Mount Nelson - British Columbia
June 18th, 2018
Fourteen years is a long time to be away from Canada's most outstanding mountain ranges. Last time I was anywhere near the Rockies was in 2004 when I hiked near the base of Mount Robson and before that it stretches all the way back to 1990 when I visited a friend in Calgary where the first seeds of my love of mountains germinated. So it was high time that a return trip to this incredibly beautiful part of Canada was planned. With so many possible choices of hikes to do and places to stay, I eventually settled on the small town of Invermere just west of the Rockies in British Columbia. This was an ideal location for a family trip that would allow me easy access to a wide selection of mountain ranges in the region. Add to that the availability of a great guide book from two guys based out of Invermere (Hikes Around Invermere & the Columbia River Valley by Aaron Cameron and Matt Gunn) and it really couldn't be any better.
I spent a few months combing through the book and Google Earth satellite views to try and settle on a particular mountain. It wasn't easy, considering how many amazing hikes are available in this area, but I knew I wanted something that would take me high into the peaks and was a challenge. Why I would eventually commit myself to Mount Nelson when the guide book describes it as; ambitious, difficult, inhumane... well, I suppose it reveals something about me when it comes to mountains. I didn't want something easy this year, either. I wanted something that would serve as a kind of memorial for all the sad losses of 2017 and for some reason that meant I had to do a hard hike. I wanted the physical experience to somehow equalize/synchronize with the emotional side of it. So, Mount Nelson it was.
As I began physically and logistically preparing for the hike, surprisingly, it wasn't until a few weeks before leaving that I began to comprehend the elevation gain I was about to encounter. I had been so focused on the fact that it was only 6km from the bottom to the top (horizontally), that the extra 2km of vertical distance didn't really sink in until I started comparing previous hikes I had done. The closest I had ever come was on the Grand Canyon hike where we covered 1,475m of elevation gain, which was not at altitude! Mount Nelson would be another 500m more, and at an altitude where I can feel it. I don't want to say that I underestimated this mountain, I was just late in realizing what I was getting into and made some mistakes because of it. What mistakes? Well read on...
Once we arrived in Invermere, I kept my eyes on the weather reports for the coming days. It was all looking pretty good. Sunny, warm, low chance of rain. PERFECT! June 18th would be the fateful day. I was up by 7am after a good nights rest and my youngest son wished me well as I departed Invermere. It was an easy and direct drive to the trailhead near Delphine Creek that took about 50 minutes or so. Toby Creek Road was fine for my low clearance rental and despite my worries, so was Delphine Creek Road. I stopped and parked before the trailhead at what looked to be a camping spot, but one could drive and park at the trailhead if they wanted.
By 9am the foot journey began. I looked at the crystal clear blue skies and counted my lucky stars. What a perfect day! I felt good too. None of the usual arthritic pain to hold me back. I felt ready for the long journey ahead, despite the nagging anxiety of the "inhumane" climb approaching.
With a little effort and the help of my GPS, I crossed Delphine Creek and bushwhacked my way to a faint trail at the beginning of "hell hill". I believe anyone who has done this climb would agree with that description. Climbing this 800m forested section really should not be underestimated. Don't let the minimal 2km horizontal distance to the upper basin fool you. This is a 2 to 3 hour torturous, "prove yourself worthy", humbling, grind! I don't think I have ever experienced anything quite like it before. It felt like a rite of passage. You want to reach Nelson? You need to get through this first. Lets call it "the cleansing".
It took me 2.5 hours to complete this section. That's 2.5 hours of self-confidence draining away with every single step. The questions inevitably surfaced; Why the hell had I chosen this mountain? What made me think I was capable of this? Why would I want to do this to myself? Am I out of shape? Did I not prepare enough? Who the hell would make a trail like this???
It's not like I haven't faced those kind of questions before though. This is somehow part of the "fun" and "reward" of hiking for me. Facing this resistance within myself, both mental and physical. This may sound strange, but I want there to be a kind of penance for the revealing of Earth's masterpieces, as well. I don't want it to be free for me. The struggle is part of the divine experience of mountains. An experience that is felt, more than anything else. And later, a memory that feels alive.
I've learnt from my past experiences that it's natural for this physical/mental resistance to come. Hopefully not sounding too much like a self-help guru, I find the best way to overcome this urge to give up is to simply set small goals along the way. I tell myself: I will make it up to THAT tree; I will make it up to THAT rock; When I can't hear Delphine Creek anymore, I'll know I'm closer to the end of this; When I look up the hill and see more blue sky through the trees, I'll be REALLY close to the top; If I can just make it to the basin entrance, I'll be happy. Etc, etc, etc...
Though it worked to keep me moving forward, it didn't prevent me from asking this question over and over again:
At about GPS co-ordinate: 50º25'41.50"N | 116º20'16.45"W you reach a point on "hell hill" where it looks like it will finally level out a bit. I had such a strong sense of relief that I snapped that thumbs up photo above. Only, things pretty much carried on as usual with a slightly, and I mean slightly, decreased grade! If you reach this point, do hold on to the fact that there isn't too much further to go before you hit the short downhill forested section that leads you to...
THE ENTRANCE TO THE BASIN!
And so begins an entirely different "chapter" of the Nelson experience. Lets call it "the expansion". This is where the last 3 hours suddenly feel worth it, where, when you look ahead, you don't question your reason for being here. You are now being called forward into a divine space.
As on all of my climbs, no matter how tired I am, the moment the peak comes into view I am suddenly filled with energy and motivation. As much as I thought this would be impossible on the way up the forested section, somehow it happened again.
Exiting the forest, with all the views opening up before me, was completely invigorating. I marched forward with renewed strength and quickly entered a dense pack of dwarf evergreens. Though a small trail ribbon marked the entrance to the "path", you are pretty much on your own to find your way through this short maze of stubby trees ready to trip you up with every step. I made it through without major issue and soon was contending with long stretches of talus and snow cover.
Honestly, I was not expecting this much snow. Although all the hike reports I had read had said to do the hike later in summer, I figured the unseasonably hot spring in the region would allow for an earlier start. It wasn't a ridiculous amount of snow, but it certainly did pose some new challenges along the way (ie; occassionally post-holing, overheating from sun reflection, blinding brightness, and general anxiety with this new experience).
Again, like the section before it, this part of the hike lasted 2.5 hours and covered less than 2 km horizantal distance while gaining about 500m of elevation. At this altitude, I was starting to have to contend with the thining atmosphere as well. As the invigoration of the peak view began to wear off, I had to return back to setting short distance goals to keep fighting off the fatigue and lure of giving up.
As I trudged along, constantly looking up at the summit of Nelson for motivation, it was quickly turning into the opposite feeling. With over a 1000m to go, it started to look like an impossible goal. If I was this tired at 2000m, how the heck was I going to get to 3313m and still have enough energy to get myself back down safely? With the steep snow slopes approaching and my lack of experience on them, I was seriously feeling a strong sense of intimidation with this quest.
It's a strange state to be in though. After travelling so far to get here, planning and preparing for so long, pushing so hard to reach this point, I just couldn't allow myself to give up yet. I took many pauses and rest breaks along the way, stopping to try and fully take in the utter beauty of the world around me. Letting myself take time to recover and soak in the immensity of the mountains surrounding me continually gave me enough strength to keep moving to the next target.
And so it went for the next couple of hours. As I passed through sections of snow, I kept telling myself, this is not a glacier, this is just a thin snow layer with talus beneath... I will not fall down a hidden crevasse! I can't say my heart didn't jump on the few occasions I post-holed though.
With the odd blood-red streaks showing up in the snow all over the place, it was a kind of ominous reminder of the potential danger of these alpine environments. I can understand any outside observer shaking their head at my foolhardiness. I will admit to my naivete and lack of experience for this type of climb. I went underprepared (no sunglasses, crampons or gators), I went too early in the season, and I went solo. Maybe this would be fine for someone with more experience, but probably not so wise for someone at my level. As confident as I am with my hiking/scrambling/climbing skills, I know this climb was at a boundary point.
Don't get me wrong though. I'm not reckless. I try to never do anything beyond that which I'm comfortable with. I know my body and I know myself. I feel it if I'm crossing my comfort zone and quickly reassess.
With all that said though, this is mountain climbing. There is a certain level of danger inherent in it, and with that, a testing of ones boundaries and skills. Maybe Mount Nelson wasn't the best place to be stretching these boundaries for the first time, but I learned a great deal from it and will cherish this experience.
It was close to 2pm when I finally made it past the last ridge that constricted the view of the large cirque that forms the bottom of Mount Nelson and Sultana Peak. Once in the cirque, I could feel the climb transitioning to another chapter. Lets call it "the ascension". This is really where the climb of Nelson begins. Though considered a scramble, at this time of year with all the snow still covering the ground, it became something a little more than that.
Before embarking, I took a moment to examine my surroundings. This was a place of indescribable beauty. A place that makes you feel its presence. A place so unique, I have trouble even comparing it to any of my other hiking experiences. The cirque had a deep silence. Yet, at times I could hear the far off echo of a single rock tumbelling down a cliff. Later, the crashing sounds of a distant and unseen avalanche. My own echoed call revealed the cirque's scope. I was small here. In that moment, I felt the blessing of the mountain.
With the increased physical and mental demand, so also came the need for increased courage and caution, a duality that required a fine balance. I was entering new climbing territory. Steep snow slopes and the proper use of an ice axe and foot placement. Being a Canadian, I'm certainly used to walking on snow slopes (even steep ones), but out there was much different. The snow was hard and thin in some spots, loose and icy in others. There was little consistency and so each step had to be a cautious one with my ice axe digging in deep in front of me. A slip here and that's quite a long slide down to the bottom of the cirque. Though there were no precipitous cliffs to worry about sliding off of, if I were to fall, I couldn't help but picture myself gaining so much downward momentum that I would begin to tumble like a ragdoll!
Inexperience sure can wreak havoc with ones imagination, I'll tell you that much.
Obviously crossing this slope was a bit nerve wracking, but I went slow and steady and never felt like it wasn't manageable. It was simply about focusing on my goal to reach a specific area of bare talus and then reassess from there. It was slow and tiring work kicking in each step on the slope, but was clearly necessary since I hadn't brought any crampons. It took close to 45 minutes to hike a measely 500m (+ 150m elevation gain)! And so it was at this point in the hike. Everything was getting slower and harder. Each new goal covering less and less distance before I needed a break.
With every break I would check my time. I had long ago committed myself to the idea that if I wasn't at the top by 3:30pm, I would turn around for the journey home. At the 2,825m point, it was about 2pm. I had finally reached an exposed rock rib that promised to make the journey upward a little more solid than the snow slopes. From this vantage point it was difficult to see the top of Nelson and I was left to imagine distances based on GPS data. The view above looked craggy and somewhat menacing. I couldn't tell if I was looking at the summit block, or just some jutting ridge that was blocking the view of it. Whatever it was, getting to it would probably take more than I had. This feeling was reinforced at a particular point on the rib when I was hit with a slight, yet unexpected, bout of vertigo. It didn't last long and I wasn't in danger, but it made me realize that the altitude could be affecting more than just my heart rate.
I pretty much knew by this point that I would not make it in time to the top. The going was just too slow at the pace I was keeping, yet I stubbornly kept heading upwards in a futile hope that somehow I was gaining much more elevation than I realized. That is until I bothered to check the GPS and quickly realized that what felt like 100 meters was more like 10! After this happened a couple more times, the reality of it finally set in. There was no way I was getting to the top. For the briefest of moments I contemplated bending my time restriction... what if I pushed on for just another hour? Maybe I could make it!
All it took were some quick calculations of my ascending speed vs time to completely demolish any possibility of success. Unless I was willing to spend AT LEAST another 2 hours attempting to get to the top, it wasn't going to happen. I was already physically exhausted and unsure how difficult the downhill travel would be on this loose rock rib and the snow slopes. I needed to reserve my strength for the potentially hairy and long descent. It wasn't long before I sat down and accepted the situation.
Honestly, I was proud to have even made it to this point on the mountain. How many times on this journey had I told myself I would turn around after the next goal? Despite the fear and intimidation, despite the physical and mental fatigue... here I was! With views that cannot be forgotten. With a deep sense of peace and joy. This is what it's all about. Once again, I gave it everything I had to bring myself to a place not many of us get to experience in person. No film or photo or description can possibly capture the essence of it. This is as "present" as I can be in life. Nothing I know of can hold the attention of all my senses as powerfully as this. It's as close to a transcendent experience I can reach. It's why I keep doing it.
And why I try not to let my ego put me in danger. I want to be able to return.
After performing a short memorial, it was time to start the long return journey. How difficult was it going to be, I wondered? This can often be the most challenging part of a hike. Without the thrill and motivation of the peak to sugar coat the physical experience, it's as though my body transitions to the "complaints" stage, which makes the mental part of it that much more difficult. Again, this is just part of the journey that I have no choice but to accept. It was close to 4pm by the time the descent actually started, and none too soon, with the clouds rolling in overhead.
Despite the rib being covered in loose rock, it was actually much easier to climb down than I thought it would be. The many jutting foot and hand holds act almost like a series of steps and with the help of my ice axe, it made for a quick descent.
I have to take a moment to mention how great a tool the ice axe is. Besides all the expected uses for snow slope safety, I was surprised to discover how effective it is as an extension to ones hand holds on rock during a descent. The curved head grips firmly on to ledges or cracks that would be too small for your hands or fingers to grasp, and the long shaft is great for helping with balance as well. I was quite impressed with its utility and will make sure to always have one in these kind of environments.
As I made my way down the rib I decided to try my hand at glissading a short section of snow that lead to another part of the rib. As I began to slide, I quickly realized how difficult it was to slow myself down properly, especially that I wasn't wearing any gloves, the act of digging the head of the axe in the snow quickly froze my hands. Thankfully, this was just a short and safe test to get a feel for it. I quickly pulled out my gloves to be prepared for the next try.
To the left of the rib was a long chute of snow that reached all the way to the bottom of the cirque. I stood examining this potential quick descent route for a long moment. How nice it would be to cover so much distance in such a short time, and with little effort! I must say it was quite tempting to try it, but upon closer inspection of the snow, I could see there was only a thin layer before it reached ice. Once again, the tumbling ragdoll image entered my mind. Needless to say, I continued with the rib route.
Exiting the rib and descending the snow slope was somewhat intimidating, considering the slippery nature of it and the fact that descending creates more forward momentum and chances of a misstep. I used my iceaxe vigilently and utilized the steps I had made on the way up. It didn't take long for me to reach the ridged entrance of the cirque, and thankfully, without issue. I was back in safe terrain and making good time. There was still plenty of snow here for me to practice my sliding and give a small rest to my legs as well.
For two hours, I was slipping and sliding through snow and talus slopes, filling my boots with debris and moisture along the way (needed those gators!), until I finally reached the dwarf tree maze again. It was even harder making my way through this time, exiting at some point clearly off-trail. Without much difficulty, I found the entrance to the final forested "hell hill" section and took a deep breath. I looked back a final time at Mount Nelson in the distance and said goodbye.
As I expected, the closer I got to the end, the harder it felt on my body. Now that there were no real "safety concerns" left, my body was starting to express its displeasure. Hell hill is certainly much easier heading downwards (cardio-wise), but with blisters forming and aching knees, the steepness of the slope was still quite physically demanding. I needed rest breaks from its relentlessness. The thought of reaching the car and finally sitting down was the only motivation left to me. This wouldn't come for close to another 2 HOURS!
I was pretty much limping my way to the car when I reached it at 7:50pm. 11 hours since I left it. I sat in the car with great relief and a bit of pride. Another great mountain and test of my being completed. Pain is secondary to the euphoria I feel. Though I wonder how many more experiences like this will I get in life, I am just thankful for still having the ability and opportunity to get out there while I can. It's truly a gift.
Download my Google Earth Mount_Nelson_Hike.kmz file [16 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Mount Nelson hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "Mount_Nelson_Hike.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Mount Nelson Hike" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Round trip distance from parking spot to Mount Nelson summit: Approximately 8.2 miles (13 km)
Mount Nelson elevation: 10,869 feet (3,313 m)
Elevation Gain from parking area to summit: 6,456 feet (1,968 m)
GPS Coordinates of Mount Nelson: 50º27'36.16"N; 116º21'5.07"W(NAD83/WGS84)