Participants: Ross Campbell, Birgit Rogalla, Natalie Makepeace, and Gabe Frame
Our week was fast hurtling towards the Canada Day long weekend and our weekend plans still consisted of a long, impenetrable e-mail faff of about 10 different options. My solution was to add some more gasoline to the fire. “Why don’t we try to repeat a Veenstra Traverse?”. The ensuing fireball decimated the field of also-ran objectives and we were soon choosing between the different traverses. A list of about 10. Sometimes progress is slow… If anyone is looking for a pre-worked out wilderness adventure needing plenty of effort but not too many technical skills a Veenstra Traverse might well be a perfect, right off the shelf option.
Consensus eventually crystallised around a circumnavigation of Garibaldi Lake. However, because we were hoping for a longer trip, and because we are not entirely sheeple (this is a word apparently. We are an interesting bunch to play contact with…), we made some adjustments. We would forgo the Helm Glacier. Instead, we would summit Panorama ridge and then follow it down and around to Gentian Peak before camping in Gentian Pass. This way we get to bag a couple of peaks and keep the lake, our focal point, in view. The next day we would summit Castle Towers before heading down to Sphinx Hut. Our final day would involve crossing the glacier up and over the Guard – Deception col, somehow getting up and around Table mountain, over Price, and then home along the park trails.
Natalie and Gabe spent the night at the White House so that we could all leave together in the morning. We rose at the ungodly hour of 5:30 so as to ensure we might get a car spot at the trailhead and dually succeeded with an arrival time of 7:30. Unfortunately, the permit system had been revised since any of us had been before and we could no longer pay by cash at the trailhead. Payment must be made online or by phone (at additional cost). This means that it is now impossible to stay in Garibaldi Park without access to a credit card, which back home might be described as crass, discriminatory, elitist bullshit but apparently not in Canada. Thankfully, Gabe had a phone with data and Natalie furnished us with a credit card. Now all we needed to do was navigate the booking site…
We soon hit the predictable problem that the site requires you to choose which camp ground you intend to stay at and of course Gentian Pass and Sphinx Hut aren’t on the list. We were going to pick any random place with space but didn’t like the idea of us hogging a camp spot someone else might want to use, and then it sits empty because we have no intention of actually being there. By now a ranger was doing the rounds and so asked her where we should say we were camping. “That’s a good question” we were told… Apparently there is no limit on booking numbers for the Cheekamus or Helm camp grounds, so we chose one of those. Completing the booking was less than simple though and took some time. At least we got a bit of chat out of the rangers, who had turned up with tablets to “help” fleece the other unexpecting overnighters. Our plans seemed to be of more than a passing interest for them. We were warned that there was still a lot of snow up there. We insisted that we expected as much.
A little shy of an hour later we were slogging up the switchbacks. It was a little less of a slog than it might have been though because we decided not to bring any tents. It was currently drizzling on us. Hmm…
Up to Panorama Ridge was uneventful, though the weather didn’t improve much. We took some pleasure out of being faster than a mass of day-trippers despite our significant packs. We had lunch on top the ridge while enjoying the occasional view as the mist would part. Now the adventure would begin in earnest as we followed the ridge along and left the beaten track. The non-beaten track was pretty friendly though and we were soon at the base of Gentian Peak. Its ascent involved relatively steep, loose rock but never too steep or too loose. The weather was slowly improving and so with it our views from the top. We found a summit register at the top. We were the first group to sign it in almost a year!
The descent route off of Gentian Peak down to the pass was far simpler (less steep, nice grassy slopes filled with varied wild flowers) than our ascent route and we were soon setting up camp on a heathery, treed island in the snow next to a stream of melt water. It was perfect with a glorious view of the Sphinx, Guard, the lake, Table Mountain, Garibaldi, and Price all in one panorama. We never regretted the lack of tents. We cooked and ate dinner in bed, hung our food, enjoyed great company, and drifted off to sleep as the sun finished setting.
I awoke to a very anxious sounding Birgit
“Ross, Ross… ROSS!”
“Hmm, HUH, wha wha what!?!”
“A Bear just took our food”
We quickly got up and grabbed our ice axes. We couldn’t see anything. Then we moved round slightly and could see some bags still on our bear hang.
“Are you sure?”. Quick look around – “Where’s Natalie?”.
“She went to get water”
Ah, surely the “bear” was just Natalie. What a laugh this will be when we all calm down.
Then we saw one big brown arse slowly wandering away from our bear hang. That’s no bloody Natalie! Birgit went and retrieved Natalie from the creek and we waited a few minutes, making lots of noise, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I guess it’s gone? We go over to see what’s left of our food. My lunches have been devoured, as has Gabe’s sausages and breakfasts, and a chorizo sausage. I find my trail mix that was dropped by the bear as it was leaving. Me and Birgit follow its tracks round the corner to see what else it might have dropped and see where it ran off to.
“Shit, it’s still here!” I hear Birgit say.
I look up and see a bear maybe ten metres away staring right at us. She starts moving towards us but thinks better of it when Gabe and Natalie join us. All the noise and ice axes in the world are not going to scare her away though. This isn’t the way bear encounters are meant to go. I’ve bumped into bears before. You stare at each other for a bit then the bear pisses off, that’s what’s meant to happen. Not today!
We headed back round to our stuff, sticking together, making lots of noise. She seemed to lose interest in us and wander off. While we are packing up our stuff though I spot a bear again. That’s not the same bear, it’s a bloody cub! The cub seems pretty curious and intent on coming over to say hello. We’re not in such a friendly mood. All the noise and axe rattling we can muster is enough to discourage it from getting any closer but, like mummy, he has no intention of going anywhere. We broke our personal best times for packing up and got out of there. Thankfully that was the last we saw of the bears.
We travelled a ways away and recounted how ridiculous it all was. After seeing what was left of our food we decided we could sensibly ration it and continue as planned. We dumped all that we wouldn’t need for Castle Towers (but bringing all our food!) and headed for the summit.
We made Polemonium Ridge without difficulty and progressed quickly to its top. Getting between the ridge and Castle Towers proper was when it got tricky. It was fairly steep and one incredibly loose pile of choss. We went very carefully and slowly. It wasn’t comfortable but we made it work. Once we were on Castle Towers proper the going became much easier, though depending on how comfortable you felt on snow slopes it might not feel that way. The weather had been good to us up till now, and the views are fantastic, but as we got about half way up the clouds rolled in and they were not for passing. We had lunch, made the summit, and spent some time at the top until we were all getting a bit cold.
On the way down we sought out the snow slopes as much as possible and they made it very quick and easy going. Gabe especially was practising his glissading skills and was seemingly improving with every slope. His turns, and even occasionally “tele turns” were getting pretty impressive! Natalie was sure there was a better route back on to Polemonium Ridge taking a high line instead of heading down to the chossy chute. It looked like an impenetrable cliff face but sure enough she was right. One exposed move, but on solid rock, saved us half an hour and having to deal with all the sliding scree. More snow slopes quickly had us back to the pass to pick up our camping things and we headed for Sphinx hut.
We made sure to hold our elevation and the going was pretty good through fairly sparse clumps of trees and snow covered boulder fields until we got to the other side of Polemonium Ridge and Sphinx bay was in sight. The descent was heinous! It was steep. It was fairly slippy. It was thick with shrub. The mosquitos were ravenous. Then we reached the deadfall… These logs were huge and there was hundreds of them. Clambering up and over, or crawling under them with big packs, took forever. At one point I swear it took us just shy of an hour to travel about 200 metres. It did eventually level out though and we arrived at the hut VERY ready for some dinner!
To our surprise we were not alone. Despite the crowded nature of Garibaldi Park we hadn’t seen a soul since leaving Panorama Ridge and hadn’t expected to see anyone until we reached the proper trails again on the other side of Price. Our new Russian friends, Victor, Vadim, and Natalia, had lugged inflatable paddleboards up to the lake and paddled across the day before. Its fair to say their circumnavigation of the lake was far more efficient than ours! Not only were they a source of great chat for the night but, once we recanted our rude awakening earlier that morning, they insisted that we take a bunch of their food too. They had been fishing in the lake and to all intents in purposes had been quite successful. They prepared a Trout soup with Uzbeki spices as well as donating a bunch of lunch supplies which came in very useful the next day. We savoured the fish, recounted past adventures with our newfound friends, discussed the route for the next day, and went to bed. It was nice to hear that the rangers had been asking after us earlier that day (they would be coming back the next day to try and deal with the mice…). It wasn’t as nice to hear that the weather forecast had been amended since we left civilisation and that rain was now expected for tomorrow. Victor was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to pass the creek that goes into the lake and insisted that we wake him in the morning so he could paddle us across.
“We are getting up at 6 AM?”
“Yip that’s fine!”
This trip was becoming wonderfully absurd!
Sure enough, when we got up the next morning and started to fill up on our various cereals and left over fish soup, Viktor and Co disappeared to organise the paddleboards. We packed up our things and headed over for the stream crossing. Within minutes we were all on the other side and bidding our farewells. If we had had to wade across that early in the morning it would have been a VERY miserable start to the morning. Given their dedication to self-propelled travel and their passion for the ridiculous I believe I can paraphrase American Pie and say the Russian paddleboarders are VOCers, they just never joined the club (band)!
We headed up towards the glacier that leads to the Guard – Deception Col. We roped up, though no crevasses were showing, and were pleasantly surprised by how mellow and easy going the slope up to the Col was. The descent was a little more tricky but we arrived down in Sentinel Bay around noon for some lunch and route discussion.
Thankfully the weather had held up thus far and the visibility was still good. We had been looking at the slopes in front of us trying to decide which way was best. Nothing looked easy. We also weren’t sure which route Veenstra and Co had taken back in the day. I think for all of us this was probably the first trip where route finding was a case of trying to decide which route we could make work instead of trying to find the trail others have followed before us. This certainly adds to the sense of adventure but it can be scary too. What if you make the wrong choice? Looking up at the options in front of us I began to worry that maybe none of them were going to do it for us. It was a VERY long way home if we had to turn around now…
After a healthy debate we decided on a steep snow slope that would take us to a ridge line leading to the base of the Table. It was the least steep line up that didn’t involve a long diversion across glaciated terrain. We could see that if we could get by one difficult looking step just below the Table then this should lead to nice mellow terrain all the way to the base of Mt. Price. If this step was no good then I guess we would have to go round the backside of the Table and things would get very long from there…
The snow slope took us to the edge of our comfort levels but it went smoothly and efficiently. The snow was absolutely perfect for kicking steps into and we dually took the opportunity to make ourselves a staircase. The ridgeline afforded us quick and easy passage and we were soon at the base of the Table in front of the difficult step we could see from the bay. The traverse around still looked scary but there was also a bench below us though it was less than sure it went anywhere. Gabe set out investigating the traverse while I headed down to see if the bench might provide a less exposed route forward. Eventually Gabe convinced us all that his route was the best way to go. We were again VERY happy that the snow was so compliant and kicked the nicest steps possible.
When we reached the ridge line on the other side of the Table the relief was palpable! Furthermore, looking in front of us we were presented with a beautiful snow slope leading down to flat marshland. With the going now nice and easy and the route no longer in question (and all thoughts of having to go the long way home firmly forgotten) song returned to our merry group. The level of singing was generally a good barometer for group happiness/comfort throughout the trip.
Eventually the marsh gave way to ridges of trees, though not so dense as to make bush whacking too bad. Earlier we had held aspirations of summiting Mt. Price on the way out but it was getting late, we were getting hungry, and the good weather we had been enjoying up till now was being replaced with drizzle. We choose a route that went round the back of Price and up to a gentle bench from which we could head down to the “lava flats” and home. As Natalie would later remark, crossing the series of ridges between us and the bench was like an ant trying to cross a tyre tread. Every time you got over one ridge you found another. This coupled with the increasingly heavy rain and encroaching hunger was beginning to weigh down on us. But still, the way ahead was obvious and all obstacles in our way looked very passable. After slogging up the last bump to the bench the sun came out and we stopped to eat some snacks and crystallise our final route home.
Now drying off, and less hungry, the sound of singing once more returned. The route down to the lava flats followed a snow covered narrow but mellow pass between Clinker Peak and an un-named bump that made for fast travel. As we approached the Lava Flats there was more frustrating bush whacking over ridges of trees. The ridges became less pronounced as we travelled though until eventually Gabe called out that he had found the official trail down from Mt. Price! And what a glorious sight it was. The trail was not as easy to follow as it might have been because it had many boulder fields covered in just enough snow to hide all the holes you were about to fall through as you stood on them. Still, as the sun began to set we were very happy indeed to reach the warming hut on the near side of the lake.
We had been on the go now for 15 hours and certainly needed some dinner. We were now back in civilisation and the hut was full of people who were amazed by where we had just came from. At one point we were referred to as “the crazy mountaineers”. We mentioned the Russians that we met over at Sphinx and word of their heroically ridiculous endeavours had already spread to the hut’s occupants. I guess the crazies stick together! By the time we finished dinner it was half past ten and we were in no mood to go anywhere. We decided that we would bend the rules, sleep in the warming hut, and head out early in the morning for the car. We all slept like logs.
We awoke at 5:30 and made a breakfast out of the random things we had left: Some buck wheat (donated by the Russians), some oatmeal, milk powder, and, if you were me, ate in a japati. A conventional breakfast it was not but it was very satisfying regardless. We finished eating, packed up, and left for the trail just before 7 AM, as the early risers were just coming in to start their own breakfasts. The legs were certainly feeling it on the way down the switchbacks but it went without event and we were glad to reach the car a little over two hours later, and to enjoy the cookies I had left in there for our return. Just as we drove off it started to rain, how often does it ever go that way round?
And so, all that is left is for me to thank the people on this trip for singing through the good times and hiding the grimaces through the tough stuff. It was an unforgettable trip, filled with the unexpected, where we were reminded of the dangers of bears and the kindness of strangers.