Okay, first off, this is my favorite “trail” in the entire universe. 20 miles of pure unadulterated challenge-filled beauty and it is in my literal backyard. If you know me, you know I love to run, scramble and route find my way up mountains and that is EXACTLY what the HSCT entails – the entire way!
After doing the Baden Powell (BP) trail in a day (56km), Kim suggested we do the HSCT. I had seen flags for the HSCT during my climb of Mount Brunswick but I was not quite sure what it was. After a bit of research Kim and I planned on doing it three different weekend days, all of which fell through. With the season for the north shore peaks closing (the terrain is super avalanche prone and all around deadly), we knew it was Sunday or bust. You can kiss daylight goodbye at 4:32 p.m. and Kim resides on Bowen Island, meaning the first ferry docks around 6:45 a.m. With car shuttling (we met in Porteau Cove shuttling to Cypress Bowl) and morning poops we kicked off a rather late start at 8:10 a.m.
Now you may be saying to yourself, 20 miles, you should easily be able to get that done before 4:30 in the afternoon. And to that I would reply, yes sir, you are absolutely correct. BUT there is 20 miles everywhere else in the world and then there is 20 miles through the remote interior of the north shore mountains in British Columbia. And these two things are not the same. I know this because I have been severely smacked around by these mountains in good and bad weather. It is a term I have dubbed, getting “North Shored.” Anyone who recreates here has most certainly been North Shored a time or two. So let’s quickly talk about lessons the north shore peaks have taught me in the 2 months and 3 weeks I have been playing in them.
North Shore Lessons
- Trails are not trails, they are faint paths that go vertically up or vertically down a heavily vegetated mountain side. The likely hood of losing aforementioned path, getting horribly off route and questioning everything you know about yourself and the universe is approximately 92%. If you lose the path, which you will, you are absolutely screwed. Screwed. Screwed. Screwed. No pressure.
- You can read trail descriptions, you can study a route, hell you can even download Gaia and import the gpx files (did this) but you will still at some point get off route. Getting off route is hella scary, so just be prepared to be scared at least some of the time, no most of the time. You have to use intuition and read terrain like a mofo, meaning you rarely break concentration. You will always be in high alert mode which is mentally taxing and makes you ravenously hungry. So…
- Bring extra food. Because . . .
- It will take longer then you think it will take. Always.
- In the middle of a forested ascent or descent suddenly the path will vanish into a vertical 30 meter up climb or down climb involving a combo of wet slippery tree roots and rocks. These mid path romps come with consequence. Sometimes there is a tattered rope with knots to aid, most of the time you do not want to use it. When you come to the edge or base of one of these, “how could this be the way, HOW COULD THIS BE THE WAY” sections, it probably is the way. Chat with yourself, chat with your partner, look around for another way, but inevitably moments later you will be dangling from tree roots looking down the barrel of a gun.
- Even if it has not rained for a few days everything will still be wet. Always.
- Have a bail out plan. Just in case.
Armed with two months of solid experience and hard lessons learned, Kim and I were STILL thrown a major curve ball in the form of ice. Ice ice baby. So here is the story of my first time on the HSCT, oh and bonus, we summited 6 mountains in tow.
HSCT South to North – 31.3 km (20 miles) with 2,141 meters of gain (7,024 feet)
We sought out the actual summits of all mountains involved in this order:
Saint Marks Mountain (1,371 meters 4,498 feet), Unnecessary Mountain South (1,548 meters 5,078 feet), Unnecessary Mountain North (1,543 meters 5,062 feet), Thomas Peak (1,540 meters 5,052 feet), James Peak (1,466 meters 4,809 feet), David Peak (1,480 meters 4,855 feet).
The HSCT is done as a two to three day backpacking trip. We saw four different groups of backpackers along the way. We were the only ones day tripping. Everyone thought we were insane. In my opinion the HSCT can be broken up into three sections. Section I – Cypress Bowl to Unnecessary South (easy to follow, runnable sections, with lots of vert). Section II – Unnecessary South to Magnesia Meadows (double black diamond terrain, difficult to follow, route finding, scrambling, lots of ups and downs). Section III – Magnesia Meadows to Porteau Cove (long, so long but much easier then sections I & II, would make a lovely ramble). Now, in dry summer conditions I have no doubt I could do this in 9 hours or less, but in November conditions with dwindling daylight and ice, it took 11 hours and 24 minutes which I am chalking up as a major win. Did I mention, Kim had a raging head cold (and hung like a champ). I am not the kind of person who likes to repeat routes because there is too much to see and do but I loved this so much I would do it again and again and again. As well, I am not the kind of person who would ever go after something for speed but in the right conditions I want to push as hard as I can and see how fast I can actually run this because it very much plays to my strengths and experience. You are probably ready for photos now 😉
Section I – Cypress Bowl to Unnecessary Mountain South
Cypress Provincial Park has become a special place for me. I have staged some pretty great adventures both solo and with others out of Cypress Bowl and this is where I will ski in the winter. The entire HSCT (have I mentioned it is my favorite) is housed in Cypress Provincial Park. Kim and I started off by running strong up to the Saint Marks lookout which is not the actual summit. The true summit is a fully shrubbed bushwhack which of course we handled. I knew that morning when I was scraping ice off of my car at sea level that we might run into some difficult conditions. This was confirmed when we hit ice on the way up Saint Marks and then the way down. From here on out all north, northeast, east, and some west facing aspects where covered in thick ice and snow. So pretty much 85% of the entire route was ice. This made some of section one, all of section two, and most of section three treacherous and most certainly increased the danger. It also slowed us down tremendously. We were not expecting so much ice and snow but we were prepared. And when I say prepared I do not mean we had any form of traction, no, no, we definitely did not have traction. Refer to number four on my list of things the north shore mountains have taught me. Lets just say I had fresh batteries in my head lamp (which still ended up dying). I need a new headlamp.
The trek between Saint Marks and Unnecessary Mountain South was long, mud-icey, super steep, and heavily forested. Once we hit the ridge and crested skyline, the views opened up for the rest of the day and it was spectacular.
Section II- Unnecessary Mountain South to Magnesia Meadows
This section is full of route finding scramblin’ fun. In dry conditions I could move well on this terrain. In icy conditions it was all pretty sketch but absolutely stunning. Why was it stunning? Because there was so much time spent above the trees and that means VIEWS. So many of the mountains I have summited on the North shore are actually tree’d tops. Meaning, I do all this work to get to the top and see, well, trees. Which is totally fine but truly makes me appreciate when I can see mountains, ocean, and islands for miles and miles. And the photos….
Guess what? I know how to spell the word unnecessary now 😁.
Kim and I had discussed scrambling West Lion however we did not have helmets and guesstimated it would take about an hour round trip. Unsure of what lay ahead we made the choice to leave West and East Lion (roped climb) for another day. This ended up being the right choice as we still had to woman-handle a heaping pile of man-named mountains.
After some fun scrambles we were on the summit of Thomas Peak which is a sad hump in the middle of West and East Lion but gives incredible views of these two stunners.
The following man peak we were to mount was James. Now James Peak ended up being a very fun scramble but first let me take a selfie. Kidding – no selfies were taken BUT there was an absolutely heinous snow-ice-rime covered boulderfield to negotiate on the way down Thomas. Good thing my middle name is heinous snow-ice-rime covered boulderfield.
Next came a knife-edge like feature that was completely covered in ice. The scrambling from Thomas to the Thomas-James saddle was some of the scariest. I cannot explain how hard it is to place trust in un-tractioned trail runners while making climbing moves on ice covered rock where you cannot even see the bottom of what you could potentially slip off (sorry mom).
The scrambling up James was south facing which meant a welcomed reprieve from ice. Totally worth the shite boulderfield and icy death ridge.
The James Peak summit celebration was short lived. Now I knew we needed to head to our left and circumnavigate a large cliff band but an enticing trail lured me to the right, so we took it. It led down an icy gully to the edge of an abyss. Nope that’s not the way. We spent about fifteen minutes retracing our steps back to the summit and trying to find the route. It seemed every move we made ended with an icy cliff. Kim and I were shouting back and forth, “NO THIS IS NOT THE WAY,” “WHERE DOES THIS DAMN ROUTE GO,” when suddenly a voice from the heavens shouted out, “look for the two cairns!!” We glanced at each other and laughed. Okay, two cairns it is. The voice had spoken and the voice was right. We found the two cairns and began the descent from James over to our next guy David.
In the James-David saddle we met the voice from the heavens and thanked him for his guidance. At this point I over zealously announced to Kim, “I want to attack this mountain head fucking on.” Whatever that means. At the time it made Kim laugh, which was great because the climb up David was brutal. It’s now called HFO’ing a mountain.
And then we were standing on top of David Peak, our sixth summit of the day.
The descent off of David was the most convoluted and required many veg-belays. There was another ascent to gain the Harvey saddle and then we finally arrived at Magnesia Meadows where we ran into a man, a woman wearing a helmet, and a women wearing a shear tank top and no bra. Whatever scenario was unraveling will remain a mystery until the end of time but I still want to know why that woman was wearing a helmet in a meadow and how the other woman’s nipples were not rock hard. It was freezing out.
Section III- Magnesia Meadows to Porteau Cove
Now it was a race against darkness. We had to circumnavigate Brunswick Mountain in its entirety and had been warned that the descent down to Brunswick lake was “icy as fuck and required traction.” Ohhhh reallllyyyyy, tell me about it. This is also the point where we realized we were only half way. Yes, half way. Anyway, it looked like this, so who cares.
The descent down to Brunswick Lake was as promised, icy as fuck. But we were able to cruise the side-winding trail along Brunswick mountain and catch last light at the upper lake.
The last known photo taken. Yes I live in the most beautiful place in the world.
The next 12 km or so was hard even though it is considered the easier part of the HSCT. It got PNW canopy dark and very cold. The major issue continued to be ice and bonus there was not one, not two, but three tricky river crossings. I made the mistake of looking at my phone and seeing that we still needed to descend 3,500 vertical feet. Everyone (including myself) always be like vertical gainz this and vertical gainz that but dayum, vertical loss HURTS. We both rolled our ankles a few times because ice. Are you sick of hearing about ice yet? Well good because this report is officially over.
And that was one of the best mountain routes I have ever done.
Quick Video —
“I think I get addicted to the feelings associated with the end of a long run. I love feeling empty. Clean. Worn out. And sweat-purged. I love that good ache of the muscles that have done me proud.”