Thursday, September 5, 2013

Howe Sound Crest Trail

As the Labour Day long weekend approached, the pressure to complete the much talked about Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT) increased. Elise and I had hoped to do this hike as a father-daughter adventure during the final week of August, but a rainstorm of mid-winter proportions spoiled our well-laid plans. Luckily, the weather cleared on Friday evening and a window of opportunity appeared.

The HSCT starts at Cypress Bowl above West Vancouver and heads due north over a series of steep peaks toward Squamish, ending near Porteau Cove after 30 rugged kilometres. I'd done portions of the hike throughout the summer and read many reports, but trail information remained vague in a couple of areas. I'd heard the hike referred to as "advanced", but those comments are so subjective it's hard to know how to take them. My biggest concern was weather, but it looked like we had at least two sunny days so we decided to go for it. Game on!

We got packed on Friday and left early Saturday morning for Vancouver. Pam decided to accompany Elise and I for the first five kilometres of the hike, and it was nice to have her company. Here, Elise and I pose in front of the signboard at Cypress Bowl, fresh as daisies.

For the first hour, we found ourselves walking primarily in the damp forest. There were a lot of crazy fungi and mushrooms punching through the duff alongside the trai.

We soon reached St. Mark's Peak and got our first views of Howe Sound, which were spectacular.

Pam and Elise relaxing at the St. Mark's viewpoint. Elise is being a bizarre sever-year-old, as usual.

Enjoying the vista from St. Mark's viewpoint.

After this, Pam headed back to the car and a day of shopping in Vancouver while Elise and I continued on. We descended steeply from St. Mark's and ran into this sign in the saddle between it and Mount Unnecessary, the next peak in the chain.The trail did indeed get worse, but wasn't nearly as rugged as what we'd encounter the following day.

Insects on cow parsnip.

After a stiff climb up a broad ridge laced with beautiful old hemlocks, we emerged from the forest onto the summit plateau of Mount Unnecessary. We traversed this peak to the Lions, which can be seen behind Elise in the picture below. My plan was to camp on the north side of the East Lion (the one on the right) for our first night. I hoped that would make our first day the hardest, but the second proved quite challenging, more so than I was expecting.

We hiked to the West Lion and, as the evening wore on, made our way across a narrow catwalk below its south face. We then climbed into the notch between the two Lions, a spectacular location, and spotted our campsite on a ridge below. A steep descent led to an idyllic open meadow with rock slabs nearby. We threw up the tent and got working on dinner. Night was coming...

Elise "helped" with the meal.

Looking north with the last sun of the evening illuminating the peaks...

Looking west from our camp spot as the sun set over the ocean.

After a somewhat restless night, we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise. I jumped out of the tent to snap some pictures but Elise opted to relax and watch My Little Pony on her iPod. The wonders of modern technology!


Once up, we hiked into a small valley beside our ridge to have breakfast beside a tarn, a small pool below a snowfield on the East Lion. Elise rescued an odd coloured ladybug from the lake and made a home for it in her bowl. This was the highlight of her morning, for sure!

The tarn. Our view as we ate breakfast.

Daddy-daughter self portrait.

After breakfast, we went back up to the ridge and packed up for our second day of hiking, a traverse of three small peaks that lead to Magnesia Meadows and Brunswick Lake beyond. We could see the entrance to Magnesia Meadows from our campsite, and it didn't look far, but the terrain we had to negotiate in between was very rugged looking. I wondered how it would go...

Once packed, we descended a loose slope to a talus field, circled around the first small peak and then climbed the second, James Peak, which was very steep. After a tough ascent in the mid-morning sun, we hit the summit ridge and a series of ropes that provided security against the exposure.

After a summit rest and drink, we descended the north side of James and were faced with an option: traverse over the third peak (David) on an unofficial trail or descend around it on the designated HSCT route. Attempting to be conservative I chose the latter, but we lost a lot of elevation as we dropped below David Peak and were then rewarded with a very long traverse across slide paths. The trail was quite rough and the hiking was slow, less than one kilometre per hour.

After the traverse, we were forced to reclimb the elevation we had lost. We were tired and didn't know how much farther we had to ascend since the crest of the ridge was never clearly visible. At one point, we made a wrong turn on a deadend trail and had to backtrack a bit. We pressed on and soon came to the infamous cutblock, pictured below. Many people see bears here, and it's no mystery why. Never have I seen so many ripe berries! Elise had to literally swim through the tall bushes since, one again, the trail was somewhat overgrown. We shouted loudly as we progressed since we did not want to surprise a bear feasting in the bushes.

We both breathed a sigh of relief when we hit Harvey Pass and started the descent to Magnesia Meadows. At this point, the trail opened up and was gloriously downhill.

We dropped our packs by the small lake and took a well deserved break. All trauma from the heinous morning was quickly forgotten. I swam and Elise obsessed over catching a tadpole. She berated me for forgetting to pack a fishing net. Seven-year-old attitude...

Since the afternoon was wearing on and we still had some distance to go, we continued. The hiking was much easier as we contoured around Brunswick Mountain. Clouds were rolling in, but I managed to snap this picture of Mt. Hanover, the peak above our next campsite, before we dropped into the valley and the sun disappeared for good.

We reached Brunswick Lake around 6:00 pm and found a camp spot. The lake was very full, likely the result of the huge rain from earlier in the week, so camping was tricky around the shore. Elise immediately took off her boots and started wading and playing in the mud near our tent. Guess who had to scrub her feet before dinner? Me, that's who.

We cooked dinner on the rocks and had a campfire before bed, singing "Down by the Bay" over and over while we poked at the embers. I knew it was likely to rain so I battened down the hatches as we got settled in for the night.

Sure enough, right on cue, the rain started at 5:00 am. It was so loud that Elise woke up and didn't want to go back to sleep, so I read to her and let her watch her iPod until the battery died. Despite the rain she was quite excited because she knew we were heading home and the downhill hike ahead of us wasn't that bad. Plus, Mom was supposed to hike up and meet us on the descent. With the end in sight, we had a quick breakfast, put on our rain gear, hurriedly packed the tent and headed down the trail.

There were so many ripe berries along the trail I figured we'd never go hungry, no matter what happened.

Some of the mushrooms were huge.

As we rounded Deeks Lake, the final landmark of the hike, we started watching for Mom on the far shore. Elise had been to Deeks in the past and was visibly excited to be on familiar terrain. Mom didn't appear at the lake so we continued down. After about 15 minutes, who should appear coming up through the forest but Mom! Elise started to lurch and jump downhill and I had to call after her to be careful. We had a nice reunion and then continued down to the truck as a family. Pam brought us some bakery treats, a welcome offering after our freeze-dried meals, so we found a nice spot, sat and indulged!

All told, Elise and I hiked about 30 km over three days. Although the first day was long, I thought the second was the hardest and I was very impressed with her endurance and attitude. It was a great adventure, one I'm sure we'll both remember for years to come.


  1. Hi Marc,

    This, as are many of your blog entries, was an enjoyable read. I came across your blog as I was heading out on a venture that eventually brought me up to Cypress and onto the HSCT - reading your entry delayed my start a bit!

    It just so happens I have a 7 y.o., too, and took him out this past July on the trail. We were w/a family visiting from back East (and south - Massachusetts) and had every intention of hiking the length of the HSCT. A late start the first day and slow going the 2nd morning got us only as far as Unnecessary at which point we simply called off the balance of the hike and enjoyed the rest of what was a beautiful day on Unnecessary. True to his 7 y.o. nature, my son played in the mini-glacier now gone and the little stream created by it as the sun beat down for pretty much the entire afternoon: He was just as happy playing about as he was hiking. He could relate to your daughter's desire to have had a net to catch the tadpole!

    I live in Lions Bay so the following morning we just hiked on down the Unnecessary Mountain Trail to our doorstep - pretty sweet!

    A few weeks later, I attempted to "run" the HSCT from Porteau to Cypress (I figured I'd maximize the uphill!) and I have to say how frustrated I was by how difficult it was to follow the trail. From Magnesia Meadows to the Lions was extremely difficult to follow. (This past Sunday while out on the trail - Cypress to Unnecessary to Lions Bay, I was similarly frustrated w/the lack of marking in places.) I appreciate the physicality of the trail and I appreciate that the tread/track is challenging w/roots/rocks and the like. I found I was just frustrated having to figure out where it went! Granted, it was a foggy day on my trail run and I had no landmarks. What I describe as the middle third of the trail was the hardest to follow.

    I'm thrilled you did this w/your daughter! My son was disappointed our hiking trip was over that 3rd morning and I'm taking that as a good sign and planning more backpacking trips for next summer. I also have a 5 y.o. daughter (who is a bit more accident prone!) I would like to get out, too. If you should ever want company, get in touch. I'm not a climber, but I get my kids out occasionally. I am a paddler and have a bunch (4) kids kayaks, plus a couple whitewater rafts - the Cheakamus is a fun ride in the summer if you'd like to join us sometime!

    Again, thanks for an enjoyable read. I'll continue to make my way through your other entries.


  2. Great post. I've been on the trail a bunch and look forward to sharing it with my kids when they get bigger..