Trip Dates: June 30th – July 4th, 2022
Ever since stumbling across Richard, Birgit, Vincent, and Cassandra’s 2017 trip report, the idea of doing an extended version of their “Pinecone Burke Traverse” had been kicking around my head. During a few late evenings of insomnia and procrastination this past winter, I spent some time looking at maps and sketching out possible route variations. I found a 2016 trip report on Lindsay and Anthony’s Coastal Mountaineering blog which, along with the 2017 VOC report, removed most of the mystery about whether the route would ‘go’.
I had four days off work for Canada Day, and due to the late spring some of my other potential objectives were not quite in season for ‘summer’ mountaineering. By contrast, I figured that a Pinecone Burke trip would feature a fully consolidated snowpack due to its modest elevation (mostly below 2000 m). The most recent satellite maps showed enough remaining snow to cover what I hoped would be the vast majority of the brutal blueberries encountered by the 2017 party. On Wednesday the 29th I packed up bivy gear, four days of cold food, and what I was told was the clubroom’s only lightweight ice axe.
Day 1: June 30
I took the SkyTrain and 174 bus to Northeast Coquitlam and started walking up Cedar Dr around 8:30. Soon I took a detour uphill to the summit of Mt Burke, a topographically insignificant but officially named peak conveniently located on the Southern border of Pinecone Burke Park. On my way up, I met a man walking >10 rambunctious dogs, followed a few minutes later by a large black bear. Past Mt Burke, I followed a couple kms of backroads and slightly overgrown trails before dropping down to Quarry Rd. There is a private section of Quarry Road from Munro Creek to Widgeon Creek Campsite. I honestly have no idea the extent to which this privacy is enforced. Regardless, when I heard vehicles approaching along this stretch, I chose to hide momentarily in the roadside bushes to avoid any potentially awkward conversations. I ate lunch on one of the shady wooden tent pads at Widgeon Creek Camp. There were a few canoeers hanging out here, and these would be the last people I would see until Sunday afternoon.
Past the campsite, my next goal was to get up to the alpine. Back in September 2020, I had taken the Widgeon Lake Trail, then spent a few hours working my way across the slabs above Widgeon Lake. I was not eager to repeat the slab crossing in snowier conditions, and not prepared to swim across a newly-thawed lake. Instead, I left the Widgeon Lake Trail just past Hanging Creek and used a wooden bridge to cross to an old logging road on the East side of Widgeon Creek. I was happy to find that this roadbed featured a nearly bush-free single track and occasional flags to mark the way across washouts. About 6 km up the road, I crossed Widgeon Creek again to begin ascending the West side of the valley. I gained 200 m through mature forest (fast) and 200 more through hemlock and blueberries (slow) before reaching a miniature hanging valley. From here sections of snow, rock, alder, and hemlock brought me up to a 1200 m notch in the ridge between Widgeon and Spindle Creeks.
The ‘shwhack from the valley floor had taken just over two hours, putting me far enough ahead of schedule to climb an unnamed peak (1428 m) above the Southern walls of Spindle Canyon. I booted most of the way up on snow, and built a small cairn at the top. Next, I followed easy snow slopes up and around the headwaters of Disc Creek. I made camp at the base of Sharkfin Peak just in time to watch the sunset with views of the Lower Mainland and North Shore Mountains.
Day 2: July 1
6:00am found me putting on crampons for a steep snow traverse around Sharkfin Peak. Of course, the goat tracks on this section proved that hooves are great crampon substitutes. I continued along a series of benches between the Coquitlam-Pitt divide and Obelisk Lake, and eventually gained another unnamed summit east of Obelisk Peak. The Fairley guidebook mentioned class 2 “ramps” connecting this summit to the outflow of Upper Consolation Lake. It took me a while to locate the top of the main ramp, but once I did I made a quick descent to the lake for a mid-morning snack.
One of my major motivations for this trip was a chance to climb the Five Fingers. I had climbed Forefinger and Middle Finger back in 2020, but the goal for today was to climb the other three. I dropped my pack in the low-angle area separating Little Finger from the rest, and headed up to the base of Ring Finger. Here again, Bruce Fairley had the only available beta, which was actually quite easy to follow. Still, the sheer amount of loose rock on the route made the climb of Ring Finger quite slow and mentally taxing. To get to the Thumb, I front pointed up a steep snow finger to near the summit of Middle Finger. I took a couple of minutes to tag the Middle Finger summit, then scrambled down the Southeast ridge to The Thumb and back. After reversing course back to my pack, I headed over to the base of Little Finger. This final finger provided a fun scramble where I kept having to choose krummholz bashing (uncomfortable but secure) instead of mossy bluffs (steep and slippery).
Immediately north of Five Fingers, I lost and regained 300 m to get across a small frozen lake. I then walked a milder section of rolling ridge toward another small lake at the headwaters of the Coquitlam River. The section of ridgeline beyond the headwaters lake had been described quite unfavorably by multiple trip reports, so I decided to skip it by dropping east into the valley of upper Bull Creek. The downside of this plan was that I had to whack some snow-free bush. The upside was that the understory beneath the old growth here was pretty sparse. The occasional devil’s club was still budding and thus not much of a nuisance. I contoured just above 800 m, crossing a few small creeks before turning uphill again. Around 1000 m, I popped out of the woods onto some bluffs overlooking a waterfall where Bull Creek crashed into a small canyon below. I camped beside Bull Creek, a bit above the top of the falls.
Day 3: July 2
I woke up to a cold breeze from the creek, quickly broke camp, and started the day with a gradual 1000 m ascent up to Meslilloet Mountain. I passed the first in a series of two lakes, then climbed to a ridge high above the second (avoiding any possibility of Naked Bag Raft Ferry 2.0). I continued up a few more snow slopes, then descended slightly to cross Meslilloet’s East glacier. The risks of unroped glacier travel can be mitigated (not eliminated) by studying late-summer satellite maps to locate crevasses, and by avoiding convex slopes and other terrain complexities. From the ridge between the East and West glaciers, I set out to tag the Meslilloet summit. Part way up the East ridge, a small patch of ice forced some old-fashioned step-cutting technique, since I had left the crampons back at my pack. The final pitch contained some steep but relatively solid (compared to Five Fingers) rock scrambling.
Back at my pack, I started following the ridgeline north. Most of the cornices along this ridge had already broken off, making it possible to give a wide berth to the few that remained. After a long, fast bootski down the northern toe of the ridge, I commenced a short, slow plod over a 200 m bump and found myself at Mamquam Pass. My original plan from here had been to go straight over Pollen Peak and Mt Gillespie, and my views of Gillespie throughout the day had confirmed that there was still a good snow route up its South face. However, it was getting late and I realized I would need to skip these peaks to stay on schedule.
I followed the Mamquam Pass ‘Trail’ for a few km (thick bush in any snow-free sections), crossed November Creek just above E100 road (a spicy au cheval log crossing), and ascended some steep forest to meet the Pinecone Trail a.k.a. Seed Peak Trail northeast of November Peak. Here I found some rare signs of human life: a couple sets of day-old boot prints ascending toward Seed Peak. I followed these tracks up to 1800 m and made camp. During dinner I enjoyed some of the best views of the trip: alpenglow on Gillespie and Mesliilloet; sunset over the Howe Sound Crest and the Tantalus Range.
Day 4: July 3
I woke up at 3:45 to a smattering of raindrops hitting my bivy tarp. I took these drops as a warning sign and broke camp early in order to be packed before any real storm arrived. The weather did in fact deteriorate throughout the morning as wind, rain, and low clouds rushed in from the south. I spent a few hours navigating the ridgeline above Pinecone Lake. Notable moments included some steep, thin snow on the way up Knothole Peak and some low-visibility routefinding on the way down from of Pinecone Peak. Next up was a 300 m descent to some lakes at the head of Steve Creek, followed by another 300 m down to a pass south of Cotard Peak. Here, I was lucky to find a series of thick snow bridges crossing the various braids of Steve Creek.
At this point, it was still raining hard and I was soaked through. I sat down under a tree for about 20 min, put on all of my layers, and ate the rest of my granola/cereal/energy bars. I was at an emotional low point, and resolved that from here my sole focus would be getting out by the fastest, most efficient route. The lower South slopes of Cotard Peak were like a steeper version of the slopes under November Peak the day before. The snow was initially intermittent, and I found that dry tooling was actually the most secure and energy-efficient way to climb the bare, loamy patches. My route went up through a col west of the summit and back down to a pass on the north side. I feel a bit of regret that I did not tag the very nearby Cotard summit, but in the moment I was on a self-extraction mission. After a bit more steep, patchy snow, I found a section of fast, easy terrain contouring at 1550 m above Crawford Creek. I lost some elevation to cross the head of the creek valley, then slogged what felt like a very long way up to the Watersprite – Gibson col. I was almost too tired to appreciate what was a stellar bootski run down to Watersprite Lake.
I expected to meet at least a few people at Watersprite Lake, but saw only one: a very nice guy from the BCMC who was staying the night to do maintenance on the hut. To my relief, he agreed to give me a ride down from the trailhead the next morning. I hobbled down to the trailhead as fast as my sore feet would allow and camped in the rain shadow of the trailhead info sign.
Day 5: July 4
I slept in until about 8:30, then spent a bit of time drying out my gear in and around the amazingly-not-smelly outhouse at the empty trailhead. By late morning, I became too restless to continue waiting for my BCMC friend, and walked the 6 km out to the Mamquam FSR. From there, I soon got a ride out to the 99 from a guy who had great ski touring beta for Anif Peak, among other places. I then caught a second ride back to Vancouver, during which I got to hear some cool stories about climbing volcanoes in Mexico. I was back at work at UBC by early afternoon.
1. If your primary shoes for a long trip are hard-sole boots, consider getting some soft insoles. Over multiple 15 hr days, my boots chewed through the sides of my heels and the tops of most of my toes, which I fully expected would happen. What I did not expect was the pain experienced by the bottoms of my feet starting around hour 8-12 each day, which I suspect was the result of wearing boots with no cushion or elasticity in the soles.
2. Cold-soaking Minute Rice is a hit-or-miss game. Some of my homemade rice-based meals rehydrated in about an hour, but others remained a bit crunchy even after soaking overnight. I suspect that the saltiness of the non-rice ingredients may have been the differentiating factor in whether or not the rice would hydrate fully. Regardless, I will probably revert to couscous-based cold-soaking for the time being.
3. Hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to crampon transitions on undulating terrain. I managed to waste time during this trip by a) leaving crampons off for some steep uphills and sidehills b) stubbornly leaving crampons on for some bootski-able flats and downhills, and c) taking crampons on/off too often in an attempt to get the right footwear for each slope.
4. There is a ton of amazing terrain in Pinecone Burke Park! I would especially like to go back to climb more of the peaks in the northern end of the park. If anyone has designs on Mt Gillespie or Bucklin Peak, hit me up!
Thanks to the Kwikwetlem, Katzie, In-shuck-ch, Tsleil-watuth, and Squamish nations for use of their traditional lands. Thanks to VOCJ, Coastal Mountaineering, and Bivouac for route beta. Thanks to the kind strangers who offered me rides on the way back.