One of the advantages of my job is the ocassional opportunity to visit Vancouver. This is the first time I’d visited the city ( or Canada, in fact, though I have been to the US a few times ) and I wanted to make the most of the free time I had.
Having decided do go for a hike in the surrounding mountains, I only really had one full day free, limiting my options to what was easily accessible and returnable from in a day. Some of my colleagues had previously been to Grouse Mountain and mentioned it as a possible destination, but having never been higher than Ben Nevis ( at 1344m, 4409 ft, the highest mountain in the UK ) I wanted to use this opportunity to improve on that. Further to the west than Grouse, Cypress Provincial Park offers a number of peaks starting at around 1350m and steadily increasing in height as you go further north. These peaks form part of the popular Howe Sound Crest Trail, the full length of which is around 30km but I would only be doing the portion as far as The Lions – two 1600m peaks visible from Vancouver that are not entirely dissimilar from Garbh Chioch Mhòr and Sgùrr Na Cìche in Knoydart. From what I can ascertain, ascending The Lions themselves requires scrambling ( class 4 according to Wikipedia, though I have no idea what that is in UK terms ), however strange peaks in strange countries merit appropriate safety gear, so this time at least I would content myself to the summit of Unnecessary Mountain, which at 1530m fulfilled my "higher than Nevis" criterion well enough.
Cypress Mountain to Lions Bay
I dislike retracing my steps, so I prefer circular routes where possible, or failing that a destination served by public transport back to my starting point. With that in mind I perused the useful Vancouver Trails website for a suitable route. I opted for a portion of the Howe Sound Crest Trail, taking me over St Mark’s Summit and Unnecessary Mountain to The Lions, and then a sharp descent to Lions Bay from where a regular bus service goes back to Vancouver.
Vancouver Trails rates its routes as Easy/Intermediate/Difficult, but this means little if you have no basis for comparison. The portion as far as St Mark’s Summit ( intermediate ) is virtually a gravel track for most of the way, with a few sections of clambering over fallen trees near the top. Compared to hiking in the UK it’s a luxurious highway. Between St Mark’s Summit and Mount Unnecessary a sign indicates that the improvements that have been done to the trail by the local authorities come to an end, after which the ground is rough and going is hard and a map is all but useless – but there are orange tags and other such markers hanging from branches, nailed to trees and sprayed on rocks for the entire route making it difficult to miss.
The portion on the ridge itself is the most rewarding, with its spectacular views. At this time ( late September ) there was a little snow but most of it avoidable, and even where not avoidable it wasn’t anything that would necessitate crampons, the worst consequences of a slip being embarrassment and a wet arse. There are some fixed ropes left in some areas to ease clambering off the rocks but personally I prefer not to trust my wellbeing to ropes when I have no idea who put them there. In any case they aren’t really necessary to progress.
The ascent and descent from Lions Bay is described as ‘difficult’ by Vancouver Trails, and though I would only be doing the descent it’s a bit of a slog and I would say that although being both longer and higher than Ben Nevis via the Pony Trail, it’s a route of similar character. The last section however, where the track widens and zig-zags down the hill is tedious beyond belief, and what I wouldn’t have given for a mountain bike at that stage.
One major difference between hiking in Scotland and Canada is the presence of bears. Hikers are advised to carry various forms of protection as an emergency measure, such as a pepper spray variant available from outdoor shops in the area. Bears, I am told, tend to avoid the smell and noise of people anyway, which I imagine is true since I didn’t see a single one. I did buy the pepper spray, however, though I was unable to take it on the plane back to the UK.
The interactive map
A quick word on the interactive map above for those interested ( if you’re viewing this as a Facebook note or RSS feed, you’ll need to view the original post to see it ). The basic service is provided by Microsoft, the reason I don’t use Google Maps is that Microsoft provide access to the UK’s Ordnance Survey topographical mapping. I have customised it somewhat for this specific post, using the Canadian Government’s Geogratis service to download a local topographic map in pdf format, and then used MapCruncher from Microsoft Research to prepare it in a format so that it can be used with Bing. The details on how to do this are available from MSDN for interested web geeks, but it’s probably not of any interest to anyone else.
High resolution images are available from Flickr.