We arrived traditionally late, fashionably late some may say.
But it was OK. Maelys and I were prepared for the late start. It was a straight forward route, our headlamps were on the outside pocket and our batteries had been tested. We had parked up at the car park next to Lightning Lakes around 3pm. It was still light but it was dimming. Having researched the route, I thought that we would be hiking for maybe 2 to 3 hours before reaching the top of Windy Joe.
Windy Joe Mountain was named after Joe Hilton, a local pioneer-trapper who often remarked that the top of this mountain was so windy that it was kept snow-free. At the top, is an old Fire look-out station, that has expansive views of Manning Park and the Cascades into Washington State. Decomission in 1965, it was replaced by one in the US and now acts as a shelter and “mini-museum” with interpretive displays. There were a couple of day trippers in the car park but no one else, so we were confident that we’d have the shelter all to ourselves for the night.
The early part of the Snowshoe was easy. Some creek crossings through the flat forest, which looks like it’s had some good foot traffic over the last couple of days. Nothing but the sound of the creeks could be heard. It was idyllic. I have to admit, it was rather chilly so we kept moving at a pretty decent pace, just to keep the fingers and toes at least a little warm.
We followed the Similkameen River for just over 1km before the trail splits. To the left the Similkeen train continues, meandering its way back to the highway, and to the right, climbing up, is the Windy Joe Trail. Just by looking at the incline, there was no doubt that this was it. We un-clipped our heel-lifts on our snowshoes, got our heads down and started the climb. Although I had researched the route, I seemed to have missed the incline part of the research. With the route climbing 1,154m over a 7.5k length, it was the highest incline hike that we had done together. It’s 6 minutes shorter than Wedgemount Lake, which although I did as an out in back in one day, I also did in summer, with a day pack.
So we found out that it wasn’t as easy as I had initially thought. Switch-backs. Lots of long switchbacks. The best way for me to smash these is to get my head-down, focus and grind away. I had learned this on my bike trip to San Francisco on the numerous hills I came across. Head Down. Keep Momentum. Celebrate the Flats. This is what I was doing. However, I had also learned that not everyone hikes in the same way. I was being a slightly inconsiderate hiking partner. Being a faster hiker than Maelys, my Head-down-never-stop method wasn’t going down too well. There were a couple points where I had turned a corner out of sight, or I’d wait only for her to arrive before carrying on – rest for me, no rest for her.
After a game of “I’ll wait here and see how long before Scott turn’s around” which was followed by a discussion of “see you in the morning, I’m returning to the car”, I learned a few thing about being a better hiking partner.
It had started to snow. It had also started to get dark. The tall trees in the forest blocked out any light from the dropping sun, so it was time for the headlamps. The snowflakes would reflect back our bright headlaps, so it was difficult to see that far into the trail. It was a magical if not spooky experience. The silence and darkness heightened our senses and imagination. Instead of looking straight ahead, or at our feet, we looked into the darkness between the trees, to see if there was anything to be seen. We couldn’t see far as our lamps were swallowed up, but we had our wits about us. I saw a twinkle in the snow to the side of the trail. It was only slightly brighter than the fresh snow around it, but enough to keep me looking. My eyes were locked and I didn’t want to blink for fear of losing it.
“I think it’s something watching us”
As we got closer, the twinkle dashed to the left and into the forest. We had got too close, and the hidden Snowshoe Hare had disappeared. A large smile was painted on my face that was under my Buff.
Although we had all the gear and by all means safely prepared, there was a great sense of vulnerability for being alone on this mountain, in the dark, in the middle of winter. It felt like we were on a LOTR’s adventure. But as fun the adventure was, we were slowing as we got further along the trail. There was a general sense of “will we ever get there”. We stop and I turn around to see Porcupette tilting her head up and loosening the layers from around, struggling to breath. I dump my bag down and try to find a plastic or paper bag to help with the breathing. I couldn’t find a paper bag and a plastic one didn’t really help.
I was stuck as to what we should do. But there was no real alternative for what needed to be done. We were camping here tonight. Although the plan was to go to the look-out I had packed our tent just so we had the option. Being still, we got cold quickly, so I got to work flattening the snow and digging into the side of the trail as it was currently too narrow! I probably erected the tent in record time and once up we got ourselves set-up inside. The tent was just small enough to on the trail. We’ve since bough an MSR 2 person and we’ve reminisced about how it would never had fit in this spot.
Once inside things were much calmer. Breathing was back to normal and we were now nice and snug (obviously my non-winter sleeping bag mean’t I was still freezing).
Although it was pitch black, it was probably only 6 – 6:30. So we had a lot of time to kill. We tried to eat but I was feeling sick (from dehydration as my camelback tube had frozen – add to the list of things to get for next winter), and Maelys appetite was small too. So we packed that up and spent the evening chatting and talking about the hike.
After an expectedly sleepless night, we were back and running. The sun shone on where we had camped so we could see where we had spent the night. Directly on the trail with thick forest either side. Although we didn’t make the look-out yesterday, we had all day to make it the last 1.5k to the top and down again. Legs were stiff and it was a bit of a slog to begin with. We stuck together much better today, but I did at one point drop my bag to go on ahead to see how far the cabin was, whislt Maelys rested and had a snack and some water. I returned with it being 400ish paces away. My “we’re close” doesn’t usually translate very well.
We got to the top and saw the look-out covered in deep snow. It settled at the top of Windy Joe Mountain with a few trees around, but with beautiful 360 degree views. We hopped inside and took a look around. I don’t think it was much warmer inside than out but it was cool to be out of the wind, just if for our noses to warm up a little. A stepladder leads upto a trapdoor where the look-out part is. It was overcast but we managed to get some voews of the surround area and it was beautiful. It was a dreamland. The clouds were dark and light all at the same time so it added some atmosphere to the view.
We spent probably an hour there. We had lunch and read the interpretive signs etc, but it was time to get moving. We were both ready to feel some warmth in our bodies again. The march down was much quicker than the way up if not sorer on the knees. We made good time. We saw an elderly couple around the point of the junction with the PCT but they were the only people we saw on the trail that day.
We sat in the car back at the car park, and instantly turned on the heated seats and heating. We were pooped but had that pleasant feeling you get after a day and a bit in the cold and camping – humbled and feeling lucky to be alive!