British Columbia, August 2016
The Toba inlet: a deep glacial fjord with peaks shooting above the sea like teeth around a tongue. We’re dropped off at the tip after four hours in a bouncy boat gazing at glaciers dripping almost directly into the sea. Joane and I are perched on a rocky ledge and I already need to poo. Ach, I always get this when I’m nervous..
There’s so much unknown ahead. We have ten days of food, and ten days to traverse a mountain range to a water taxi pickup at the next fjord. But is the route actually possible? It looks pretty doable on google earth, but we haven’t found any report of people doing the same trip. Hopefully – fingers crossed – we won’t have to eat bears to survive. Or be eaten by bears.
The adventure started months before. Incredible satellite imagery and an online report had us hooked on the idea of exploring the area. John Baldwin, the area’s legend said,
“Typically, mountain ridgetops are difficult to travel but these high coastal divides define routes that can be traveled with relative ease for two to three weeks or more.”
Hours of procrastination on google earth led us to our perfect 40kmish divide from Toba Inlet to Powell Lake.
Finding transport was a nightmare. Float planes and helicopters were crazy pricey and no water taxi wanted to drive that far. Fortunately Matt, a friend of a friend of a friend was keen to drop us off. We almost missed the boat as some overzealous cop tried to confiscate our car, but that’s another story. Back to the forest we’re trying to follow intermittent bear tracks as we thrash through dense steep bush.
Generally, it’s a futile ferocious catfight with the undergrowth interspersed with clambering up mossy cliffs or tottering, top heavy over fallen trees. Ten hours of struggling is enough, we crash knackered in a flattish hollow. Our Pad Thai isn’t paired with mountain views as we hoped. Destroyed legs, wasp stings, exhausted, we’re still in the trees having gained just 3 km and 1400m of elevation.
Early the next day, dense rainforest fades to alpine meadows and we’re freed from the horrors of forest life. The glorious open air kisses my cheek as the band starts to play. Glory glory, a spectacular campsite. A tarn on a ridge suspended over the fjord behind. The frigid water exorcises our destroyed shells and we feast on pasta di fungo e parmigiano.
The next five days are bliss on a stick. We’ve our heads in heaven, scrambling along a towering rocky ridgetop. I’ve never seen so much exposed rock in my life, sheer granite faces surround perfectly shaped cirques and sharp marlin-fin ridges separate steep glacial valleys. It’s bizarre terrain. There’s hardly any dirt except for bear poo as we walk, scramble, and climb across different angled hard granite slabs and blocks.
When penciling a route on the map at home we assumed the ridge was too sharp to traverse completely. In person, the top of the ridge – smoothed by ancient ice – is flat enough to follow. The rocky route often seems impassable but at every obstacle, a cliff or a block, there is some kind of sneaky way forward. We scramble up every mountain along the way Julian Peak, Chusan SW3, Chusan W4 and a few unnameds.
Beneath the soaring granite cliffs are blobby glaciers and deep azure lakes. For a day we follow a diverging ridge west above a lake to see the wonder of the Daniel’s river valley. It’s completely unknown except to a handful of loggers and bears, yet rivals Yosemite in its grandeur. The tallest rock wall – 1200m tall – is of course unnamed and unclimbed. (El Capitan, the jewel of Yosemite’s crown is 800m.) The only information we found on this area was a trip report from the 80s reading,
“Red alert… Red alert… Rock climbers there is a 3500 foot granite cliff… Go do it.”
Camped, nestled in a system of granite dihedrals that reminded me of some twisted puzzle world we surveyed our next obstacle – Peak Chusan SW5. Eating hot custard au chocolat we fail to spot a route. The face is far steeper than what we expected and looks impossible to pass without climbing gear. It seems like it’s made of lego, giant granite steps criss-cross the entire face.
The next morning we ascend a glacier to the base of the blocky face. Following a narrow ledge system to our left we come across big bluffs obstructing the route ahead. Plan B leads us to the right across a hanging snow patch and onto a car-wide ledge. It’s unbelievable. With cliffs above and cliffs below we skirt across perfect hidden granite ledges and snowfields until we have traversed the entire face. I feel like an immigrant that’s just tunnelled under a border to paradise. The icing on the cake is a flat ridge at the top, a yellow brick road to the summit of Chusan SW5. Nothing can go better, as we marvel at the surrounding field of mountains.
For the first time in five days we drop down and descend into a gnome-like alpine forest. I immediately hate it, and long to be back on the ridge. We see a big black bear, the mosquitoes taunt us, and plants mercilessly whip and trip. The next morning we swiftly return to the ridge where we weave between spectacular cirque lakes and glaciers to yet another ridgetop camp.
We’ve put a lot of effort into the menu for the trip, and it’s deliciously rewarding. Each night we feast on flavoursome, filling three course meals. But this is our first campsite to have wild blueberries mmMMM! They’re frustratingly small and sparse – I soon lose patience but Joane continues to forage and we have a delicious blueberry dessert as we make our next plans.
We have three days until our pick up, and probably about twoish days of travel. One day to follow the ridge until its end, and one to descend a dreadful cliffy bushbash to the logging roads below. In theory, we could maybe do another side trip – some attractive peaks just off our route look inviting. In practice, we still have another peak to traverse, and absolutely no idea how difficult it will be.
The morning sun never hits our tent. Sticking our heads out we see we’re swimming in a suffocatingly thick cloud. Fek. Unless the weather clears we’ve no chance of continuing along the ridge. If a storm starts, we may have to make a quick descent from this exposed area. We set off optimistically hoping for blue skies. Fixed to the GPS every step of the way, we follow along our planned route until we’re miserably wet.
For the first time, we’re seriously stuck. In front is a mountain to traverse but with only 20 metres of visibility, this is completely impossible. Huge cliffs ahead mean any route will be challenging to find. Perched on top of large bluffs, gaps in the clouds reveal slab fields just below, definitely where we need to be. We spend an hour and some skinned knuckles fiddling with our rope, failing again and again to find a descent anchor to abseil off. By now it’s raining hard, and the wind is picking up.
It’s too dicey to rely 1000% on the weather clearing and traversing the mountain tomorrow. We have to get off the ridge and make some positive progress. Backtracking a bit we find a break in the bluffs. But by now all of our beautiful easy slabs have become slick waterslides. To descend, we follow crack systems to get some friction.
A steep bush bash and we’re on the sandy beach of a cirque lake. I don’t notice its beauty, nor have any desire to swim. We start to traverse the lake and quickly the shores turn steep and punishing. Just as the light starts to fade we come across a massive break in the forest. An immense steep granite slab links the bluffs overhead all the way down until ‘plop’ into the lake. At least that’s the sound I imagine I will make when i slip and slide down the 30m of slick rock into the cool water below. Normally I consider myself relatively good at climbing granite slab, but when it’s soaked and slippery?
I tell myself a fall in the lake would be miserable but not dangerous. It’s pretty dark now, and I edge across the slab, trying to smear my boots on anything that looks slightly spiky or dryer. Its hard to trust, so I paste my fingers, gecko-like on the rock. Bridging a mossy steep spot I lunge then some deep breaths and I’m on the other side.
“Fuck!” Yells Joane, who is also trying to adhere to the water-slide. I toss her the rope end, more for moral support than anything, and she carefully clambers across.
That night our tent is a saggy wet pit but is delightfully cosy. Deep in our double sleeping bag we munch dark chocolate as slumber takes over. I was told absolutely not to eat in your tent in bear territory – except in case of emergency.
The morning rain brings an end to the trip. We had hoped dry sunshine would lead us back to our glorious ridge, instead we must follow a long bush bash to a logging road below. The old growth forest is magnificent, and we cover 6km in an hour. Then bang! we hit logged forest, and cover just 100 metres in 50 minutes. One and a half k’s later, we reach a fantastic anticlimax for our trip – 13 kilometres of mind-numbing logging road.
Ten days of wilderness, ten days of unknowns. Ten days of not very technical terrain, but ten days of riveting route finding and exhilarating exploring. Maybe the modern world seems less mysterious; we can see every spot on the globe from our home computer. But this technology also allows amateurs like me or you to find our own virgin adventures. The Toba-Powell nook of British Columbia is only 150 km from Vancouver yet is wild, raw and ripe for exploring.