Pinecone Lake Traverse – More Than Meets the Eye

The Vitals

Date: July 1-3, 2021

Location: Pinecone Burke Provincial Park (Circumnavigation of Pinecone Lake)

Distance: ~20 km

Partners: Brittany, Will, Anne, Dave, Alex

Bears: 3

Photos: Brittany

The Trip

The above map was sketched and annotated by Will after the trip. We followed this loop clockwise from where the marked trail meets it at north end of the ridge west of November Lake.

A decent snow year without a lot of melt until a biblical heatwave (40+ degrees in the lower mainland) meant our sextet was looking for a 3-4 day hiking and scrambling trip at slightly lower elevations. The north end of Pinecone Burke Provincial Park has some glaciated peaks right around the 2000 m elevation mark and can be accessed by driving 20 km of the Mamquam FSR and then another 10 km on branches currently in very decent shape until the last kilometer or so. Two of the party had been to the area before and led the way on the road up to the trailhead. Our intention was to circumnavigate Pinecone Lake but much of the route was still a guess from satellite imagery.

Camping on Seed Peak (first morning)

Weather conditions on the first day (Canada Day 2021) were iffy. The trailhead starts relatively high and follows a ridgeline north from the parking area but snow was reached within the first 10 minutes and low hanging clouds obscured any views of the surrounding terrain or even the trail ahead. Our entire group traversed the marked trail along the ridge and made our way up to Seed Peak where we signed the summit register in continued poor conditions. We had some notion of camping near Knothole Lake so we descended for 20 or 30 minutes before starting to traverse snow and wet heather. At this point we were following the GPS tracks our fearless leaders had made the year prior since navigation was generally difficult.

Pinecone Peak in the foreground, Garibaldi on the left, and Mamquam in the center.

The wet heather was also proving treacherous and Dave had two slips. The first skinned his forearm and the second ended in a twisted ankle. We tried to push on another 100 m but the folly of continuing was soon made apparent. The entire group then backtracked up to Seed Peak where we were able to find some acceptable tent spots on the slabs and a ready source of water. We had started mid-afternoon and it was about 7:00 when we were back to the summit of Seed Peak.

Local flora showing the evidence of low-hanging cloud

In the morning we awoke to an incredible phenomenon where the top 50 m of the small surrounding peaks were jutting through the clouds but otherwise a thick white blanket filled the valleys. To the north we could see the much larger peaks of Garibaldi and the Mamquam massif and to the south, Gillespie and Meslillooet. However, it was clear Dave’s trip was over so half of our group decided to exit the area and return to Vancouver with him leaving Brittany, Will, and me – the same trio that traversed the Sockeye Creek watershed last July.

Some of the terrain around Knothole Lake. A wrong turn here can easily require backtracking.

Dave gave us an overview of his intended route as we gathered around a GPS and a paper map. None of our group of three had done much trip planning for this route and nearly all of it was still swimming in clouds besides the peaks. After graduating from our crash course we redescended Seed Peak as on the prior afternoon and were soon surrounded by the thick, grey mist. After a half hour we had reached our furthest point from the day before and we began to climb a gulley back up to the ridge proper. We occasionally had the reassuring experience to discover small rock cairns before topping out a small sub-peak between Seed and Pinecone.

Brittany and I above Knothole Lake. The cliffs in the background guard much of the southeast shore of the lake.

Visibility was still essentially nil so we took our best stab from the topo at a descent route to Knothole Lake. We had been warned that there are steep cliffs surrounding this lake so we were urged to pass around on its west side. A mixture of snow descent and scrambling small cliff bands got us to the frozen lakeshore but not before Brittany had one frightening slip while downclimbing. She got a fat goose egg on her shin but made it down to the snow to recompose herself. I think it’s probably possible to bypass Knothole Lake entirely but this is unconfirmed.

At this point the cloud started to burn off for good and we could see the cliffs that rise out of Knothole Lake on the south and east sides. We traversed around the lake and began to climb a bench system up towards Pinecone Peak. We followed the bench all the way to a ridge overlooking Pinecone Lake far below before zigging back to reach the summit of Pinecone Peak.

Getting close to Pinecone Peak

Now the views were really starting to open up and we got fantastic views of the surrounding area and were able to start inspecting the route ahead. We discussed various snow ramps that we could try to climb the next day to ascend out of the Pinecone Lake basin back to the access trail but the terrain was more than we had been expecting from a trip that was advertised as being relaxed and low-key.

Brittany atop Pinecone with Mamquam behind.
Will and I in the same position.

We began the descent from Pinecone Peak on rock before reaching snow fields with a plan to reach a small lake just above and north of Pinecone Lake. We found that the easiest path seemed to be to follow the drainage down to the shore of Pinecone Lake and then traverse east before climbing up to the smaller lake. This descent involved some more wet heather sliding, stream downclimbing, cliff avoidance, and a fine example of a black bear. Between Pinecone Peak and rejoining the main trail late the next day, we saw no obvious signs of prior passage. This part of the traverse is clearly less popular.

Starting the descent to Pinecone Lake. The outflow from the lake is at the far end and the smaller lake is on the left and just higher than Pinecone Lake.

It was getting to be late afternoon as we traversed the snow to the small lake and the once welcome sun was now starting to be a bit much with all of the reflections off of the snow. Our conversation dropped off as we all made our way up to the small lake and walked along it to the east side. At this point a small hill brought us up to some rock slabs overlooking a marsh and a long descent to the Pitt River. We set up our tents and hid from the sun while making dinner and discussing our path for the next day.

Our first black bear

The outflow from Pinecone Lake is a narrow choke between cliffs. From scouting the cliffs above on the north side, we couldn’t quite see the choke but we could hear a fair amount of raging water. The two options were to follow a drainage from our camp to a marsh visible below or attempt to backtrack and then skirt along the shore of Pinecone Lake on the north side until we were able to cross.

We chose the former option. At first I led us on a countouring path, but the cliffs we had camped above continued all the way to marsh level. We found the best, and only reasonable, path was to cross to the left of the main drainage creek (looking downstream) and downclimb some wet grasses before finding a huge boulder field that curved left, then right, and brought us right down to the marsh and two more shaggy black bears.

Will finishing off day 2. This is the small lake. Pinecone Peak is on the right and Seed Peak is in the clouds behind.

We made our presence known and they ambled off before we made short work of the marshy sections and creek crossings. The braiding of the creeks in the marsh allowed us to cross at points only about knee-deep but the flow rate was still pretty high and I was thankful to be able to borrow one of Will’s poles.

Looking back at the marsh. The rock slide we followed is visible on the lower flanks of the mountain behind the marsh.

At this point we found a narrow ridge that cleaves two creeks and would eventually lead to more snow and rock scrambling to the point where we could see the lakes and glaciers in the immediate vicinity of Mt. Gillespie. This part of the route had been obscured by smaller peaks from our vantage the night before and what we now saw offered no clear path forward. Plan A was to ascend a small peak to the north and hope it was possible to downclimb to the north edge of the main glacier north of Mt. Gillespie. Plan B was to backtrack, head a bit south, and then attempt to contour steep snow fields before reaching the south edge of the main glacier. Plan C was to cross the carnage of broken glacier bits and open water where the tongue of the glacier entered a lake and attempt to climb the steep snow next to the open blue ice of the glacier.

Camp on night 2.

We chose Plan A and I set off quickly, desiring to find out as soon as possible whether this route was going to work. We climbed the middle snow ramp and stayed off the summit of this subpeak. This was a lucky choice as the west side of the peak was impassable slabs whereas our ramp brought us to some easy choss scrambling down to the snow fields.

We raced across the glacier and climbed up to a small col on some steep snow. On the opposite side was another basin I had not been expecting. I thought we were already at the point where we had closed the loop but, alas, we had to descend one more time and follow the edge of a smaller glacier as evidence of rockfall off the cliffs that connect Seed and Gillespie gave us inspiration to move quickly.

Plan A, ascend the peak on the right on the middle snow ramp. Plan B, mostly out of view on the left. Plan C, cross the lake straight ahead and climb the snow next to the exposed glacier. Our goal is the small col at the center of the photo.

A final snowy ascent and we popped out to rock slabs adorned with many cairns and the end of the access trail to the area. We ate our last meal of the trip before following the trail back to the car, marvelling at the views that had been hidden from us on the first day.

Overall we felt pretty accomplished to have completed the route with relatively little difficulty despite the terrain being unexpectedly complicated. At various points we made decisions based on imperfect views of what lay ahead but in most instances we didn’t need to backtrack. When we were further along and able to look back at our path, it seemed impressive what we were able to navigate correctly on the first try. This particular group of three now has a decent amount of experience route-finding in the mountains together and I’m eager to explore another new area.