizzie Cabin to the trailhead
Written by Elisa

We woke up on the last day wondering where time had gone. We put on our wet socks and boots and started heading down towards Lillooet Lake. The first section of the trail down from Lizzie Cabin had a lot of fallen logs so Cassandra and Vincent started to discuss organizing a workhike to maintain the trail. And so they have done! The hike turned more or less into downhill speed-walking when we reached the old logging road. It was easy to follow but completely overgrown by bushes. The effect was similar to an automatic car-wash as we were being wiped/whipped by wet branches the whole way down. And then suddenly, the sun came out! It felt unreal but good to feel the warmth again after so long. Further down we took a bypass where the river had washed away the road.

One-log bridge

Cassandra on the one-log bridge.

As we arrived at the end of the trail, the sun was greeting us and we were all happy (some more than others) to finally take off our boots. Thanks to Birgit’s priceless first aid blister magic, Elisa still had skin on her feet. We relaxed while eating the remains of our snacks and talking about going down to Lillooet Lake for a swim. But it was all just talk – we ended up spending our time relaxing in the sun until we got picked up by the very friendly Julien Renard, Vincent’s housemate. On the way back to Vancouver we stopped for dinner at the “Watershed” in Squamish. After waiting for our well-earned burgers for what seemed like an eternity we downed it all in 5 minutes, then talked confusedly and sleepily on the rest of the car ride home.

First glimpse of sun in the past few days

First glimpse of sun in a few days.

Group photo

The group at the Lizzie trailhead!

Link to other photos from the trip:

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One Response to Stein Valley traverse

  1. Elliott Skierszkan says:

    Nicely done! Elton Lake looks stunning! I also saw one of those mega-caterpillars in Ottawa once. I think they grow up to be very large moths actually. I’m surprised Birgit didn’t eat it to make up for her mouldy lunch ;).

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