Date: July 5 – 10, 2020
Location: Vicinity of Birkenhead Lake Provincial Park, BC
Distance: ~80 km
Partners: Brittany and Will
Resources: Matt Gunn’s Scrambles Guidebook, VOC Wiki, Cadwallader Range Traverse Trip Report, Traverse from Tenquille Lake to Snout Peak Trip Report, 1:50000 topo map 92J10 (Resource for any 1:50000 map), Satellite imagery
After abandoning our mostly annual visit to Ontario and failing to find a float plane to charter into Mount Edziza Provincial Park, this circuit emerged as a Plan C.
The idea was to find a traversing alpine route with simple logistics. The Brian Waddington Hut is a favourite of mine so I started looking around the area. On the simplified colouring scheme of Google, there was a clear horseshoe of white that was about the right length. The route to the alpine on the east side was old news and the lake level travel along the shore of Birkenhead Lake would be on established trail. That left the north and west sides of the circuit as unknowns.
Further research uncovered trip reports on Bivouac and route descriptions in the Scrambles guidebook that described a lot of the terrain. What remained was to stitch them together and react to the current snow levels and weather and to overcome local difficulties like cliffed out ridge sections and so on.
Our appetite for traverse routes was whetted by the Alcoholic Traverse and the Donjek Route. This time there was additional excitement because we didn’t find reference to anyone else connecting all of the same elements in one long circuit and because we intended to add numerous local summits to our tick lists including Beaujolais, Mystery Peak (aka Sockeye Horn), Canine Peak, and Chipmunk Peak.
After many emails, our final party consisted of just three members. I estimated the traverse would take four days and that mid-way we would take an extra day to summit Canine Peak and Chipmunk Peak to the west of the main route. In the end, we took six days with only one short side trip to summit Beaujolais Peak.
Our first day into the hut was uneventful on familiar trail but with much heavier backpacks than any other prior visit. We parked at the gate to Birkenhead Lake Provincial Park and walked up the logging road past two excavators recommissioning the road. It had evidently been a lively weekend as approximately 20 people had been in the area around the hut from Friday to Sunday. Fortunately for us, everyone else was packing up and cleared out in the evening. Remember to pay your hut fees!
The second morning was similar to the first day in that we were covering familiar terrain as we picked up the flagging leading to the subalpine and eventually the Gandalf-Aragorn col. This was the earliest in the year any of us had visited these mountains and a cold and cloudy June meant there was plenty of snow throughout the traverse and even a fresh dusting on one nearby peak. As a result, our boots were saturated for the week but our path over boulder fields and up many scree slopes was smoother. Will was equipped with an ice ax and mountaineering boots while Brittany and I had light-duty spikes and ski poles.
Once over the summit of Aragorn we entered new terrain for the first time. Almost immediately our intention to follow the alpine ridgeline was thwarted by a vertical step with an old rappel anchor. This was never meant to be a highly technical exercise so a workaround was found by descending a steep talus slope to a couple of small lakes and ascending the heather on the far side.
We were also afforded our first views of some of the peaks that were familiar from the photos and text we had been researching. However, with their snow and precarious cornices on the north side of ridges, they looked a lot more imposing in real life.
By the end of the second day we had covered less than 10 km with the final few sidehilling across a steep, alpine meadow. Our progress was certainly slower than expected and was the result of lengthy conversations and map consultations.
The third day started around the crack of noon when the showers that started in the night finally seemed to abate. Our tents were packed away wet and we ascended into snowier terrain with lakes that were starting to thaw away to open water. We crossed clear bear prints and began ascending a snow slope by a line Brittany picked out that reduced the angle by following sloping ramps. High on the snow slope we began to follow more bear prints up to a high ridge. While it was snowy and rocky on the north side we ascended, the ridge was mostly forested on the south side.
As we scrambled over the easy ridge, the rain returned and I began to feel pessimistic about the route. Visibility was poor so we weren’t able to see what the ridgeline looked like and the rock was slick. Will and Brittany were more optimistic and outvoted me when I proposed a valley bushwhack to the col separating Beaujolais and Mystery peaks. Soon the sun returned and we followed the ridge a bit further past a few mountain goats before dropping into a drainage on the south side of the ridge.
We trudged through the snow over two more ridges while avoiding the glaciers below Valpolicella Peak and moving quickly below cornices. A final scree descent brought us to an inviting small lake at the broad, treeline-level pass north of Merlot Peak.
The traverse encircles almost the entire headwaters of Sockeye Creek and passes through three distinct areas of themed peak names. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Shadowfax are the foundation of the Tolkien peaks near the hut. Valpolicella, Merlot, and Beaujolais support the wine region in the northwest corner. Finally, along the ridgeline that trends NW/SE at the end there is Sockeye, Chum, Pink, and Coho to represent a salmon theme.
The fourth day began dreary once again though the first thing I saw when I exited the tent was a moose at the lakeshore. We had intended to remain in the alpine, but with Merlot shrouded by cloud we didn’t know if there would be a good connection to Beaujolais Peak. Instead, we descended a few hundred meters through equal parts forest and mosquitos until we met up with a flagged ascent route towards Canine Peak. We followed the flagging up to a narrow col and then continued over avalanche debris and snow beyond until the creek that flows out of the Beaujolais valley. Brittany set a track straight up the ridge that would lead to a pair of lakes below Beaujolais and Mystery/Sockeye peaks.
By now we had reached the point of no return. Finishing the route now seemed much more feasible than backtracking but we all felt a little trepidation as we looked towards tomorrow’s route up a steep, snowy chute to the ridge below Mystery Peak. With a few hours before dark, Will and I scrambled Beaujolais peak from the south side but visibility was limited. Our best sight was of a Ptarmigan and her seven cheeping chicks.
The fifth day was our last in the alpine. We packed up camp with the looming snowy slope ahead and then began the short hike over snow and boulders to the bottom. Our minds were soon at ease as the snow proved to be supportive and conducive to kicking steps. Our ascent was quick and secure up to the notch described in the Scrambles guidebook. We were only about 100 m below the summit of Mystery/Sockeye but we had a long day ahead and decided to get started on the ridge traverse.
The first few hundred meters had the most straight-up scrambling of the entire trip. Solid rock, a few vertical steps, and occasionally some light exposure characterized an enjoyable hour with some nice views. As we ate lunch, poorer weather blew in and much of the remaining high elevation traversing was completed in rain and clouds with spots of sun but no real difficulties.
There was further route uncertainty with the loss of visibility but the terrain ended up being easy to follow over Pink peak (possibly not an official name). In rain and a bit of hail we got off-route south of Coho peak before making a steep descent through mud and snow as we left the alpine for the last time.
From one of the trip reports we read, we knew it was possible to reach an old logging road by descending the forest below a trio of alpine lakes. It’s true that it was possible but the descent was excruciating. We started on steep talus slopes before entering more mature forest. We were dropping hundreds of meters in two kilometers as we clamoured over a tangle of blowdown and alder. The wet trees and our wet boots meant our clothes were soaked through and we all took multiple bumps and bruises as we slipped on the slick surfaces. After a few hours we reached the Birkenhead river feeling pretty beaten up. About 100 meters above us on the opposite side was the old logging road.
The crossing was a bit rough as Will and I both nearly lost our footing in a flow that reached just below our waists. We found a diagonal line that cut a better path between two sets of rapids and made it to the far side in the gathering darkness. We fought up devils club to the overgrown road which we began to follow back to Birkenhead Lake. At one of the first opportunities, we pitched our camp on a patch of alder-free road scarcely bigger than our tents.
The final day began with four or so kilometers of alder-bashing on the choked out road. The road takes a detour away from the Birkenhead river up an adjacent valley where we needed to make another river crossing where the bridge had been pulled out. Mercifully we reached the end of the maintained Birkenhead River FSR(?) soon after. The route was in the bag but we still had some 15 km of hiking to return to the car. The last two hours were spent mostly in silence as we paralleled the shore of Birkenhead Lake towards the day-use beach at the north end.
Brittany and I left our stuff with Will and retrieved the car from the gate before returning to swim away a bit of the accumulated grime. Car clothes have never felt so good.
Overall, the route was completed mostly as intended, we ate phenomenally well with Brittany in charge of the meal plan, and we succeeded in having an adventure. However, the last day and a half of the route is extremely unpleasant with no good alternative that I know of. The original plan to follow the alpine all the way to the end of the ridge at Birkenhead Lake looks to be more technical and still has a steep bushwhack descent. A better trip might be to exit via Chipmunk Peak and Opal Lake to the Hope Creek FSR but with a much mightier logistical investment.
We were back in Vancouver around 9:00 pm six days after we left. Nothing of note happened while we were gone and we still had the weekend to clean up our gear and digest the trip.