In September 2012, Vancouver Island was experiencing some of the best climbing weather all year. A late summer warm spell had seen stellar conditions from the sometimes soggy lower elevation crags, all the way to the high alpine. The fall monsoon loomed on the horizon and those of us who were lucky enough to be underemployed, we were scrambling every last inch we could get. Seasons change overnight on the Island and commonly, the first rains of the fall wash away our dreams and goals til the coming year.
I've never been a fast hiker or climber, at least not by my own standards. Methodical I call it, calculated, but its bullsh#t, and knowing is half the battle. It had been a goal to work towards and I packed on the pitches and hikes in the mountains with the goal of doing more quick trips.
Thursday night the phone rang, it was two of the local boys Carmen and Mike and they had an adventure planned, the North Spur of Kings Peak to Elkhorn mountain, the 8th and 2nd higheast peaks on the Island in a day. The North Spur is an Island classic that features moderate scrambling and amazing views along a broad ridge with only a few short sections of climbing and exposure. I had scoped the route the weekend before on a trip up the hikers route and knew it was in bone dry condition.
Elkhorn required losing a lot of elevation and crossing the basin before scrambling up some chossy gully climbing. The boys had done this trip before on an overnight, our trip was to be fast and light, no rope or gear(this would prove the correct decision). Kings I had been up via the hikers route but Elkhorn was new to me. It sounded like a long day and I wasn't sure i had it in me, but I surmised I could turn back at the top of Kings if I wasn't feeling it. With 48 hours to spare I packed my bags and by friday night we were asleep in the parking lot at the trailhead.
A 5am start and a few pre-dawn hours on the trail saw us at the meadow where the route splits, from there we scrambled some bushy bluffs to gain the glacier.
We scrambled some easy rock to the start of the spur proper, where we were to get our first glimpse of sunshine. We were suprised to see smoke from the nearby Wolf River Valley, where a forest fire had been raging for a few days. The smoke flowed like a river through the valley below.
After a quick hike along the flat section of ridge we reached a small downclimb to cross an exposed notch. Across this notch the route unfolded while the summer sun bathed us with heat.
The easy scrambling passed quickly and until we were at the base of the final rock bluff that guards the summit. A little routefinding and a bit of climbing saw us avoid any major difficulties.
Just over 5 hours and we topped out to a ok view I suppose...Elkhorn center left Rambler in the middle far behind, Mt. Colonel Foster on the right with its 4000ft east face. These peaks form the head of the Elk River Valley.
Once we signed the summit register, Carman decided he didn't have the energy for the huge elevation loss and gain and would be descending Kings. Mike was still game to continue, I knew once we descended there was no turning back and the only easy way out was forward. With so much daylight left we had to go for it, so off we scrambled down easy cracks on the backside leaving Carman on top. He lounged long enough to spot us as we gained the glacier in the Northwest basin, and even snap a picture.
At the low point of the basin was a glacial creek, this would be our last available water source until we descended Elkhorn. We drank as much water as humanly possible and headed for the notch. The heat of the midday sun reflected off the glacier, as the temps rose to around 30.
Once we hit the notch we knew we had to hurry to avoid descending by headlamp, we dropped our packs at the col, took one last drink, stuffed some granola bars in our pockets and ran as fast as we could around the backside to the east gullies.
We scrambled up rotten rock past old rappel stations, chimneyed up behind a chockstone and onto the last steps below the summit.
The summit proper is literally a choss pile, which for some reason seemed to be hatching nasty flies all over the place. We tried hard to avoid making jokes about it being a turd, for fear of upsetting the mountain gods.
With no time to waste, we signed the register and quickly left the summit, the clock was ticking now and we wouldn't be at ease until the scrambling was behind us and we were back at our packs. The rock seemed worse on the downclimb (doesn't it always) so we took our time for a misstep would mean painful or fatal conqequences.
Back on solid ground, we shouldered our packs and took stock of our dwindling water supplies, the scorching heat left a constant thirst and my carrying capacity was only 3 litres of which I was left with one.
We sprinted to get off the ridge and down the fixed ropes, I took the time to snap one last parting photo.
The day started to take its toll on the descent, and an hour or so after leaving the col, we were nearly out of water. Once we hit the trees the shade gave us a welcome reprieve but dehydration was starting to take its toll on both of us. We could hear the river but it seemed ages before we finally reached its flow. I've probably never been thirstier in my life and we both felt the energy revitalize us as we gorged ourselves on natures sweet nectar. With our tanks refilled we literally sprinted the Elk River Trail, reaching the parking lot just as darkness overtook the valley, narrowly avoiding pulling out the headlamps. Carman greeted us with surprise cold beers as we reached the tailgate, 15 hours after our departure.
We set no speed records, we didn't climb anything cutting edge, we didn't put up a first ascent, we simply seized the moment. A chance for a great day out on gods green earth with good friends in an amazing place. For me days like these are the reason why I started climbing in the first place. Moving unencumbered high above the alpine, with the sun on your back, the breeze in your hair, clinging to the side of the mountain in awe of the beauty of the natural world.