From Whistler village (Lost Lake area),
up Wedge Creek to Wedge Pass,
down Billygoat Creek,
up Nannygoat Creek to Naden Pass,
down the Cheakamus River valley to Route 99 and back to Whistler.
4 days: April 6 to 9, 2007.
1st: Wedge Creek valley near the confluence with Saucer Creek,
2nd: Naden Pass area,
3rd: Cheakamus Lake, SE end.
Very soft, wet snow (freezing level above 2000 m/7000ft).
Continuous snow cover all the way from and down to the road, with still major accumulations even at low altitude (below 1200m/4000ft)(see photos), except on the flats beyond (east of) Cheakamus Lake and along the lake.
Warm temperature (cf. above), no frost at any time. Generally fine, mix of sun and clouds. Rain nights and early mornings 2 and 3. Cloudy with intermittent light rain on day 4.
None. But bear trails seen and followed in the Billygoat and Nannygoat valleys. Wolf trails (see photo) in the Cheakamus River valley. Also bear and ungulate.
Some steep areas (upper Nannygoat Creek and lower Diavolo Creek near junction with the Cheakamus) require careful route finding. Main point: the access to Naden Pass from Nannygoat Creek. The "canyon" (see photo) is very exposed to avalanches and would be very dangerous in less stable snow conditions. The upper exit out of the "canyon" is very steep and might prove tricky in some snow conditions (perhaps also in summer?).
As a multi-day snowshoe venture into the wild this trip proved quite successful. The terrain is enough of a mix between steep slopes and more even valley bottoms to make it suitable for snowshoeing. In addition, while much of the land is below tree line, there are in fact plenty of open areas to get good views.
My aim was to go into wild, remote territory and I was not disappointed. No one to be seen, no development of any kind, just empty, quiet mountains. However it may be different at times, as some areas are clearly used for heliskiing. On the first day, while entering the Wedge Valley, a helicopter made two successive trips into the valley at very low altitude. And the following morning, shortly after leaving camp, on the flats near the junction with Saucer Creek, recent ski tracks were seen, confined to a small area. Further into the trip, in the Naden Pass area, two isolated flagged poles were passed by, one close to the shore of Nannygoat Lake and the other on the Diavolo Creek flats: pick up spots for heliskiers?
In addition to these mechanized intruders into the wild, backcountry skiers also use Naden Pass as a gateway to access the McBride Range from the Spearheads or Fitzsimmons Range. Indeed a recent trail was followed for a while on the heights leading to the pass.
Smart bear of Billygoat Creek
Luckily most of the tracks and trails met had been left by wildlife. The first one, a bear trail going up-valley, was picked up just after Wedge Pass and was followed a long way down Billygoat Creek. Beyond the pass the valley progressively turns into a gorge and the bear had carefully avoided avalanche-prone slopes by crossing to the creek's true left bank, where the forest offers an easier and safer route. Coming the other way, originally on the right bank, I also crossed the creek to follow the same route but crossed back again before the bear trail as I was keen to stay on the right bank and couldn't see whether there would be snow bridges lower down over the creek. As it happens there were and this renewed example of animal route-finding discernment added to my enjoyment of the natural surroundings.
I lost that trail in the long flat section beyond the gorge, where the thick snow helped make progress easy across a wide field of boulders. A few of those, having escaped the common disappearance thanks to their isolated location on a slight rise, resembled in the distance a group of chalets among Swiss alpine pastures (see photo). Beyond that, approaching Nannygoat Creek, the valley steepens and closes in again. Still travelling on the south side/right bank in order to avoid a crossing, I made sure to keep my altitude as much as possible and progressively veered south along the mountainside into Nannygoat Creek. Superb forest was surrounding me all along, dominated by large Douglas firs, the largest seen being a good 2m / 7ft across.
Up Nannygoat Valley
Sooner than expected I found myself again in open country, this time fully into Nannygoat Creek. A fresh bear trail, apparently going from the creek to the mountain on the Spearhead side (west), was crossed soon out of the forest. Could it be the continuation, or rather a downstream segment, of the trail followed earlier on? Somehow it looked fresher, with well formed claw marks and even in places some dirt on the surface of the packed snow. Ripsaw Glacier could be seen hanging high in a side valley to the south-west. At this point the end of the Nannygoat valley, still distant, couldn't be seen clearly but looked none too promising. Everywhere the valley sides were very steep with more or less developed cliffs. The end of the valley itself, however, narrowed into a kind of canyon, almost a couloir, which appeared very steep as well but cut through the cliffs from valley bottom right to the alpine. Getting closer it appeared clearly was this was the only passage. It was criss-crossed by snow avalanche debris from bottom to top and would be a dangerous place indeed in less stable snow conditions. The top was steep and barred by a cornice, but a narrow passage was found on its left bank, between cornice and cliff. Thanks to the very soft snow it was not difficult to punch steps with the snowshoes, but in different conditions crampons would be required. Steep slopes further to the left (right bank) might have been practicable as well. Camp was set a little distance up, about the altitude of Naden Pass but well before it.
Naden Pass, gateway to the McBrides
It rained much of the night with occasionnally fairly strong wind but all this stopped in the early morning, shortly before I got under way, although clouds remained low and visibility limited. I followed a backcountry ski trail for a while then dropped down towards Nannygoat Lake as the soft snow made the going difficult on snowshoes across steep slopes on the higher ground. At the pass the clouds lifted enough to open up views of the flats low into Diavolo Creek and provide a glimpse of the route to get there. Seen from that point the flats form a basin separated from the main valley (Cheakamus) further south by a forest-covered spine of higher ground, with no obvious exit anywhere. Once down into the basin the creek appeared to flow SW into a narrow, steep sided valley where the going was easy at first (on their traverse of Garibaldi Park the Stoltmann brothers, coming from the Diavolo Glacier, had left that valley to their right and crossed the spine of high ground to gain the Cheakamus River on the other side, continuing upstream from there on - see reference in top right of page). It became progressively steeper, leading to what appeared to be a precipitous canyon, and I stayed right on the mountain side to make my route across broad flat terraces, following the trail of an ungulate (goat, deer?) for a while. I had now the Cheakamus River on my left, quite a long way down, but the slopes leading to it were very steep, with rocky bluffs in many places. However, my path soon barred by the even steeper sides of a major side valley (Detour Creek probably), I managed to find a way down and, with some degree of relief, gained the easier ground near the bottom of the valley. From there on the going was easy, either across forest or along the river banks. Reaching a new fairly large side valley I crossed the trail of two wolves, one smaller than the other apparently, their normally large paw marks further enlarged to a huge size by the transforming snow.
Wolf tracks in the Cheakamus Valley
Beyond there the river loses altitude quickly and the valley closes in again. Keeping to the right bank as before I continued my traverse of now steeper valley sides, through forest as well as across a number of wide open areas at the bottom of avalanche couloirs. The most impressive of these, Refuse Creek, forms a kind of canyon all the way to the river and could be crossed only by dropping down to the rivers' very edge. At this point the valley levels out completely and changes into a flat plain leading to, and in fact extending, Cheakamus Lake. Seen from the summits between Whistler Mountain and Singing Pass this feature is striking. Anyone who has hiked there must have surmised that the lake once extended all the way and wondered whether it was still now receiving alluvium in such quantity that it might end up being completely filled at some point in the future.
Across the Cheakamus Flats 'Jungle'
Like higher up in the valley snow exposed to direct sunlight was very soft, almost without consistency. Interestingly it also became a lot thinner on the flats, covering only part of the ground and leaving many places bare. As a good part of these flats are free of forest and rather covered in debris of all kinds, especially jumbles of log sometimes mixed with alder bushes, either flattened on the ground or standing in almost impenetrable thickets, the going became difficult, slow and often quite dangerous. Many boulders or logs lay hidden under a thin soft crust of snow, with big holes around their sides creating as many traps ready to swallow passers by. Among those I seem to have been the most prone to being caught as the bear, deer and wolf trails observed obviously managed to dodge traps and always spotted the easier ground. This only confirmed my high opinion of animals' route finding abilities and, on my way towards the lake, I was pleased several times to re-join the trail of two wolves going in the same direction, although I would quickly lose it on the bare ground. While that trail gave the impression of animals knowing exactly where they were going at all times, I had to resort to trial and error to identify my own route. The game was to go from an open snow area to the next, never easy to see through the alder jungle, while avoiding the log-jumble areas. The river's right bank where I was was usually impassable although there was much snow-covered open ground on the left one. Yielding to that apparent promise I tried to ford but the water reached above my waist and the current was swift. Not keen for a swim I retreated and luckily found a way through more alder, finally reaching some proper forest. Interestingly I met the wolves' trail again just at that point. As expected the going became much easier, with fairly deep hard snow on the ground. The trees were thick and I couldn't rely on a view of the mountains to get direction, nor bother to take the pack down and get my compass. Instead for my orientation I took bearings on some meandering streams which I knew ended up in the lake. After only about fifteen minutes and a crossing on fallen logs made somewhat delicate by the collapsing snow, I reached a point where two streams flowing from each side converged ahead of me. I proceeded to the confluence and, instead of having my route barred on all sides, a judiciously fallen tree provided an escape route to the left bank from the very apex of that land's end. The two wolves' trail was right here, appearing suddenly on my left and continuing ahead, neatly printed in the soft snow covering the log. I kept on moving quickly as it was late afternoon already. Suddenly, as I was briefly lifting the eyes from the ground to assess the route, I saw bright light shining mid-height across the trees from an indistinct source. Immediately my spirit soared, quickly restrained by caution although all doubt was soon lifted: the lake! How nice to be out of the "jungle flats" at last. And just in time for setting camp, too.
A wolves' highway by the lake
The forest closely lined the lake shore, which in that area took the shape of an attractive sandy beach. I followed it towards the lake's north shore where I would join the developed trail the next day. After one hundred metres or so the forest receded away from the shoreline and I put up the tent on snow-covered grassy flats just removed from the sand. On the beach my two wolves had joined a bigger trail of wolves tracks pointing towards both north and south shores. A real wolves' highway. Nevertheless the night was quiet, few sounds making themselves heard through the almost continuous noise of the rain on the flysheet. The morning was grey and humid but the rain soon ceased and was never more than an occasional drizzle throughout the day. Wallowing across a calf-deep river followed by swampy sections, I gained the lake's north shore where I picked up a faint flagged trail. The going was fairly slow as the forest was littered with fallen trees of all sizes. It became easier upon reaching the Singing Creek campsite and the beginning of the developed trail.
Updide down snow
A last observation: the entire section of lake east of Singing Creek was free of ice and the shore clear of snow. In contrast, west of Singing Creek a thin but almost continuous layer of ice covered the lake, and snow was present on the ground, although not deep and patchy. Deep snow cover resumed at the western end of the lake, continuing all the way down to Route 99.
[ref1]Stoltmann, Randy1993. Written By the Wind. Orca Books, Victoria, BC.