– March 25th and 26th –
We had dubbed this as the last backcountry trip of this winter in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be able to make it out as a group again for a while. It was made even more important for us having ballsed up the last backcountry trip (i.e. leaving it to the last minute). To prevent that happening again we had planned this 2 months in advance and so we were very much looking forward to it. Unfortunately the Dutch Waffle wasn’t able to make it at the last moment but it was going to deter Sam and I from being in the presence of Mount Gandalf, Mount Aragorn and Mount Shadowfax – the land of Tolkien.
We drove up to Whistler on Friday night after work meaning that we had a slightly more accommodating morning and slightly more sleep. Saturday Morning we took ourselves to Southside Diner for a hearty breakfast and popped into town to gather the last bits for lunch and breakfast (Sunday). This was the same route as Christmas, however the roads were much fairer now meaning that I could appreciate the views far more than before. The roads are windy, the mountains sit high either side and there are some small railway lines that cross the road on a number of occasions. No matter how often you do this drive it’s hard not to look out in awe.
The trail starts at the carpark of Birkenhead Lake Provincial Park. To get there we put to good use the 4×4 and made sure we went through as many puddles as possible. It was actually pretty clear apart from a few spots of snow that would take some shifting. Over the 15k drive up I was wondering how much snow there was going to be up were we were going however any worries were quashed once we parked up – there was plenty!
At the car park there were a few trucks having unloaded their snowmobiles. We could hear them buzzing in the background and we were very much hoping that they weren’t going to be heading to the same place as we were. The main reason why we want to do backcountry is to get away from people and to escape. We were the only ones registered at the cabin so I was pretty confident that we would be alone but the thought of having all these machines around us did take away some of the romance of what we were trying to achieve.
The trail took on two very distinct parts – Easy and Hard. The first 6k (Easy) of the hike is actually an old logging road. We were hiking it as it wasn’t passable by car at this time of year but it was a pretty well used by the snowmobiles making our life much easier. It was a steady incline from the beginning and the trail had been intercepted by a couple of landslides from above but in general for anyone with any decent level of fitness it was relatively pedestrian.
Spring was certainly in the air. The sky was blue and the temperature was up. After about 10 minutes the jackets were off. There was no need for gloves, and Sam was braving it in just a t-shirt and skins.
Seeing as we had already driven 15k up the mountain already we had ascended to 700M. With this and the fact the trail was so open and ‘easy’ we could take in the surrounding views. We could see the mountains from behind us, rising out of the forests, and ahead of us, knowing we would have to get up these somehow. After an hour of easy trails we took the path away from the snowmobiles and we got the first taste of breaking trail. We could see where the path was but this was only based on a slight dip in the snow. We were the first people to go up to the hut in at least 10 days so any footprints that were there before were well and truly gone.
Now that we were off the snowmobile trail we were enjoying the quiet that came with it. No more buzzing of their motors. Shortly after through, we heard a faint raw in the distance. This raw got louder over the next 20 seconds. We had first assumed it was one of the snowmobiles, but with the crescendo we looked to the mountains to see if there was an avalanche. It was neither. A Helicopter was storming down the valley and the noise was bouncing off the mountains on both sides. It must have been a Heli-ski touring trip or mountain rescue!
After covering about 6k, crossing a few creeks, an old avalanche shoot and new growth forest (the tips of the trees were barely sticking out of the ground) we stopped at what was marked as the Trail Head for Phelix Creek Trail. We thought this an opportune time to have some lunch and enjoy the good work that we had done so far. By our reckoning we had done 6.6k in 2 hours. That really wasn’t bad going at all. Using that logic we would manage the next 3.3k in 1 hr, maybe 1.5 hrs max.
It took us 3
This was the hard part of the hike. A big part of the slow speed was the fact that it wasn’t a nice logging road it was an actual hiking trail. We probably made up a lot of time in the first part of the trail due to the fact that the snow was hard underfoot and easy to walk. So even with the steady incline the whole way it was easy to keep rythme. Secondly, it was just steep. It was like 3.3k of Grouse Grind (GG). Finally the signage wasn’t particularly easy to read meaning that we missed some of the switchbacks and spend some time searching for the next direction. These three elements combined meant that it was one hell of a grind.
Sam was doing a great job of doing leading and doing the hard work of breaking trail. We hadn’t snowshoed in snow like this before. The powder was incredible and it was between knee and thigh deep. So with each step Sam had to bring his foot up to that level. Each time he sank back down. With it being so steep I was counting that some steps were taking between 2 and 5 seconds each, which when you compare to walking down the street is excruciatingly slow.
This part of the hike was now in old growth forest. Far less open with the trees and boulders pretty close together. Some of the tree wells were rather deep. With the path being narrow at some points we had to negotiate these with care. There were a couple of times that one leg would slip down but we were prevented from going further by using the trees and branches to support us. We made sure to take our time when crossing these narrow points.
Each exploratory venture to find the next orange trail marker that turned out to be a ‘wrong turn’ would eat up into our time and energy. We would look up through the trees to see that we had missed the switchback, and therefore the only way to go was the direct route up. Every time we noticed one of these in the distance we would take a sigh and grumble at the inevitable.
We were never in any doubt that we would make the hut in good time. Even so, after 2 and a half hours what looked like the top of the ridge represented light at the end of the tunnel. As we scrambled higher we could see that there were more breaks in the trees meaning that we must be near the top and the edge of the forest. As we climbed up and out of the treeline it all opened up and there in front of us was a beautifully flat lake.
We took some time to just look at it. We looked at each other, high-fived and probably said something along the lines of “fuck yeah”. Right there in the distance (maybe 600m away) we could see home for the night. It was barely visible but the lines were too straight for it to be anything else than the Brian Waddington Hut. This picked up our moral as we were well and truly DONE for the day. We did question whether or not the lake would be safe knowing that it was March and probably warming up but we decided that with this amount of snow and how high up we were that it would be fine. Sam went 100m ahead of and trail-blaze our way to the hut. We took some time to take some stunning photos of the surrounding mountains and take in the pure quiet. The sound of the snowmobiles had completely gone. It was just silent, with any sound was absorbed the surrounding snow. We made good time over the lake as we looked forward to being inside and having a rest.
When we got to the hut, we realised how much snow there was. There snow was just below the top of the door in height. There was a steep path that lead down to the door though so there was no trouble in getting in. There was a little sense of dread that it could be locked (although we knew it wouldn’t be) but you couldn’t help feel it anyway. With a slow turn of the handle the door opened inwards and we had done it. More congratulatory high-5’s and back-patting followed as we made our way in and unloaded our packs.
Snowshoes off, and hut shoes on, we scouted out our new home. Huts are always fun to explore as you never know what you may find left over from other people. The Brian Waddington Hut was pretty basic. There was no fire burner, and any lighting that was going to be provided was from a gas canister. In the downstairs, there were two large picnic tables which had some of the gas lamps and a little gas heater (empty canister) sitting on them. There was a small kitchen area which housed a double hob gas cooker, which proved to be pretty awesome compared to my one small camping stove. On the other side there was a well stocked bookshelf. It was populated mainly by Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC – the UBC club that runs the hut) song books and albums, as well as a copy of LOTR of course. There was even an acoustic guitar.
There were two ladders that take you upstairs. At either end of the hut were two small windows, where a mouldy, moth eaten ‘curtain’ hung loosely down. Other than that, it was just floorspace. After I had unpacked the food and cooking gear I lugged my sleeping stuff upstairs and set up camp. We had put our mats and sleeping bags above the kitchen area in the attempt to capture any little rising heat that may make it’s way from the cookers to the loft space. I say this because it was effing cold. We really felt tit now having stopped hiking. Of course we were higher up, the hut was in the shade and our sweaty clothes got cold very quickly indeed. We got out of our wet clothes and put on the dry stuff that we had brought with us. This made such a difference but we were still feeling it. Sam found a nice winter puffer jacket hanging up for the hut. He stuck that on and had a laydown on the seat of the picnic table. Soon enough he was snoring away, with plumes of his breath chugging out from under his hood. I stuck on my toque and put on my jacket that I was unwilling to put on whilst climbing. It did the job but could hardly say I was cosy.
I got cracking with the cooking, using snow for water. I have read in many books before that melting snow is always a pretty inefficient way of getting water and today was proof. Using the saucepans at the hut, which were over a ft deep, when filled to the top, provided maybe 2 inches of water. There was a creek which wasn’t frozen which I thought must be an easier to get water. I tried to go out without snowshoes but I got about 2 metres before changing my mind and deciding to turn back. I was being lazy and cold so didn’t bother doing the snow hoes properly. This was fine until I got to the creek. The snow must have been over 2 mtrs deep here and there was a very steep walk way down to it. Not long before starting I was ankle-deep in the water – something I had tried to avoid. I managed to get a great fill of water. Now the challenge was to get back up. This was easier said than done – Especially with loose snowshoes on. After a scramble up and the losing more water than I had really wanted, I had seen that I left a snowshoe in the creek. I had no choice but to go down again to fetch it, as I wasn’t going to get back to the hut without it. Although it was the best way to get water I vouched that I wasn’t going back again and snow melt would have to do.
With Sam still sleeping I got cracking with dinner. It wasn’t difficult – Moroccan couscous which would take 3 minutes to cook in boiling water. We eat out my single pan for this meal – Lady and the Tramp style. With me having only one bowl we looked to see if there was any in the hut for us to use. There were, but unfortunately it was full of mouse droppings. Concerned with contracting any number of diseases from the mice we used only our own equipment for anything that was going in our mouths. Seeing as nothing seemed clean we made sure not to put our forks on any of the work surfaces or tables. Luckily there were plenty bottles of hand sanitizer. Without this I think it would have been a slightly edgy meal.
Food eaten and dessert of protein bar, we sat down and tried to relax. Sam started reading the LOTR’s and I was writing notes in my journal. Although I like to write in my journal, we were doing this purely to pass the time until it was dark enough to go to sleep. It was uncomfortably cold, too cold to be just sitting. By now my feet were blocks of ice and my hands were pretty useless at writing. The sun was slowly going down and by 8 PM our wish had come true and it was dark enough for us to head into our sleeping bags. I attempted to read in bed but I was just too tired and cold to do it. I started in my sleeping bag with my clothes on but soon enough I had to undress. Not because I was overheating, but because I was cold. I just wasn’t getting warm. The heat from my the warm parts of my body wasn’t getting out to circulate around my sleeping bag. My feet instantly warmed up once I took my socks off and started rubbing them against my legs.
Needless to say, I hardly slept a wink that night. It wasn’t the cold in itself as in general my body was warm. It was more the positions I felt myself in to keep warm that prevented me from being comfortable. The warmest position I could get was lying on my side, hands together sitting between my legs, with one foot resting on the other. It wasn’t until I tried to get to sleep that I no distractions, did I realise how dehydrated I was. I was thirsty and my head was banging. This wasn’t making sleep much easier. After what felt like an hour I braved cold in my underpants to get some pills and more water from downstairs. I made it as quickly as possible back to the sleeping bag and when I was back, I found myself drifting off. What felt like only a short time I was awake again. This process of falling asleep and waking continued throughout the night. If it wasn’t because my arm was dead from sleeping, it was either thirst or needing to pee.
At around 7:30am the sun was crept through the hut as it rose and this was a clear sign that the long night was over. A wash of relief came over me not only because this meant we could soon be on our way, but also that we had bacon sandwiches for breakfast. Lush.
With the last tidy of the house we packed up and head out. I mistakenly left my boots out by the front door, meaning that these were rock solid and hardly pleasant to put on. Before we left I had decided that I couldn’t escape a trip to the outhouse. I was trying to convince myself that I would be OK but nature wasn’t having any of it. I trapsed to around the back, having psyched myself up, only to find I needed to make a return trip sooner than expected. I got to the outhouse and snow drifts were half way up the door. With a deep sigh, I turned around and went to fetch the shovel to dig out the outhouse.
With this, we left. We head over the lake using our trail from the night before. We stop and peer over our shoulder to have one last look of the hut before making haste for the car
The return journey was far speedier than the way up. What took us 3 hours getting up only took us 1 hour on the return leg. Going down is always going to be much easier, but we had the advantage of reusing the trails we had made on the way up. This also meant that we weren’t spending time trying to figure out where we were going. There was very little talking on the way back, just to comment on how easy it was.
After 2 hours in total, we were back at the car. Another set of high-5’s and we slipped into our dry non-sweat soaked clothes and jumped in. There was no real discussion as to what the plans were next. The Pony in Pemberton was awaiting us.
- More Information about the Brian Waddington Hut (Phelix Trail) can be found at the Varsity Outdoor Club wiki page