Stein Valley Traverse - Part 1
August 23 - 30, 2006
PLANNING: So far, the longest camping trip I've ever done had been 2 nights. Evan and I had been talking about doing a long trip for a while, so when he suggested that we do an 8-day, 100km traverse of the Stein Valley, I was definitely interested. Evan's friend Pascal was also interested, and Pascal had a friend visiting from Switzerland (Christophe) who also wanted to come. We couldn't convince anybody else to do this hike, so we started to plan with our group of four. None of us (except Pascal) had done any trips longer than a few days, so we spent a lot of time reading and planning.
We got two 1:50,000 maps (Canada 92-J/1 and 92-I/5) from MEC that covered nearly our entire trip, except for a short section that was just easy valley walking. After reading Gordon White's out-of-print book "Stein Valley Wilderness Guidebook" (apparently there's a new edition in Spring/07!), we decided to do the traverse from west (Lilooet Lake, near Pemberton) to east (Lytton of Stein Valley), so that we would cover the difficult alpine section first, and end with the easy walk out through the valley. We also read a lot of trip reports which were very useful in helping us to decide between some of the alternate routes and side trips along the way. The trip reports also gave us a better idea of where the best places to camp were, and how much terrain we could expect to cover each day. For example, we decided to descend to Stein Lake via the more gradual ridge route, as opposed to dropping down to Poppet Lake where you can (apparently - don't take my word for it) follow the steep and overgrown creek down to Stein Lake. We also chose to traverse the Tundra Lake boulder field, which is difficult but more direct than taking the (from what I understand) longer and more scenic Figure Eight Lake route. The trip reports and BC Parks site were also very useful for information about the washouts on the Lizzie Lake Forest road, and the forest fire section.
Luckily for us, Pascal had quite a bit of experience with packing food for long trips. We shared dinners (everything was dehydrated and packed in ziploc bags, and it all turned out delicious), and each brought our own lunches and breakfasts. I brought an oatmeal/raisin/sugar mix for breakfast, and granola bars, chocolate, dried fruit, peanut butter, and LOTS of crackers/trail mix for lunch. In the end we packed significantly more food than we needed, and ate a ton on the last 2 days. I actually came back to Vancouver with some food, but better to have too much than not enough I guess!
The night before we left we all met at Pascal's house to weigh all the food and shared gear, and we split it up evenly amongst the 4 of us. Packing my bag was a big challenge - I packed light, but the food took up a huge amount of space! I never got a change to weigh my packed bag, but it was easily the heaviest bag I've ever carried.
DAY 1 (LILOOET LAKE TO LIZZIE LAKE - 7.5h, 9km, 960m gain): I woke up around 4:15am at UBC, and Evan's Dad picked all 4 of us up. He had very generously volunteered to drive us to the trailhead, and we left Vancouver around 5am. We had a quick stop at the Whistler McDonalds for breakfast, and then it was on to Pemberton and then Duffy Lake Road. We turned onto Lizzie Lake Forest Road, and could only drive about 800m before we hit the first washout. This was our (340m) trailhead! There were only 2 other cars parked here, and no people. Evan's Dad said goodbye and we were on our way at about 8:30am. Based on trip reports we had read, we decided to take a bushwhack detour around the first washout. We walked around trying to find the "well-defined bushwhack" that we had read about with no luck. We found something that could have been a trail, maybe, if you squinted and tilted your head, but it quickly turned into walking through the bush. It was pretty thick and hard work. We stayed high above the river, and then headed down, and just before we hit the river and fire road we found a fairly nice trail going down! So I guess we weren't on the right path after all, but we ended up in the right place. We had been going for about an hour and a half, and were only about 200m away from the trailhead, and had only gained 25m net elevation! So the detour around the first washout was a lot of work.
From this point on we had a nice fire road with a steady grade - overgrown on the sides, but lots of room to walk. We passed the other 3 washouts (which were fairly easy to cross, at least when we were there), and stopped for lunch in the middle of the fire road. After lunch the road got a little steeper, and we got some nice views down the valley, as well as some tasty berries on the roadside. We also saw the only (big) wildlife of our trip: a single black bear ambling across the fire road, far ahead of us. A few blasts of our whistles got its attention, and after it sat there for a few minutes, it walked off into the bush. We got to Lizzie Lake camp (1300m) around 4pm, and Pascal and Christophe jumped straight in for a swim in the frigid water (crazy Europeans). I guess Lizzie Lake used to be a fairly popular drive-in camp area before the road washed out, because there were flat tent pad areas, metal fire pits, and picnic tables. We were the only ones there, and it felt very quiet and abandoned.
Dinner was a treat - we carried in some "heavy" food for our first night's meal of burritos, with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream and meat. It was also one of only 2 nights where we didn't have to eat dinner by headlamp - what a luxury! Hanging the food that night was a incredibly long and comedic process. We had so much food that we had to use 3 stuff sacks to fit it all! It weighed a ton and was hard to lift just by hand, never mind stringing it up over a high-friction tree branch. We tried a bunch of different branches that usually ended with the rope breaking and our food plunging down to the forest floor. It was so heavy we had to create a grip for the rope out of a stick, which just snapped too. It was hilarious for about 45 minutes, and the second 45 minutes were much less funny. Eventually we got it up there, and we had a crazy scheme that involved wrapping the rope about 30 times around a log. Just terrible! At any rate, we retired to bed and Evan and I kept waking up, completely convinced that we were hearing a bear devouring our food - of course we found it untouched in the morning, although Pascal climbed the tree to prove that if he could reach the bags, a bear could have too.
DAY 2 (LIZZIE LAKE TO CALTHA LAKE, 9.5h, 9km, 930m gain, 430m drop): We woke up around 6 or 7am, had breakfast, and broke camp. Our trail took us toward the east side of Lizzie Lake, and it quickly started to climb the slope above the lake. At around 10:30am we got to one of the first major landmarks: the "Gates of Shangri-La." This is a rocky passage with high, sheer walls on either side; I can certainly see where the name comes from, because the terrain we were about to cover was laid out before us beyond the "gates." About half an hour later we came to Lizzie Cabin (1600m), which looked to have been a popular overnight stop at one point, but now seemed somewhat disused now that the Lizzie Lake road was washed out. We went inside and found a hiker's guestbook (very few people had been through recently), as well as warning note from hikers who had stayed overnight to be wary of "Cecil the Mouse," who was wanted for crimes that included "stealing food, and chewing through my Dad's favourite sleeping bag!"
We pressed on from Lizzie Cabin, first to Arrowhead Lake (12:30pm, 1830m) where we met a couple who had come up from the Lizzie Lake side - they were just doing a few days of camping - not the full traverse. By now we were leaving the forest and entering subalpine terrain, with fewer trees, and more clambering over rocks and boulders. We continued ascending to Hart Lake (1:30pm, 1940m) where we stopped for lunch. The crackers, peanut butter and dried fruit were okay, but was I ever glad I also brought trail mix and chocolate! From there we continued uphill. We passed by Iceberg Lake (3pm, 2000m) but didn't go all the way down to it, since we were heading in a different direction. We ditched our packs at around 2150m, and scrambled up to the peak of Tabletop Mountain (3:30pm, 2230m), which gave us some awesome views of the surrounding mountain ranges, as well as a great look back at where we had come from and where we were headed.
After scrambling down from Tabletop and grabbing our packs, and began the moderately steep descent to Cherry Pip Pass (~1900m). After Cherry Pip we had a relatively small boulder field to traverse in order to get over to Caltha Lake. On this boulder field we met a solo hiker who was going in the opposite direction - apparently he had covered a huge amount of distance with what looked like a tiny pack, and in addition he was hiking in jeans! This would be the last person we would see for nearly 6 days.
We arrived at 1800m Caltha Lake, our campsite, at around 6:30pm, with beautifully sunny weather. We were all sweaty and hot so we decided to go for a swim in the lake - it was FREEZING, but refreshing. When we got out we noticed some ominous rainclouds to the west, and within only a few minutes we were in the middle of a torrential downpour - that's the fastest I've ever seen weather change. Fortunately for us, we had put our tents up before swimming! Evan and I hid in our tent for about 30 minutes until the rain let up, and when we came out we were treated to a rainbow over Caltha Lake, and Christophe and Pascal cooking dinner in full raingear - I guess they didn't mind the rain, which incidentally was the only rain we saw during our entire 8-day trip. We finished our meal by headlamp, and since there weren't any trees around, we cached our food far from our tents in the boulder field. We went off to sleep hoping to get a slightly earlier start the next day.
DAY 3 (CALTHA LAKE TO TUNDRA LAKE, 9.5h, 6km, 600m gain, 480m drop): Our hopes for a quick start were dashed when we woke up early, but took much longer than we expected to have breakfast, break camp, and pack up. We only started hiking at around 8:45am. We arrived at the Stein Valley Provincial Park boundary (2010m) at around 9:15am, which gave us spectacular views of deep-blue Tundra lake. We left our packs here and headed for a scramble up Caltha Peak (2400m). I stopped a little bit below the summit because I wasn't too confident in my climbing abilities, and Evan, Christophe and Pascal continued on to the top. From Caltha we could see almost 3 days of our route (Days 2, 3 and 4) spread before us, and the views were incredible.
We were down from Caltha for lunch around 1pm, and took our time eating. We spent a while searching for a misplaced jacket after lunch, and were only on our way hiking at around 3pm. Ahead of us was a boulder field traverse of Tundra Lake's north shore, which I found to be the hardest part of the whole trip by far. It was traversing probably a little over 1km of massive boulders (most taller than me) on a steep slope, which I found exhausting with a huge pack. I was pretty slow at picking routes through the boulders, and it was a little unnerving when you stepped on a huge one and it started to move. We stayed close to the lake to begin with, and stopped for a 1 hour swim break at around 4pm. Towards the end of the traverse we had to climb fairly high up on the slope to avoid a cliff section. We got to Tundra Lake Camp (1920m) at the east end of the lake at 6:30pm, and I was exhausted!
Evan and Christophe went to get water, while Pascal and I cooked up some dinner (by headlamp, of course). We again had to cache our food in a boulder field because due to lack of trees. I was completely wiped out by the time we went to bed, but from what we had read, tomorrow would be our hardest day yet.
DAY 4 (TUNDRA LAKE TO STEIN LAKE, 9h, 10km, 280m gain, 1150m drop): We again got up early but only got hiking around 9:15am or so. Our objective was to climb up to Stein Ridge and follow it nearly to its end, and then descend the side of it to Stein Lake. We had read that there was no water available on the ridge, so when we found a stream on the way up, we loaded up with a huge amount of water - around 5 L each! The ascent to the ridge was again through boulder fields and rubble. It ended with a steep pitch, but it was a great feeling to have made the saddle of the ridge (11am, 2200m). We had a short snack and then began following the ridge, which involved a lot of short ups and downs of maybe 100m each. There was no trail, but we did have some cairns to follow. It was an incredible feeling walking along the ridge, because it dropped of sharply on both sides so we were well above everything. There were beautiful views of glaciers to the south, and we were catching glimpses ahead of us into the Stein Valley. I can see why the Stein is described as a untouched, remote wilderness. We stopped for lunch at 1pm on the sunny ridge, surrounded by views.
We continued along the ridge after lunch, and at around 3pm the cairns began to lead us away from the ridge top, and we began to descend along the side of the ridge towards Stein Lake. I really began to notice a change in the soil and vegetation as we left the ridge - much drier, dustier soil with more scraggly brush - it certainly felt more like an arid interior climate than the damp rainforest climate we had seen over the first 3 days. The trail turned steeper, and we had been warned that this would be a tough, steep descent, possibly crossing a lot of deadfall. We were in for a treat, however, as it looked as if BC Parks had very recently cleared the entire descent of deadfall with a chainsaw! The trail was steep and a little loose in areas, and we did drop about 1000m in vertical, but altogether I thought it wasn't too bad. We were at the brand-new Stein Lake cablecar by 6pm, and our camp (1050m) shortly thereafter, which (along with the rest of our upcoming campsites) boasted a wonderful metal bear food cache, meaning we didn't have to hang our food! It was a great feeling knowing how much ground we had covered in only 4 days. It was sad that we had to leave the alpine, but at the same time I was pretty exhausted and looking forward to an easy walk out through Stein Valley for the final 4 days. We celebrated our halfway point by eating dinner and drinking hot chocolate on the cablecar, suspended directly over the roaring Stein River.