Date of trip: September 1, 2011
About three weeks ago the mountain gods allowed me and a new climbing partner a pass into the mountains of Strathcona and a climb on the second highest peak on Vancouver Island, Elkhorn Mountain.
After a fair amount of humming and hawing around whether or not we were going to go, David and I worked out a plan. I would drive up to the start of the Elk River Trail and go to sleep, David would arrive later and sleep in his rented car. The following morning, we would attack the mountain.
The alarm went off at about 5:30am. I hadn’t had the best sleep due to a screeching owl that would swoop around the valley and past the van all night but I couldn’t complain as David had got only 2.5 hours of sleep as he had arrived at 3am! We started off at about 6:30am after eating as much food as one can before coffee in the morning. Thanks for the ham, David!
It’s an easy walk up the quite flat Elk River Trail for the first 30 to 40 minutes or so. Eventually you come to a gravel bar area with (at the time of writing) a very obvious carved sign that says “Elkhorn”. This is where you’ll cross the river by ford to pickup the flagging that will lead you high, high, hiiiigh up the mountain, eventually gaining its NW ridge. The river was quite deep as we had a record snowfall this year so crossing it was interesting. David choose the sketchy log and I donned the flip flops and gripped the hiking poles. The current was mid-thigh in places which kinda “sucked”.
The flagging is not hard to pickup. Just head straight into the woods at a 90 degree angle to the river. Once you pickup the trail, it’s pretty easy to manage route finding. There are a couple of areas with blow downs and the flagging and “trail” fade out but for the most part, you’ll have a visible trail. The thing that will tax you, is the rapid, unrelenting, elevation gain. Follow the booted in trail along the river, keeping the river on your left the whole time until after maybe 1.5 hours you’ll start heading up into a hanging valley by cutting up right. It’s steep now. Very steep. I used the roots (hanging vertically out of view) like hand lines up and down the route here.
Eventually after hiking for about 3-3.5 hours up a couple roped gullies and steep bush, you’ll come to a flat spot! This would be the forested col where some parties will camp. Be warned, in the summer – THERE ARE A LOT OF BUGS! David and I continued on up from here, finding more flagging and a distinct route up to the SE.
45 more minutes and you’ll actually break into the surrounding alpine. This will feel nice. No bugs, great views, and mountains all around. :) From this position, you’re less than a five minute walk to your first view of Elkhorn. At first, you’ll see a view of the ridge connecting Elkhorn and Kings Peak.
We stopped for a breather and met a fellow who was waiting for his party to do the mountain that day, listening to music on his iPad???! David made some food and after a bit we moved on up the slope towards the ridge, turning right after getting our first peek at the mountain.
The route for the West Gullies and routes near it (like the NW Ridge) are well serviced by yet another booted-in trail :). The route goes up to the base of the ridge that (after walking towards the foot of the mountain) will be right in front of you. It was snowy, so we actually missed the little trail that goes around the first bump in the ridge, avoiding some 5th class moves on that part of the ridge. This trails heads right around the ridge. We tried to tackle it directly. We spied the trail from above shortly after starting out that way. We downclimbed and got back on track. The trail went around to the right of the ridge and then struck up the steep slopes to get on top of the ridge, avoiding the first one or two “camel humps”.
I think by now, it was around like past noon. We still had a ways to go but lots of time and the peak was coming closer into view at every step!
I think by about 1:30pm we got to start on the route proper. There was talk of talking the NW Ridge as it looked like there was still snow in the gullies to the West but we had a little study of them and decided to give it a go anyways.
We got to the base of the West Gullies and started talking about options. Here’s where some route finding experience will really help you.
The description we had said, “Take the gully with the large chock-stone at the top of it.” Er, ok… There were at least two with chock-stones in them at the tops. Hmmm… Well I can tell you all this: There’s a good chance the first gully you choose will not be the “right” one but a lot do lead you to where you need to go. There just may be unroped sections with some 5.9-5.10 moves. Take the gully second from the absolute right in the West Gullies area. At the time of writing, there was actually a small cairn built just inside the gully’s base. :) David and I did end up taking the wrong gully at first which forced us to rappel back down again and start over. As I say, this gully would have actually worked out, leading us to where we ended up by taking the easier gully but required some sketchy moves to get there. The “correct” gully does have a chock-stone in it but you can’t see it from the start of it. It’s very “fun” trying to navigate around the chockstone.
The route finding wasn’t over past this step but it was a little easier. At the time of writing, there’s still a lot of snow covering the main gully that I suspect most would use to gain the boulder field above the third and fourth class. However, when David and I tried, it was very moated out and it looked sketchy. We banked left on some 4th class (slabby? rock) and then cut back right after getting shutout into harder ground and then followed above the side of the snow in the main gully for a bit up to the easier 3rd and 2nd class boulder field.
At this point, I knew the peak had been bagged and I sucked wind more slowly while my more enthusiastic and healthy companion pushed on for the summit.
Another ten minutes or so, and we were on top!
I was surprised at how few entries there were in the summit register. I had thought that this was a very popular mountain! I think that only 1/3 of the book had been used, going back to 2005! Some claimed the summit in just 6 hours. For us, it was a little longer – somewhere in the neighbourhood of nine from the ERT Parking Lot, subtracting two longish breaks that we took.
The view was truly incredible being only 4 meters short of the tallest peak on Vancouver Island. You could see the entire Strathcona Park laid out before you. It’s not something I’m soon to forget.
We spent about 20 minutes on the top resting, drinking water (I’d later refill my canteen with rapid snowmelt from the moating-out snow in the big gully below), snapping a few photos, and signing our names in the book. I left a message for Christine up there. All good things must come to and end though and what goes up must come down and blah blah blah blah (insert cliche here)…. So we set off down the mountain negotiating the boulder field and trying to remember which gully to take on the way down. We made three 30 meter rappels with a 60 meter rope to quickly bypass all of the hard ground. We started rappelling I’d say about half way down the technical route. This worked out nicely with the longer rope and put us right back at the foot of the “chockstone gully” after three full rappels.
After messing around with the ropes and hiking back down to the foot of the mountain I was very bagged. It was almost all downhill but my energy level was still pretty low. My idea was to walk out the same day but David had hauled a fair amount of gear up to the area where the trail breaks out into the alpine, including a tent. I considered pressing on and leaving him to sleep there but it was getting dark and I was pretty snoozy. So, I busted out the bivy pad and the down jacket and curled up inside the tent. I had a very restful warm enough sleep until at about 4:30am when I started to get cold. I got up at about 5am and started to get ready for the last bit of hiking out. David joined me. In the end I was glad that I had stayed the night. I thought that it wouldn’t take too long to go down the route vs going up it however it was very steep and in the end we only saved 30 minutes in total descending vs the time it took to ascend the hiking route.
We got back to river, crossed it, walked out of the ERT Valley and saw a family with two kids and a dog. I gave David a hug in the parking lot, jumped in the minivan, and was home in Victoria for about 2pm in order to go on a planned day hiking trip with Christine…