Feeling a bit stiff today. No – not like that, unfortunately.
The lack of snow hereabouts has been a real downer for the local ski and boarding enthusiasts. The North Shore mountains are positively verdant. I don’t partake in either sport, but I do enjoy a spot of snowshoeing. So much so that I invested in some decent MSR snowshoes a couple of years ago. I deeply resent not being able to use them.
The temperature yesterday was a balmy 11-12°C by afternoon in the Lower Mainland. Anyway, for once I’d planned ahead. I was so determined to get my snowshoes wet this season that I was willing to travel if necessary. A little research on uncle Google determined that Manning Park was actually reasonably well endowed with the white stuff. This was to be our target for Sunday.
Manning Park is about two and a half hours east of White Rock, but significantly higher up, on Highway 3. Number three offspring had elected to sleep over at a mate’s house on Saturday, so Mrs E and I were free to get up bright and early and managed to leave the house by 7am. We had a brief pit-stop in Aldergrove for the ridiculously cheap petrol (still less than a dollar a litre despite it being $1.11 here in White Rock), and a caffeine injection at Timmie’s. As we hacked off down Highway 1 heading for Hope (yes people really do live in Hope their whole lives. Also, yes there are people who are beyond Hope) we suddenly encountered a few bands of low cloud over the road which when mixed with the bright early sunshine made driving a little… exciting!
Once through Hope the highway splits and we took Hwy 3 towards Manning. As we climbed steadily we were grateful of the light traffic and the long weekend. This road, even without the usual seasonal ice/snow can be really uncomfortable with the heavy trucks plying their wares across the province. The cloud was still patchy and made some lovely veils across the mountains. You can see from these photos that the previous day’s rain had – as predicted by Environment Canada’s met. office – moved on and would not be messing with our day.
The temperature had started out at about 6°C as we’d left White Rock early in the morning. As we climbed Hwy 3 the temperature had steadily dropped and hovered around 0°C as we descended past the Rovent weekend camp at Cambie Creek and into the Lodge car-park at Manning. I’d read up on the various snowshoeing trails in Manning and was pretty sure that we’d be able to do something, no matter what conditions met us when we arrived. There was avalanche risk in the area, but this was primarily to the North towards one of my favourite hikes to Three Brothers (documented elsewhere in these pages). Most of the snowshoeing trails are relatively flat and snake westward towards the alpine ski runs, or around Lightning Lake. The one I’d got my eye on though was to Windy Joe, with a summit at about 1800m or so. This peak is interesting because it has an old forest fire lookout station, built in the 1940s. If you’re that way inclined you can stay overnight there, but we were aiming for a round trip in the day.
As is always prudent, I checked in with the staff at the Nordic Lodge to make sure the trail was open and that conditions were safe. Though I was pretty sure from my pre-reading, I also checked the expected travel time. It’s around 2.5hrs up during summer, so I reckoned on about 3 or so on snowshoes. It’s inevitably quicker coming back down, but a ballpark of 6 hours round trip meant we’d be back before dusk. We were prepared with additional layers, waterproofs, first aid, space blankets and the like as well as Petzl headlamps just in case darkness did overtake us. It was a pretty straightforward route with about a third on the flat by the Similkameen river, and then a series of switchbacks up the old fire road (not as easy as it sounds when you add in snow and a long series of fallen trees). Worst case, I reckoned we’d definitely be back on the flat before dusk could catch us, and the risk there was very low. Though woods can be disorienting in the dark, the nearby highway gave a constant orientation check as it runs west-east, to the north of the trail and lodge.
The following image from Google Earth has been rotated to show the Windy Joe peak in a better perspective. North is to the left of the image.
I’m always interested in documenting the trails I’ve walked, so I made sure my GPS had fresh batteries and we set off on the 16km round trip. Snowshoeing is currently free in Manning Park, but they do ask you to stay clear of the groomed cross country ski trails. As you can see in the above image, finding the start of the trail was a little harder than anticipated and we started a little more to the east than was strictly correct. We soon found a trail heading west along the north side of the Similkameen river, and once we crossed the road bridge, the trail back east on the south side was easy to spot. As I mentioned, this part of the trail is pretty flat, and though it meanders a lot through the woods, it was pretty fast going. There were a few pools and tributaries of the river and the silence added to the beauty.
Eventually the trail meets up with the old fire road, and the sign reminds us that Manning is actually the start of the Pacific Crest Trail, recently made famous by the film of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild. The US border is very close here – though it is more easily crossed south to north than north to south. If one is caught crossing south, you may become part of America’s terrible statistic for having the most people behind bars. The penalty is a year in jail plus $5,000 fine. There is no legal way to hike the PCT north to south!
We stopped for a snack and met a group of four hikers on their way down. We later learnt that they’d overnighted at the fire lookout. From here on in, it’s up followed by more up. A steady 5km or so. As we gained height the snow quality changes quite noticeably and it morphs from crispy ice-covered snow to more soft powdery snow. The previous day’s valley rain had probably fallen as powder here. The bright sun was hidden by the dense trees thankfully, so it was actually a near perfect day for hiking. We had glimpses of perfect blue sky, but also the constant drip of melting snow from overhead branches.
Occasionally there were heavier clumps of falling snow and ice and it was easy to see how on a more exposed slope these conditions could lead to avalanche. Indeed, near the top there were trails of 10m or so where snow falls from trees had caused balls to form and roll down the slopes until they’d run out of energy.
Around the 1550m mark, the path to Windy Joe departs from the Pacific Crest Trail. This, along with the Frosty Mountain Trail head off due south at one of the many switchbacks this trail has. In summer, I’m sure this trail is very easy to identify as it was originally a supply road for the forest fire lookout. However, without the previous snowshoers packing down the trail through the forest there are definitely a few places where one could easily go astray. It was all the more weird then to suddenly come across this very formal waymark, with nothing between this and the previous marker at the intersection with the Similkameen Trail.
From here, we “just” (never trust a sentence with just in it) had 3 more switchbacks. It was still 250m of ascent though, over about 2.4km. The air was suddenly pungent with the familiar aroma of BC bud, but we never caught up with the couple who were expelling the fumes. Finally we were getting high enough for the trees to start thinning out, and at the next switchback we were rewarded with amazing views to the west. There are so many peaks in this wonderful place that many remain nameless.
We were conscious of the time now. We’d set a nominal “turn-around” time of 1pm, to give us three hours to get back comfortably before dusk, and it was now five past. The weather was still glorious and the steepness of the this last few kilometres left us confident that we needed significantly less time for the descent. It was noticeably cooler at this elevation, but neither of us was wearing even all the layers we’d begun with, let alone the backup layers we were carrying. The risks seemed low, and only 30 minutes later we passed the sign for the toilet outhouse and turned the corner to be suddenly greeted with the lookout itself. Here we met the two cool dudes who we’d smelt earlier as they were just about to head back down. They informed us that the lookout was full of “over-nighters” and there was no room to get in the lookout.
We could see the evidence of the residents and they seemed to be fully in possession. Though one of their number came to greet us, there was really no chance to take a look around inside. He mentioned that there were four of them and that there had been eight the night before – presumably the younger crowd we’d passed down at the start of the climb.
The lookout – despite its age – was in excellent condition. It is the same basic style as the one we’d seen on Mount Revelstoke. Presumably a kit of parts, the walls are actually wired together for strength against high winds, and then anchored out like a tent for extra stability. Built to provide warning of forest fires, the building itself tried to avoid being the cause by having a lightning rod in order to earth any stray sparks from the heavens. As the only structure on an exposed peak, it must surely attract the very lightning that can start wildfires. I’ll bet being inside when it was struck would literally make one’s hair stand on end!
Conscious of the time, we had a quick lunch, and let our outer layers dehumidify before heading back down.
Mrs E felt her snowshoes were not actually necessary for the descent, and I finally got to use the 5m of parachute cord I’ve always taken with me on hikes in order to attach her snowshoes to her backpack. The descent was substantially quicker as expected, and we still had good light as we headed over the bridge and back towards the lodge. From this direction, it was a lot easier to see the flagging tape marking the correct trail and so we crossed the road slightly further west than on the way up.
16km in all. Almost exactly 6 hours including late lunch at the top. A great day’s hike. The snowshoes probably weren’t strictly necessary, but they did make for easier going up the slope, for sure. I sank up to my calf in a few places even with them on, so I’m sure those could have been much more interesting (read – potentially dangerous) without them. I shall definitely return in summer to see it in a different light.
We were all packed up and in the car by 5pm, and heading back home as the light failed. As we dropped back into the Fraser Valley, the temperature rose again, and it was 12°C. So glad it wasn’t that warm up on the hill!