It was another blisteringly hot July weekend (2015) on the South Coast and I was trying to decide between going cragging or heading out for an adventure with Paul and Beth.
Their plan wasn’t solid and I wasn’t sold on a glorified mountain hike in the Tantalus with only one pitch of ‘proper’ rock climbing in leiu of working on my sport projects in Squamish. Then they told me you have to cross the Squamish river to get in to the Tantalus and one of the options for executing this was a bad ass tyrolean traverse. This sounded right up my street so I did some more research on Alpha’s East Ridge and it looked like it would be the kind of adventure I could get excited about despite the lack of much ‘proper’ rock climbing.
Alpha is the smallest peak of four prominent in the Tantalus range which sits on the west side of the Valley as you drive North of Squamish. A popular but logistically challenging hike takes you up the West side of the river until you reach Lake Lovely Water – an alpine Lake with a big hut (that you need to book) and lots of camping spots where most adventures in the Tantalus start.
Our plan was to start from Vancouver at a reasonable time on Saturday morning, drive to Squamish, do the cable car crossing of the Squamish river and hike leisurely up to Lake Lovely Water where we would rest and relax before getting an alpine start on Sunday for the summit of Alpha. We planned to descend via the West Ridge (Matt Gunn scrambles book), pack up the gear at the camp spot at the Lake and hike out, cross the river, back to the car, hopefully before nightfall on the Sunday. Our back up plan was to bivi somewhere if necessary on Sunday night and pull out an Alpine start (or Alpine non-stop as Beth put it!) in order to get back to the office on time on Monday!
I remember we got a little lost trying to find the right dirt road to turn off on. The road does not show up on Google maps or Google earth very well. The best way to find it is to head onto the Squamish Valley Road, either by turning left off Highway 99 at the Burger King coming North out of Squamish onto Government Road (see pink line on map above), or by turning left at Alice lake a little further North up the Highway. Keep an eye out for where a bridge crosses the Squamish river (Just after Fergie’s Cafe) and be sure to take the left fork for the Squamish Valley Rd, not straight for Paradise Valley. Set the milometer here at the cross roads. The dirt road is going to be after 2.1km on your left. You will pass a first dirt road (approx 1.1km) on the left that isn’t gated -this is Lewis drive, there is another dirt road on your left (approx 1.6km) it has a yellow gate too (*at least as of April 2016) set further back from the road that doesn’t show up on Google street view. The 3rd dirt road you come to at approx 2.1km will have a yellow gate set back from the road (see Google street view screen shots below). This is the turn off you want to take.
Hopefully you get lucky like us and the gate is open, if not it is about a 1km walk (15mins). Another blog I read suggests you can pass it on the right with a truck?? Follow this dirt road toward the river and soon the huge cable car tower becomes incredibly obvious at the end of the road. There is parking enough for at least 3 cars right by it (its literally maybe 10m from the car or less!)
Unfortunately there are other car based logistics. Rich So describes in his blog:
“There used to be this guy “Marty” who lived on the Lake Lovely Water Spur, who charged people money to cross his “land.” Sometimes, the owner of the vehicles would come back to a vandalized car, whether they paid or not. Things seem to have improved now, Marty is gone for now.”
We left an envelope under the windscreen wipers with $20 in it just in case. It may have been an expensive parking rate but it was much cheaper than being broken into. There is definitely some confusion (at least on my part) who’s land this is and if it is legit to park there, we found it was ok, but some discretion and mindfulness would certainly not go a miss. To eliminate any issues completely you could convince a friend to drop you off from Squamish perhaps?*
*I just recently visited the dirt road and cable tower to do a reccy and show a friend. Here are some recent pictures as of April 2016. It looks like they are doing way more active logging in the area and are making it much more clear that the parking is not authorized. These signs were not present the first time we went here for the Alpha trip. I would not have been nearly as happy about leaving the car here and opening the gate (I did check though and the gate was left open this time too….) if they were, you might want to think twice about where you leave your car if you do this trip. It only took us 15min to walk from the gate down to the tower. The tower also has a metal gate surrounding it and barbed wire over the top. This definitely was not here when we crossed last summer.
Now for the fun bit. The cable crossing basically consists of two purpose built towers on either side of the river holding up two parallel 1.5inch thick steel cables, one about 2m above the other. The top cable has a bunch of large buoys attached to it to alert low flying planes and choppers. The lower cable has no obstacles. It seems there are 3 main methods of crossing the cables:
- You get lucky enough that the cable car itself is unlocked and you can sit in that and ride it over.
- You cross the cables attached to the top cable via 2 x leashes, holding on to the top cable and walking across the bottom one. Navigating the large buoys can apparently be an issue, especially if you are a person with a smaller arm span.
- You suspend yourself from the bottom cable and tyrolean style pull yourself along the cable.
After much research, we all opted for option #3. None of us fancied our chances of making the balance work for walking across as described in #2 and all being of a smaller stature decided that negotiating the buoys would be a royal pain in the arse. Plus, how cool does it sound to dangle 30m above the roaring Squamish river as you pull yourself across hand over hand? Pretty cool huh!!
Yet again there are a plethora of suggestions on how to make this option #3 most successful, (you people know how to use google) but I posted a separate ‘how to’ blog, so that I can go into more detail. You can find that here.
Once on the other side of the river a well established trail heads North along the river for a short while until breaking west through the forest. I’m pretty sure it is well flagged. Keep a keen eye out for flagging tape as you continue, it is there but sometimes it isn’t so easy to spot. As you move further into the forest the trail merges with an open and dry creek bed at one point, the trail continues up this creek bed and then left. Its really easy to head right here up the creek bed and I have read a few blogs where people have followed this for ages without realizing they are going the wrong way. We almost did the exact same too, same so Beth added some more flagging tape to where the trail re starts again on the left.
After this I remember the trail being pretty well marked with a few more creek bed crossings higher up but soon you get back in to the thick of the forest and onto a very well established trail where you may even see some more hikers! I have heard others compare the trail to the Wedgemount hike or the Garibaldi lake switch backs – I think it is this part of the trail they are referring to, however it is much more beautiful than either of those in my opinion and although there are switchbacks it feels more rugged. Its a slog for sure, but nothing too crazy. I think about 7km and 1100m of elevation gain.
Once we reached the lake we were pretty blown away with how spectacular the scenery was. We were also very much in need of a cooling off and were eager to take a swim. A stag party of 12 guys or so had booked out the hut and we enjoyed egging on their jovial behavior as we played by the lake and they set off out in the canoes that are up there to go fishing with a stack of beers in hand.
Jokingly, knowing it was out of the question given the long slog with big packs, Beth and I both asked the group “you’ve got our beers right” giggling at our own jokes but desperately knowing how amazing a cold beer would taste right now. To our amazement Paul pulled out 3 tall boys from his pack. He lugged them all across the tyrolean and all the way up the trail in secret. Beauty!!!
After enjoying our beer. We spent the afternoon trying to pick a camping spot furthest away from the hut so as not to be disturbed by any party noise, filtering water from the lake so we could cook dinner and have enough to drink the next day and we even fitted in a short reccy of the hike out of camp for tomorrows summit, so we would know exactly where to go in the early hours of the morning. We turned in pretty early after boil-a-bag dinners and summit prep with an alarm set for 4am.
It was still dark when we rose but temps were mild. We set off out of the camp site and headed north west along the lake following the log jam until yellow tape marked a trail just beyond where the logs finished. This trail continues to be pretty rough but if you keep a keen eye you can follow sparsely taped flagging.
Once you get out of the trees the flagging disappears of course but the ramp features you need to gain to hit the ridge are fairly obvious. If in doubt, stay right (North) of the ridge line to begin with as its easy to otherwise be sucked into being too far left of the ridge and you’ll have a hard time crossing back over higher up.
The glacier to the North of the ridge proved to be our fastest route and this only proved tricky occasionally for Paul and I who were both wearing light approach shoes with trail crampons. Beth Had light alpine boots and no crampons. It is possible to stick to the rocky parts of the ridge adjacent to the glacier to avoid any trickery in approach shoes.
The notch where the 5.8 crux pitch begins is pretty obvious. Just look out for a steeper section, with a large hand crack, protected by a pin. There are a couple of chossy goat paths that drop off to the left, obviously don’t follow these. The pitch starts right above the notch.
I think we reached the start of this pitch around 7 or 8am and already we had been utterly savaged by mosquitos. It had been expectedly very buggy in the valley that year and even at the lake the day before but we assumed given the lower temps and usual increase in wind that the alpine normally offers that mozzies wouldn’t be much of an issue. Unfortunately we were gravely wrong.
Thankfully this kept us moving swiftly as we flaked the rope and I set off up the first pitch. I put a piece in to back up the peg although it looked pretty solid I was climbing in my approach shoes and I didn’t want an unexpected slip to result in something more catastrophic. The climbing was affable but not without a challenging move given my pack and footwear. I think we took a single rack from #0.3 camelot to a #.75 or #1 and a few nuts. This was more than enough although there is a wider section that would take a #4, we weren’t interested in lugging that up there. As the rest of the team finished off seconding and Paul tied in to lead the next 5.5 pitch. Once the more technical sections were over we had an enjoyable romp up very scenic and blocky low 5th terrain . Way finding was easy, taking the path of least resistance at every ledge system kept us on the ridge line.
We hit the summit around an hour after putting the rope away. Beth revealed some super tasty bacon and maple syrup rice crispy cakes she had baked us for summit celebrations and we each enjoyed these as we chugged on a hip flask of whiskey I had provided.
Unfortunately we couldn’t hang around on the summit for as long as we would have liked (the views were truly spectacular!) because the Mosquito situation really was dyer ( In fact I think you can spot one in the photo above!). Beth had somehow managed to keep her wind-proof jacket on despite the insanely hot temps and fared a little better but Paul and I were already completely mauled by them. It really was impossible to stand an talk for more than a few seconds as you swallowed a bazillion of them with every word. I have since found it impossible to relay to people quite how many mosquito’s there were on Alpha that day and how savage they were, I’m often met with comments like ‘Oh yeah they were really bad in Squamish this weekend’ or ‘oh didn’t you guys have spray?’ I’m always bitten by mozzies in Squamish and out and about and I lived in Scotland for 5 year where they have insane midgies, but this was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. No amount of spray would have kept these brutes away and they were definitely 100 times worse than the 3 that bit you in Squamish this weekend! Surviving the mosquitos was by far the most brutal and bad ass part of the trip.
We hastily headed out taking the West ridge scramble described in Matt Gunn’s book, this seemed a pretty common exit path. Its pretty chossy and broken rocky terrain with grassy sections and is sparsely marked by cairns so you need to keep a keen eye again. We wanted to head pretty far West in the direction of the Serratus-Iona Col but not right to it, if you hit it you’ve gone too far. We descended talus slopes far west of Lambda lake. You can see Lambda lake from early on in the west ridge descent and it is VERY tempting to descend directly to it, however if you try to do this you quickly get cliffed-out on the north side of the lake and have to do some annoying bush whacking to get back to the trail, its a huge detour so don’t get sucked in.
Finally the talus and scree hits the huge open meadow of the Russian Army camp. From here you want to head back East right across the flat terrain to where the trees begin at the end. There is a path marked with tape at the very East end of the Russian Army Camp leading you East through the trees toward Lambda lake. We got severely waylaid by following the wrong markers on the north side of a small meadow that caps the East side of the Russian army Camp. This trail lead us up a very steep and bushy incline (20mins of grunting uphill) to a much smaller dirty lake (North of Lambda on the map) We eventually realised this was not where we were supposed to be and this unimpressive lake was not in fact Lambda, when we spotted the beautiful and expansive lake we were supposed to be at from above.
Once on the correct trail it was a pleasant forested and easy to follow descent to Lambda lake, we followed the lake on its South shore and picked up a similar path back down through the trees until we finally hit lake lovely water.
I think it was around 3pm that we hit our camp and most of that time had been spent descending from the summit. The descent is certainly a slog and not to be underestimated, especially if you get lost!
We packed up the camp hastily and started to romp out on what was now familiar territory. Exhausted and sick of descending we could taste the pub food and beer already. The tyrolean was tiring but we made it back across the river safely to even find our $20 and the car intact!
We swiftly drove to the brew pub and chowed down on a well deserved burger and a pint where we also assessed the damage done by the mozzies. Paul’s back was a mess I exclaimed in horror at the site of the patchy redness, to which Beth informed me my arms looked just as bad. At this point I still think there will be people reading this thinking “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad”.
If you still don’t believe me. Check out these photos of my arm, this is two days later after they had started to go down from all the Reactin and Afterbite.
So despite the mozzies and the lack of any actual climbing I thoroughly enjoyed for-going working on my sport projects for this alpine adventure and I would go so far as to say that whilst finally finishing off the blog for this a year later, I look back on our quest up Alpha as one of my fondest missions of last year. I would highly recommend this excursion, to anyone living on the West coast it is a great objective no matter what your climbing grade. And I would highly recommend the tyrolean crossing for upping the adventure-ante.
Here are a list of other good blogs I used for information that you might find useful, along with Kevin Mclane’s Alpine Select and Matt Gunn’s scrambles book: