Over the past year I have been learning a bit about bushwhacking, yup that wonderful activity in which you duck, push and beat your way through bushes and trees that are entirely bent upon your eventual demise. In particular, I would like to relate the tales of four trips that have taught me a bit about the art of bushwhacking. Two of the trips ended in success and were some of the most wonderful trips, one was a bit of a non-start and the last taught me to expand the limits of misery.
The first trip, was to Hozomeen, a spectacular looking peak just on the other side of the US-Canadian Border. Indeed, you are supposed to start just on the US side of the border, hack your way up the border to a ridge and then follow the ridge to the peak. No problem. We drove to Hope, found the never ending logging road that leads to Ross Lake and spent the next while uselessly trying to dodge potholes. It was early in the spring and about that time when you are not sure you will need skis up high, but surely don’t need them down low. Hozomeen is listed as a class 4 scramble, so we loaded ourselves down with, skis, ski boots, climbing gear, and camping gear. We wore our mountaineering boots since they would be better to climb in anyway. We walked towards the border, didn’t see a single soul and headed up the trail, which we would soon leave to adventure into the bush.
We realized soon that our packs were somewhat heavy. But ok, we should be able to put our skis on soon. We also realized that there was a lot of micro terrain, little hills and gullies that prevented easy uphill hiking. This caused us to consult the GPS all the time and slowed our progress more than the bush itself. Actually in comparison with what was to come, the trees and bush were merely a minor nuisance, but at the time it seemed a bit of a struggle to climb up over all the logs and duck the branches, with the skis and boots catching on everything. Really, after about 2-2.5 hours, the weather caused us pause. It was supposed to be clear, with minor sprinkles, but it had been raining steady on us all day and did not seem to be clearing at all. Looking at the GPS, we hadn’t made very promising progress, the rain dampened our spirits and we decided to just go home.
So up to this point, bushwhacking consisted of climbing over a few logs and avoiding some branches. Our next adventure was to teach me the real and true meaning of the word. In true Team Bad Idea fashion, we ended up deciding to try a somewhat random but nice looking mountain in the Fraser Canyon. Access was in the valley north of the Nahatlach valley, in the valley of Kwoiek creek. Don’t ask how to pronounce that, I don’t know.
Looking at the map, things looked straightforward, drive along the road to a river, cross the river, walk along the road to the end, about 2 km of forest buskwhacking and then cross a lake to the base of the glacier…. All seemed to be easy. But there was the assumption that we would be skiing for much of this adventure.
Drive was fine, albeit tight through the rows of alder. We arrived at the end of the road and looked at the river to cross, actually a fairly shallow creek. We loaded up our packs with skis, ski boots and some glacier gear. We had on our running shoes to walk the road and I had even brought sandals for the two river crossings. We did have a few doubts… The road across the river was so choked with alder you could barely tell there was a road and the snow line seemed way higher than expected. It was also very warm.
Off we went. We had originally snapped the boots into our ski bindings as this keeps them from swinging around so much, but after the first few feet, it was evident that we couldn’t squeeze between the alder. I would also like to take a moment to tell you about bushwhaching clothes. I had imagined a nice stroll along the road and then some skiing, so I had worn my normal longjohns and shorts. Fearing turning my long johns into tatters, I decided to just wear my shorts. It turns out, shorts are a terrible idea for pushing your way through alder, and very soon, my legs were in tatters and I put on my snow pants to protect my legs, but ugh it was soooooo hot.
Ok, alder. Death be to the God that invented that tree. In the sunshine of the exposed road, the trees had grown tall and strong. Thankfully these were mostly upright, so you could just put your head down and push your way through. But damn those ski boots, getting stuck on everything! I also learned, which will come back later, is that I HATE, absolutely HATE things hitting me in the face. Anywhere else, fine, but damn when the little twigs attack my eyes and try to steal my glasses from my face… ugh.
So seven kilometers and one more river crossing later we left the road and started through the forest. This will be better right? Well, the forest turned out to be a breeding ground for devil’s club interspersed with slide paths. Devil’s club was annoying but manageable since I had my rain pants on anyway, but the slide paths were a new frustration. Whereas the slide alder had been growing mostly straight up on the road, here it grew at approximately horizontal. The alder was quite mature and some of it about 4 inches in diameter. Big enough that you couldn’t really push it out of the way and with skis on our backpack, there were some moves that would have done a performer in Circque de Soliel proud.
Where was the snow? On the far side of the lake it seemed. We arrived at the lake shore to see not the frozen lake we had expected but a very long expanse of very wet water. We decided to head up the hill side and attempt to get around the lake that way. More slide paths to cross with more gymnastics. Some 10 hours later we had reached the other end of the lake and it was getting dark. We decided to set up camp and ski in the morning.
Night was miserable, it was hot, the mosquitos were attacking me and all I could think of was the hike out, the 10 hour fight against the alder. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. When the alarm went off at around 3am, I tried to get up and eat, but my breakfast turned my stomach and I wanted to throw up. I wasn’t going any further. I felt horrible. I felt horrible in general and even more horrible for not wanting to go any further for fear of the return trip. So, I turned into a puddle of confused hurt. We didn’t get up, actually the wind picked up and blew the mosquitoes away and I was finally able to get a few hours of sleep cuddled up to my partner.
The way back was just as bad. We picked the low route around the lake, thinking we could walk through the water to avoid the trees. Well, the drop off into the deep water was steeper than we thought. Sometimes it worked, other times I hung off the alder branches bracing against the rocks and rappelling along the lake shore. I only fell into the lake a few times.
By the time we reached the road again, it seemed like easy going. Oh man, everything is a matter of perspective.
So two mostly failed trips of bushwhacking did not leave the best impression on me and I thought that maybe I was better designed for trails. But when Julien decided that we should go try to climb the Judge, one of the most awesome looking peaks, I couldn’t say no. It was another adventure. A canoe ride across the lake, with two bikes, bike down the road, cross a river and then bushwhack. Whew, I can do this.
We got to a poor start on Friday evening. After reading old trip reports we ended up on the wrong side of the lake, driving my tough little car up and down ATV tracks trying to get to the lake shore. Around 3am, we got stuck in some horrible mud, around 5am we gave up and made camp near the main road. At 8am we were rudely awoken by gun fire. WHAT THE HELL!? Yup, our nice little camp spot was the parking lot of one of the shooting ranges. We tried to ignore it for about an hour, but finally gave up and drove back into town to get more food before continuing.
Ok, drive to Mission, get more food, drive back to the lake, unload and load up the canoe. The area we launched from was a common ATV and mudding spot. It was covered in people driving in circles in the mud with various modes of engine powered vehicle. There had been some talk about cars burning in the area, so I chatted with some of the locals and they said I shouldn’t worry as most of the cars that burned were stolen in town. Great. Let it be known that the guys I talked to were sitting in lawn chairs in ankle deep water next to their RV’s. In the end, I drove the car off the beach and parked it next to the gate to the logging site. At least people would be driving past it on a regular basis.
Into the canoe went the bikes, the gear and finally us. We had a tail wind and paddled in a bit of a lazy fashion down the lake, still making good time. We arrived at the logging camp, which was totally empty and looked strangely abandoned. We stashed the canoe behind one of the buildings, reconstructed and loaded up the bikes. It was about 15 km on a fairly flat and well constructed road. Not a problem, even on our skinny tire commuter bikes.
We found the spot to ford the river, hopefully where the trail would start on the opposite bank. Artem had crossed the river two weeks before, so we had good hopes that it would be relatively painless, and thankfully we were correct. Water was cold and swift, but only about knee deep so after stripping down, crossing went off without a hitch.
The far shore was rocky and we set up camp to bask in the sun for a bit. Our change in plans led to a short day, so we had time to enjoy the sun, swim in the river and get to sleep for a long day of bushwhacking ahead.
The bushwhaking started out alright. Artem had been up and left flagging at some interesting intervals. In the beginning the trees and bushes were thick, so we quickly lost the trail and ended up at the bottom of a rock band that looked climbable. After Julien made some sketchy moves, he made a quick anchor and I climbed up behind him. At the top of the cliff band we caught sight of some flagging and made our way over. Our GPS was having a bit of mental breakdown, still saying we were at the river, so we were thankful for the bits of pink tape hanging from branches.
We moved slowly through the trees to the waterfall platform. The old trip reports say that the bush should get better after this but in reality it got worse. Leaving the rock platform we needed to climb over a huge pile of deadfall. The trees were so thick that we had no idea where the real ground even was. Thankfully it didn’t last long, but the slide paths began soon after. Back into alder gymnastics! This time it was easier without the skis on our packs. But the devil’s club and raspberry bushes grew thick along the path and loved to put their thorns into my hands… arms… and every bare piece of skin.
Finally, we could see the valley, with it’s beautiful rock water slides and pools. There was a field of spiny plants between us and the water. But after some dirt sliding, we made our way to the pools for a nice swim. After that, there was some more route-finding to get out of the valley and up the other side towards the summit. Julien managed to climb up a slippery cliff but I decided that maybe a different route would be better. I took a roundabout route up through steep trees and then through really thick bushes.
Then we were freeeeeee of the bushes and trees and on to the slabs and scree. So much scree, loose enough to go sliding all over the place and big enough to cause your partner some excitement. We hiked up for another hour or two and then found a flat spot near a stream to make camp for the night. We were treated to a lovely sunset and a damp dewy evening.
In the morning, we hiked up more scree to the little snow/ice slope near the summit that justified the ice ax and crampons we had hauled around for the last two days. I was happy to have them. The final summit scramble was beautiful (and easy) and left us to enjoy the view and a snack.
From the summit, we scree skied back to camp, and headed all the way back to our bikes. We then biked about halfway back to the logging camp, stopping to make camp on the side of a branch of the river. On the way down, I began to learn how to be Tarzan, grabbing tree branches and using them to swing down the steep slopes.
The canoe paddle back was considerably slower and we learned just how much our tailwind had helped us. But finally we were reunited with our unburnt vehicle and we made our way home.
On our previous drive up this way, we had seen this beautiful peak called Kwoiek Needle. Some old trip reports had described an approach from another valley, but some bridges had failed since then so we decided to try from the Kwoiek creek side. This would involve some logging road, clear cuts and some trees into the alpine.
We drove up and found the bridge across the creek intact! Across the bridge, the road was amazingly clear of slide alder, at least for a little while. Then it got bad. The alder started coming into the road at funny angles and a creek started to run down the middle of the road as well. At some point we lost the road entirely, decided that we were in about the right spot and then just turned uphill.
And then I learned that I hate blueberry bushes when trying to climb up hill. Again, I hate things in my face and it seems that blueberry bushes love to be in my face. Up my nose, in my ears, trying to rip off my glasses and poke my eyes out. To make things even more annoying, they didn’t even have the decency to have berries on them. Maybe it is my height and the general slope of the hill but man I was glad to see the alpine, beautiful frozen heather that caused you to slide almost as far down as you stepped up.
I think it was type 2 fun, in that I spent most of the time cursing the bushes, but also thinking that it was nothing compared to the Kumkan trip. And that afterward, I’ll think it wasn’t so bad. But once we got to the alpine, I was still relieved. The views were awesome, and the peak ahead looked amazing.
We walked through the rocks until we got to the base of the glacier. It wasn’t that late, the weather was supposed to be nice, and there were vague thoughts of heading to some other peak, so we geared up and headed toward the ice slope leading to the ridge.
We opted to solo up the steepish ice, since it didn’t look too bad. It actually turned out to be a bit longer than expected, and when we got off the ice, we moved on to snow covered loose rocks. This was actually the scariest part of all. The loose rocks were unpredictable and slippery. You would step on something that looked stable, only to have a microwave sized rock shift under you or grab a hold of something only to have it come off in your hand.
It was dark by the time we reached the summit, but we made a lovely little camp and watched the lunar eclipse.
Getting down was slow. We ended up simul-climbing the ice on the way down, but with 4 screws and a 30m rope, this was a very slow (albeit safer) process.
The blueberry bushes finally came in handy on the way down. Grabbing a handful and just swinging down was the easiest way. The bushes were so thick that I was generally just following the sound of Julien crashing his way through the bushes ahead. It did occur to me at least once that I might have lost Julien entirely and was merely following some bear or something.
After downclimbing bushes for about 1.5 hours, we hit the road again and recommenced the rage against the alder.
Overall, I think my bushwhacking technique has improved. But mostly I think that my bushwhacking tolerance is what improved the most. Such that things just don’t seem that bad anymore. In my head, it will take a lot to trump the trip to Kumkan, so maybe it was good to have that experience early on, since nothing, nothing, can be worse than that!
Edit from Julien: It wasn’t actually that bad…