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Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Mount Cheam - Mount Cheam Trail, October 2019
Capitalizing on a rare window of dry weather after what had been a rather cool and wet first few weeks of October, I made a dash for the Cheam Range's namesake peak. It isn't the highest-that distinction goes to Welch Peak-but it apparently boasts one of the best views of the Fraser Valley from its summit. I can't confirm nor deny this as I was engulfed in white-out while up there. More frustrating is the fact that the clouds parted shortly after my leaving the summit area, despite having shivered in the cold waiting around for things to improve. Seems to have happened a lot this year.
Cheam and neighboring Lady Peak benefit from relatively short approaches thanks to the trailhead being near treeline. Both could easily be climbed on a Summer afternoon, which would be far more enjoyable to the tedious post holing in fresh snow that I endured on this day. Unsure of how well the truck tires perform in snow, I parked at a small pullout a mile or two shy of the end and walked up from there. Last thing I needed was to slide off the road and go tumbling down the hillside, which in hindsight was not likely to happen. But anyway. I should have gotten a later start and let others not only do the trail breaking but also track-out the road for me. Ha, and here I was thinking I'd have the place to myself! Encountered quite a few parties as I was heading back, both on the trail and during my walk-of-shame back down the now snow-free road to where I was parked. Meh, all's well that ends well, right?
Not entirely. Got a flat somewhere before the paved road and spent the next hour or so struggling to extricate the spare from beneath the truck bed. Aha! So that's what the extra long jack handle is for! In any case, I'll have to come back and do this one right. The short approach, being a 2'fer and reportedly great views would seem to make Cheam (and Lady) worth the hassle.
For someone that spends any amount of time skiing or snowboarding at Whistler, Castle Towers Mountain is the unmistakable glaciated massif looking due south across the Cheakamus Valley. Easily visible from Whistler Peak, Piccolo Summit and especially Flute Summit, the mountain is quite frankly impossible to ignore. If you've visited the resort on a sunny day and you have any interest whatsoever in peak-bagging, Castle Towers has most likely captured your attention.
I first attempted the peak in July 2018, but for various reasons Dan and I ended up climbing Helm Peak and then scrambled over Gentian Ridge to the head of Helm Glacier instead. From there he walked down the glacier and through the canyon below Cinder Cone to intersect the Helm Creek Trail. Essentially a reconnaissance trip, with a couple bonus summits thrown in for good measure. Fast forward to August 2019 where my appeal for partners on social media went unanswered. Solo it would have to be.
From the Cheakamous Lake Trailhead, I hiked the now familiar trail past the Helm Meadows Campground and up to a wide pass of sorts between Cinder Cone and Black Tusk. I turned left and made my way down into the canyon and out the other end to eventually reach the lake in which the snout of the Helm now rests. The glacier was all ice by this point and fractured by countless water-filled crevasses. I proceeded up the headwall near the top passing a few interesting moulin features along the way. The ice was peppered with small bits of gravel which aided traction and allowed for a crampon-free ascent. I stopped at the large, sandy saddle atop the glacier and pitched my tent by a small rock windbreak. An existing fire pit and errant aluminum pole which I split in half came in handy as I somehow managed to forget to bring fuel for the camp stove. After a gorgeous sunset the cold of nightfall ushered me into my sleeping bag for a restful night under the Milky Way.
Departing from camp the next morning, I descended talus and scree slopes on the opposite side of the saddle towards the pass between Gentian Ridge and Polemoleum Ridge. Once below the talus I followed marmot trails down a steep grass pitch adjacent to a ravine on the left side of the basin, then angled back to the right through some trees on what now looked like a climber's path. The path led to a slippery seep area which I carefully worked across and down to finally reach the valley bottom. With a charming little lake off to my right, I proceeded up heather slopes on the left edge of Polemoleum Ridge, following intermittent bits of trail. The trail disappears once again where heather gives way to talus, but I generally found good travel along the left/north edge of the wide ridge for the remaining distance to a highpoint. There's a fantastic view of Castle Towers and the dramatic glacier tumbling down the peak's Northwest Face from this spot.
A steep path leads down the right/south side of the highpoint to a saddle. There's a short, somewhat exposed step just above the saddle, but otherwise no real difficulties encountered here. I crossed a small grass bench and picked-up the trail again on the other side. It climbs steeply up a moraine and through a small headwall to a notch. I turned right and despaired at the sight of the seemingly endless boulder slope that stood between me and the West Summit. This was easily the most tedious part of the ascent, but one can take comfort in the fact that it goes faster than it appears. Finally, after having dispatched this final slope I pulled myself up onto Castle Towers' glorious West Summit.
Suffice it to say, the views from here are among the best in Garibaldi Provincial Park. What a truly awesome spot! Separated by a deep notch, the true (middle) summit was just stone's throw away and only a few feet higher. In planning this trip, I decided that going for it was optional, depending on how motivated I was in the moment. Granted, it's just a head game, but the peak is remote and being all the way out here by myself felt a bit unnerving. Decided not to push my luck and made peace with the West Summit being "it" for me. Just as I was leaving camp the next morning, I saw the first humans I'd seen since leaving the Helm Creek Trail two days prior. It was raining lightly by the time I reached Helm Meadows Campground and with the first of several unseasonably vigorous storms in the forecast for the coming week, my timing couldn't have been better. Not a bad way to celebrate the coming end of Summer, not bad at all!
Not to be confused with Blanca Lake near Kyes Peak in the Washington Cascades or Blanca Peak in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains of Colorado for that matter, this Blanca is found in the South Coast Mountains near Squamish, BC. It isn't a particularly high or prominent Peak per se, but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in position. Surrounded by large, deep valleys on all sides, standing atop Blanca affords one with an unbeatable 360-degree panorama. With the high glaciated peaks of the Cheakamus-Squamish divide to the east, the Ashlu-Elaho divide to the south and west and the sprawling icecap encircling Exodus Peak to the north, the scenery here is simply outstanding! Few peaks I've visited rank as high in terms of bang for the buck.
News of renewed logging up the E300 branch of Elaho Main spurred us into action to take advantage of the improved access thanks to a regraded forest road. The only drawback was the possibility of encountering logging trucks laden with the day's haul on our drive up. Coming face to face here with the kind of trucks we crossed paths with thundering down Squamish Main was a game of chicken I wasn't particularly keen on playing. Got lucky and dodged the bullet this time! The original trailhead was of course a thing of the past, lost somewhere in a tangled mess of deadfall and recently cleared forest. On the other hand, with the cutblock now extended further upslope, we could drive higher making for a shorter approach.
We clocked a little over 9 km on E300 after which we began to wonder where the trail was. We parked at the apex of a large bend in the road on the left side of the new clear-cut area. As of this writing, the road crosses back to the right after the bend and seems to come to an end shortly thereafter. We located the new "trailhead" along the left edge a bit further up from where we parked. The trail proceeds up though forest paralleling the cutblock for a bit before angling up and left to eventually reach a meadow area. From here the trail continues up along the left side of the basin following the Blanca Lake outflow stream. We arrived at the lake and took a short break before resuming our hike up to the South Ridge. Turning Right, we proceeded up heather and talus making an ascending leftward traverse to eventually gain the crest. We then followed the ridge easily to the summit, climbing into and back out of several small depressions. The rock here is all granite with opportunities for the "choose your adventure" kind of scrambling. So much fun and oh, my are the views easy on the eyes!
Looking north from the summit, Exodus Peak with all the ice surrounding it demanded my attention and inspired me with possibilities, as did the Matterhorn-like Mount Tinniswood to the northwest. To the south, the glaciers flanking Mount Ashlu and others on the divide are a sight to behold. Need I say more? Bonuses such as a fun little ridge romp, a scenic lake in which to soak the feet and relatively short drive back to Backcountry Brewing in Squamish, and I dare say you have the makings of a classic here!