Mount Fosthall from Sugar Lake
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
This past summer, I set out to peak Mount Fostall in the Southern Monashees and, if possible, do so along an aesthetic line, starting on foot from our camp by Sugar Lake. The prospect of walking from the lake to the peak along an uncharted route appealed to me for its simplicity and for what it represented: traveling from civilization to wilderness without barriers or intermediaries.
In today’s world, venturing into the wilderness usually involves the precursor of a long drive. You leave home with all its modern conveniences, travel long paved roads for hours or even days, maybe strike off onto gravel for another hour and then you’re there at the trailhead next to a half dozen other pickup trucks, Subarus, Jeeps, beat up sub-compacts, and funny-looking diesel minivans still littered with granola and spent joints. Psychologically, this process reinforces the assumption that the drive is part of the character of wilderness — that like Six Flags, the mountains are a recreational destination at the end of a road trip. At the most popular of these mountain theme parks, the vast parking lots, visitor’s centers, kiosks, gift shops, boardwalks to established vantage points overlooking “iconic” postcarded views all reinforce this motif. Even the established “backcountry campsites” in Monashee Provincial Park (with their levelled tent pads and well-worn paths to the outhouses) would lead you to believe that nature is best experienced through a windshield of some sort. It’s not a drink you take straight. But if one day you were to just wake up and leave home by foot with nothing but a backpack, you could, if you kept walking, eventually find yourself at any point on the continent, however remote. If you did this, you’d realize that the wilderness was not a destination at all but an extension of your own habitat — a place you were permitted to explore. Your own two feet offer transportation, give you access. I’m not sure I thought all this through so clearly at the time, but something of the sort was what I was feeling when I left our camp at Sugar Lake early morning bound for a peak 11 miles away as the crow flies and and 35 miles distant by the decidedly terrestrial route I intended.
We can see the Monashee range from the top of Silver Star mountain — the small ski resort a half hour from our farm in Armstrong at the Northern end of the Okanagan valley. Depending on what you’re counting as a ridge, the Monashees are four ridges over from the Okanagan: Silver Star is first, then a couple of smaller ridges with Mabel Lake nestled between them, and then the Monashees. They are a subrange of the Columbia Mountains, which is itself part of the Rocky Mountain complex — despite some difficulties in Canada with acquiring this branding.
The range extends all the way South into Montana and all the way North to Valemount, but the portion most prominent from our vantage point is the complex surrounding Mount Odin and Mount Thor called the Gold Range.
From the above description, you might assume that the Gold Range is small — being only a subset of a subset of a subset of the continental spine, but this is BC, and BC has enough mountain ranges to lend one or two to every US state and still have a few left over.
The Gold Range is in fact about 40 miles long from North to South and their prominence starting from Arrow Lake at 1500 feet to the peak of Mount Odin at 9,700 feet is around 8,000 feet. These dimensions are roughly the same as those of the Teton range above Jackson Hole, Wyoming south of Yellowstone — even though you’ve probably never heard of the Gold Range and almost everyone’s heard of the Tetons.
More to the point of our story, the Gold Range is right above Sugar Lake, one of our family’s favorite camping spots, and with only ten miles of forest service road and a few thousand feet of elevation, it is possible to walk from the shores of the lake right into the alpine atop Sugar Mountain — a lesser peak at the outskirts of the range topping out just above 7,000 feet.
From this vantage point, you can see into the Gold Range and you’re offered a great view of Mt Fostall. At 8,812 feet elevation, Fostall is almost a thousand feet below the highest peaks in the range but its distinctive wedge shape, its accessibility, and its non-technical ascent make it popular with peak baggers. I had been sorely tempted to make an attempt on Fostall when backpacking with Owen and Caleb in the summer of 2019, but as it was, I had to carry Caleb to get him to the top of Carabou Pass, which is still a couple thousand feet of vertical below the summit.
I left camp at 6:30 A.M. and by 9:30, was strolling through the alpine meadows atop Sugar Mountain a mile above the lake. This brisk first ten miles was made possible by the network of Forest Service Roads which zig zag their way up the mountain at a steep but consistent grade. The one to the top has not been maintained for some time and makes for a bumpy and exciting Jeep ride, but for easy walking. It was encouraging to have covered so much ground so quickly and still feel fresh and strong. That time of year, the sun sets around eight, so I still had eleven hours of daylight.
I was, however, at the end of the service road and no road or trail that I knew of connected where I was with where I wanted to go. From here on, for the rest of the day, I’d be taking the mountains on their own terms without a filter. This, I knew from past experience, would be much slower, more methodical, and more tiring— like playing a game of endurance chess in which each move requires a different type of mental frame and physical effort.
Here in southern BC, the subalpine (where the trees begin to thin) starts at around 6,000 feet above sea level and true alpine (where the trees stop altogether) starts around 7,000 feet. These numbers aren’t absolute because it’s the conditions the elevation creates that dictate whether or not trees can grow rather than the elevation itself. You might get thinning trees at 5,000 feet if the spot is exposed to the worst of the elements or on north-facing slopes that don’t see much sun in the winter allowing the snow to lie heavy through most of the year.
The terrain at this altitude often gets much more serious.Immediately below the subalpine level, the going can be excruciatingly tough. The trees are thin enough and sparse enough to let light down to the understory (enabling the brush to grow densely), but thick enough to obscure the view and make navigation more difficult. A couple thousand feet above treeline, without vegetation to hold the soil in place, rocks are scraped bare by wind, snow, ice, and rain. And of course in many places, the rock at this level is covered by snowfields or glaciers year round.
The In-between ecosystem above treeline but below heavy glaciationThis ecosystem between about six thousand feet and about seven or eight thousand feet usually makes for decent off-trail travel. It’s not too steep or technical, not too dense, and not too icy. Not to mention its unspeakable beauty. Looking at my elevation profile on the first day, my entire time off trail (after about mile 9) was spent within this band:
The first stretch of ridgeline extending from Sugar Mountain was delightful. It dipped down briefly into a treed saddle before gently climbing upwards toward an unnamed peak. The approach to the peak began to get craggy enough to make for fun rock hopping but was still almost completely non-technical.
I had mapped out the route thoroughly on Gaia GPS at home and had the route with me on my phone and on the maps I had printed. Still, what you find in the field is seldom quite what it looked like on the map. In particular, what makes ridgelines great lines of travel can also make them dead ends for those of us who aren’t prepared to engage in real climbing. The rocky protrusions on a ridge top created by the sheering effects of the elements often leave a jungle gym of stepping stones all the way to the summit of fairly serious peaks. Often, the presence of this natural pathway has not been lost on the mountain’s permanent residents and there are little stretches of beaten pathway between the crags, sometimes littered with goat droppings. On the other hand, It’s also possible for your plans for a ridgeline traverse to come crashing down when you encounter a twenty-foot stub of blackened limestone without a way around it hiding between the topo map’s 40-foot contour lines.
I was aware of this possibility as I made my way up the first peak of the route. Having to find a new line this early would have been difficult. But every cliffy section I saw ahead of me turned, when I got right up to it, into a series of bite-sized scrambles with little exposure. All along the way, however, I kept an eye to my left down toward a small lake amid the timber at six thousand feet where I intended to cross to the next ridgeline. Once I was down off the ridge, getting past the pond would be no problem — just a bit of bushwhacking. But getting down was starting to look more and more difficult.
Whereas hiking downhill is almost always easier than hiking uphill, as soon as the terrain requires hands as well as feet, this relationship switches — climbing is almost always easier to do uphill. The reasons for this are simple but hard to appreciate until you’ve experienced it:
On the way up, my eyes were closer to my hands and on the steep slope up the first peak, this put my next holds at a convenient level for thorough evaluation. Furthermore, going up my hands (those most adept of instruments) were leading the way and I could establish a firm grip before my feet had to make their comparatively crude next moves. Crucially, my body weight was below my hands when I place my grip, eliminating the possibility that my bodyweight would accelerate downhill before I had to trust the hold. And going up, my body was below my line of sight, leaving the route clear of obstructions.
Going down, everything reversed in a most disagreeable fashion. My big, clumsy feet had to go first several feet below my eye level, my hands had to find holds precariously below my center of gravity, and my body acted like the tall guy in front of you at the movie theater — constantly impeding my view at the most important points in the action. I had the option of climbing down facing away from the mountain, which rendered my hands useless in the event of a fall, or facing toward the mountain, which felt like trying to climb down a tunnel made by my own body. Neither was very enjoyable.
The slope of the hill and vegetation made matters worse. It was often very difficult to see whether the downward route I was intending led down gently into the valley by the lake or terminated in an impassable cliff band. Sometimes brush was perched right at the edge of these cliffs, forcing me to bushwhack to the edge to see whether there was a line I could follow below it.
The net result of all this mixed up geometry was that downclimbing from the first summit down a rocky north-facing spine took forever and never quite felt as secure as the climb up.
The difficulties of this descent were not wholly unexpected but I still found them stressful. The northern spur did indeed lead into the valley eventually but it kept threatening to terminate in a dead end.
Once the downclimbing was over, the bushwhacking began, but it was comparatively mild-mannered and short. I reached the lake around lunchtime or a little after and decided to take a break, eat something, and reset. I was not yet really tired, but I was no longer fresh and energetic. The painstaking descent down the ridge had not been physically difficult, but it had required prolonged focus of my mind and body to climb down safely. For the past hour, I’d ignored the fact that I was hungry, but knew that I needed something more substantial than a granola bar if I was going to continue at this pace into the afternoon.
From where I sat nibbling cheese and trail mix beside the lake, I could see the next peak up and to my left. It did not look at all promising. The first section rose gradually through mixed timber and then out into a broad open meadow. That should be easy navigation even if the hike uphill was hard. The second section, though, dropped down to a densely-timbered narrow saddle at almost seven thousand feet and then angled steeply upward through mixed sub-alpine to nearly eight thousand feet to a dark and rather contorted ridge.
I sat and ate for only fifteen minutes. Around the lake was marshy and densely -forested with well-worn moose trails going into and out of the trees. It was the only spot along my entire route that the mosquitos were bothersome. Other than the bugs, it might have been a peaceful and inviting spot, but I was anxious to keep moving and the weather had changed from mixed sun or thinly-overcast to windy and grey — threatening rain.
I felt the first hint of apprehension. I still had nearly eight hours of daylight but none of the next miles looked easy or predictable and none of them appeared to offer any promising campsites. I could camp near here or I could take on the whole of a long and complicated stretch of alpine; there was not a convenient middle ground.
This is what is so exhilarating and terrifying about the wilderness: It forces you to make important choices and then obliges you to accept the consequences of those choices. Often, the choices are miles apart in risk and effort. Sometimes you find a middle ground after you have chosen the longer fork, but sometimes you do not. Sometimes the choice you make looking up through the fog at the suggestion of a traversable route is the one you must follow all the way through its course, wherever it leads and whatever it entails.
The next mile was mostly uphill and pleasant. I replenished my supply of water at a creek partway up in anticipation of a long stretch without good sources, then made my way up and over the shoulder of a rounded knob at about seven thousand feet. It was covered with wildflowers, the spring just now getting into full swing at the end of August after a heavy snow year. In another month, it might be covered in snow again.
It began to rain in drizzly gusts as I made my way down into the next saddle. It wasn’t terribly cold and didn’t look as though it was going to get much worse, but I put on rain gear all the same. In the mountains, it is much easier to stay dry than to get dry, although sometimes neither is easy. A complicated stretch of brush, scrambling, and sidehill.
The next stretch of the route was difficult and confusing. I knew I needed to drop down to the pass and then climb the bank on the opposite side up to the ridge, but it never presented a clean line. Even though I was around or above seven thousand feet the whole time (where tree cover is usually minimal) I found the trees growing closer and closer together as I moved forward with no indication of when they might clear. The way was steep as well; steep and vegetated and occasionally rocky. This required an acrobatic blend of crawling around and over wet tree limbs while descending alternating stretches of wet rock and wet meadow grass.
When I finally reached the pass — Pillar Pass, it was called— I found that its label was not merely an artistic flourish. The south side of the pass was thickly treed right up to the brink where the land crested and slide off downhill to the north. Just a few dozen feet downhill, a little to the west of the lowest point in the pass stood a pillar of white rock. It was around six to ten feet in diameter at the base and tapered upward to a height of thirty to fifty feet. No other formation appeared around it. It is not an easy spot to get to and no trails that I am aware of go anywhere near it. The name was an obvious indication, though, that someone at some point had made the trek to the pass from one side or another and made the discovery. First, most likely, the name had been passed along by word of mouth, along, perhaps, with a legend about its origin. Then provincial knowledge had been officiated in the form of a notation on a map and the notation had been passed down by cartographers building layers for use by a Geographic Information System. It might have been a month or a year or ten years since its last human visitor, but even such an out-of-the-way spot as Pillar Pass is the setting of history.
From the pass, I would gain another thousand feet of vertical over the next twenty-five hundred feet of horizontal. But it felt less like a climb and more like a wrestling match as I twisting my way up through trees and around rocks. My memories include more of the frustration of wedging myself and my pack through slippery trunks and sopping branches than the clean, burning sensation of sore muscles making one more push up and over one more ledge. At one point, I found myself wedged halfway up a wet notch of squishy moss-covered rock only to find that my pack would not allow me to go up and my footing offered no clear way to go down. I perched there suspended on one foot bobbing up and down like a yo-yo between going down and going up trying out hand holds that all seemed slippery and tentative. I finally found a foothold far enough below me to be stable and slowly backed down from the notch. My heart was racing with the exertion and adrenaline, but I was safe. It would not have been a long fall (maybe ten feet) but even short falls can have long consequences.
I was now getting really tired. I’d already hiked fifteen miles over the last eight hours and gained almost a mile and a half of elevation. The last few miles had been various combinations of steep, brushy, stressful and rainy. It was now almost three PM and I was still not quite to the top of the ridge. I was moving steadily, but at a frustratingly slow pace. In the first four hours of the day, I’d covered eleven miles. In the last four hours, I’d covered four despite similar or greater effort. The weather was still threatening and the fog now obscured my view. I knew that at the end of the ridge, I’d need to either climb up and over Goat Peak or find a way to skirt round it. From the glimpses I got between cloud banks, neither option looked promising, especially not if I had to attempt them in the dark.
It was still early. I still had five or six hours of light. But at the pace I was going, it didn’t seem far fetched to imagine navigating through the rocks and trees by headlamp trying to get down far enough to camp. I was not yet really fearful, but I was starting to get frustrated and anxious and I knew that would not make for the best decision-making. I was going slow and the clock was ticking, but I couldn’t let myself hurry. To hurry in this terrain and at this stage in the day would be to make mistakes. I just needed to continue moving steadily and methodically — almost meditatively — along my route as if the sun was shining and I could go on forever. I said a prayer borrowed from Psalm 23 and as the shadows continued to roll in and the valley fell further below me, it seemed to fit. I also ate something, as much for my mind as for my body.
It was a relief, if not a great one, when I finally made it to the top of the ridge. I was pleased to see that it appeared navigable, at least for a stretch, and I was finally able to actually walk upright on two legs for the sections between outcroppings. Goat Peak loomed up in front of my and I still didn’t know exactly how I’d get around it, but for the moment I was making good time. Furthermore, the weather appeared to be breaking and I began to see patches of sky through the cloud cover.
When I finally came to the end of the ridge, could see that it dropped down into a narrow saddle before climbing up Goat Peak. And to my great relief, when I looked down from the pass to my left toward Twin Lakes (where I hoped to camp for the night), I could see a clean line of travel from the saddle across the mountains glacier-scrapped shoulder. I would have to lose some elevation first, so it would require yet more uphill, but the route appeared to be across stable rock, over a few low-angle snowfields and around — or perhaps over — the mountain’s bulging northern spur. It didn’t appear, however, to require any technical or sustained climbing or scrambling.
There’s few things I enjoy more than crawling along the very top of a mountain ridge. But after four hours of near-continuous climbing and bushwhacking, I welcomed a break. The line across the shoulder of Goat Peak proved steep and strenuous, but not difficult or complicated. The sun came out as I was making my way down and made the reddish rock glow warmly. It was still only four in the afternoon, but I was sorely tempted to make camp for the day.
Once atop the northern spur of the mountain, I just had to drop down into the next saddle and connect with the trail to Twin Lakes. On the map, it looked as though this trail was well-defined, but I found that it was more of a route than a trail. I kept intersecting patches of foot worn terrain, but they always seemed to peter out after a few yards. I moved up and down the slope toward the plateau between two low ridgelines where lakes rested but never did find a path that I appeared to be the main one.
Instead of a path, I walked up on a mountain goat calmly nibbling at the meadow grasses. I think that it was a nanny, but I was never quite sure. Both the nanny and the billy have horns, but the billys have a stockier build. It saw me as I was moving up to it but didn’t seem to be alarmed. Eventually, it hopped a few feet further up the slope with a cool nonchalance bred, I suppose, from living and frolicking where even the most agile and intrepid predators would have difficulty.
The cloud cover started to move in again as I made my way tenderly down to the lakes. my legs began to feel as though they might mutiny at any minute. It had been just twelve hours since I left camp in the morning, but it seemed like days. I’m writing all of this from memory and each section appears distinct and crisp in my mind. I can still feel the joy and apprehension, the wet trunks and rocky edges, and see the sun and clouds playing with the colors of the mountains.
It was only about six thirty or seven when I hiked down across the outlet of the first lake. I had an hour or two of light if I’d wanted to use them, but it seemed like enough for one day. I found a peninsula between the lakes and a little cove amid the heather that would shelter me from the wind. After setting up my tent and unpacking my sleeping bag and pad, I put on a couple of additional layers and cooked a simple dinner of beans and rice. I could tell even with the salt of hunger that the recipe had not gone according to plan, but it was warm and filling and I ate every morsel. The sun dropped behind the mountains while I ate, but the mountains to my south still glowed with its last rays.
After changing into long johns and a fresh pair of socks (a luxury I have come to appreciate) I crawled into my sleeping bag. The feeling of lying flat after being on my feet for so long was exquisite — like some sort of delicacy. I have found no other time that I adequately cherish rest than after first working hard and long.
I have visited at least three Twin Lakes in the alpine of BC, and I’m sure there are many more. If Adam had employed this naming scheme for the animals, then we might have several dozen variously sized “Twin Hoof” among the ungulates. It is fortunate that God employed more care shaping these little catchments and their surroundings than we took naming them. I suppose there are only two lakes, but this alpine valley, situated a little below seven thousand feet, looks as though it is filled with one long continuous lake or perhaps several lakes since the lake’s width varies widely. The mountains enclosing the lakes to the south and north rise only five hundred to a thousand feet above it, and they are gentle and rounded. It is a peaceful valley , almost pastoral after a fashion. A carpet of soft alpine grasses laces its way between the rocks and a few small trees grow in clusters where the soil offers a deep enough foothold. The sides of the valley look like they have been scraped clean by the icy hand of some previous age and even in the center, you can see isolated boulders of tremendous size which appear to be have been left there by mistake.
This was the world I watched wake up the next morning with the first rays of the sun appearing directly in line with the valley’s eastern end where it opened abruptly out onto the sky. The morning was crisp, clear, and cold, so I deferred breakfast for the moment, broke camp and started walking shortly after 6:00 AM to warm up. I made my way along the lake’s southern edge, sometimes walking over smooth alpine grass and sometimes hopping from one block of immaculately-hewn rock to another. I was sore and even a little shaky from the previous day’s effort. I noticed this when I first tried to extend my limbs climbing over the larger rocks, but it was too beautiful a morning to harbour much worry.
At the far eastern end of the valley, the lake pours its contents off of a series of rocky shelves in a series of little cataracts separated by deep, winding rivulets banked by smooth stones and short grasses. To the south, you could see the Pinnacles — which I’d explored with Geoff earlier that summer — gleaming in the morning sunlight framed by line upon line of mountains running off into the distance until it was impossible to say whether they were peaks or clouds. The place was as orderly and inviting as a garden and as wild and expansive as the sea mixed together in morning sunshine so bright and golden and hard-edged that it seemed to be part of the landscape.
I ate breakfast by the brook looking out south and east onto the lines of mountains in the distance — trying to find peaks that I recognized. I still had a few more miles before I would intersect the trails leading to Sol Mountain Lodge — a backcountry ski and mountain biking chalet built on the southern slopes leading up to the Gold Range. This section was one of the highlights of the trip. The navigation was easy even without a trail and the terrain alternated between undulating alpine grasses, rocky outcroppings, and stands of dwarfed subalpine evergreens.
Along the ridge heading east, I began to pick up traces of a use trail which grew more and more pronounced as the footfalls of past travellers were funnelled down into the timber. It felt wonderful to be back on a trail after fifteen miles of navigation without one. I could let my mind relax and begin to estimate my progress more precisely.
I followed the trail down through the valley below tree line and then back up to the lodge. As I walked up to the inviting two-story building, I could hear people talking and smell breakfast cooking amid a clatter of pans. It was still early in the day although I’d already covered over five miles. I briefly considered whether to wander aimlessly into the gathering and try to look forlorn enough to be offered some table scraps. I certainly looked the part of a vagabond; even after only a day, the layers of dirt, sweat, and abrasions might have allowed me to pass for a seasonal resident. I finally determined reluctantly that my entry would be unlikely to elicit my desired response. This intuition was confirmed when a few minutes later, two tidily-outfitted female mountain bikers emerged from the front door and did there very best to ignore the conspicuous presence of a dishevelled backpacker standing awkwardly at the trailhead as if he were a high school boy trying to sort out how to take part in the dance.
Instead of bacon and eggs, I at some trail mix and an energy bar with a slight twinge of disappointment and went on my way toward Fostall sweeping up along the ridge to my northwest. For most of my journey, the mountain had been of only secondary consideration: always one or two ridges over, a reference but not a focus. But now it was not only in view but was the view as I meandered roughly toward it. The trails I was now following were built and maintained for mountain biking by the lodge and so were clearly marked and meticulously maintained. Every sweep of the trail now brought the mountain a little closer and reframed it with a fresh foreground of blooming alpine meadow, glistening orange rock, and tall, narrowly-branching evergreens.
My legs were still sore from the previous day even after a morning of warming up, but I paused only briefly and infrequently to eat or replenish my water. If possible, I wanted to be on top of Fostall by around noon because this, I felt, would give me a chance at hiking all the way down out of the Monashees back to camp at Sugar Lake that same day. In retrospect, it might have made better sense to camp at Big Peter’s Lake that night, but at this time in the day, my original plan still seemed plausible even though the math of mileage and pace was getting harder and harder to calculate.
It was easy to make good time on such good trails, even though the hours seemed to pass much more quickly than the miles. I came at last to the spot where the route to Fostall branches off and the established trail continues up and over Caribou Pass and down into the heart of Monashee Provincial Park. I’d rejoin this trail in a couple of hours, but the mountain came first.
The route up Fostall is a popular one for good reason. For such a big peak, the climb up is surprisingly straightforward and non-technical. On many peaks, the most obvious way up when standing at the base becomes complex and dangerous when you get right up to it, but on Fostall, what you see is what you get. First, you sidehill for a mile along the mountain’s southern slope, slowly gaining elevation as you go. The route then contours southward to the lowest point of Fostall’s immense, wedge-shaped southern slope. This is really the only tricky point in the route, for you have to navigate across a moderatly-angled snowfield and up through a small, cliffy band of rock. Once through, you’re at the base of the wedge and need only make your way straight up at a moderate angle for the next half mile to the summit. The rock is loose and in places gravely and this makes the route a bit more dangerous. To compound this, there are places if you veer too far left where a tumble might not reliably end before a very long fall off Fostall’s southwestern face. Staying to the straight and narrow, and taking small steps, however, will lead you safely to the top if you keep putting one foot in front of another.
This is easier said than done. The slope is a long one if not treacherous, gaining the final thousand feet of elevation at something like a 30–40% grade. I had already hiked fairly hard for the previous five hours, and I was mindful of avoiding missteps due to fatigue, so my ascent was slow but steady.
The day continued to be sparklingly clear and I reached the summit to find the finest view of the Monashees one could hope for. There below me at a seemingly vertical angle sat Big Peter’s Lake, connected by a westward thread to Little Peter’s Lake at the entrance to the valley. They were over two thousand feet below me, but they looked as though they were right at my feet, miles away yet at the end of my fingertips. Above them to the north and east, still hung with garlands of snow at the end of August and standing with the poise and godlike serenity of their namesakes, were Mount Odin and Mount Thor, rising like statues head and shoulders above the heart of the Gold Range. Looking further north, the rest of the range formed a line of breakers settling into deeply-forested valleys beyond Mount English and Mount Begbie before building strength and swelling again into whitecaps yet again as the Columbia Range continued it’s crashing course through the landscape. To the east, past the Monashees, the mountains were soft and grey or blue and even when the high jagged peaks of the Rockies tore the skyline miles beyond, their violent edges were muted and diffused.
To my south, I could see the Pinnacles in the distance— Mount Severeride, and the three Pinnacle Peaks — and in my foreground and the ridges immediately beyond were the low peaks ringing Twin Lakes, the rounded head of Goat Mountain, and the indistinct and unimposing edge of Sugar Mountain lifting above the trees like the rough spine of a whale breaking the surface. I couldn’t see Sugar Lake. It was hidden from view by the mountains, but I could imagine it lying at the foot of Sugar Mountain with my children splashing in it’s clear water or sitting sunning on the rocks at it’s shore. I could see from this point almost my entire route, starting from the top of Sugar mountain, following the ridge, crossing over to the opposing mountain before going around Goat Mountain, passing through the valley of Twin Lakes, descending into the timber before emerging to my west before making my ascent up Fostall. The entire journey was there before me like a series of frames, each housing hours of effort and a vast mixture of emotions. It had been only thirty six hours since I left the lake. It was almost exactly noon.
In addition to my past, I could now view a large section of my future to the north: Caribou Pass, the lakes, and the long valley leading out of the mountains. Most of it was on trails I’d walked before and I hoped to walk them again that day before the sun set. It was mostly downhill, but it was a long way and steep and rough in many places. But first rest. I sat down at the cairn on top of Fostall, leaning on it first looking north and then looking south as I ate cheese, crackers, and — to reward myself — a piece of chocolate. While I was stopped, I also took the time to remove my shoe and apply Leukotape to a hotspot on my heal. My feet had done well so far, but the heat of the day and the long miles of repetitive strides on smooth trails coming up from Sol Mountain Lodge and the final ascent up Fostall had begun to take their toll.
The descent down Fostall was slow but not difficult and the navigation back too the trail was merely an exercise in not losing or gaining too much elevation as I made my way back to the pass. The trail down to the lakes was not well maintained and I lost it for a time when a jumble of small streams and blown down timber threw me off track. This was the only point on the whole route where I grew really and truly frustrated. It didn’t make a lot of sense. The trail appeared to be official only through use, and it was probably no one’s responsibility to mark and maintain. It was, furthermore, going through a living landscape, subject to floods in the spring, avalanche in winter, and explosive vegetation growth during the brief summer. It was no one’s fault that it had gotten a little washed out and overgrown. But perhaps because I was already tired and perhaps because I needed to eat something, and almost certainly because I had let myself get into a hurry, I felt swelling within me a raging inferno of righteous indignation. How dare they have not cleared the foliage pressing at the trail’s edges? What could have possessed them to mark the trail at the points where the trail was obvious and leave it unmarked where it was altogether obscured?
I find that looking back on this adult tantrum of mine is interesting and instructive. On the one hand, it is not unexpected. Make me hungry, bone tired, rushed, and then place obstacles real or perceived in my way and frustration is not unlikely. On the other hand, this was the third or fourth iteration of this exact scenario in the last two days and this was the first time that I found it really galling.
I think the answer to this riddle is twofold: firstly, when descending into a valley I knew by a way that was tangled and perplexing but not dangerous, my irritation could be separated from my personal safety. For one of the first times on my hike, I had the luxury of venting my emotions. I could scowl and curse and declaim against the absurdity and incompetence of the system and its administrators and suffer only the vague emptiness of known futility. I wouldn’t suffer a fall or die of exposure as the external consequence of my internal breakdown of character. Secondly, I had now entered a realm — within the boundaries of a provincial park — where someone was responsible, however tangentially and however understandable their lapse.
I had felt this second atmospheric shift when I was hiking up from Sol Mountain Lodge. The trails in that stretch were perfectly cared for and precisely marked and if one happened to be trying to make quick miles, they evoked a sense of certainty and trust. Someone was in charge and had taken it upon themselves to lift up every valley and bring low every mountain and hill. You could cruise smoothly through the rough landscape knowing with the certainty of a mile marker that your way was the right one.
Both of these visceral responses to human administration hinged on my instinctual reliance on it. As soon as the prop of human shaping of the landscape appeared, I leaned on it with a sense of expectation. In the first instance those expectations were met and exceeded creating as its side effect a lack of attention and maybe a lack of appreciation as well. In the second, I leaned and found that it didn’t hold my weight, with the resulting collapse producing an outburst of frustration and vitriol. I can’t blame the park rangers for my bad behaviour, but I do think it’s worth noting that every human structure, even those that are crumbling into oblivion, changes not only our landscape but our psychological response to that landscape. One might say that we are trail-seeking creatures and when once we have settled upon a path we believe to have been etched by a human authority, we tend to surrender with eagerness to its orbit without considering the consequences to either our direction or mental well-being. (The culmination of this blind trustfulness might be the commuter sitting in muted but raging desperation for hours a day, days without end, headed to and from a meaningless post he abhors simply because years ago he saw what appeared to be a path others had followed.) The key element of this surrender is that we embrace the fact that there is a hand shaping the landscape and a face behind the hand directing us with gestures and twists of expression where we should go. One imagines two men in hardhats, one with an unfurled topo map, directing a team of surveyors with long poles and lasers followed by a work crew armed with pick axes. But accepting another person’s intrusion into our journey implies also an estimation of his competency and intent. Once this implication is made, we either follow willingly and complacently or perhaps — as I was — begrudgingly and with consternation, but we almost always follow regardless. We do not follow paths as animals do, merely for the sake of an easy place to walk, but engaging in a mental exchange with the person who made it.
There might be an in-between. If we are following a path that we do not believe was intended for us (like the logging roads spiderwebbed across BC) we can follow it merely because it offers easy travel and without much of the internal struggle or capitulation. We can stroll these paths as we would those of an ancient civilization grown back into the jungle, happy to have found a clearing, perhaps trying to understand the pattern, but not attempting to match wits with its designer. We are able in this way to avoid the piercing rays of a foreign intelligence seeking us across time. I don’t think I would have grown as frustrated had the trail down to Big Peter’s Lake been a dilapidated logging or mining road.
The remaining miles went quickly, but not nearly quickly enough. The trail from Big Peter’s to the trail head was all fairly well maintained, well marked, and — furthermore — I had hiked it once before. I was able to make nearly three miles an hour, but it was now growing into the afternoon and I still had a long way to go.
Getting to the trailhead would not be a problem. My intent, however, was to walk several miles past the trailhead, several miles up an adjacent logging road, bushwhack uphill for half a mile to another network of service roads, and then walk several more miles back to camp. The sums refused to calculate. No matter how fast I walked and how smooth the trail, I just couldn’t seem to make the miles shorter or the hours longer. Had I been thinking clearly and unhurriedly, I might have chosen to make camp at Big Peter’s Lake. Or Little Peter’s Lake. Or Spectrum Lake. Or just somewhere off the trail a few hundred feet. I might have chosen to camp before I’d dropped so much elevation that mosquitos were going to be a problem (I’d left behind the bug net on my tent to save weight and in the alpine I didn’t need it).
But I didn’t. I kept drilling downhill at a furious pace, passing the few hikers I met going the same direction. This included a couple of guys in their fifties or sixties working their way down the hill at a leisurely pace, carrying between them in large packs a long list of amenities which I’d chosen to forego. We greeted each other as I flew past, each on our own type of adventure, but I couldn’t help but discern in their expressions and body language a certain bemusement at my rush.
I reached the trailhead well before sunset and didn’t even pause before continuing on down the logging road at an even faster pace than before. I walked hard for fifteen or twenty minutes and then looked at my watch — another mile down, but not fast enough. At this pace, I’d arrive at the junction near Rainbow falls in an hour and a half. Right around sunset. From there…but it just wasn’t working and I wasn’t thinking with any sort of precision.
Furthermore, everything in front of me seemed anticlimactic. I’d already covered the most inspiring and challenging sections of off trail. I’d already summited Fostall. I’d already blown through fifteen miles of nice trails through Monashee Park that, while I enjoyed the ride, I could have easily given a little more of my attention. I’d already hiked twenty-five miles — up and down hills the whole time. I was tired, my feet were starting to blister, and the prospect of hiking another ten or fifteen miles on logging roads was not exciting. The prospect of bushwhacking up a steeply-timbered hillside in the dark was not thrilling either. Even less inspiring was the prospect of camping somewhere down here in the valley beside the dusty road and listening to mosquitos take aim at my ears all night.
I texted Rebecca using my InReach satellite messenger asking if she could drive around the lake to pick me up — about an hour’s drive. The messages, however, always experience a significant delay, especially since I was sending them to her InReach, compounding the delay. She got the first message, but it was hard to tell from our subsequent exchange whether she was responding to my most recent messages or ones sent twenty minutes earlier. Regardless, I had my marching orders. I would hike out to the main road from Rainbow Falls to make Rebecca’s rescue mission as short and easy as possible.
It was at that point that a pickup with the two gentlemen I’d passed along the trail pulled up alongside me. They had likely gotten to the trailhead a couple of hours after I did, but had now caught up to me with the aid of their iron chariot, five miles or more down the entrance road.
“You need a ride?” said the driver. “We’re prob’ly the last people coming down this road tonight.”
They cleared a little of the usual camping rummage from the back seat and I squeezed in slowly and a little painfully. My legs by this point were moving only by long habit and it felt wonderful to finally sit down. They offered me a beer and we exchanged tales. They’d been up at Big Peter’s lake for a couple of days, were a part of the local hiking club, and had spent many a cheerful season hiking these hills.
When I related where I’d started and when, one of them took a look at my backpack, which compared to their’s was noticeably lean and probably half the weight:
“you carry a tent?”
“Yeah, a small one.”
“Must not be much of one.”
“No, it’s not, but it keeps me dry.”
They dropped me off at the head of the road to our campsite on the east side of the lake. I’d been careful to watch for our vehicle coming the other direction, and apparently Rebecca had taken a bit extracting herself from the camp. I almost fell down getting out of the truck while my legs resigned themselves to further abuse. I covered another mile or two of the six miles to camp before an old Toyota Sequoia on big knobby tires rumbled up behind me. It was a guy in his twenties with two girls of the same age along for the ride.
“You ok? Need a ride?”
“That’d be great.” I responded. I was not feeling picky about transportation.
“We’re headed out to Hot Rocks. Where you going?”
“My family’s camped at Hot Rocks. That’s perfect.”
We bounced along toward camp. Rebecca almost passed us up going the other direction, but looked in her rearview mirror just in time to see the bedraggled form of her husband standing and waving from a the bed of a stranger’s pickup.
The guy and his two girls played loud music, drank a few beers, and laughed in the moonlight above Hot Rocks for the next hour or more fifty yards from our tent. Our kids were not impressed, but I was inclined to be indulgent. It seemed strange, in a way, after covering so many miles alone that my last experience on the loop should involve the kindness of strangers — especially this unlikely threesome.
Unlikely? Not exactly. In a way it makes perfect sense to me why the local good ol’ boy would pick me up. I might have expected half a dozen Prius’s and sleek new SUVs to pass me by like I was a wandering dog, but the beat-up pickup would stop. The value system of backwoods life everywhere in North America (for I’ve known similar people in rural sectors of Mississippi, Arkansas, and southern Indiana) is kindly toward strangers if they enter the community without airs, without a vestige of worldliness and educated superiority. It is not, perhaps, impossible to exude haughtiness even when on foot, but it grows harder with every mile and I had now walked nearly fifty miles in the last two days. I was dirty, hungry, tired, walking with a stumbling gait — I was not better than he was, was hard-working, but was also hard up and so he was obliged to offer his help by the standards and values of the rural community.
I had noticed this same dynamic when we were first making camp a week earlier and another young local with two more local girls (I think they were different girls, but I’m not sure) drove up in another old Toyota pickup. He asked where I was from — “from Armstrong” — I asked about his truck, he asked about my Jeep — a similarly rugged and abused mode of transport which I’d monkey-wrenched myself to make it even readier to escape a crumbling civilization.
None of these words were what he was asking. He was asking whether I was camped at Hot Rocks (a local destination since the lake had been filled) with a sense of foreign entitlement, whether I thought I was better than him because I was paying $20 per night and might occasionally work in a suit. If I was not better, if I could see a kinship of purpose between his truck and my Jeep, if I knew that no amount of money could purchase Hot Rocks from those who had spent the summer of their youth there, then we could be friends. Later he — addressing me as “Jeep guy” — offered me a beer as he and his lady friends basked in blow-up pool floats a few feet off shore, their music making a steady beat from the bank. I made the mistake of politely refusing — a small blot on our relationship.
I am not better. This is always the lesson when you leave the city and head into the backcountry. Whatever privilege or specialized new-economy skills you may possess cannot buy respect from the hills or the vast stretches of sparsely-populated human culture which rests between them. Carry too much with you and it becomes an encumbrance: more an embarrassment than a privilege. But come as you are, on foot, and you can go farther than you’d think, climb up and over the peaks, down and into the valleys, and if you meet other travellers in that humble posture or a bit of the local night life, you may find them welcoming of you as you are: unadorned and yet enough.